December 26, 2008

Bowl wins could silence critics of the ACC

MORE: Bowl schedule and coverage

You could say the ACC's early season performance wasn't anything to write home about, but that would be missing the point.

The ACC's players didn't even have to write home to inform friends and family members about their struggles. No college football fan on the East Coast could turn on a TV or radio this fall without hearing skeptics bemoan the conference's lack of an elite team.

CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL

Florida State (8-4)
vs. Wisconsin (7-5)

WHEN: 4:30 p.m. Dec. 27.
WHERE: Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler will do play-by-play, with Bob Griese and Paul Maguire as the analysts).
THE LINE: Florida State by 5.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: Florida State 5-4, Wisconsin 2-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: Florida State 2nd, Wisconsin T-41st.
BCS RANKINGS: N/A for either team.
COACHES: Florida State − Bobby Bowden (20-10-1 in bowls); Wisconsin − Bret Bielema (1-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: Since Wisconsin is involved, chances are you're going to see a close game. Wisconsin had six games this season decided by three or fewer points. No lead has been safe in a Wisconsin game, whether the Badgers are ahead or behind. Wisconsin blew a 19-0 lead in a 27-25 loss to Michigan and squandered an 11-point advantage in a 25-24 loss to Michigan State. However, the Badgers also erased a 14-point deficit in a win over Minnesota and rallied from nine points down to beat Cal Poly in overtime.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Florida State defensive end Everette Brown isn't the most consistent pass rusher in the nation, but he's definitely one of the best. Brown ranks third in the nation with 12.5 sacks and had three-sack games in victories over Virginia Tech, Clemson and Maryland. In fact, Brown and the Seminoles have followed a pattern over the past six games. Brown has sandwiched three-sack performances around games in which he has failed to produce a sack. During that stretch, Florida State won on each of Brown's three-sack performances and lost each time he failed to get to the quarterback. Brown didn't deliver a sack when Florida State lost 45-15 to Florida in its regular-season finale. That means Brown and the Seminoles are due to come up big in the Champs Sports Bowl.
"My mom said whenever we had away games, they were bashing our conference on TV," North Carolina free safety Deunta Williams said.

The bashing has continued, but it may not be justified.

Although the ACC doesn't have a team ranked higher than No. 14 Georgia Tech in the BCS standings, the league boasts the most balance of any conference in the country. The ACC sent an NCAA-record 10 teams to bowls this season after posting a 37-11 regular-season record against non-conference opponents, including a 15-8 mark against teams from the other "Big Six" conferences and Notre Dame.

"I think we're a little underrated, to be honest with you," N.C. State running back Andre Brown said.

The ACC finally started to garner some positive publicity when it went 3-1 in four head-to-head meetings with SEC teams on Thanksgiving weekend. Now the league must try to continue its momentum in the postseason.

If the ACC can go 6-4 or better in its bowls, it would lend credence to the notion that this league's extraordinary depth made up for its lack of national title contenders. But if the league goes 4-6 or worse, skeptics will point out that those 10 bowl bids simply rewarded the ACC's mediocrity.

Wake Forest got the ACC off to a good start by avenging a regular-season loss to Navy in the EagleBank Bowl, but the real test begins Saturday, when three ACC teams square off and all against "Big Six" opponents.

Florida State meets Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., Miami faces California in the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, and North Carolina plays West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. The ACC particularly needs wins from Florida State and North Carolina, which are playing in their home states.

"It's important for every team to do well in the ACC in these bowl games," Florida State kicker Graham Gano said. "It would set us up well for next year. It's really important to get that momentum going for next season and show the rest of the country that the ACC's really a strong conference."

ACC critics have reason to feel skeptical. The league hasn't won a BCS game since Florida State's 1999 national championship season. FSU finished in the top five of The Associated Press poll every season from 1987-2000, but the ACC hasn't produced a single top-five team since the end of that streak.

The ACC also posted a combined record of 19-32 against "Big Six" teams and Notre Dame in 2006 and '07 and went 2-6 in bowl games last season.

Although that string of seasons without a top-five team in the final AP poll will continue this season, the league's non-conference record suggests the ACC has improved. But the league still carries a perception problem that stems from the opening week of the season.

N.C. State lost 34-0 to South Carolina and eventual ACC champion Virginia Tech fell to an East Carolina team that would go on to win the Conference USA title. But the real embarrassment came when overwhelming preseason ACC favorite Clemson lost a nationally televised game 34-10 to Alabama, which was expected to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC West.

"Because of one weekend in August or September, everybody shot down the ACC," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said.

The Clemson-Alabama result doesn't look nearly as bad in retrospect. Alabama went 12-1 and won the SEC West. Clemson finished 7-5 and went .500 in ACC competition. But the memories of that lost weekend persist.

If the ACC struggles the next two weeks and Virginia Tech continues the league's BCS misery, the criticism will last until next fall. Skeptics will wonder why ACC teams inevitably lost as soon as they cracked the national rankings. They'll argue that this league needs Florida State and/or Miami to re-emerge as national title contenders before it can rank alongside the SEC or the Big 12.

But if the league's late-season momentum continues in the postseason, an entirely different picture of the ACC could emerge.

Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina State took steps forward this season. Virginia Tech and Boston College won their divisions for the second consecutive season. Clemson came on strong late in the season. A league that features so many up-and-coming teams can start considering itself a conference on the rise.

Of course, the league's backers will have a tough time making that claim if the ACC doesn't come through in the postseason.

"If we go out and win the majority of our bowl games, it would make a statement that the level of talent in the ACC was just that good that on any given Saturday, [any] team could win," Brown said. "It's crucial we go out and win a majority of our bowl games just to make that statement."

That really would be something to write home about.

Who has the edge?

Florida State run offense vs. Wisconsin run defense
After getting off to a fast start, FSU tailback Antone Smith slowed down late in the season while battling bruised ribs. Smith has rushed for 753 yards, and his late-season health problems created an opportunity for true freshman Jermaine Thomas - who has rushed for 478 yards on only 66 carries (7.24 yards per carry). Quarterback Christian Ponder has added 404 rushing yards. Wisconsin ranks 42nd in the nation in run defense and had mixed results against the Big Ten's top running backs. Iowa's Shonn Greene burned Wisconsin for 217 yards and four touchdowns. Ohio State's Chris Wells gained 168 yards against the Badgers. On the other hand, Wisconsin limited Michigan State's Javon Ringer to 54 yards on 21 carries.
Edge: Florida State.

Florida State pass offense vs. Wisconsin pass defense
Ponder is just 89th in the nation in passing efficiency, and he hasn't even been as effective as those numbers suggest. Throw out his two big performances against overmatched Football Championship Subdivision (i.e., Division I-AA) foes Western Carolina and Chattanooga, and Ponder has thrown 13 interceptions and only six touchdown passes. Ponder has plenty of talented receiving targets, but he could have a tough time finding them against a Wisconsin team that ranks 21st in the nation in pass efficiency defense.
Edge: Wisconsin.

Wisconsin run offense vs. Florida State run defense
P.J. Hill and John Clay give Wisconsin a dynamic duo in the backfield. Hill and Clay each reached the 100-yard mark in three of the Badgers' last four games to help Wisconsin rank 14th in the nation at 212 rushing yards per game. Don't be surprised if at least one of them crosses the century mark against a Florida State team allowing 3.7 yards per carry.
Edge: Wisconsin.

Wisconsin pass offense vs. Florida State pass defense
Wisconsin threw the ball a bit more than usual late in the season. Dustin Sherer threw for 242 yards against Minnesota and 245 yards against Cal Poly to lead the Badgers to a pair of back-to-back comeback victories. But this is a team that relies mainly on running the ball. The Badgers will need to run the ball well against FSU because they may not have much time to throw. Wisconsin has allowed 2.2 sacks per game and could have a tough time keeping Brown away from Sherer.
Edge: Florida State.

Florida State special teams vs. Wisconsin special teams
FSU kicker Graham Gano, who won the Lou Groza Award given to the nation's top kicker, has gone 24-of-26 on field-goal attempts - including 5-for-7 from at least 50 yards. Gano also averages 41.1 yards per punt. Wisconsin's Philip Welch is 18-of-22 on field goals and 8-for-10 from at least 40 yards. Wisconsin's Brad Nortman averages 41.6 yards per punt. The Badgers must watch out for FSU cornerback Michael Ray Garvin, who leads the nation in kickoff return average.
Edge: Florida State.

Florida State coaches vs. Wisconsin coaches
Bobby Bowden has lost four of his past six bowl games, but he still has the fourth-best career bowl winning percentage of anyone who has coached in at least 12 bowls. His experience could give him a major advantage over Bret Bielema, who is completing the most disappointing season in his three-year tenure. Wisconsin opened the season 13th in the AP poll and needed a late rally just to become bowl eligible.
Edge: Florida State.

X-factor: When he's healthy, FSU wide receiver Preston Parker is one of the most dangerous multipurpose threats in the nation. But he rarely has been at full strength this season. Parker has just 459 combined rushing and receiving yards and has said he is questionable for this game because of an ankle injury. If the ankle injury sidelines or limits him, Florida State again must try to win without one of its most talented players at full strength. If Parker is able to play, perhaps he can deliver a memorable finish to a disappointing season.

Florida State will win if: The Seminoles are good enough to win this game as long as Ponder avoids making critical mistakes. Florida State should be able to run the ball. If the game remains close in the fourth quarter, FSU's special teams could make the difference.

Wisconsin will win if: Wisconsin showed its ability to come back in each of its last two regular-season games, but what worked against Minnesota and Cal Poly probably won't work against a team of Florida State's caliber. The Badgers must run the ball effectively and take an early lead. Both teams run the ball much better than they throw it. If Wisconsin can force Florida State to throw, the Badgers have an excellent shot of winning.

The picks
Mike Huguenin: Florida State 27, Wisconsin 20
Steve Megargee: Florida State 24, Wisconsin 17

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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