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December 31, 2009
GATOR BOWL: WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Florida State rush offense vs. West Virginia rush defense: Florida State's running attack struggled a bit early in the season before coming on late. Jermaine Thomas has rushed for 711 yards and seven touchdowns, and he reached the 100-yard mark in three consecutive games during a late-season stretch against N.C. State, Clemson and Wake Forest. Freshmen Lonnie Pryor and Chris Thompson also have shown flashes. The Seminoles' running attack could get a boost from the anticipated return of All-America G Rodney Hudson, who missed the last two regular-season games with a knee sprain. West Virginia ranks 29th in the nation in run defense and has given up 3.6 yards per carry, but the Mountaineers have allowed Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead to rush for 175 yards and Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis to gain 155 yards in two of their past three games.
Florida State pass offense vs. West Virginia pass defense: EJ Manuel led Florida State to back-to-back victories over Wake Forest and Maryland in his first two starts after replacing an injured Christian Ponder, but he had all kinds of problems in a 37-10 loss to Florida. Manuel has thrown six interceptions with only two touchdown passes in his three starts. West Virginia ranks 26th in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Manuel's mobility makes him a similar type of quarterback as USF's B.J. Daniels, who threw three touchdown passes without an interception in the Bulls' 30-19 victory over West Virginia. But Daniels is a bit more polished than Manuel at this point in their careers, though Manuel undoubtedly learned quite a bit in that loss to Florida.
Edge: West Virginia
West Virginia rush offense vs. Florida State rush defense: Florida State fans figured they had a shot at signing Noel Devine because former Seminoles great Deion Sanders mentored him through the recruiting process. The Seminoles sure would love to have him on their side in this game. Devine has rushed for 1,297 yards and 12 touchdowns. He rushed for 220 yards in a nationally televised Thursday night win over Colorado and gained 134 yards in a victory over Pittsburgh. Devine has rushed for 100 yards in only one of his past five games, but he could be poised for a big game against a Florida State defense that ranks 108th in the nation against the run. Devine and mobile QB Jarrett Brown could wreak havoc all day.
West Virginia pass offense vs. Florida State pass defense: Brown has thrown only 11 touchdown passes and has passed for 200 yards in only one of his past seven games, but he still might end up having a big day against FSU's dreadful pass defense. The Seminoles have a way of making even average quarterbacks look outstanding, and Brown is better than average. Florida State has given up 26 touchdown passes and ranks 113th in the nation -- the lowest of any team from one of the six major conferences -- in pass efficiency defense.
Florida State special teams vs. West Virginia special teams: FSU freshman K Dustin Hopkins is 15-of-22 on field-goal attempts and 7-for-13 from at least 40 yards, though he also has missed four extra-point attempts. West Virginia's Tyler Bitancurt has gone 13-of-14 on field-goal attempts and made a winning 43-yarder on the final play against Pitt. West Virginia ranks eighth and Florida State is 53rd in net punting. West Virginia must watch out for FSU freshman Greg Reid, who leads the nation with an average of 18.4 yards per punt return.
Florida State coaching staff vs. West Virginia coaching staff: Florida State's staff certainly has the edge in experience. This marks Bobby Bowden's 34th and final season at Florida State, while Bill Stewart is in his second full season at West Virginia. Bowden has a reputation as one of college football's greatest coaches in bowl games, but Stewart also has delivered in the postseason. Stewart got this job part in large part for his ability to bring West Virginia together and lead the Mountaineers to a Fiesta Bowl upset of Oklahoma as an interim coach, and he beat North Carolina in the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season. Florida State didn't have a whole lot of cohesiveness on its coaching staff this year. Now that Bowden has announced he is stepping down and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has begun putting together his own staff for the 2010 season, perhaps things will be a little more settled.
X-factor: The records certainly suggest West Virginia is better than Florida State, but this is one bowl in which statistics might not matter. This marks the last game of Bowden's legendary career. He is coaching in his home state in front of a sellout crowd. Do the Seminoles really want to send their coach out with his first losing season since 1976? Or do they want to carry Bowden on their shoulders after giving him one final victory? FSU should enter this game intent on delivering an inspired effort. If the Seminoles can take an early lead, that emotion could sustain them all day long.
Florida State will win if: The Seminoles have to run the ball effectively to control the clock and keep their vulnerable defense on the sideline as long as possible.
West Virginia will win if: The Mountaineers need to take an early lead to take the crowd out of the game. They also need to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers as often as possible. WVU has a big-play offense that is facing a defense that has given up far too many big plays this season.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.