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December 30, 2010

Chick-fil-A Bowl: FSU vs. South Carolina

CHICK-FIL-A BOWL

Florida State (9-4) vs. South Carolina (9-4)
WHEN: Dec. 31, 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta.
TV: ESPN (Ron Franklin will do play-by-play, with Ed Cunningham as the analyst).
THE LINE: South Carolina by 3.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: FSU 6-4, South Carolina 7-4.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: FSU 21st, South Carolina 3rd.
BCS RANKINGS: FSU 23rd, South Carolina 20th.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big East.
COACHES: FSU - Jimbo Fisher (first bowl); South Carolina - Steve Spurrier (7-9 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: It's an interesting regional matchup, pitting the losers of the ACC and SEC championship games, so there are some regional bragging rights on the line. From a national perspective, it's a chance to see two programs that appear to be on the rise. It's also Spurrier against FSU, which usually is great theater.
KEY STATS: Florida State is second nationally with 46 sacks. South Carolina is tied for fifth with 39. Is either quarterback safe?

Time was, a matchup between Steve Spurrier and Florida State was must-see TV.

Thing is, that was a long time ago, when Spurrier was coach at Florida and his team's annual showdown with the Seminoles usually matched two top-10 teams and had a bearing on the national title race.

That's not the case this season, when Spurrier and South Carolina meet FSU in Friday night's Chick-fil-A Bowl, which will be the final college game in 2010. Both come in with four losses and off setbacks in their respective league title games in which their defenses were torched. But both also have numerous youngsters playing key roles, and the Chick-fil-A Bowl is an actual example of the winning team being able to potentially use its performance as a springboard into the next season.

South Carolina's loss to Auburn came in the Georgia Dome, where the bowl will be played.

"We didn't play our best last time in the Georgia Dome," Spurrier said. "We'll see if we can compete and look like a first-class team, the way we were most of the season. We're fired up about it."

This season's Chick-fil-A Bowl is a sellout, the bowl's 14th in a row.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

FSU rush offense vs. South Carolina rush defense: The Seminoles have used a tailback-by-committee approach, and it has worked well. FSU has 26 rushing touchdowns and averages 4.8 yards per carry. TBs Chris Thompson, Ty Jones and Jermaine Thomas have combined for 1,703 yards and 16 TDs. Senior QB Christian Ponder also is a running threat. Still, the rushing attack has tailed off noticeably in the second half of the season; the Seminoles had four 200-yard games in the first half of the season, but no game with more than 177 in the final seven regular-season games. They have averaged just 104.6 yards in the past five games but still had eight rushing TDs in that span. The Gamecocks have been excellent against the run as long as they weren't playing Auburn. In two games against Auburn, the Gamecocks allowed 572 yards; in their other 11 games, the Gamecocks allowed 784 (71.3 yards per game). Auburn also had six of the 12 rushing TDs South Carolina has allowed. The Gamecocks' defensive backs are extremely aggressive against the run, which makes up for an underwhelming group of linebackers. Edge: South Carolina.

FSU pass offense vs. South Carolina pass defense: Ponder has been battling an elbow injury, and he missed the ACC championship game loss to Virginia Tech. He is expected to start against the Gamecocks; he has thrown 20 TD passes and six picks. But he had just three 200-yard games. If Ponder doesn't play, E.J. Manuel will get the call. Thirty-one of his 78 attempts on the season came in the ACC title game. He has a strong arm but can be pressured into mistakes. FSU lacks a go-to receiver, but there is a deep receiving corps. Bert Reed is a speed guy, and Willie Haulstead has become perhaps the best all-around player in the group. FSU will miss TE Beau Reliford, who is academically ineligible for the game; he is the only tight end on the roster who has caught a pass this season. FSU's backs are effective receivers, which could hurt the Gamecocks. Actually, a lot of things could hurt the Gamecocks' pass defense; this unit has been strafed repeatedly this season. South Carolina has allowed 22 TD passes and has come up with just nine picks. Six opponents have had 300-yard outings. CB Stephon Gilmore is the Gamecocks' best cover guy. The Gamecocks lead the SEC with 39 sacks, which is tied for fifth nationally. Es Melvin Ingram, Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor have combined for 19.5 sacks. FSU has allowed 25. Edge: FSU.

South Carolina rush offense vs. FSU rush defense: True freshman Marcus Lattimore has been a huge boon to the Gamecocks' offense. He arrived with a ton of hype and has lived up to it. When he's healthy and runs effectively, the Gamecocks win. (They also won when he had a horrible day against Clemson.) Lattimore has run for 1,198 yards and 17 TDs, and also is an excellent receiver. Junior QB Stephen Garcia has the second-most carries and can be effective on planned runs. FSU has allowed just 11 rushing TDs, but the run defense was shaky in the last month of the season. MLB Kendall Smith must play well if the Seminoles are to keep Lattimore in check. Edge: Even.

South Carolina pass offense vs. FSU pass defense: Garcia has shown improvement this season, cutting down on his mistakes. He is completing 65.1 percent of his passes and has thrown 20 TD passes and 11 picks. In WR Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks have one of the best offensive players in the nation. Jeffery is big (6 feet 4/235 pounds) and can run, and has hands like a pair of vise-grip pliers. He has 79 catches and is averaging 17.6 yards per catch; he has scored nine TDs. Tori Gurley is a physical complement to Jeffery, and true freshman Ace Sanders has come on down the stretch. FSU's secondary remains shaky, though redshirt freshman CB Xavier Rhodes has the physicality to give Jeffery some problems. A huge key for FSU is getting pressure on Garcia. FSU is second nationally with 46 sacks, led by E Brandon Jenkins' 13. E Markus White has eight sacks. The Gamecocks have allowed 28. Edge: South Carolina.

FSU special teams vs. South Carolina special teams: FSU K Dustin Hopkins has a strong leg, nailing a 55-yarder this season. He is 18-of-24 overall but is just 3-of-7 from beyond 40 yards. P Shawn Powell averages 43.9 yards per attempt. CB Greg Reid is a dangerous return man; he has taken one punt back for a score and averages 24.1 yards per kickoff return. FSU's punt coverage has been solid, its kickoff coverage OK. Spencer Lanning kicks and punts for the Gamecocks. He is averaging 44.2 yards per punt and is 16-of-23 on field goals, including 7-of-12 from beyond 40 yards; his longest is from 51. The return teams have been poor, the coverage units adequate. Edge: FSU.

FSU coaches vs. South Carolina coaches: Jimbo Fisher guided the Seminoles to the ACC title game in his first season as coach, and he also led FSU to victories over archrivals Miami and Florida. His offense wasn't quite as productive as expected, but that's an off-shoot of Ponder not being 100 percent for much of the season. Defensively, FSU made huge strides under first-year coordinator Mark Stoops, who has the Seminoles playing far more zone than predecessor Mickey Andrews. Steve Spurrier led South Carolina to the SEC East title, the school's first football crown of any type since it won the ACC in 1969. Lattimore's addition revved up the offense; while Spurrier rightly has a reputation as a pass-offense guru, his best units always have had a stud running back. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is one of the best in the business. His unit is not overly talented in the back seven, but his schemes have compensated. Edge: South Carolina.

X-factor: The running games are going to be big. Is either team going to be able to run effectively?

FSU will win if: Shutting down Lattimore is vital for the 'Noles. FSU has struggled at times throwing the ball this season, but the Seminoles should have success airing it out against the Gamecocks. That means keeping the Gamecocks' offense in check is a key to winning.

South Carolina will win if: Making FSU one-dimensional is important. The Gamecocks need to hold the 'Noles to 125 or fewer rushing yards; if they can do that, they can force FSU to the air and get after Ponder and/or Manuel.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: South Carolina 28, FSU 27
Tom Dienhart: South Carolina 33, FSU 16
David Fox: FSU 28, South Carolina 20
Mike Huguenin: South Carolina 28, FSU 20
Steve Megargee: FSU 28, South Carolina 24

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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