NCF Nation: Gator Bowl first take

Konica Minolta Gator Bowl

December, 6, 2009
Florida State (6-6) vs. West Virginia (9-3)

Jan. 1, 1 p.m., (CBS)

Florida State take by Heather Dinich: In the end, Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett got what he wanted, but will the product on the field match the off-field drama? Probably not. This is still a 6-6 Florida State team with one of the nation’s worst defenses. That hasn’t changed just because it will be the last game of Bobby Bowden’s career.

Considering that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher has already begun to build his staff, it could be an awkward preparation period for those assistants who know their time in Tallahassee is coming to an end. If the staff isn’t on the same page heading into this game, how are the players supposed to be? And those are just the off-field issues.

Rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, who took over late in the season for injured star Christian Ponder, will be making his first appearance in a bowl game. Sure, FSU has proven it can score, but the last time it was on the field, it suffered a humiliating 37-10 loss to rival Florida.

The Noles’ defense is ranked 108th in the country in rushing defense, 113 in pass efficiency defense and 110 in total defense, and 98 in scoring defense. West Virginia, led by Noel Devine, has the No. 2 rushing offense in the Big East, and leads the conference in pass efficiency defense.

This might be not turn out to be the celebratory sendoff Bowden supporters would like to see.

West Virginia take by Brian Bennett: Three weeks ago, the Mountaineers stood at 7-3 with an uncertain bowl future. They finished by winning their final two games to earn the Big East's second-best bowl spot and make it a nice season.

The West Virginia offense has lacked its usual firepower lately, failing to score more than 24 points in any of its final five games. But it remains a dangerous attack, thanks to quarterback Jarrett Brown's strong arm and scrambling ability and running back Noel Devine's capability of turning any play into a touchdown.

The cure for whatever has slowed that offense may arrive in the form of Florida State's 98th-ranked defense. The Seminoles haven't really been able to stop anybody since October.

The biggest boon for West Virginia the past few weeks has been its defense getting fully healthy, especially difference-making linebacker Reed Williams and safety Sidney Glover. They helped put the clamps on Pitt and Rutgers and hold Cincinnati to its lowest-scoring output of the season.

Of course, the storyline of this game will be all about Bobby Bowden coaching his last game for Florida State against the school that gave him his first Division I head coaching job. Current West Virginia coach Bill Stewart has a little bit of Bowden's folksy wisdom and down-to-earth style about him. And this year, he's got a better team.

Jan. 1, 1 p.m., CBS

Clemson take by ACC blogger Heather Dinich: This decision didn't sit well with some folks in Tallahassee, but Clemson's fan base travels well, and the Tigers finished the season with three straight wins, including a big one over rival South Carolina in the season finale.

Clemson will have a partly new coaching staff on the sideline for this game, and coach Dabo Swinney could hire a defensive coordinator after it.

Defense wasn't Clemson's problem this season, and it will be key in this game. In the ACC, Nebraska's 36.2 points per game would look spectacular and lead the conference. In the gun-slinging Big 12, it's merely middle of the pack.

Clemson's secondary, led by safety Michael Hamlin, is tough to beat. But how it reacts to its first game without defensive coordinator and secondary coach Vic Koenning remains to be seen.

Clemson's top offensive players have been more noticeable in recent weeks and that's due in large part to the offensive line finally being healthy and coming together. Nebraska finished the season on a three-game winning streak in Bo Pelini's first season. The Huskers often beat themselves this season, as they have the worst turnover margin in the Big 12 (minus-10).

Nebraska take by Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin: A New Year's Day bowl game might have seemed unlikely for both teams after both were sitting at 3-3 at midseason.

But Bo Pelini and Dabo Swinney both have done nice jobs to help their teams finish strong. Pelini started his year with Nebraska this season and Swinney took over on an interim basis after Tommy Bowden was fired and has since been hired permanently.

The Cornhuskers closed quickly under Pelini, winning five of their last six games to help Nebraska surge at the end of the season. The biggest reason for their success was the heady play of underrated quarterback Joe Ganz, who directed an offense that ranked 14th in passing offense, 12th in total offense and 18th in scoring.

The Tigers will be making a record ninth appearance in Jacksonville and have an intriguing set of offensive weapons keyed by a strong 1-2 punch at tailback in James Davis and C.J. Spiller. Davis needs 112 yards to become Clemson's career rushing leader and Spiller needs 114 yards to earn the school's record in all-purpose yards.

Clemson's defense ranked ninth nationally in pass defense, 10th in scoring defense and 17th in total defense. But it is unknown how the Tigers will react after former coordinator Vic Koenning stepped down out after the season. And Nebraska's balanced offensive attack will challenge them, particularly if running back Roy Helu Jr. is prominently featured.