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Sugar Plums In a sweet matchup of two potent teams, Florida State figures to win its second national title of the decade, but Virginia Tech won't go without a fight

For a snapshot comparison of the teams that will play for the
national championship in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4, focus on
their quarterbacks. Florida State, playing in the title game for
the third time in four seasons, is led by Chris Weinke, a
27-year-old portrait of unflappability. Weinke's six-year minor
league baseball stint (he was a first baseman in the Toronto
Blue Jays' organization) and three years with the Seminoles make
him, in athletic terms, a ninth-year junior. Upstart Virginia
Tech, playing for its first national championship, is led by
19-year-old Michael Vick, who combined athleticism and poise to
achieve beyond all expectations this season. "My redshirt
freshman will be calmer than I will," Hokies coach Frank Beamer
says of Vick. "I believe that. He just doesn't panic."

Using the quarterbacks as metaphors, however, only goes so far.
The truth is, Florida State and Virginia Tech have more in
common than their 11-0 records. They play intimidating defense.
They employ aggressive kicking games. Anyone who thinks the
Hokies are out of their league in this matchup needs to know
that Virginia Tech is capable of beating the Seminoles. Whether
the Hokies do so will depend largely on the answers to the
following five questions.

Can Virginia Tech's secondary contain Florida State's receivers?

Ask Beamer his biggest concern heading into the Sugar Bowl and
he'll say, "I think we have enough athletes. I hope we have
enough in the secondary to stay with all the receivers they've
got." The only person Seminoles All-America flanker Peter
Warrick couldn't shake this season was Willie Meggs, a state's
attorney for Florida who had Warrick arrested for grand theft (a
felony charge that was later reduced to a misdemeanor) after a
Dillard's department store clerk allowed Warrick and teammate
Laveranues Coles to pay only $21.40 for $412.38 worth of
clothing. Warrick's two-game suspension for Dillardgate served
as a coming-out party for the Seminoles' other receivers. Says
Weinke, "I told them, 'I expect you to do what he's done. I
don't want to slow down just because we're missing Peter.'"

Though Warrick caught 71 passes in only nine games, and though
just one other Florida State receiver, senior Ron Dugans, caught
more than 20, the fact is, 11 Seminoles caught touchdown passes.
On the 48-yard drive to set up the winning 39-yard field goal at
Clemson, Weinke completed four of five passes, none to Warrick.
At Florida, Weinke threw to Marvin Minnis for the 27-yard,
fourth-quarter touchdown that provided the 30-23 victory.

In each of eight games this season Florida State's receiving
corps gained 100 yards or more after making catches. "They're
going to make somebody miss. The second [defensive] guy has to
be there," says Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, whose Tigers allowed
his father Bobby's offense only two plays longer than 20 yards,
a big reason Clemson lost just narrowly, 17-14. Yards after the
catch will be especially hard to come by against the Virginia
Tech secondary, which has excelled at breaking up passes or
causing fumbles with slobberknocking hits.

Will Florida State's depth wear Virginia Tech down?

Seminoles defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews believes in using
a lot of players to tire out an opponent by the fourth quarter.
Florida State will bring in a new defensive line in the second
quarter and shuttle defensive backs in and out throughout the
game. The Hokies, on the other hand, will stick to a core of 14
to 17 defensive players. They have owned the fourth quarter this
fall, turning close games against Clemson and Miami into routs
with a late avalanche of points by the defense. But against a
team with so many athletes, the Hokies' endurance will be
severely tested.

Who'll win the battle of special teams?

If there's one area in which the Hokies should have an
advantage, it's the kicking game. Virginia Tech blocked 63 kicks
in the 1990s, including two this season. So many coaches wanted
to come to Blacksburg last spring for a special teams tutorial
that Beamer split them up into two groups. One last-minute
cancellation came from Florida State linebackers and
special-teams assistant coach Chuck Amato. "I could kick myself
in the fanny now," he says. The Hokies' Shayne Graham is a
four-time All-Big East kicker who made a 44-yarder as time
expired before a hostile crowd at West Virginia to clinch a
22-20 win.

Still, all of that gets Virginia Tech no better than a draw
against the Seminoles' special-teamers, who blocked six kicks
this season and haven't had a boot of their own blocked in 21
games. Kicker Sebastian Janikowski (SI, Dec. 20) is unparalleled
as an offensive and defensive weapon. Referring to Janikowski's
ability to produce touchbacks, Beamer says, "I don't think we
want to work on our kickoff returns, do we?"

How good is the Florida State defense?

The Seminoles, who had 40 sacks in 1998, got only 29 this
season, in part because they were out of control at times.
"Instead of breaking down and making a play, we try to knock the
quarterback out," end Jamal Reynolds laments. "We can't keep
going for the kill shot."

The offenses that gave Florida State the most trouble--Georgia
Tech's and Miami's--featured mobile quarterbacks with accurate
arms. Sound like anyone you know, Hokies fans? The Yellow
Jackets' Joe Hamilton completed 22 of 25 passes for 387 yards
and four scores in a gallant 41-35 losing effort. "If you look
at the teams who have beaten Florida State recently," says
Georgia Tech offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, "they always
make plays with the wide receiver." Tennessee's Peerless Price
(four catches for 199 yards and one touchdown) in last January's
Fiesta Bowl, North Carolina State's Torry Holt (nine for 135 and
one touchdown) in the Wolfpack's 1998 upset of the Seminoles and
Florida's Jacquez Green (seven for 145) in the 1997
regular-season finale can attest to that. They were the clutch
receivers on the last teams to defeat Florida State.

This season Seminoles senior cornerback Mario Edwards got left
behind like a lunch box more than once. He'll be tested in the
Sugar Bowl by Virginia Tech sophomore Andre Davis, who averaged
27.5 yards per catch, the best among the top Division I-A
receivers, and who has proved to be the ideal partner for Vick.

At quarterback, will youth win out over experience?

This is how well Vick improvises: In the Hokies' 62-7 win over
Temple he left the locker room without his wristband with the
plays scripted on it. He borrowed the wristband from the
third-string quarterback, Grant Noel, before the opening series.
However, since Vick is lefthanded and Noel is righthanded, their
scripts differed. Early in the third quarter, offensive
coordinator Rickey Bustle signaled for Vick to call a run by
himself around left end. On the borrowed wristband, however, the
signal corresponded to a play around right end. "As he comes out
of the huddle, and I see the formation," Bustle says, "I'm
thinking, What the hell is he calling?" Vick took the snap,
started to the right, reversed field and went 75 yards down the
left side for a touchdown. "Something a freshman would do,"
Bustle summarizes. Not many of them.

Vick led the nation in passing efficiency (180.4, a Division I-A
freshman record) and finished third in the Heisman vote. "He
throws the deep ball as well as anyone I've seen," says Virginia
defensive coordinator Rick Lantz, who coached against both teams
and believes the Hokies will win. "Vick gets the ball out there
in catchable position." It's tempting to believe he's Tiger
Woods in shoulder pads, but Bustle didn't let Vick stray from
tightly scripted game plans. Vick averaged only nine completions
and 15 attempts. He rarely threw over the middle, where coaches
don't allow freshman quarterbacks to venture. "We ran more pass
patterns against Florida than [the Hokies ran] in any three
games," Amato says.

Both quarterbacks are winners. Vick is 10-0 as a starter. (He
missed Virginia Tech's game against Alabama-Birmingham with an
ankle injury.) Bobby Bowden says Weinke, who has won his last 20
starts, came of age this year at Clemson. "There were 86,000
people, and it's a loud place," Bowden says. "National TV. We're
behind 14-3. How much worse could it be? He pulls it out,
though." Weinke drove his teammates through the Warrick episode
without letting them rubberneck. At Florida, when he threw an
interception that the Gators' Bennie Alexander returned 43 yards
to give Florida a 16-13 lead, Weinke didn't flinch. He led the
Seminoles to a field goal and two touchdowns on three of their
next four possessions. If there's a quarterback who can
withstand the pressure Virginia Tech Lombardi Award winner Corey
Moore will apply from defensive end, it's Weinke. "We're ready
to play," Weinke says. "How many people get the opportunity to
play for a national championship? Guys are focused even more
than I've seen throughout the year."

Friedgen, one of Beamer's closest friends, can't help but think
about Super Bowl XXIX, in which Friedgen was offensive
coordinator for the surprising San Diego Chargers as they met
the San Francisco 49ers. "I don't know how you prepare players
for an atmosphere like that," he says. "San Francisco had been
there as an annual event. The 49ers were ready to go to work.
Our guys were in awe."

As many times as Florida State has been in this position, the
Seminoles have never been here with a ninth-year junior. There's
a reason coaches love experience. We'll see why on Jan. 4.
Seminoles, 20-13.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Years apart Weinke (16) is eight years older than Vick (7), but both are poised under pressure.


COLOR PHOTO: STEVEN WAYNE ROTSCH/CLARKSBURG EXPONENT TELEGRAM Pulverizer The swift-striking Moore, who led the Hokies with 17 sacks, won the Lombardi Award as the nation's top lineman.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Catching on Minnis and his fellow receivers emerged in Warrick's absence, strengthening the Florida State offense.

The Big Bowl Matchups

Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 2 Nebraska (11-1) vs. Tennessee (9-2) The
Huskers and the Vols are kicking themselves all the way to Tempe
trying to figure out why they aren't in New Orleans. Though
Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch isn't the passer to exploit the
Tennessee secondary the way Arkansas did in November, the
Huskers have one of the few defenses that could throttle Vols
quarterback Tee Martin. Tennessee's return trip to the desert
won't be as much fun as last season's visit.

Orange Bowl, Jan. 1 Alabama (10-2) vs. Michigan (9-2) Analyze
all the X's and O's you want. If Crimson Tide left offensive
tackle Chris Samuels hasn't recovered enough from a sore left
knee to play, Alabama won't win. If he's healthy, watch time of
possession. The Tide averaged more than 37 minutes. The
Wolverines, with junior tailback Anthony Thomas, can grind it
out, too. Don't take the A-Train, as Thomas is known, unless
Samuels is out of commission.

Rose Bowl, Jan. 1 Stanford (8-3) vs. Wisconsin (9-2) Short of
kidnapping tailback Ron Dayne, is there anything the Cardinal
can do to beat the Badgers? Yes: Score early and speed up the
tempo of the game. Given the chance, Wisconsin will hand the
ball to Dayne and punish the outmanned Stanford defense. One
caveat: Beware of sure things. Rose Bowl history is littered
with upsets. Take a flier and add this one to the list.

Gator Bowl, Jan. 1 Georgia Tech (8-3) vs. Miami (8-4) Hurricanes
wide receiver Santana Moss should enjoy himself against the
Yellow Jackets, who never met a wide receiver they couldn't turn
into a first-round draft pick. Georgia Tech quarterback Joe
Hamilton enjoys himself against anyone, especially teams that
went 2-4 against bowl teams. Hamilton will win his last shootout.

Sun Bowl, Dec. 31 Minnesota (8-3) vs. Oregon (8-3) If you can
watch but one game before the turn of the century, make it this
one. Key matchup: Oregon's young quarterbacks against the
Gophers' veteran secondary. The Ducks will fly.

Mobile quarterbacks with accurate arms have given the Seminoles'
defense the most trouble.