The Fiesta Bowl is set to kick off at 6:22 p.m. MST in Tempe,
Ariz., which is too bad. If the bowl officials had any sense of
symbolism, Tennessee and Florida State would start a little
earlier, when the shadows of the desert sun lie long over Sun
Devil Stadium. Shadows are appropriate because the strengths of
the Seminoles and the Volunteers aren't easily discernible in the
glare of spotlights trained on the teams' better-known assets.
Think of Florida State, and what comes to mind are coach Bobby
Bowden and his pyrotechnic offense. But the backbone of these
11-1 Seminoles is a defense devoid of stars. Even Bowden doesn't
much pay attention to his reliable D-molition crew. "If I get
bored in practice," he says, "I'll look over and see if they're
doing anything exciting."
This is an article from the Dec. 28, 1998 issue
The most recognizable players at Tennessee are Tee Martin, the
raw talent who matured into a quarterback before our very eyes;
silky wide receiver Peerless Price; and linebacker Al Wilson,
whose grit is worth noting during a season in which he was named
All-America despite missing three games with a separated right
shoulder. Yet the biggest reason the Volunteers are 12-0 is their
power rushing game. Like the ground-based attacks of the Green
Bay Packers of old or Nebraska of late, Tennessee's offense is
such that opponents know what's coming. They just can't do much
about it. The Volunteers "don't try to run plays they're not used
to running," says Florida free safety Teako Brown, whose Gators
lost 20-17 in overtime to Tennessee and 23-12 to Florida State.
"They run plays they practice all the time. They say, We got our
best 11. You got your best 11. Come stop us."
The Vols' offense reflects the values of coach Phillip Fulmer,
who once played on and later coached the Tennessee offensive
line. "We won close games this season and we started believing,"
Fulmer says. "This team has been as consistent as any we've had.
It fought the challenges, the doubters."
The Volunteers don't turn the ball over (+16) and don't commit a
lot of penalties (six per game). They run the ball not only with
power but also with precision. Tennessee's offensive linemen
average 6'4", 304 pounds and have started a total of 133 games.
Fullback Shawn Bryson will be an early-round NFL draft choice
next spring. The line and Bryson are the reason that when
tailback Jamal Lewis tore the lateral collateral ligament in his
right knee four games into the season, the Volunteers' running
game barely hiccuped. Tennessee averaged 225.5 yards rushing
before Lewis got hurt, 204.3 afterward. The plays didn't change
when Travis Henry and Travis Stephens replaced Lewis. The plays
didn't change when the Volunteers fell behind against Arkansas
and Mississippi State. The plays don't change.
"We have to stop the weakside lead and the strongside off-tackle
play," Florida State linebackers coach Chuck Amato says. "Out of
certain formations, they run those two plays 80 percent of the
time. They run the off-tackle so frequently, against such a
variety of defenses, that the backs know where the holes will be.
They can find them with their eyes closed."
Arkansas co-defensive coordinator Keith Burns can attest to that.
The Razorbacks led Tennessee 24-10 when the Vols' offense got the
ball for the first time in the second half. On six consecutive
plays Martin handed off to Henry, who ran for 56 yards. Martin
then carried the ball four yards for a touchdown, and Tennessee
went on to win 28-24. "We lost sight of how good they are at
running the ball," Burns says. "They controlled the third
quarter. Their offensive line coach, Mike Barry, is an old
friend--we worked together at USC--and I know how he can motivate.
It was obvious that they said, We're going to come out and run
right at them."
The Volunteers' goal is to wear down a defense, which is
interesting, since Florida State has built a defensive dynasty by
wearing down offenses. The Seminoles have led the nation in
rushing, scoring or total defense in four of the last six years.
This season they finished first in total defense (214.8 yards per
game) and pass-efficiency defense (79.9 rating) and second in
rushing (79.8 yards) and scoring defense (11.5 points). It's
remarkable, considering that 15 Florida State defenders have been
drafted or signed as free agents in the past three years. These
Seminoles are not offended by being called a no-name defense,
though fifth-year linebacker Lamont Green suggests a name. "Just
call us Mickey Andrews's defense," Green says.
Andrews has been Bowden's defensive coordinator for 15 years. A
second-team All-America for Bear Bryant at Alabama in the early
1960s (it was he, not cinematic Crimson Tide All-America Forrest
Gump, who really wore number 44 in that era), Andrews has the
standard-issue hoarse drawl of a Southern football coach. He
combines it with a sharp tongue that slices the ego right out of
a Seminoles signee. "I got to apologize to your mom," he once
told cornerback Byron Capers. "I told her you could play
football, and I was wrong." Under Andrews's tutelage, Capers went
on to become All-ACC.
Florida State wears down offenses because it begins substituting
on defense in the first quarter. "A young player is going to make
mistakes," Andrews says. "The mistakes he makes won't hurt you as
much [when he's playing occasionally as a sub] as when he's a
starter. [And he allows you to give] the starter a break he
wouldn't normally get. Our starters can be stronger in the second
half, especially in the fourth quarter."
Andrews got the idea for substituting freely while on a
recruiting trip for Clemson some 20 years ago. He met Wright
Bazemore, who won 14 state championships at Valdosta (Ga.) High.
"I asked him, 'If you could point to one thing, what would be the
greatest reason you have been successful?' He said, 'Son, I
coached next year's team this year.'"
Substituting has worked, even against the Seminoles' toughest
opponents. Excluding Georgia Tech's and Virginia's final
possessions against Florida State's scrubs, the Yellow Jackets
and the Cavaliers combined to gain 79 yards and commit six
turnovers in their second halves against the Seminoles. After
halftime in its loss, Florida gained 64 yards, 33 of them on one
pass, and turned the ball over twice. None of these teams scored
in the second half, enabling Florida State to turn close games
into decisive victories.
If defense alone isn't sufficient, the Seminoles can turn to
kicker Sebastian Janikowski, who set an Atlantic Coast Conference
record with 27 field goals and put about 60% of his kickoffs so
deep they couldn't be returned. It seems strange that defense
and, of all things, kicking have put Florida State on the verge
of winning its second national championship, but it's no stranger
than the turn of events that got the Seminoles to the Fiesta Bowl
in the first place. "We needed two teams to lose, and two teams
lost," says cornerback Mario Edwards, referring to Kansas State
and UCLA. "It must be Florida State's time to be national
champion. Do you agree?"
Without a shadow of a doubt.