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Ivan Maisel
December 28, 1998
The national title game promises to be an epic battle between Tennessee's relentless running game and Florida State's no-name D
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December 28, 1998

Power Ball

The national title game promises to be an epic battle between Tennessee's relentless running game and Florida State's no-name D

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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."

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.' "

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