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 Dillard-gate 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 slobber-knocking 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.