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FSU's ace in the hole

Maybe he will come in low, beneath the detection of radar. Maybe he will dig a tunnel, then pop up in the end zone with the football under his arm.

Maybe he will disguise himself as a stadium worker, with one of those rubber masks from Mission: Impossible. Maybe he will leap over the railing and make a one-handed catch for the winning touchdown.

Maybe he will drop from the sky, under cover of night. Maybe he will land on top of the University of Tennessee's collective heart.

He is coming. No matter when it occurs, no matter where the journey begins, Peter Warrick is on his way. Florida State University is depending on it. Tennessee might as well, too.

Maybe he will be a flanker. Maybe a running back. Maybe even a quarterback. Maybe he will catch it, maybe he will run it, maybe he will throw it.

Probably, he will do a lot of all of it. He is the essential player in the ultimate game, and he is as certain to play a key role in tonight's Fiesta Bowl as a certain round corn chip.

This is the old shell-and-pea game. How many directions can FSU bring Warrick from, and how many ways can it create to get him the ball? And what, if anything, can the Vols do about it?

That's the basic question. The Fiesta Bowl is easy to figure. The trophy is in Warrick's locker. Either he will take it home, or Tennessee will take it from him.

Bobby Bowden knows. FSU began its bowl preparations on Saturday, Dec. 12, and by Monday, Bowden was in the office of offensive coordinator Mark Richt. How many ways, Bowden wanted to know, do we have to get the ball to Warrick?

"He had a type-written list," Bowden said Sunday. "It had about 28 different plays on it. We have to get the ball in his hands."

If you wonder why, you haven't been paying attention. Remember the tipped pass he caught against Florida, and his move that followed, for the go-ahead touchdown? Remember the end-around pass that clinched the game? Remember his rebound-like catches against North Carolina? Remember the reverse when he went this way, then that, then this again against Virginia?

He is the Seminoles' playmaker. No secret there. The only secret is how, with Marcus Outzen at quarterback, the Seminoles are going to get him the ball.

"Ain't but two ways," Bowden said, grinning. "You can throw it to him, or you can hand it to him. Well, I guess you can snap it to him, too."

There is danger in Warrick's hands. These days, it is mainly for the other team. Once, however, it was about an even chance he was going to turn Bowden's hair gray before he got around to the rest of the ACC's. For the Seminole coaches, he was a frustrating player, someone this close to greatness.

"He'd drop about one of three," Bowden said. "His mind would wander. We'd keep hammering him on it, and ridiculing him, and kidding him. He's better now than he was. It seems like the bigger the game, the better he is."

It is only that inconsistency that keeps Warrick from being labeled as the best receiver FSU has had. For all the times the Seminoles have thrown the ball, they have had precious few receivers with great speed and great hands. They have had the hands guys (Fred Biletnikoff, Lawrence Dawsey, etc.) and the speed guys (Tamarick Vanover, Hassan Jones, etc.), but seldom have they had anyone who could bring both the way Warrick can.

Which leads us to the two biggest questions of this game. How is FSU going to try to get the ball to Warrick? And how is Tennessee going to stop him?

The Vols are hinting they won't do much special, that they will press Warrick with Dwayne Goodrich or Steve Johnson and take their chances. And will everyone shut up about Warrick already?

"I'm getting really tired of hearing his name," Vols linebacker Raynoch Thompson said. "He can't hurt us if he doesn't get the ball. What's he going to do, run fancy routes and look pretty if he can't get the ball? We're not going to do anything special to prepare for Peter Warrick or changing anything. You don't see him out there with a cape."

Thompson isn't alone. Ask defensive coordinator John Chavis about Warrick, and after the obligatory niceness, Chavis points out all the other good receivers the Vols have stopped, the message being that Warrick doesn't send chills down orange spines. Safety Deon Grant has pleaded to cover Warrick by himself, because Warrick wasn't anything he didn't see every day in practice.

You might expect such a reaction to bring outrage to the faces of the Seminoles. It doesn't. It brings small smiles, such as the one on the face of Outzen. Yes, Tennessee has won a lot of games with man coverage. But FSU doesn't think anyone can cover Warrick one-on-one.

Perhaps we'll see. Goodrich talks about Warrick being his responsibility. He calls Warrick a combination of the three former Florida receivers: Ike Hilliard, Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green. Goodrich says, "the game is in my hands." Could Tennessee be serious about this one-on-one business?

Playing a press defense against Warrick would allow the Vols to load up on the run and harass Outzen. But do you dare single-coverage? Put it this way, either the Vols will defend Warrick, or they'll defend a lot of extra point tries.

He is coming, and afterward, he is going. This is likely Warrick's last game as a Seminole. Even Bowden, who wants all of his players to stay, is resigned that Warrick will play next year in the NFL.

Before Warrick is done, however, Bowden wants a few things. A big catch. A nice run. A great return. An accurate throw. The last few highlights of a greatest hits video. And let's check that list of plays one more time.

Maybe, a few of them wind up in the end zone.