Most people are talking about the defenses. They anticipate this will be a low-scoring game. I don't see it that way simply because the offenses will be so highly charged to meet the defenses that they'll come out and play very well and make things happen.
For many years, coaches talked about putting all their best athletes on defense. That's not true anymore. Peter Warrick and Peerless Price, Travis Minor, players like that are playing offensively and they're getting the ball and making big plays. So I would look for both offenses to put their best foot forward in this game.
On the other side of the coin, both defenses have been able to score points for their teams, so the Seminoles and Volunteers aren't going to have to rely solely on their offenses to get on the scoreboard. I would look for a lot of opportunities to strip the ball, to go for the interception, to block a punt _ anything they can do to add points to the game. I would expect to see each team scoring in the 20- to 30-point range. I don't see a 41-38 final; on the other hand, I don't see the game ending 10-7.
It's going to be interesting to see how Tee Martin and Marcus Outzen perform. The quarterback is the single biggest factor in college football now because the game is so different today. It's not a game where you can just hand the ball off, run down the field and control the clock. Rarely do teams control the clock with long drives, and these teams certainly don't. They score so quickly. If either team tries to play a ball-control game, it may be disadvantageous.
If there's some consolation, some ray of hope for Florida State fans, it is this: Early in Tennessee's season, Martin was a relative unknown, coming in on the heels of Peyton Manning. He had very little playing experience. But after several games, he was playing fabulously, particularly at Georgia. So FSU fans can say to themselves, "Outzen's been through an entire season of practice and he has played a couple of games. If Tee Martin can do that, Marcus Outzen can play that same way in a game of this magnitude."
And Marcus' game against Florida has to buoy their spirits a lot _ the fact that he played in a huge game, a grudge game, with emotions running so high. He knows what it's like to be in a scenario like this. The pressure of playing for the national championship, for the players, is in the days leading to the game. By kickoff, I don't think the pressure on Outzen will be very different from the Florida game.
On the other hand, Martin has been there all year. If I were Florida State, I'd sure want to force him to do it again. And if I were Tennessee, I'd want to make Out-zen be an impact player in this game.
It's going to be interesting to see how the coaches work their star receivers into the game plan. I know Bobby Bowden goes out of his way to get Warrick involved in reverses, in all kinds of plays, and choreographs all kinds of passing plays to get the ball to him. Phil Fulmer is more inclined to let the game come to Price. But this may be a game in which he feels he needs to get the ball to him more often. It'll be interesting to see how often the teams attempt to get the ball to them in a way that they can make the big plays.
I don't think there's any one area you can look at and say, "This team has a big advantage." That's why they're here. If the difference was that significant, I don't think one of the teams would be here. For example, UCLA is not here for a very obvious reason: It doesn't play very well on defense. That's how things manage to work themselves out. The Bruins were in it until the end of the year, when their major flaw was exposed.
Bowden used to have a so-called monkey on his back, going so many years before winning a national championship. I don't think it's Fulmer's turn to carry it just yet. If he loses this game and gets close over the next few years without winning it, then it may become a burden.
But the amazing thing is to consider that Bowden is 69 years old, has had an unbelievable career and has won only one national championship. That's how difficult it is to do, even when you have a deck of cards that has been dealt very favorably to you for many years.
That said, I would say that if there's one area in which Florida State does have a big edge, it's that the Seminoles coaches have been in these kinds of games more frequently. And FSU has experienced this kind of buildup before; it's something the team can understand and control. Tennessee has been in a lot of big games, bowl games, too, but the national spotlight has always been somewhere else; the Volunteers were always just part of the supporting cast. They're the lead actors now. We'll see whether they're able to manage that or whether Florida State's experience will have an impact.
John Mackovic, ESPN college football analyst and former Texas coach, spoke with Times staff writer Bruce Lowitt
about tonight's Tennessee-Florida State Fiesta Bowl.