Surprisingly Similar Seasons Lead To First-Ever Meeting

For two men of such different pasts and such seemingly different futures, both Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden and Wisconsin head football coach Bret Bielema have had a remarkably similar year, which is due to come to a close on Saturday, December 27, when the Seminoles and Badgers will meet in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.

 

Bret Bielema was just six years old when Bobby Bowden was named the head football coach at Florida State. Since his debut in 1976, Bowden has had a legendary run at FSU, leading his team to 306 wins, twenty bowl victories, two national championships, and twelve Atlantic Coast Conference championships. He is one of four active coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame. The 2008 Champs Sports Bowl is his 27th bowl game in 27 years, a streak (thanks to Michigan’s woes this season) now unrivaled in the nation.

 

But for all of his storied history, it’s been a rough season for Bowden and his Seminoles. An academic cheating scandal resulted in several players being ineligible for the first three games of 2008 (they went 2-1 in this stretch, winning two easy games against FBS teams). One of his most promising offensive players, wide receiver Preston Parker, missed the first two games of the season after pleading guilty to off-season charges of carrying a concealed weapon and possession of marijuana. An on-campus fight in November led to Bowden suspending five players for a game against Boston College, which the Seminoles lost 27-17.

 

On the field, it was a disappointing year for Florida State, as the team lost three of its last five games, including a season-ending 45-15 beat down by in-state rival Florida, to finish 8-4 (5-3 in conference play). And the end seems to be near for the 79-year-old coaching legend: This year his offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, signed a contract that stipulated that if he is not the head coach of the Seminoles by 2010, Florida State University will owe him a cool $2.5 million.

 

In contrast, Bret Bielema had almost a quiet season, but it was certainly the stormiest of his brief career. A streak of five Big Ten losses out of six was marked by undisciplined play and critical late-game meltdowns, and an embarrassing altercation with an official during the Michigan State loss had the press speculating if Bielema had completely lost his way. However, a mid-season quarterback switch from underperforming Allan Evridge to junior Dustin Sherer improved the team’s fortunes, and the Badgers became eligible for their seventh consecutive bowl game by winning their last three games to finish 7-5. But Wisconsin finished only 3-5 in Big Ten play, and their final three victories came against two conference opponents in complete free fall (Indiana and Minnesota) and one FBS team (Cal Poly) that they needed overtime to beat.

 

As Florida State and Wisconsin get set to meet for the first time ever on December 27, both teams mirror each other not only in that they failed to meet preseason expectations, but in precisely how they disappointed: The passing game was a letdown for both, as Wisconsin finished 84th in the country in passing yardage, with the Seminoles just behind at 87th. But Wisconsin appears to have a clearer advantage here, as Sherer showed noticeable improvement as the season progressed, particularly in his ability to elude the pass rush and throw accurately on the run. Although offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been openly critical of Sherer, it’s hard to imagine Sherer being seriously challenged for the starting job next season. On the other hand, Florida State’s quarterback Christian Ponder has been wildly inconsistent all season and was pulled in the season finale against Florida after starting 5-of-14 with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Ponder will most likely face Wisconsin believing that his starting job next year is on the line.

 

On the other hand, both teams have stellar running games. Yet here too, Wisconsin has the edge. P.J. Hill and John Clay led the Badgers to the 14th best rushing attack in the country, while Antone Smith and Jermaine Thomas carried Florida State to the 31st best ground game in the nation, although the ground game suffered late in the season as teams, unthreatened by FSU’s air attack, put added resources into stopping the run.

 

It’s on the defensive side of the ball that Florida State appears to have the edge over the Badgers. The Seminoles finished the season with 36 sacks, while only allowing 3.7 yards per game and a measly one rushing touchdown a game. Compared to the Badgers, FSU gave up nearly five points less per game (20.8 to 25.3) and about thirty yards less per game (291.8 to 322.3). Florida State boasts one of the best defensive players in the country in defensive end Everette Brown, who finished third in the nation with 12.5 sacks and second in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss. Brown is most likely leaving this year for an NFL career and will surely be attempting to put on a show for scouts. Fortunately for Wisconsin, its offensive line is overall bigger and more talented than FSU’s defensive unit and they should be able to get help on Brown.

 

As close as Wisconsin and Florida State seem to be coming into this first-ever matchup, there is one measuring stick that gives a clear advantage to FSU: the dreaded Sagarin computer rankings, which claim that the Seminoles are the 14th best team in the nation while ranking Wisconsin at a comparatively lowly 51st, just two spots ahead of Duke, which finished their season an unspectacular 4-8. While the Badgers and Seminoles are clearly closer in talent than those rankings indicate, it’s not hard to argue that the Atlantic Coast was a tougher conference in 2008 than the Big Ten was. And it’s also not hard to argue that since the game is in Orlando, Florida State has a huge home-field advantage that will likely be made more one-sided due to Badger fans being less likely to travel in these tough economic times.

 

As of this writing, Florida State is favored to win by five. Sounds about right. Prediction: Florida State 32, Wisconsin 27.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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