ACC Championship

Can Bradham, Noles slow the Hokie attack?

Can Bradham, Noles slow the Hokie attack?

ACC Championship: Florida State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) vs. Virginia Tech (10-2, 8-0 ACC)
Saturday, 7:45 p.m. ET in Charlotte, N.C.

Two teams that have reasons to wonder what might have been still have plenty to play for this week. No. 20 Florida State and No. 12 Virginia Tech meet for the conference title for the first time since the inaugural ACC championship game in 2005.

The Seminoles head to Bank of America Stadium with a three-game winning streak after defeating in-state rival Florida 31-7 last week. They are oh-so-close to being 11-1, with two of their losses coming to NC State (on a fluke fumble) and North Carolina (thanks to two missed field goals in the fourth quarter) in consecutive weeks.

The Hokies, meanwhile, have put together a 10-game winning streak since dropping their first two games of the season. Virginia Tech lost to Boise State 33-30 in its season opener, then sleep-walked through a 21-16 loss to Football Championship Subdivision member James Madison five days later. Since then, though, the Hokies have won by average margin of 21.1 points while playing just one game decided by 10 points or fewer.

Virginia Tech, which routed Virginia 37-7 last week, is playing in the ACC championship game for the fourth time in the six-year history of the event. The Hokies are the first team to go undefeated in ACC play since Florida State in 2000.

The Seminoles, who upset Virginia Tech 27-22 in the 2005 ACC title game, hope to continue their string of success in the series. Florida State leads the all-time series 22-11-1, including wins in 13 of the past 14 meetings.

Here’s a look at how the teams match up this time:

Quarterbacks: Florida State: Christian Ponder began the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but he didn’t put up the big numbers everyone expected. Still, he is third in the ACC in passing efficiency (137.6 rating) after throwing for 2,038 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Ponder had his troublesome right elbow drained again after last week’s win over Florida and says he will be ready to go against the Hokies.

Virginia Tech: Tyrod Taylor has rewritten the school record book, setting new marks for career passing yards (6,532) and total offense (8,682 yards). But he has been at his best this season, leading the ACC in passing efficiency (156.9 rating) after throwing for 2,258 yards, 20 touchdowns and four interceptions. The MVP of the 2008 ACC championship game, Taylor also has rushed for 613 yards this season.

Edge: Push. Taylor has had the better season in 2010 en route to earning All-ACC honors, but Ponder has plenty of big-game experience and is just as capable. Plus, the Seminoles have a dangerous weapon in backup E.J. Manuel if Ponder suffers an injury during the game.

Running backs: Florida State: Starting tailback Jermaine Thomas (484 yards, 6 TD) will miss his third consecutive game with a sprained knee, and Ty Jones (496 yards, 2 TD) could be limited after sitting out practice early in the week because he was “banged up.” That leaves Chris Thompson (686 yards, 5 TD), who averages an eye-popping 6.8 yards per carry and has ripped off three touchdown runs of at least 70 yards this season. Fullback Lonnie Pryor (4 rush TD, 3 TD catches) is a threat as a runner and receiver in the red zone.

Virginia Tech: Darren Evans (748 yards, 10 TD) has punishing power, David Wilson (573 yards, 5 TD) showcases blazing speed, and Ryan Williams (428 yards, 9 TD) offers the perfect blend of both. Williams continues to get closer to full strength after missing four games in the middle of the season with a pulled hamstring.

Edge: Virginia Tech. The Hokies might have the best trio of tailbacks in the country. Evans and Williams are former ACC Rookie of the Year winners who each have more than 2,000 career rushing yards, and Wilson is a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

Receivers: Florida State: Bert Reed (52 catches, 547 yards, 2 TD) is a threat to run after catching short throws, but he has dropped too many passes this season. Taiwan Easterling (35 catches, 462 yards, 4 TD) does a nice job on intermediate routes, and Willie Haulstead (33 catches, 500 yards, 6 TD) and Rodney Smith (27 catches, 408 yards, 3 TD) stretch the field vertically. Tight end Beau Reliford (15 catches, 171 yards, 1 TD) doesn’t get many opportunities.

Virginia Tech: Jarrett Boykin (45 catches, 728 yards, 5 TD) is fourth in school history in receiving yards (2,004), and he’s just a junior. Marcus Davis (16 catches, 213 yards, 2 TD) is a freakish athlete who has moved into a bigger role after the season-ending injury to Dyrell Roberts, and Danny Coale (26 catches, 497 yards, 2 TD) has a knack for getting open deep even though he lacks breakaway speed. The Hokies don’t throw the ball to tight end Andre Smith often, but five of his 17 receptions this season have gone for touchdowns.

Edge: Florida State. Boykin is the best all-around receiver on the field with his size, huge hands and blocking ability, but the Seminoles have more weapons. Rodney Smith, in particular, has emerged with 10 receptions for 224 yards in the last three games. He could be a star in the future, possibly as soon as this week.

Offensive linemen: The Seminoles have started six different combinations up front this season, primarily because of injury problems at right guard. All-ACC left guard Rodney Hudson won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the ACC’s most outstanding blocker for the second year in a row. Center Ryan McMahon, a second-team All-ACC pick, has made a school-record 51 consecutive starts. Bryan Stork has returned from an illness to start at right guard, and tackles Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders are solid.

The Hokies have started the same five players up front all year, a fact that has allowed them to develop chemistry and continuity after a slow start to the season. Right guard Jaymes Brooks and right tackle Blake DeChristopher made the All-ACC second team. Center Beau Warren, left guard Greg Nosal and left tackle Andrew Lanier all came to Virginia Tech as tight ends, so they have athleticism.

Edge: Florida State. The Seminoles feature what is regarded as the ACC’s best offensive line, and they are coming off a performance against Florida that their coaching staff called their best job of pass protection all season.

Defensive linemen: Defensive ends Brandon Jenkins (12 sacks) and Markus White (7.5 sacks) are two big reasons why the Seminoles rank second in the country in sacks (ACC-best 3.58 per game). Jenkins, a first-team All-ACC selection, is tied for third nationally in sacks and tied for 11th nationally in tackles for loss. Florida State is talented but young on the interior, with three sophomores and a freshman rotating at defensive tackle.

For the Hokies, Steven Friday was named to the All-ACC second team after ranking in the conference’s top 10 in sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (14), and fellow defensive end Chris Drager has a big motor. Second-team All-ACC pick John Graves and Antoine Hopkins have done a nice job at defensive tackle after the Hokies lost Kwamaine Battle to a season-ending knee injury in September.

Edge: Florida State. Neither team’s front is impenetrable against the run, but the Seminoles get the nod here because of their pass-rushing ability.

Linebackers: The Seminoles have started the same three linebackers in every game this season. Kendall Smith and Nigel Bradham each rank among the top 15 tacklers in the ACC, and Bradham (4 sacks) is a threat to blitz from his weakside position. Mister Alexander plays the strong side for the Seminoles, who rank 23rd nationally and third in the ACC against the run (123.7 yards per game).

Bruce Taylor has been a stud all season, ranking among the ACC’s top 10 in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (15.5). After Taylor, though, there’s a decline. Lyndell Gibson has started losing playing time to redshirt freshman Tariq Edwards, and Jeron Gouveia-Winslow has struggled enough this season that defensive coordinator Bud Foster often replaces him with an extra defensive back. The Hokes are just 68th nationally against the run, allowing more rushing yards per game (156.9) than they have in any season since 1992.

Edge: Florida State. Taylor’s productivity is impressive, but the Seminoles have the stronger (and more experienced) linebacking group as a whole.

Defensive backs: The Seminoles have some accomplished cornerbacks in Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes, the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year. Rhodes leads the conference in pass breakups (11), and Reid is tied for second in that category (9). Safety Nick Moody, who is third on the team in tackles (60), returned an interception 96 yards for a touchdown to seal Florida State’s victory over Maryland. The Seminoles rank 30th nationally in opponents’ passing efficiency (115.6 rating).

All-ACC selection Jayron Hosley leads the nation with eight interceptions, continuing the Hokies’ tradition of outstanding cornerbacks. Fellow cornerback Rashad Carmichael (4 INT) sat out last week’s win over Virginia with an ankle injury, but he hopes to return this week. Even if he can’t play or is limited, the Hokies have a good replacement in true freshman Kyle Fuller. Second-team All-ACC safety Davon Morgan (72 tackles, 4 INT) is effective against the run and the pass, free safety Eddie Whitley has the versatility to play several positions, and backup Antone Exum is tied for second in the ACC with nine pass breakups.

Edge: Virginia Tech. The Hokies are seventh nationally in opponents’ passing efficiency (102.3 rating) and have recorded an ACC-high 20 interceptions. They have intercepted 12 passes over the last five games.

Special teams: For the Noles, Dustin Hopkins is one of the most talented kickers in the ACC, but he made just 17 of 23 field-goal tries this season. Among them, of course, was the 55-yard field goal as time expired that lifted the Seminoles past Clemson 16-13 on Nov. 13. Hopkins has booted 36 of his 74 kickoffs for touchbacks (second in the nation) to help Florida State lead the ACC in kickoff coverage, and that could be important because Virginia Tech leads the league in kickoff returns. Punter Shawn Powell ranks third in the ACC (43.9 yards per punt), and the Seminoles are fourth in the conference in net punting (38.4 yards per kick). Florida State hasn’t done much in the return game this season, but Greg Reid always is a threat to score.

The Hokies traditionally are strong in this area, and this season is no different. All-ACC kicker Chris Hazley is 19-for-20 on field goals, having made his last 19 attempts, and second-team All-ACC selection Brian Saunders leads the conference in punting (44.4 yards per kick). The Hokies also are explosive in the return game, where David Wilson leads the ACC on kickoffs (26.8 yards per return, 2 TD) and Jayron Hosley ranks second in the league on punts (13.5 yards per return). Virginia Tech is second and fifth in the conference in kickoff and punt coverage, respectively.

Edge: Virginia Tech. Hazley has been rock solid since missing his first field-goal try of the season, and Wilson and Hosley are extremely dangerous. As an added bonus, the Hokies always are a threat to block a kick.

Head coaches: Jimbo Fisher has sparked a nice turnaround in his first season replacing legend Bobby Bowden. Fisher already has recorded the most wins by a first-year coach at Florida State, surpassing Larry Jones’ 8-4 record in 1971.

Frank Beamer is ninth on college football’s all-time wins list with 239 victories. He has led the Hokies to seven consecutive 10-win seasons, the longest active streak in the country, and has guided his team to 17 consecutive bowl games.

Edge: Virginia Tech. Beamer has seen it all in his 24 seasons in Blacksburg. He doesn’t panic, and he feels no pressure to prove to anyone how smart he is.

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Athlon previews the ACC Championship game that features Virginia Tech and Florida State.

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