Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder headed into his senior season as a Heisman candidate, but when the All-ACC teams came out this week, he didn't even earn honorable mention.
His painful throwing elbow has caused enough problems that he had fluid drained from it Monday for the third time this season. The injury also has caused his draft stock to take a hit.
So in at least a few respects, Ponder's senior season hasn't gone quite according to plan. But in a more important measure, it's gone about as well as he could have imagined.
Ponder led FSU to one-sided victories over Miami and Florida, marking the first time the Seminoles have beaten both in-state rivals since their 1999 national championship season. He now has a shot to cap his career by leading FSU to its first ACC title since 2005.
Florida State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) will represent the Atlantic Division against Coastal Division titlist Virginia Tech (10-2, 8-0) in the ACC championship game Saturday night in Charlotte. The winner earns a trip to the Orange Bowl.
"It means a lot," Ponder said. "This senior class has been through a lot, been through a lot of ups and downs. For us to have a year like we've had -- even with the ups and downs during the season -- for us to finish like we are, to win the state and make it to the ACC championship game, those are goals that we set prior to the season and the goals that I've had since coming to Florida State.
"For us to finally get there is kind of a relief and excitement at the same time."
They're not quite where they want to be. Standing in the Noles' way is the team that over the past few years has replaced FSU as the ACC's premier program.
After losing its first two games, Virginia Tech bounced back and became the first ACC team to sweep through the regular season with a perfect conference record since the 2000 Florida State squad. The Hokies are seeking their third ACC title in the past four seasons.
"We started off rough, and here at Virginia Tech, we're not used to that," tight end Andre Smith said. "It would definitely feel a lot bigger than the previous two, just to be able to win out and be doing so well after a rough start would be great. ... They've all been enjoyable, but I think this one would definitely be the most enjoyable for sure."
Ponder can identify with that. He was one of Florida State's lone bright spots last season during a miserable 7-6 campaign that cost Bobby Bowden his job. Ponder has dealt with all kinds of adversity, from the separated shoulder that ended his '09 season prematurely to the elbow injury that has set him back this season.
The Heisman campaign disintegrated in the second week of the season when Ponder went 11-of-28 with two interceptions in a 47-17 loss at Oklahoma. Ponder's elbow problem prevented him from matching his 2009 production and could end up costing him some money.
Before this season, Ponder was seen as a potential first-round draft choice who could get taken among the top 10 overall picks if he had a big senior season. He now is a likely second-round selection.
"I'd say [his stock] is a little lower at this point just because we're seeing his durability becoming a concern for the second year in a row," said Rob Rang, a senior draft analyst for nfldraftscout.com. "That's the biggest reason there's some concern now, not so much because his statistics aren't as dazzling as some thought they might be."
Rang noted Ponder still had an outside chance of moving into the first round if he performs well in his last two games and manages to answer the NFL's concerns about his health.
Ponder admits he hasn't put together the kind of season he wanted, but he isn't complaining. The team success has more than made up for it.
"Obviously I would have liked to play a little bit better," he said. "I've been battling a lot of injuries, and it's been a little frustrating at times. For us to be going into the ACC championship game, I couldn't wish for anything better. That's kind of the reason I came to Florida State, to compete at the ACC championship level and the national championship level. For us to finally get here definitely makes those frustrations go away."
Much of the attention surrounding the Seminoles has focused on their change in attitude under first-year coach Jimbo Fisher and their vastly improved defense, but FSU wouldn't have won the Atlantic Division without Ponder.
Ponder has overcome his injuries well enough to throw for 2,038 yards, with 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also has run for four touchdowns.
Those numbers don't come close to measuring Ponder's overall contributions. He has set an example for his younger teammates with his work ethic in the film room and classroom -- he earned his finance degree in 2½ years while recording a 3.7 grade-point average -- plus his ability to withstand pain.
"His leadership means a lot," senior guard Rodney Hudson said. "He's playing with pain, and I think that brings the other guys up, to see a quarterback playing with pain and seeing what he's going through. It makes other guys think, 'Well, I can do it too,' and play up to a better level."
Ponder exemplified that leadership most notably after a loss. FSU trailed North Carolina State 24-20 in an Oct. 28 Atlantic Division showdown when Ponder drove the Seminoles to the Wolfpack's 4 in the final minute. Ponder executed a play-action fake and had a receiver open in the end zone for a winning touchdown pass when tailback Ty Jones bumped into him, knocking the ball loose. North Carolina State linebacker Nate Irving recovered the fumble to seal the Seminoles' fate.
At that point, Ponder easily could have cursed fate or second-guessed his decision to return for his senior season. Rather than being driven to despair, he worked to repair a season at a crossroads.
"You don't expect your own guy to run into you and fumble," Fisher said. "He was where he was supposed to be, and the other guy should have been wider. But he's a guy who takes the blame for it. He's the guy that takes the bullets. That's the way he is. He doesn't ever look back. That's what makes him so special. He perseveres. He wants no excuses. That's what great leaders do. He's not afraid to take blame."
The week after the North Carolina State game, Ponder threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against North Carolina, though the Seminoles still lost 37-35 after Dustin Hopkins missed a 40-yard field goal with seven seconds left. Ponder's elbow injury sidelined him for the Seminoles' 16-13 triumph over Clemson, but he returned in time to lead Florida State to victories over Maryland and Florida.
In his three games since the fumble at North Carolina State, Ponder has completed two-thirds of his passes for seven touchdowns and one interception.
"We're two plays from being 11-1 right now," Ponder said as he reflected on the close calls against North Carolina State and North Carolina. "I think since the NC State game, I started taking it upon myself to play better. I was doing a lot more in practice, studying a lot more film and finally things started clicking for me. I stared getting confidence, and it kind of started snowballing."
Ponder delivered one of the best performances of his career last week, as he went 16-of-24 and threw touchdown passes to three different receivers without getting intercepted in a 31-7 victory over Florida, which ranks 10th in the nation in total defense.
Now he must match up against the ACC's top quarterback in Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor while battling a defense that has 20 interceptions, one off the NCAA lead.
Ponder looks forward to the challenge. He helped the Seminoles get to Charlotte. Now he wants to lead them to Miami.
WHO GETS THE EDGE?
Florida State rush offense vs. Virginia Tech rush defense: Florida State has averaged 177.4 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry with a balanced attack that features Chris Thompson (100 carries, 687 yards, five TDs), Ty Jones (77-496-2) and Jermaine Thomas (85-484-6). Thomas has missed the past two games with a knee injury that will keep him on the sideline Saturday, but Thompson and Jones still form a nice one-two punch. They work behind an outstanding line headed by Outland Trophy finalist Rodney Hudson at left guard. Virginia Tech ranks 68th nationally in run defense. The Hokies are allowing 4.6 yards per carry and 156.9 rushing yards per game. Edge: Florida State.
Florida State pass offense vs. Virginia Tech pass defense: FSU's hopes of winning Saturday depend at least in part on whether Christian Ponder can build on the momentum he established last week against Florida. Ponder has struggled with an elbow injury for much of the season, but he went 16-of-24 for 221 yards with three touchdown passes in a 31-7 victory over the Gators. He doesn't focus on just one receiver, as four Seminoles have at least 27 catches. Ponder must keep the ball away from CB Jayron Hosley, who leads the nation with eight interceptions. Virginia Tech's other starting cornerback is Rashad "Rock" Carmichael, who is hoping to return Saturday after sitting out last week's victory over Virginia with a high ankle sprain. The Hokies rank seventh nationally in pass efficiency defense. Edge: Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech rush offense vs. Florida State rush defense: TB Ryan Williams' hamstring injury forced the preseason All-America candidate to sit out four games, but it also led to the Hokies building a much more diversified rushing attack. Virginia Tech now has four extremely capable rushers in Darren Evans (133 carries, 748 yards, 10 TDs), QB Tyrod Taylor (119-613-4), David Wilson (97-573-5) and Williams (95-428-9). All of them have breakaway speed. FSU ranks 23rd in the nation in run defense. The Seminoles are allowing 123.7 rushing yards per game and 3.3 yards per carry. Edge: Virginia Tech.
Virginia Tech pass offense vs. Florida State pass defense: Virginia Tech ranks 77th in passing offense but seventh in passing efficiency, which tells you two things. The Hokies don't throw the ball particularly often, but they do throw it effectively. Taylor, the ACC player of the year, has thrown for 2,258 yards and 20 touchdowns, with four interceptions. His favorite targets are Jarrett Boykin (45 catches, 728 yards, five TDs) and Danny Coale (26-497-2). The Hokies continue to play without Dyrell Roberts (21-303-2), who will miss his fourth consecutive game since undergoing emergency surgery on his thigh. Florida State ranks 30th in the nation in pass efficiency defense and received a huge boost from the emergence of redshirt freshman CB Xavier Rhodes, the ACC's defensive newcomer of the year. Virginia Tech must give Taylor time to throw. E Brandon Jenkins has 12 sacks this season to lead a defense that has 43 sacks. Only Boise State averages more sacks per game. Edge: Florida State.
Florida State special teams vs. Virginia Tech special teams: The arrival of a new kicker and punter suggested this might be the rare season in which Virginia Tech struggled in special teams, but that hasn't been the case. Chris Hazley has made 19 consecutive field-goal attempts, and Brian Saunders has the ACC's top punting average. Wilson has the ACC's top kickoff-return average and has scored on two of his attempts, while Hosley ranks 15th nationally in punt-return average and has reached the end zone once. FSU also has solid special teams. Dustin Hopkins regularly produces touchbacks on kickoffs, and he made a 55-yard field goal as time expired to beat Clemson (though he also missed a field goal that would have beaten North Carolina). Shawn Powell is ranked 23rd nationally in punting, and return man Greg Reid has game-breaking ability. Edge: Virginia Tech.
Florida State coaching staff vs. Virginia Tech coaching staff: FSU coach Jimbo Fisher has done an outstanding job returning the Seminoles to BCS contention in his first season. Mark Stoops arguably had the best performance of any defensive coordinator as he transformed a unit that couldn't stop anybody last season. But we still don't know how FSU's staff will react in a conference championship game. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer's staff is much more proven in these situations, since the Hokies have won two of the past three ACC championships. Beamer did some of his finest work this season in helping Virginia Tech turn things around after losing its first two games. It's worth noting that Beamer is 1-8 against Florida State, though those previous nine games came against former Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden. Edge: Virginia Tech.
X-factor: Much of the pregame attention will focus on how well Virginia Tech's offensive line handles Florida State's high-powered pass rush, but let's see how well the Seminoles' veteran line protects Ponder. Virginia Tech has 13 sacks in its past four games. Ponder's elbow has been bothering him for much of the season. If he takes a bunch of hits Saturday night, the Seminoles will have a tough time winning this game.
Florida State will win if: The Seminoles must contain Virginia Tech's rushing attack well enough to force the Hokies to beat them through the air. Taylor has come a long way as a passer in the past two seasons, but Virginia Tech remains a run-oriented offense. Ponder also must avoid mistakes against Virginia Tech's ball-hawking secondary. And if the Seminoles grab an early lead, they can't let up. Virginia Tech erased double-digit deficits in wins over East Carolina, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech.
Virginia Tech will win if: This could all come down to the line of scrimmage because the Hokies seem more talented at the skill positions. If Virginia Tech's offensive line opens up some running room and does a decent job of neutralizing Florida State's pass rush, the Hokies should return to the Orange Bowl for the third time in four seasons.
KEY TO VICTORY
Olin Buchanan: Virginia Tech's rush offense. No doubt, Virginia Tech has the ability to throw, but the Hokies have run especially well in their wins over the best teams on their schedule. They've rushed for at least 198 yards in three of their past four games - all victories - and managed only 128 rushing in their season-opening loss to Boise State. It will be intriguing to see if the Hokies will be effective running the ball against Florida State, which is strong against the run.
Tom Dienhart: Florida State's defensive pressure. Mark Stoops has transformed Florida State from a defense that relied on man coverage to one that excels in a complex web of zone coverages. The Seminoles rank No. 6 in the ACC in defense (341.3 ypg) after finishing last in 2009 (434.6 ypg). And the unit ranks second in the nation in sacks (3.6 per game). For the 'Noles to pull the upset, the defense must contain Virginia Tech QB Tyrod Taylor by keeping him in the pocket, then getting after him with pressure.
David Fox: Christian Ponder against Virginia Tech's secondary. Ponder has thrown just one pick since one of the worst outings of his career, against Boston College, when he threw three interceptions. Ponder missed the Clemson game with an injury, but that's still four starts with just one interception. Virginia Tech is second only to Alabama in interceptions with 20, led by Jayron Hosley's eight. If the interception-free trend continues for Ponder, the Seminoles have a chance to upset the Hokies for the ACC title.
Mike Huguenin: Virginia Tech's offensive line. Lost in the whipping Florida State administered to Florida last week is that the Gators actually ran the ball quite well (212 yards), with most of that coming between the tackles. Virginia Tech throws the ball much better than the Gators, so the Hokies have a solid chance of putting together a diverse offense Saturday as long as their offensive line does its job. FSU has had issues against the run in the second half of the season.
Steve Megargee: Virginia Tech's start. Virginia Tech rallied from double-digit deficits to beat East Carolina, North Carolina State and Georgia Tech. They even dug their way out of a 17-0 hole against Boise State before letting that game slip away down the stretch. The ability to bounce back is an admirable trait, but I also wonder if it's given the Hokies a false sense of security. As much as the Hokies thrive under adversity, they probably can't afford to fall way behind against Florida State's defense. The Seminoles have allowed a total of 36 points during their current three-game winning streak, and they rank second nationally in sacks. Virginia Tech certainly is good enough to beat Florida State, but I don't think the Hokies are good enough to win this game if they allow the Seminoles to grab a commanding lead early.
Olin Buchanan: Virginia Tech 20, Florida State 17. The guess here is that the Hokies' defense, which has allowed fewer than 20 points in four of the past five games, will slow the Seminoles' offense. Virginia Tech's running game will be effective enough, and Tyrod Taylor will make a pivotal play in the fourth quarter.
Tom Dienhart: Florida State 27, Virginia Tech 24. The improved Seminoles' defense will slow Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies' attack, while FSU QB Christian Ponder will make a few big plays late as the Seminoles announce their return to the college football elite.
David Fox: Virginia Tech 24, Florida State 17. The Seminoles may be trying to the momentum from last week's Florida win, but the Seminoles had numerous close calls in the ACC. Meanwhile, the Hokies cruised through the conference without a healthy Ryan Williams.
Mike Huguenin: Virginia Tech 27, Florida State 20. This is not a vintage Virginia Tech defense, but the Hokies can stymie FSU's passing attack. And I don't think FSU's rushing attack can win the game.
Steve Megargee: Virginia Tech 24, Florida State 20. Virginia Tech has the ACC championship game experience that these Seminoles lack. The Hokies also should be playing in front of a friendly crowd in Charlotte. The experience and the fan support should make the difference in a tight game.