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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

Champs Sports Bowl: W.V.U. vs. N.C.S.U.

In a slightly different universe, these two teams might have met in the Orange Bowl, not the Champs Sports Bowl. All West Virginia needed to take the Big East crown was a South Florida win over Connecticut in the season finale; all N.C. State needed to win the A.C.C. Atlantic division was to beat Maryland to end its regular season. Not so fast: Connecticut upended U.S.F. to take the Big East, and the Wolfpack defense couldn’t slow down Maryland in the fourth quarter, eventually falling by a touchdown to finish third in the division. So here we are, roughly a month later, and the two are facing off in the Champs Sports Bowl — for West Virginia’s Bill Stewart, the second-place finish might have cost him his job.

West Virginia (9-3, 5-2)

Regular season in review Nine wins. Nine wins. Nine wins. Three years, three nine-win seasons — the best start for a coach in West Virginia’s history. Yet it still wasn’t enough for first-year athletic director Oliver Luck, who claimed that he could not imagine W.V.U. playing for national championships under Bill Stewart’s watch. Strong words? Undoubtedly. On the mark, while blunt? It’s hard not to agree with Luck: while West Virginia continues to play for Big East titles under Stewart, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the third-year coach would lead the Mountaineers into the national championship picture. Of course, this conversation assumes that W.V.U. has the wherewithal to ever compete for national titles at all; those thinking that W.V.U. should be happy with its current status should recall that Stewart’s predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, had the Mountaineers in the title mix for three straight seasons from 2005-7.

Regular season high point A four-game winning streak to end the season, highlighted by a 38-10 pounding of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. This was West Virginia at its best: pounding the ball on the ground, highly effective through the air and opportunistic defensively.

Regular season low point An overtime loss to Connecticut on Oct. 29. What could have been: W.V.U. gained 414 yards to Connecticut’s 278, earned 24 first downs, controlled the clock while dictating the tempo on the ground yet still lost — four lost fumbles sealed the Mountaineers’ fate.

Regular season offensive M.V.P. Quarterback Geno Smith. Since his arrival, Smith has been heralded as the next great West Virginia quarterback; in only one season as the starter, Smith has fulfilled his promise. He tossed only six interceptions all season — three in one game, a loss to Syracuse — while throwing for 2,567 yards and 23 scores. Smith also completed 65.8 percent of his passes, taking advantage of the quarterback-friendly passing system installed by Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. Did I mention that the next W.V.U. offensive coordinator — and coach-in-waiting — knows a thing or two about quarterbacks?

Regular season defensive M.V.P. Cornerbacks Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan. Perhaps the most consistent cornerback pair in the country, and certainly the best duo in the Big East. Tandy led the conference in interceptions, though part of that came from Hogan’s placement on the other wise; teams were more likely to throw towards Tandy than Hogan. For the season, West Virginia ranked 11th nationally in both passing defense and pass efficiency defense.

N.C. State (8-4, 5-3)

Regular season in review Those N.C. State fans patient enough to wait through three seasons of mediocrity under Tom O’Brien were rewarded with the program’s finest regular season since 2002, an eight-win finish that saw the Wolfpack shake off the post-Phillip Rivers doldrums. As with the 2002-3 teams that combined for 19 wins, N.C. State was led by a polished, veteran quarterback whose steady hand yielded an A.C.C.-best 281.7 passing yards per game. This season’s biggest development, however, was the improvement on the defensive side of the ball: N.C. State cut off nearly nine points per game from last year’s scoring defense, allowing only 22.5 points per game. The best news, however, is this intangible idea that N.C. State has turned a corner under O’Brien; now that the foundation has been laid, it’s easy to picture a consistently strong program over the next handful of seasons.

Regular season high point A 28-24 win over Florida State on Oct. 28. If the Wolfpack had defeated Maryland, the victory over F.S.U. would have given them the head-to-head tiebreaker for the Atlantic division title.

Regular season low point Maryland looms large, as does a 14-13 loss to Clemson three weeks earlier. Yes, a win over Maryland would have won the Atlantic; a win over a very average Clemson team, on the other hand, would have won the Atlantic in advance of the season finale.

Regular season offensive M.V.P. Quarterback Russell Wilson. He continues to assert his claim to being the best quarterback in the A.C.C.: while his touchdown-interception ratio was the worst of his career, there’s no doubt that Wilson’s play is the key factor behind N.C. State’s production on offense.

Regular season defensive M.V.P. Linebacker Nate Irving. He’s also the best story of the A.C.C. season: after missing all of last season after a life-threatening car accident, Irving returned to much of the same form that made him the conference’s best defense in 2008. He finished the regular season second on the team in tackles (88) and first in both tackles for loss (20.5) and sacks (6). His 20.5 tackles for loss tied for fifth in the country.

Know Your Sponsor

Champs Sports The national sports retailer is the second-largest component of the Foot Locker family of stores, which also includes the eponymous Foot Locker chain, the largest, Footaction USA, Final Score and ESPN Shop. For residents of Manhattan, Champs Sports has always one of two options for those shoppers looking for sweatpants, basketballs or other sports paraphernalia, joining Modell’s Sporting Goods. While Modell’s is the more popular choice in this area, Champs Sports has a far larger footprint nationally.

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  1. schedule nit says:

    Paragon Sports on Union Square easily beats ‘em both and is def worth the trip.

    Got into the following exchange with John McEnroe once at an autograph session at Paragon:

    JM: Why are you looking at me like that?
    Hero: ‘Cause you’re such an ****** moron, you make Tim McArver seem knowledgeable. Has been who used to play with sticks–I notice they don’t sell those anymore. Now that they got replay, what good are you anyway you ******* one-trick pony?
    JM: Did you just wait in line to say that?
    Hero: There’s no line ******, just here shopping. Now go **** yourself like a good little nework clown.

    You don’t get that at no Champs Sports.

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