Clemson vs. Florida State: ACC game of the century?

jgiglio@newsobserver.comOctober 18, 2013 

  • Top 5 matchups between ACC teams

    Saturday’s game between No. 5 Florida State and No. 3 Clemson is only the fourth in ACC history between teams ranked the AP top 5.

    2005: No. 5 Miami 27, No. 3 VIRGINIA TECH 7

    2004: No. 5 MIAMI 16, No. 4 Florida State 10 (OT)

    1997: No. 3 Florida State 20, No. 5 UNC 3

    Note: Home team in CAPS.

  • Path to title

    The Clemson-FSU winner will stay in contention for the BCS championship. Here’s a look at the road ahead:

    1. Alabama (6-0)

    Toughest tests: Tide get No. 6 LSU at home on Nov. 9, close with rival game at No. 24 Auburn.

    2. Oregon (6-0)

    Toughest tests: Ducks face No. 9 UCLA next week and travel to No. 13 Stanford for Thursday night showdown Nov. 7.

    3. Clemson (6-0)

    Toughest test: If Tigers can survive Seminoles, it’s smooth sailing into Nov. 30 date with the Ball Coach in Columbia.

    4. Ohio State (6-0)

    Toughest test: Compared to others, it’s more like a quiz. Buckeyes haven’t played a team in Top 15 all year, and nobody else on schedule is ranked. Close at rival Michigan.

    5. Florida State (5-0)

    Toughest tests: If Noles upset Clemson, they’ll still have to win a state championship before thinking national. They host No. 10 Miami and finish regular season at No. 22 Florida.

As much as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney or Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher would love to, there’s really no way to downplay a game between teams ranked in the top 5.

So neither coach has tried to avoid the hype for Saturday night’s game (8 p.m., ABC) between the fifth-ranked Seminoles and the third-ranked Tigers, a pair of unbeaten teams with designs on more than just an ACC title.

“This is why you do it, right here, as a player and a coach, to be a part of games like this,” Swinney said.

To Fisher, who has rebuilt an FSU program that routinely played in big games in the 1990s, there’s more at stake than just the reputation of two proud programs.

“We feel like we have great football in the ACC and now we get a chance to showcase it,” Fisher said. “It’s great for the country to understand we have two top-5 teams that have national championship contender aspirations and abilities.”

This is where both teams were expected to be before the season started. Given how little has gone according to plan in the post-expansion ACC, that’s no small feat.

When the ACC added Miami and Virginia Tech in 2004, it thought it would be a power player in college football. Saturday’s game is only the fourth in conference history between top-5 teams and first since 2005.

Clemson (6-0), with its high-octane offense and veteran quarterback Tajh Boyd, took care of SEC power Georgia in the first game of the season and has cleared every hurdle since, not that it hasn’t been a struggle at times.

The Tigers labored through a 26-14 win at N.C. State on Sept. 19 and then had to sweat through a 24-14 win over Boston College last Saturday.

FSU (5-0) is coming off an open date and a 63-0 rout of Maryland on Oct. 5. The Seminoles trailed at Boston College 17-3 on Sept. 28 before pulling away for a 48-34 win.

The Seminoles lost an ACC-record 11 players in the NFL draft last April, including quarterback E.J. Manuel, but Fisher has unearthed a gem in redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston.

Winston has thrown 17 touchdowns in five games, including a 55-yard Hail Mary at the end of the first half in the BC win to change that game. “Famous Jameis” inserted himself in the Heisman Trophy race in his first college game, a five-touchdown performance against Pittsburgh in the season-opener.

As good as Clemson quarterback Boyd has been the past two-plus seasons (he’s 18-1 at home as a starter), Winston just might be better. Swinney called Winston, who also plays baseball for the Seminoles, a special athlete.

“I mean, I know he’s listed as a redshirt freshman, but he doesn’t look like a freshman,” Swinney said. “He looks like a full-grown man to me.

“So far, he has answered every call that he’s had, every test.”

Clemson’s much-improved defense will be the toughest test yet for Winston, who has completed an incredible 73.2 percent of his passes (90 of 123) on the season.

The Tigers lead the country with 24 sacks, including an NCAA-best nine from junior defensive end Vic Beasley. Clemson hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in four ACC wins.

Two highly ranked teams, two great quarterbacks and two strong defenses. There isn’t much more an ACC football fan can ask for.

“I know everybody will be excited to get the game here so we can get it going,” Swinney said.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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