The 2013 ACC football season begins with two decided favorites in the Clemson Tigers and Florida State Seminoles.
Sure, Al Golden’s upstart Miami Hurricanes could sneak into contention, and Frank Beamer’s Virginia Tech Hokies are stalwarts atop the league. Perhaps even the North Carolina Tar Heels could build on their eight wins in Larry Fedora’s first season to emerge as a contender.
But barring the unforeseen, the Oct. 19 clash between these two sides will likely determine the conference championship and thus, the ACC’s standing in the final Bowl Championship Series. The Tigers and Seminoles are the ACC’s best hope for a crystal ball contender, something the league has not produced since the 2000 season.
Clemson and Florida State have won the conference’s last two championships. Each has set the league’s recruiting benchmark, and thus return key pieces from their respective title runs. Winning an ACC championship is nice — contending for a national championship is better. Both certainly have the talent to do so, but each enters 2013 with questions.
Does Brent Venables have his defense up to snuff?
Can Clemson replicate, or at least adequately replace DeAndre Hopkins’ production?
How good is Jameis Winston?
Which trap games are most likely to trip up either team?
There exists a perception that yes, Florida State and Clemson are good, but they are just not on par with the nation’s top tier.
Reference any preseason bowl projection, and you are hard-pressed to find the ACC tabbed for a trip to Pasadena. Show me the prediction with either Clemson or Florida State playing for all the roses, and you’ll have shown me my first with such a forecast.
They’re not up to par with Oregon or Stanford; can’t avoid stubbing their toes in the close ones like Ohio State and Notre Dame; and there is no shortage of SEC honks happy to tell you how low they would finish in the nation’s toughest conference.
Indeed, the aforementioned trap games and match-ups with the SEC have been the hurdles neither CU nor FSU can quite clear. Clemson’s hot 2011 start was cooled against Georgia Tech; Florida State lost the national favor it curried with a defeat at NC State last season.
Meanwhile, South Carolina and Florida both notched victories over their ACC counterparts in November. They will have another opportunity to incite those “S-E-C!” chants that have become nails-on-a-chalkboard for the rest of college football, and in the process reroute any potential roads CU or FSU have paved to California.
Clemson began to reverse the SEC curse with its Chick-Fil-A Bowl win over the LSU Tigers. Breaking that stranglehold the conference has on the region’s football two more times is necessary if the Tigers are to play for their first national championship since 1981.
Dabo Swinney has made tremendous strides in less than two years. Tiger Illustrated details an interview with Brentson Buckner after CU’s disastrous 6-7 finish to 2010, in which the former defensive tackle laments the state of the program.
Few seats were as hot as Swinney’s prior to 2011, but a pair of double-digit-win campaigns have earned him leverage. A byproduct of that success, however, are increased expectations. Clemson must take the next step, which is now championship-caliber football.
With highly touted recruiting classes together and a Heisman contending quarterback in Tajh Boyd, “Clemson’ing” is no longer an option.
Florida State will have something to say about it in, as Jimbo Fisher tries to complete his own ascent to the top level of football.
His program’s arc is similar to Clemson’s, as FSU is just a few years removed from a 7-6 finish. Fisher has led 10, 9 and 12-win teams since taking over for legendary Bobby Bowden, but has thus far fallen short of reaching his predecessor’s lofty standard set during the 1990s.
Fisher receives criticism perhaps disproportionate to that which a 31-10 head coach deserves. At a program like Florida State, and coaching in the long shadow of an icon like Bowden, success is defined in national championships; not conference championships.
FSU needs the latter to beget the former — and so does the ACC. The conference has existed in limbo, a kind of college football purgatory not quite at the level of the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 or even Big Ten, but above the American.
Past BCS bowl failures and a lack of championship game representation has stranded the ACC, but it can climb to that higher level in time for the College Football Playoff era. It must do so on the back of either Clemson or Florida State.