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Atlantic Coast Conference gets its turn in the spotlight

When No. 5 Florida State plays at No. 3 Clemson on Saturday, the ACC will finally have a marquee college football matchup.

October 18, 2013|Chris Dufresne
  • Florida State's P.J. Williams, right, celebrates an interception with teammate Tyler Hunter during a win over Boston College last month. The Seminoles are helping the ACC regain some clout in the college football world.
Florida State's P.J. Williams, right, celebrates an interception… (Jim Rogash / Getty Images )

The Atlantic Coast Conference has been waiting so many years for this stand-alone moment it might collectively have to take a nervous pill and sit down.

The ACC has spent years failing to prove it was more than just a basketball conference. It wanted so badly in football to be more than just Florida State it was willing to reconstruct.

The ACC effectively destroyed the Big East Conference in 2003 by plundering Miami, Virginia Tech and then Boston College, setting off the conflagration of conference realignment.

It didn't help the ACC.

Five-time national champion Miami immediately went into a program slump on its way toward another scandal at the same time masthead Florida State was fading under former coach Bobby Bowden.

The ACC cannot at this point avoid the distinction of moving forward as the most underperforming major conference of the Bowl Championship Series era. It even ranks behind two football leagues that no longer exist — the Big East and Western Athletic.

The defunct WAC left with a 2-1 record in BCS bowl games; the Big East was 8-7. The ACC is 3-13 and hasn't put a team in the title game since Florida State lost to Oklahoma in 2000.

The Mid-American Conference, at 0-1, is the only league with a lower winning percentage.

That's what makes No. 5 Florida State at No. 3 Clemson such a Seminole moment. The ACC finally owns a must-see Saturday.

The 5 p.m. prime-time game will overlap but out-interest USC at Notre Dame.

Other leagues have known this feeling. The Big Ten soaked it all up in 2006 when No.1 Ohio State faced No. 2 Michigan. Texas and Oklahoma have provided several national impact games for the Big 12 Conference, and Pac-12 history is filled with top-10 pairings.

Even the Mountain West got to bask when it had an All-Fiesta Bowl matchup of Boise State and Texas Christian. The Southeastern Conference seems to have a marquee game every other week.

For the ACC, though, this is as big as it gets.

"This is something we've been wanting," said Florida State Coach Jimbo Fisher. "The other conferences have had those games. We feel like we have great football in the ACC and now we get a chance to showcase it."

This is at least the greatest ACC game not involving the Bowden family. The previous high point was the Bowden Bowl of 1999, when papa Bobby and Florida State faced off against son Tommy at Clemson.

Florida State escaped with a 17-14 win on its way to a perfect season. Bobby Bowden also won his 300th career game that night.

Saturday's game features two of the great names in coaching, Jimbo vs. Dabo (Swinney), and two of the country's best quarterbacks. Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston of Florida State are legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates. Boyd is the familiar-faced senior; the freshman Winston has emerged from relative unknown to superstar in a matter of weeks.

Winston ranks No. 2 nationally in passing efficiency; Boyd is No. 8. Combined, they have 32 touchdown passes with only four passes intercepted.

Winston leads an offense averaging 53.6 points and 8.27 yards per play; Boyd commands a unit that averages 40.8 points and 514 yards.

"The quarterback is special," Swinney said of Winston. "I know he's listed as a redshirt freshman, but he doesn't look like a freshman. He looks like a full-grown man."

The game has a little bit of everything, including a star defensive end.

South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney was supposed to be the best defensive player in the country, but so far isn't even the best player in his state. That honor belongs to Clemson's Vic Beasley, who has supplanted Clowney on most midseason All-American teams. The junior already has 12 tackles for loss this year, including nine sacks.

The Florida State-Clemson winner becomes the biggest challenger to Alabama and Oregon for this season's race to the BCS title game. Saturday's winner might even supplant Oregon at No. 2 when Sunday's first BCS standings are released.

So, yeah, this is big — the ACC's biggest game ever.

"This is why you're in college football," Swinney said. "This is why you do it, right here, as a player and a coach."

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