CLEMSON — College football games do not get any bigger than the one to be played Saturday at Death Valley. The matchup between third-ranked Clemson and fifth-ranked Florida State will be the biggest ever played within the state’s borders.
There are any number of ways to quantify that statement, but suffice it to say that a pair of top-five ranked teams with Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterbacks will tangle in a jam-packed stadium before a national TV audience in a game with national championship implications.
How can it possibly get any bigger than that? There certainly was no downplaying the game’s significance Tuesday when Dabo Swinney and his star quarterback Tajh Boyd addressed the media.
Swinney went first:
“At the end of the day, this is what it’s all about, two great teams. We’ve got a pretty good team, too, and you’ve got two good teams going at it with a lot on the line, and this is why you’re in college football. This is why you do it, right here, as a player and a coach, to be a part of games like this.”
Then Boyd chimed in:
“Honestly, the stakes are high, the pressure is here, but at the same time, that’s when you step up and you perform to your best abilities,” Boyd said. “I think we’ve been in every position you could possibly imagine playing at this university in the past three years, and that means you’ve got to love playing in games like this.”
The magnitude of this game goes far beyond the talk of a coach and his star player. It is one that can be viewed from many different angles.
First, let’s look at this matchup from an instate perspective. Three previous times, either Clemson or South Carolina has been involved in games at either Memorial Stadium or Williams-Brice Stadium that matched top-10 ranked teams. Tenth-ranked Florida State defeated third-ranked Clemson in 1988, No. 6 USC rolled past No. 5 Georgia in 2012 and No. 8 Clemson defeated No. 5 Georgia to open this season.
Saturday’s is the first matchup played within the state between a pair of top-five ranked teams.
None of those previous matchups, all of which were big in some way, carried national championship implications. In fact, the only other time either Clemson or USC played a game with this much riding on the outcome probably occurred following the 1981 season when No. 1-ranked Clemson defeated No. 4-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the national championship.
Of course, Saturday’s winner will not be awarded the national championship. Yet the winner will have the inside track to capturing the ACC Atlantic Division title, assuring it a berth in the ACC championship game. The winner also will retain hopes of an unbeaten season and possible appearance in the BCS championship game.
The game also is a big occasion for the often-maligned ACC.
“Well, this is what they’ve been wanting, isn’t it?” Swinney said of the league, which seldom over the past couple of decades has been included in big-game talk.
“They can’t talk bad about us now,” Swinney said. “We’ve got three undefeated teams in the top 10. This is what we have not done as a conference, bottom line. We have not produced an undefeated team, a 12-1 team. We certainly haven’t had multiple teams be very consistent in that.”
In addition to the unbeaten teams that will meet at Clemson, the ACC boasts this week of No. 10 and undefeated Miami. The Clemson-Florida State showdown marks the fourth time a pair of top-five ranked ACC teams have met. Third-ranked Florida State defeated fifth-ranked North Carolina in 1997, No. 5 Miami topped No. 4 Florida State in 2004, and No. 5 Miami turned back No. 3 Virginia Tech in 2005.
As if all of that is not evidence enough to make this one of the most-anticipated matchups of the college football season, there is an underlying story that will sell the game to a national audience. Either starting quarterback could win the Heisman Trophy.
Boyd spurned the NFL to return fo his redshirt senior season and has lived up to his pre-season billing as a Heisman Trophy candidate. He carries a 27-6 career record as a starter into the game, and is ranked eighth nationally in passing efficiency (172.0), ninth in touchdown passes (15) and 12th in total offense (328.3 yards per game).
Jameis Winston is playing his first season as a redshirt freshman and quickly earned the nickname “Famous Jameis” for his sterling play. He completed all but two of his 27 pass attempts for 356 yards and four touchdowns in his college football debut against Pittsburgh. He ranks second nationally in passing efficiency at 213.9 and third in completion percentage at .732.
Both teams field explosive offenses and have played solid defense through the first half of the season. Both have star power on offense and defense. Both play an exciting brand of football. Both are in the hunt for the national championship.
It does not get any bigger than that.