It’s difficult to find many pundits outside the Florida panhandle who think Clemson will be watching, not playing in, the 2013 ACC championship game in Charlotte.
Athlon, Lindy’s, USA Today and the Sporting News each picked the Tigers to win the ACC Atlantic Division in their preseason publications. At the ACC Football Kickoff last week in Greensboro, N.C., an overwhelming majority of media voters — 95 out of 120 — agreed that Clemson’s the team to beat in the league.
But Phil Steele, the man with an encyclopedic college football brain, is a rare detractor. He likes Florida State to upend Clemson in Death Valley on Oct. 19 in a de facto ACC Atlantic Division championship game and ultimately defend its league crown.
It’s not because he thinks Clemson’s that bad. It’s just he’s a big believer in the Seminoles.
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Steele felt last year’s Florida State edition, which reached the No. 3 ranking in October, “could have stood toe-to-toe, and definitely would have provided a better national championship game, than Notre Dame did,” he said in a phone interview. “So I think they came pretty close last year, had Florida State not stubbed its toe a couple of times.”
The home team has won 10 of the past 11 in the Florida State-Clemson series, and FSU hasn’t won in Death Valley since 2001. But the Seminoles have taken seven of 12 matchups all-time in Clemson, when the Tigers felt FSU’s wrath in the 1990s.
“I understand why the writers picked Clemson,” Steele said. “A lot of the factor may have been, the general public, when they analyze a team, they look at the quarterback first, naturally. If you do that, you give Clemson a large edge over Florida State: with Tajh Boyd over a redshirt freshman. Now, offensively, the two teams are actually fairly close.”
Even if the quarterback matchup is Boyd, the reigning ACC player of the year, against Jameis Winston, a talented prospect who has yet to play a down, there’s precedent for mismatches at the most important position to make no difference on the scoreboard.
“If you think a redshirt freshman can’t win, I offer up Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Marcus Mariota (Oregon), Everett Golson (Notre Dame), Brett Hundley (UCLA) — those four redshirt freshmen last year had pretty good years,” Steele said. “I like their backfield: (Devonta) Freeman, (James) Wilder, (Mario) Pender. They’ve got good size, good speed in the receiving corps, and it’s a veteran unit. Tight end, and offensive line, one of the best units in the country.”
Even though seven defensive starters have left Florida State since last year, Steele trusts highly touted linemen Mario Edwards and Jacobbi McDaniel to step in and fuel the Seminoles’ defense.
“What I like about Florida State — just their overall team,” Steele said. “I rate Florida State’s defense at No. 4 (nationally); I rate Clemson’s defense about No. 28.”
On the other hand, if Clemson does knock off Florida State, would the Seminoles still have a chance to go to Charlotte?
“No. Not in the least,” Steele said. “Conference games on the road, (Clemson is) playing N.C. State, Syracuse, Maryland and Virginia. They’ll be prohibitive favorites there. So I don’t see any way Clemson loses two conference games this year besides Florida State. If they beat Florida State, they might lose one in an upset, but that’s it.”
Just for fun, Steele also is in the minority as taking Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division. The majority like Miami, while USA Today agreed with Steele on the Hokies.
While Steele considers Florida State a national championship threat, he notes ACC teams’ penchant for falling short when opportunity beckons, either when highly ranked in the regular season or during high-profile bowl games.
“They both really have a history of that. Florida State, recently; Clemson, almost all the time, where they stub their toe in a game or two as a favorite,” Steele said. “Clemson, it seems like every year expectations are high. They’re rolling, and then all of a sudden, they lose that game that they shouldn’t lose. They sort of earned that reputation in previous years.
“But hopefully, pretty soon, the ACC will break out of that.”