When No.3 Clemson and fifth-ranked Florida State meet Saturday at Death Valley, it will mark the first time top-10 ACC squads faced off in football since way back in … September 2012.
Each was highly ranked when the teams played 13 months ago, with Florida State winning 49-37 in Tallahassee after trailing by two touchdowns early in the second half. Both teams wound up 7-1 in the Atlantic Division. Florida State, by virtue of winning the squads’ meeting, advanced to the conference championship game and claimed its first title since 2005.
Saturday’s matchup of top-10 ACC squads will be the sixth in the decade since the league grew to double-digit membership. That many heavyweight bouts is about par for the course for the SEC – in a single year.
Florida State participated in four of the six recent ACC blockbusters, winning last year against the Tigers and during 2004 against Virginia. Its only defeat in top-10 ACC competition during the past decade came at Miami in 2004, when the Hurricanes won in overtime in their league debut.
The Seminoles have lost considerable steam since Bobby Bowden’s heyday. Last season’s top-10 finish under Jimbo Fisher, Bowden’s former “coach-in-waiting,” was the program’s first since 2000.
The Tigers haven’t been all that great recently, either. In fact, the conference arrival of Florida State in 1992 was like a door slamming in the face of Clemson’s football aspirations.
That background only heightens the historical symmetry of having the two most recent ACC champions, vying to secure prominent places in national and league regard, face off at Clemson.
The Tigers won a third of the titles over the ACC’s first 39 seasons, fashioning an intimidating home edge at Memorial Stadium on land players and coach Frank Howard helped to clear of trees prior to its 1941 construction. The 13 championships were nearly double the output of Clemson’s closest overall competitors in accumulating ACC titles from 1953 through 1991 – Maryland (eight) and Duke (seven).
It’s easy to forget, but Clemson, Duke, and Maryland, the 1953 national champion, were considered football powers when the ACC was founded.
The trio captured nine of the first 10 league titles. The coaches who led the Tigers, Blue Devils and Terrapins into the ACC – Howard, “Sunny Jim” Tatum at Maryland and Bill Murray“Sunny Jim” Tatum at Duke – eventually were inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame“Sunny Jim” Tatum .
But Maryland soon sputtered and Duke faded, the Blue Devils done in by the onset of two-platoon football. Until Florida State was added, the closest thing to a league constant was Clemson.
The coaching staff periodically reminds current Clemson players of the school’s heritage, including just five losing records since 1977 – when coach Dabo Sweeney was in elementary school.
The Tigers were most dominant from 1981, when they went 12-0 and secured a national championship, through 1991. They finished atop the ACC six times during those 11 years. Twice Clemson also had the best record in the league but was on NCAA probation for recruiting violations and didn’t count in the standings. Two other times the Tigers finished a game out of first.
Then Florida State arrived, immediately fashioning near-total ACC supremacy.
Bowden’s program suffered a mere two conference defeats in its first nine ACC seasons and finished among The Associated Press poll’s top five each year. His teams stood alone in first in the conference, or tied for the top spot, all but once from 1992 through 2003. The Seminoles also were deemed national champs in 1993 and 1999.
Unfortunately, instead of the promised effect of lifting all boats, Florida State’s hegemony made everyone else in the conference look like football dwarfs and spend more to catch up.
‘Would we be interested!’
Florida State had been added not only to bolster league football, but to cash in on Florida’s huge television market as well as to counterbalance the addition of Penn State to the Big Ten, according to Gene Corrigan, the ACC’s commissioner at the time.
“The football schools wanted Florida State, the basketball schools wanted Syracuse,” he said.
Corrigan claims he reached out to Syracuse, then Florida State. When he phoned then-Florida State athletics director Bob Goin, a stranger, to inquire about the school’s interest in joining the ACC, he was met with stunned enthusiasm.
“‘What? Is this a joke?’” Corrigan recalled the response. “‘Are you kidding me? You would consider taking us into the ACC? … Oh, my God, would we be interested!’”
Soon enough, to the surprise of the public and the SEC, which had been speaking with Florida State about membership, the ACC was a nine-team league.
By the time Clemson finally won another ACC championship 20 years had elapsed. Most outsiders had forgotten the Tigers ever were a dominating program, much as school children today would look at bipartisan cooperation in Congress as a vestige of a bygone era.
But Clemson fans didn’t forget. They helped run off two coaches who posted a single losing record between them – Ken Hatfield (32-13-1) and Tommy Bowden (72-45) – because they were good but not good enough.
For now, at least, the Tigers faithful seem pleased with Sweeney, the man who replaced the younger Bowden at midseason almost five years ago.
Last week brought further encouragement. Rather than stumble while Florida State enjoyed a bye, Clemson rallied at home to defeat what has proven a surprisingly tenacious Boston College squad in its first year under coach Steve Addazio.
When Florida State last took the field, it thrashed what was a ranked, undefeated Maryland squad. The 63-0 result was the largest margin ever in a league game, a good note on which to usher the Terps to the Big Ten.
Recent or long-term, precedent invests Saturday’s marquee matchup with more significance than how each contestant is positioned for polls and bowls, or how it makes the league look to skeptical eyes.
Whether a bigger ACC is a better ACC is not apt to be decided this season. Not in football, anyway. But whether at least one program besides Virginia Tech (added in 2004) and Louisville (joining in 2014) can claim a regular spot in the national football conversation is about to become a lot clearer.
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