Sports

Florida State’s struggles leave an ACC vacancy N.C. State can fill

The arrival of this bumbling, stumbling Florida State operation wasn’t merely exactly what N.C. State needed to get back on track after two losses that were each excruciating for different reasons. It was also a reminder that the position as perennial second-best program in the Atlantic Division remains an open vacancy, one the Wolfpack is as qualified as anyone to fill.

That presumes Clemson isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, which seems a safe presumption given there are still two more seasons of Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, but even with the ACC’s lousy bowl tie-ins in years the Orange Bowl is a national semifinal – like this one – the spot behind the Tigers is still a pretty good one.

Florida State has held that down in recent memory, even as things spiraled out of control under Jimbo Fisher, but with Willie Taggart facing a full-on, start-to-finish, bottom-to-top rebuilding of the mess Fisher left behind that will take years, it’s out there for the taking.

And there isn’t a lot of competition for that spot. Syracuse, for sure. But Louisville is an even bigger mess, Wake Forest has regressed and Boston College is … Boston College, for better and worse.

N.C. State, coming off a nine-win season and with a 10-win season still within reach, has as good a case as anyone. Saturday’s 47-28 win made it clear that the gap between N.C. State and Florida State has become as big as the gap between Clemson and N.C. State, yet another crack in the foundation of ACC football on the Atlantic side more or less since expansion.

There was that strange pre-Dabo, late-Bobby Bowden period where both Clemson and Florida State were down and Boston College and Wake Forest made their cameos in the title game, but Clemson’s inevitable appearance in Charlotte will make it 10 straight years one of those two teams represented the Atlantic.

Clemson is doing all the heavy lifting on that front now. That twosome has become a single, and even if the Tigers are without peer, there’s value in being next best.

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It’s no longer Florida State, an utter disaster. A week after Taggart accused his team of quitting against Clemson, the Seminoles continued to make all the same mistakes that they made before Fisher fled for Texas A&M: bad penalties, terrible turnovers and an inability to make basic plays. They no longer have the raw talent to paper over those errors. Taggart has work ahead.

And N.C. State, to its credit, took advantage. If two first-half drives hadn’t stalled in the red zone, leaving the Wolfpack settling for field goals, it would have been an even bigger blowout.

Unfortunately, the rewards this season are meager. In other years, with Clemson a national semifinalist the Wolfpack might have a shot at the Orange Bowl or even the Citrus Bowl, if the Big Ten is the ACC’s opponent in the Orange Bowl, but the best option this season is Orlando … and that’s it. There’s nowhere higher to rise, even if N.C. State wins out to finish 10-2 and 6-2 in the ACC.

Syracuse, again, may yet have a say about that, which could see the Wolfpack fall to Nashville or Charlotte even in a best-case scenario. (Unlike last year, when the Wolfpack could or should have been in a Florida bowl and ended up in El Paso instead.)

Still, Saturday drove home just how much the assumptions that have fueled the ACC for two decades have not only changed but vanished entirely. Florida State has, finally, fallen back to the pack, and even behind it, leaving a vacuum behind Clemson. Someone’s going to have to be the best of the rest in the Atlantic. Might as well be N.C. State at this point.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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