Clemson’s trip to Florida State on Saturday takes on a different dynamic this year, in large part because of how Lamar Jackson and Louisville eviscerated the Seminoles last month. Yes, it’s still a prime-time game. No, it’s not a pairing of top-five heavyweights like it was in 2013. And it isn’t the de facto league title game it was for the past half-decade or so.
It does, though, remains one of the most compelling and relevant contests on the ACC schedule.
Clemson (7-0, 4-0 ACC) is coming off a shaky overtime victory at home against N.C. State. Florida State (5-2, 2-2) already has multiple losses (it also fell at home to North Carolina) and probably can’t climb back into playoff contention even if it runs the table. Even an Atlantic Division title is unlikely for the Seminoles, who would still need Clemson and Louisville both to lose an additional conference game to have any hope of reaching the ACC’s championship game.
Nonetheless, this is a matchup of the two highest-profile coaches in the conference (Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher) and the two players from the league who possessed the biggest national profiles (Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Florida State tailback Dalvin Cook) before Jackson’s ascendance as a one-man show.
There’s also the matter of figuring out whether the Tigers must contend with any serious speed bumps prior to the actual ACC title game. Clemson will wrap up league play against Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest and then close the regular season against South Carolina. That’s a manageable path to a 12-0 record if the Tigers can first earn their first victory in Tallahassee since 2006.
In short: This might be the biggest impediment remaining for Clemson to reach the playoff (and for the ACC to have a representative in the four-team tournament for the third year in a row). That might just be the most significant thing at stake anywhere in college football this weekend.
BIG BROTHER’S PAYBACK
One of the sport’s most memorable quotes of the past decade was uttered by Michigan tailback Mike Hart after the Wolverines rallied past Michigan State in 2007, helping him finish his career undefeated in the in-state rivalry.
“I thought it was funny,” Hart told reporters at the time. “They got excited. It’s good. Sometimes you get your little brother excited when you’re playing basketball and you let him get the lead. Then you come back and take it from him.”
It was a hilarious analogy and also, at the time, apt because Michigan had won six in a row and 10 of 12 against the Spartans. But the series swung the other way the next year, and Michigan State claimed seven of the next eight meetings. Last year, the Spartans won, 23-21, on a blocked punt return for a touchdown on the final play of the game.
But that run is in danger of ending. Michigan (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) is revived under second-year Coach Jim Harbaugh. Michigan State (2-5, 0-4) has lost five in a row and is in danger of missing the postseason. The Spartans’ once-vaunted defense has waned considerably as the team has sputtered through losses to the likes of Indiana and Maryland.
Come Saturday, when the Wolverines head to East Lansing, Big Brother might just return in force.
TAKING EXCEPTION TO EXCEPTIONS
There was an under-the-radar development last week when Minnesota announced its nonconference schedule for the next three years and it was learned that the Golden Gophers had received an exception to the Big Ten’s rule requiring a Power Five nonconference opponent every season. Minnesota will face Fresno State in both 2018 and 2019 to satisfy the rule, even though the Bulldogs play in the Mountain West.
Fresno State isn’t the first program deemed good enough to warrant an exception, and other leagues with similar requirements have bent such rules as well. It makes you wonder why there’s a rule at all.
The frustration here isn’t Minnesota’s choice of opponents. The Golden Gophers (and other programs that routinely find themselves scrambling for bowl eligibility well into November) should schedule in a manner that gives them a good chance to reach six victories. And the issue isn’t Fresno State, which has a strong long-term history even if this year it’s 1-7 and just fired coach Tim DeRuyter.
Rather, the problem is regulated scheduling that is intended to help a league’s heavyweights at the expense of its midpack teams that should be permitted to select opponents based on their own needs. Conferences can tout scheduling policies as much as they want, but routinely amending those rules illustrates just how hollow and silly they are.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
- No. 10 West Virginia at Oklahoma State (noon, Fox): The Mountaineers’ defense stood up well against Texas Tech and Texas Christian the past two weeks. Now 6-0, West Virginia hits the road for its toughest test yet in conference play.
- No. 4 Washington at No. 17 Utah (3:30 p.m, Fox Sports 1): It’s a possible conference title game preview as Washington (which joins Washington State as the only Pac-12 programs without a league loss) visits the Utes and tailback Joe Williams, who rushed for 332 yards Saturday against UCLA.
- No. 13 Boise State at Wyoming (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network): The Broncos are not invulnerable; anyone who saw their escape against Brigham Young last week realizes it. They’ll visit Laramie to take on an improved Wyoming bunch that is the biggest threat to derailing Boise State’s division-title hopes.
- No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin (7 p.m., ESPN): It’s a little premature to dub this the Big Ten West title game, but the path becomes considerably easier for the Cornhuskers if they can win in Madison. A Wisconsin victory narrows its deficit in the division to just a game.
- No. 3 Clemson at No. 12 Florida State (8 p.m., ABC): First it was the hyped Bowden Bowl. Then it was a matchup of ACC underachievers. More recently, it was unquestionably a platform for the best the league had to offer at a time when it was overlooked nationally. Now? Florida State probably isn’t winning the Atlantic Division even with a victory, but it can certainly derail Clemson’s playoff and national-title hopes.