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More than rivalries: Stakes high for Clemson-FSU, Duke-UNC
GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Undefeated Clemson grabbed the No. 1 spot in the initial 2015 College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday.
The reaction of head coach Dabo Swinney was everything one might expect – particularly with Saturday afternoon’s ACC Atlantic Division showdown with Florida State looming.
“I don’t care,” Swinney said. “Not unless they will give us an exemption (meaning a spot in the final four right now).”
But this is the first time the Tigers have held a No. 1 ranking in a major poll since the national championship year of 1981. Doesn’t that excite Swinney? Just a little?
“I really don’t care,” he repeated. “It’s just so irrelevant at this point. Last year Ohio State was not in the top 10 and won the national championship. I think three teams in the top four in the first poll last year didn’t make it to the playoff.
“I know it’s great for college football, but it just has nothing to do with us right now. We’re excited because we’ve had a great season. That’s what we’re excited about. The only poll we’re excited about is December 6th.”
That is the Sunday following the conclusion of the regular season and conference championship games, including the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium on the evening of Saturday, Dec. 5.
Swinney hopes that on that date the Tigers will have run the table, remained unbeaten and secured a CFP spot. If that happens …
“I promise you we will have the biggest poll party you’ve ever seen,” Swinney said. “We’ll open up Death Valley and serve pizza to everybody on December 6th. That will be a time to celebrate a poll. Until then, it just doesn’t matter. Our focus in on trying to beat Florida State.”
The size of that order speaks for itself against a Seminole team that stumbled against Georgia Tech two weeks ago but still earned a number 16 ranking in the CFP. While Clemson (8-0, 5-0) can clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game with a win on Saturday, an FSU victory totally changes the equation. The Seminoles (7-1, 5-1) would earn the inside track on a fourth straight trip to Charlotte. And the next CFP poll would look significantly different, particularly from the Tigers’ perspective.
“This was one has been huge for both teams for many years,” Swinney said of Saturday’s matchup. “We’re looking forward to competing. Florida State is the same old same old. They’re well coached. They have fast dudes all over the place. They know what they’re doing.”
The Tigers haven’t beaten the Seminoles since 2011, and last season’s 23-17 overtime loss at Tallahassee proved particularly painful. Clemson, ranked 22nd nationally, held a fourth-quarter lead and was stopped on a crucial fourth-and-1 in OT. Top-ranked FSU prevailed, despite playing without defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
“That was one of the toughest,” Swinney acknowledged. “The 2010 loss (at Florida State) was tough too. We led the entire game. I could go on and on. Those things stick out in your mind, when you lose games. The wins pile up and you enjoy all of them, but those losses stick out. That’s life. You have good days and you have bad days. Football teaches you how to respond in life. You can mope and pout or you can doing something about it and respond. Life’s about how you respond to what happens.”
SEMINOLES GEAR UP
While Florida State faces a must-win situation on Saturday to keep its hopes for a fourth straight ACC title alive, head coach Jimbo Fisher offered some perspective.
“I don't think it's a defining game of the season,” Fisher said. “I don't think any part of that's defining. I think all games are defining. I think you have to play them all the same. They're all the same responsibility as far as wins and losses, what they stand for. It's how you play in the game.
“At the end of the year (FSU and Clemson are) the two teams that have usually had the best record. But as far as defining games in the season, I don't ever look at things like that.”
Nonetheless, Fisher said he is proud to be part of a series that has evolved into a true rivalry and one of the nation’s most-watched.
“I think it's great for our conference that you have two teams that have had so much success over the years,” Fisher said. “That's what your conference and your league and everything wants. Then it becomes a prime time national game. not just a conference game. I think that's quality of the players in the ACC, what kind of league we have.
“There's a lot of great teams in this league. But the Clemson-Florida State rivalry has been one of the best. It has a lot of implications as far as our division in the conference, being able to get to a conference title game … Both our teams have played in BCS games in the same year, different things. It's a great opportunity for us. It's a great opportunity for them. It's great for our league.”
Florida State rolled to a 45-21 win at Syracuse last week despite the absence of injured starting quarterback Everett Golson and standout running back Dalvin Cook.
Sean Maguire, who also stepped in against Clemson last season in Winston’s absence, threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns against the Orange. Fisher like the luxury of having two proven quarterbacks as the Seminoles move forward.
“We feel very confident,” Fisher said. “We have two guys we know now they can come in and play very well. Both have had outstanding games throughout this season. Everett has had a 370-yard game. Sean has had a 350-yard game. As I said before, we feel very comfortable with the two quarterbacks in our system.”
Cook, who missed the Syracuse game with an ankle injury, is hopeful of returning to the field on Saturday. Freshman Jacques Patrick earned ACC Rookie of the Week accolades after rushing for 162 yards and three touchdowns against the Orange in Cook’s absence.
Fisher hasn’t ruled out placing Cook and Patrick in the backfield at the same time, either Saturday versus Clemson or at some point in the future.
“We could,” Fisher said. “We've done that in the past with all of our tailbacks, done that a bunch. It's just a matter of what they're capable of handling and the new guys are capable of handling, not when the ball is going to, but when it's going away from you, and you take a fullback's role. We've done that with two tailbacks. (But) we don't know if Dalvin will play, (and) we have to see if Jacques can handle that.”
By the time Clemson and Florida State kick off shortly after 3:30 p.m. Saturday, an important matter of business in the Coastal Division race will likely be settled.
Duke and North Carolina are set for a noon battle in Chapel Hill. The home standing Tar Heels, winner of seven straight games overall, sit atop the Coastal Division with a 4-0 ACC mark. But the Blue Devils, despite last weekend’s disappointing loss to Miami, own a 3-1 league record and still control their own destiny.
The Duke-UNC football rivalry has transcended bragging rights for several years now, with the teams consistently vying for the Coastal Division crown and bowl game eligibility. But this week’s game carries arguably the highest overall stakes of any meeting in years, and Duke head coach David Cutcliffe says the level of competition is at its highest also.
“I’ll say this: This is the best North Carolina team that I’ve seen,” Cutcliffe said. “They’re extremely balanced as a team, and what I mean by that is that they have such weapons in the kicking game, on defense and offense. Their offense has playmakers everywhere, including the offensive line. Sometimes people forget that offensive lines are playmakers. Their offensive line is just that. They make plays with the job that they do.
“Defensively, they’re extremely good in the back end and at linebacker. In front they have a lot of people, rolling in a lot of people who are being very effective. They’re an extremely talented team, a well-coached team, well-prepared team and that’s why they’ve been so successful.”
Gut wrenching as the Miami loss may have been for the Blue Devils, Cutcliffe sensed a renewal of spirit as early as last Sunday, when most of his team resumed their work in the weight room. Count on the Tar Heels to bring out the best in the Blue Devils, even without last year’s loss to UNC in Durham providing added incentive.
“I was watching tape in my downstairs area, which I do a lot on Sundays, and I can kind of hear them working out and I can tell sometimes the difference,” Cutcliffe said. “They go warm up in the speed and agility room, break a sweat, come into the weight room, and I’m sitting right up under the steps.
“It’s remarkable what you can tell sometimes by the sound of the steps, whether they're bouncing a little bit or whether they’re moving maybe a little slow. And then I asked (strength and conditioning coach) Noel Durfey how we worked and he said, ‘outstanding.’ That was a good sign.”
STAYING THE COURSE
North Carolina hasn’t lost a football game in over two months and finally broke into the nation’s Top 25 with last Thursday night’s prime time win at Pitt. But head coach Larry Fedora is keeping the message to his team simple as the Tar Heels await Duke’s arrival on Saturday.
“We don’t talk about rankings, we talk about what our goals are every week so we don’t lose sight of them with all the other obstacles that are out there,” Fedora said. “The biggest thing to me is to remember how you got to where you are.
“It didn’t just happen. You put a lot of hard work and effort in it. We’ve got great leadership, and the chemistry is great, and the locker room is good. Those are the reasons why you’re in this position you’re in right now. We just want to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Especially this weekend, for an obvious laundry list of reasons.
“It’s a rivalry game. It’s a cross-town rival, they’re 10 miles away from us,” Fedora said of the Blue Devils. “For our goals, they’re in our division and in our state – to be Coastal Division champs and be state champs, for how it affects recruiting … it’s very important to us in this state.”
NOW FOR AN ENCORE
In his debut as Miami interim head coach, Larry Scott emerged on the winning side of a heart-stopping finish last weekend at Duke. Now he will make his first home field appearance at the Hurricane helm when Virginia visits Sun Life Stadium this Saturday.
Scott claims he has yet to give the matter a lot of deep thought.
“I haven’t got that far,” Scott said a few days ago. “I’m just trying to get through the start of the week, trying to make sure these guys are healthy and sharp mentally, and make sure they understand we want that same passion and energy. You have to have that as a coach, when you come to work every day, for them to feed off of that. That’s where my focus is right now. When we get to Saturday, we’ll get there.”
PRAISE FOR A LEGEND
Virginia Tech’s open date is this weekend, but the Hokies remain very much in spotlight following veteran coach Frank Beamer’s announcement that he plans to step down at the end of this season. Beamer, who stands as college football’s active leader among Division I coaches with 277 wins, received high praise and accolades from his ACC peers.
Steve Addazio, Boston College:
“I love Coach Beamer. He is one of my favorite guys. My wife loves Coach Beamer. She goes down to the meeting to talk with him. He is just a great guy. I've competed against him for a long time since I went to Syracuse in 1995. I've got a lot of respect for him and the way he built his program. There was a time when they were about to run Coach Beamer out of Dodge at Virginia Tech. They hung with him for one more year. Well, that one more year ended up being the catalyst that he was building a program that lasted as the national contender for a long time. He is a classy guy, great coach and a tremendous person. After the game, I had a chance to talk to him briefly. He had a couple of kind things to say and he said, 'I don't just say those things.' He is a guy that means what he says. He is a legend. Sad to see those kinds of guys leave the game. He has had a great career and I hope he enjoys a bunch of wins the rest of the season. He has had a great career and you can only hope and aspire to have a career like he has had.”
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State:
“I think college football lost a tremendous coach and a better man … But also extremely happy for him. If this is what he wants to do, when he wants to do it for the right reasons, everything is OK. Finally gets to enjoy it. All the hard work, be with his family, his loved ones. That's tough because that's what you do your whole life. But the grind of this job, the demands of this job, the time it takes away from family and friends. At the end of the day we think this job is the most important thing in the world, but it really isn't. Family, friends, health, all those kind of things are. For him to hopefully be able to enjoy the great years of his life that he has left, enjoy that, to be part of it, I'm happy for him because I know what kind of grind it is in this business.”
Larry Fedora, North Carolina:
“I hate it for college football and I hate it for our league. There’s one of the greatest coaches that’s ever coached the game, and he’s now going to be out of it. I hate it for that fact. College football is a better place when he’s involved in it, just like it was when Steve Spurrier was involved. The game is changing and I don’t know if it’s always for the better, but I hate to see Coach Beamer go because he’s done a tremendous job up there and he made Virginia Tech football what it is.”
Pat Narduzzi, Pitt:
“He’s a legend coach. Loyalty and legendary. How many coaches stick around like he does? That’s why I respect him; he’s my kind of guy. Not just because of the loyalty he’s shown. I’m sure he’s had plenty of times where he could have left Virginia Tech for another job, but that was his home. He made it a home. He’s kind of a legend there and he’ll be a legend in Hokie history.”
Mike London, Virginia:
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Beamer and what he's done over the years. My years here in the ACC, the head coaches' meetings in Amelia Island and the different places, our wives have met … We've talked about family, all the things that not just coaches would talk about, just men, fathers, husbands. I know we did a state police commercial together, took all day to film, but we had lunch and all those things. But again … Coach Beamer has had such a tremendous influence and impact on college football, one of the guys that is one of the best that's ever been. So it's a pleasure and an honor knowing a gentleman that's involved with the state of Virginia, a guy that you know personally and that you wish life after football success for him, him and his wife and his family.”