CLEMSON — That a game in September could determine the division race seems implausible, but No. 10 Clemson’s showdown with No. 4 Florida State tonight could very well determine the ACC’s Atlantic Division champion, and perhaps more.
The reason the game is so critical is not simply because the winner enjoys an early divisional lead and a key head-to-head tiebreaker, but it is also critical because of each team’s remaining schedule.
The ACC looks to have few elite teams this season so Clemson (3-0) and Florida State (3-0, 1-0 ACC) figure to be favored in the majority, if not all, of their remaining games.
Clemson has a very favorable schedule, getting to host its toughest remaining opponents in Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and South Carolina. Clemson has relatively easy road tests after Florida State, playing at Duke, Boston College and Wake Forest.
If Clemson can upset Florida State, it could set up the Tigers for their second straight BCS bowl game. The winner of this game could conceivably be on a path to the national title game.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his team knows the stakes.
“These guys aren’t isolated in a cave somewhere,” Swinney said. “They understand this is a huge game. But you have to be careful because this is the fourth game. Our next goal is to win the division. That’s what we’re trying to do. Is it a big game for the division? You’d better believe it because the winner of this game is in control, and the loser of the game is at the mercy of others.”
Still, Swinney emphasizes all is not lost if Clemson doesn’t win at Tallahassee, where it is a two-touchdown underdog tonight.
Swinney compared the situation to the Louisiana State-Alabama regular-season game last year when Alabama lost the divisional game but rebounded to win out and advance to play LSU again in the national title game.
“If we don’t get it done, hey, we still have a full season in front of us,” Swinney said.
For Clemson players, this game is also about respect.
“As a player, you look at it kind of like disrespect,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said of the points spread. “I just feel like, you know, we are a really good team.”
Clemson had a 3-4 record away from Memorial Stadium last year and has not won at Florida State since 2006. Clemson has also never defeated a team ranked in the top five on the road. Clemson defeated No. 8 Miami on the road in 2009 and No. 8 North Carolina on the road in 1981.
Last season, Clemson beat Virginia Tech on the road as an underdog, and again in the ACC title game. But Florida State might be the most talented opponent Clemson has played in the Swinney Era.
“They’re probably the best defense I’ve seen on film since I’ve been here at Clemson,” said Clemson center Dalton Freeman. “Still this is a team we’ve beaten two out of the past three years. We’re excited about the opportunity.”