It’s an August ritual. Each summer, one team is crowned pageant champion right after the swimsuit competition while no one bothers to wait for the talent show, where often the preseason No. 1 doesn’t measure up.
Florida State is the 2014 sweetheart, but this year it is certainly warranted. It would be hard to argue that. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner is protected by a line of five seniors, and the defense is in its second season running the same scheme -- after finishing No. 1 in scoring defense last year. Las Vegas does not see anybody tripping up Florida State en route to the College Football Playoff. Oddsmakers give Florida State the best chance of any team to finish the regular season undefeated.
Forgive the rest of the ACC if they’re not kneeling at the feet of the Seminoles, though.
“It’s not far from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “When you’ve done this as long as I have, you see anybody can win.”
Easier said than done, Dabo. Florida State is the reigning national champion, returns starters at several key positions and can reload at the others. But Swinney's Clemson team, which might pose the biggest threat to the Seminoles on Sept. 20, can point to the last four preseason No. 1 teams in the USA Today Coaches Poll. All have failed to crack the final top five, and from 2010-12, none finished the season better than No. 11.
Clemson, which was trounced 51-14 in Death Valley last season, realizes this season that the key to beating Florida State rests on the defensive side of the ball. Pummeling the Seminoles begins with pummeling its elite quarterback, Jameis Winston.
“We got to get to Winston. I feel like if we pressure Winston, he’ll throw us the ball,” said Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley, who finished second to Winston in the ACC preseason player of the year voting. “We can get him to make turnovers.”
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer was skeptical of the Florida State hype last season. Then he walked onto the field Nov. 16 for a game that ended with the Orange on the wrong side of a 59-3 demolition. He knew he was in trouble before the game when he was matching jersey numbers to names and realized many of the players he was in awe of were redshirts.
However, Shafer will preach to his team on Oct. 11, when Syracuse hosts Florida State, that the more physically gifted team doesn’t always win. And Shafer will use personal experiences to impress it upon his players. He was on the staff at Stanford when the Cardinal upset 41-point favorite USC on the road in 2007.
“The great thing about football is that the football is oblong and does funny things, and on any given Saturday, you have an opportunity to try to steal and win a game,” Shafer said, “and that's what we're going to try to do."
For Swinney, the goal is not to upset Florida State. He wants Clemson to uproot Florida State from its perch above the ACC Atlantic Division. That begins with recruiting players who can match Florida State physically, and Swinney is doing that at Clemson. The Tigers have hauled in a recruiting class ranked in the top 13 in every year since 2011, and his 2015 class ranks No. 2 in the country so far.
With a defense that could be the best in the conference this season, though, Swinney is not ceding the ACC to the Seminoles this season just yet. Swinney is aware that any team that plays Florida State is going to have to play close to a perfect game, which begins with maintaining possession. In last season’s loss, Clemson turned the ball over four times, which led to 24 Florida State points. Two of the turnovers came inside the Seminoles’ half of the field.
“That’s a recipe for disaster. We've got to correct that. That’s a huge part of our plan to win,” Swinney said. “You've got to have big plays against them, you've got to take care of the ball, you've got to be sound in special teams.”
Fisher said he subscribes to the theory that more games are lost rather than one, pointing to one team’s miscues as often the driving factor of the opponent’s success. It comes down to who plays the most consistently through all four quarters. Fisher said “the streets are full” of players who can play at a high level for a play or two, but “there’s 70, 80 plays in a game.”
“That’s the thing about sports we all love,” Fisher said. “We think we know, but there’s still all the unknown.”