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Monday, June 24, 2013
FSU, Clemson poised to remain atop ACC

By Heather Dinich

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher isn’t a fan of his players “wearing hats in the building and all that.”

That didn’t stop the Noles, though, from instigating Fisher a bit after they won the 2012 ACC title -- the program’s first since 2005.

“They wouldn’t take their ACC championship hats off,” Fisher said. “They’d walk in my office with them knowing I was going to get on them. I didn’t make them take it off, but the point being they haven’t felt that. To win an Orange Bowl, to win a BCS bowl game, you still won the Orange Bowl. How many people in FSU history can say they won the Orange Bowl?”

Not since 1999 had Florida State won a BCS game.

Jimbo Fisher
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles are prepared to remain atop the ACC, but Clemson is hot on their heels.
Memo to the rest of the ACC: Get used it. Florida State’s hat collection is only going to grow -- unless, of course, Clemson has something to say about it.

The Seminoles are starting to recognize what it feels like to be champions again -- and what it takes to get there. Florida State has now won two Atlantic Division titles in three years, and after winning its 13th league title, Florida State trails only one school for the all-time league record: Clemson. This year, the Tigers are expected to be the premier team in the league. Clemson has won at least 10 games in each of the past two seasons, has been to the ACC title game twice, won it once, and won or shared three division titles.

Good luck, Atlantic Division -- that includes you, too, Louisville -- because neither of these programs are going anywhere anytime soon.

Through excellent recruiting over the past few years and some top-notch hires, both Florida State and Clemson are now in position to truly distance themselves from the rest of the conference. While both still have something to prove on the national level, Clemson and Florida State have at least put the pieces in place to conquer their conference and make repeated runs at a national title. Neither Dabo Swinney nor Fisher will be content with a one-and-done season, and that is the key to their long-term plan.

“My goal last year was to sustain success,” Swinney said. “Not have a good year, then an average year. Be a consistent performer. We're trying to be a consistent top-10, top-15 team year in and year out. Because if we can do that, with the resources we have here, our ability to recruit, our scheduling, the opponents we play, sooner or later we'll have an opportunity to really be special. But it takes that consistency in preparation and performance.”

With the resources, facilities and recruiting of both programs, there’s no reason they shouldn’t maintain an elite level on par with SEC opponents. Florida State had 11 players drafted last year, and both are reeling in top-10 recruiting classes on an annual basis. This will be a very telling year for Fisher, though, as he had to replace his top assistant -- former defensive coordinator Mark Stoops -- along with six others on staff, his starting quarterback, and four starters on the defensive line. This year will be proof that the Noles can reload -- both the roster and the coaching staff.

For Clemson, the bigger challenge will be next year, when quarterback Tajh Boyd moves on. The Tigers also have what seems like an inevitable departure of offensive coordinator Chad Morris, a hot commodity in coaching searches who has made it no secret he would like to be a head coach someday.

Like every program in the country, these two will face their share of transition periods, but what will continue to separate them is their ability to recruit. Clemson and Florida State are both bringing more elite athletes than the rest of the conference (and some of their Atlantic Division opponents combined). If either FSU or Clemson is going to trip up down the road, it’s going to be because their opponent played smarter, more disciplined football -- strategies you can expect from the likes of veterans Jim Grobe and Steve Addazio.

Clemson and Florida State can expect the rest of the division’s best shots, but their biggest competition will come from each other. This fall, their matchup could prove to be the most important in the conference race.

Their goal, obviously, is for that to become a regular occurrence. Fisher said winning the program’s first ACC title since 2005 was a major step in becoming a consistent champion.

“When Florida State won that championship in '93, a significant thing everybody does not talk about in my opinion, what happened in '92?” Fisher said. “First ACC championship. First time any of those kids on that team had won a championship. Now you think of yourself as a champion. That’s significant. It’s different when you call yourself a champion, and I think it will hopefully develop us in where we’ve got to go.”

Much like Florida State, Clemson has come to realize the championship hats are earned -- not given away.

“I like the blue-collar workmanlike attitude that they have,” Swinney said. “They understand there's a price to be paid, that it doesn't just happen. This team is starting to show some leadership. A national championship is certainly a goal for us, but there's so much. We can take a glance at that mountaintop every now and then, but that's not the focus. The margin for error is very small when you're trying to be elite.”

And trying to stay there.

“We don't want to be a one-trick wonder here,” Swinney said. “We have to continue to keep a humble work ethic throughout the team and challenge our players, have a ton of discipline and have the type of discipline it takes to be successful. And then mostly creating that attitude and mentality of expectancy. That's probably the biggest change we've had in four years: We don't hope to win here anymore. We expect to win. We're not afraid to talk about being a championship-caliber team and program. That's what we want to be.”

In the ACC, that’s what they are. Everybody else?

Hats off to FSU and Clemson.

ESPN.com's Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.