ACC Championship Game 2013: Top Storylines Heading into Duke vs. Florida State

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistDecember 1, 2013

Nov 30, 2013; Chapel Hill, NC, USA;  Duke Blue Devils linebacker Chris Hoover (53) and tight end David Reeves (80) and defensive end Kenny Anunike (84) and cornerback Breon Borders (31) with the victory bell after the game. The Duke Blue Devils defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels 27-25 at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

David and Goliath. Andre The Giant and Hulk Hogan. Chaminade and Virginia. Get ready for those events and plenty other supposed mismatches to draw comparisons to this year's ACC Championship Game, in which Florida State, one of the most storied programs in college football history, takes on Duke, which is storied only in its putridity.

The Seminoles come into next Saturday's game with the resume befitting a giant. They will almost certainly take over the No. 1 ranking in the country following Auburn's defeat of Alabama on Saturday and are in the catbird's seat for a BCS National Championship game berth.

Jimbo Fisher's squad is led by the most exciting freshman quarterback since, well, OK, last year's exciting freshman quarterback. But still, Jameis Winston is pretty fun to watch fling the football, and the team's cabal of playmakers on both sides of the ball make this easily the most formidable Seminoles team in years. 

Meanwhile, Duke isn't terrible! Actually, not only are the Blue Devils not terrible for once, they're actually pretty good. With Saturday's nail-biting victory over North Carolina, Duke reached the 10-win plateau for the first time in program history and captured the scuffling Coastal Division in the ACC. Florida State will be just the third ranked team David Cutfliffe's squad has played all season, but the first two resulted in surprising victories. 

We're still dissecting the final week of the regular season, so it's a bit premature to delve too deep into this matchup. So instead let's take a look at the biggest storylines for the 2013 ACC Championship Game. 


Can Jameis Winston Clinch the Heisman?

Nov 30, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) runs out onto the field before he works out prior to the game against the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The scenario for Winston is pretty simple here. As his toughest competitors seemingly engage in a horrific self-mutilation of their Heisman chances, Winston has stayed the slow and steady turtle that suddenly has a gaping lead in the race. Winston's team hasn't lost yet, he hasn't gone barreling off a cliff with a terrible performance and there aren't many warts in his statistical resume.

The freshman signal-caller has thrown for 3,490 yards and 35 touchdowns against eight interceptions heading into next week's contest. That's pretty, pretty, pretty good (Larry David voice). It's hard to poke holes in a pretty flawless season.

That said, we should all know by now just how fickle the Heisman race can be. With a nationally televised game where the entire world will be peering in to see what Winston and Co. have left in their holster, there can't be any major screwups. If Winston rolls out and puts up a shrug-worthy outing as Jordan Lynch is capturing a MAC championship, perhaps the chasm between the two quarterbacks could shrink.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 30:  Dezmond Johnson #42 of the Duke Blue Devils pressures quarterback Marquise Williams #12 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during play at Kenan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Duke won 27-25.  (Pho
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

And that's not totally out of the realm of possibility. Duke has been stellar all season defending the pass, with North Carolina's Marquise Williams being the secondary's latest victim. For the year, the Blue Devils have allowed only 18 touchdown passes against 16 picks, and opposing quarterbacks are barely sticking above the 50 percent mark.

The ACC certainly isn't a hotbed of quarterbacking talent this year, so Winston will far and away be the best signal-caller David Cutcliffe's squad has faced. That could give Winston an advantage, or he could totally lay an egg against one of the more quietly stellar secondaries on the planet.

But there is really only one thing that can keep Winston away from hoisting the bronze statue: a loss. The struggles of his closest competition make this race nothing but a mere formality at this point. And the "formality" at this point is defeating Duke.

If Florida State loses? Anarchy. Pure, unadulterated anarchy.


Where Will Duke Find Its Offense?

CHAPEL HILL, NC - NOVEMBER 30:  Quarterback Brandon Connette #18 of the Duke Blue Devils avoids a sack by Dominique Green #26 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during play at Kenan Stadium on November 30, 2013 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Duke won 27-25.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

This might be the question that defines the entire outcome. Duke may have success keeping Winston under wraps—at least relatively speaking. The Blue Devils could force him into a nondescript performance akin to his struggles in Florida State's win over Wake Forest.

That's wholly plausible. But stopping Winston and Devonta Freeman? Stopping Winston, Freeman and Karlos Williams? Yeah, good luck getting all that done and living to talk about it. The Seminoles are loaded at the skill positions; they're going to get theirs one way or another. It's going to take more than four touchdowns to beat this squad.

I'm not sure where Cutcliffe is finding four touchdowns for his offense against this Florida State defense. Because if the Seminoles' offense is tough to stop, it's pretty hard to come up for a descriptor for their defense.

Nov 30, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators quarterback Skyler Mornhinweg (17) throws the ball as Florida State Seminoles defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan (8) pressures during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida State Seminoles defe
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State has by far the best pass defense in the country. Gators QB Skyler Mornhinweg was the latest opposing player consigned to continuous check-downs and other conservative decisions, as the secondary swallowed up Florida's receivers. Quarterbacks threw only 12 touchdowns and had 23 interceptions against the Seminoles in 2013.

Opposing teams ran the ball better than they threw it, if you can count allowing four rushing touchdowns all season as being better

And Duke isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut. Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette have both worked their way through turnover problems this season, and while Jela Duncan and Josh Snead are effective overall, their success is only intermittent. Cutcliffe is going to have to be inventive if he wants his team to stand a chance.

For all our sakes, let's hope that means some cool trickeration gets pulled out of the bag. 


The Last-Minute Crusaders vs. the Blowout Brigade: Which Side Cracks?

Nov 30, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin (1) is congratulated by wide receiver Rashad Greene (80), offensive linesman Bobby Hart (51) and teammates after he scored a touchdown against the Florida Gators dur
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Duke has played five games this season decided by one score. It has won four of those contests, including the two victories needed to clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game. This is important because, by and large, teams that win an inordinate amount of their close games tend to regress toward a 50-50 mean. The so-called reliability of that principle is mostly rooted in the NFL and is less prevalent in college football, but it's fair to say the Blue Devils have been a little lucky in 2013. 

Florida State? Umm...not so much. The Seminoles have defeated every team on their schedule by at least 14 points, and only one opponent has come within four scores. They're a garnet-and-gold death star whose purpose is to torch the entire earth of mediocre football teams. No team in college football has a better average scoring margin, and it's frankly not even that close.

Florida State beats the hell out of teams. Duke plays patty-cake until one swift kick to the stomach at the end allows the Blue Devils to skate by with a victory. Something has to give here. 

While there's not an official Vegas line just yet, it seems likely that most will expect Florida State's run to continue rather than Duke's. The Seminoles are loaded with 5-star and 4-star talent, while Duke is loaded with 5-star and 4-star scholars who will probably rid the world of concussions someday. Or something else really cool.

The talent discrepancy isn't something lost on the Blue Devils or the Seminoles. It's just their programs' lot in life. Duke can subsist on the hardwood because of Coach K and because you only need to recruit a handful of players every season. When Cutcliffe is out attempting to reload with the roughly eleventy-billion football players who arrive on campus each year, the process is far more difficult—from both ends of the spectrum.

Odds are, Florida State flattens Duke and moves on. It's just the logical conclusion. That said, this Blue Devils squad has spent its season subverting all expectations, so we can't write them off until the final whistle sounds. 

[bets life savings on Florida State anyway.]


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