On Saturday night in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Duke Blue Devils will look to do the improbable against the Florida State Seminoles. Florida State is expected to cruise, but the game has to be played, which gives Duke a shot to make some noise against the nation's No. 1 team.
To do that, Duke has to win some critical one-on-one battles on the field. The battles are inside and outside. They are on the line and down the field. Although it is a team game, winning individual matchups is the key to success.
Here are the five most intriguing matchups to watch in Saturday's ACC Championship Game.
Starting in the trenches, Duke's best front-seven player Kenny Anunike versus Florida State left tackle Cam Erving is a battle to watch. Anunike is an end who has a good skill set, can get upfield and will try to beat Erving to the spot. Erving, one of the nation's best left tackles, is going to try and do what he's done all season: Keep Jameis Winston's jersey clean.
Erving is one of the nation's best tackles, and he has played well for the bulk of 2013. Anunike is a sixth-year player who understands how to press the pocket and will work to find an opening against his opponent. A win here for Duke would lead to disruption in the backfield and a hurried Winston.
Hitting Winston is just a start because the redshirt freshman has been solid even under duress. The quarterback is a key cog in the Seminoles' success, and Jameis Winston versus Jeremy Cash will be another matchup to watch. The Florida State signal-caller has been one of the nation's best quarterbacks in the pocket. He sits, reads the field and picks his spots to hurt defenses.
That means Cash, an All-ACC safety, will have his hands full in trying to read the quarterback and make plays. Winston will try to look Cash off. He will attempt to sell play action to get the safety to bite and free up space over the top. Cash has to battle back, and that means showing big in Winston's radar to prevent throws and reacting to the ball downfield when the QB lets it fly.
When the quarterback pushes the ball down the field, look for the Kelvin Benjamin versus Ross Cockrell matchup.
Cockrell is another All-ACC player who will have to fight when he's lined up across from Florida State's 6'5" receiver. The Blue Devils corner is a tough, physical player who does a good job of seeing through his man to the ball. On Saturday, he'll get to show if he can see through a bigger receiver to the ball.
For Benjamin, he's looking to embarrass another group of defensive backs. The sophomore is going to beg Winston to put that ball 10 feet into the air and let him climb the ladder on Cockrell and the rest of the Blue Devils to make big plays. Duke is not going to concede anything, but Benjamin has not needed the opponent to give him anything this season—he's simply taken it.
This should be a good fight to watch.
On the other side of the ball, the big matchups will be Brandon Connette versus Christian Jones and Jamison Crowder versus Lamarcus Joyner—Duke's big run option at quarterback against the Seminoles' developing hybrid linebacker, and the Blue Devils' best receiver against the do-everything defensive back for the 'Noles.
Connette is Duke's dual-threat quarterback option who has a big impact on games. He has been efficient at running the football and operating the zone-read well in critical moments, and he is a killer in the red zone. Florida State's Jones is going to have to play disciplined football and not bite on the action from Connette.
In the pass game, with Anthony Boone in at quarterback, Crowder is the target who has given opponents fits all season long. Crowder lines up inside and outside and goes in motion. Essentially, whatever the Blue Devils can do to get the junior receiver off, they will do over the course of the game.
Joyner, who plays inside and outside for the Seminoles, will find himself matched up with Crowder plenty of times in this game. The safety who moved to corner will be matched up with Crowder in the slot and line up against him on the edge. In zone coverage, the junior receiver will cross into his area.
While many will focus on the coverage of Crowder, the more interesting aspect here will be the tackling. He is tough to get on the ground, and Joyner is one of the better tacklers for the 'Noles. Watching Joyner corral Crowder will be the difference between short gains during stalled drives and big plays for the Blue Devils.
Duke, a 10-2 feel-good story, has an uphill climb against a more talented Seminoles team. The key will be to win the individual battles one play at a time to try and keep things manageable. These five battles will be critical in the efforts of both teams to win an ACC Championship.