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Atlantic Division up for grabs when FSU, Clemson meet tonight

Photo by Gerry Broome

Photo by Gerry Broome

CLEMSON, S.C. -- Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have a chance to silence their critics, at least for a while.

The 79-year-old Bowden can show the game hasn't sped past him while Swinney, 39, gets to show he isn't in way over his head as both can take control of the Atlantic Coast Conference's Atlantic Division when they play tonight.

A victory by the Seminoles (4-4, 2-3) and Bowden is back in the hunt for a league title. A win by the Tigers (5-3, 3-2) and Swinney's in line to achieve Clemson's first conference championship since 1991.

"Obviously, this is a big game for everybody, but one of the things we tell our guys not to get caught up in the hype," Swinney said. "This is just the next game for us and certainly everybody understands the importance. But it's more about focus and what it takes to win."

Few had been better than that in the ACC and college football than Bowden's Seminoles. They've won two national titles and 12 ACC championships since joining the league in 1992. But when Florida State opened 0-3 for the first time in league play, many including university trustees chairman Jim Smith wondered if it were time for Bowden -- he turns 80 on Sunday -- to walk away for the good of the program.

Swinney, who got to know Bobby when son Tommy Bowden coached Clemson from 1999 through the middle of 2008, couldn't believe what he heard.

An Alabama native who railed against Bear Bryant detractors as a middle schooler, Swinney knew Bowden was as sharp and talented as ever.

"I can tell you this, Coach Bowden should be allowed to coach as long as he wants to coach," Swinney said. "Florida State is on the map because of Bobby Bowden."

Still, the program's decline in recent years -- FSU hasn't won 10 games since 2003 -- has some backers looking for signs. A big one came this week when Bowden's trusted defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews announced his retirement after 26 seasons with the Seminoles. Would Bowden be next?

"That's a very good question," Bowden said this week. "Because you'd think there must be something happening. But that has no bearing on what I'll do."

Swinney hasn't coached nearly as long as Bowden -- he hadn't ever been a coordinator before taking over for Tommy Bowden last October -- but has already endured Internet critics and angry sports talk callers after Clemson's 2-3 start.

Swinney sounded a lot like his old Clemson boss Tommy when he insisted the 2-3 Tigers were a play or two away from major success. During the team's off week, an anonymous blog post surfaced that detailed an angry shouting match at practice between Swinney and 30-year-old offensive coordinator Billy Napier.

Both coaches said the harsh words were blown out of proportion. However, the confrontation has apparently lit a fire under the Tigers, who haven't lost since.

Clemson routed then ACC Atlantic leader Wake Forest 38-3 and gained some national credibility with a 40-37 overtime victory at then-eighth-ranked Miami, Swinney's first victory over a Top 25 opponent.

"Tommy kind of raised Dabo, I think, as an assistant" at Alabama and at Clemson, Bobby Bowden said with a bit of pride. "And I think Dabo has gone a great job."

It doesn't hurt to have one of the ACC's most dynamic players on your side. Clemson star C.J. Spiller set a school record and ran his way into the Heisman Trophy race with 310 all-purpose yards in the Tigers' overtime victory at Miami two games ago. He had only 27 yards last week against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Coastal Carolina, Swinney resting his do-everything star in the 49-3 win.

"We kind of like where we're at," Spiller said. "We're starting to play with confidence on both sides of the ball."

So are the Seminoles, at least on offense. Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder vowed to play despite the bruised ribs suffered in a 45-42 win over North Carolina State last week. Ponder leads the ACC with 306.6 yards passing a game. He's thrown 13 touchdowns passes and just three interceptions.

Clemson, though, allows the fewest points in the league and features safety DeAndre McDaniel, who's from Tallahassee -- Swinney first met Bobby Bowden on a recruiting trip with Tommy for McDaniel -- and is tied for the FBS lead with 7 interceptions.

Swinney understands what he and the Tigers are up against. But since joining Clemson as an assistant in 2003, the Tigers are 4-2 against Florida State.

"But we've got plenty of respect for these guys," Swinney said. Bobby Bowden has "done a great job with that program and have earned all the respect."