Coach Jimbo Fisher has the Seminoles poised to wrap up the ACC Atlantic Division title, but FSU must first beat Duke today in Tallahassee.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Although Florida State and Duke (yes, Duke) are already bowl qualified, both need wins to keep alive their Atlantic Coast Conference championship hopes.
The 11th-ranked Seminoles (7-1, 4-1 ACC) can ill afford another slip-up Saturday while keeping pace in the ACC’s Atlantic Division while Duke (6-2, 3-1) sits on top of the Coastal Division.
“We can’t relax on any team,” sophomore cornerback Nick Waisome said. “We’re just going to have to fight every week now.”
Florida State doesn’t control its destiny while Duke does if it wins out. The Blue Devils still have Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami remaining.
Florida State must win the rest of its games and hope North Carolina State stumbles. N.C. State clings to its advantage in the division on the strength of a 17-16 win over the Seminoles in Raleigh, N.C. earlier this month. Florida State’s last two ACC games are on the road next month against Virginia Tech and Maryland.
But Duke has never beaten Florida State in 17 tries and the last time the Blue Devils showed up in Tallahassee riding this high, they left embarrassed. The Blue Devils came into the 1994 game at Tallahassee undefeated and ranked 13th nationally but weren’t any match for coach Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, who rolled to a 38-6 halftime lead on the way to a 59-20 victory in an offensive explosion of 653 yards.
And the Blue Devils aren’t supposed to challenge this year either, coming into Saturday’s game as a four-touchdown underdog.
“We’re playing the most physical team we’ve seen, we’re playing the fastest team we’ve seen,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They may be the most complete team in the country.”
Cutcliffe said he hopes his team benefits from the experience of last year’s game against the Seminoles, who won 41-16 in Durham, N.C.
“That helped,” Cutcliffe said. “They know they have to prepare to even have a chance in a game like this.”
And while bowl eligible for the first time since the ’94 season, that’s no longer the goal Duke players have in mind.
“We have that big ol’ monkey off our back,” Duke linebacker David Helton said. “Every game is a big playoff for our ultimate standing at the end and our ability to win the ACC championship — which is a big goal right now.”
A Duke loss would really muddle the Coastal Division, leaving four schools with at least two losses heading into the final month of the season.
Being bowl eligible has become old hat at Florida State, already qualified for a postseason trip for the 31st straight year as the Seminoles roll to their 36th straight winning season. But it may not be to a BCS bowl, much less the ACC championship game, if they don’t get some help.
And while Florida State’s coaches and players will know by Saturday’s kickoff whether NC State won its game at North Carolina, all hands insist they’re thinking about Duke, and only Duke.
“We’re not looking ahead,” said James Wilder Jr., who will start at tailback in place of Chris Thompson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in last week’s 33-20 win at Miami. “They’re having a great season. It’s a team that will challenge us.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher is concerned about the Duke passing attack along with the impact that Blue Devils’ punter Will Monday may have in the game. Although only a freshman, Monday averages a league-best 45.8 yards a punt, including 14 that covered more than 50 yards and another 12 that he dropped inside the opponents 20.
“When you average 45 yards a punt, you’re changing field position,” said Fisher, who decided earlier in the week to replace Rashad Greene with Tyler Hunter as his punt returner.
Florida State defenders also won’t want to let Duke’s record-setting wide receiver Conner Vernon break the ACC mark of 3,517 receiving yards held the past 13 years by former Seminole Peter Warrick. Vernon, who already is the ACC’s career leader with 249 catches, needs 94 yards to surpass Warrick.
Whether or not the Blue Devils’ offensive line gives quarterback Sean Renfree time to find Vernon, sophomore Jamison Crowder or Desmond Scott in Duke’s pass-first offense against the league’s best defense is one of Cutcliffe’s concerns.
“We have veteran players and they know they’re playing against the very best that’s out there,” Cutcliffe said. “They understand the challenge. Most good competitors if not all want to measure themselves against the best.”
Cutcliffe said it’s a matter of confidence.
“They’ve got to believe,” he said. “You don’t have a chance if you don’t.”