It has been a while since the Florida State Seminoles could say they were on top of the Atlantic Coast Conference — 2005, to be exact.
Florida State joined the conference in 1992, the peak of the Bobby Bowden era, and reeled off eight consecutive ACC titles. The Seminoles have won 12 ACC championships in all, dominating the conference in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But as the team declined in the final years under Bowden, they stopped hanging banners in Tallahassee.
The Seminoles got a shot at the ACC championship in Jimbo Fisher’s first year in 2010, losing 44-33 to Virginia Tech. Two years later, Fisher returns a more mature and athletic team to the championship game.
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On Saturday night, all that stands between Florida State (10-2, 7-1) and its first ACC title in seven years and a berth in the Orange Bowl is a 6-6 Georgia Tech team that this week received an NCAA waiver to play in a bowl game with a losing record — in the likelihood that it loses to the 13th-ranked Seminoles.
But if ever there was a trap game for FSU, it is this one.
Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech offense employs a triple option that forces defenders to maintain their responsibilities or risk giving up a big play.
“It’s tough,” FSU senior defensive end Toshmon Stevens said, “because 10 men can play their assignment perfectly, and if one guy is off, they score a touchdown.”
That takes time to prepare for, so teams that head into the season knowing the Yellow Jackets are on their schedule spend time in camp preparing for the nuances of the triple option.
But with Miami self-imposing a second postseason ban in a row and Georgia Tech backing into the game, the Seminoles will have had a week to get ready.
With Georgia Tech not in FSU’s division in the ACC, the Noles rarely see the Yellow Jackets. Their last meeting was in 2009, so many players on Florida State’s defense have not faced this sort of offense since high school.
Standout defensive end Bjoern Werner — rated the 10th-best prospect in the NFL Draft by Mel Kiper Jr. — has never played against the option in his life.
Complicating things even more, Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops accepted a job Tuesday to become Kentucky’s head coach. He will stay on through Saturday’s game, but it’s hard to imagine his attention not having been divided this week.
Georgia Tech’s rushing attack averages more than 300 yards per game, and though Florida State boasts the second-ranked defense in the country, it gave up 244 yards on the ground in an emotional loss to Florida last weekend and has had a tumultuous week in Tallahassee.
Fortunately for Florida State, its powerful offense faces a defense that was so porous at times this year that the Yellow Jackets replaced their defensive coordinator at midseason. But that doesn’t ensure success for the Seminoles, who have averaged 20 points and 160 yards fewer per game away from Doak Campbell Stadium this season.
“Yeah, it’s not a ‘gimme’ game by any means,” said senior kicker Dustin Hopkins, a finalist for the Lou Groza Award that goes to the top kicker in the nation.
“I hope none of our guys think that way, and I don’t think we do. And I’m sure that’s something that’s going to be reiterated to us, that needs to be reiterated from our leadership positions to our guys because when you’re playing for a championship game, teams come out to play.”