College Football Coverage: ACC Atlantic Powers Send A Message

There were a lot of things one could take away from Week 1 in the college football season, a five-day festival that begin with South Carolina’s 27-10 Thursday win over North Carolina and Jadeveon Clowney sucking wind all over the field, and ended with Florida State’s 41-13 prime-time thrashing of Pitt on Labor Day. But the biggest is this—any notions the challengers in the ACC Atlantic Division had of getting to Charlotte and the conference championship game on December 7 had best be put on hold.

Clemson and Florida State are the establishment in the ACC Atlantic, and each sent a loud and clear message. The Tigers won the weekend’s biggest game, their 38-35 win over Georgia on Saturday night and the Seminoles looked unstoppable in their dismantling of bowl-caliber Pitt.

We knew the Clemson offense could score and the unit, led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, did just that against the Bulldogs. Boyd was smoothly efficient, at 18/30 with 270 yards in the air. The quarterback showed the loss of Andre Ellington in the backfield and DeAndre Hopkins on the flank won’t slow him down. Boyd simply targeted big-play threat Sammy Watkins for six catches and 127 yards, the Tigers had 28 by halftime and made the drives—and clock-killing first downs—they needed down the stretch.

The Tigers also showed they could run the ball, with Roderick McDowell going for 132 yards on 22 carries. But most impressively was that Clemson showed they could play some defense—I emphasize the word some, because this is a unit that still has a lot of work to do. But the Tiger defensive front disrupted Georgia and Aaron Murray just enough to allow momentum to shift and enable Boyd to carry his team to a big win. It’s not a lot to ask of a defense, but Clemson hasn’t even had that in the past.

It represents the second straight win for Dabo Swinney’s program against an SEC power, including last year’s bowl win over LSU, and begs the question of whether Clemson is BCS Championship Game-worthy.

Commentators from Kirk Herbstreit to Jesse Palmer have each struck the right note on ESPN, saying that we need to see Clemson survive the games they should win—the ones against teams like Wake Forest, the above-average bowl team that can exploit a bad defense and catch you on a bad day. Clemson’s lost too many games like this in the past for everyone to have amnesia and start putting them in the top two. But we know this—the Tigers can win a big game, they have Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, and that’s enough for now.

If you don’t share my optimistic view of Pitt—and if you don’t, you probably have more sense than me—than the Florida State win last night won’t be as eye-opening. That’s fair enough, but I would point out that the ‘Noles covered a (-11) spread on the road by halftime. And freshman quarterback Jameis Winston was positively dazzling.

Winston went 25/27 for 356 yards, threw four touchdown passes and made zero mistakes. He showed athleticism, he made all the throws and if you wanted a reason to be wary of Clemson’s national title chances, the fact they have to go up against this kid is reason enough. Florida State’s defense also looks solid, something making them less likely than Clemson to throw a clunker in the mix.

October 19 is when Florida State and Clemson hook up in Death Valley, and while game time is TBA, it has “prime-time” written all over it. TheSportsNotebook’s college football coverage is not yet projecting either one in the national title game, but I have moved both into my projections for major bowl games. Now let’s see if they can climb one rung higher.