Will ACC’s Decline Stunt FSU’s Rebirth?
By Chris Mahr
To many a Florida State fan, the 2012 season marked the long-awaited moment when the Seminoles returned to their rightful place near the top of the college football world.
FSU appeared in its first BCS bowl since 2006 and earned its first BCS bowl victory since 2000. It finished the season ranked in the AP Top 10 for the first time since 2001. And it was once again a nationally recognized recruiting power.
It was all well and good after a nearly decade-long stretch replete with four- and five-loss seasons and pre-New Year’s Day bowl games. With that streak broken and a batch of ballyhooed recruits — namely QB Jameis Winston, already making Seminoles fans misty-eyed with memories of Charlie Ward — ready to hit the ground running, FSU fans are ready to celebrate a new era of dominance.
However, there is one major obstacle standing in the Seminoles’ way that, barring a major and unexpected change, won’t be going anywhere anytime soon: the ACC.
Florida State and Clemson are the only two members of the 14-team league who are consensus preseason Top 25 squads. Former powers Virginia Tech and Miami (FL) are trying to recapture lost glory of their own. The rest of the league is mediocre-to-bad, slated for between four and eight losses each this season.
With the dissolution of the old big East into the new, basketball-centric Big East and the American Athletic Conference, the ACC is far and away the weakest Big Five league in college football. And Florida State is the reigning champion of it.
Optimistic Seminoles fans will point out that this isn’t the first time their beloved team has faced this quandary. The ACC was in a similarly watered-down state amid FSU’s run of nine straight conference titles from 1992–2000 — during which time the Seminoles went an astounding 70–2 in league play. Yet that didn’t prevent FSU from reaching three of the four Alliance/BCS bowls — the Orange, Sugar and Fiesta — at least once each.
The difference between then and now, however, is that Florida State’s talent gap over the rest of the country is largely gone. While the Seminoles still reel in a Top 10 recruiting class most years, there are many teams across the country that can go toe-to-toe and best them.
That reduction in talent gap across the country often makes it so that a team’s success — perceived or actual — is the product of their environment and their competition. This works against Florida State in two ways.
No. 1: Pressure for Perfection
To be considered a legitimate contender for the national title — both in this, the final year of the BCS, and the upcoming Playoff Era — the Seminoles will likely have to run the table in the ACC. Compared to the frontrunners in the four other AQ conferences, the competition that FSU faces will be considerably weaker. Thus, any perfect or near-perfect record that Florida State achieves will feel less impressive.
And should the Seminoles suffer an upset to a lesser conference foe, like what befell them last year in a 17–16 shocker at unranked NC State, their national ranking is going to take a huge hit. That could be all it takes to knock Florida State out of the future four-team College Football Playoff, where teams from any of the Big Five conferences with one loss would like get in over FSU.
College football is already a sport in which perfection is the most fail-safe strategy for success. In Florida State’s case, their place in a weak ACC only exacerbates that mindset.
No. 2: Lack of Big-Game Preparation
Logic dictates that if you’re a team that spends most of its games playing against lesser competition, you’re going to be less and less prepared for those moments when your competition is much higher-caliber.
Prior to last year’s annual grudge match against Florida, Florida State had only played a single Top 25 opponent in No. 10 Clemson. (Admittedly, the Seminoles were very impressive [but hardly dominant] in a 49–37 home win over the Tigers.) The Gators looked tougher and more battle-tested in its 37–26 win over FSU — particularly in the fourth quarter (they outscored FSU, 24–6) and in the turnover battle (which they dominated, 5–1).
There’s no direct tie to that weak schedule being the Seminoles’ undoing, but it didn’t help either. It’ll be more of the same for FSU both this year and in future ones, whenever they play out-of-conference games against opponents much tougher than their ACC foes.
Florida State’s best hope is a double-edged sword: They have to hope that their ACC competition is more ... well, competitive. Tougher conference games will harden the Seminoles for those for-all-the-marbles contests in the Playoff Era against SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 foes.
In 2013, only Clemson — a consensus preseason Top 10 team — represents a true test for FSU. They’ll be joined by a fast-rising Louisville program prior to the 2014 season and could eventually be rejoined by Virginia Tech and Miami (FL).
Until then, the Seminoles’ place in a watered-down ACC is going to work against them in battles for the national title. Not even the hardest tomahawk chop will be able to break through such a glass ceiling.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Bottom Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports