ACC Championship Preview: FSU-Georgia Tech

Previewing the ACC Championship Game between Florida State and Georgia Tech...

Florida State (12-0) vs. Georgia Tech (10-2) Dec. 6, 8:00, ABC

Here's The Deal: After playing with fire for the past three months, Florida State is now hoping to singe those critics who’ve questioned the team every step of the way.

The Seminoles have been one of the oddest teams in recent memory. Overrated. Inconsistent. Unworthy. And yet unbeaten, the only FBS program that has not lost a game. The Noles have been a paradox, playing down to the level of the competition before inevitably being carried to a second-half win by QB Jameis Winston. It’s been a season-long theme that’s been simultaneously maddening and exhilarating at the same time. Forget the style points at this point. If Florida State can simply survive one more time, it’s advancing to the College Football Playoff. If, however, living on the edge finally catches up to the Noles, it’s going to create a gigantic opening in the top four for Ohio State, TCU or Baylor.

Florida State has been the story in the ACC this season. Georgia Tech, though, has been authoring a compelling tale of its own. An afterthought out of the Coastal Division when the season started, the Yellow Jackets have surprised everyone by winning 10 games, capped by a thrilling overtime upset of Georgia Between the Hedges last Saturday. The Ramblin’ Wreck has rolled to five impressive wins in a row since dropping back-to-back games to Duke and Carolina in October. And if Tech can snap FSU’s 28-game win streak, it’ll represent the ACC in the Orange Bowl. Even with a loss, the Jackets might get the Orange Bowl nod as the league’s runner-up.

Why Florida State Might Win: No one does winning better than the garnet and gold. The Seminoles know it and so do the guys in the opposing locker room.

Evaluating Florida State transcends the matchups. Florida State almost always has more talent than the opposition. What makes Jimbo Fisher’s team so doggone tough to dethrone is that it has the muscle memory for survival, and it’s consistently clutch when the outcome hangs in the balance. At some point in Saturday night’s game in Charlotte, the Noles are going to need a critical drive to stem Georgia Tech’s momentum. And that’s when Winston will pilot the charge, picking apart the Yellow Jacket defense with darts to sure-handed WR Rashad Greene and TE Nick O’Leary. Florida State will not be denied. Not here, at least, and not now against a Tech pass defense that’s No. 11 or lower in completion percentage, yards per attempt, pass efficiency D and yards per game.

Why Georgia Tech Might Win: The Yellow Jackets have never been more confident. And the Seminoles have never been more vulnerable.

After beating rival Georgia in Athens, Georgia Tech will not be intimidated by Florida State, especially after ingesting this season’s film. The Seminoles do one thing really well, ride the right arm of Winston. But the Jackets have been winning by myriad different means. Paul Johnson’s triple-option has been run masterfully by sophomore Justin Thomas, and it’s not as if the Noles have been impenetrable in the front seven this season.

On defense, Ted Roof’s kids, like CB D.J. White, FS Jamal Golden and linebackers P.J. Davis and Quayshawn Nealy, have been creating mayhem all year. Remember the number 27 this week; that’s Tech’s ACC-high number of takeaways as well as FSU’s ACC-high number of turnovers. If the Yellow Jackets are swarming, Winston has shown on numerous occasions this fall that he’ll make poor decisions with the ball.

Who To Watch Out For: Georgia Tech is going to be without one of its sneaky-good offensive weapons, WR DeAndre Smelter, who tore his ACL last week. It’s a tough loss for an offense that likes to zing defenses that dare Thomas to beat them over the top. Without Smelter’s 35 receptions for 715 yards and seven touchdowns, the Yellow Jackets are a little less scary on offense, unless 6-5 senior Darren Waller can pick up more of the slack.

Tech is going to grind out yards with physical B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days, but the star on the ground will be Florida State rookie Dalvin Cook. The true freshman out of Miami has been a revelation in Tallahassee, surpassing Karlos Williams in the pecking order. Cook has been to the Noles what Michael Dyer was to Auburn in 2010, navigating the field with the poise and the vision of an upperclassman. He’s given a jolt to a running game that desperately needed it, and will be a key factor once again versus a Yellow Jacket front seven that can be moved off the ball by the veteran Seminole O-line.

No one in America is converting third downs at a higher rate than Georgia Tech, 57.4%, and that’s a problem for the Florida State D, which could be on the field a lot Saturday night. Thomas has been so good at making the right decisions this season, particularly when the Yellow Jackets are looking to extend a drive. He doesn’t make many mistakes, mental or otherwise, and at 231 pounds and 218 pounds, respectively, Days and Laskey are always moving forward.

The Seminoles have got to win on first and second downs, even if it means selling out to create traffic jams near the line of scrimmage. Again, the absence of Smelter will allow the Florida State defenders to be a little more fearless than usual this weekend.

Florida State boasts great athletes on defense. But will those athletes have the patience to contend with Thomas and the nuances of the triple-option? If the Seminoles overrun plays too often, Thomas and his cadre of backs will burn them for chunk yards. It’s incumbent upon the Noles’ better open field tacklers, such as safeties Jalen Ramsey and Nate Andrews and linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup to resist the temptation to fly upfield and lose track of who’s handling the ball.

What’s Going To Happen: Georgia Tech is going to hang around until the final whistle. Florida State will break the hearts of the Yellow Jackets—and countless others—with yet another edge-of-the-seat victory in the waning moments. Why in the world should this week’s ACC Championship Game be any different than the Noles’ entire regular season?

Tech can beat Florida State, because Johnson has his kids playing extremely well, and because the Seminoles allow just about everyone to be within reach into the third quarter and beyond. But the Noles’ knack for flipping the right switch has become legendary and borderline impossible to counteract. They are clutch, they’ve been here before and they do not flinch in the face of adversity. Florida State will be against the ropes—again. And Florida State will wriggle out—again—to remain unbeaten and in contention for back-to-back national championships.

Prediction: Florida State 34 … Georgia Tech 27
Line: Florida State -3.5 o/u: 58.5
Must Watch Factor: 5: The Interview – 1: CMA Country Christmas … 5
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