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Athlon previews the ACC Championship.
For the first time in the history of the ACC Championship, Florida State and Georgia Tech will meet for the conference title. Despite being separated by less than 300 miles, these two teams are in opposite divisions in the ACC and have not played since a 49-44 shootout in 2009.
These two teams arrived in Charlotte by taking completely different paths. Georgia Tech closed out the year by winning its last four ACC games to get to 5-3 in conference play, which placed it in a three-way tie with North Carolina and Miami at the top of the Coastal. However, with the Tar Heels and Hurricanes ineligible to play in the postseason, the Yellow Jackets get the nod to represent the Coastal in Charlotte.
On the other side, Florida State went 7-1 in ACC play and finished with a 10-2 overall mark. The Seminoles’ only conference loss was a last-minute 17-16 defeat to NC State. Florida State dominated most of its ACC opponents this season, with only one victory decided by 10 points or less.
Florida State holds a 12-9-1 edge in the overall series, but Georgia Tech has claimed the last two in this series. Yellow Jackets’ coach Paul Johnson is 2-0 in his career against the Seminoles. And this will be the first matchup for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher against Georgia Tech.
When the Florida State Seminoles have the ball:
Perhaps the biggest mismatch in this game is the Seminoles’ offense against the Georgia Tech defense. The Yellow Jackets have been struggling to get stops all season and fired coordinator Al Groh after a 47-31 loss to Clemson. Removing Groh didn’t help the defense much, as Georgia Tech has allowed at least 40 points in three out of its last six games. The Yellow Jackets rank sixth or worse in the ACC in total, scoring, sacks per game and pass defense.
Although Florida State’s offense struggled in last week’s loss to Florida, it should be able to have its way against Georgia Tech. The Seminoles are relatively balanced on offense, ranking 26th nationally in rushing (203.8 ypg) and 34th in passing offense (273.7 ypg). If there’s a concern for Florida State’s offense, it has to be turnovers (23 so far this year).
Quarterback EJ Manuel was banged up in last week’s loss to Florida but is not expected to be limited in the ACC Championship. Manuel ranks eighth nationally in pass efficiency and tossed only five interceptions in conference games this season. The senior has no shortage of playmakers around him, headlined by receiver Rashad Greene. The sophomore leads Florida State with 43 receptions for 614 yards and five scores. Kelvin Benjamin ranks second on the team in receiving yards, while Rodney Smith and Kenny Shaw each have 471 yards this season.
Despite losing Chris Thompson to an ACL injury against Miami earlier this year, Florida State still ranks second in the ACC in rushing offense. Sophomores Devonta Freeman and James Wilder have picked up the slack, combining for 1,085 yards and 16 scores this year. Freeman provides the speed, while Wilder adds some power and leads the team with nine rushing scores.
Considering Florida State is averaging 39.8 points per game in conference play, Georgia Tech will have its hands full trying to slow down the Seminoles’ offense. Although the Yellow Jackets can rely on their offense to chew up the clock, the defense could help swing some early momentum by generating a few turnovers. If Georgia Tech fails to get pressure on EJ Manuel and doesn’t win the turnover battle, it’s hard to see the defense being able to slow down the Florida State attack.
When the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets have the ball:
Not only are the Yellow Jackets a difficult opponent to prepare for in one week, the Seminoles’ defense must also deal with the news of coordinator Mark Stoops being named as the head coach at Kentucky. Stoops will coach in this game, but it’s fair to wonder if that has distracted from the gameplanning from Florida State.
With a defense that has struggled to get stops this year, Georgia Tech’s offense has had to win plenty of shootouts. The Yellow Jackets have scored at least 30 points in seven out of their eight conference games, including 68 in a win over North Carolina on Nov. 10.
Vad Lee and Tevin Washington have shared the quarterback duties over the second half of the season and that should continue into Saturday’s game. Lee is a better playmaker on the ground (6.0 ypc), but Washington has more experience as a passer and has more experience within the offense.
There’s really no secret or much disguise for what Georgia Tech wants to do on offense. Coach Paul Johnson is committed to an option attack, which is averaging 323.3 rushing yards per game this season. The Yellow Jackets rank near the bottom of the nation in passing and has struggled to develop any go-to receivers.
Orwin Smith leads the team with 673 yards and five touchdowns, but an ankle injury has clouded his status for Saturday’s game. In addition to leading the team in rushing yards, Smith is also the team’s top big-play threats (9.0 ypc) and ranks first on the team with 17 receptions. Even if Smith can play, he’s likely to be limited.
Outside of Smith, the Yellow Jackets can lean on Zach Laskey, David Sims and Robert Godhigh as key contributors in the backfield. Laskey is a hard-nosed runner and averages a solid 5.2 yards per carry this season. Sims has been limited due to injuries this year but has 351 yards and three scores on 85 attempts.
Considering Florida State has not played a team that runs the option this season, it may take a quarter for Stoops’ defense to settle into the matchup. However, another problem that is developing for the Seminoles is depth on the defensive line. Starter Cornellius Carradine suffered a torn ACL in the loss against Florida, which leaves redshirt freshman Giorgio Newberry or true freshman Mario Edwards, Jr. as the starter.
Everything on the stat sheet for this matchup suggests it should be an easy win for Florida State. However, six out of the last seven matchups in this series have been decided by eight points or less, so even though the Yellow Jackets are 6-6, history indicates this matchup will be close on Saturday night. Despite the close matchups in recent years, unless Georgia Tech’s defense plays its best game of the season, Florida State will pull away in the second half for a double-digit victory. The Seminoles simply have too many weapons on offense and despite the loss of Carradine on the defensive line, will prevent any big plays to the Yellow Jackets.
|Athlon Editor||Championship Prediction||YTD ACC Record|
|David Fox||Florida State 42-14||76-20|
|Braden Gall||Florida State 30-17||74-22|
|Steven Lassan||Florida State 34-24||71-25|
|Mitch Light||Florida State 30-20||79-17|
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