The ACC Championship isn’t the marquee game on Saturday, but there’s plenty of intrigue, as Duke (a surprise contender) meets Florida State (the No. 1 team in the nation).
With a win over the Blue Devils, the Seminoles – barring a huge change in the polls on Sunday – would clinch a spot in the national championship. Florida State has been the most dominant team in the nation this season, with an average margin of victory at 42.7 points per game.
Duke was predicted by most to finish at the bottom of the ACC Coastal this year, but the Blue Devils used an eight-game winning streak to claim their first division title. Duke’s 10-win season is the first in program history, while the Blue Devils posted wins at Virginia Tech and North Carolina in route to the Coastal Division title.
David Cutcliffe has brought steady improvement over his six-year tenure in Durham. Duke has won 16 games over the last two seasons, which is the most in a two-year period for the program since winning 16 under Wallace Wade in 1940-41.
This is the first meeting between Florida State and Duke in the ACC Championship. The Seminoles won the conference title 21-15 over Georgia Tech last season and is trying to become the first back-to-back winner of the ACC Championship since Virginia Tech in 2007-08.
In the overall series, Florida State is 18-0 against Duke. The Seminoles won 48-7 in Tallahassee last season and only one matchup between these two teams has been decided by 20 points or less.
Duke vs. Florida State
Kickoff: 8:00 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Florida State -29
Three Things to Watch
Florida State's receivers vs. Duke's secondary
Behind freshman quarterback Jameis Winston, Florida State’s offense is on a record-setting pace this year. The Seminoles have already scored the most points in team history (644), average 7.8 yards per play and recorded at least 40 points in 11 out of the 12 games this season. Winston is the catalyst for the Seminoles’ offense, but the freshman is surrounded by one of the nation’s top supporting casts. Florida State is the only BCS team with three 800-yard receivers, and tight end Nick O’Leary has 509 yards on 30 receptions this year. Rashad Greene leads the team with 61 catches, but Kelvin Benjamin (12 touchdown catches) and Kenny Shaw (17.8 ypc) are key pieces in the passing game. Duke’s secondary features two senior starters at cornerback, including first-team All-ACC member Ross Cockrell. But there’s youth at safety, with one sophomore (Jeremy Cash) and two freshmen (Deondre Singleton and DeVon Edwards) composing the starting trio. In conference games, Duke has limited opponents to 250 yards per contest and has intercepted 13 passes. However, the Blue Devils have played only two FBS teams (North Carolina and Miami) that rank in the top 50 nationally in passing offense. Although the numbers suggest the Blue Devils’ secondary could present some problems for the Seminoles, this is their toughest challenge of the season. With Florida State’s deep group of receivers and weapons out of the backfield, Duke’s senior tandem at cornerback and young talent at safety will be tested.
Duke's rushing attack
When a team is nearly a 30-point underdog, a perfect game is absolutely necessary to pull off the upset. On Saturday night, Duke has to win the turnover battle and find a way to shorten the game. The Blue Devils have six players with at least 45 carries this year, including quarterbacks Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Jela Duncan leads the team with 546 yards, while Josh Snead is averaging 6.4 yards per carry (83 attempts). Duncan, Snead, Shaquille Powell and Juwan Thompson will see their share of carries on Saturday night, but the wildcard is Connette. The junior has been a critical piece of Duke’s offense in short-yardage situations and has scored 13 rushing touchdowns this year. After struggling against Boston College, Florida State’s run defense has been rock solid the rest of the year. The Seminoles have allowed just one team to record over 150 rushing yards in the last eight games. And all four of the rushing touchdowns allowed by Florida State have been with the backups in the game and the outcome no longer in doubt. Duke has a veteran offensive line (165 starts among the starting five). Can this group block one of the best defensive fronts in college football to help control the clock for the Blue Devils?
Turnover battle and special teams
As we mentioned above, Duke is a heavy underdog and needs a perfect effort to win on Saturday night. Controlling the clock and limiting Florida State’s possessions is one way the Blue Devils can slow down the Seminoles. But the turnover battle could play a huge role in the outcome. The Seminoles have lost only 14 turnovers this year, while the Blue Devils have lost 20. In terms of turnover margin, Florida State is a +17, and Duke is +3. If the Blue Devils have any hope of scoring the upset, they have to force a couple of turnovers and play a mistake-free game. Special teams will also be critical for Duke’s upset hopes. Punter Will Monday earned third-team All-ACC honors this season, and kicker Ross Martin connected on 11 of 15 field goals – including 2 of 3 from 50 yards or more. The Blue Devils also have a dangerous option on returns, as Jamison Crowder averages 15 yards per punt return, and DeVon Edwards averages 32.7 yards per kickoff return. Duke has to win in these two areas to keep this one close on Saturday night.
Key Player: Kenny Anunike, DE, Duke
Anunike is the elder statesman of Duke’s defense, as he started his career in Durham in 2009 and has played in 52 games. The senior leads the Blue Devils with six sacks this year and has recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss. Duke’s 4-2-5 alignment helps with adding extra athleticism and speed on the field, which should help in defending Florida State’s offense. However, the Blue Devils have a tough assignment in trying to stop a team averaging 53.7 points a game. What will be Duke’s plan of attack on defense? Will the Blue Devils bring extra pressure? Or will Duke be content to let the Seminoles drive the field and try to slow down this offense in the red zone? Either way, it’s critical Anunike gets pressure on Winston, as the Blue Devils need to put Florida State in long-distance situations. However, consider this: Winston is 16 of 18 for 317 yards and four touchdowns in third down opportunities with 10 or more yards to gain.
This is a true David versus Goliath scenario in the ACC Championship. Duke is riding high after an eight-game winning streak and the first 10-win season in school history. But Florida State is simply the better team and poised to return to the national title game for the first time since 200. If the Blue Devils can establish the run and create a couple of turnovers, Cutcliffe’s team can keep this game close at halftime. However, the Seminoles have too much firepower on offense, and the defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points since Sept. 28.
Cutcliffe clearly has Duke on the right track, but Florida State is the best team in college football.
ACC Championship Predictions
Florida State 42-24
Florida State 42-20
Florida State 45-17
Florida State 44-17