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Clemson or Florida State: Which Team Wins ACC Atlantic in 2012?

Can EJ Manuel lead Florida State to an ACC Atlantic title?

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

Clemson or Florida State: Which Team Wins the ACC Atlantic in 2012?

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Both programs are reliving the same story each season. Even in a year when it won the ACC, Clemson still had an inexplicable late season swoon and an even more shocking loss in the bowl game. In Tallahassee, another season went by without Florida State turning the corner back into a national contender. I’m inclined to believe Florida State is more likely to win the Atlantic and reclaim ACC dominance. The Seminoles not only had a rash of injuries early last season, including quarterback E.J. Manuel, they allowed the loss to Oklahoma on Sept. 17 turn into three losses. So much emphasis was put on the game against the Sooners, that the loss to Oklahoma, combined with all the injuries, seemed to throw Florida State into disarray early. Clemson’s lapses were more unforgivable. The offense fell apart in October and November, and the defense bottomed out in the bowl game. I’ll take Florida State to rebound from its bad luck. Both Clemson and Florida State will be good teams, but I’ll pick the Seminoles in this one.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
The traditional belief that defense wins championships tends to hold true in college football. In that sense, the Florida State Seminoles have a clear advantage over the Clemson Tigers. The Noles defense returns nine starters from the ACC's top unit and claim a potpourri of star-studded recruits — both freshman, redshirt freshman and sophomores — stepping into bigger roles this fall. Most importantly, FSU boasts one of the best secondaries in the nation, something required to even attempt to stop the Tajh Boyd-Sammy Watkins-DeAndre Hopkins high-octane passing attack.

The Tigers can score point in bunches, but as fans saw in the second half of the season, it couldn't stop anyone. And it led to one of the worst collapses in the nation last fall. In four losses down the stretch, Clemson allowed 43 points per game. In seven conference games against non-Virginia Tech competition, Dabo Swinney's bunch allowed 31.9 points per game. If Boyd and company want to repeat as ACC champions, new coordinator Brent Venables must produce dramatic improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

From a scheduling standpoint, Florida State hosts the all important head-to-head battle that was decided by only five points last fall in Death Valley. With a fully healthy EJ Manuel, and improved skill talent on offense, I will take Florida State to win the Atlantic Division. Clemson and Florida State are clearly the most talented teams in this half of the ACC, but don't be surprised if NC State, who crushed Clemson 37-13 last fall, impacts this race in a big way.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
The overriding question in the ACC over the last few years has been: Is this the year Florida State returns to national prominence? The Seminoles have won 19 games over the last two years, but still hasn’t emerged as a threat to win the national title. Clemson has had its own issues of underachieving, but finally broke through to win the ACC Atlantic last season. The Tigers have the necessary pieces to win the division once again in 2012, but a reworked offensive line and the defense are huge question marks.

There’s not much separating Clemson and Florida State in the Atlantic, but I give a slight edge to the Seminoles. Florida State’s defense is starting to build some impressive depth in the trenches, and the secondary has two solid corners in Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes. Virginia Tech’s defense is strong, but I think Florida State’s will be the best in the ACC. The biggest question mark for the Seminoles is on the other side of the ball and finding ways to rejuvenate an offense that ranked 77th nationally in yards per game last year. With EJ Manuel and a talented group of receivers returning, Florida State should have one of the top passing attacks in the ACC. However, the offensive line and rushing attack remains an issue.

Although I think Florida State will win the division, there’s a lot to like about Clemson. The offensive firepower is impressive, but how will the line respond with three new starters? The defense loses four key contributors from the line, but the back seven should be in good shape. The biggest obstacle for the Tigers to overcome could be the Sept. 22 date in Tallahassee. With a young offensive line still coming together, Florida State’s defensive front is not what Clemson needs to see early in the year.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think Florida State will surpass Clemson in the Atlantic this season because of the talent and depth of the Seminoles defense. From the middle of October to the bowl victory over Notre Dame, the FSU defense performed at an elite level and that momentum should carry into this year. Senior quarterback EJ Manuel found some weapons last year in freshmen Devonta Freeman and Rashad Greene, and that talented duo should put up more points as sophomores. Clemson will flourish on offense with quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, but the Tigers did lose three starters on the offensive line. The defense is a concern once again, so former Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables faces a tough challenge in his first Clemson season. Most of the back seven returns, but linemen Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson will be missed. The Tigers will challenge ACC defenses, but I see Florida State as the more complete team and the one that will advance to Charlotte.

Where will Clemson and Florida State finish in the 2012 ACC standings? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day.

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