From 1999-2007, it delivered the annual Bowden Bowl.
Since 2008, it’s determined the Atlantic Division champion.
Saturday night, it brings perhaps the most important game in modern Atlantic Coast Conference football history.
“Well, this is what they’ve been wanting, isn’t it?” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney of the critics who have wondered when the ACC might finally deliver a legitimate BCS title contender.
Primetime Saturday will put the national focus back on Death Valley, where Tajh Boyd and the No. 3 Tigers will face “Famous” Jameis Winston and the No. 5 Seminoles in a showdown that could set up one quarterback as a Heisman Trophy candidate and put one team in line for the conference’s first national title shot since 1999.
It’s the league’s first matchup of top-five teams since 2005, when No. 5 Miami defeated No. 3 Virginia Tech 27-7 in week 10. Neither team finished the season in the top five.
But 2013 is shaping up as a breakout year for the oft-ridiculed conference with three unbeaten top-10 teams (including Miami) and four inside the top 20 more than halfway through the season. That’s not including a future program (Louisville) also undefeated and ranked eighth.
“They can’t talk bad about us now,” Swinney said. “This is what we have not done as a conference, bottom line. We have not produced an undefeated team, a 12-1 team. We certainly haven’t had multiple teams be very consistent in that. ... We’ve had good football. We’ve always had good football here – very competitive football, a lot of parity in this league. But we haven’t produced that dominant team or teams to go and get in that national scene.
“That’s what it takes. You don’t all have to be great, but you need three or four teams that can compete nationally.”
The Florida State-Clemson game is the “brand name” matchup that has captured the attention of a national audience, with ESPN’s College GameDay rolling into Clemson for the second time this season. The Tigers turned a lot of heads with an opening night victory against then No. 5 Georgia, showcasing everything that Boyd, Sammy Watkins and Vic Beasley have to offer in the way of marquee talent.
Two nights later, redshirt freshman Winston made his own eye-catching first impression with a nearly flawless performance against Pitt. He hasn’t let up since. Who knew a rookie could be an upgrade from a first-round draft pick already starting in the NFL (EJ Manuel)?
Clemson might be ranked two spots higher and have a daunting homefield atmosphere, but it’s Florida State who the oddsmakers tapped as a 3-point favorite.
“This is a toss-up if you ask me,” Swinney said. “This is a game that comes down to a few plays. This is just like the Clemson-Georgia game at the start of the season. You’ve got two great teams that both want to win, that both have great aspirations, and in this particular case, heck, we’re talking about trying to win a division.”
Stakes in this game extend further than the Atlantic Division. The stakes for the ACC are massive.
“To get in the conversation on a national level you’ve got to have some people to talk about,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, whose Hokies have dominated the ACC in recent years but never enough to warrant BCS title consideration.
Just like last year when FSU and Clemson met ranked No. 4 and 10, respectively, this is the ACC’s best hope of vetting a legitimate national contender. Unlike the Seminoles last year, who frittered away the opportunity in subsequent losses to N.C. State and Florida, the winner Saturday needs to step up and run the table all the way to the BCS title game in Pasadena, Calif. Let the loser settle for the Orange Bowl.
That’s the ACC’s dream scenario.
“From a national standpoint, we win the game, Florida State ain’t going anywhere,” Swinney said. “They lost to the No. 3 team in the country. It doesn’t go our way, it doesn’t mean we’re a bad team. Nationally you’ve still got a chance to maybe get a couple teams in the BCS picture, and that’s what we’re going to need if we’re going to be that type of conference that I know we are but be able to get the recognition nationally.”
Clemson and its fans have the chance to make Saturday night special for the Tigers. However, one of these teams needs to step up and dare to be great – to show that an ACC team deserves to be in that conversation with 1-2 headliners Alabama and Oregon.
That’s what Florida State did 25 years ago when Bobby Bowden called one of the greatest trick plays in collegiate history. Tied at 21-all and on the Seminoles 21 with 1:31 left, Bowden risked losing by calling the famous “puntrooskie” fake with Leroy Butler streaking 78 yards in front of a stunned Clemson bench to set up the game-winning field goal in Death Valley.
It was brilliant and daring. But most of all, it was theater and it established that Seminole era as great.
One of these teams needs to dare to be great this week – not just for itself but for its conference.
“The rest of the country will get to see the quality of football we play in the ACC,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said.
They’ll be watching to see if someone can deliver.