CHARLOTTE -- The college football world has watched all season as Florida State has danced one tightrope after the next, somehow finding a way to avoid defeat. It leads many to wonder the same question: Are the defending national champion Seminoles lucky or good?
Georgia Tech will be the latest team to attempt to derail Florida State when the two meet in the ACC championship game at 8 p.m.
The Yellow Jackets could end Florida State’s chances to defend its national title; voters in the College Football Playoff poll apparently have been looking for an excuse to drop the Seminoles all season. While Georgia Tech has a slight chance of sneaking into the playoffs with two losses, a win would cement a spot in the Orange Bowl.
“Our guys are looking forward to the opportunity we have to go to Charlotte and play in the ACC championship against a great football team,” Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson said. “Any time you win 28 straight games like Florida State has done, I think those of us in coaching understand how hard that is. It will be a huge challenge but one that we are looking forward to.”
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Florida State’s current run of success began against Georgia Tech. The Seminoles defeated the Yellow Jackets in the 2012 ACC championship and have not lost since.
Unlike last season, when the Seminoles dominated all their opponents, this year’s team has had its moments. There were the second-half comebacks against Notre Dame, Miami and Boston College, an overtime win over Clemson and a survival last week against rival Florida. So while Florida State hasn’t been overpowering, head coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has found a way to remain unbeaten, and it is the only FBS team in the country with a perfect record.
“I see a good football team that knows how to win,” Johnson said. “Winning is hard, and they’ve won 28 consecutive games. I mean, that’s hard to believe in this day and age. They haven’t blown out as many people as maybe a year ago, but they’ve still got a really fine football team, make no mistake about it.”
The Seminoles are loaded with talented players. That starts with quarterback Jameis Winston, who has sidestepped a few personal potholes this year and sat out the Clemson game because of a suspension. Winston, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, has 21 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, compared to 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last year.
But when the game gets tight, Winston finds a way to elevate his performance. He has a passing rating of 160.7 in the second half, when he has completed 68.3 percent of his throws for 1,682 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“He’s masterful at keeping plays alive,” Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “He’s elusive, he makes people miss, and he continues the play. It will be a challenge to slow him down.”
But Florida State is more than just Winston. Albany native Rashad Greene is the program’s all-time leading receiver, Nick O’Leary (grandson to golfing great Jack Nicklaus) is a finalist for the Mackey Award given to the nation’s best tight end, and Roberto Aguayo has missed only three field goals in his career. Lately, freshman Dalvin Cook has emerged as a game-breaking back; one of every 12 carries goes for 20 yards or more.
“The biggest thing is not to be relaxed, not to be complacent,” Georgia Tech defensive back D.J. White said. “We’ve got to go out and prepare for the best team we’ve played all year.”
Johnson is hopeful his defense can get a few three-and-outs against Florida State. That would keep the Seminoles’ high-powered attack on the sideline and give the Yellow Jackets a chance to shorten the game by running the ball and keeping the clock moving.
“I think Jimbo would like to have 16 or 17 possessions on Saturday,” Johnson said. “I’d like to have eight.”
Georgia Tech has the best rushing attack in the ACC at 333.8 yards per game. The Yellow Jackets ran 70 times for 399 yards against Georgia last week. This week they’ll be challenging a Florida State rush defense that has given up 133.6 yards rushing to ACC opponents. Florida State has held six opponents without a rushing touchdown, including Florida last week. Boston College, the opponent most comparable to Georgia Tech, ran for 240 yards against the Seminoles.
The Florida State defense is led by defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., who has 11 tackles for loss and three sacks, and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, who has eight tackles for loss and four sacks.
But Georgia Tech has found a way to run the ball, particularly behind B-backs Synjyn Days (686 yards) and Zach Laskey (748 yards). Their inside pounding wore down the Georgia defense a week ago. The A-backs are led by Charles Perkins with 324 yards.
The Yellow Jackets’ offense is sparked by quarterback Justin Thomas, who has rushed for 861 yards and thrown for 1,480. Even more significant has been the ability of Thomas to make the right reads on the triple-option.
“We’ve got to be ready to play fast from the start,” Thomas said. “As long as we start fast, we’ll put ourselves in good position.”
Florida State enters the game as the favorite. Two years ago, the Seminoles were picked to win big over a Georgia Tech team that was 6-6, but the Seminoles won a close game 21-15. Florida State did not score a point in the second half.
This Georgia Tech team is considered to be the program’s best since the 2009 team that won the ACC championship and went to the Orange Bowl. And after beating Clemson and Georgia to end the season, there’s little chance the Yellow Jackets will feel overwhelmed when they take the field.
“I don’t have any doubt that our kids will play,” Johnson said. “We’re going to show up, and they’re going to play hard. They won’t give up. No matter what happens, we’ll keep playing. I’m sure of that. We’re just excited to have that opportunity. It’s not every day you get to go play in the conference championship game, but you need to take advantage of that.”