High-stakes matchup for the ACC

The Pac-12 will never understand. The Big 12 has no idea what it feels like. And the Big Ten only thinks it can relate.

No other conference in the country, though, is dwarfed by the SEC like the ACC. The shadow the nation's best conference casts over its ACC neighbor is not just an overblown caricature, it's as real as the highways that connect Clemson with rival South Carolina and Florida State with Florida.

It's evident in the ACC's 25-42 record against the SEC since 2003, the last time it had a winning record against the league. Because of the blurred geographical lines that separate the two conferences, the ACC's failure against the SEC -- and the lack of a national title contender to challenge it -- has determined its place in college football. It's a place closer to pretending than contending, and can usually be found on the outside looking in at the nation's elite.

Those within the ACC maintain its performances have been better than the criticism suggests, but the conference's repeated collapse in marquee games and its inability to put forth a legitimate national contender in recent years have made those claims far too easy to dismiss.

On Saturday in Tallahassee, No. 10 Clemson and No. 4 Florida State have a chance to change the nature of the debate surrounding the ACC and take the first step toward proving that this season will be different than in years past.

"We're Florida State," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said, "we're not operating in the shadow of nobody."

We're Florida State. We're not operating in the shadow of nobody.

--Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher

They even sound like the mighty SEC. Now it's time to play the part.

Saturday's game will be critical for the Atlantic Division standings -- the winner of this game should be expected to play for the ACC title -- but the impact could resonate well beyond the East Coast. The rise of Clemson and Florida State is coinciding nicely with the ACC's attempt to rebrand itself. The league recently announced the addition of Notre Dame in all sports but football (although the Irish will play five football games annually against the ACC), and Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join the conference in July. The ACC has positioned itself well for the future by strengthening its ties to the Orange Bowl and continuing to be relevant in the newly proposed college football playoff system.

Florida State and Clemson, meanwhile, have positioned themselves to be relevant in the current system. Don't look now, but the ACC has two top-10 teams. Repeat: The ACC has two top-10 teams. Playing each other. That has happened only nine times in conference history.

"We should both be one of the best teams in the country," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We need Clemson and we need Florida State, from a conference standpoint, to be what they're capable of being, and that's two of the best football teams in the country. There's no question about that."

All they need to do Saturday is prove they are.

With the nation watching and ESPN's "College GameDay" crew on campus, Saturday will be a chance for the Tigers and Seminoles to show the country that they, indeed, are two top-10 teams with top-10 recruiting classes -- and that they've separated themselves from the rest of the ACC, which has been muddled with mediocrity.

"I think [Clemson-Florida State] is going to really highlight our conference," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "I think this could be a battle between two great football teams and this might be the year [the ACC has] a team that can make a run at the whole thing. Whoever comes out of Saturday's matchup with a win is going to have to carry the banner for the ACC."

Combined, Florida State and Clemson could have at least three legitimate Heisman trophy candidates on the field: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, receiver Sammy Watkins and Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel. Florida State's defense could rival that of Alabama's, and Clemson's offense is on par with Oregon's.

Believe it.

To convince anyone outside of ACC country that this year is truly different, though, Florida State and Clemson simply need to play an entertaining game with four quarters of effective football.

Not what we saw in last year's Orange Bowl.

Not what we saw from Virginia Tech this past weekend against Pitt.

Not what we're used to seeing when the ACC takes center stage.

With Florida State's 52-0 manhandling of Wake Forest last weekend, the Seminoles took an important step in proving the preseason hype might actually be merited this year. The Seminoles didn't get caught looking ahead to the showdown with Clemson. They beat a well-coached team that had won four of the teams' past six meetings.

The Noles have yet to play down to an opponent despite opening the season against back-to-back FCS teams. And, possibly most impressive, Florida State's defense hasn't even flinched despite the loss of two starters: dismissed cornerback Greg Reid, one of the top punt returners in the nation last year, and injured defensive end Brandon Jenkins, arguably the best defensive player in the conference.

"They remind me of some of the Florida State teams we played when we first got to Wake Forest," Grobe said after his Demon Deacons came back from Tallahassee. "And a couple of those Miami teams, a couple of Larry Coker's teams back in the day, and a couple of the Virginia Tech teams we've faced. Of the really, really good teams we've faced over the last 11-plus years, I would say they were right there with the best of them."

With so much NFL talent on the roster, particularly on defense, this is the year for Florida State to elbow its way into the national title game -- especially with USC's loss to Stanford, and knowing that No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 LSU still have to play each other. It also could open the door for the ACC to have two BCS bids for the second straight year.

Clemson, which has the experience of last year's 8-0 start to build on, should be even better next year.

This is a team that has only 11 seniors. The defending ACC champs have one of the most potent offenses in the country, plus a receiver so good, in Watkins, that Fisher compared his freshman season to Herschel Walker's. Clemson's toughest opponent, though, might actually be itself. The Tigers are notorious for losing to teams they shouldn't.

"Our next step here is just to become a consistent winner," Swinney said. "That's really what we're trying to do, is be a program that, year in and year out, is in the mix. If we can do that, then we're going to put it together. At some point, we're going to have that special year."

Saturday is a unique opportunity for both programs to convince us that they're finally something special -- that things really are different in the ACC, and that the recruiting rankings will finally translate into BCS rankings. Only then can the ACC begin to even the score with the SEC.

More than in any other year in recent memory, this opportunity is huge for the ACC -- almost as big as the shadow it's trying to emerge from.