The ACC Football Championship is this Saturday evening, around 8pm, commencing from Charlotte, NC. On one side, you have the No. 1 team in the country in Florida State — 12-0 and their closest game this year was a two-touchdown victory — versus Duke, 10-2 but … before this year, never ranked in the BCS, never a 10-win team, and to go back to the last time they won nine games, you’d be entering into FDR’s presidency. Football school, meet basketball school. Bobby Bowden’s legacy, meet Coach K’s legacy. This game should not be close. And OSU-MSU, which should be close, is on at the exact same time — and it’s more likely OSU could lose than FSU could lose, so of course you’ll be watching the Big Ten Championship and not the ACC Championship. Duke has no chance, right? It’s a 30-point spread, for chrissakes.
Still, there’s something about college football and these types of moments. The 2003 Oklahoma team was considered an all-timer; they lost, 35-7, to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship.
The 1993 LSU-Alabama game? Alabama came in with 31 straight victories, the previous year’s national title, and a margin of victory around the same as the current FSU squad. They lost.
The point is, it’s a long-shot, yes — but crazy stuff happens in college football. (Did anyone happen to catch the ending of Auburn vs. Alabama last Saturday early evening?) You can say a lot of things about Duke — you can talk about David Cutcliffe and what he’s meant to the program there, you can talk about Jamison Crowder and his 88 catches and 1100+ years (third in the ACC), you can talk about what offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has meant to the on-field product, you can talk about the five backs averaging 5.0 yards per carry, or you can talk about how the defensive stands late in games have been a fixture of this season. The thing is, if you want to talk about Duke as a potential team of destiny, you need to start the conversation with Anthony Boone. Technically they use a two-QB system, but he’s the starter — and how. He’s 10-0 as a starter in his career. Yes, he’s never lost.
Boone has a completion percentage of close to 70% this season (he did miss three games with injuries). It all comes from a simple system put in place by Roper and Cutcliffe and described briefly here: essentially, the goal is quick, accurate passes and retaining possession of the ball. That’s going to be crucial in this game Saturday night. When you’re at a perceived 30-point disadvantage from the kick, you can’t afford to cough up a lot of balls. Cutcliffe, of course, has a lot of experience with QBs, notably the Manning brothers. (This is a good article on Cutcliffe and the development of those relationships.) Boone, though, is no slouch himself — he was offered by Louisville and Illinois as well (the latter could sure as hell use him right now). He’s also got a pretty solid approach to the whole David vs. Goliath ACC Championship idea:
If FSU has weaknesses this year, there aren’t many. They’re second in D-1 in points scored and 1st in points allowed. There’s the cloud over Jameis Winston, and something could theoretically happen there before Saturday (although it probably wouldn’t affect his status for the game, per se), and there’s lessons from FSU’s one moderately close game (vs. BC): move the chains, pick up yards on the ground, don’t fumble, focus more on the run than the pass (FSU’s pass rush is strong), and start fast (in a big spot, FSU might choke a little trying to catch up). Those are the keys, provided there are keys. Boone might be up to the challenge.
I’m not gonna go all Malcolm Gladwell on you with David and Goliath stuff, but if you look at some of the bigger upsets in CFB history in this exact spot — i.e. Conference Championship Weekend — a lot of it runs back through a plodding, effective run game and strong, mistake-free QB play. Consider the 2001 SEC Championship Game, for example. Tennessee was ranked No. 2 and headed towards a second BCS appearance (whoa, Tennessee has fallen far in a decade, eh?). They entered with one loss — to Georgia — and were mostly beating up on people (their average margin was nothing like FSU 2013, though). LSU entered with three losses, including a destruction at the hands of Florida. They still walked out with the win and it was based on some of the same elements Duke needs to embrace this weekend.
I’m not saying LSU ’01 and Duke ’13 are comparable, per se, but what I am saying is that you have a really good coaching staff, an undefeated QB, a “team of destiny”-worthy squad at a traditionally basketball school, and a Saturday night (in their home state!) where anything can happen. It’s a long shot, but don’t be surprised to see Anthony Boone trending on Saturday evening on Twitter, and don’t be surprised if the whole thing is … closer than the experts predict.