Dec. 7, 8:00, ABC
Here's The Deal … David (Cutcliffe) vs. Goliath (Florida State).
Duke and Florida State have both exceeded preseason expectations, resulting in Saturday night's improbable meeting in Charlotte, with an ACC title hanging in the balance. For the Blue Devils, it's been a storybook season in Durham. Head coach David Cutcliffe has turned dust into gold in his sixth season at the helm, guiding a perennial basketball school from a last place prediction in the summer to a school-first Coastal Division crown just last week. It's been a season of milestones for Duke, which is bowl-bound in back-to-back years for the first time in program history. Cutcliffe, though, has completely changed the culture on campus, so simply bowling is no longer the standard for the Blue Devils. Winners of eight straight games, including over Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina, they now expect to compete for titles.
Florida State is back to where it believes it belongs. Since Jimbo Fisher replaced Bobby Bowden in 2010, the Seminoles have been building toward this point, where ACC titles are expected and national championships are well within reach. Still, the program wasn't even considered the league favorite in the preseason, an honor that belonged to a Clemson team that had lost fewer starters to the NFL. FSU dispelled the notion that it would take a backseat to anyone in 2013, wrecking the Tigers in Death Valley on Oct. 19, 51-14, one of a long line of dominating wins this fall.
The Seminoles have been fueled by a swarming defense and a precocious rookie quarterback, Jameis Winston, whose Heisman coronation has been delayed only by legal issues. Up to No. 1 in the BCS rankings following Alabama's loss at Auburn, Florida State is two wins away from its third national championship, and first since 1999. Standing in its way this week is an upstart that's been defying the odds and raising the bar to unprecedented heights since turning the corner at the end of September.
Players to Watch: How will Duke hold up in the trenches when Florida State has the ball? Duke is opportunistic, but not stout at the point of attack, ranking No. 10 in the league against the run. The Blue Devils must contend with a line that featured three First Team All-ACC blockers this year. It's no wonder the Seminoles' top three rushers have averaged at least 5.9 yards per carry.
Two-quarterback systems are risky, but Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper has pulled it off in 2013. He has deftly complemented the passing of Anthony Boone with the dual-threat abilities of Brandon Connette, who has run—and thrown—for 13 touchdowns this season. One of the hurlers will need to get the ball in the hands of WR Jamison Crowder, the Devils' most dangerous playmaker on the roster.
WR Kelvin Benjamin has emerged as a beast in the passing game for Winston. The 6-5, 234-pound sophomore is beginning to learn how to maximize his physical prowess, catching a touchdown pass in seven of the last eight games. In Saturday's rout of Florida, he established career-highs with nine grabs for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Duke doesn't have anyone to cover Benjamin, which will also free up speedy WR Rashad Greene and sure-handed TE Nick O'Leary.
Duke won't dominate on defense, but it's developed playmakers at every level, from DE Kenny Anunike and LB Kelby Brown in the front seven to Jeremy Cash, Ross Cockrell and Devon Edwards in the secondary. The Blue Devils will give up yards, but they've tended to compensate with takeaways and red-zone stops. Cash is a former Ohio State transfer, who saw Durham as a much-needed change of course after the Buckeyes were hit with NCAA sanctions in 2012.
Duke will win if … it generates multiple non-offensive touchdowns.
The Blue Devils are not equipped to compete with Florida State in a traditional manner, going toe-to-toe with the ‘Noles for 60 minutes. Duke is going to need something extraordinary to happen, such as defensive and special teams scores, in order to narrow the talent divide. Crowder and Edwards, just a redshirt freshman out Covington, Ga., will be central figures in the Devils' quest to remain competitive. Crowder has taken back two punts for six, while Edwards has scored four times, two on picks and two on kickoffs. Duke needs unconventional point production if it's going to hang with the nation's top-ranked team.
Florida State will win if … it maintains its focus.
The specter of a national championship. The Winston sexual assault investigation. The blowout of Florida. The presence of a four-touchdown underdog. There are so many things swirling around that are capable of diverting the Seminoles' eyes from the ball. FSU simply has to be FSU, a formula that's led to an average margin of victory of 53-11 through 12 games. The ‘Noles need to run their attack and put their superior talent in a position to make plays. If Florida State keeps its head down and follows the formula that got it to this point, Fisher ought to be able to empty his bench in the second half.
What Will Happen: Duke has done a magnificent job playing Cinderella throughout 2013, but there'll be no fairytale ending in Charlotte this weekend.
The Blue Devils possess the confidence and the momentum to beat any good team right now. Florida State, though, is elite, and it holds an edge over Duke at every unit of the depth chart. The Seminoles will have far too many options on offense for a plucky defense that'll feel at times as if it's playing shorthanded. Winston will shine again, making one final statement for Heisman voters to ponder. If the game happens to be competitive beyond halftime, mark it down as a big surprise, and then go ahead and hand Cutcliffe whatever Coach of the Year hardware that's available.
Prediction: Florida State 49 … Duke 17
Line: Florida State -29 o/u: 61.5