Why Florida State’s stunning loss could cost the whole conference
Florida State hadn’t lost an ACC game in more than three years. Roberto Aguayo had not missed a fourth-quarter field-goal attempt since … ever. Georgia Tech ended both of those streaks Saturday night thanks to college football’s latest improbable special teams walk-off.
In doing so, the Yellow Jackets may have endangered their entire conference’s playoff hopes.
In a season that’s thus far been unusually light on major upsets — even No. 3 Utah’s 42-24 loss Saturday night to USC came to a near-touchdown favorite — No. 9 FSU losing to a 2-5 Georgia Tech team is no small matter. Jimbo Fisher’s team was an incredible 33-1 since the start of the 2013 season. It had not lost to an ACC opponent since Oct. 6, 2012. And FSU, up 16-13 in the fourth quarter and deep in Georgia Tech’s red zone, probably should have won this one, too.
But a deflected Everett Golson pass to the end zone resulted in not only his, but also Florida State’s first turnover of the entire season. That led to a game-tying Georgia Tech field goal, which led to Fisher’s trotting out Aguayo to attempt a game-winning 57-yarder which led to … Tech’s Lance Austin recovering a block and running 78 yards the other way for the win.
One loss does not automatically eliminate any Power 5 team from playoff contention, especially when, in FSU’s case, it has road games remaining against 7-0 Clemson and 6-1 Florida.
But therein lies the problem. This ‘Noles team, with its inexperienced offensive line and shaky receiving corps, is not very likely to win both those games — which means the ACC is likely putting all its eggs in the Clemson basket.
Saturday started with the sixth-ranked Tigers humiliating Miami 58-0, the most glaring indictment yet of embattled ‘Canes coach Al Golden, but also a testimonial for Dabo Swinney’s budding national title contender. Since beating a top 10 Notre Dame team earlier this month, Deshaun Watson and Co. have destroyed three straight conference opponents.
Clemson is clearly the ACC’s most viable playoff contender. But the Tigers, like the ‘Noles, may not be able to afford a loss — because of that blocked field goal. It puts quite the damper on both teams’ resumes.
FSU must hope that Georgia Tech turns around its season from here. While Ohio State did make last year’s playoff despite a loss to a 6-6 Virginia Tech team, that game took place way back in Week 2. By Selection Sunday, the Buckeyes had defeated three Top 25 teams, two of them in lopsided fashion.
The ‘Noles have no such win to this point. And a mid-October loss to a medicore team is harder to explain away.
Clemson at least has a solid non-conference win on its resume, but annual rival South Carolina may have a losing record by the time the teams meet on Thanksgiving weekend. As such, FSU will likely be the only Top 25 team the Tigers face before the ACC championship game. Whoever emerges from the Coastal Division will likely be ranked, as Duke, Pittsburgh and North Carolina are all 6-1.
But if Clemson were to lose at N.C. State next week, turning around and winning the conference at 12-1 may still not be enough, especially when at this late stage of the season there are still seven undefeated teams in the other Power 5 conferences.
The ACC surely would have loved to have a showdown of undefeated teams when Clemson hosts FSU on Nov. 7. Since that’s not going to happen, the conference’s new hope is for the Tigers to beat the ‘Noles for the first time in four years and win the games they’re supposed to.
That, and don’t try any last-second 57-yard field goals.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel and Facebook. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.