When Syracuse played defending national champion Florida State the only thing surprising about the outcome was the score.
The Orange have played the top-ranked team in the AP poll 10 times and won only once. So while no one really expected them to upset the Seminoles in October, the 38-20 setback to the Seminoles at home was not as lopsided as expected.
The Seminoles separated themselves from the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference last season, dominating teams en route to the national championship. And while schools such as Clemson, Miami, Duke, Louisville and North Carolina certainly have the wherewithal to challenge for the conference title, the rest of the teams, including other ACC newcomers Syracuse and Pittsburgh, are looking to crash the part at the top.
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”Those programs have great history and great tradition,” Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said. ”I don’t think there’s any doubt” they can compete for the national title.
The Orange’s play against Florida State was an indication why Fisher believes what he says.
Syracuse had a true freshman – AJ Long – making his first college start at quarterback and battled Fisher’s Seminoles.
Now, Florida State (8-0, 5-0 ACC, No. 2 CFP) isn’t quite as good as last year – at least statistically – but the Seminoles are still legitimate title contenders. Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville had the Seminoles reeling but couldn’t derail their title hopes.
”Florida State is way up there, but some teams have played them really close this year,” said Syracuse defensive back Julian Whigham, a Florida native. ”It shows that every team can compete with everybody. That gap, I think, is starting to close. I think a lot of teams are going to grow and get better.”
Clemson (No. 19) and Duke (No. 22) are ranked this week and among seven ACC teams that are bowl-eligible, with North Carolina State one win away. Only Syracuse (3-6, 1-4 ACC) and Wake Forest (2-6, 0-4 ACC) are in jeopardy of not attaining the requisite six wins to play in the postseason.
”Duke was not very good, and now Duke is a relevant factor in the ACC. It’s all cyclical,” Syracuse assistant George McDonald said. ”Anything is possible. That’s the beauty of it. We want to win an ACC championship. We want to compete for a national championship. Everyone has that vision.”
There is history to validate that hope: Georgia Tech, Syracuse, and Clemson have won a national championship and Pitt has four. Problem is, Tech’s was in 1928, the Orange’s in 1959, Clemson’s in 1981, and Pitt’s last came in 1976 when tailback Tony Dorsett was wreaking havoc on defenses.
To vie for a national championship in the current four-team playoff setup would require – at the very least – winning the ACC title.
”You have to bring it every single week. This is a deep league from that standpoint,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. ”We’re a little more balanced (than other leagues). Anybody can truly beat anybody on any given day.”
According to Scout.com, Syracuse, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Louisville have no four-star recruits in the pipeline for 2015. In contrast, the Seminoles have 11, Clemson seven, North Carolina six, Miami five, Pitt two, and North Carolina State and Duke one apiece. (FSU and Clemson also have one five-star each).
The results on the field reflect the disparity.
Though regularly ranked in the 1980s and 1990s, Syracuse’s best national ranking at season’s end since that national championship was fourth in 1987.
Pitt has not lost more than three games in a row since 2007 but has won five straight just once since 2009. Boston College’s headline-grabbing victory in September over then-No. 9 Southern Cal came a week after the Eagles lost their ACC opener at home to Pitt, which started 3-0 and has since lost five of six. North Carolina’s defense was exposed by East Carolina, giving up a program-record 70 points in a September loss.
Not the sort of consistent performances needed to challenge for a conference title, let alone a national championship.
But former Syracuse and Denver Broncos star Floyd Little believes the struggling programs can turn things around.
”There’s only 11 or 12 elite teams, and they reach all over the country,” said Little, a special assistant to Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross. ”They’ve got players on their second team that can start for most teams. We don’t have enough players.
”Can we get back? Of course we can,” Little said. ”We just have to continue to build and continue to work hard.”
North Carolina State wide receiver Bo Hines agrees.
”Obviously, there might be a little bit of gap difference when you analyze recruiting, but it’s really not that great,” Hines said of Florida State. ”I definitely feel like they are a great team, but I feel like we can be in the same position in a couple of years.”
AP Sports Writers Ralph Russo in New York; Hank Kurz in Virginia; Aaron Beard and Joedy McCreary in North Carolina; Gary Graves in Louisville; Will Graves in Pittsburgh; Pete Iacobelli in South Carolina; and John Raby in West Virginia contributed.
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