Backed by dominant wins, ACC continues to own SEC in rivalry weekend
The SEC got its shot in, knocking No. 11 Louisville out of a likely spot in the Orange Bowl — and at least adding some intrigue to this Heisman Trophy race — but rivalry weekend was once again own by the ACC.
Geographical bragging rights belong to Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech after wins over in-state rivals Saturday — the Tigers and and Seminoles' coming in resounding fashion. Over the past three seasons, the ACC is 10-2 vs. the SEC in these games.
It's a domination that does have to come with a caveat: these wins are coming against the SEC East, a division that hasn't won a conference title since Florida in 2008.
This year in particular, the East has been especially bad, with just one team entering the regular season's last set of games with more than seven wins.
That being said, that one team with more than seven wins — No. 15 Florida — was simply overwhelmed 31-13 by the 14th-ranked Seminoles. The Gators were fifth in the nation in total defense, allowing 282.4 yards per game, and Florida State burned them for more than 100 more than that (387 to be exact), and running back Dalvin Cook piled up 153 and a touchdown on 26 carries.
“This is the game you put on the calendar at the beginning of the year,” Cook said. “You prepare for them and take advantage of the moment.”
Or, in the case of the Clean Old Fashioned Hate game, a chance to add insult to a difficult season.
The perceived power move Georgia made when luring prized defensive coordinator Kirby Smart away from Nick Saban and Alabama was only heightened by Georgia Tech going 3-9, its worst season under Paul Johnson. The Bulldogs were in position to own the state.
That never materialized this season. Georgia, after opening 3-0 after a close call vs. FCS opponent Nicholls — dropped four of five, including a 31-point loss to Ole Miss and a one-point defeat to Vanderbilt on homecoming. The Bulldogs did pull a 13-7 upset of No. 9 Auburn, but two weeks later, the lasting moment of Smart's first season may be Georgia Tech's Qua Searcy ditching on a trick play for a 6-yard TD to give the Yellow Jackets a 28-27 win after trailing 27-14 with under 12 minutes to play.
Johnson now has three wins in the rivalry, all coming in Athens.
“I was shocked,” Smart told reporters. “We covered it … really well. But a breakdown on the inside. We didn't get the guy on the ground. People probably overplayed the play. Everybody wanted to stop (Yellow Jackets quarterback) Justin (Thomas), and the guy ran it in.”
As mentioned, the SEC did deliver its blow, and this one hurt.
Heisman front-runner Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals were on a path toward the Orange Bowl, but after a rout at the hands of Houston the week, they couldn't afford another setback.
Jackson, stunningly set the stage for it.
Following a game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter — one after which he struck the iconic trophy's pose — by committing his fourth turnover as he fumbled on the Kentucky 10-yard line with 1:45 remaining. The Wildcats turned it into a 47-yard field goal by Tristan Yeomans with 12 seconds to play and a 41-38 win that snapped a five-game long streak in the rivalry.
He didn't fumble the Heisman away. With no real challenger, the only thing that could be impacted is his potential margin of victory after a forgettable closing performance. It did likely take Louisville out of the Orange, though, with CBS Sports' projections having it in the Citrus Bowl, which represents a drop of $13.75 million in payout.
“What he needed to do right there was hand the ball off and trust his teammates,” coach Bobby Petrino said of his QB. “Hand the ball off and let them make the play. That is exactly what his read told him to do. And then he just tried to do too much and turned the ball over.”
While the conference's best bet at the Heisman came up short, its favorite to make the College Football Playoff provided a beatdown of historical proportions.
Deshaun Watson tied a career high with six touchdown passes in throwing for 347 yards in a 56-7 rout of South Carolina, the Tigers' largest margin of victory in the series since a 51-0 win … in 1900.
Clemson led 21-0 after the first quarter, 35-0 at the break and went into halftime having outgained the Gamecocks 380-52.
“We wanted to jump on these boys real quick,” Watson said. “That's the motto every game, put pressure on them and have them back on their heels.”
It was the fruition of a promise Watson made his high school coach in Gainesville, Ga., before he ever stepped foot on Clemson's campus: he would never lose to South Carolina.
He's the fourth QB in program history with three wins in the rivalry, joining Steve Fuller — whose No. 4 Watson shares — and Charlie Whitehurst.
“On our end, it's like daddy beating the son. Giving the son a whooping” Watson told reporters. “We run the state.”
The ACC, to be clear, is running three of them. That, out of four, ain't bad.
Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, 'Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,' and 'The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.' are now available.
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