Moment of truth: Clemson, Florida State square off in a game both teams need badly

The Tigers and the Seminoles meet in a make-or-break game Saturday, one of the week's highlights.

Equilibrium. It’s a state of being where all is in harmony, if only for an instant. On a bicycle, it’s the moment when a rider finds perfect balance. In economics, it’s the point where supply and demand curves intersect. And in the ACC, it’s this Saturday’s Florida State-Clemson game.

For just one moment, the ACC stands perched in perfect balance. Florida State, with its championship history, is on the way up; Clemson, with its nouveau-riche run of titles, is on the way down. They’ll meet for a high noon kickoff in Death Valley — come on, you can’t get more dramatic than that — with not just seasons, but entire legacies on the line.

“Everybody knows this is a big game,” FSU coach Mike Norvell said earlier this week. “You’ve got a team that the last however many years has pretty much led the ACC in how they’ve played and what they’ve done.” And now, Florida State has caught them.

It’s funny how quickly one can become accustomed to success. Just two years ago at this point, the Georgia Bulldogs still had to deal with chants of “1980” — as in, how long it had been since their last national championship. Now, the Dawgs are on the hunt for a three-peat and in the conversation for greatest football dynasties ever.

Clemson hadn’t been relevant on a national scale for three decades before Swinney launched the program into orbit in the mid-2000s. Clemson has won seven of the past eight ACC championships, and its six appearances in the College Football Playoff rank second only to Alabama’s seven. Over a five-year stretch from the 2015 to 2019 seasons, Clemson played in four national title games and won two of them.

Dabo Swinney and the Tigers are running to keep ahead of obsolescence. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)
Dabo Swinney and the Tigers are running to keep ahead of obsolescence. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman)

But all good things come to an end, sometimes gradually, sometimes with a sudden, crushing 28-7 nationally televised loss to Duke. Swinney has spent the past couple years as a Blockbuster Video owner in a Netflix world, willfully avoiding the transfer portal while his rivals — first on the national stage, now in the ACC — have used it to load, and reload, their rosters.

While Dabo has been staying on 16, other programs have hit blackjack again and again, and now the once-terrifying Tigers are cruising on fumes and name value. The result: The Tigers are home underdogs for the first time since 2016, and they’ve plummeted out of both the Top 25 and the national championship conversation.

Florida State, on the other hand, has attacked the portal, with transfers led by quarterback Jordan Travis (from Louisville) and Keon Coleman (Michigan State). Transfers dot the entire Seminole roster, and will for several seasons to come. Clemson doesn’t even rank in the top 100 of Rivals’ transfer rankings. You can love the portal or you can hate it, but you can’t ignore it, and that’s largely what Swinney has done.

“Do I prefer the portal? No,” Swinney said earlier this week, “but am I opposed to it? No, absolutely not.” Good thing, because it’s not going away. Loyalty and development from the ground up are admirable, but in 2023, they don’t win football games.

Swinney also made the bold, for him, step of firing offensive coordinator and Clemson alum Brandon Streeter and hiring Garrett Riley from TCU, and the results in the Duke game were NSFW. Since then, the Tigers have dropped 114 points on Charleston Southern and Florida Atlantic; no disrespect to those fine institutions, but Riley’s offense will get a much tougher test this week.

Keon Coleman and the 'Noles look to stay ahead of the pack. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Keon Coleman and the 'Noles look to stay ahead of the pack. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

For Florida State, this is a once-in-a-decade moment. The 'Noles haven’t beaten Clemson since 2014, and haven’t won at Clemson since the Jameis Winston days of 2013. FSU is coming off a less-than-inspiring performance against Boston College — when you’re up 31-10 in the third, you shouldn’t be fighting to hold onto a 31-29 lead one quarter later — and could use a confidence-building victory over Clemson.

The stakes here, for both teams, couldn’t be any higher for a regular-season game. With a victory over a top-10 team, Clemson reclaims some legitimacy. With a victory over a legacy program, FSU settles its business, and will have a clear path to the playoff. With a loss, Clemson is out of the hunt for both a conference championship slot and a playoff berth. With a loss to an unranked opponent, Florida State loses both in the rankings and in the eyes of critics.

“Playing a perennial championship-caliber team, what Clemson has been these last however many years, you know it’s going to be a challenge,” Norvell said. “We know we [have] played quality opponents. We’ve seen a variety of different looks. Now it’s time to go play our best game here this week on the road against a really good opponent.”

At the moment, Clemson and FSU exist in equilibrium, each wanting what the other has. That’s the thing about equilibrium, though. When it goes, it goes fast. And it’s awfully hard to get back once it’s gone.