The Florida State Seminoles and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will square off in the 2012 ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Saturday, with a spot in the Orange Bowl on the line.
Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles won the ACC's Atlantic Division crown with a 7-1 conference record, but still come into this contest on a bit of a down note, having lost the regular-season finale last week at home to rival Florida, 37-26. It was one of the rare occasions in 2012 where the FSU defense failed to deliver in an otherwise stellar campaign.
Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets will represent the Coastal Division in this event, despite tying for the division with both Miami-Florida and North Carolina. The Tar Heels' postseason hopes were stripped away by NCAA sanctions, while Miami's were self-imposed, leaving the spot in the ACC Championship to Georgia Tech, its third appearance in the game. Still, Georgia Tech finished up with three straight ACC wins, before last weekend's lopsided loss to arch rival Georgia (42-10).
Johnson credits the team for playing hard down the stretch.
"My goal for the second half of the season was to make sure we played better, got the ship righted, and made sure we got bowl eligible," said Johnson at his weekly press conference. "That was the push and I thought that was realistic goal for the team going into the second half of the year sitting at 2-4. As we started playing and winning and you looked at the conference standings, it became apparent that it could happen. And all we could do was win each week and then see what happened and that���s what the kids did. They found a way to win the last four conference games and it ended up unfolding that way."
Florida State holds a 12-9-1 series advantage, although Tech has closed the gap with wins in each of the last two meetings.
Florida State's offense was solid on the year, but against the Gator defense, really struggled, gaining just 300 total yards, while the team committed five turnovers. It was supposed to be a statement game for veteran signal-caller EJ Manuel, but instead, FSU's field general completed just 18-of-33 passes, for 182 yards with one TD and three interceptions.
On the year, the numbers have been much better all around. Florida State is averaging 41.5 ppg and doing so with great balance, averaging 203.8 yards rushing and 273.3 yards passing.
Despite the poor performance last weekend, Manuel has still completed 67.4 percent of his passes, for 2,967 yards and 22 TDs. Rhashad Greene has been the top option downfield, leading the team in receptions (43), receiving yards (614) and TD catches (5).
The ground game lost a key component a few weeks ago with the season-ending injury to Chris Thompson (687 yards, 5 TDs), but both Devonta Freeman (571 yards, 7 TDs) and James Wilder Jr. (514 yards, 9 TDs) have filled the void.
One of the nation's stingiest run defenses was abused last weekend in Tallahassee. as FSU was gashed by Florida for 244 yards on the ground in the loss.
Again, FSU has been far more impressive on the season, yielding just 15.1 ppg (seventh nationally), 85.1 yards rushing per game (fourth nationally) and 249.4 yards of total offense (second nationally).
The Florida State defense is led up front by a pair of monster bookends in Cornellius Carradine (team-high 80 tackles, 13.0 TFLs, 11.0 sacks) and Bjoern Werner (39 tackles, 18.0 TFLs, 13.0 sacks). Christian Jones (76 tackles, 6.0 TFls, 2 fumble recoveries) is the player to watch in the linebacking corps, while Xavier Rhodes (34 tackles, 2 INTs) is a veteran presence in the secondary. Carradine, Werner and Rhodes were all All-ACC First-Team members, while Jones earned Second-Team honors.
Fisher wasn't surprised to see his stars be recognized for their efforts.
"I'm very proud of those guys; very happy for them," Fisher said. "Their hard work has paid off. They're accomplishing a lot of individual goals, but they did it within the team concept. No one sacrificed their individual goals. They're being rewarded for the success that we've had as a team. I think they are very deserving."
The Yellow Jackets may have backed into the title game, but they do present problems for any opponent with Johnson's triple-option. Georgia Tech has rushed for more yards than any team in the nation since 2008 and comes into this game ranked third nationally at 323.3 yards per game.
It isn't just a workhorse in the backfield getting the job done but a collective that makes the Yellow Jackets so effective on the ground. Tailbacks Orwin Smith (673 yards, 9.0 ypc) and Zach Laskey (623 yards, 5.0 ypc) have certainly been productive, but it is quarterback Tevin Washington (618 yards, 18 TDs) that seems to be the engine that makes it all work. Washington recently became the ACC's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. When Washington isn't under center, Vad Lee (489 yards, 9 TDs) gets the call and usually delivers.
The Yellow Jackets have been hit or miss on the defensive side of the ball and unfortunately, there have been far more misses than hits, like last weekend's debacle against rival Georgia. On the year, the team is now allowing 30.7 ppg and nearly 400 yards of offense (391.9).
Junior safety Isaiah Johnson has had a strong season, leading the team in tackles (82), with one sack, one INT and one fumble recovery. Fellow safety Jemea Thomas is a close second with 74 stops and leads the team with three INTs. Junior linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu has been a playmaker all year, earning All-ACC honorable mention, with 59 tackles, 10.0 TFLs and 8.0 sacks.