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ACC Championship Game: How they got here


Jimbo Fisher's master project has blossomed with Jameis Winston. Photo: USA Today Sports

Florida State is one game away from playing for their first BCS championship since 2000. Duke is once again entering rare territory, where football is still a topic of conversation in December rather than entirely on men's basketball. Duke is also looking to prove they belong on the same field with the best of the ACC and Saturday will be their chance they have been waiting for after winning eight straight games. The Seminoles entered the season with plenty of hype, while Duke had something to prove. They will meet this weekend in Charlotte with the ACC's automatic BCS berth on the line, but Florida State has their eyes set on a bigger prize at the end.

How did Florida State get here?

Head coach Jimbo Fisher has been a master at work over the last few years. His hard work has paid off in a big way this season as Florida State completed their first undefeated regular season since 1999.

Fisher replaced the legendary Bobby Bowden following the 2009 season and immediately started to breathe new life in to a program capable of being a dominant force in the ACC and in the national discussion. It is not a coincidence that Florida State signed a top ten class each year under Fisher and has brought in a better haul than Florida twice with top three classes. Florida State has regained their swag as a power in the ACC, winning the ACC championship in 2012 for the first time since 2005. The Seminoles had lagged in the ACC before Fisher took over control of the program, and now there is little in their way of continuing this momentum in the coming years. As for this season, the expectations were high heading in with a top ten ranking, but nobody knew just how good this team would be with a freshman taking over at quarterback. It did not take long to have that question answered.

Jameis Winston had a spectacular debut for Florida State with a Labor Day road opener in primetime at Pittsburgh. The Panthers, playing their first game as a member of the ACC, received a rude welcome to the conference as Winston quickly jumped in to the front of the pack in the Heisman Trophy conversation. In his first college football game, Winston was unnerved by completing 25 of 27 pass attempts for 356 yards and four touchdowns. Winston continued to pile up big numbers as Florida State jumped out to a 3-0 start with great ease. In late September Florida State shipped up to Boston to play a revitalized Boston College team and were met with their first real dose of adversity. Boston College took a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter, the largest deficit of the year for Florida State. At that point, Winston went to work. The freshman threw a 56-yard touchdown to Rashad Greene to quickly cut in to Boston College's lead, and a remarkable 55-yard bomb to Kenny Shaw at the end of the first half gave Florida State a 24-17 lead.

The moment of the season we all realized Florida State was going to be a real national title contender came three weeks later with a mid-October clash of ACC titans at Clemson. The fifth ranked Seminoles flat-out destroyed the third-ranked Tigers, 51-14. Florida State quickly silenced a deafening Clemson home crowd by jumping out to a 17-0 lead with a Winston touchdown pass and a Mario Edwards Jr. fumble return before the Tigers could sniff the scoreboard.A 27-7 halftime edge would only get worse as Florida State pounded the home team with a 24-7 second half. Florida State moved up to third in the AP top 25 and started jostling for position with Oregon for the first spot behind Alabama. Florida State would grab a firm hold of second after Oregon was taken out by Stanford and the Seminoles continued to pound opponents to set a clear path to Pasadena. Following a 37-7 victory at Florida, Seminoles fans rejoiced as Alabama was stunned by Auburn knowing that for the first time since 2000, Florida State was officially the team to beat.

How did Duke get here?

In 2012 the Duke football team was one of the feel-good stories in college football. That was nice, but now Duke is looking to prove last season was not a fluke.

Duke found a winning formula early on last season but showed they still had some growing to do after losing their final five games of the season. It seemed as though the fun had come to an abrupt end, but credit David Cutcliffe and his Blue Devils for looking back at what happened last season and learning from their mistakes. Duke had hit a wall last season during their losing streak with blowout losses to Florida State and Clemson, the cream of the ACC. Using those games as measuring sticks may have positive experiences for Duke despite how rough the growing pains may have been.

This season Duke had to replace their leading passer (Sean Renfree) but returned their leading rusher (Jela Duncan) and leading receiver (Jamison Crowder) from 2012. The quarterback position would be an interesting position as the Blue Devils found a winning formula using Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette in various situations. Duke started with a 2-0 record against a couple of weak opponents and things quickly looked sour as ACC play opened with back-to-back losses at home to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. If the first two games gave us a first glimpse of what Duke football was going to be this season, the 2012 season was certainly going to be written off as a fluke. But Duke has yet to lose a game since, a tremendous credit to Cutcliffe and his staff.

Duke's eight-game winning streak started with a non-conference win over Troy and a 28-point victory over Navy. Once back in ACC play, the Blue Devils hit the road at Virginia and Virginia Tech and returned home with wins in each. The victory in Blacksburg was the true turning point for the ACC Coastal Division, as the Hokies lost an upper hand in the division and Duke all of a sudden was right back in it. An 18-point victory over North Carolina State followed and then Duke took control of the division with another 18-point victory, this time at home against Miami, a team in some free fall.

Duke had to gut their final two games out against Wake Forest and North Carolina. In each game Duke fell behind and needed some big plays to come back and seal a victory. Credit Devon Edwards for some big plays on special teams and defense down the home stretch, including what turned out to be an ACC Coastal Division-clinching interception against North Carolina on Saturday. The schedule, overall, has been much more favorable to Duke than the 2012 season was. Now, against Florida State, Duke once again takes on the role of David to Florida State's Goliath. Will Duke have any stones to hurl at the Seminoles?

Kevin McGuire is the managing editor of Crystal Ball Run. Follow McGuire on TwitterFacebook and Google+.

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Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Member of the FWAA and National Football Foundation. College Football Hall of Fame voter. Also managing Bloguin's NittanyLionsDen.com and Macho-Row.com.

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