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ACC Championship Game Preview: #20 Duke vs. #1 Florida State

SONY DSCDuke vs. Florida State
8:00 PM ET
Saturday, December 7
Dr. Pepper ACC Championship Game
Bank of America Stadium
Charlotte, NC
TV: ABC
Radio: Blue Devil IMG Sports Network

Duke in 2013: 10-2 (Defeated North Carolina 27-25 last time out)
Florida State in 2013: 12-0 (Defeated Florida 37-7 last time out)

DUKE INJURIES
OUT – LB Chris Hoover, S Garrett Rider, QB Thomas Sirk, WR Jack Wise, S Anthony Young-Wiseman
OUT FOR SEASON – OT Tanner Stone, DT Jamal Wallace

FLORIDA STATE INJURIES
OUT – WR Isaiah Jones
OUT FOR SEASON – QB Jacob Coker, OL Ira Denson, WR Jarred Haggins, TE Kevin Haplea, DB Tyler Hunter, LB Matthew Thomas

The dream season continues for the Blue Devils as they will face the #1 team in the country for the ACC Championship Game on Saturday night in Charlotte. The Seminoles represent the toughest opponent of the season for Duke, boasting the nation’s #2 scoring offense and the top scoring defense.

HOW DUKE CAN WIN

Make no mistake, this would be an upset for the ages, but it’s well within the realm of possibility. The Blue Devils will have to play nearly flawless in all three phases, and they may need some more help from the football gods. There will be three essentials to a Blue Devil victory: turnovers, third down, and explosives.

Duke is +3 on the season in turnover margin, including a +6 differential during their current 8-game winning streak. Ball security is paramount against the Seminoles, who lead the country in turnover margin. Florida State’s secondary has tormented opposing quarterbacks all season – just ask the Demon Deacons – and Anthony Boone will have to continue to make sound decisions with the football. Heisman favorite Jameis Winston has thrown just 8 interceptions on the year, but Jim Knowles will have to find ways to give Ross Cockrell and company a chance to add to that total. Duke has to win the turnover battle in order to pull off the monumental upset.

Third down conversions have been another area of dominance for the Seminoles this season. They have converted on over 55% of 3rd downs, while holding their opponents to a success rate of just 29.5%. At times, Winston has been his best on 3rd downs, and the Blue Devils will have trouble matching up with the trio of Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw, and Rashad Greene. With the number of weapons that Florida State has offensively, the best defense for the Blue Devils may be a good offense. Converting on 3rd down and sustaining drives will be critical. The Blue Devils will have to rely on their veteran offensive line to find holes for their running backs, setting up manageable 3rd down distances for Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Expect Kurt Roper to try to find ways to move the chains and eat the clock, much as they did last week in Chapel Hill on their 17-play, 95-yard, 8 and 1/2 minutes second-quarter drive. The Blue Devils have dominated opponents in the red zone for much of the season. In the Championship Game, Duke [Brandon Connette] must find their way into the end zone, while getting 3rd down stops and holding the Seminoles to field goals.

For the first time in a long time, Duke has been able to limit explosive plays, but also has the playmakers to create explosives on their own. To win on Saturday, the Blue Devils must keep Winston and his explosive offense in check. That’s easier said than done when you’re facing an opponent with the talent of Florida State. During his time at Duke, Jim Knowles has been the master of a bend-but-don’t-break defense, and that’s exactly what the Blue Devils will need against the Seminoles. Similarly, Duke has to find a way to steal the momentum from the ‘Noles, and a big play or two from Jamison Crowder or DeVon Edwards could be the difference in a close game.

HOW FSU CAN WIN

Control the line of scrimmage, keeping Duke’s running game in check. In last year’s matchup, the Blue Devils managed just 3.1 yards per carry against Florida State in Tallahassee. If the Seminoles can get into the Blue Devil backfield consistently, something few opponents have been able to do this season, it will be a short night for the Duke offense.

Get the ball to your playmakers in space, and the points will continue to pour in. Winston has been very good this season, and he’s helped out by an outstanding group of wide receivers. He’s found them 35 times this year for touchdowns through the air, with his favorite end zone target being the explosive Kelvin Benjamin. But as good as they’ve been through the air, they’ve been even better on the ground. Three different Seminoles have 8 or more touchdowns on the ground this season, and the team has totaled 38 rushing touchdowns.

Keep the momentum away from Duke. An early lead for the Seminoles could put Duke into a hole they can’t climb out of. Against a 4-touchdown underdog, the last thing Florida State wants to do is give the Blue Devils reason to believe. Early turnovers and early touchdowns could bring Duke’s improbable run to a quick halt.

WHY DUKE WILL WIN

Because Duke has already won. This team was picked to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division. Not only did they not finish last, but they went on the road and won in Blacksburg, defeated two ranked opponents, swept the states of North Carolina and Virginia, and secured 10 wins for the first time in school history. Regardless of what it says on the scoreboard, the Blue Devils will leave Charlotte as winners. While Duke has nothing to lose and has found a way to win in close games, the Seminoles have everything to lose and have rarely been tested of late. The odds may seem stacked against them, much as they have all season, but these Blue Devils believe in each other, and they believe they will win. After all they have accomplished, why bet against them now?