Now that the Little Engine that Could made it up the hill, only to be met by an oncoming freight train, it’s time to clear the tracks and take stock.
That includes asking where ACC football would be without Florida State, and why anybody would even mention Duke gaining the ever-disdained “moral victory” after losing to FSU, 45-7.
This season marked the 14th time Florida State emerged as the ACC champion, the third since the league added enough teams to host a title game in 2005. That’s 14 times as the ACC’s premier product in 22 seasons as a member of the conference, or nearly two of every three years in the let’s-add-football-teams-to-make-the-ACC-relevant era.
Over the past two seasons Florida State is 17-1 against all ACC competition, its sole loss coming at N.C. State last year. FSU also finished in the top 10 nationally in both of those seasons.
That feat was last achieved in consecutive years by an ACC team in 2004 and 2005 by Virginia Tech, then a new member of the conference.
The overall dominance exhibited by FSU almost matches the more frequently discussed hegemony of Duke and North Carolina in men’s basketball, where since 1992 the pair have won 16 league titles.
Next month marks the end of the BCS era, capping 16 years of championships and delicious controversy. For all the griping, more times than not the system did match the best teams in the country to determine college supremacy. This year will be no exception, as Jimbo Fisher’s No. 1 squad faces No. 2 Auburn.
During those 16 years, the ACC has been represented four times in the title game – all by Florida State at the end of the 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2013 seasons. FSU and thus the ACC won the BCS championship once so far -- in 1999, the same season in which Chris Weinke won the Heisman Award.
Since the ACC was founded for the 1953 football season, two of its players have been Heisman winners. Both were Seminoles. Besides Weinke, Charlie Ward gained the honor in 1993 to cap coach Bobby Bowden’s first national championship season.
Should Jameis Winston get this year’s Heisman, as expected, that will mean three ACC honorees -- all from Florida State. (It also means that, for the foreseeable future, mention of the Heisman and allegations of sexual impropriety will remain part of the same narrative.)
Meanwhile, throughout the year critics looking for nits to pick in FSU’s resume often gravitated to its weak in-league schedule, or "Atlantic Coast Conference dreck," as Dan Wolken put it in USA Today. Jeff Sagarin, who rates teams and schedules for the same newspaper, ranked Florida State’s schedule as the nation’s 63rd-toughest.
Given the drag exerted by its ACC brethren, and the Tallahassee school’s temperamental and geographical affinity for south Georgia rather than south Florida, it’s no wonder there’s periodic talk of FSU bolting for richer football hunting grounds.
Then again, the path to supremacy in the ACC is lined with fewer obstacles than in the SEC, another league that began as an offshoot of the Southern Conference.
Auburn, which Sagarin ranked sixth compared to No. 1 overall for FSU, had the 20th-best schedule.
Florida State and Auburn will meet in the final BCS title game on Jan. 6 in a matchup of haves and have-nots, historically speaking. Just as the Kentucky-dominated SEC has long envied the superior stature of ACC basketball, so from its birth the ACC has coveted the football prowess of the SEC.
“Whoever we would have played in the game we would want to win against,” FSU receiver Kenny Shaw said after defeating Duke. “But it is good that we’re playing an SEC team.”
Auburn’s ascent on the strength of consecutive victories over top-10 opponents from within its league assured the SEC of its eighth consecutive berth in the BCS title game. It helped that the War Eagles hail from the SEC West, Sagarin’s top-rated league division.
Coupled with the defeat of previously undefeated Ohio State, Auburn’s late burst put an end to a week’s worth of overheated commentary on the propriety of elevating the one-loss Tigers over the Buckeyes, rated 11th by Sagarin.
When Michigan State snapped Urban Meyer’s streak of 24 straight wins as OSU coach, it knocked the Buckeyes into the Orange Bowl, where they’ll face ACC also-ran Clemson.
Those with long memories, especially when they involve the downfall of bullies, recall Buckeye coach Woody Hayes punching Clemson defender Charlie Bauman in the throat along the sidelines late in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Clemson won 17-15 and Hayes was fired.
That’s the only time the two programs met previously in football.
Then there’s Duke, the Little Engine that thought-it-could, thought-it-could all the way to the ACC’s Coastal Division championship. Crushed by FSU in the league title game, David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils face Texas A&M in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
After Duke performed competitively against the nation’s most overpowering team, the moral-victory phrase cropped up here and there. If there’s a cliché that deserves to die, it’s “moral victory.”
For starters, no one wants to lay claim to such a feat. The only times the expression is applied, it’s immediately spurned. Moreover, wouldn’t the more accurate expression in Duke’s case be a “morale victory?” What’s moral about playing as hard as you can, or performing well in defeat when no one claimed your opponent cheated?