Conference Championship Odds: The ACC

With all the hype surrounding Florida State this preseason you would think Bobby Bowden is coming back with one of his 1990s Seminoles teams. It isn’t surprising, seeing as Florida State finished the season ranked in the Top 5 for 14-straight seasons from 1987 to 2001, that college football fans would want one of its cornerstone programs to rise from the ashes. What is surprising, however, is that Florida State had similar hype last year before fizzling to a 9-4 finish. Heck, the ninth win came in an 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl victory against Notre Dame – a contest that undoubtedly would have been dubbed the most unwatchable game during bowl season had it not been for UCLA and Illinois fighting offense in the Fight Hunger Bowl (Illinois won, 20-14). Everyone wants the Seminoles to succeed. There is no question Florida State is on the right track, but what exactly will equal success in 2012? Ten wins? An ACC Championship? A national title? Put it this way: Getting 10 wins likely would put Florida State in the ACC Championship game, which obviously could lead to an ACC title which, if the Seminoles played their previous cards right, could lead to a spot in the BCS National Championship Game and potentially a national title. As it stands now, Florida State is the odds-on-favorite to win the ACC. Here is the complete list of odds to secure the automatic BCS bid from the Atlantic Coast Conference this season:
***Continuing with the Seminoles, if you believe last year’s 5-3 ACC record was more of a fluke and Jimbo Fish is ready to work his magic in Year 3 then by all means jump on Florida State. There’s no arguing this defensive unit will be one of the best in the nation in 2012. That alone makes Florida State a major player in the BCS title hunt let alone the race for the ACC crown. Nevertheless, we’ve seen great defenses struggle to win because the offenses can’t score points. If EJ Manuel plays to his capabilities (think Ohio State’s Braxton Miller as a comparison) FSU can be really special this year. The schedule sets up very nicely. Two of last year’s losses – Wake Forest and Clemson – both travel to Tallahassee this season. That doesn’t necessarily mean victory, however, as Virginia tripped FSU up at home – in the senior game, no less –  in 2011. The good news for FSU fans: Virginia isn’t on the 2012 schedule. There are three potential losses on the schedule assuming FSU is as good as advertised: Clemson, at Miami, at Virginia Tech. The Clemson game is key because the Tigers are the only threat to FSU in the Atlantic Division and a loss there puts the Seminoles a de facto 1 ½ games behind the Tigers. Miami is more of a trap game than anything else. The Hurricanes are still rebuilding but a homecoming game in the middle of October is always a dangerous atmosphere for a road team. Lastly, the Thursday night trip to Blacksburg in early November will be a dozy. Florida State’s chances of running the table are better than you think. There is also a chance the Seminoles lose the three above-listed games and stagger to a disheartening 9-3 regular season. At +135 there isn’t a huge payoff for taking Florida State but it’s a basic little risk, little reward play that could net you a few potato chips.
***If there’s been one constant in the ACC it’s seemingly been Virginia Tech in the ACC title game. With the weakness that is the ACC’s Coastal Division, Virginia Tech seems like the safest and most logical choice to square off against the Atlantic Division’s champ for a BCS berth. Digest these numbers: Virginia Tech is 21-3 in the ACC’s regular season the past three years; 33-7 the past five years. Those are dynasty-like numbers which look even better when the teams tied for second in that stretch are Clemson and Georgia Tech, who are 16-8 the past three years and 25-15 the past five seasons. That shows how dominant the Hokies have been in conference. With a special teams unit that will always be one of the nation’s best you should always have faith in the Hokies. At +275, the odds assume the Hokies will run into the juggernaut known as Florida State in the ACC Title game. It seems like a very safe bet. It’s also worth noting that the last time these two teams played for a BCS berth in 2010 Virginia Tech won, 44-33. This is all about playing the odds. It appears North Carolina is Virginia Tech’s only challenger for the Coastal Division crown but the Tar Heels are ineligible for postseason play. As I mentioned in the previous Big Ten Championship Odds post, Wisconsin is a great play because its major divisional competition, Ohio State, is ineligible for postseason play. The Buckeyes’ postseason ban makes the Badgers a no-brainer pick. The UNC-Virginia Tech battle should be framed much the same way; The Tar Heels could win the division, but even a second-place finish slots the Hokies in the ACC title game. Now, sitting with a 50/50 chance at the conference crown, why not take Virginia Tech at +275?
***Clemson is an intriguing case. This is a team that started last season 8-0 before losing three of its next four games to stumble into the ACC title game. Nevertheless, Clemson had Virginia Tech’s number in 2011, winning both the regular season and ACC Championship games. All that glory led to a 70-33 pillaging in the Orange Bowl. Depending on whether you focus on last year’s positives or negatives will impact the way you view the Tigers in 2012. Much of last year’s team returns and of the team’s four road games (at Florida State, at Boston College, at Wake Forest, at Duke) Clemson likely will be chalk in every game except the big one in Tallahassee. There is a great chance Clemson finishes the season 11-1 with the lone defeat coming to the Seminoles. That doesn’t bode well unless Florida State trips up twice (very possible with some difficult road games) allowing Clemson to sweep in and steal the Atlantic Division. This is only a two-team race as any team other than Clemson or Florida State representing the Atlantic Division in the conference title game would be a monumental shocker. The most intriguing part of the Clemson-Florida State battle is the timing; it’s the ACC opener for Tigers and just the second game for FSU. That game will set the tone for the rest of both teams’ seasons. If Clemson can steal that game it’ll have the inside track on the ACC Championship. Siding with the Tigers at +500 knowing one game can pay huge dividends is always a risk to take.
***I like to make a sleeper pick and it would have been North Carolina at +1400 had the Tar Heels not been ruled ineligible for the postseason. Look at UNC’s schedule! No Florida State or Clemson in the divisional crossovers and the biggest divisional challengers (Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech) are at home. You can’t make any dough on this prediction but put it in stone: UNC will be this year’s USC. The Tar Heels will be very dangerous and will likely finish no worse than 10-2. I would have jumped all over +1400 like it was Kate Upton had the Tar Heels been eligible. Unfortunately, the +1400 is a fa├žade. (Luckily for you, Kate Upton is not). If you want to be daring, take Virginia at +1900. There is the outside possibility Virginia could pull the road upset of Georgia Tech in mid September and enter November undefeated in conference play. It’ll be the four-game closing stretch of at N.C. State, Miami, North Carolina, at Virginia Tech that proves to be a high-risk, high-reward play. I’m not gutsy enough to make this call as I the talent gap between the ACC’s elite (Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina) and Virginia is much closer to an ocean than a moat. But, if you’re ballsy, this is the dart to throw.
Bottom line: Put simply, this is a three-team race. Florida State, Clemson or Virginia Tech will win the ACC title in 2012. The Seminoles are clearly the best team, hence the reason they’re 27/20 favorites while Virginia Tech, the projected “second-best team” is at 11/4. I’d call a play on either rather safe. Clemson provides the best low-risk, high-reward possibilities at 5/1 and the Tigers are also the defending ACC Champions. There are no guarantees in the ACC other than the conference winner coming from this trio. Follow the numbers and seal the deal with your gut.