Clemson v Florida State
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For the first time in six years the conference's preseason favorite will be a subject for debate as ACC Media Days gets underway on Tuesday. Clemson has dominated the conference in recent years, but Florida State comes into the season believing it could challenge the Tigers and ascend back to the throne in 2023. So, there is one burning question heading into this week's event: Who will the media place atop its preseason poll as the season looms right around the corner?

Caesars Sportsbook essentially named Clemson and Florida State as co-favorites with the Tigers listed at the top with +130 odds and the Seminoles just a couple cents longer at +140. No other team in the conference has better than 12-1 odds. Most popular preseason publications have Florida State ahead of Clemson with Mike Norvell's group checking in consistently in the back half of the top 10 nationally. The Tigers have been spotted between Nos. 11-13. The iconic Phil Steele serves as an outlier, picking Clemson at No. 2 behind Georgia.   

Clemson has the rings, boasting seven ACC championships in the last eight years after a return to the top in 2022. Florida State's steady climb under Norvell saw the team post win totals of three, five and 10 over the past three seasons. Last year's double-digit win mark was the catalyst for the offseason hype, but the fact remains the Seminoles haven't won the ACC since 2014. The Tigers narrowly beat Florida State 34-28 in Tallahassee, Florida, last season but finished three games ahead in the ACC Atlantic. The league will be eliminating divisions this season, however, so the potential exists that these teams could play twice with a rematch in early December for the ACC championship.     

Another storyline that will be front and center at ACC Media Days is the transfer portal, and as it turns out, these two conference championship contenders could not be more opposite in how they've approached roster construction -- as we'll now dive into below. 

Norvell adopted the portal out of necessity

Florida State was a mess when Norvell arrived. Jimbo Fisher resigned at the end of 2017 with the program in steep decline since its national title win in 2013. Willie Taggart lasted less than two full seasons before he was fired in 2019. Norvell was hired to steady the ship but found only choppy waters as the pandemic shut the world down just a couple months into his tenure. The instability made roster construction and player development a challenge, so Norvell turned to the transfer portal to address key team needs. 

The success stories of those early additions -- like defensive end Jermaine Johnson and defensive back Jammie Robinson -- allowed Norvell and his staff to boast instant impact to future prospective portal additions. Ahead of the 2022 season, Florida State added another future all-conference defensive in Jared Verse, beefed up the offensive line and found ideal fits at the skill positions like running back Trey Benson. 247Sports' Brendan Sonnone recently declared Norvell the new portal king, noting that of Florida State's 15 All-ACC elections in 2022, 10 had transferred into the program. 

The reliance on the transfer portal was not as much a denial of traditional recruiting as much as it was a necessity to create success that Florida State could sell to high schoolers. Norvell once again signed one of the best transfer portal classes in the country this offseason, but he's also building a 2024 high school class that's pacing for the program's first top-15 finish since his arrival. A recruit in the 2024 cycle was only 7 or 8 years old when Jameis Winston and Co. blitzed through college football en route to an epic national championship game win. He's replacing memories of the down years between then and now with a buzz that the Noles are back. At a place like Florida State, it's impossible to overstate the impact of that positivity.

Clemson's recruiting advantage 

The Tigers have won seven of the last eight ACC championships with four different starting quarterbacks by recruiting at an extremely high and efficient level. Clemson identifies "OKGs" (a popular term in the recruiting world for "Our Kinda Guys") as well as anybody. Once Dabo Swinney's staff goes all in on a prospect, the hit rate -- the rate at which a top target eventually commits -- is among the best in the country.

It's not just good program fits for the Tigers, however. This is a program that regularly recruits at a top-10 to top-15 level with five-stars in every class going back to 2015. Clemson crashed into the top 10 in 2018 and 2020 with both classes including five five-star recruits. The Tigers' 2024 crop of high school recruits includes five-star linebacker Sammy Brown out of Georgia and five-star wide receiver Bryant Wesco out of Texas. 

So when Swinney seems defiant, like when he said, "transfer portal is right there in that locker room," he's showing trust in an approach that's won championships for his program. And it's the "program-fit" piece that allows some of those three-star and four-star prospects to develop into NFL Draft picks alongside five-star sure things. Based on Clemson's experience to this point, it'd be a mistake to run players off the roster every year to chase the best talent available in the transfer portal.

Sustainability will be the ultimate test 

Florida State would like to see its high school recruiting take a step forward, as it has each year under Norvell. While there was plenty of frustration with some of the recruiting defeats, like losing seemingly FSU-bound Travis Hunter to Deion Sanders and Jackson State, there have been wins, like holding on to five-star wide receiver Hykeem Williams. The state of Florida has too much high school talent to not utilize that home-field advantage. There hasn't been enough on-field success to be able to win all of those battles, but Norvell believes he is re-establishing the program's reputation across the state.

Norvell's success with the transfer portal is a blueprint for coaches who inherit difficult roster situations, but it is not sustainable if the goal is competing for national championships. Yet also, the question for Clemson is whether it can continue competing for national championships without utilizing the modern tools of roster construction. 

Clemson will, inevitably, find itself in a position where NFL departures or transfer portal exits create the need to bring in more from the portal than just a couple of veterans to round out the quarterback room like Hunter Johnson and Paul Tyson. The Tigers have continued to be among the best teams in the ACC, but after two seasons outside the national title picture, the time to lean more heavily on the portal might be coming sooner than later.

The programs at the very top of the sport right now are recruiting at a high level but also welcoming elite talent from the portal to fill specific needs on the depth chart. It seems the path to winning a national championship is a little bit Clemson and a little bit of Florida State. 

But which approach is the best to win the ACC in 2023? We'll get plenty of opinions at the ACC Media Days this week in Charlotte, but the real answer won't come until a conference champion is crowned the first Saturday night in December.