Why Clemson-Florida State has become college football's best annual game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For years, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney faced questions at the ACC Kickoff about when the league's teams would win major nonconference games to make the league nationally relevant again.

"My only message was, 'Listen, we've just got to go to work, keep our mouth shut, keep our head down, and we've got to go win those type of games,'" Swinney said. "If you don't like it, then change it."

Clemson and Florida State changed it. Sure, the ACC could use more depth so it's not perceived simply as a two-team conference. But given where this conference once resided, it's time to acknowledge what's staring us in the face: Clemson-Florida State has become college football's best annual game.

Yes, it's even better than Alabama-LSU.

Before this goes any further, let's define "best." This doesn't mean best rivalry (hello, Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma, and the list goes on and on). This doesn't definitively mean the best game in a particular year (2016 nonconference games like Florida State-Ole Miss, Oklahoma-Ohio State, Oklahoma-Houston and Alabama-USC are among many compelling games on a short-term basis). And this doesn't necessarily mean the best game based on viewership (Clemson still has a smaller fan base than another national programs, and games like Alabama-LSU and Ohio State-Michigan are suited to potentially draw higher ratings).

Here's what best does mean and why you need to circle Oct. 29 as a must-see game when Clemson travels to Florida State: It's the most likely game to have huge national implications each year. Clemson-Florida State has supplanted Alabama-LSU as the one annual game you can bank on needing to watch to figure out the postseason.

Alabama owns a five-game winning streak against LSU, which hasn't finished as a top-10 team since 2011. The Alabama-LSU series could always reignite in 2016 given the talent level of the teams. Ohio State-Michigan figure to enter this conversation very soon with the Urban Meyer-Jim Harbaugh battles. Ohio State-Michigan State has been an elite game for each of the past three years.

But look at the facts about Clemson-Florida State. Only three schools have been a top-15 team in the final AP Top 25 over each of the past four years: Alabama, Florida State and Clemson.

If Clemson and Florida State, out of the same conference, finish in the top 15 in 2016 for the fifth straight year, they will have done something the Alabama-LSU series has never accomplished under Nick Saban and Les Miles. From 2010-13, Alabama and LSU each finished in the top 15, as did Stanford and Oregon out of the Pac-12.

Florida State won the final BCS title in 2013 and reached the College Football Playoff Semifinals in 2014. Clemson barely lost the CFP National Championship to Alabama in 2015.

The talent in Clemson-Florida State games has reached an incredibly high level. The Clemson-Florida State games over the past five years produced 62 NFL Draft picks and 12 first-rounders. That's very close to the Alabama-LSU series (71 draft picks, 16 first-rounders) and Florida-Florida State (64 draft picks, 14 first-rounders). Clemson-Florida State tops the talented produced from more notable annual series, such as Miami-Florida State (55 draft picks, 10 first-rounders), Ohio State-Michigan (43 draft picks, eight first-rounders) and Oklahoma-Texas (40 draft picks, 12 first rounders).

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher said the talent and physicality of the Clemson games is "absolutely" similar to SEC games he used to coach in for 13 years. The talent is so good at Florida State that Fisher has his team on a Showtime TV series this season just to show it's not all about recruiting.

"People think you can just get great players and win," Fisher said. "I want people to live in these guys' lives, know what they do, have an appreciation for what happens and how much work and dedication these kids put in to be at the level they play at."

Just like Alabama-LSU once did, Clemson-Florida State is the game in the back of everyone's mind that will define both teams' season. Win that game and you've got a chance for a very special season.

"We treat all games the same," Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said, "but you know [Florida State] is a very physical and very intense game."

Seminoles running back Dalvin Cook said Clemson is moving into the conversation of becoming Florida State's top rival. "That's a game that the fans and the players and our whole staff look forward to," he said. "They recruit talent just like we do so you've got to respect the game. That's just become the rival between Florida State and Clemson and I love it."

The Miami and Florida rivalry games will never be less important to Florida State, "but in our conference, that Clemson game on our side has been a huge game," Fisher said.

In each of the past five years since 2011, the Clemson-Florida State winner has won the ACC. The loser of that game has still averaged 10 wins.

This is the point of the conversation where some fans may say, "Well, of course both teams are good given how weak the rest of the ACC is." That argument overlooks the combined 16-7 record Florida State and Clemson have against nonconference Power Five teams since 2011. They've beaten Auburn, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, Florida and South Carolina over that stretch.

New coaches Mark Richt and Justin Fuente may help resurrect Miami and Virginia Tech, which are sorely needed to be relevant in order to provide more depth for the ACC. Louisville coach Bobby Petrino spoke confidently last week about how close his program is to regularly challenging the Tigers and Seminoles in the Atlantic Division.

"Both of them are doing amazing jobs with their programs in recruiting and developing players so we've got to try to match that," Petrino said. "I feel like we're right there."

Still, this is a conference that now stretches from Miami up to Syracuse, where basketball is king and football is an afterthought. New Orange coach Dino Babers uttered one of the all-time great media day quotes last week that perfectly summarizes ACC football.

"Sometimes I feel like Syracuse is Jon Snow in the 'Game of Thrones,' you know what I mean?" Babers said. "We've got that whole thing up there. We're keeping the ice people out. All the guys down south are living it up and eating grapes and all those other different kingdoms, and we're freezing our tails off up there and we're holding it down so they can have that lifestyle."

The last time either Clemson or Florida State lost to another Atlantic Division opponent was Oct. 6, 2012, when the Seminoles fell 17-16 at NC State. Because Clemson and Florida State have made the ACC a two-team conference, two interesting but very distinct questions are floating around the conference these days.

Question one: Could the Clemson-Florida State loser still reach the playoff by winning out and give the ACC two playoff teams? (See, I told you Clemson-Florida State is the new Alabama-LSU. SEC media members are the kings of asking this question. Before the first CFP, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema boldly predicted the SEC would get a "minimum" of two teams in the inaugural playoff. News flash: That didn't happen.)

"It would have to be an unusual possibility across the board for two teams to get in," Swinney said. "But it's not out of the realm of possibility at all."

Question two: Because of the ACC's reputation, does the Clemson-Florida State winner have to go undefeated to reach the playoff? That was a nagging question looming over the ACC as the Seminoles and Tigers enjoyed undefeated regular seasons in each of the past two years.

Since the playoff started, the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 have all put a one-loss team into the four-team field. Unlike the BCS, the playoff better allows for one mulligan. We've yet to see how the CFP Selection Committee will evaluate a one-loss ACC champion because Florida State and Clemson each went undefeated in the 2014 and 2015 regular seasons.

While the committee expressed serious questions about Florida State's resume in 2014, Clemson remained strong in the committee's eyes throughout 2015. However, if North Carolina had defeated Clemson for the ACC championship last year, the one-loss Tar Heels' resume probably wouldn't have been strong enough to get in over other teams, including two-loss Stanford.

It's worth noting Jeff Sagarin's final conference division rankings last season, in order: SEC West, ACC Atlantic, Big Ten East, Pac-12 North, ACC Coastal. Yes, the much-maligned ACC Coastal was No. 5 and rated ahead of the Pac-12 South, entire Big 12, Big Ten West and SEC East.

Fisher was asked last week if the ACC would be helped by having a rotating cast of teams at the top instead of always Clemson and Florida State. ACC coaches would have loved to have faced that question a couple years ago. Fisher's response was telling.

"Who's in the SEC, is there a rotating cast over there?" he said, laughing.

Lately, the SEC has become Alabama and everyone else and lacks a consistent No. 2 at the top. There's an Ole Miss here and an Auburn there. The dynamics have changed, as they often do in college football. Not long ago, Fisher noted, Alabama and LSU consistently were at the top and even playing for the national championship.

Different factors could derail the significance of Clemson-Florida State on Oct. 29. For starters, Clemson opens the season at Auburn and Florida State plays Ole Miss in Orlando. If either team loses their opener or gets upset before Oct. 29 -- they both play Louisville before the showdown in Tallahassee, Florida -- a little of the luster comes off Clemson-Florida State.

The Seminoles ended 2015 by badly losing to Houston at the Peach Bowl, and they've got to answer their quarterback question to avoid relying too heavily on running Cook. The Tigers' recruiting depth will be challenged as they replace so many key defensive starters for the second straight year.

If nothing else, Deshaun Watson and Clemson's explosive offense vs. Florida State's talented defense should be a must-watch in 2016. Still, as Swinney and Fisher reach their prime as head coaches and given their programs' recent track record, the odds are Clemson-Florida State will continue to matter in the playoff race.

Clemson and Florida State kept kicking at the door and broke through. It's time to open the door and acknowledge the obvious: Clemson-Florida State is now the best annual game you must watch.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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