CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson star quarterback and Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson is driven by the goal of winning another Atlantic Coast Conference championship and returning to the College Football Playoff’s title game.
He also knows the Tigers’ biggest obstacle sits in their division: Florida State.
“We have to start over,” Watson said Friday at the ACC Kickoff preseason media days. “Last year’s wins, touchdowns or stops isn’t going to do anything for us this year. We know we have a target on us and we have to go 10 times harder to get where we want to go this year than we did last year.”
Make no mistake: the Tigers and Seminoles are dominating the league in addition to the Atlantic Division home they share. They have won the past five ACC championship games. They haven’t lost a game to another division opponent in approaching four years. Both have carried an unbeaten record into the four-team playoff to follow FSU’s national-championship season in 2013.
And for the record, they meet Oct. 29 in Tallahassee, Florida.
“That’s a game that the fans and the players, our whole staff looks forward to,” said FSU’s Dalvin Cook, who led the league with 1,691 yards rushing last year. “They recruit talent just like we do. … That’s just becoming one of the rivalries, between Florida State and Clemson — and I love it.”
While the ACC’s Coastal Division annually features a revolving door at the top and off-target preseason predictions, Clemson and Florida State have left little doubt about who’s in control in the Atlantic.
Clemson’s 23-13 home win last season snapped a three-game skid against Florida State. But the teams have combined to go 57-3 against the rest of the league — Clemson is 28-1 and FSU is 29-2 — dating to the start of the 2012 season.
FSU’s 17-16 loss at North Carolina State in October 2012 was the only loss by either team to another Atlantic opponent during that time.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren has seen that gap up close. His Wolfpack hung right with the Seminoles and Tigers at home over the past two years in shootout losses, only to see the then-No. 1 squads assert control by the fourth quarter.
Last year the Wolfpack led the Tigers 20-19 late in the first half before losing 56-41, the same score as the loss to Jameis Winston and FSU a year earlier.
“I think their depth is what makes them different than everybody else,” said Doeren, who is entering his fourth season.
“I think all of us have some really good players. They’re in a position now because of the recruiting classes they’ve had back-to-back-to-back and the longevity those coaches have had — they’ve both been in the league quite a while now where their whole team is theirs and then some.
“They can lose a guy and the next guy comes off the bench and doesn’t look any different. Most of us can’t do that.”
Louisville would appear to be the best contender to crack the Atlantic’s top two with nine returning starters, including mobile quarterback Lamar Jackson, from an eight-win team that beat Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl.
The rest of the division is murky.
N.C. State has some key returnees at skill positions but is looking for a new quarterback to run a new offense. Syracuse is breaking in a new coach in Dino Babers. Third-year Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson still has a young team in the midst of a slow rebuilding project, while Boston College is coming off an 0-8 league record under Steve Addazio.
“You have to shoot to beat them,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of Clemson and FSU. “But you have to take care of all your business if you’re going to accomplish what we want to be able to accomplish.”