FSU_Pitt graficBy W.G. Ramirez

Mark this day down in history, when the Atlantic Coast Conference meets the Big East, sort of. In reality, it’s a conference clash, as we officially have a bigger ACC that is ready to thrive.

The Pittsburgh Panthers, formerly of the Big East, will make their long-anticipated ACC debut tonight when they host nationally ranked Florida State (No. 11 AP/No. 12 USA Today Coaches), which is ranked in the top 15 of preseason polls for the third straight season under head coach Jimbo Fisher. The nationally televised game will reveal whether or not the Panthers (2012: 6-7, 3-4 Big East) are ready to rebound from their less-than stellar campaign in 2012. The Seminoles and Panthers usher in a new ACC which expands to 14 teams in 2013 with the addition of Pitt in the Coastal Division and Syracuse in the Atlantic Division. And this is one helluva red carpet to be welcomed down, as the visiting Seminoles were 12-2 overall last season (7-1 in ACC play) and the last time we were watching them was in the Orange Bowl, thrashing BCS spoiler Northern Illinois.

Though quarterback E.J. Manuel is now in the NFL, the Seminoles are ranked in the top 15 of preseason polls for the third straight season under head coach Jimbo Fisher, and their offense is still a threatening one. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jameis Winston replaces Manuel under center, but it’s the Seminoles’ deadly tailback tandem of James Wilder, Jr. and Devonta Freeman that will steal the offensive headlines for Fisher and the Noles. The junior tandem brings quite a bit to the table, as they collectively enter 2013 with career totals of 2,034 yards and 28 touchdowns. Wilder is just 205 yards shy of joining Freeman as a member of the career 1,000-yard rushing club. Since the 1993 National Championship season the Seminoles have only had two career 1,000-yard rushers on the same roster seven times. The Seminoles made 71 trips inside their opponents’ 20-yard line last season and converted 65 of those opportunities for a 92 percent efficiency rating, which ranked No. 8 among all NCAA FBS programs. Of their 40 rushing touchdowns, 34 came in the red zone, which was good for a share of the fifth-highest total among FBS teams.

On the other side of the ball, the Seminoles ranked No. 1 nationally in four key defensive categories last season: 88 three-and-out series forced, 3.85 yards per play allowed on defense, 2.75 yards allowed per rush and 161.86 passing yards per game. Florida State’s defense rolls into the 2013 campaign after being the only team in the country to rank in the top three in pass defense, rush defense and total defense. Interestingly, the Seminoles have 17 shutouts in 66 season openers – 25 percent of their lid-lifters. And if you’re wondering how they’ll do while ordering room service, no worries, as their stop unit has held opponents to 20 or less points in six of their last seven road ACC contests.

The Panthers, who lost last year’s opener at home to FCS opponent Youngstown State 31-17, will start a new quarterback under center, but one that comes with plenty of experience. Redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage started his freshman and sophomore seasons at Rutgers before transferring to Arizona and now Pitt. Savage led Rutgers to a 12-1 season in 2009 and ended the season with his team ranked No. 8 in the nation. The story for the Panthers might be on the other side of the ball, however, and how well the defense can contain Florida State’s re-tooled offense that averaged 39.29 points per game, which ranked 10th nationally and finished 2012 ranked 19th nationally in total offense by averaging 470.8 yards per game. The Panthers return eight starters from a defense that ranked 17th nationally in fewest yards allowed last season (330.5 avg.). They’ll be led by senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who led the Big East in tackles for a loss last season (18.5) and can be disruptive for a defense that ranked 17th in the country in fewest yards allowed. Donald will have his hands full this year, though.

KEY SHOWDOWN: Florida State’s Rashad Greene vs. Pittburgh’s Jason Hendricks

Biletnikoff Award Candidate Rashad Greene averages one touchdown every eight touches over his career, and tonight the dynamic receiver will lead the Seminoles against the Panthers’ dynamic Jason Hendricks, the Panthers’ leading tackler in 2012 who will be counted on to help Donald lead the defensive effort by neutralizing Greene from his safety position, if the Panthers want any kind of chance at winning their first ACC game.

Greene, Florida State’s leading receiver the past two seasons, has 95 catches, 1,337 yards and 16 touchdowns in his career. The speedy junior also ranked third in the country last season in punt return average (15.4) including two touchdowns, and that might not bode well for Pitt’s special teams unit, which is skeptical coming into this season. Hendricks, meanwhile, was selected a preseason all-ACC First Team. He was a 2012 All-Big East Second Team after leading the Panthers with six interceptions, in 2012 – the most in the Big East, and most from a Pitt player since 2000.

BY THE NUMBERS: Florida State (-10′, 49.5) at Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh leads all-time series 5-3 straight-up, but the schools are meeting for the first time since 1983.

FSU is 50-16 all-time in season-openers and 17-10 when opening the season on the road. FSU is 4-2 in ACC road games in the opener.

The Seminoles come into this one mired in ATS skids of 1-4 ATS in conference play and on the natural stuff, 1-6 in September, 0-6 when toting a suitcase and 1-4 overall. On the other hand, Pittsburgh is in on ATS win streaks of 4-1 at home, 6-14 in September and 5-2 overall.

Last season, Jimbo was 0-5 as the visiting chalk, but he did close the entire campaign by covering on a neutral field with a win and cover in the Orange Bowl. Make note, Fisher has covered the opener the past three seasons since taking over the ‘Noles.

Speaking of coaches, the Panthers have covered 8 of their last 11 for Paul Chryst, while they also roll in on a 2-0 spread streak when installed as a home underdog of 7-or-greater points since 2008, including a 35-17 outright win over then-nationally-ranked Virginia Tech last year.

ON DECK: Both teams have a bye next week and return to action on Sept. 14.

The Seminoles host UNR, while the Panthers play host to New Mexico.


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