CLEMSON - In past years the month of Nov. was a time of fine-tuning for Florida State, a chance to polish the offense and prime the defense for another National Championship run.
The Seminoles could do that because, seemingly every year, the Atlantic Coast Conference race was a mere formality. Florida State was the league champion, and everyone else was fighting for a spot in the Gator Bowl.
But when Papa Bowden's bunch visits Death Valley Saturday, the circumstances will be remarkably different. The Seminoles are a loss away from being virtually eliminated from a shot at the ACC title, while Clemson needs a win to keep its championship homes mathematically alive.
As it stands now, any one of five teams still have at least a shot at winning or sharing the ACC title. Clemson head coach Tommy Bowden said such parity has been a long time coming.
"This conference has needed this for a long time," he said following Monday's practice. "Usually it's over with early and everybody's chasing second. This is what this conference has needed, and I'm glad it's finally happened."
North Carolina, Maryland and Florida State all have one conference loss heading into this week. Clemson and Georgia Tech have two.
The Tar Heels would seem to be in the best shape of the group, having already beaten Florida State and Clemson, and getting a shot at Tech this Thursday. Only a loss to Maryland early in the season keeps UNC from all but clinching the title with a win this week.
The Terps, meanwhile, figure they may have the inside track if the Seminoles get tripped up by either Clemson or Georgia Tech. Maryland had its chance to be the outright leader after last Saturday, but couldn't contain Florida State's offense in the second half of a 52-31 loss in Tallahassee.
Then there's Clemson. Despite all the defensive problems, despite the lack of consistency on offense, the Tigers can force their way back into the thick of things given a pair of semi-realistic - albeit unlikely - scenarios:
Clemson must beat Florida State and Maryland in the next two weeks and Duke on Dec. 1, and hope UNC loses to either Georgia Tech, Wake Forest or Duke.
Crazy? Perhaps. But it's much more fun than just handing the trophy to Florida State every year.
Even so, Bowden is careful not to overhype the possibility with his players.
"I talk more about playing the best they can play. I really haven't mentioned (the conference race)," he said. "I've thought more along the lines of correcting mistakes and playing better than the week before."
- Linebackers John Leake (sprained ankle) and Chad Carson (sprained knee) missed practice Monday. Carson should be back by Wednesday, while Leake's status remains questionable.
Tight end Ben Hall (strained neck) and wide receiver Airese Currie (sprained foot) also practiced Monday.
- Cornerback Kevin Johnson missed Monday's practice due to a death in his family. He will practice Tuesday and Wednesday, miss Thursday for the funeral, but should be available Saturday for the Seminoles.
- Carson was named the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week after recording 23 tackles last Saturday at Wake Forest. The total is the third highest in team history, trailing only Keith Adams (27) and Jeff Davis (24).