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For League Supremacy

The most-hyped, biggest-stakes showdowns for Florida State historically have involved one of two opponents:

Miami and Florida.

"That's what we're used to," senior defensive end Andre Wadsworth said. "Around here, those are always the big games."

Get ready for an addendum.

This year's Game of the Century features _ Are you sitting down? _ not the Hurricanes, not the Gators but FSU's conference brethren North Carolina.

And yes, we are talking about football, not basketball.

Saturday night's game in Chapel Hill between the No. 3-ranked Seminoles and No. 5 Tar Heels should determine the Atlantic Coast Conference champion and a potential national championship matchup in the Orange Bowl.

"A couple years ago you couldn't look and say UNC was a big game, but now it really is," FSU senior safety Shevin Smith said. "We have to fight to win our ACC title; the championship's on the line. And really, this game is more for the national championship than any game this year because if you lose now, you don't have any hope."

The loser still could garner an at-large invitation to the Sugar Bowl, probably to play Tennessee if the Volunteers win the Southeastern Conference title.

Of course, that assumes FSU or UNC finishes 10-1, a scenario more problematic for the Seminoles, who end the season at archrival Florida.

"This is what we all do this for: to get to a game that's this much fun," UNC coach Mack Brown said. "The guys want attention when they come to college, and this is fun for us to finally get to one like this.

"And when they're calling this weekend Judgment Saturday, with teams like Michigan and Penn State playing and Nebraska and Missouri and Florida State and then all of sudden North Carolina is stuck in there, I take that as a great compliment."

Unlike FSU, which for a decade has won at least 10 games a season and finished in the AP top 4, UNC needs a win to establish itself as a truly elite program.

Trips to the Gator, Carquest, Sun and Peach bowls are nice and all, but they are not exactly the top shelf of the post-season potables. UNC has not played in a major bowl since the Cotton in 1950.

"This maybe is not the biggest game, but it is the most important," UNC senior linebacker Brian Simmons said. "You rarely find a game that means so much."

It's also the kind of game the ACC long has needed.

In the ACC's 45 years, this is the first meeting between teams ranked in the AP Top 5 and just the second between two Top 10 teams.

No. 2 Clemson nipped the No. 8 Heels 10-8 in 1981 to propel itself to the national title. Most observers point to No. 16 Georgia Tech's wild 41-38 win against No. 1 Virginia in 1990 as the league's zenith. The Yellow Jackets went on to claim a share of the national title.

Such ballyhooed matchups are usual occurrences in the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten. Not just every year, but almost every week.

"There's no question it's a showcase game for the Atlantic Coast Conference," said league commissioner John Swofford, a former athletic director at UNC. "And the more highly competitive games within our conference that we have, the better it is for the league and the perception of the league."

In national circles, the ACC rarely is mentioned in the same breath as the SEC or Big Ten. Instead, it has been unfairly dubbed Florida State and the eight dwarfs.

"I didn't think they'd be ranked this high because the ACC schools don't get enough respect anyway," Wadsworth said, excluding his own.

Most folks, Swofford said, would be surprised if they tallied the number of players and stars from ACC schools on NFL rosters.

Most folks also would be surprised to learn the ACC has a far better record against non-conference, AP-ranked teams than any other league. It is 4-2.

North Carolina State beat host No. 13 Syracuse in overtime, Wake Forest beat No. 21 Northwestern, FSU nipped No. 23 Southern California at the L.A. Coliseum and UNC beat No. 17 Stanford. No other conference has a winning record against ranked non-conference opponents.

"We're probably a lot better conference than people realize," FSU coach Bobby Bowden said. "The teams are getting better, the conference is getting better and then games like this now, for the first time, a game of this magnitude will have national interest. That's what will push our conference into respectability.

"What do we need more than this in football but a Final Four? This gives you a championship type-game between two conference opponents. We need this, and I imagine it's the beginning of something we're going to see more of."

Here's a look at how each league has fared against non-conference AP-ranked teams this season:

ACC 4-2

Big Ten 2-3

Pac-10 3-5

Big 12 2-7

MAC 1-6

WAC 1-8

SEC 0-0

Southern 0-2

Big East 0-5

Big West 0-5

C-USA 0-6

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