CHARLOTTE — Florida State has regained its perch atop the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Now Jimbo Fisher plans to stay there.
The third-year coach talked all season about re-establishing a “winning culture” at Florida State and his team took a big step toward that Saturday night.
The 13th-ranked Seminoles opened with a flurry on offense and rode a strong defensive performance the rest of the way to hold off unranked Georgia Tech 21-15 to capture its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 2005 and earn a trip to the Orange Bowl.
It was Florida State’s 13th ACC title.
“I think you got to understand, you have to win one before you can ever say, ‘I’m back,’” Fisher said. “And everybody wants you to win the national championship. You got to win a conference championship before you win the national championship and keep getting in that hunt.
“Now our kids understand what it takes, how hard it is. But you know they’re champions and I’m going to tell you it means something. You think different. You act different. You become different. Hopefully it will translate into the offseason with our young guys and we can keep that culture around here like it used to be.”
Although he had a rough outing Saturday night, quarterback EJ Manuel finishes up ACC play with a legacy of having brought a title back to what was once considered a prestigious program but one that had certainly fallen off in recent years.
“You know, I only see greatness from here on out,” Manuel said. “They got a lot of great players, a lot of great young players. Guys understand what it takes to get to this point, you know, so I don’t see us going back to where we used to be. You know, I think Florida State is back in the conversation.”
James Wilder Jr. ran for two touchdowns as the heavily favored Seminoles (11-2) built a 21-6 lead at the half and held on to win, easing some of the sting from last week’s 37-26 loss to their bitter rival, No. 4 Florida.
The win didn’t come easily.
Georgia Tech came in as a two-touchdown underdog and it looked like they might get blown out, but the game wasn’t decided until defensive back Karlos Williams intercepted Yellow Jackets quarterback Tevin Washington with less than a minute remaining.
“Luckily it got tipped up in the air and I just tried to catch the ball,” Williams said of his first career interception.
“We knew the road was going to be hard anytime you win the championship,” Fisher said. “Our offense played a great first half and our defense played a great game overall.”
Despite its record, Georgia Tech (6-7) is bowl eligible after receiving a waiver from the NCAA on Thursday.
The Yellow Jackets earned the right to play in the ACC Championship after Miami, which tied for the same record in the Coastal division, placed sanctions against themselves and elected not to participate in the game.
“Everybody has told them they’re not very good and they don’t belong and I think they wanted to show that they did, that they did belong,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said of his team. “And, like I said, they came out and played their tail off. They played with some effort and some heart.”
Down by 15 at half, the Yellow Jackets shut down the Seminoles in the second half and forced two turnovers by Manuel to get back in the game.
Defensive end Emmanuel Dieke jarred the ball from Manuel’s grasp and recovered the loose fumble in the third quarter.
Washington, who hadn’t completed a pass all game, suddenly came alive, hitting Chris Milton for a gain of 18 yards and B.J. Bostic for 32 yards to reach the Florida State 3. Robert Godhigh picked up a critical first down on fourth-and-1 and Washington scored his 19th touchdown of the season on the following play to cut Florida State’s lead to 21-15 with 6:27 left in the game.
Defensive back Jemea Thomas intercepted Manuel’s downfield pass to give the Yellow Jackets one last chance with 2:17 left in the game.
But Georgia Tech’s last ditch effort ended when Williams intercepted Washington at the Yellow Jackets 44 and returned it to the 4 to seal the victory.
Florida State captured the momentum early.
The Seminoles, who came in with the fourth-best rushing defense in the country, stuffed Georgia Tech on three plays on its first possession setting the tone for the game.
Taking advantage of a shanked punt, the Seminoles took over at the Georgia Tech 42 and scored six plays later as Devonta Freeman took a pitch from Manuel and ran around right end for a 3-yard run. It was Freeman’s eighth touchdown of the season and his seventh in the last six games.
Wilder scoring runs of 16 and 1 yard to make it 21-3 before the Yellow Jackets added a field goal before halftime.
Fisher had some concerns about defending Georgia Tech’s triple option offense coming into the game. The Yellow Jackets came in averaging 40 points per game in ACC play this season and 323.3 yards rushing per game, third-best in the country.
But Florida State, led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Bjoern Werner, swarmed running backs David Sims and Bostic in the first half, repeatedly stuffing the option.
Georgia Tech played without its leading rusher Orwin Smith, who sat out with an ankle injury. Smith came in averaging 9 yards per carry.
Prior to the game, a 22-year-old man fell off fourth-floor ramp leading to the upper level at Bank of America Stadium and was taken to an area hospital with what authorities called “life-threatening” injuries.