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Monday Notes: Go Time

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Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

If there was ever an example of looking ahead, Saturday in Death Valley can serve as the blueprint. I think most people would agree this was a bit of a sandwich spot for the Tigers with the Noles on tap, but boy was it ugly for three entire quarters. Venables' defense again kept this team in the game and forced what could turn out to be one of the most important turnovers of the season. I'm not sure we win this game had Venables not been coaching on that side of the ball. Perhaps the perception of his defenses are inflated because of what transpired under Kevin Steele, but I've still been thoroughly impressed at the product he's put on the field in year two as DC. We haven't seen a defensive line be this dominant for the orange and purple in a long time.

Clemson can win with its defense. This is the biggest difference with the Tigers this year, and the reason they are still in the hunt for the national title heading into Week 8. For the second time this season, the defense found a way to win when the offense wasn’t clicking for four quarters. Led by national sack leader Vic Beasley, Clemson’s defense was the difference in its 24-14 win over visiting Boston College. Much like NC State did, the Eagles gave Clemson quite a scare. Clemson scored just three points in the first half against BC, but the game changed when Beasley scooped up a fumble by quarterback Chase Rettig and ran it back 13 yards for a touchdown.

Saturday was a survival game. It was ugly, the offense was completely out of sync for the majority of the game, and the kicking game (usually a strength) was bad. Still, we found a way to win and dominate in the fourth and you're going to have to do that if you want to win a championship. As a top five team Clemson has to understand they are going to get every teams best shot the rest of the way (what team wouldn't want to knock off a top 5 team? That's a season changer). We simply cannot take teams lightly and this game served as an important lesson and wake up call for the rest of the season.

Oh, how long ago that 2012 Orange Bowl seems. A defensive coordinator ousted. A successful program reaching only as far as its golden-armed leader and the offense would carry it. A catchy yet demeaning moniker memorializing what West Virginia did to the 2011 ACC champion Tigers: The South Beach Smackdown. Look who’s smacking now. When the Clemson offense stalls, the Clemson defense soars. Now they’re just showing off by actually scoring themselves, on top of stifling its fifth straight opponent in the third-ranked Tigers’ 24-14 survival over pesky Boston College on Saturday, allowing 77,506 fans at Memorial Stadium to finally exhale at the end of a nervy afternoon.

Turning our attention to this week, it's not hard to understand the magnitude of this game. With this being the highest ranked matchup ever in the state of South Carolina, and only the fourth all top 5 matchup in the ACC, the stakes are high. One of these teams will be vaulted (or solidified) into the #3 spot in the country and the national title hopes start to becomes very serious.

Offshore, Florida State opened as 3 points favorites, and in Vegas they opened -2.5 at the Wynn. To be honest, I figured Clemson would open -1 and then the books would let the market dictate where that line goes. From following what guys like Vegas guru Todd Fuhrman have said, this line would've opened Clemson -1, but the Tigers rather putrid performance on Saturday forced the bookmakers to readjust their lines. Simply put, Vegas doesn't trust us yet, and their power numbers suggest that on a neutral field, the Seminoles are roughly 6 points better (and would be -9 at Doak). I think we will have a situation where the public will bet the road favorites (because they saw Clemson sputter over the weekend), and sharps (professional betters) will be on the home underdogs. As for a motivating factor, I'd rather be underdogs anyway. Any little motivation tool Dabo can use (Gameday is here for them, you are underdogs in your own stadium, etc) could help, because hey it seemed to work for that Labor Day game.

Yet if you’re looking for some fun quotes out of Swinney to preview No. 5 Florida State’s impending visit to Death Valley facing off with No. 3 Clemson, he’s not biting. "Obviously we know it’s a big game, and it’s got a lot of national relevance. But at the end of the day, it’s going to count as one win or one loss," Swinney said. "If you change what you normally do, you send the wrong message. Every game to us is the biggest game of the year. That’s not coach-speak; that really is our mentality. I know it’s not that way for fans, but that’s how it has to be for us if we’re going to be consistent. "We really try to focus on Clemson and being the best we can be. If we continue to play to a standard, then the results take care of themselves, and I can live with whatever they are."

In terms of matchups, lets dissect this a bit. I'm sure I'm stating the obvious when I say this is a very good Florida State team. I think that they lacked the preseason accolades mostly because of what they lost on defense to the NFL and because Winston was a freshman taking over for a first round pick and senior quarterback. To say that he's lived up to his hype I think at this point is fair. Their offense has been relentless, consistent, and dominant. The thrashing of what I consider a top 5 ACC team in Maryland was their most impressive performance of the season. Their defense has looked as though it hasn't missed a beat with the departure of all that talent and Stoops to Kentucky, and their stats back that up. The Noles are #3 in scoring defense (to go along with the #3 scoring offense) and #7 in total defense. The Boston College game was really the only contest where the defense struggled in which they gave up almost 400 yards and 34 points. In that game, Williams gashed the Florida State defense for 150 yards at 5.3 yards a pop (he was held to only 70 yards and 2.9 ypc on Saturday). I think this will likely be the best defense we see this season, but I don't think they are without their faults. Their red zone defense and rushing defense both aren't top 20 and I think Clemson will look to exploit that.

GameDay hasn't been to the same site twice in a season since 2007, when they went to both Oregon and LSU twice. It makes sense why they're returning, as the matchup between the Tigers and the Seminoles will be between two teams with legitimate national title aspirations. The loser will have those aspirations go up in smoke, while the winner will have gotten past the biggest obstacle on their schedule. This will be only the third time GameDay has gone to Clemson, and they're 2-0 as hosts. However, they've lost each of the other five times they've appeared in College GameDay games. Florida State, meanwhile, is 11-14 all time in GameDay host site games.

I think a big key for the Clemson offense will be its ability to consistently run the ball. The old saying run to set up the pass still holds true, and if Clemson can establish running lanes with Brooks and McDowell, Tajh will have better throwing lanes. Something I noticed is that Clemson didn't run Tajh as much on Saturday. Tajh only ran it 9 times as opposed to 13-13-17 times against Georgia, NC State, and Wake Forest. I think Chad was trying to ensure that Tajh was healthy going into this game and didn't want to run him all game and risk injury. With such a huge game this weekend and everything being on the table, I will assume Chad will choose to run him more on Saturday against the Noles and that could be a big X factor.

I do worry about a few things this weekend. Despite how well the defensive line and linebackers have played, the secondary still makes me nervous. On the offensive side of the ball will we see the Clemson offense that asserted its dominance against the likes of Georgia, Wake Forest, and Syracuse, or will the one that showed up against Boston College rear its ugly head? Simply put, Clemson cannot afford to turn the ball over and not capitalize on field goals this weekend and still win this game. You can assume Florida State will bring their "A" game, and Clemson will have to do the same. Fundamentally sound football, eliminating turnovers, and tackling consistently are all things Clemson must excel at on Saturday.

2 - After scoring in 30-straight red zone trips up to Syracuse, the Tigers missed out on scores twice Saturday and now three out of their last six ventures inside the opponent’s 20. Their four chances/two conversions Saturday were still four and two more than B.C., who never entered the red zone.

9 - Clemson junior end Vic Beasley still holds the edge nationally in sacks, just ahead of ACC foe Aaron Donald (8, of Pittsburgh) and future ACC foe Lorenzo Mauldin (6.5, of Louisville). Donald did take the lead over Beasley in sacks per game (1.6-1.5).

As for a prediction, I'm not really sure what will transpire this weekend. I think there's a ton of value backing the home underdog at +3 especially in a rivalry game that very well could go down to the wire. Winston has been impressive, but how will he handle 85,000 Clemson fans relentlessly in his ear all night? He played well against Pittsburgh and Boston College on the road, but this is a much different sort of animal under the lights. If this game were in Tallahassee, I think it would be a huge struggle for Clemson to win this game because I think from top to bottom Florida State is a better football team (despite how much it pains me to say that). However, I like the Tigers this weekend. I think Vegas is overrating a lackluster performance on Saturday against Boston College, and giving a tad too much credit to Florida State for the stomping of Maryland (Winston was throwing touchdown passes in the fourth quarter and it was clear Jimbo was running up the score). I'll take the senior quarterback whose been in this type of game before, the home field, and the underrated Clemson defense and defensive line making key plays. Clemson by a field goal.