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"The Paper Test": Clemson vs. Florida State

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Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we had a little manufactured controversy in the comment section last year before the FSU game over the repeated posts by Nolefan about F/+ rankings.  The posts became so prevalent that Dr. B had to ban Nolefan from posting it.  This became one of their "initially funny but then overused" running jokes at Tomahawk Nation to go along with the ever popular "West Virginia just scored again, asterisk, and 5 of 10."

Now, I don't want STS to be accused of neglecting the numbers available so I'm going to throw the stats out there as we head into the big matchup.  Now, of course, we have only played two games so take what YOU want from these numbers.  There is no need to tell me "we've only played two games."  I will give my analysis and I will include the "small sample size disclaimer" often.  I will say that in my opinion, our strength of schedule has been almost equal with FSU so far.  I think that's probably the biggest reason you can give these numbers some relevance.

I'll post a lot of different numbers but since there was such a debate over this (or perhaps the over-valuing of it), let's go right to F/+.   The argument of STS about F/+, while twisted around on TN, remains the same:  It is a great indicator of what happened, not of what will happen.  For example, Ohio St. finished the year ranked ahead of us in F/+ last year and it was very clear that we had more talent than them and were playing on a different level athletically (VT reinforced this fact a few weeks ago).  Not to mention that Football Outsiders doesn't think F/+ becomes "fully operational," to coin a phrase, until week 7.   However, I will post it anyway. Here it is:

F/+: Clemson 16, Florida State 1

More Advanced Stat Rankings:

S&P Offense: Clemson 45, FSU 2

S&P Defense: CU 17, FSU 1

FEI Offense: CU 77, FSU 32

FEI Defense: CU 69, FSU 54

Advanced Stats are clearly in favor of FSU.  Does anyone think that FSU's offense is functioning at the "#2 in the Nation level" right now though.  Have they really been better than A&Ms, Oregons, Baylors, and Georgias?  Not sure about that and Football Outsiders doesn't even think their rankings should be used until after week 7 anyway.  I will say that I think our #45 ranking offensively is a lot closer to the truth than their #2 ranking.

Advantage by Football Outsiders Formula: Florida State

Let's go to the National Rankings:

Scoring Offense:  Clemson 10, FSU 45

Total Offense: Clemson 26, FSU 41

Scoring Defense:  CU 71, FSU 50

Total Defense:  CU 6, FSU 43

The National Rankings are clearly in favor of Clemson through two games.   As you can see, the disparity between Clemson's scoring defense and total defense suggests bad field position and even worse special teams.  Not to mention that the National Rankings would suggest that Clemson has been the better team.

Advantage on Paper: Clemson

Conventional Offensive Rankings Comparison:

Rushing Offense: CU 56, FSU 73

Yards per Rush: CU 86, FSU 52

Passing Offense: CU 16, FSU 20

Yards per Attempt:  CU 24, FSU 19

Sacks Allowed:  CU 79, FSU 16

Tackles for Loss Allowed:   CU 40, FSU 10

3rd Down Conversions: CU 57, FSU 101

This suggests that FSU is the more efficient offense while Clemson is creating more possessions for their offense.  No surprise there.  Everybody is talking about Clemson's pass rush vs. Maguire but, perhaps even more important, will be the matchup between FSU's DL and Clemson's OL on passing downs.  I have little hope that the run game will be dominant for us.  However, the passing game can open up some room to run and keep them honest if we can get Stoudt/Watson some time to throw.

FSU has been better at preventing negative yardage plays and staying on schedule this year. That means that getting off the field on 3rd down will be huge for us defensively.  If we don't, we could be looking at long methodical drives that will wear us down like Georgia did.  As you can see here, though, FSU has had some real trouble converting 3rd downs.  We need to be able to get them off the field with regularity, and these numbers suggest that it is doable, even with Winston at QB.  If there is a dropoff with Maguire, this could be the Achilles heel for FSU and what everybody is talking about after the game.  On the flipside, Clemson's offense cannot have a "3 and Outpalooza" as they did against UGA in the 2nd half.  If that happens and it becomes a power grind-it-out football game instead of a fast paced football game...we're toast.

Slight Advantage on PaperFlorida State

Conventional Defensive Comparison:

Rushing Defense: CU 75, FSU 103

Opp Yards per Rush: CU 99, FSU 73

Passing Defense: CU 2, FSU 13

Opp Yards per Pass Attempt: CU 1, FSU 48

Sacks: CU 66, FSU 123

Well, when we're going into Tallahassee, we‘d like to be bringing in the most efficient pass defense in the country statistically.   Lo and behold, we will be bringing that to Tally on Saturday Night.  Now, of course, that number could be inflated because Georgia gameplanned to throw underneath and SC St. was way over-matched up front.  So, in reality, we are largely untested and don't really know what we have in the secondary.   At the same time, this unknown is what gives us hope for a much better showing against their passing game than last year.

FSU has only 1 sack in 2 games. Say what?  I'll take that.  If we can keep that trend going on Saturday, we are going to be able to function at a pretty high level offensively no matter what QB is in the game for us.

Big Advantage on Paper: Clemson

Special Teams Comparison:

Punting: CU 18, FSU 122

Punt Returns: CU 124, FSU 45

Opp Punt Returns: CU 69, FSU 106

Field Goals: CU 3 of 4, FSU 6 of 6

Kick Returns: CU 112, FSU 122

Opp Kick Returns:  CU 103, FSU 98

As bad as our special teams have been, FSU has been worse.   Once you get past their excellent kicker it's a mess.

As you can see, our punting has been great and we seem to have a decided advantage there.  However, we are still "Fair Catch University" in punt returns and are clearly scared of another return debacle deciding the game like it did in Williams Brice last year.  The problem is that we are losing opportunities while we are fair catching and we're not rushing the punter well.  We need to do better there, and at some point, we need to find a fearless and more athletic option in the return game.  This isn't high school here; this is big boy college football.  We can't be scared. We have to attempt to create an advantage somehow on these punt return plays.

And yes, we're facing a team that has actually been worse than us at returning kickoffs so far.  Both teams have the athletes to have nice returns but neither has looked good so far on limited attempts. We both suck at covering them too.  The numbers here are saying both teams should not think about kicking it out of the endzone and go ahead and kickoff for a return.  It'll be interesting to see the strategy used by the two teams there.

Shocking Advantage on Paper: Clemson

Elite Level Benchmarks

Let's look at our elite level benchmarks to see if one team does some things so well, the other is almost guaranteed to get beaten in that facet of the game. These are the categories that, over time, I have recognized and tracked as solid indicators of Elite HUNH Teams.  Some of these are repeated from above but matter in this context. S&P is not included due to Football Outsiders recommendation so, plays per game was removed to balance that out.  Bolded below are the categories where either team is outplaying the Elite HUNH Team Averages (More on that here).

OFFENSE:

Plays per Game Rank: N/A

Scoring Offense:  Clemson 10, FSU 45

Points per Game: CU 47.0, FSU 37.0

S&P Offense: N/A

Yards per Rush Rank: CU 86, FSU 52

Yards per Rush: CU 3.79, FSU 4.79

Yards per pass attempt Rank: CU 24, FSU 19

Yards per pass attempt: CU 8.9, FSU 9.1

Yards per play rank: CU 55, FSU 17

Yards per play:  CU 6.07, FSU 7.03

Red Zone TD rank: CU 34, FSU 114

Red Zone TD %: CU 72.73, FSU 41.67

Turnovers Rank: CU 19, FSU 19

Turnovers: CU 2, FSU2

FSU leads the offensive category tally 6 to 4 over Clemson.   Clemson has operated on an Elite Level in PPG, YPPA, TO, and RZTD%. FSU has operated on the Elite Level in YPPA, YPP, and TO. Clemson wins the Elite Level comparison 4 to 3 but, FSU wins the most important category for Elite Level competition, Yards Per Rush.  We are an atrocious 3.79 yards per rush and FSU, while well below their 5.63 yards per rush from last year, is at a semi-respectable 4.79.  So, hopefully we will not be facing the same elite level run game from last year and we have gained ground.

The numbers above say that so far this has, in fact, not been the FSU offense of last year. Last year, FSU was elite in 12 out of 14 categories and now they have regressed to just 3 out of the gate. Is that just a mental lapse? Can they turn that around against us?

Clemson was elite in 3 categories last year and has operated on an Elite Level in those same three categories and then added turnovers this year.  That's interesting because many people speculated that our turnovers would go down significantly with Cole in there instead of Tajh.  So far, in a very small sample size, that logic is holding up and could be one of the reasons Dabo has so much confidence in Stoudt.

I don't see any huge advantages here for either team. So, considering yards per rush, you have to go with FSU.

Slight Advantage: FSU

DEFENSE

Scoring Defense:  CU 71, FSU 50

Points per Game Allowed: CU 26.0, FSU 21.5

S&P Defense: N/A

20 Yard Plays Allowed Rank: CU 11, FSU 15

20 yard plays allowed: CU 6, FSU 7

Opp Red Zone Points Rank: CU 40.0%, FSU 100%

Opp Red Zone TD Rank: CU 40.0%, FSU 80%

Yards per Play Allowed Rank: CU 14, FSU 41

Yards per Play Allowed:  CU 4.19, FSU 4.90

3 and Outs Rank: CU 42, FSU 32

First Down Allowed %: CU 61.5%, FSU 60.0%

Turnovers Forced Rank: CU 97, CU 97

Turnovers Forced: CU 2, FSU 2

Clemson wins the category battle 6 to 4.  Clemson is elite in 8 categories this year. Last year, Clemson was Elite in 10 categories.  So, there has been some statistical regression so far for the Tigers.  Speaking of regression, the regression for FSU continues on defensive side as well. They were Elite in 12 categories last year and, so far, have only met elite marks in 7 categories this year.   The area where FSU is struggling the most is in the Red Zone.  I'll take that too.  On the flipside, Clemson has been lights out in the Red Zone so, we'll see if either team can reverse the trend on Saturday night.

With the painful images of Gurley, Chubb, and Michel etched into our brain, the thought process by most Clemson fans is that Clemson has given up a high level of big plays so far this year.  That is not the case.  Even with the UGA runs, Clemson is elite level in "20 Yard Plays Allowed" so far this season at 6th in the nation.  This appears to be another case where the facts get in the way of perception.  This is interesting because for all of the big play ability FSU seems to have on the field, they are ranked 84th in the nation at 20+ yard plays.  We are ranked 36th in 20+ yard plays largely thanks to Mr. Watson, I assume.

Slight Advantage: Clemson

Final Thoughts and "Paper Test" Prediction:

First of all, neither of these teams have been operating at an Elite Level on offense so far.  The numbers suggest that this game could be a humbling game for both offenses.  That's because both defenses, on the other hand, have been very good.

The "Paper Test" says that these two teams are evenly matched but that Clemson should be favored on a neutral field even with Jameis Winston starting the game.  Clouding this perception are five critical unknowns:

1.       How good is Sean Maguire?

2.       How good is DeShaun Watson and will he play a lot?

3.       Will Clemson be negatively affected by the atmosphere of Doak Campbell or will they be mentally prepared and focused on revenge from last year?

4.       How banged up is the FSU DL?

5.       Is FSU really just as good as they were last year and just sleep walking through the first two games?

#5 is the biggest and most important unknown.  This is the one, combined with the results of last year's game, that would have bettors confident in FSU's ability to blow us out with or without Winston.  If tFSU has been sleep walking, we are probably in for a solid whipping and a double digit loss.

Assessing the unknowns, my guess is that FSU may be sleep walking some but not too much though.  They do look human this year.  My guess is that, much like the examination of the statistics last year, there is more truth than façade to be learned from them.

I also think Maguire will be a step down from Winston and that DeShaun Watson is going to play more snaps than Cole Stoudt in this game which is a huge assumption.  I think Clemson was embarrassed last year and will show up with the psyche advantage.  I think that both teams will lose the battle up front in the run game but that both QBs will make some plays.  I think that the Clemson OL should perform better in the pass game than they did last year especially with Watson back there.

The "paper test" says that Clemson will win by a score of roughly 28-23.  Factoring in my opinion of the unknowns, that score should be more like 34-20 Clemson.  Is it ridiculous to suggest that a 12 point underdog will win by 14 on the road?  Are the numbers just meaningless drivel?  Maybe, because even Nolefan has to agree that what happens on the field matters a lot more than what happens on someone's computer.