To help us preview the ACC's biggest game of the year, Dylan Kidd joins us from Tomahawk Nation for Part II of our two-part Q&A series.
STS: Shakin the Southland
TN: Tomahawk Nation
STS: After losing Rashad Greene and Nick O'Leary from last year's team, there seemed to be a good bit of confidence from Seminole fans about the young receivers on the roster. How has FSU compensated for the losses of these key pass catchers. Do you have confidence in this group going up against a strong Tiger secondary?
TN: I think the confidence was in the talent of the group, which was reasonable. The ‘Noles have recruited the receiver position very well, and though the group was going to be young coming into the season, the idea that they could have some talented guys break out wasn't far-fetched. As it turns out, the wide receivers have generally disappointed in 2015, at least relative to those expectations.
Physically gifted players like Ermon Lane, Pigg Harrison, and George Campbell have failed to have much of an impact at all. Travis Rudolph hasn't taken a big step forward, and Bobo Wilson continues to be inconsistent. The bright spot of the group has been Kermit Whitfield, who got back into shape after a serious sophomore slump and has become the Seminoles' best receiver. I do have to give the receivers credit for the way they've blocked, though.
There was also some hype for the tight ends, Ryan Izzo and Mavin Sounders. Both are young and still raw, and we'd said in the pre-season that the excitement was probably a year premature. That turned out to be an accurate, as they've had a few catches but aren't dynamic threats. As far as other pass catchers go, Dalvin Cook is a surprisingly bad receiver out of the backfield, while fullback Freddie Stevenson and even backup Jacques Patrick are formidable receiving threats. It would be ideal for FSU to use the tight ends and backs in the passing game against Clemson's linebackers in coverage, but we will see if they're able to execute it.
STS: SC native QB Everett Golson and Heisman contender RB Dalvin Cook were out last week. Do you believe the injuries are serious and they come in a bit banged up, or was it an opportunity to get them some rest against a Syracuse team that has now lost 13 straight games against P5 teams not named Wake Forest?
TN: So here's the thing about Jimbo and injuries: he knows that there's no reason for him to be upfront about college injury reports. Coaches don't get fined for inaccuracies like they do in the NFL, and he's deliberately misled the media before. For example, he didn't even list Golson on the injury report last week, and ran him out there in shells for the first part of practice (usually just stretching and some individual drills) that the media is allowed to see. We knew Maguire had taken first team reps all week, so it wasn't a surprise to see him start, but it's another instance of Jimbo engaging in gamesmanship for whatever reason.
That said, I do think Golson's injury (concussion) was legit, and I'm glad he was held out if he was at all symptomatic even if he passed protocol, as FSU said he did. The Cook situation is interesting. I do not believe Jimbo when he says Cook's hamstring is completely healed. I also didn't see Cook's purported ankle injury against GT, and FSU will put a player in a walking boot for sneezing, but for whatever reason he was held out against Syracuse. I do not expect to see a 100% healthy Cook until a bowl game at the earliest. After he hurt the hamstring against Wake, he looked progressively worse each week. I'd call it 90% against Miami, 75% against Louisville, and then 60% against GT. I don't think rest for one week restores his health. For me, best case scenario is about a Louisville health level. I think both Golson and Cook will probably be available to play against Clemson, and the question will be whether the former is the best option under center.
STS: Everett Golson was a late addition to training camp and has shown a knack for taking care of the ball, throwing only one interception to date. I'd imagine his late start limited the FSU playbook early in the season, but has Jimbo Fisher now made the full playbook available? Also, if you believe Sean Maguire may start, how does that change the offensive gameplan?
TN: I do think that Fisher shrank the playbook for Golson from the beginning of the season, but the real change came during FSU's bye week in week four. He'd been bad the two weeks prior, and Fisher really dumbed down the offense for Golson, going to many more half-field and even single-route reads in the passing game. That helped Golson immensely, and while he was still spotty in his performance at times, he definitely improved on the whole. The fact that Jimbo went to this simpler, more conservative offense that has definitely been run-first has been the primary contributor to the low offensive turnover number, but Golson deserves some credit as well. So to answer the question, Golson's playbook is different and simpler than that typically used by the FSU offense and I don't see Jimbo opening it up going forward.
Sean Maguire, on the other hand, runs more of a traditional FSU offense under Fisher. Having been in the program for four years, he's comfortable with FSU's base stuff and ran it well last week, albeit against Syracuse. While Golson is definitely the more mobile of the two, he has failed to use that threat in the actual run game. He's terrible on zone reads, and FSU has only called a handful of designed runs for him. While Golson has the ability to avoid sacks with his quick feet, he also has worse pocket presence than Maguire, who is able to climb the pocket, go through progressions, and get the ball to the right guy at a higher rate.
A key in all of this is how much interior pressure Clemson is able to generate. It might be a lot, as FSU could be without a starting guard and three starting linemen overall (more on that later). Maguire is less able to handle interior pressure than Golson, who is better at getting out of the pocket and making a play there. But I want to see Maguire start, with the caveat that if FSU can't block anybody inside, Golson may need to come in. Maguire just allows FSU to do more in the passing game, which I think they'll need with a limited Cook against a very good defense. I certainly don't expect Maguire to be some sort of savior, as some FSU fans seem to believe he will be after watching last week's game, but I think this match-up calls for his skillset.
STS: Clemson allowed a kickoff return TD against Louisville, that narrowed the gap to 3 points late in the contest and gave the Cardinals a shot to win. Last week against NC State, Clemson surrendered another kickoff return TD as the Wolfpack and Tigers were trading blows for a large stretch of the game. After that, Dabo dabbled with some pooch kicks and a squib kick, seemingly having little confidence in kick coverage. If Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip is unable to kick the ball through the end zone next week, would it be foolish to allow FSU a chance to return the ball? Tell us a little bit about FSU's kick and punt return game.
TN: In theory, FSU's kickoff return game should be pretty dangerous. Its deep guys are Jalen Ramsey and Kermit Whitfield. When you recruit at the level that FSU does, there is absolutely no excuse for your special teams coverage and return units to be poor. After an awful kick returning year in 2014, this year's unit has improved, ranking 9th in kickoff return yardage to date, though they haven't scored a special teams touchdown. It would be nice if FSU could take advantage of what could be one of the few areas in which it has an advantage over the Tigers this season.
The punt return team has largely been the fair catch show with Bobo Wilson, and I don't expect much impact from them. I'm happy enough if the Seminole punt returners just catch the ball, which has been a troublesome concept over the past few years.
STS: Despite allowing 5.0 yards per carry to NC State, the Tigers have still allowed just 3.05 yards per rush. They've face an offense that has averaged 5.40 yards per carry so far this season. Do you think the Seminoles will attempt to use a run-first offense in Death Valley and if so, do you think they can be successful?
This is where I need to talk a bit about the offensive line. The ‘Noles are almost assured to be without two starters on the OL in center Ryan Hoefeld and right tackle Derrick Kelly. Left tackle Kareem Are is also questionable, but I'm optimistic he plays. I don't think there's a big drop-off at the center position, but it's massive at left guard and right tackle. If the ‘Noles have to start Chad Mavety at LG instead of Are, things are probably going to get rough. I already expect RT Brock Ruble to have his lunch eaten by Lawson and company, and he'll require help all day in pass protection. All of these considerations plus a questionably healthy Cook will likely make for a less than inspiring rushing attack against the Tigers.
As he likes to do in big games (and just generally), I expect Jimbo to come out throwing on early downs. When it works it allows his QB and receivers to work their way into the game, keeps FSU on schedule, and prevents the defense from committing too many numbers to the box, opening up running lanes. The success of the run game depends on how well this goes, how well the offensive line executes, and how healthy Cook is. I also expect to see more of Jacques Patrick after his performance last week. He's not your prototypical 230-pound back, as he's truly a momentum runner who catches the ball well. FSU will try to get him outside with a head of steam, at which point he's no fun to try to tackle. The ‘Noles will need to play well at multiple position groups in order to have a successful ground attack on Saturday.
STS: Finally, a two part prediction question. Firstly, FSU opened as 12-point underdogs. Clemson fans seem surprised that the number is that high. Is that just Clemson fans being cautious after dropping three straight to the 'Noles, or is it as crazy as it sounds? Finally, how do you see this game playing out?
I understand Clemson fans' apprehension, as I'm sure FSU has instilled some demons in their minds after the last three seasons. As pre-season projections showed, the ‘Noles were expected to drop off, while also still probably having the conference's strongest roster. However, I think that number is completely fair. The Tigers have flat-out played much better football so far this year. The ‘Noles are also banged up, possibly being without starting LG, C, RT, and nose tackle, while playing limited guys at RB and MLB, not to mention the quarterback upheaval. The Seminoles' offense has been really terrible on the road this season, averaging just 18 points. Finally, Clemson's offense has a lot of quality middle of the field threats, which is a poor match-up for a Florida State defense that is stronger on the outside. So yes, I do feel that 12 is an appropriate number for FSU's trip to Death Valley.
That sounds pretty doom-and-gloom for ‘Noles fans, but I'll be the first to tell you that a Seminole win can certainly happen. There's talent all over the field for FSU, as we're all aware, and this is college football. I think a really great defensive effort from FSU and an off day from the Clemson offense is Florida State's chance in this game. The ‘Noles are not winning a shootout against the Tigers, but if they can keep the game in the low twenties they could have a chance in the fourth quarter, which is my hope. The Seminoles have the special teams advantage, and not to go "soft factors" on y'all here, but I can't think many in orange will be too comfortable with a FSU squad hanging around late. That said, this match-up leans too heavily in Clemson's favor for me to pick the ‘Noles, even through garnet and gold lenses. I like the Tigers to win and cover at home, and I'll call it 33-16 with about a 20% chance the ‘Noles pull the upset.