It has been a wild and fun ride so far this season. I can't explain the feeling of watching Clemson pop up as the #1 team in the country. I was in the middle of my first grade year when that last happened and was in no position to understand or enjoy it. However, there is no time to rest on laurels because the defending king of the ACC, the Florida State Seminoles, are coming to town. This is realistically the only team left on the schedule that has the athletes on both sides of the ball to truly challenge this Clemson team (as it stands now). Let's get to it!
Clemson offense vs. FSU defense: If you could point to one factor behind the last two losses to Florida State, you would probably look at the impact Eddie Goldman and Tim Jernigan had in those games. Those games were true low lights for Clemson center Ryan Norton and the offensive line as a group. Short yardage failures and turnovers were at the heart of the defeats that kept Clemson out of the ACC championship. The good news is that this Clemson team is more equipped than any of the last three to hold the line up front and generate the push in key short yardage situations to keep the chains moving. Jay Guillermo has provided the upgrade at center the team desperately needed. The line as a whole is playing with more attitude and physicality than any line since 2006 when guys like Roman Fry and Nathan Bennett were getting after folks. How many had to do a double take when Joe Gore got lineman of the week? That is quite an accomplishment for a guy who was embarrassed in Athens last year and lost his job.
The FSU defense is talented at all three levels, of course, but they are not a truly seasoned group as a whole. They are relying on a lot of youth up front after losing many veteran studs over the last two seasons to the NFL. Their first job will have to be stopping Wayne Gallman and the Clemson run game. This offense is simply indefensible at this stage once the run game gets going. Of course, some teams have had to commit extra numbers to the box in order to do that which gives the multiple weapons on the outside some one on one matchups. Look no further than Hunter Renfrow's abuse of a safety in man coverage for the first Tiger touchdown last week as an exhibit of what risks are involved in not having 2 deep safeties against Watson and the Tigers. Watson had to execute a lot of tight window throws last year in Tallahassee because of FSU's quality secondary. The Noles probably feel they can match up on the outsides with Clemson, but the challenge presented by Renfrow and Leggett on the inside should give them pause.
Last year the Tigers were trying to find themselves on offense and transition from Stoudt to Watson. The Tigers were using C.J. Davidson and D.J. Howard as the lead running backs. This time around, Watson is in full control of the attack, Wayne Gallman is the established running back on pace for over 1,000 yards, and the relatively young WR corps has blossomed. Barring an injury in the wrong place or some turnovers, even this FSU defense will be hard pressed to contain the Tiger offense and keep it under 35 points. We will see if any rainy weather becomes a factor, but it certainly won't be anything like the monsoon for Notre Dame.
Clemson defense vs. FSU offense: It was so frustrating for all Clemson fans and the staff alike at FSU last year. The defense was dominant for 85% of the game and controlled the line of scrimmage. The FSU offense was one big pass when Alexander slipped and the Tigers were in a "bad call" and a drive after halftime coming from adjustments out of the locker room. By the time OT rolled around, the defense had endured so many screw ups from the offense and special teams that it just folded and gave up the winning touchdown run. The first, second, and third jobs on Saturday will be keeping Dalvin Cook in check. Clemson needs to punish him on any down he touches the ball and make him use 25-30 carries to get anywhere near 100 yards. He is a great back and will make some plays, but the Tigers must prevent the cheap touchdown where Cook goes 40-50-60 yards in one play. Florida State, no matter who the quarterback is, will struggle as nearly every opponent Clemson has faced has struggled in generating multiple play drives. NC State's success last week was dependent on busting a long run or hitting an explosive pass. They couldn't generate a 10-12 play drive at any point of the game. FSU can attack Clemson in coverage with the running backs like NCST and Notre Dame did, so it will be important for Clemson to not get burned on screens, wheel routes, etc.
The big question for FSU is at quarterback. Sean Maguire showed well in his start last week and provides a big pocket passer for the offense. He also has more command of the complex pro-style attack than Everette Golson. I expect FSU to take a page from Louisville and use the pocket passer over the mobile guy against Clemson's defense. It is simply too good and too athletic to have a limited passing game thrown against it. Of course, can Maguire hold up against the Tiger pass rush? He is a big guy, but he isn't Brissett big. I felt Maguire did a very good job of not putting the ball in jeopardy last year in the face of relentless pressure. He made the one big mistake that got picked off in the second half, but otherwise he was better protecting the ball than Winston was last year. Regardless of the quarterback, FSU will have to generate a run game to win this game.
Special Teams: Dave Doeren said they "exposed" the Tigers in this area last week. I'm not sure about that, considering the special teams have been problematic most of the year. Regardless, the Tigers cannot mess around and gift the Seminoles points or terrific field position with blunders in this area. Lakip needs to kick the ball deep and the coverage team needs to get down there and do their jobs. No sky kicking, squibs, etc. Pay attention up front because I would entertain trying an onside kick after seeing Clemson deal with it last week. Hopefully Clemson can generate some positives in this area, but just playing sound and not screwing up is all I really hope for here. Is Van Smith on our coverage team? Seems like he'd be a guy built for this type of thing.
Overall: Everyone knows what is at stake here. Greatness is there for the picking if the team can just reach out and snatch it. The 2009 team punched its ticket to the championship game with an emotional victory over FSU in Death Valley. Outside of the 2013 disaster, the Tigers have handled FSU at home. Since 2003, the Tigers are 5-1 at home against the Seminoles. That 2013 FSU squad was special, of course, but this year's Tigers are looking pretty special as well.