I’m always excited for a Clemson football game, but this week is much like the opening week of the year. The Tigers had a bye week after escaping a mistake plagued game against NC State, and now travel to Tallahassee to face Florida State for an 8 p.m. showdown. Prior to the season, this was the game folks pointed to as the tripping point, if there was going to be one, for the Tigers in their pursuit of another ACC title and playoff appearance. However, FSU’s collapse at Louisville and subsequent loss to UNC at home have made the Tigers a line favorite in this game. I’m pretty sure Clemson hasn’t been a favorite in Tallahassee in my lifetime. I’m not sure what the line was in 1989, but that might have been the one time. That doesn’t mean this game will be easy, and Clemson surely has to get the turnover bug out of its system if it hopes to win.
Clemson offense vs. FSU defense: It is hard to believe that a unit as talented as FSU could be as bad on defense as they have been for much of this season. It just helps me appreciate the job defensive coordinator Brent Venables and his staff have done to keep Clemson playing consistently good on that side of the ball. Just plugging four or five star guys in doesn’t do it all by itself. FSU has stripped down their packages to cut down on some of the rampant busts in coverage that we saw beginning in the Ole Miss game through UNC. They are playing better, yes, but they have also faced some troubled offenses with Miami and Wake Forest.
For Clemson, the number one priority is containing DeMarcus Walker up front. Ole Miss was having their way with FSU until Walker dominated their OL in the second half and wrecked Swag (Kelly) and the Rebels practically by himself. When FSU is playing well on defense, it is usually #44 making it happen. You hope Clemson can get its run game going, but it is more likely that quarterback Deshaun Watson and the wide receivers will need to make plays and open up things for the rushing attack. Pass protection against the standard four man rush is an absolute must. RT Jake Fruhmorgen in particular needs to hold up, though his performance against NC State was encouraging. Forcing FSU to blitz for pressure will help Clemson create the favorable matchups for big plays. Deon Cain’s big touchdown last year came against a blitz the team read perfectly. Playing basic might help FSU cut down on busts, but giving a guy like Watson a clean pre-snap read is a dangerous proposition. The ‘Noles will have to find a happy balance here to have success. They also are hoping Clemson will be sloppy with the football once again.
Clemson defense vs. FSU offense: Stop Dalvin Cook. Much easier said than done, but in reality this is what the Tigers have to do to win. Cook hurt Clemson badly early in last year’s game and it was only when the defense got him under control that the Tigers were able to get ahead and eventually win. UNC beat the ‘Noles in a shootout where both teams had over 500 yards (and FSU nearly hit 600), but Louisville’s destruction was made possible by taking Cook out of the game for the most part. Clemson has to handle the sweeps and stretch zone runs that Cook normally uses to produce his explosive plays. Then FSU will have to rely on QB Deondre Francois and the passing game for their offense, which is much better proposition.
Francois is a very talented guy and can certainly make plays both throwing and running, but his offensive line has struggled mightily to consistently protect him. Clemson certainly has the means to punish a quarterback when the protection isn’t there (see Miami QB Brad Kaaya 2015 as exhibit A). This is a very good test for what has been an excellent defense so far. They aren’t as dynamic as Louisville, mainly because Lamar Jackson’s incredible running skills are beyond what any other quarterback can do in college, but they have plenty of weapons IF their line can hold up. Clemson’s tremendous front SHOULD win this matchup and dictate the game. I just haven’t seen FSU give any indication their OL will all of a sudden get way better to handle Wilkins, Watkins, Dex Star, and company. Plus, the Tiger front is coming off a poor (by their standards) performance against NC State and should be hungry for redemption of sorts. There will be a ridiculous amount of talent on the field in this game.
Special Teams: I’ve moaned and groaned about Andy Teasdall’s punting this year, but all in all I’ve been pretty happy with the special teams. At least it isn’t the porous kick coverage or mercurial placekicking which has plagued the Tigers many times over the years.
Special teams have been at the heart of many FSU and Clemson games in the past. The puntrooksie, of course, comes to mind first, but missed kicks doomed upset efforts for Clemson in 2010 and 2014. It was Clemson’s inept kicking game that derailed the first Bowden Bowl. Justin Miller kept an otherwise completely overmatched Clemson team in the game in 2002 when he nearly took every kick he caught to the house (and did with two of them). Despite FSU’s struggles at times this year, this is still the most talented team Clemson has on the schedule and this phase may very well tip the scales one way or another this time. Greg Huegel might be called upon for a high pressure kick for the first time this year. Hopefully it won’t be a 54-yard attempt like UNC had to convert for its win against the ‘Noles.
Overall: It is very hard to be super confident when you are going to play FSU in Tallahassee. Clemson has had some very game efforts come up short in the past down there, especially the 2014 game when Clemson did everything BUT win the game. FSU is in the rare position of underdog and will no doubt come out swinging with everything they have, like last year. Clemson must respond like the veteran champion and withstand that onset of emotion. FSU is very hard to bury, as Ole Miss found out, so Clemson has to put four good quarters together to win this game. Clemson has fallen victim to the poor quarter in almost every game this year. I will say it now that Clemson will not win if it loses the turnover margin by more than 1, and maybe even that would be too much to overcome. Clemson has better players than Louisville and NCSU overall, plus those games were at home, so it survived -2 ratios and 9 total turnovers. This is not the place that can happen.
In the end, I feel much better about Clemson when the team comes off a lesser performance like we saw two weeks ago. The focus will be there, I feel sure, and then it comes down to execution. Execution usually comes down to how your fronts play, and Clemson again has the superior front on both sides of the ball and the better quarterback. It isn’t a huge edge, but if turnovers don’t factor in Clemson will pull off the rare victory in Tally:
Clemson 35 FSU 28