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Clemson hosts FSU with the Atlantic Division at Stake

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This is STILL the biggest game of the year!

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s win in Raleigh should be one we don’t underrate as Tiger fans. NCST was a difficult matchup vs. our defense, especially when it became apparent the Tiger secondary was extremely depleted. The team got off to the worst start imaginable with a turnover followed by a third team corner getting torched for a TD on a third and long. Even though this hot start by the Pack assured a four quarter battle for victory (as I thought it would), the team found a way to win anyway. The response was certainly better than the wilted effort against Syracuse. Clemson will need to play a cleaner game this week with the struggling but still talented FSU Seminoles coming to Death Valley.

Florida State’s struggles have been well documented, but thanks to that egg laid in New York, the Tigers require this victory to clinch the Atlantic Division for the third straight year. In preseason, everyone expected this game to be the usual clash of the titans with the ACC title and playoff position at stake. This all remains true, but only Clemson has chips on the table. Fans should not be thinking that pathetic squad that traveled to Boston to play BC a few weeks ago will be the one that comes to Clemson on Saturday. We should know all too well about playing on the road on a Friday night, and while the Tigers were not blown out by Syracuse in the manner FSU was by BC, the lack of focus and attention to detail was certainly similar. It will be very important, once again, for the Tigers to get off to a good start and allow the negativity to consume FSU as it has done in spots this year. Allowing FSU to strike first like what we saw last week will all but guarantee another stress filled fight to the finish.

Clemson offense vs. FSU defense: I continue to struggle to understand how FSU’s defense, while effective, has not been the dominant force a team with that much talent should expect. Nole fans look at the coaching staff much in the way Tiger fans were doing as the Kevin Steele era was coming to a disastrous end. Where NCST was strong up front, especially on the ends, the Noles are likewise strong up front with more power inside. Even still, teams have hurt them running the ball as of late, particularly to the outside, and their pass defense is usually good for one or two big busts a game. Clemson was content to attack NCST between the tackles in the run game, but the outside runs are going to need to come back out this week for the team to get traction on the ground, in my opinion. Kelly Bryant will need to be a lot more accurate with his throws this week as well, especially when the beautifully set up play action balls come open like they did last week. I know I’m not alone in hoping those misses were just a bad day at the office and a not a sign of something that will linger.

Traditionally FSU has chosen to really challenge Clemson’s skill with physical press coverage. Chad Morris famously lamented the way his WR’s were “beat up” by the FSU corners and safeties during the 2012-2013 losses. This year’s Clemson WR corps is not as big and physical as past groups, at least with the first teamers. Renfrow and McCloud are tough guys despite their size and rely on short area quickness to defeat press looks. Deon Cain can always be expected to be fired up to play FSU and has hurt the Noles with big plays two straight years. Cain is coming off perhaps his best game as a Tiger last week in Raleigh. It will be up to these guys to keep FSU’s safeties honest and make the handful of competitive catches required against a team like this.

Unlike most years, Florida State isn’t really equipped to come back offensively should the defense get burned early in the game. Their WR corps has struggled with injuries and inconsistency and their OL problems from the past two seasons have lingered. The Tiger offense will likely try to minimize turnover risks as it has done all season. This will be the biggest test of the year for the center and two guards against those stud FSU DT’s. I know many folks try to forget about that 2013 nightmare against FSU, but one of the major parts of their defensive success that night was the play of versatile DB Lamarcus Joyner. I expect their star Derwin James to be deployed in a similar fashion in hopes of similar results.

Clemson defense vs. FSU offense: The Tiger DL has to be excited putting on the FSU film after having an uncharacteristically tough outing against the veteran NCST OL. It isn’t hard to conjure images of Deondre Francois getting beaten to a pulp last year. Thankfully Dalvin Cook is no longer at FSU as he was a serious problem for what was an otherwise dominant defense the last two seasons. The Noles still pack a punch in the backfield with Cam Akers and the returning Jacques Patrick, but I know I’m probably not alone in being happier to take them on than Cook.

Any defense can look pedestrian when it is off balance. Both Syracuse and NCST were able to maintain an adequate run threat to open up their variant passing attacks. I would certainly hope the Tigers are more willing to challenge the FSU skill on the perimeter this week in an all out effort to stop the FSU run game. FSU will need to hit 150 yards or better on the ground to win this game, IMHO. Taking away the stretch zone and the counter should be priorities 1 and 2. While FSU quarterback James Blackman has shown the ability to play through abuse like Sean McGuire and Francois were able to, he also has been a more loose with the football than either of those others. If Clemson can hit the Noles the way NCST hit us last week at the outset, you have to wonder how long a team just hoping for a low level bowl will fight.

Clemson had to play Ryan Carter a lot at nickle last week due to NCST’s personnel packages, which contributed to some of the issues at field corner. Clemson should be able to keep Carter at field corner a lot more this week. Marcus Edmonds will finally be back active this week, though you can’t imagine he will be able to provide a whole lot just yet. If he can just take the two snaps that Trapp got last week (giving up 2 catches and a TD, of course), that would be enough. Fields is still out but Terrell should be back after leaving the NCST game late. Kudos to Coach V for moving Smith over to free safety and using K’von Wallace which shored up the leaky safety play. FSU’s style of attack is much more suited for Muse and Simmons coming downhill.

Special Teams: Clemson hasn’t had many big returns in the last few years, but you have to admire the timing when they DO happen. It is hard to imagine wins against Louisville in 2014 and 2016 without those big punt and kick returns, or the game last week had Ray Ray not gone full joystick mode on his brilliant 77 yard TD return. There was a lot of ugly here as well with Alex Spence getting iced before the half and his two atrocious kickoffs out of bounds (both led to NCST scoring drives). As usual, FSU is capable of running a kick or punt back, so the Tigers will need to be on point here this week.

Overall: That dark stretch between Danny Ford and Dabo Swinney featured team after team that could not seize a big moment. The special coaches and their programs just seem to have a knack of coming up big when the stakes are at their highest. You might not have won all those games (the 88 FSU game and 2016 Alabama game come to mind), but you just knew the performance would be strong. I expect Florida State to come in swinging and have thought back to 2009 when a struggling Noles defense threw the kitchen sink at the Tigers, fueling a lead before Clemson was able to turn the tide and win that one going away. A wounded and struggling Tiger team took a much better FSU squad to the wire in 2010 when these roles were reversed. I just can’t pick an upset when those orange pants come out and the team can smell the blood.

Clemson 30

FSU 17