The game of the year is still this week as far as Clemson is concerned. Despite FSU’s disappointing and maddening season, everything is on the line for Clemson just like Dabo Swinney prefers. A third straight series win, division title, ACC title, and playoff appearance are all at stake; as Swinney says, it’s playoff football here in the championship phase, and FSU brings its usual talent-laden roster to Death Valley Saturday in a game which records mean little.
I’m still rather dumbfounded Clemson is favored by 18 points against FSU. I don’t care what their record is or how bad they’ve look; this team has top 5 talent and Clemson now faces an FSU whom beating will do nothing for the resume, but losing would ruin everything. FSU knows this, and they will be up for it despite all the negativity surrounding the program from its fans.
The fact of the matter is FSU still has an outstanding defense, held back and left hanging by a floundering offense. The defensive line misses Demarcus Walker, but there’s a capable pass rush from the ends. Defensive tackles Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas are a force in the middle similar to Clemson’s own inside duo, and the defensive backfield is the most talented unit outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
FSU will operate in its base 4-3 and 4-2-5 nickel interchangeably based on situation; Sam linebacker Jacob Pugh in the 4-3 and nickel/star Kyle Meyers in 4-2-5. Meyers is the weak link in the secondary at only 170 pounds, and given Clemson’s superior run game it is likely he won’t see the field as much as Pugh except in obvious passing situations, where FSU will then employ the dime looks which were the norm against Syracuse last week.
The headliner on the entire defense is undoubtedly superstar safety Derwin James, who can play essentially any position on the field. He rotates between strong safety — often aligning in man coverage on slots and tight ends — and box safety in the dime, which FSU used to hold Syracuse to 24 points. James’ versatility is paramount to FSU’s defensive success, and his injury was largely why the unit struggled so mightily a year ago.
The emergence of freshman safety Hamsah Nasirildeen has given coordinator Charles Kelly even more options for James. With Nasirildeen in the mix along with free safety Trey Marshall, we saw James rotate down into the box far more; Nasirildeen and Marshall were the deep safeties. He’s the most dangerous player Clemson will face on Saturday, and likely the best defender in the entire country.
That said, there are still issues in the back end with zone coverage, and we can hope Clemson will try and attack down the middle of the field as we’ve long called for here. Kelly Bryant’s accuracy is a concern against such a good secondary, but he has excelled against the sort of aggressive man FSU employs with fade passes and open running lanes, and would presumably not miss such an opening should FSU bust zone as they are still prone to do.
Remember Clemson’s struggling screen game? Think an aggressive man defense with insanely talented DBs is a bad time to try and bring it back? Perhaps, but there are constraints which victimize aggressive defenses (look no further than our own). Clemson will need its entire playbook to move the ball through the air, and that means Bryant has to “make the layups” but the staff can make it easier with fakes:
FSU has the scheme and athletes to limit Clemson with its front while its backfield holds the fort down in tight man coverage, and with its improved safety play can play far more effective zone coverage this year. I can’t help but think if quarterback James Blackman has a good game, the Seminoles can steal a win.
But it’s that offense which ultimately holds the Seminoles back so mightily. The offensive line is a dumpster fire, and any QB would struggle under such pressure. Cam Akers has come along lately to give life to the running game, and is especially worrisome on the same stretch handoffs with which Dalvin Cook gashed Clemson a year ago. Deep posts off play action are a concern with Blackman’s big arm and eagerness to look downfield, particularly given Clemson’s lack of healthy bodies at corner, but little else in the FSU offense is overly concerning. More than any other match-up in the game, Clemson’s defensive line vs FSU’s offensive line is horribly unfair. It’s why FSU will need help from its defense to win.
I see this game transpiring for similarly to the Auburn game. Clemson will be selective in its deep shots against such a good secondary, not wanting to make things easy for a bad offense with a turnover or two. I don’t expect a strong interior run game from Clemson without plenty of power or counter runs to throw numbers at the Noles’ front and pull their linebackers out of position. Anything through the air will have to come across the middle against linebackers in man under coverage, quick passes against zone, or comeback routes and double moves against tight man.
It goes without saying Bryant will have to be much sharper than he was against NC State and bring the same presence on the ground which elevated both his game and the entire offense with it in the 2nd half. This will be a war of attrition between two strong defenses, but Clemson’s match-ups are more favorable.