This week, the Clemson Tigers will don orange britches as they play for the Atlantic Division title. A win clinches their spot in Charlotte while a loss and an NC State win clinches the spot for the Wolfpack. The Tigers will have to go through their most talented foe in the ACC, Florida State. To help us learn more about the mercurial Seminoles and preview the game, Dylan Kidd from Tomahawk Nation has joined us to answer a few questions.
STS: Florida State entered the season #3, but now sits at 3-5, unranked, and 74th in the S&P+. Obviously the season-ending injury to QB Deondre Francois was huge, but surely that’s not the whole story. Why has this still ultra-talented squad struggled as much as they have?
TN: The injury to Francois certainly has not been the whole story, as the 2017 season has seen a bunch of issues that the Seminoles had been able to paper over in the past few years combine with some weird and bad breaks, including the aforementioned injury and a hurricane, to produce a complete disaster. The biggest issues have been substandard coaching and a related toxic culture. While Jimbo proved excellent at flipping FSU’s culture after taking over for Bobby Bowden, he has run into problems maintaining an elite program. Which, to be fair, very few college coaches are able to do, as with the exception of Saban, and Dabo in his sixth, just about every coach in recent history who has won a title has done so within his first five years at a school. Jimbo has kept coaches around who clearly weren’t getting the job done, been less aggressive in terms of churning his roster, and remained stubborn in the way he manages games. You can keep some of that under wraps when your talented team is winning, healthy, motivated, and at least marginally lucky, but the wheels can come off when none of those things are going your way. FSU needs a significant influx of new blood in its coaching staff if Fisher is going to pull a Brian Kelly and turn this thing around, but it’s not guaranteed that he will.
On the field, the offense is led by a true freshman backfield, the offensive line is banged up and has performed poorly, and FSU has very few healthy, competent receivers. The defense is pretty healthy, but the coaching isn’t there, and they’ve taken to playing hero ball at times because they don’t trust the system and want to put plays on film. It’s not great, Bob.
STS: Cam Akers has been every bit as good as we feared. Dalvin Cook left and the FSU RB corps simply reloaded. Akers is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. FSU is 1-4 when he fails to reach 100 yards and 2-1 when he does. He went for 199 in a win over Syracuse. Tell us a bit about his style, what he means to the Seminoles offense, and how much Clemson should sell out to stop him.
TN: Here’s the silver lining. Cam is still learning how to play running back (was a high school QB), and yet it’s easy to see why he was the top-ranked recruit at that position last year. He’s got explosive speed and power, and is improving his vision and balance each week. He’s also gotten better in pass protection and has shown he can catch the ball. I’d say Clemson needs to sell out to stop him, as he’s FSU’s only real threat outside of an occasional deep ball, but I’m pretty sure CU’s defensive line will beat up on the FSU offensive line, so I wouldn’t be terribly concerned. As long as y’all don’t let him go crazy and make Blackman execute consistent, shorter throws, you’ll be fine.
STS: QB James Blackman has been thrust into action much sooner than planned, but he hasn’t been a total disaster. He has connected on a handful of deep shots and has continued to get up and fight after being sacked 22 times (for comparison, Bryant has been sacked 15 times in one more game). What are his strengths and weaknesses at this point in his young career?
TN: I think he’s done as much or more than one could reasonably expect a 3-star true freshman who didn’t enroll early to do this season. He’s got great size—well, height anyway—and has the arm to make all the throws on the field. His deep ball is gorgeous, and his touch throws are better than Francois’s, which is just a natural hand talent thing. He’s made the mistakes you’d expect him to, from missing checks and reads to trying to do too much at times, but I’m not discouraged by his freshman campaign. Fisher has been loath to run him, but he’s shown some ability the few times he has. Fisher really simplified the gameplan for James last week against Syracuse, and I have a hunch he’ll do the same at Death Valley.
STS: With Blackman leapfrogging RS junior JJ Cosentino (a former 4-star) and Deondre Francois returning next season, what does the future look like for the Seminoles at QB?
TN: That’s a great question. JJ’s ranking notwithstanding, he’s frankly been a waste of a scholarship for about three years now, as he never appeared to take his development seriously and, as a result, has never been a factor in the FSU QB discussion. Francois had a good redshirt freshman season, but he enjoys a mythological status among some FSU fans and a large portion of the rest of the nation. I don’t see Francois ever being a superstar at FSU and have seen his ceiling as being around EJ Manuel, who was a very good, but not great college quarterback. He’s just not a particularly accurate passer and lacks the basic hand talent to make some throws. Blackman has better physical tools than Francois does, I think, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to pick up Fisher’s offense to a comparable extent to allow the physical gifts to make the difference.
Then there’s Bailey Hockman, who we thought was the high floor guy in last year’s recruiting class, but James passed him in camp pretty quickly, although his health at that time was in question. I don’t know what to predict, but I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t rooting for Blackman after Francois has occasionally promoted positive messages about himself and negative ones about Blackman’s play on social media this season. Not exactly a leader.
The wild card in all of this is Jimbo Fisher. He’s been acting even stranger than normal of late, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he decides he needs a change from Tallahassee. He spent this week antagonizing boosters about facilities after he’s received everything he’s asked for and sits at 3-5, and FSU is confusingly not particularly active on the QB recruiting trail, even though they desperately need to sign one this year. If he does hit the road, all of this gets completely thrown up in the air.
STS: What individual player or positional group matchup worried you the most about this game? Which gives you the most optimism?
TN: The worry is certainly the Clemson defensive line, from every conceivable standpoint: doing anything at all on offense, keeping James Blackman and Cam Akers alive, adding to recruiting rivals’ “hit tapes” featuring FSU quarterbacks being constantly sacked, etc. Fisher had a nice gameplan to get Cook rolling last year against a great Clemson DL (hello, counter trey), but he faces a much taller task this year with his limited personnel.
If there’s anything I’m optimistic about, it’s the opposite battle. Derrick Nnadi is a beast and has not quit on the season, and Josh Sweat has continued to grow into his SDE role. Demarcus Christmas has been unblockable this year when he’s wanted to be, so it’d be nice if he did on Saturday. And Brian Burns hasn’t followed up his freshman season with comparable sack numbers, but maybe he’s due? If Florida State is going to have a chance in this game, the defense will have to absolutely ball out. It will need to be like the 2015 game to allow something weird to happen late. If Clemson gets up early it’s likely to get ugly quickly.
STS: Finally, do you feel Florida State can drive a spear through Clemson’s ACC Championship hopes on Saturday?
TN: I mean, I have to say they can because it’s technically possible. But I would be pretty stunned. I don’t see how FSU moves the ball more than a few times against Clemson, and barring an all-world effort from the defense and/or a meltdown from the Clemson offense, I don’t think the Seminoles can hang with the Tigers on the scoreboard. I see something like 27-10 Clemson. And before FSU fans bemoan my negativity, there’s a lot of good football on this weekend, y’all. It’s just that FSU won’t be playing it; watch teams who will be.