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Clemson Opponents: Sizing Up Florida State and Possible Playoff Opponents

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Florida v Florida State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The Tigers just knocked off their only real competition in the ACC Atlantic by KO’ing NC State. FSU, UL, BC, SC, and VT/UVA/UM in Charlotte are now the only obstacles on the path to the playoff. With that backdrop, I joined Nick Tully on the Clemson Pawcast to discuss. You can check that out here.

It was a wide ranging discussion where we really delved into and debated Clemson’s path to the playoff and the likely opponents there. For a higher-level look, I discuss these topics in the article below. We start with a statistical breakdown of likely playoff teams plus next week’s opponent, Florida State.

Opponent Profiles

Team S&P+ Rank S&P+ Offense Rank Offensive Yards per Play S&P+ Defense Rank Defensive Yards Per Play Allowed
Team S&P+ Rank S&P+ Offense Rank Offensive Yards per Play S&P+ Defense Rank Defensive Yards Per Play Allowed
Alabama 1 2 8.3 20 4.7
Clemson 2 11 7.3 2 4.0
Oklahoma 3 1 8.7 68 5.3
Michigan 4 30 6.3 1 3.7
Georgia 5 6 7.1 24 4.8
Notre Dame 7 41 5.8 5 4.6
Ohio State 8 5 6.8 49 5.9
Florida 14 32 6.2 19 4.8
LSU 15 60 5.3 10 4.8
Florida State 57 109 5.2 21 4.7

Let’s discuss Florida State before moving on to potential playoff opponents. Clemson has only won in Tallahassee four times in school history. They are looking for their second straight win in Doak Campbell and fourth in a row in the rivalry. The Seminole defense will present the most challenges. Ranked 21st in the S&P+, it’ll be the best defense Clemson has played this season (TAMU #25; NCSU #33).

Florida State has excelled at preventing big plays. They’ve allowed only one rush over 25 yards all season. Below is the longest run they’ve surrendered in each of their games:

  • Virginia Tech: 23 yards
  • Samford: 21 yards
  • Syracuse: 45 yards
  • Northern Illinois: 11 yards
  • Louisville: 16 yards
  • Miami: 21 yards
  • Wake Forest: 14 yards

Clemson will bring Travis Etienne, who is a big play threat every time he touches the ball, so it’ll be strength vs. strength. The Tigers are 15th in rushing offense while the Seminoles are 28th in rushing defense (S&P+).

Willie Taggart will have some tough trade-off decisions to make. After Syracuse and Wake Forest were roasted on the ground, NC State stacked the box and got burned through the air. How will he play his defense, knowing they need to have a near perfect game to keep their struggling offense in the game?

DE Brian Burns has nine sacks and he’ll likely need to add some more on Saturday if FSU is to make this a four quarter battle. If you stack the box or give Lawrence time, he’ll eat you up. An aggressive and effective pass rush is something he hasn’t seen much of since Texas A&M. It’ll be good for him to face it now and get that experience before facing it against an elite opponent.

On offense for FSU, QB Deondre Francois is playing well after struggling to start the season. He has 10 TDs to only 2 INTs in his last four games after throwing 3 TDs and 4 INTs in his first three games. I believe he’ll have to do what QB Ryan Finley could not and carry them while the run game is absent. The Seminoles average only 2.9 yards per carry. Although they’re better at pass blocking than run blocking, this feels like an opportunity for Clemson’s D-line to have their moment like they did against Auburn last season.

ESPN’s FPI gives the Tigers a 91% chance to win on the road. So while the team can’t afford to look ahead, we can, so let’s next look at some playoff contenders.

Oklahoma, once again has the best offense in the country. They lost the Heisman winner and #1 overall NFL draft pick, Baker Mayfield, and haven’t missed a beat. It’s not because Mayfield was a system QB. He has led the Browns to two wins for goodness sake! Kyler Murray has just filled those shoes and is second only to Tua in the Heisman race. He has a 25-3 TD-INT ratio and the Sooners have scored 45+ in 5 of 7 games. They’re 4th in rushing despite losing star RB Rodney Anderson and 2nd in passing offense (S&P+). You’ll hate to hear who is #1 in passing offense, but more on that later.

The problem is their defense, which is merely 68th in the country. What’s worth noting though, is their offense was so good last year that their 101st best defense was good enough to get them to the playoff and overtime against UGA. This year their offense is about the same - arguably better - and their defense is better (though still problematic).

Michigan: DC Don Brown has done a great job elevating Michigan’s defense since coming from Boston College. They’re #1 in S&P+ defense. They just held Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke to 5/25 passing while holding the Spartan rushing attack to 0.7 YPC. They are similar to last year’s Alabama team that was very defense-first, but has solid QB play behind a speedy Jalen Hurts (who was improved from 2016). They’re certainly not as talented as that team, but this would be a team I’d love to see face Alabama: #1 Wolverine defense vs. #1 Crimson Tide offense.

Their offense is only ranked 30th though, so I think they’re a tier down from Clemson and Alabama, and while some may want to get cute and put them above Notre Dame, remember that not only did the Irish beat them, but they did it before they made the move to Ian Book at QB.

Notre Dame: Ian Book has 1,151 passing yards, a 75% completion percentage, and a 11-3 TD-INT ratio. He changed the offense when he took over as they averaged 46 points in his first three games. Have defenses figured him out though? They only scored 19 against Pittsburgh. They’ve averaged only 22 points in their four games excluding that three-game spurt. Which is the real Fighting Irish?

If they can score, their #5 ranked defense is rock solid and they’ll be a tough playoff team. Despite playing a good schedule that includes Michigan, Stanford, and Virginia Tech, I feel like we still don’t know who this team is. I believe they’re the third best team in the country, they’ll win out, and make the playoff.

They’re Clemson’s most likely playoff opponent and they’re no slouch. They’re better than they were when they beat Michigan, which is scary, but their defense is no better than Clemson’s and their offense is isn’t as good as Clemson’s offense.

Ohio State: I’ve had questions about this defense since the Oregon State game. They’ve allowed an average of 33 points per game against the four top 80 offenses they’ve played this season. Now with Nick Bosa leaving the team, this defense is just not very good. Their offense is #5 nationally and Dwayne Haskins is great though.

They get Michigan in the Horseshoe so they absolutely have a chance, maybe even 50-50 with the home field advantage. They’re better than anyone in the Big 10 West and if they go 12-1 and win the conference, you have to put them in. They’re good, but relative to the others this would be a favorable playoff draw. I would hate to see Alabama draw them. Let Alabama play Michigan so we can get a road map from the nation’s top defense on how to slow Tua down.

Georgia: This one feels a little pointless with Alabama or LSU looming from the SEC West and the road through Jacksonville (UF) and Lexington (UK) just to get there, but the Bulldogs have done all you could expect in a rebuilding year. They’re in a position much like Clemson was last season where there are just too many pieces to replace. Jake Fromm, despite struggling against LSU, has decent numbers and their running game is excellent. Their defense has predictably taken a step back from last year. 10-2 or 11-2 in a rebuilding year against a tough schedule is nothing to scoff at.

LSU: It’s easy to forget they’re ranked #4 in the AP poll (and likely will hold that spot when the college football playoff rankings are released this week), because their game against Alabama looms. It seems a little meaningless for that reason, but their resume is stellar. They have wins over S&P+’s #5 (UGA), #16 (Miami), and #17 (Auburn) teams. Clemson and Alabama’s best win is shared and it’s over #18 Texas A&M. If LSU beats Alabama I’d vault them to #1, but I don’t see it with their #60 offense. They’re just a reverse Oklahoma, but their defense isn’t as dominant as Oklahoma’s offense.

Alabama: They have a similar resume to Clemson in terms of opponents, but have crushed teams all season. They haven’t kept things close like Clemson did in College Station or at home against Syracuse. They’ve exerted dominance all season. Imagine 2017’s OU offense with the 2017 Texas Defense. Statistically speaking, that’s what this team looks like.

As mentioned, we discussed this in more depth on the Clemson Pawcast, which you can stream by clicking below.