For nigh on the past decade, Clemson and Florida State were effectively the two strongest rulers of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The winner of this matchup took control of the conference, with the loser often regulated to second place. The past two years, however, have been much kinder to the Tigers (7-0, 4-0) than the Seminoles (4-3, 2-3).
On offense, the road has been quite rough for Deondre Francois. Once heralded as one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, the Seminoles’ quarterback missed all of last season after suffering a gruesome knee injury in the team’s opener against Alabama. After watching his team scratch and crawl their way to a 6-6 regular season, he returned to a new coaching staff and promises of an improved, more fast-paced spread offense.
In his first year under new head coach Willie Taggart, Francois has put up respectable enough numbers, throwing for 1,859 yards, 13 touchdowns, and six interceptions. However, he also boasts a QBR of 51.6 and has not exactly been a model of consistency despite what his passing numbers might suggest. The offense has had to muster late-game heroics against the likes of Samford and Louisville en route to a 4-3.
Coming into the 2018 season, running back Cam Akers was expected to elevate his game and become a focal point for the offense. Despite averaging a respectable 4.6 yards per carry, Akers has only rushed for 460 rushing yards and three touchdowns through seven games. The Seminoles rank 125th in rushing with only 98.4 yards per game on the ground, which has made their offense very one-dimensional. Much of Akers’ struggles this season have had much less to do with his talent as a player, and is more indicative of how poorly FSU’s offensive line has continued to play. It seems as if every year fans and media alike don’t think FSU’s offensive line could get worse, especially with a new head coach. Well...they proved all of us wrong.
As talented as Akers is and as athletic as FSU’s skill players are, he has little room to run and Francois has little time to make his throws. Incorporating Francois into a spread and RPO-style system has been an adjustment in itself, especially with FSU’s poor play along the O-line. Coupled with their struggles in the run game, Francois has been asked to do even more while piling up continued hits and continuing to have issues with accuracy. If the Tigers’ defensive line could give NC State’s offensive line trouble, FSU’s could be in for a long day.
At receiver, the Seminoles are led by Nyquan Murray, Tamorrion Terry, and Keith Gavin. A senior receiver from more competitive times, Murray leads the team in receptions (35) and yards (487) yards to go along with three touchdowns. Meanwhile, Terry, the new freshman on the block, is the team’s second leading receiver in receptions (22) and receiving yards (358), but has the edge in touchdown catches (5). Standing at 6’4, 197 pounds, Terry has the most upside in FSU’s receiving corps, but remains a raw, growing prospect going against a touted and battle-tested secondary. While each of FSU’s receivers have shown flashes of big play ability, the Seminoles’ offense has been inconsistent all year, especially when it comes to finishing drives.
On defense, no matter how good, bad, or underwhelming the team might be, athletes run amok on the other side. Brian Burns will be among the best pass rushers Clemson faces all season. Burns is currently second in the country with a team-leading nine sacks, and has the speed off the edge to give Clemson’s tackles a difficult time. With Travis Etienne’s inconsistencies in the passing game, Clemson’s other backs (Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster) might get called upon a bit more to aid in pass protection. Against NC State, the combination of Sean Pollard and Gage Cervanka at right guard improved pass protection over the interior, so it’s likely Clemson continues to roll with that one-two punch.
Like NC State, one of the few positives about the Seminoles thus far has been their ability to stop the run. With the aid of interior linemen like Demarcus Christmas, FSU only surrenders 100.4 yards per game on the ground, a feat that ranks eighth in the country. Like the Wolfpack did the previous week, the Seminoles are likely to look to stop Etienne on the ground. Only this time, they have a premier pass rusher on the edge, the advantage of a raucous home crowd, and the hunger for some sort of marquee victory to lean on moving forward.
When it comes to the rest of FSU’s defense, cornerback Jaiden Woodbey is a notable talent for them in the secondary. Beyond that, however, this is an area in which the weakest the Seminoles have been the weakest in well over a decade. FSU ranks 113th in pass defense, surrendering 271.3 yards per game through the air. Trevor Lawrence had the benefit of a clean pocket against NC State, but he should be relatively tested with the Seminoles’ stout defensive line. However, opportunities in the run could find themselves through the air yet again, especially as Lawrence and the Clemson offense begin to peak at the right time.
Once touted as the most consistent of their three units, special teams has not even been a guarantee for the Seminoles this year. FSU kicker Ricky Aguayo hasn’t made quite the impression that his older brother Roberto did. The junior kicker has gone 7-12 on field goal attempts this season, and has yet to make a kick within 30-39 yards. Having made both of his attempts beyond 50 yards, Aguayo boasts plenty of leg strength, but also has serious questions about accuracy and consistency. If the Seminoles can’t count on consistency from Aguayo to keep the game close, the game has the potential to get out of hand early.
Despite a noon kickoff in an environment like Tallahassee, Clemson has yet another opportunity to claim a two-score victory over an Atlantic Division rival (the spread is -17). The hope for FSU to make it competitive will be their ability to not only contain Travis Etienne on the ground, but to get consistent pressure on Lawrence and not let him settle into a rhythm. NC State learned the hard way that simply shutting down the run without consistent pressure isn’t the answer. The Wolfpack gave Lawrence a lot of one-on-one matchups that he took advantage of. If they can’t get to Lawrence and he gets time to find guys like Tee Higgins, Hunter Renfrow, and this deep group of receivers, FSU has little hope to pull off an upset.