I had an inclination last week that the Tigers were not going to mess around with NC State in a statement game, but it was difficult to pull the trigger on predicting a score which covered the spread as emphatically as last week’s did. I decided to invite a friend’s family over to watch the game. The last time we watched Clemson play the Wolfpack together was 2014’s 41-0 curb stomping. So the last two times we have watched together has produced 82-7. You’re welcome, and yes, we will make this a regular thing moving forward.
The Tigers look to be rounding into the juggernaut many thought they would be this year. The defense has been sensational, really since the fourth quarter at Texas A&M, and has given up one touchdown drive beyond 20 yards when the game has been in question since that night. A team has to get to 24 points or better before it can really believe it will have a chance to beat this year’s Tigers, but the defense is having none of that here recently.
Now the team travels to one of those houses of horrors from years past: Doak Campbell Stadium. It still boggles my mind to see a two touchdown spread for a game AT Florida State. Anyone who was a fan through the 1990s knows that some of the worst beat downs Clemson has ever suffered occurred in that stadium. I’ll happily take a reproduction of the 1989 smackdown delivered on the Noles this year and not pity them in the least. I certainly don’t take any win down there for granted considering there have only been 3 in the last 25 years or so. Clemson simply cannot afford to blow what should be a golden opportunity to put a legit rival in the rear view mirror.
Clemson defense vs. Florida State offense: Each of these conference game previews brings me around to the same feelings. Some of these teams might be able to hang on one side of the ball, but they just have too many holes in other places to hope to compete without getting some serious gifts from Clemson along the way. Last week, I felt the Pack’s defense ultimately wouldn’t be good enough even though their offense (on paper) matched up pretty well with Clemson (Venables took that paper and burned it, obviously).
This week, the mismatch is on this side of the ball due to the piecemeal and largely hapless Florida State offensive line. Clemson fans should know all too well that a bunch of flashy skill players and a hyped quarterback won’t get you far if your line is getting owned. Much of the Tommy Bowden era was a testament to that. While the Noles are not quite the turnstiles they were against Syracuse and Virginia Tech, they remain woefully overmatched against the best front in college football. In some cases, the teams they have faced have had to be careful on the perimeter against FSU’s skill, but Clemson brings the talent to the table to challenge those skill guys with man coverage and press looks. Plus, since the 2013 disaster game vs. the Noles, Clemson’s defense has delivered some ruthless punishment to whomever Florida State has put under center. Current QB Deondre Francois certainly took one in the 2016 game and backup James Blackman is probably still suffering from PTSD thanks to what Tre Lamar and company did to him last season. While I will give Florida State’s signal callers credit for being some tough hombres, because all of them managed to keep playing despite all of that punishment, you have to figure eventually one just won’t be able to hold up.
The new Florida State system is just another variation of the Art Briles-style spread attack. While FSU has better talent to run it than Syracuse and other similar attacks, they are understandably not as sharp in execution at this stage of the game. The aforementioned problems on the offensive line have also stunted the growth considerably.
Still, FSU will be rolling out a bunch of four and five star guys at WR, RB, and QB and certainly have shown flashes of brilliance here and there this year. The really scary thing about peak Briles at Baylor was how they could run the ball inside. That element is what made all of the rest work and set up those one on ones on the perimeter that their speed at WR could exploit. This Seminole offense simply cannot run the ball inside with any form of consistency. They have a little success thanks to having a guy like Cam Akers who can bust the big run, but their other feature back Jacques Patrick’s numbers really reflect their blocking problems. Patrick can be a real problem IF he can get downhill on you, but he just hasn’t been able to much at all this year evidenced by his paltry 3.4 yards per carry and long of just 18. Meanwhile Clemson’s defense has shut down everyone’s inside run game this year until garbage time. This is not a favorable matchup at all for FSU.
Francois came to Florida State with a ton of hype, including being the winner of the Elite 11 coming out of high school. He does have a plus arm, but he will put the ball in jeopardy more than he should. He is having to shoulder a huge load to carry the offense and will have to put together an All American performance to spring an upset in this one. I just don’t think he is on the level of Eric Dungey or Ryan Finley, especially in the recognition/execution department. Clemson virtually dared NC State to run the ball last week, showing more 3 down looks than at any other point this season. While Akers is a more dangerous runner than any the Wolfpack could offer, I would still think Venables will try to tease FSU into trying to pound the ball.
For all of Jimbo Fisher’s faults in program maintenance his last couple of years in Tallahassee, I certainly won’t miss dealing with his knack for finding weaknesses in the Clemson defense at some point during a game (at least with FSU). The jury is out on how good Taggert and staff will be, but the Miami game was not a good sign for them. They had a great plan to start, but Miami completely dominated their offense in the second half which allowed for their comeback victory.
Clemson offense vs. Florida State defense: The FSU defense is going to have to deliver in a big way for the Noles to have a chance. I am not ruling it out because of the history of this rivalry and the talent FSU has. I know Clemson was an average team in 1999 but was within a blink of upsetting the much, much more talented, eventual national champion Seminoles. That near upset was due to Clemson’s defense playing inspired football and keeping the score low. There is not nearly the gap in talent in this game as there was in that one, though I will certainly admit some of the intangibles are missing (record crowd, night game, first Bowden Bowl, etc.). Florida State has been tough against the run and will certainly need to force Trevor Lawrence to beat them. The question is, will it take extra hats in order to do that?
NC State had to bring extra numbers, and that compromise left their secondary at the mercy of Lawrence and #WRU. The Noles do enjoy having some top line talent up front, such as Demarcus Christmas and Brian Burns. Burns in particular has drawn major praise from the Clemson staff. Mitch Hyatt has been playing some of his best football the last couple of weeks and will have a chance to make some future money if he can handle Burns consistently.
I expect Florida State will challenge the Tigers’ wideouts a lot more than a lot of opponents have done, so the opportunities for some big plays will certainly be there. FSU will need to hope Lawrence misses those shots when he takes them.
While Florida State is certainly better than just about everybody Clemson has faced up front, their linebacker play is not as strong as what NC State has. The Wolfpack were able to tackle well enough to avoid a few breakout runs which nearly happened last week. Will Florida State be able to make those tackles as well? Clemson has been working at the screen game, especially with the running backs, and finally hit a nice one with Etienne last week. An effective screen game is probably the final piece of the puzzle to unleash the full potential of the offense because it is the perfect tonic for the aggressive blitzing teams are needing to employ to deal with this attack.
I think Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott did a very good job of going against some tendencies last week, and Lawrence certainly had his best game with getting the team into good checks based on the defense. The upside of the Bryant transfer is beginning to show with the accelerated rate of growth Lawrence is enjoying thanks to getting at least 90% of the first team reps in practice and the increased game time he is seeing.
Special Teams: This phase ended up not being a huge factor thanks to the domination the Tigers enjoyed last week. Still, Derion Kendrick’s opening kick return was a great way to get the ball rolling for that initial touchdown drive and helped set the tone. Punting is still underwhelming and Amari Rodgers has had a tough time breaking loose on returns lately, but the units as a whole have avoided the catastrophic mistakes which open the doors for upsets. The lowlight last week had to be the fake field goal attempt which Will Swinney botched when he got too excited and took off before he had the ball secured. I had a hard time understanding that call simply because the Tigers have an All-American running back and a jumbo package featuring two future first round pick defensive linemen as lead blockers. A fake on fourth and medium? Maybe I can go for that, but not on fourth and one. Thankfully it did not end up being a big factor, and the Wolfpack had their own epic fail on a punt fake which made even less sense.
As for the Noles, they still have an Aguayo kicking and D.J. Matthews is averaging a robust 15.9 a punt return with one touchdown. Special Teams has featured prominently in this rivalry such as the “Punt Rooskie” in 1988 (as well as a Deion Sanders return TD), Justin Miller’s unbelievable return performance in 2004, and the 55 yard field goal for the Noles to win the 2010 game just to name a few. You can’t sleep on this phase.
Overall: This week has just felt very weird lacking the usual FSU game hype. I’m all for being the dominant force in the ACC, but having this game at noon and being a double-digit road favorite just seems out of place. It was interesting to hear Jeff Scott speak earlier this week because the majority of his conference was talking about growing up at FSU and watching Bobby Bowden.
I noted in an earlier preview that Clemson is the new Florida State in the ACC and is putting together a run of dominance not seen since that 1992-2000 stretch. Scott talked about the similarities between Bowden’s FSU program and Swinney’s current Clemson regime. Clemson should win this game going away, but if Florida State plans to spring the upset, it will need to get off to the start it did against Miami. If FSU isn’t able to jump to a lead early, I think this game will get ugly as it goes. That said, I’m not picking a huge blowout in Tallahassee. I’m going to have to see it to believe it.
Clemson 27-Florida State 13