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Game 6 Preview: #2 Clemson Hosts FSU

The Artist Formerly Known as the Game of the Year

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The bye week has come and gone with the predictable banter about Clemson being overrated and such by certain national talking heads who will remain nameless. I think my favorite part was someone ranking Clemson 8th in the country. Dabo has eaten this up like birthday cake and broke out the “ROY BUS” commentary in full force at his Tuesday press conference. What Tiger fans hope is that the 1-point win in Chapel Hill serves as the wake up call to expedite the process of this team turning into the weapon of mass destruction most believed it would be in 2019. Some of the talk has been pretty hilarious, actually, considering the Tigers handily won the 4 games before UNC. But, any chip on the shoulder this program can find is generally welcomed with open arms.

Florida State comes to town, and this usually represents the “game of the year” for the ACC and on the Tigers’ schedule. However, the curb stomping that took place last year in Tallahassee, the Seminoles missing a bowl in 2018, and the slow start for FSU this year, has taken a lot of the luster off this year’s showdown. FSU still brings the most talented roster Clemson will face in the regular season besides A&M and has shown more signs of life this season than last. If two weeks ago showed us anything, it is that a team with enough talent playing really well can challenge the Tigers and perhaps win. This week should go a long way in telling us if we really have some issues to worry about or if UNC was just a variation of the 2018 Syracuse game which was a prelude to dominance.

Clemson defense vs. FSU offense: Willie Taggart made a controversial move in bringing in ex-Baylor OC Kendall Briles to run the Seminole offense, but the move has paid some dividends so far this year. Briles has found a way to work around the FSU limitations on the offensive line to allow for their explosive skill talent to flash a lot more than in 2018. I’ve had the chance to watch parts of nearly every FSU game this year, and the Noles have certainly been explosive at times. What they still struggle with, which UNC had some success with two weeks ago, is sustaining drives. It is a very feast or famine offense that relies on chunk plays. The Briles version of the spread is particularly dependent upon the inside power run game setting up deep shots, usually off of double move concepts. The heart of that run game is Cam Akers. The Seminoles have not been afraid to run him over and over again, even if he’s only getting a yard or two, with the hopes that he will pop one or two big ones eventually. Interestingly enough, it is this type of stubborn commitment to the run game that some Clemson fans clamor for from Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott.

Brent Venables will surely have Akers squarely in the crosshairs of his gameplan. I have noted in discussion threads that this 2019 defense might be vulnerable to a dedicated power run attack. There just isn’t the depth and power up front that the Power Rangers provided, and UNC (along with Charlotte to a lesser extent) showed you can get push on this Tiger front that wasn’t happening in 2018. The snap loads are showing the true story, that Tyler Davis and Nyles Pickney are really it in terms of guys who can really hold up reasonably. Jordan Williams is much more effective as a pass rusher inside than as a run stopper. The staff will certainly be working to grow the depth inside, but more pressure is now on the linebackers and safeties to overwhelm run games and the TFL numbers are just not going to be what they were a year ago vs. the run.

The UNC blueprint is to control the ball, milk the clock, and shorten the game. They were able to make that happen, greatly helped by Clemson’s offense misfiring a lot of the day, by staying relatively ahead of the chains. They avoided penalties and turnovers, but the discipline (and, quite frankly, some missed calls) that helped them is difficult for some teams to duplicate. FSU has not been known for discipline these last few years, and its offense is much more predicated on tempo and hunting explosives than ball control. Teams are going to be in serious trouble if forced to pass against this 2019 defense, especially if Brent Venables can employ his dime packages more regularly. UNC got Clemson into more 4-3 base looks than we’ve seen all year. The Tiger defense was still stout, but not the disruptive force we saw in Syracuse.

If FSU can keep its run game relevant, they will have a chance to stay in the game and challenge the Tigers. That will require their defense’s helping them out immensely as well. Their OL still struggles and they don’t have a player the quality of Heck from UNC, whose return for the Clemson game was a major factor in UNC making it a game. They will be in serious trouble in long yardage situations and the Death Valley crowd can and should help to add to that disruption.

Clemson offense vs. FSU defense: It is past time for Travis Etienne to remind everyone of the game breaking force he truly can be. Etienne has been effective these last few weeks, but 4.5-5.5 yards per carry seems pedestrian for a guy who routinely goes for 8 or more yards per carry. I believe the Tiger offensive staff regrets not using Etienne more two weeks ago, and the run game wasn’t nearly as featured after his fumble. If teams want to play 2 safeties back, Clemson needs to punish them with the run game. The key, though, is breaking some formation tendencies that derailed some of the run efforts vs. UNC. Clemson won’t have to go silent count at home which should help reduce those false start issues that happened at UNC as well when some snap signal mimicking was going on by the Tar Heels (which, if you can get away with it, is just football).

This Seminole defense is big up front, as we have heard this week, but teams have still had pretty good success running the ball on them. They’ve seemingly gotten better the last two games, but neither Louisville nor NCSU really wows you with their running backs. FSU can get after the passer like most Noles teams you’d expect, but quarterbacks who can make plays with their feet like Perkins from UVA and Bachmeier from Boise really hurt their defense. Trevor Lawrence can certainly do those things, but Clemson really needs to look to attack FSU on the ground in a way we haven’t really seen the Tigers do since the GT game.

Tee Higgins is showing out in his junior year the way Nuk Hopkins and Sammy Watkins did in theirs. It is only a matter of time before Justyn Ross and/or Amari Rodgers really break loose. All of these guys will benefit from the offense forcing single high safety looks to stop the run game. Bateman’s plan from UNC will be studied hard by future defenses hoping to duplicate some of what helped him slow the Tigers down (that wasn’t self inflicted wounds). Much like the FSU offense, the FSU defense thrives on big plays and isn’t that consistent drive to drive. This is why most of their games have been wild back and forth affairs.

Special Teams: I don’t know about you, but I was thinking hard about that missed B.T. Potter field goal as UNC scored on their last drive and got ready to go for 2. Nothing like close games to make you think about special teams. On the bright side, Clemson got a much more consistent effort from Spiers in the punting game vs. UNC. Joseph Ngata has looked very dangerous in kick return and seems poised to break a big one at some point. Florida State once again brings a lot of speed and athleticism to the table and that can mean danger in the return game. I’m certainly not ready for a game to be on the line with Potter having to make a kick just yet. He’s got a cannon leg but hasn’t been 100% healthy.

Overall: I certainly don’t expect the laugher game we witnessed in Tallahassee last year. This FSU team seems better mentally and I expect a better fight for four quarters. How close this game is will largely depend on how well Clemson can prevent explosive plays, because I just don’t see FSU being able to put together 8-12 play drives without giving up a sack or committing a penalty or putting the ball in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Clemson avoiding turnovers and penalties will be the difference in scoring in the 20s or scoring in the 40s. I think FSU will pop a couple of big plays but ultimately aren’t ready for this type of game.

Clemson 40-FSU 16