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Assessing the Threat: Florida State at Clemson

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Both teams enter the contest after a bye week and ample time to prepare.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

Overview:

The 2018 season for the Florida State Seminoles began with potential and a lot of hope from the fanbase and pundits. There were playmakers littered throughout the roster alongside a new coach whose expertise is rebuilding programs. However, the season ended in disappointment. The Seminoles were projected to finish second in the ACC Atlantic behind Clemson and instead finished tied for fifth with Wake Forest at 3-5 in ACC play and 5-7 overall. The 2018 season was the first time in 36 years that Florida State had not made a bowl appearance. In head coach Willie Taggart’s inaugural season at FSU, they had their first losing season since 1976. To make a long story short, last year was a disaster.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

The team struggled across the board on it’s painful journey to mediocrity. In the final S&P+ rankings for 2018, FSU was ranked 71st overall. They had the 112th ranked scoring offense and the 87th ranked scoring defense. They had injuries and poor play throughout the roster, but the shortcomings were most obvious across the offensive line, in the defensive backfield, and on special teams.

Thanks to inconsistent play, player turnover and injuries, the offensive line ranked worse than 100th in all but two categories in 2018. They ended the season ranked dead last (130th) in line yards per carry, second to last (129th) in standard down line yards per carry and no better than 110th in passing down numbers, stuff rate, or opportunity rate. The only skill set that the line wasn’t one of the worst in the country at was preventing sacks. They were middle of the pack there.

On the other side of the ball, the defense gave up 30 touchdown passes in 2018, the fifth worst in college football. Their defensive line play was strong, but the secondary and linebackers struggled to contain big plays. The special teams wasn’t immune from last year’s difficulties either. Special teams struggled most with Kickoff Return Efficiency (113th in the nation), Kickoff Efficiency (110th) and Punt Efficiency (105th) but wasn’t much better in other categories.

There weren’t many bright spots for Florida State in 2018. They struggled across the board.

2019 Outlook:

Much like the 2018 season, there is reason for optimism coming into this year for Florida State. The reasons behind that optimism are the kinds of things that Clemson fans held onto in the mid-to-late 2000’s as Tommy Bowden departed and Dabo Swinney took over. Florida State appears to be a team on the rise, although, they couldn’t fall much lower than last season.

Although below typical FSU standards, they had a strong recruiting class at 21st in the nation. They and Virginia Tech are expected to be the two most improved teams in ACC play according to projections from S&P+.

James Blackmon is likely to get the start at quarterback for FSU. After redshirting last season, he could bring a spark back to an offense that was highly inconsistent but made big plays. Pairing his return with the arrival of new Offensive Coordinator, Kendal Briles, and his spread approach could propel the FSU offense to a new level. Blackmon will also have a ton of weapons to play with at receiver including Tamorrion Terry, a sophomore who averaged over 21 yards per catch as a Freshman in 2018. Alongside Terry, Florida State has receivers Keith Gavin (Junior) and Keyshawn Helton (Sophomore) who were strong performers last season and were a big reason the team ranked sixth in explosiveness for the 2018 season.

The success of the Florida State attack will depend heavily on whether the transfers, returners, and players coming back from injury on the offensive line can form a cohesive unit that’s able to give time and space to Blackmon, his receivers, and junior running back, Cam Akers who hopes to bounce back after a disappointing sophomore campaign.

Defensively, Florida State may also take a new approach for 2019. There has been talk that they might switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 alignment thanks to a glut of depth at linebacker. That changeup could also be caused by the need to replace star defensive lineman, Brian Burns, after he was picked in the first round by the Carolina Panthers. The secondary, which struggled in 2018, could be boosted by multiple players toying with position changes that would improve depth and give the Seminoles more flexibility. People around the program and pundits alike seem to think that the defense will make strides and be stronger in 2019 than it was in 2018.

Final Assessment:

The October 12th matchup against Florida State comes after a bye week for both the Seminoles and the Clemson Tigers. S&P+ gives the Seminoles an 11% chance at victory, which feels about right. There are no areas where Florida State is clearly better than Clemson and there are few where there is much of an argument to be made.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State should be an average defensive team going against what promises to be one of the highest powered offenses the NCAA has seen in a long time. The balance of Clemson’s attack, led on the ground by Travis Etienne and through the air by Trevor Lawrence and his bevy of future NFL receivers, seems like it will be too much for Florida State.

Defensively, the Tigers will probably create less pressure on opposing quarterbacks, which should give James Blackmon time to make some throws to his talented receiving corps. But, those receivers are going against one of the top secondaries in college football.

On special teams, what was a weakness for Clemson last season should be improved by incoming players and additional experience. Punter, Will Spiers, will have another year under his belt and place kicker, BT Potter will take over full time from Greg Huegel. The return game will need to make up for the loss of Amari Rodgers (torn ACL), but players like Derion Kendrick and Travis Etienne should be more than capable of filling the gaps. For Florida State, there is limited promise of improvement despite sitting near the bottom of college football last season in that category. The only likely cause for improvement would be experience. They bring back most of their key contributors on special teams from last season.

The only realistic way that this game goes against the Tigers is through mistakes. If Clemson struggles to maintain possession and gives up a few big plays to Florida State’s talented players, it could be a close game. But, I wouldn’t expect that to happen. S&P+ projects a margin of 21.5 points for this game. I’ll take the Tigers against that line and an unproven and inconsistent Seminoles team.