Clemson is coming off a tough road loss that extinguished their ACC Championship hopes, but beating hated rivals — especially ones that canceled the game last year without fair notice — is always worth a little extra. The Tigers get a chance to do that this weekend as the Florida State Seminoles come to Clemson for a 3:30 ESPN game. To help us preview the game, we connected with Jon Marchant of Tomahawk Nation.
Ryan: Florida State started the season 0-4. Three of those losses came at home including a last-second loss to FCS Jacksonville State. Now they’re riding a three-game win streak which includes a road win at North Carolina that kept Coach Mack Brown winless against Florida State all-time. What are the one or two biggest differences you’ve seen from the Seminoles between their awful start and their more recent improved play?
Jon: The number one reason has to be having an identity on offense. Like James Blackman at the beginning of last season, the experiment with McKenzie Milton just didn’t work. FSU doesn’t have the pass protection or receivers to have a consistent passing game. Jordan Travis fits the talent on offense right now. On defense, the secondary has been shuffled quite a bit as they try to not only find a group that works but a group that is going to give effort and do the things every day that’s expected of them. Also, maybe sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can start to climb your way back.
Ryan: Florida State’s demise, although tied to culture and coaching issues, seemed to start on the offensive line. Clemson has struggled on the offensive line for two years in a row. Are you seeing similarities in the Tigers down season to what happened to Florida State or are they totally different situations. Do you think this is a 1-2 year thing for Clemson or a more serious long-term problem?
Jon: Are there some similarities? Sure. Do I want this to be a more serious long-term problem for the Tigers? Absolutely haha. But there’s obviously some key differences. From far outside the program it’s not obvious Clemson has culture rot. The Tigers’ issues on offense appear to be based on Dabo Swinney signing lots of small classes which haven’t been able to absorb all the injuries and attrition, plus DJ Uiagalelei is not in the realm of Trevor Lawrence’s or Deshaun Watson’s on-field football IQ. There’s no shame in not having three transcendent QB talents in a row. While Willie Taggart inherited the culture rot and poor offensive line talent from Jimbo Fisher, Taggart’s classes were absolute disasters that nuked the rest of the roster. I don’t see Dabo getting fired or leaving anytime soon so the odds are low Clemson will have to endure one of these devastating transition classes on their books. FSU currently has two, plus Fisher’s poor last two classes.
With that said, dynasty’s don’t last forever. All empires fall. The infrastructure of Clemson’s program still at least appears solid, so while their annual run of national title contender-quality teams looks done, I still expect Clemson to put together some very good teams over the rest of the decade. It’s one thing to fall back to earth, it’s another thing entirely to fall into the deep hole FSU is trying to climb out of. That’s not to say the same can’t happen to Clemson, it still can, I just think it’s premature to say it’s anything more than the Tigers finally coming down from Mt. Olympus to hang out with the rest of us mortals.
Ryan: Seminole running back Jashaun Corbin is averaging 7.9 YPC. Treshaun Ward is averaging 7.4 YPC. That gives the Seminoles a pretty significant advantage over Clemson’s running game. How are they doing it? Is it great running back play? Great run blocking? The boost from QB Jordan Travis being a running threat? All of the above?
Jon: A little bit of all of the above. A healthy Corbin has been a revelation this year, and Ward has been an incredible surprise. They’re both playing at a very high level. It has taken half a decade, but this offensive line has gotten pretty respectable at run blocking. I still worry about a high-level defensive front like Clemson’s being able to control them, though. Jordan Travis also helps, as FSU can run triple-option spread concepts, RPOs, even midline reads and read toss that can help keep defenses honest.
The bottom line is this is Mike Norvell’s identity as a coach. You go back and look at those Memphis teams, especially with talents like Darrell Henderson, and it’s easy to see. Norvell does nothing if not scheme up explosive running games. FSU is putting up 200-250 yards rushing like clockwork so far this year. He likes pulling linemen, using power, counter and split-zone etc., confusing the eye discipline of defenders as he moves gaps around to try and out-flank defenses. It results in a fair share of stuffed runs but then one pops. This unit isn’t good blocking up inside zone though, so I wouldn’t expect to see much of that against Clemson.
Ryan: After McKenzie Milton’s great play in the OT thriller against Notre Dame, his comeback story was the big news of the week. He hasn’t played at all in the three-game win streak. Meanwhile, Jordan Travis hasn’t thrown for over 145 yards in any of the wins. Can you tell us about the QB situation and the offense in general?
Jon: So Milton just isn’t the same player he was before the injury, which isn’t surprising. He can’t plant on that leg and drive the ball, and he can’t scramble like he used to. In juxtaposition, Travis provides a lot more value on broken plays but doesn’t throw the ball in rhythm in the intermediate passing game. Plus, like I mentioned earlier, FSU’s receiving talent is poor. Their best receiver is true freshman Malik McClain. Whatever benefit you thought you were gonna get from Milton got capped by his injury, the poor pass protection, and FSU’s inability at receiver to win 1v1 matchups.
Fortunately, the receivers are generally good at blocking. So FSU likes to run the ball and then take deep shots in the passing game. Most other pass plays usually are schemed up to get receivers open for them, like screens. This offense needs explosive plays in order to score; it cannot be methodical and march down the field. So I’d say there are two things to look for:
1) can FSU generate some of those explosive runs against a very good Clemson front?
2) can Travis hit the deep shots in the passing game? If it can’t, FSU will struggle to score anything.
Ryan: Florida State’s defense ranks just outside the top 50 in yards per play allowed. Can you share an overview on the defense? Can Clemson eclipse 19 points, their high-water mark vs. an FBS opponent in regulation, against them?
Jon: The rebuilt defensive line is very good and led by Georgia transfer Jermaine Johnson, who has seven sacks (8th nationally). The kid is a stud and future NFL player. The other end, Keir Thomas, is also a good player, as is nose tackle Fabien Lovett. The strength of this defense is definitely the DL, and there’s quality depth here. The linebackers are a weakness. Kalen DeLoach is the only LB FSU has that can cover, but he makes mistakes that young players tend to make. A lot of the other LBs FSU has are basically old school two-down run thumpers. So they’re vulnerable in coverage, especially to a short/quick passing game. As for the secondary, it’s been a mixed bag. There’s some talent but overall they’re not as athletic as we’d like. Some guys are better suited as in-the-box players. It’s also been a revolving door of injuries.
Can Clemson hit 20 or more points against FSU? I’m going to say yes. It may depend on Uiagalelei, how he plays, how much he wants to run, etc. FSU isn’t great at defending running quarterbacks. I would be surprised and disappointed if Clemson hit 27 or more points though.
Ryan: Let’s end with a short-term and long-term question. Clemson is a 10-point favorite in this game. Do you think they keep their home win streak alive and win? Looking beyond this year, who wins the ACC first, Clemson or Florida State?
I’m going to pound my chest here a little bit; before the season I wrote a preview on Clemson for Tomahawk Nation and I ended up being right about how vulnerable Clemson would be this year. But I have to be honest, I didn’t think they’d be this vulnerable. FSU is certainly capable of winning this game. However, I think Clemson wins. I don’t think it’s a good matchup for FSU’s offense, so while the Seminole defense may in fact hold Clemson’s offense in check, I’m just not sure FSU can get to the 27 points I think it has to have to feel confident about winning this game. FSU could hold Clemson to 17 points and still lose this game in my opinion.
Long term, great question, but even though Clemson’s program seems to be trending downward at the present moment, they’re still much closer than FSU. I think FSU is still two years away from competing at that level. So I’m going to go with Clemson.
Thank you to Jon for helping us preview this much needed rivalry matchup. Click here to read our answers to Jon’s questions.
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