Led by a star-studded offense, Florida State is 3-0 and 4th in the AP poll. With 18 offensive TDs, they are tied for the 6th most in the nation. They’ve done this despite playing just one G5 team and no FCS teams while most teams have already padded stats against two or three of these lower-level opponents. What’s so fascinating about FSU is very few of their key players were blue chip recruits coming out of high school. In fact, if we stuck to the traditional type of blue chip analysis we typically do, you might think Clemson is a heavy favorite against a middle-of-the-pack ACC team.
It is important to note that this isn’t an evaluation of how they’ve recruited, but a look how their current starters were rated as high school prospects regardless of how FSU got them. Most of them were added from the transfer portal. In fact, 9 of 11 starters on their offense came from the portal. The same is true for nearly half of their starters on defense. So how is Florida State turning this talent level into a top four team? They’re letting other teams find the overlooked prospects, and then taking them via the transfer portal.
Defensive tackle Braden Fiske and right tackle Jeremiah Byers are perfect examples. Fiske was a 3-star with offers from Western Michigan and Illinois State. After recording 12 TFLs and 6 sacks in 2022, he entered the portal. He had proved the recruiting services wrong and Florida State was there to benefit from it. Jeremiah Byers was a low 3-star that had offers from UTEP and several HBCUs. After four years at UTEP, he entered the transfer portal where he was re-rated as a 4-star. Florida State grabbed him and immediately improved their offensive line.
This strategy of roster management appears hard to maintain year-over-year as they constantly have to go back into the portal to replace guys who only play at FSU for a year or two (Fiske and Byers are both gone at the end of this season). It does have two huge benefits though. First, you don’t have to be great at player development. That’s not to say FSU hasn’t developed any players. Jordan Travis is a transfer from Louisville, but he is also a sixth year player that is in year five at Florida State. Still, it takes a major premium off player development.
The other major benefit of building a roster this way is you always have a veteran roster. Braden Fiske and Jeremiah Byers are again the best examples. They’ve already have long careers elsewhere and now each come to Florida State aged 23 this season! Clemson happens to have a veteran defense this year with two sixth year starters at defensive end, but on offense there is a tremendous discrepancy in player age.
So now you have enough information to put the entire picture together. Clemson has a lot of blue chip 19-year-olds that they’ve had to develop while Florida State is chock full of 22-year-olds who proved it elsewhere before FSU invested a scholarship in them.
Given those inputs, perhaps Clemson has more room to grow and improve throughout the season whereas a veteran squad like Florida State is already operating at peak efficiency. Unfortunately, the Tigers’ season opener loss to Duke removes hope of a mulligan against FSU at the end of the season. Another loss would require Clemson to run the table in the ACC — games against Miami and UNC are looking a lot tougher right now — and hope that at least one of Duke and Florida State lose three ACC games. You’d also need Louisville, Miami, and UNC to loses two ACC games.
So can Clemson beat the veteran FSU squad?
Yes, they absolutely can. To do it, they need Klubnik to play beyond his years. He isn’t a sixth year guy like Jordan Travis and can be prone to mistakes like forced throws or failing to send a receiver in motion (the cause of the weird tipped ball turned Adam Randall catch vs. FAU). He has every bit of the potential to reach Jordan Travis’s level, but with so much more experience, Travis is already doing it with consistency. Klubnik needs to hone in and play a sharp game - this is table stakes to give Clemson a chance.
Klubnik is also going to have to use his legs to move the chains. The Seminoles were absolutely carved up by Boston College QB Thomas Castellanos on the ground and Klubnik doing the same may be the biggest key to the game.
Conversely, Clemson must contain Jordan Travis and not allow back-breaking third down conversions on broken plays with QB scrambles. The defensive ends must step up and set the edge well. This is definitely one of the big concerns for Clemson.
The biggest question mark on Clemson’s roster is the wide receivers. It was fairly obvious that Clemson needed an instant impact WR after last season, but they bet on development from Beaux Collins and Adam Randall instead. That hasn’t looked great thus far and now with the Cole Turner season-ending injury, depth is perilously thin. Thank goodness Tyler Brown, a late 3-star take from Greenville, has been such a revelation. The Tigers need this WR corps to win one-on-one matchups.
The Noles lost receivers in zone against Boston College. I suspect they’ll pivot and try to test Clemson’s wide receivers more directly with man defense. They brought in Fentrell Cypress III from Virginia (a former 3-star who had the highest PFF rating of any ACC cornerback last year) so I expect them to bet on their cornerbacks beating Clemson’s wide receivers and focus other resources on stopping the run. The big question will be, can Beaux Collins, Antonio Williams, Adam Randall, and Tyler Brown beat man coverage? If they can win some matchups and Klubnik uses his legs to take advantage of DBs tracking receivers in man coverage, the Tigers will be very well-positioned.
I believe in Cade Klubnik and Garrett Riley, but I am in year four of “see it to believe it” mode with this wide receiver group. Cornell Powell proved me wrong in 2020 and had a breakout season that pushed Clemson to the playoff. If someone on this year’s squad can do that — or anything close — then I’ll be happily wrong and they’ll beat Florida State. Nevertheless, I was right in 2021 and 2022 and I continue to have doubts about the wide receivers this year. As such, I am taking the Seminoles to win 31-28.