The game that will define the season for Clemson is this Saturday at noon in Death Valley. Helping us preview the big contest is special guest Stewart Mandel, editor-in-chief of The Athletic’s college football coverage. He has been a national college football writer for two decades with Sports Illustrated and Fox Sports and co-hosts “The Audible” podcast with Bruce Feldman.
Ryan Kantor: After watching Florida State’s second-half explosion in the opener vs. LSU, the Seminoles looked “back.” Last weekend in Chestnut Hill, Boston College pushed them to the brink. The Eagles exposed the Seminole defense and the hard-fought game saw several Seminoles get banged up including TE Jaheim Bell. How much, if any, does that performance (and potential lingering injuries) change your perception of FSU?
Stewart Mandel: That’s the danger of Week 1 — we always wildly overreact to whoever looks great/awful. But I’m still pretty high on FSU. I tend not to nitpick as much when a team goes on the road in conference. But obviously, it was concerning to see them almost blow such a huge lead, and ultimately they got bailed out by BC. FSU struggled to run the ball in that game, which is ominous when they’re now going up against what we assume is a much more talented Clemson defensive front.
Kantor: Florida State’s offense isn’t just aided by transfers, it is practically built on transfers with nine of eleven starters beginning their career somewhere other than Tallahassee. One interesting by-product of this is fielding an older team. FSU’s offensive starters are on average three years older than Clemson’s starters. How big of a factor is that in their success?
Mandel: No one has made better use of the transfer portal than Mike Norvell. (Deion doesn’t count; Norvell doesn’t have a son who’s a first-round QB.) But thank you, I had no idea of this stat about their age/experience. One thing that’s unique about this FSU team versus others who’ve gone heavy in the portal is they’re not a lot of one-and-done guys. Jordan Travis, obviously, but others too like Jared Verse came back when they could have turned pro. So Norvell has been able to build a team that’s not just old but has played together for a while. Hard to say whether that’s an advantage over Clemson. The concern, not to beat a dead horse, is that FSU made its offense that much better by adding guys like Bell and Keon Coleman, whereas Dabo kept his the same.
Kantor: After two less-than-amazing weeks, Clemson’s offense looked dominant against FAU. They let up in the second half but showed their potential in the first half. Cade Klubnik was more poised and posted his best PFF grade of the season. Freshman WR Tyler Brown had a breakout game. We finally saw WR Adam Randall come through with two big catches. How much, if any, does that performance change your perception of Clemson?
Mandel: Tyler Brown is definitely a guy I’ll be keeping an eye on. Clemson’s receivers have been underwhelming the last couple of years, and that really got magnified in the Duke game we all watched. If a freshman can emerge and be this year’s Justyn Ross (or short of that, just better than what they have), it certainly ups the ceiling for their offense.
Kantor: What is the biggest area (on offense or defense) where Clemson can exploit Florida State?
Mandel: It’s what I said before — they’re not a great running team. They’re heavily reliant on Jordan Travis. Clemson has a lot of speed in the front seven and could possibly make them one-dimensional. You still have to handle their receivers, but they could at least take away that big-play running threat.
Kantor: Conversely, what is the biggest area where Clemson fans should be worried that FSU could exploit the Tigers?
Mandel: Offensive line. FSU definitely gets after the passer. Clemson held up well in last year’s game, but it’s a tough matchup.
Kantor: If this game goes against the Tigers and the season wastes away to something like 8-4, do you believe we’ll see Coach Swinney adjust his roster management strategy to be a little more cutthroat, using transfers to fill holes instead of using quite so many scholarships on developmental prospects?
Mandel: I don’t think he has a choice. It’s something all his competitors are doing, so to me, he’s playing with one arm tied behind his back. And it doesn’t even have to be 8-4. Dabo himself has said their goal is a national championship. To do that, you must be on the level of Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, etc. They all use the portal, selectively, to fill holes on their roster. If you don’t do the same, you’re basically saying, I can evaluate and develop high-school players better than anyone else in the sport, so much so that we never need to bring in anyone from the outside. That’s just not being realistic.
Kantor: With all that being said, how do you see this contest playing out?
Mandel: I think FSU will win a close game. But I get these things wrong more often than I get them right.