Alright folks, the time has come for the season to really take one of two trajectories. #1: Clemson wins this game and immediately puts itself back in contention for the conference and the playoffs. #2: Clemson loses and essentially finds itself in 2021 where just trying to get to 10 wins and make it a decent season remains the realistic goal. Clemson’s schedule is looking even more loaded than it did to start the year thanks to hot starts from North Carolina and Syracuse and Miami. If Notre Dame can beat Ohio State on Saturday, that game very likely will offer another top 2-4 ranked opponent for the Tigers. To be honest, it has been a while where you could say Clemson could lose an early game and totally be able to overcome it in a four team playoff era. 2016 was the last time the schedule had this much quality across it, and I’ll take how that season ended all day every day. It promises to be an electric crowd even if this is a high noon kickoff. It is definitely the biggest Clemson-FSU game since that 2016 battle.
I said before last week that I felt this team would eventually be really good. It needs to reach that really good realm this week. The youth of this roster did not disappoint last week as more freshmen emerged as playmakers on this team. This is a massive opportunity for the Tigers to drastically change the narrative in a positive way. Meanwhile, the Seminoles have felt they are primed to take the ACC back over and enter this game extremely confident despite having to escape Chestnut Hill last weekend when BC broke out their red bandanas and played very inspired football.
Clemson offense vs. FSU defense: Florida State promises to employ more aggressive defensive tactics than what Clemson has seen so far this season. I would be very surprised if they try to copy what Duke did considering how they like to play defense. Job one will be making sure Jared Verse doesn’t wreck the game plan off the edge. Blake Miller has been better since his poor showing against Duke, but his pass protection still lags behind his run blocking. The Noles will likely challenge Clemson’s WR to beat more man coverage looks in an effort to load up on Will Shipley and Phil Mafah.
Boston College QB Thomas Castellanos hurt the Seminoles badly with his arm and his legs as he went for 400 yards of offense. He made decisive reads in the run game and the Noles got punished for being out of position several times. I certainly don’t expect Cade Klubnik to carry the ball as many times as Castellanos did, but Cade’s ability to make the proper reads when RPOs and zone read calls are made will be essential to Clemson’s offensive fortunes. Cade had a very bad day in that regard in Durham, but it has improved in the weeks since. There is little question that his play will be a major key to either success or failure in this game. Clemson cannot afford to be severely outplayed at the QB position. Cade just needs to somewhat match Jordan Travis. If he actually outplays Travis, the Tigers will win this game. DJU played well enough to offset Travis in last year’s game and the Tigers took care of the ball in what proved to be their best win of 2022.
I think it is hasty to think that Florida State is all of a sudden hugely vulnerable because of last week, however, they certainly have some areas the Tigers can attack. Whichever team can get its run game going will have a serious advantage. I’m very interested to see how Garrett Riley approaches what Florida State does. I thought his plan against Duke’s approach was sound, particularly his adjustments after halftime, but the catastrophic errors the Tigers committed undid all of that.
Florida State has some top shelf athletes as we all saw when they took it to LSU in their first game. Teams like that tend to trust their players in one on one situations, so that also presents some great opportunities. How each team holds up on the outside to limit explosive passing plays will be another huge factor in the game. FSU’s WR and TE made more plays than LSU’s skill group when neither team was able to run the ball. Clemson’s WR are going to have to make some plays, and the emergence of Tyler Brown offers some additional hope that we can see that happen.
Clemson defense vs. FSU offense: Other than turnovers, this is the part of the game that matters the most to me in this game. The Tigers have made some huge plays on defense, scoring two defensive touchdowns in the last two weeks, and that pick six last week just about took all the wind out of FAU’s sails hoping for an upset. Hopefully Andrew Mukuba will be healthy enough to play although Khalil Barnes had a great showing in his place last week. Mukuba’s speed and athleticism is definitely needed against what FSU brings to the table.
Job one is getting Trey Benson and the core FSU running attack stopped. You have to take your chances with Jordan Travis having to throw it a lot to beat you. Florida State’s offense is lethal with its play action game if their run game is working. Once they got some run game going in the second half vs. LSU, you saw the results.
Clemson has an alpha corner to match up on one side with Nate Wiggins, but dealing with slots and tight ends will come down to safeties, nickelbacks, and linebackers. Clemson was pretty good against FAU’s LaJohntay Wester outside of the one deep ball he almost got loose on in the first half. Wester ended with big numbers but the vast majority came well after Clemson substituted heavily. The Tigers limited his run after catch when they tried to get him touches over the middle. That will be a massive emphasis this week.
FSU’s Johnny Wilson is just a gigantic WR who is capable of making catches in extreme traffic. You figure he will get something here or there, but limiting those moments is going to be key. Clemson’s front has been solid, but hasn’t yet brought out a dominant performance behind the line of scrimmage. This is definitely a game that needs to happen as Jordan Travis still will put a ball in jeopardy at times under duress. His athleticism scares you for sure, but at the same time he opens himself up to some punishment.
The Clemson-FSU series turned when the Tigers began to dominate the line of scrimmage on defense. The guys on Clemson’s DL looking to secure a big pay day in the NFL draft need to take advantage of this one when tons of scouting eyes will be watching. The more FSU has to help its OL in protections, the more help Wes Goodwin can give his back end against guys like Wilson and Keon Coleman. Games like this can often turn with one massive play. Can Tyler Davis or XT or Ruke or one of the phenom freshmen like T.J. Parker or Peter Woods deliver that moment? The Death Valley crowd will be rocking as long as the defense can keep delivering.
Special Teams: One of the craziest developments in some time around Clemson had to be when Dabo Swinney called up former backup kicker Johnathan Weitz who was just finishing up a graduate program online to return and be the placekicker. You just have to hope Weitz can deliver on the “routine” kicks 40 yards and in so that the Tigers don’t get forced into going for iffy fourth downs in plus territory. Robert Gunn obviously needs time to work out his issues but the Tigers don’t have the luxury of a slate of easy games to wait for that to happen. Games like this one could very well come down to a kick.
I’ve found myself just hoping to avoid disaster in this phase for the longest time. Tyler Brown has given me some hope that we might once again find a way to really make a difference in the kicking game. Will Shipley has the ability as a kick returner as we know, but most teams now have guys that kick it deep enough to eliminate his impact that way. Punt return offers a lot more opportunity. It was great to see Brown bounce back from that muffed return to nearly take the next one to the house. His ability to flush that bad play shows some great mental toughness.
Overall: These are the games you love the most as a fan. Many of my most memorable home game experiences over the years have been when the Tigers have faced Florida State. I don’t quite feel like I did in the 1990s and early 2000s where I hoped for the best but braced for the worst vs. superior FSU squads, but this is close.
Clemson is an underdog, and they earned that by what happened at Duke while FSU put itself squarely on the map vs. LSU. However, underdog Clemson during Dabo’s time has been the most dangerous Clemson. Underdog Clemson is what delivered two national titles. That 2011 offense found its high gear in this very week against the defending national champion Auburn Tigers. This would be a very poetic time for Garrett Riley’s offense and Cade Klubnik to hit a level folks didn’t imagine beforehand.
That said, there just isn’t enough evidence right now for me to think Cade and the Clemson WR can deliver on the level of Jordan Travis and his skill. I really, really want to be wrong on that. Prove me wrong Tigers!
Florida State 31