Late this Saturday night, after the College Gameday crew has packed up and rolled out of Tallahassee, when fans are celebrating or mourning and the players are physically spent, there will be only one undefeated team remaining in the ACC. In the last three seasons, the winner of the Florida State – Clemson game has gone on to win the Atlantic Division. The winner of this weekend’s fierce battle will take control of the conference outright.
Clemson, the defending conference champ, is ranked tenth but comes in a two touchdown underdog despite beating FSU in 2011 and jumping out to a 3-0 start again this year.
The fourth-ranked Seminoles have the nation’s top-ranked defense and have not allowed a touchdown since the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of last season.
Clemson won the matchup last year, 35-30, and returns key pieces from last year’s explosive offense: quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington, and receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins.
FSU quarterback E.J. Manuel, who missed last year’s meeting due to injury, is first in the ACC in pass efficiency through three games. Boyd is right behind him in second.
This week, Boyd, who burned the ‘Noles for 344 yards and three touchdowns last year, said he thought his receivers were the best in the nation – and he might not be too far off. Hopkins is the conference’s leading receiver, and is third nationally with 26 catches for 319 yards and four touchdowns.
“I don’t care who’s guarding them, NFL players, Pro Bowl players, it doesn’t matter, if I’ve got a one-on-one matchup I’m going to take it every day of the week,” Boyd said.
Boyd has had success behind a line that hasn’t allowed a sack since the opener against Auburn, though it’ll have its hands full with FSU’s Bjoern Werner, who leads the nation with 6.5 sacks.
As potent as the Tigers’ passing game is, the team is far from one-dimensional on offense. Ellington is the ACC’s leading rusher, averaging 109.3 yards per game.
He’ll face a menacing FSU defense that’s only allowing 103 yards and one point per game. (The ‘Noles have given up one field goal all year, in the opener against Murray State).
The Florida State defense has been incredible so far, albeit against weaker competition, but the offense has also impressed. The ‘Noles are second in scoring, and their rushing offense is currently 11th nationally – a huge improvement from last year’s dismal finish at 104th – and with 15 rushing touchdowns through three games, they’ve nearly matched 2011′s season total (20).
The offensive line has given tailbacks Chris Thompson, James Wilder, Jr., and Devonta Freeman plenty of room to run. Thompson, who sustained two broken vertebrae in last year’s Wake Forest game, rebounded this year with an 80-yard touchdown against the Demon Deacons and is averaging a whopping 14.1 yards per carry.
Thompson and Co. could be dangerous for the Tigers’ defense, which has an ACC-leading five interceptions but has allowed more than 350 total yards in each game this year and is just 84th against the run.
Tigers’ opponents have converted just 9 of 41 third-down opportunities (22%), the second-best rate in the nation.
So who’s number one?
Florida State, of course, allowing only 5 conversions in 44 tries.
Linebacker Stephone Anthony, who leads the Tigers with 27 tackles, knows Clemson’s success against Florida State will start with the run defense.
“Whoever’s the most physical is going to win that ballgame,” he said. “So that needs to be us.”
Coming into the game, the ‘Noles are undoubtedly one of the strongest teams in the nation; they’re the only team ranked in the top 15 in scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense, rushing defense, total offense and total defense.
It doesn’t get much more well-rounded than that, but the Tigers won’t be intimidated by the stat sheet.
Prior to last year’s meeting, Florida State was second in rushing defense and fourth in both total and scoring defenses – and Clemson went right ahead and put up more passing touchdowns, first downs, and total yards of offense against the ‘Noles than any other team all season.
Some Tigers were surprised when Florida State was picked to win by a large margin, but they’re using it as motivation.
“No one outside of this building is going to pick us to win so that’s great,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We’ve been in ballgames before where no one picks us to win.”
Whoever wins this weekend, Clemson or Florida State, will sit alone at the top of the ACC.