Florida State vs Clemson: 3 Key Advantages and Predictions
Florida State vs Clemson: 3 Key Advantages and a Prediction
With all of the talk about SEC and Pac 12 conference dominance, surprisingly, the first top-five matchup of the college football season involves a pair of ACC teams. There’s no question that Clemson and Florida State are the real deal, and their marquee showdown in Death Valley Saturday will be the first of several ACC games in the next few weeks that could have a huge impact on this season's national championship race.
Just like the SEC, the ACC has three teams in the top 10 of this week's Associated Press poll – No. 3 Clemson, No. 5 Florida State and No. 10 Miami. The ACC is the only league with two teams in the top five. But as we know, rankings are just window dressing this time of year. There are likely still plenty of changes to come at the top.
There’s no question that most intriguing college football drama will unfold in the month of November. But the aftershock of this game could be felt right up until January.
There’s no way to predict what madness awaits in the final six weeks of the regular season, but we do know the FSU-Clemson game has enormous implications not just in the ACC but across the nation.
Make no mistake. The Noles and Tigers are legit. This is the biggest ACC game in nearly a decade. It's been about that long since the ACC had multiple national championship contenders – legitimate contenders, anyway – this late in the season.
So which team has the edge Saturday night? Both have great QBs. Both are ranked in the top four in the ACC in both total offense and defense, and scoring offense and defense.
But here are three key advantages for both Clemson and Florida State that could tip the scale in favor of either the Tigers or Seminoles.
Clemson Advantage: Passing Downs
Clemson's offense hasn't been amazing on passing downs, but FSU’s defense hasn’t been as good. The Seminoles' pass rush has struggled at times, not surprising when you consider how much talent they had to replace this offseason. Only Lamarcus Joyner has more than one sack, and the 'Noles have only a paltry 10 overall (T-11th in ACC). If Tajh Boyd isn’t pressured, speedy WR Sammy Watkins is bound to get open at some point.
On the other side, Clemson is second in the conference with 24 sacks and 10 interceptions. The Tigers’ pass rush can really get after the quarterback, helping Clemson hold opponents to a league-best 23.7 percent third down conversion rate. The Seminoles rank 111th in passing downs sack rate, allowing Jameis Winston to get sacked 12 percent of the time. Furthermore, Clemson has 61 tackles for loss, by far the most in the nation, which helps the Tigers get teams into passing situations that allow their pass rushers to tee off.
Clemson Advantage: Offensive Versatility
Clemson is a team that puts a lot of different wrinkles in its offense, using multiple formations and shifts. Even during the glory years, the term “disciplined” has rarely been used to describe the Florida State defense. Clemson uses its best playmaker Sammy Watkins in many different ways, screens, jet sweeps, reverses and as a decoy, in addition to throwing him the ball. He has lights out speed and the ability to break a long TD at any moment.
QB Tajh Boyd, who is effective running and throwing, also present a dual-threat concern for the Noles. It will be important for Florida State not get caught chasing the football or Watkins and stick to its defensive assignments. Boston College had success rolling one way and throwing across the field against the Seminoles, but Boyd and the Clemson offense is much more dangerous.
Clemson Advantage: Death Valley
Florida State hasn’t won at Clemson since 2001, and they are not alone in their Death Valley struggles. Dabo Swinney is 18-2 in ACC home games (.900), the highest winning percentage in league history. He recently moved ahead of former Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, who had a 12-1-1 record at home against league foes from 1990 to '93. You have to go back to 2010 to find the last ACC team to win in Death Valley: Miami, 30-21.
Florida State, Jameis Winston in particular, hasn’t played in nearly as hostile an environment so far this season. It’s going to be absolutely nuts inside Memorial Stadium Saturday night. In fact, the Clemson athletic department announced this week that it wants to break the Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium on the first defensive snap of the game. The Seminoles practiced all week with noise piped in, standard procedure for teams prepping to play on the road. But Clemson is not Pitt, nor is it Boston College. Clemson is a place where noise truly does become a factor.
Florida State Advantage: Running Game
What’s the best remedy for a strong pass rush? A seven or eight-yard gain on first down, that’s what. The Seminoles have a bruising rushing attack that averages 228.2 YPG, good for 17th best in the nation. Meanwhile, Clemson ranks 89th in the ACC in rushing defense, giving up more than 158 yards a game. So far, Florida State has been tougher in the ground game on both sides of the ball. FSU is first in the conference in yards per rush (6.0), and if the Seminoles can stay ahead of the downs and get into manageable third down situations, they should be able to convert a lot of them and negate Clemson’s pass rush in the process.
Florida State Advantage: Risk-Reward
Though he had to deal with losing his best receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, early in the game, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray still completed 20 of 29 passes for 323 yards against Clemson in the season opener. What saved the Tigers is exactly what could save them again this week: picks and sacks. They baited Murray into a second-quarter pick as the Bulldogs were driving, and they sacked him four times. But Jameis Winston is more athletic than Murray and has better scrambling ability. If the FSU offensive line keeps a nice pocket around Winston or if he is able to escape Clemson’s pressure, there are big plays to be made throwing the ball.
Florida State Advantage: Sum of All Parts
Florida State is the only team in the nation that’s both in the top 10 nationally in scoring offense (No. 3; 56.8 points per game) and defense (No. 3; 12 PPG), and total offense (No. 4; 549 yards per game) and defense (No. 7; 276.8 YPG). The Seminoles are a well-rounded football team from top to bottom. Neither side of the ball has been a weakness for this team so far, at least when looking at each unit as a whole. To beat Florida State, Clemson will have to play its best football on both sides of the ball, because there are no easy paths to victory against the Noles.
Florida State 31, Clemson 27
Florida State appears to be the more well-rounded of the two teams, but if Clemson can get to Jameis Winston, the Noles could be in trouble. But, FSU had an extra week to prepare and should be more than ready for anything the Tigers throw at them. In the end, the defense will get a few big stops against Clemson, and the Seminoles’ ability to run the ball and stay ahead of the chains, combined with the extra preparation, should take a lot of pressure off Winston and help FSU take down the Tigers in Death Valley.