Get the Athlon Sports Newsletter
Can Clemson stay alive in the national title picture?
The ACC is home to college football’s premier matchup for Week 8, as Florida State travels to Clemson for a huge conference showdown with national title implications. With both teams ranked inside of the top five in the latest Associated Press poll, this matchup could be the biggest in the history of the ACC. Prior to Saturday’s game, only three times have two ACC teams met when they were ranked among the top five nationally in the Associated Press poll.
Last season’s meeting between these two schools decided the Atlantic Division champion, and the winner of this game should decide who represents the division in Charlotte this December. But the stakes on Saturday night aren’t limited to just team goals. Quarterbacks Tajh Boyd (Clemson) and Jameis Winston (Florida State) are squarely in the Heisman mix, and both players can inch closer to Oregon’s Marcus Mariota or Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel for the No. 1 spot in the early straw polls.
Most of the pregame hype will focus on this year’s matchup, but there’s an underlying theme of program trajectory at work. With a senior quarterback (Boyd), a receiver likely to leave for the NFL (Watkins), and an offensive coordinator (Chad Morris) expected to be in the mix for head coach jobs this offseason, this is Clemson’s best shot to play for the national title, at least for the next couple of seasons. For Florida State, one could argue the program is slightly ahead of schedule. The Seminoles had quite a bit of roster turnover in the offseason, so most expected 2013 would be a rebuilding year, with an eye on 2014. However, Florida State hasn’t suffered a setback this season and is clearly one of the top-10 teams in the nation.
This annual Atlantic Division matchup has blossomed into one of the ACC’s best rivalries. Florida State has won three out of the last five, but Clemson has claimed five in a row in Death Valley. The last time the Seminoles won at Clemson was 2001. Florida State won last year’s contest 49-37, but two out of the last three meetings in this series have been decided by five points or less.
Florida State at Clemson
Kickoff: 8 ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Florida State -3
Three Things to Watch
Florida State’s Offensive Line vs. Clemson’s Defensive Line
A classic battle in the trenches is shaping up on Saturday night. Florida State’s offensive line returned four starters this season and has allowed just nine sacks through six games. Clemson’s defensive front is aggressive, as evidenced by its 61 tackles for a loss, which ranks No. 1 nationally. The Tigers rank second nationally in sacks, recording 24 through six contests. End Vic Beasley is the headliner, recording 12 tackles for a loss and nine sacks, as well as a touchdown on a fumble recovery. But Clemson’s defensive line isn’t just limited to Beasley. Tackle Grady Jarrett is an underrated player, and there’s depth at end with junior Corey Crawford and freshman Shaq Lawson. There’s no easy way to slow down Florida State’s offense with Jameis Winston at the helm. However, getting pressure on Winston is crucial, as he is capable of scrambling and hitting big plays downfield when things break down in the pocket. If the Tigers don’t get to Winston, he will hit big plays in the passing game. Coordinator Brent Venables and coach Dabo Swinney have to be concerned about their secondary, especially after Garry Peters was ruled out for this week's game with a foot injury.
Clemson’s Other Playmakers
It’s no secret Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins is one of the best in the nation. But what about Clemson’s No. 2 and No. 3 options? Florida State’s pass defense has allowed only four passing plays of 30 yards or more, which is tied for third nationally. The Seminoles have allowed only six passing scores, and opposing quarterbacks are completing just 53.5 percent of their throws against this defense. Even with the departure of cornerback Xavier Rhodes to the NFL, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. Senior Lamarcus Joyner is the headliner, and freshman Jalen Ramsey is having a standout season, but sophomore P.J. Williams and senior safety Terrence Brooks also deserve plenty of credit for the performance of the secondary. Considering Florida State will devote some extra attention on Watkins, Clemson needs big performances from receivers Adam Humphries and Martavis Bryant. Humphries ranks second on the team in receptions (24), and while Bryant has been inconsistent at times, he’s a big play waiting to happen (18.6 ypc). Watkins will have his opportunities to make plays, but will Bryant and Humphries deliver?
The Quarterback Duel
It’s a little obvious, but we’d be remiss if we don’t highlight the duel between Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Florida State’s Jameis Winston. If you were to make a list of the top 10-20 players in the nation so far, both Boyd and Winston should be on it. Winston doesn’t have an All-American at receiver, but the freshman might have a deeper overall group than Boyd. Kenny Shaw, Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin are averaging at least 17 yards per catch, while tight end Nick O’Leary has five touchdown grabs. Boyd is completing 66.5 percent of his throws and has tossed only two picks in 185 attempts. The senior was sharp against Georgia, completing 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards and three scores. An underrated part of Boyd’s game is his mobility, especially in short-yardage situations. Through six games, Boyd has five touchdowns and 187 yards on 66 attempts. As with any big game, mistakes will be magnified. Which quarterback will blink? Or will both players play a mistake-free game? Either way, the stage is set for one of the best quarterback duels in college football for 2013.
Key Players: Roderick McDowell, RB, Clemson/Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State
We usually focus on one player in this section, but this week, let’s highlight the running backs for both teams. Clemson’s Roderick McDowell has only one 100-yard effort (Georgia) but averages 4.9 yards per attempt. Freeman leads Florida State with 54 attempts and 385 yards, but Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr. will contribute. Freeman is an underrated pass blocker, and Wilder Jr. should be ready for a bigger role after dealing with a shoulder injury earlier this year. Both teams have been susceptible to the run at times. Can McDowell or Freeman get on track on Saturday night? If they can, it could be the difference in the game.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: This game should live up to the hype. Clemson and Florida State are two of the nation’s top-10 teams, and there’s very little separation between these two programs right now. And despite the small gap between these two teams, the loser of this game is likely done in terms of national title aspirations.
Both offenses will have their share of highlights, with quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston making a handful of huge plays. But which defense will make the play that turns the game? Clemson’s pass rush has been better, and the Tigers have forced more turnovers than Florida State (15 to 7).
On paper, Florida State is the better team. However, homefield advantage and the aggressive front four on defense is the difference for Clemson.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Florida State 34