This one won’t have quite the national implications of past contests between these two, but No. 2 Clemson and Florida State will renew their rivalry on Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee. Both teams are coming off arguably their most complete performances of the season last week. The Tigers handed NC State its first loss, 41-7, while the Seminoles used 38 straight points at one point to down Wake Forest, 38-17.
Although FSU would hardly qualify as a contender in 2018, the winner of the annual contest between the Seminoles and Tigers has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic in every season since 2009 and the conference each year since 2011. Clemson pulled away late last season at home 31-14 and rallied late to win in its last trip to Tallahassee in 2016, 37-34.
Florida State hasn’t defeated a ranked team since knocking off Michigan in the Orange Bowl to conclude the 2016 campaign. Under head coach Dabo Swinney, the Tigers will look to become the first ACC team to win four straight over FSU since the Seminoles entered the conference in 1992. Throughout his career as a head coach, Florida State’s Willie Taggart has never defeated a team ranked higher than No. 21.
Clemson at Florida State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 27 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Clemson -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Clemson defensive line vs. Florida State offensive line
After what was a dismal start, the Florida State offensive line has made significant improvements over the last month. Since late September, the Seminoles have notched two games without allowing a sack — a feat not previously accomplished by the Noles since 2014. FSU is also coming off its best rushing game, averaging 4.6 yards per carry against an admittedly subpar Wake Forest rush defense. Through seven games, FSU has played seven different starting lineups. To have any success on Saturday, the Seminoles must find a way to hold their own up front against their toughest challenge yet and maybe the best defensive line in the country.
The Tigers are so talented up front that it’s hard to even pick out which player headlines the group. Clelin Ferrell leads the defense with six sacks and 10.5 tackles for a loss, but Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, Austin Bryant and freshman Xavier Thomas are all outstanding. As a team, Clemson has 21 sacks and ranks in the top 15 nationally in both pass and run defense and fourth nationally in total defense. In addition to struggling in pass protection, the Seminoles rank dead last in rushing yards per game in the conference. FSU managed less than a yard per carry in last season’s matchup and gave up five sacks in a 31-14 loss.
2. Quarterback play
Last year, Florida State started a true freshman quarterback in James Blackman against Clemson, and he received a baptism by fire when it came to the rivalry. This year, FSU will try to return the favor against Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence. One of the nation’s top prospects out of high school, Lawrence was ultimately given the reins over Kelly Bryant less than a month into the season and never looked back. Lawrence has been every bit as good as advertised with 1,176 yards passing and 11 touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Lawrence has also completed 68 percent of his passes. Saturday, however, will be arguably the most hostile environment that Lawrence has faced, at least since becoming the full-time starter. Led by ACC sacks leader Brian Burns, the Seminoles have a very good pass rush that will try to force the youngster into mistakes.
Fresh off a season-ending knee injury, Deondre Francois has been asked to carry the FSU offense and has done so admirably considering the woes of the offensive line and running game. For Francois, it’s been boom or bust for most of the season, and for the Seminoles to have a chance on Saturday, they need the former. Francois will have to be accurate, aware and take shots against Clemson for FSU to make it a four-quarter football game. Francois currently leads the ACC in passing yards, but against good defenses like Virginia Tech and Miami, the redshirt junior struggled mightily and was turnover prone. Against the Tigers two years ago, Francois passed for 286 yards and a touchdown with one interception in a losing effort.
Saturday’s contest in Tallahassee will feature no shortage of offensive playmakers. For Clemson, running back Travis Etienne may be the most exhilarating. The sophomore running back has 800 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns on a ridiculous 8.2 yards per carry average. Etienne rushed for 97 yards and two touchdowns in last season’s victory. Out wide, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are a dynamic duo who can really stretch the field. FSU has good cornerbacks in Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers, but the safeties have struggled in coverage. The Seminoles must find a way to contain Clemson’s many big play threats on Saturday.
For FSU, running back Cam Akers is quite a talent, but the struggles up front have kept Akers from getting much going this season. He is coming off his best game of the year, going for 98 yards rushing and two touchdowns against Wake Forest. The Seminoles will need to find creative ways to get him the ball on Saturday. At receiver, FSU has a number of promising young players. Sophomore Tamorrion Terry has been uncoverable this season and leads FSU with 22 yards per catch and five touchdown receptions. Nyqwan Murray, a senior, has been a steady target, while DJ Matthews is also good in the open field. Big plays will likely present the best chance for FSU to score on offense.
The Florida State crowd should be lively on Saturday, and the Seminoles certainly have enough talent on defense to make things difficult for Clemson. The problem for FSU is that its offensive line has been very bad, and the Clemson defensive front has been very good. Finding a way to maintain drives and manufacture points on Saturday will be key. If the FSU defense spends most of the hot Saturday afternoon on the field, Clemson could pull away late just as it has done in recent years. Winning the turnover battle and avoiding giving the Tigers short fields are musts for the home team this weekend.