Clemson’s trip to Florida State has lost some of its preseason appeal, but Saturday night’s matchup in Tallahassee still holds plenty of importance for the ACC and College Football Playoff picture. Prior to the start of the 2016 season, this matchup was projected as a game with two unbeaten teams with playoff and conference title implications. Fast forward to October and the storylines surrounding this one have changed slightly. Clemson is still in the playoff hunt with a 7-0 record, but Florida State is 5-2 and has fallen behind Louisville in the ACC pecking order. Barring a major collapse by a handful of teams, the Seminoles won’t match preseason expectations and earn a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Even though Florida State will fall short of preseason projections, there is still plenty at stake for coach Jimbo Fisher’s team. The Seminoles are likely to be favored in their four remaining games following Saturday night’s clash against Clemson. Finishing 9-3 or even 10-2 isn’t quite what most had in mind for this team back in August, but nine or 10 wins gets this team in conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl or one of the top selections in the ACC. Additionally, Florida State has a chance to extend its winning streak against rival Florida to four in a row on Nov. 26. In other words, Fisher’s team isn't going to go quietly.
On the Clemson sideline, coach Dabo Swinney has the Tigers poised for a second consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff. Of course, it’s too early to pencil Clemson in for a spot, as Swinney’s team needs to navigate this matchup in Tallahassee and clinch a spot in the ACC Championship in November. Assuming the Tigers play in Orlando for the conference title, a matchup against Virginia Tech or North Carolina won’t be easy. And just like last year, the formula for success hasn’t changed for Clemson. Behind Heisman contender Deshaun Watson, the offense is averaging 36.6 points a game. The defense was hit hard by departures this offseason but ranks ninth nationally in fewest points allowed per game. The Tigers also cleared a major hurdle to a playoff bid with a 42-36 victory against Louisville on Oct. 1. Heading into Saturday’s showdown against Florida State, Clemson essentially has a two-game lead over the Cardinals in the Atlantic Division.
Florida State holds a 20-9 series edge over Clemson. The Seminoles have won three out of the last four meetings against the Tigers, including the last four matchups in Tallahassee. Clemson has not won in Doak Campbell Stadium since 2006. However, the Tigers claimed a 23-13 victory in last year’s matchup in Death Valley.
Clemson at Florida State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson Against Florida State’s Secondary
Quarterback Deshaun Watson may not be on pace to be as prolific as he was in 2015, but the junior is still having an outstanding season. Essentially, Watson set the bar awfully high for himself and the Clemson offense last fall, throwing for 4,104 yards and 35 scores and rushing for 1,105 yards and 12 touchdowns en route to leading the Tigers to an appearance in the national championship. So far in 2016, Watson has passed for 1,950 yards and 20 touchdowns and has rushed for 279 yards and one score. The junior has dropped in terms of yards per attempt (8.4 in 2015 to 7.6 in 2016) and has only connected on two passing plays of 40 yards or more after hitting on 15 in 2015.
Regardless of whether or not the offense is firing on all cylinders or at the same level as last season, Clemson’s offense is going to have plenty of opportunities for big plays on Saturday night. Florida State’s secondary ranks 11th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed six passing plays of 40 yards or more. In fairness to coordinator Charles Kelly, the Seminoles have faced arguably the toughest slate of quarterbacks in 2016 – and it won’t get any easier on Saturday night. In addition to Watson’s dual-threat ability, Florida State has to account for receivers Mike Williams, Ray-Ray McCloud and Artavis Scott, along with tight end Jordan Leggett.
Defending Clemson’s talented group of receivers is no easy assignment, and it’s a lot for a Florida State team without standout safety Derwin James due to injury. Thanks to a bye week, Kelly has two weeks to prepare for Watson. Can Kelly and the defensive staff find any answers to slow down Watson? Which brings us to…
2. Clemson’s Offensive Line Against Florida State’s Defensive Line
Why is Clemson’s offense not meeting the expectation level that last year’s group set? It’s hard to pinpoint one clear answer, but the offensive line and ground attack is a good place to start. The Tigers averaged 223 rushing yards a game in 2015 (4.9 ypc) and allowed only 18 sacks in 15 games. Through seven games, Clemson is averaging 169.4 rushing yards a contest (4.6 ypc) and has surrendered seven sacks. Those numbers aren’t bad by any stretch, but it’s notable the offensive line ranks 125th nationally in Football Outsiders’ power success rate. Running back Wayne Gallman was forced to leave the NC State game on Oct. 15 due to injury but is on track to return by Saturday night. Gallman is the team’s No. 1 option on the ground and the best runner to get yards between the tackles.
As we mentioned above, Florida State’s secondary has experienced its share of issues in coverage this year. However, the Seminoles have a standout defensive line and can disrupt Clemson’s attack at the line of scrimmage with a big night from end DeMarcus Walker and tackle Derrick Nnadi. So far, the Tigers have been solid in pass protection, allowing Watson to attack downfield and get the ball to a deep group of receivers in space. However, teams that can generate a pass rush – Auburn, Louisville and NC State – have had the most success in keeping Clemson’s offense within check.
Which unit gets the upper hand on Saturday night? Is it Clemson’s offensive line or Florida State’s defensive front? If the Seminoles want to pull off the upset, the front four has to win the battle at the point of attack.
3. Florida State’s Offensive Line and Dalvin Cook
Redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois has experienced his share of ups and downs in his first year under center for coach Jimbo Fisher. Francois has passed for 1,876 yards and 10 touchdowns and rushed for 142 yards and three scores. While Francois has been good in big games (419 yards against Ole Miss), he also struggled against Louisville (7 of 18 for 101 yards). Even though Francois is still improving, it’s hard to place a ton of blame on his shoulders. Sure, the redshirt freshman needs to be more decisive at times and could utilize his legs more, but he’s also faced a ton of pressure from opposing defensive fronts. Florida State’s offensive line has surrendered 21 sacks through seven games and opposing fronts have generated 46 tackles for a loss.
Why are those totals critical for Saturday night? Clemson’s defensive line is the best unit Florida State’s offensive line will face in 2016. The Tigers are led by rising star (and sophomore) Christian Wilkins, true freshman Dexter Lawrence and Carlos Watkins (4.5 sacks) up front, with standout linebacker Ben Boulware (57 tackles) making a strong case for All-America honors in 2016. Blocking Watkins, Wilkins and Lawrence is a tough assignment for Florida State’s line, but this group has to generate a push on the ground. Running back Dalvin Cook has rebounded from a slow start to record 900 yards and seven touchdowns this year. Cook posted 194 yards against Clemson last fall and needs to eclipse 100 once again in 2016. Opponents haven’t had much success against the Tigers, averaging only 3.3 yards per rush this fall.
With Florida State’s struggles in pass protection, Fisher could utilize Francois more on rollouts and designed runs. But regardless of how the pass protection is, the Seminoles need a big game from Cook to pull off the upset.
With two weeks to prepare, Florida State is going to give Clemson all it can handle. The Tigers were not impressive in the Week 7 win over NC State (24-17) and will have their hands full against Cook, Francois and an active Florida State defensive line. However, if Watson has time to throw, he’s going to connect on big plays with receivers Artavis Scott, Mike Williams and tight end Jordan Leggett. Additionally, the return of Wayne Gallman provides balance for this offense. A victory by Florida State wouldn’t be a surprise, but it would take a couple of turnovers, a much-improved effort from the offensive line and a huge effort by Francois against the ACC’s No. 1 scoring defense. Not impossible, but the Tigers remain unbeaten with a tight win in Tallahassee.