Seminoles, Tigers tangle in Death Valley
Over the past couple of seasons, the red-hot rivalry between Florida State and Clemson has seen its intrigue wane. The Seminoles have slipped to the point where their long bowl streak has been snapped, and the Tigers have scaled the college football mountain twice in three years. On the way to last year’s title, Clemson put a 59-10 thrashing on the Noles, dampening further the expectations for the 2019 matchup.
But in the past few weeks, events have brought a little juice back to the rivalry. FSU won consecutive conference games and can pull into an ACC Atlantic Division tie with the Tigers with a victory. Clemson is unbeaten but showed some vulnerabilities in a battle to the finish in Chapel Hill last week. The question is, can Florida State pick up where North Carolina left off, or did the Tigers have a wake-up call that will propel them through the remainder of the season?
Florida State at Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -27
When Florida State Has the Ball
Quarterback James Blackman injured his knee against Louisville, and Alex Hornibrook came in and led the team to victory in the fourth quarter. The next week, Hornibrook completed 29-of-40 for 316 yards and three scores and FSU prevailed again over NC State. Blackman is now healthy and will resume his starting role, though Hornibrook will see action.
Regardless of the quarterback situation, protection will have to hold up, and that will be difficult against Clemson’s defensive pressure. The FSU offensive line has had problems with pass protection for several seasons, and even in the victory over the Wolfpack, Hornibrook was sacked eight times. Of course, some of those sacks can be traced to the Wisconsin transfer holding the ball too long or making incorrect decisions in the pocket, but the line assumes its fair share of the blame as well. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will bring heat from everywhere, and everywhere is exactly where you can usually find hybrid linebacker Isaiah Simmons.
Florida State running back Cam Akers has had a solid start to the year, and his name will be called often this coming Saturday. The Clemson rush defense is allowing only 2.8 yards per carry, but in the last two games, Charlotte ran for 153 yards and UNC had 146. If the Seminoles offensive line can allow Akers a chance to get into space, he can make people miss and pick up big chunk plays, something FSU will need to compete with the Tigers.
When Clemson Has the Ball
The biggest mystery of the North Carolina game was the sluggishness of the Clemson offense. The 21 points scored were the fewest by a Clemson team since the 24-6 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2018. The Heels held the Tigers to just 125 yards rushing, and getting running back Travis Etienne rumbling again has to be at the top of head coach Dabo Swinney’s wish list. After rushing for 205 yards on just 12 carries in the opener against Georgia Tech, Etienne has not topped 76 yards in any of the four games since.
On a similar note, no one would have thought that the Clemson passing game would rank fifth in the ACC at this point in the season. The big-play weapons are there, but what the Tigers need is for a Hunter Renfrow-like possession receiver to emerge. Hopefully, as Amari Rodgers continues to get healthy, he will become a bigger factor in that role. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence has not been sacked often, but pressure at times has affected some of his throws.
Florida State will want to put pressure on Lawrence because if he has time, bad things will happen for the Noles. FSU’s pass defense ranks last in the ACC and 121st nationally with 302 yards passing allowed per game. The strength of the FSU defense is the middle of the defensive line as tackles Marvin Wilson and Cory Durden have combined for 6.5 sacks. Amari Gainer had a huge game against NC State, and the Noles will need his presence coming off the edge from the second level. If that doesn’t happen, Clemson’s Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins will have a field day making plays downfield.
After an uninspiring start, there’s some optimism bubbling up in Tallahassee following the consecutive wins. The biggest difference over the past two weeks has been the Seminoles’ effort level, and with Clemson on the other sideline, that won’t be a problem this week. But the only thing Louisville and NC State have in common with Clemson is that they are part of the ACC Atlantic. Clemson will get up by multiple scores fairly early, and though Florida State will not be completely blown out, the result will never be in doubt.
Prediction: Clemson 35, Florida State 17
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.