College football’s premier matchup for Week 4 takes place in Tallahassee. Florida State and Clemson have combined for a 6-0 start, but this will be the first ACC contest for both teams.
Are the Seminoles back? That’s the question hovering over this team for the past couple of years. Although it’s early, Florida State looks like a serious contender for the national title. Sure, the competition has been light through the first three weeks, but the depth and talent in the program is getting back to the levels Florida State had in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Clemson is the defending ACC champs but has won only one matchup in Tallahassee since 1992. The Tigers opened the year with a solid victory over Auburn and handled Ball State and Furman in their next two matchups.
Five Things to Watch in Clemson vs. Florida State
1. Florida State’s defensive line vs. Clemson’s offensive line
There is plenty of firepower for both teams at the skill positions, but the matchup in the trenches will decide this game. Florida State owns one of college football’s top defensive lines and has allowed just 33.7 rushing yards per game through three contests. The headliner is junior Bjoern Werner, who has recorded nine tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks this season. Clemson’s offensive line has not allowed a sack the last two weeks but gave up four in the opener against Auburn. The Tigers have the ACC’s top trio – quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington and receiver Sammy Watkins – but will struggle to get on track if the offensive line does not perform. Werner isn’t the only standout up front, as Florida State’s line is overflowing with depth, including senior Tank Carradine and sophomore Timmy Jernigan. Considering Clemson’s uncertainty on the offensive line, Florida State should be able to win the battle up front on defense.
2. Clemson’s receivers vs. Florida State’s secondary
With Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins leading the way, the Tigers have one of college football’s best receiving corps. Watkins missed the first two weeks of the season due to a suspension but caught four passes for 52 yards in his return. Hopkins has 26 receptions through the first two weeks, including 13 in the season opener against Auburn. Florida State’s secondary has yet to be tested but leads the nation by allowing just 69.7 passing yards per game. Junior Xavier Rhodes is one of the ACC’s top cover corners, but Clemson will test sophomore Nick Waisome on the other side. With Greg Reid’s dismissal from the team in the offseason, the Seminoles are short on experience at the spot opposite of Rhodes. If Clemson gives quarterback Tajh Boyd enough time to throw, he will have opportunities to find Watkins or Hopkins for big plays downfield.
3. Can Florida State protect EJ Manuel?
The offensive lines are clearly under the microscope on Saturday night. Clemson’s front five will be tested by a deep Florida State defensive front, while the Seminoles are anxious to see how their line performs against the Tigers. Florida State’s offensive line was a question mark all last season and is still a work in progress. This unit paved the way for the Seminoles to rush for 385 yards and four touchdowns last week, but pass protection was an issue. The Tigers are reloading on the defensive front but will be Florida State’s toughest test so far. Expect coach Jimbo Fisher to move Manuel out of the pocket and call some designed runs to slow down Clemson’s pass rush.
4. Which team will make a play on special teams?
As with any big game, the battle on special teams will be something to monitor. Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins is one of the best kickers in college football, while Clemson’s Chandler Catanzaro has connected on all six of his attempts, and punter Spencer Benton hit a 61-yard field goal against Ball State. Returns are slightly in Clemson’s favor, especially with Watkins’ return to the lineup. The sophomore averaged 25 yards on kick returns last season and took one back for a score. Florida State will counter with Rashad Greene on punt returns, who is averaging 19.6 yards per return and has taken two for scores this year.
5. Chris Thompson vs. Andre Ellington
Neither team was able to generate much of a rushing attack in last season’s game. Florida State managed just 29 yards, while Clemson had 99 on 50 attempts. The Tigers will look to get Andre Ellington involved a little more this season, and the senior is off to a strong start. In the opener against Auburn, he rushed for 228 yards and has four touchdowns in his last two games. Chris Thompson is one of the best stories in college football, as he missed nearly all of last season with a broken back and has shown no ill-effects from that injury, gashing Wake Forest for 197 yards and two touchdowns last week. The team that wins the rushing battle won’t necessarily win the game, but both squads need to get the ball to Ellington and Thompson to give them opportunities to make big plays.
Not only is this a huge game for the ACC, but both teams need to win to keep alive in the national title hunt. For Florida State, an impressive win over Clemson would help signal this team is officially back as a national title contender. If the Tigers win, it would be a huge boost to their hopes of repeating as ACC champions.
Florida State didn’t have EJ Manuel in last season’s game, yet nearly won in Death Valley. If the Seminoles can protect Manuel, while the defense holds Watkins, Boyd and Ellington in check, Florida State should move to 4-0 and take a commanding lead for the ACC Atlantic title.
Prediction: Florida State 31-24
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