The ACC’s most anticipated showdown of 2015 takes place on Saturday afternoon, as Florida State travels to Clemson in a matchup to decide the champion of the Atlantic Division. These two teams have claimed the last six Atlantic titles and four consecutive ACC Championships. But the stakes are higher than just the ACC title. Clemson ranked No. 1 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, while Florida State checked in at No. 16 and has a lot of work to do in order to return to the playoffs after losing to Georgia Tech.
Although these two teams are the class of the ACC in 2015, the path to this matchup hasn't been easy. Florida State lost several key members – including quarterback Jameis Winston – from a team that went 27-1 from 2013-14. The Seminoles have reloaded behind sophomore running back Dalvin Cook and a host of other young players, but enter Saturday’s game with uncertainty at quarterback and a host of injuries on both sides of the ball. One of the biggest differences between these two teams? The loss column. Florida State dropped a last-second decision to Georgia Tech in Week 8, while the Tigers are unbeaten. Clemson also had its share of personnel concerns entering the season – and similar to the Seminoles – has managed to reload. Despite returning only five starters, the Tigers have been dominant. Out of Clemson’s eight wins, only two were decided by 14 points or less. Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson is a Heisman candidate, and the defense is limiting opponents to just 4.4 yards per play.
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Florida State owns a 20-8 series edge over Clemson. The Seminoles have dominated this series in recent years, claiming five out of the last seven matchups, including a 51-14 win the last time these two teams met in Death Valley.
Florida State at Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Clemson -12
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State’s Injury Report and the Quarterbacks
This matchup is coming at a bad time for Florida State. A handful of key players are on the injury report, including quarterback Everett Golson, running back Dalvin Cook and linebacker Terrance Smith. Running back Mario Pender has missed five games in a row but was cleared to play on Thursday afternoon. However, defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample is a game-time decision, and right tackle Derrick Kelly is listed as out on the injury report. Golson's health and Cook’s injury and status are the biggest question marks leading up to this matchup. If Golson doesn’t go (or Fisher chooses to keep him No. 2 on the depth chart), Sean Maguire will make his second start of the year. In last week’s win over Syracuse, Maguire threw for 348 yards and three scores. The Clemson secondary and defensive front will present a significantly tougher challenge than Syracuse, but the live snaps were a good opportunity for Maguire to build confidence. Golson's mobility would be a huge asset against an aggressive Clemson defense and he has experience in road environments. The senior is doing a good job of minimizing mistakes (one interception) but is only averaging eight yards per pass attempt. Cook’s health is arguably the biggest concern for Florida State. The dynamic sophomore has represented 1,218 of Florida State’s 4,096 yards this season, averages 8.2 yards per rush and topped 200 yards in wins over Miami and USF. In order to have a shot, the Seminoles need Cook to be at full strength. However, there’s also the quarterback question to answer. Will Fisher go with Golson? Or did Maguire show enough in last week’s start to make a switch?
2. Battle in the Trenches
There are a lot of similarities between Florida State and Clemson in the trenches. On the defensive side of the ball, both teams are stocked with athletic and aggressive edge rushers, while also possessing 300-pound active tackles on the interior. The Seminoles are led by DeMarcus Walker (six sacks) up front, while Derrick Nnadi and true freshman Josh Sweat are two other players on the rise. This group has generated 18 sacks through eight games – one more than this unit had all of 2014. Stopping Clemson starts at the point of attack. Can Florida State pressure Watson on passing downs and stop running back Wayne Gallman on early downs? Clemson’s offensive line had to replace four starters this offseason, but this unit has improved over the course of the season and has allowed 12 sacks through eight games. When the Seminoles have the ball, their young offensive line is going to be challenged by Clemson’s defensive front. End Shaq Lawson is one of the top defensive linemen in the ACC this year, while true freshman Christian Wilkins (52 tackles) and junior Kevin Dodd (4.5 sacks) join as major contributors. Florida State’s offensive line is a bigger work in progress than Clemson’s unit. The Seminoles have allowed 17 sacks in eight games, and this unit struggled to open rushing lanes against Georgia Tech (2.9 ypc) and Boston College (2.9). With four starters in this group in the freshman or sophomore ranks, Florida State’s offensive line is learning on the job. After playing Boston College and Louisville – two strong defenses in the front seven – the Seminoles should be better prepared for this matchup. However, it’s still a tough assignment in a hostile environment.
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3. Wide Receivers
It’s no secret Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey and Clemson’s Mackensie Alexander are two of the nation’s top cornerbacks. How will the quarterbacks and receivers approach this battle? Will Clemson stay away from Ramsey and attack Marquez White (who is also having a good season)? Even if Ramsey and White deliver lock-down performances, other defensive backs have to emerge against a dangerous group of receivers. The Tigers are led by Artavis Scott (47 catches), while Deon Cain (20.1 ypc), Charone Peake, Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud join as key targets. Florida State’s receiving corps features three players over 30 catches, with Travis Rudolph (six touchdowns, 35 receptions) the top player in 2015. Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson and tight ends Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders all contribute. Expect to see the receivers and defensive backs each land their share of plays in this game. The battle between these two units may not get the attention of Cook, Golson or Watson, but there are plenty of intriguing one-on-one matchups to monitor on Saturday afternoon.
It’s rare to see Florida State listed as a double-digit underdog. However, coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has a tough assignment coming on Saturday. The Seminoles are talented, but the depth chart is filled with youth. 2015 is not Florida State’s year to contend for a playoff spot. 2016? That’s a different story. Everything about this matchup suggests a convincing win for Clemson. The Tigers have scored 50 points in back-to-back games, while the defense is wreaking havoc around the line of scrimmage once again and limiting opponents to 4.4 yards per play. Florida State won’t go quietly, but even if the Seminoles stay within striking distance in the third quarter, it’s tough to envision a scenario where this team pulls off the upset. Needless to say, Florida State has to win the turnover battle and catch a few lucky breaks to win in Death Valley. It’s possible. However, Clemson is playing like the best team in the nation. That’s a lot to overcome.