Florida State at Clemson: Game Preview

The 11th-ranked Florida State Seminoles travel to take on the 21st-ranked Clemson Tigers at 3:30 on ESPN. Florida State has not won in Death Valley since the 2001 season. This big conference match up will go a long way to determining who represents the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship Game. If Clemson wins, it will be in the driver's seat, but FSU will not be out of the race due to Clemson's difficult remaining conference schedule. If FSU wins, the division title is pretty much locked up.

Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles have had awful injury luck so far in this young season. Florida State is potentially going to be without its star QB, EJ Manuel, four of its top five receivers, and could be without corner and electric return man Greg Reid as well. And those are just the key contributors who have a strong chance to miss the game. I do expect FSU to get one of those four receivers back by gametime.

Clemson, on the other hand, doesn't figure to be missing any starters. There may be a few guys banged up for the Tigers along the offensive line, but nothing serious enough to warrant missing the game.

And for that reason, Clemson went from an underdog to a favorite in this ballgame. There's no doubt that FSU would be favored if it had its QB and a receiver or two, or if the game was at home. But that is neither here nor there. FSU is going to have to somehow pull this game out against a very talented Clemson team. How talented? There is very little difference between the talent on these two teams, particularly with FSU missing so many players.

Left End
97 Malliciah Goodman | 6-4, 265, Jr., 1V
 90 Kourtnei Brown | 6-5, 250, Sr., 2V
Right End
 40 Andre Branch | 6-5, 260, Sr., 2V
 93 Corey Crawford | 6-5, 275, Fr.,
   3 Victor Beasley | 6-2, 225, Fr., HS
Defensive Tackle
 94 Rennie Moore | 6-4, 270, Sr., 2V
 99 DeShawn Williams | 6-1, 302, Fr., HS
   6 Tavaris Barnes | 6-3, 265, Fr., HS
Nose Guard
 98 Brandon Thompson | 6-2, 310, Sr., 2V
 43 Tyler Shatley | 6-3, 295, So., RS
Strong-side Linebacker
 49 Quandon Christian | 6-3, 215, So., RS
   8 Justin Parker | 6-1, 225, So., HS
Middle Linebacker
 46 Jonathan Willard | 6-2, 220, Jr., 1V
   7 Tony Steward | 6-2, 240, Fr., HS
Weak-side Linebacker
 42 Corico Hawkins | 5-11, 230, Jr., 1V
 12 Stephone Anthony | 6-3, 235, Fr., HS
Cornerback
 15 Coty Sensabaugh | 6-0, 180, Sr., 2V
 17 Bashaud Breeland | 6-0, 190, Fr., HS
Cornerback
 29 Xavier Brewer | 5-11, 190, Jr., 1V
 21 Darius Robinson | 5-10, 165, So., HS
Free Safety
 31 Rashard Hall | 6-2, 200, Jr., 1V
 32 Carlton Lewis | 6-3, 215, Jr., 1V
Strong Safety
   5 Jonathan Meeks | 6-1, 205, Jr., 1V
 27 Robert Smith | 5-10, 200, Fr., HS

Florida State has one of the best defenses in the country, so we'll save that for later in this preview. For now, we'll focus on the battle between the Seminole offense and the Clemson defense.

Clemson's defense is coached by an excellent defensive staff, headed up by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Steele was with FSU in the mid-2000s and is a very good defensive coach. He's an aggressive coach and prefers man coverage when he has the players to play the scheme. Speaking of the scheme, there are some similarities to what Nick Saban runs at Alabama. 

But Clemson's defense has not played very well this year. There are some excuses here, but also some issues. For one, Clemson had a lot of backups playing against Troy as starters battled nagging injuries. And against Wofford, a very good D1-AA option team, it's unlikely Clemson prepared very much. But Auburn was a big, big games for the Tigers and you can bet Clemson prepared well for that attack. Yet Clemson still allowed 6.9 yards/play. The Auburn game can offer some hope for a very out-gunned Florida State offense.

Freshman quarterback Clint Trickett will make his first ever start on the road in Death Valley. There are a few places less conducive to a first start (at Florida, at LSU, at Penn State, at Alabama, at Ohio State), but not many. 

Clemson's defense has a tremendous nose guard in Brandon Thompson. The 315lb senior is a future high draft choice, and the interior of Florida State's offensive line has been poor so far this year. Advantage Clemson. But while the defensive ends are great athletes, they are far from great football players at this point. Florida State has two veteran tackles in Andrew Datko and Zebrie Sanders. They'll need to win the battles with Clemson's defensive ends for FSU to win this game. That's easier said than done given the crowd noise, but still, Advantage FSU.

One thing that has to be a major worry for FSU fans about freshman quarterback Clint Trickett, other than the fact that he is a freshman starting in one of the toughest venues in all of college football, is his height. Trickett is short (6'1" at best), and unlike EJ Manuel, he needs throwing lanes. FSU has undoubtedly worked on this, but it's not likely something that can be mastered in a week. FSU also has to worry about Trickett's balls being tipped at the line. Florida State's offensive linemen must get these Clemson Tiger defensive linemen on the ground so that they cannot get their hands up and tip balls. This is really important on the short passes that FSU is sure to throw. 

Clemson's linebackers haven't seen much of the field so far this season due to all the spread offenses at the position. There's talent here, but not a bunch of experience. This group is a bit of an unknown due to the lack of playing time this year. Florida State's multiple pro-style attack will cause Clemson to press these linebackers into action early and often. 

Florida State will look to get its running game going not between the tackles, necessarily, but rather outside the tackles. You don't know exactly how offensive line coach Rick Trickett will do it, but it's a good bet he'll get the offensive line blocking a bit better in this game.

Clemson has a decent crop of cornerbacks, a very good but banged up safety in Rashard Hall, and an athletic but unpolished safety in Jonathan Meeks. This will be one of the more important battles of this game. FSU's receivers don't have to do anything special, but it is important that they not get dominated. We covered FSU's receivers in the link above, but you should also look for increased passes to the running backs, and perhaps passes to freshman tight end Nick O'Leary as well. O'Leary disappeared last week against Oklahoma under mysterious circumstances that Jimbo Fisher said was not an injury. 

The situation on offense is bleak. Think about how you would feel if Clemson was missing its quarterback and four of its top five receivers. Exactly.

What can Florida State do with this offense? If can run a very deliberate, conservative and safe offense. The goals of the offense should be to have zero turnovers, to milk the clock and to score when the defense or special teams produces favorable field position. Don't be shocked to see a little wildcat either. That seems easy, but it really might not be. If FSU can avoid turnovers, it will force Clemson to drive long-distances on Florida State's defense. Good luck with that. If FSU can milk the clock, it will prevent Clemson from its stated goal of running 85+ plays with its explosive, hurry up no huddle spread offense. And obviously, the offense will need to avoid squandering chances when favorable field position is provided by the defense. 

Look for a lot of short passes from Clint Trickett. That includes screens, of which Clemson can expect to see quite a few. Trickett isn't much of a runner, and the ball will need to get out of his hands quickly and in rhythm. The inexperience and lack of chemistry and timing with the new receivers is an issue, though Trickett has worked with some of them with the second team in practice.

Barring a complete and total meltdown by Clemson, FSU will need at least 5.0 yards/play (with zero turnovers), or 5.25 yards/play (with a max of 1 turnover).

Inside, find a breakdown of Florida State's defense and Clemson's offense.

Clemson Offensive Depth Chart
Quarterback
10 Tajh Boyd | 6-1, 230, So., RS
   8 Cole Stoudt | 6-4, 200, Fr.,
Running Back
 23 Andre Ellington | 5-10, 190, Jr., 1V
 22 D.J. Howard | 5-11, 190, Fr., HS
   5 Mike Bellamy | 5-10, 185, Fr., HS
 25 Roderick McDowell | 5-9, 185, So., RS
Receiver
 81 Jaron Brown | 6-2, 200, Jr., 1V
 19 Charone Peake | 6-3, 200, Fr., HS
 26 Marquan Jones | 6-0, 195, Sr., 2V
Receiver
   6 DeAndre Hopkins | 6-1, 195, So., HS
   7 Bryce McNeal | 6-1, 180, So., RS
   1 Martavis Bryant | 6-4, 200, Fr., HS
Receiver
   2 Sammy Watkins | 6-1, 185, Fr., HS
 13 Adam Humphries | 5-11, 175, Fr., HS
Tight End
 83 Dwayne Allen | 6-4, 255, Jr., 1V
 82 Drew Traylor | 6-4, 245, Sr., 2V
Left Tackle
 79 Phillip Price | 6-5, 300, Sr., 2V
 63 Brandon Thomas | 6-4, 300, So., RS
Right Tackle
 72 Landon Walker | 6-6, 310, Sr., 2V
 70 Gifford Timothy | 6-6, 335, Fr., HS
Left Guard
 63 Brandon Thomas | 6-4, 300, So., RS
 62 Mason Cloy | 6-3, 295, Sr., 2V
Right Guard
 74 Antoine McClain | 6-5, 330, Sr., 2V
 77 Reid Webster | 6-4, 290, Fr., HS
Center
 55 Dalton Freeman | 6-5, 285, Jr., 1V
 62 Mason Cloy | 6-3, 295, Sr., 2V

FSU is in the strange position of not being able to go and take this game outright. The 'Noles need Clemson to give them the game via turnovers. And while this isn't completely within FSU's control, it is entirely possible. 

I am not going to cover the Clemson offensive scheme here because STS has already done a phenomenal job on that. It's a spread-option, hurry up no huddle power spread offense. It's a carbon copy of Auburn's offense. 

So far the Tigers have put up huge numbers on everyone. But what caught my attention is just which teams encompass "everyone." Troy is probably the best defense Clemson has faced. Auburn is next, with D1-AA Wofford bringing up the rear. Those are some bad, bad defenses. Here's what STS had to say about Auburn's defense:

Auburn's defense is horrendous. You have to keep that in mind. This has to be one of the worst defenses I've ever seen. FSU 3 years ago was awful, but I think this Auburn defense is worse. They have no idea where they are supposed to be. Their CBs are wimpy aside from the one (Davis). Their safeties take bad angles. Their LBs are non-existent. They can't wrap up. This team has speed over there, and I know there is good talent on the DL, but this is truly shitty play. If I were an Auburn fan today I'd be calling for [defensive coordinator] Roof's head. They don't even use anything complex enough to need simplification. 

They haven't seen anything resembling FSU's defense. Simply put, it's difficult to say just exactly how good this Clemson offense is. Let's start with what we know.

Clemson's offense has really athletic skill players. Nuke Hopkins is an excellent receiver, Sammy Watkins might be the best freshman in the country and the most explosive player in the ACC, Dwayne Allen is a freak of a tight end, and Andre Ellington would start for most teams in college football.

We also know that Clemson really upgraded its offensive coaching staff. These guys are proven coaches who got the job done elsewhere before coming to Clemson. This is not that cluster of a staff the Tigers had last season. 

Sounds really good for CU. What do we not know?

We don't yet know how good Tajh Boyd is as a quarterback. Boyd has a good arm and has looked quite good so far. But again, the defenses faced haven't exactly been much of a challenge. Boyd has not been forced to make complex reads at high speeds with pressure in his face. Boyd hasn't been forced to throw many balls accurately into tight windows while under pressure. And he hasn't been forced to run much, preferring to pitch the option and give the zone read.

If Boyd can make the correct reads and deliver the football accurately into small windows with the pressure on, Clemson will win this football game. If he cannot, FSU has a great chance to win. It's pretty simple.

Another question with Boyd is patience. Clemson has absolutely lived on the big play so far this year (5 of over 50 yards, the second most in the country). Florida State excels at taking away the big play. You can bet that Mark Stoops will make every attempt to take away the big play. Can Boyd consistently execute this offense in methodical drives down the field? We saw them do it against Auburn once or twice, but again, that was Auburn. Like against Oklahoma, FSU must line up and tackle the Clemson players. FSU thinks Boyd will get impatient and force some throws that he shouldn't. If that happens, FSU must come down with those interceptions to win the game. Forcing field goal attempts is a must here, as Clemson does not have a good field goal kicker. 

And like Boyd, we haven't seen Watkins have to play much receiver in the tactician sense. How does Watkins handle being pushed around at the line of scrimmage by Xavier Rhodes or Mike Harris? How does he handle not being wide open? 

There are also some issues with Clemson's offensive line. Health is the biggest. This isn't a bad offensive line group by any means, but its health is in question as three players are battling injury. None are expected to miss the game, but how they match FSU's ferocious defensive line is a big question. Is Phillip Price quick enough to handle Brandon Jenkins? Is Walker intense enough to block Bjoern Werner? Clemson hasn't been able to run between the tackles all that well this year, and FSU absolutely must make sure that trend continues.

If Florida State can take away the inside run, it can accomplish three things. First, it can use its speed to stop outside runs. Second, Clemson uses a ton of play action. If FSU doesn't respect the run threat, the play action is far less effective. And third, if FSU can stop the inside run early and get Clemson to go away from it, the Noles can run more nickel against this spread offense, removing one of its linebackers who aren't great in coverage and adding a future NFL corner to the field. 

FSU will ask its defense to win this game. If it doesn't the 'Noles don't stand much of a chance.

FSU has a big advantage in the special teams here, with a much better kicker and punter than the Tigers. 

FSU has to love that it has Jimbo and Clemson is stuck with Dabo. FSU has to love that Clemson has not handled success very well. But you have to hate a freshman making his first ever start in Death Valley. FSU has a real shot to win this game. Clemson has a better shot. I'll give FSU a 45% chance of winning and predict a score of FSU 20, Clemson 24. But really, I have no idea how a freshman QB will react on the road. He could keep his poise, or he could have a meltdown and the Tigers could blow the doors off the 'Noles. My prediction is somewhere in the middle of that.

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