The other day while on radio program, I said that Clemson if Florida State's most important game of the 2012 year. In each of the last three years, the winner has gone on to win the Atlantic Division. Can Florida State have a successful season if it loses this game? Sure, but it's awful unlikely.
Last year, a very healthy Clemson team caught a very unhealthy Florida State team (no EJ Manuel, no Greg Reid, etc) in Death Valley coming off an emotionally crushing loss to Oklahoma. It was the exact scenario I had warned about when saying how stupid it was for FSU to schedule the Oklahoma series. And FSU lost 35-31.
In truth, Clemson wasn't that good. Good teams do not lose by 14, 21, 24 and 37 points. They won the ACC title with what you could reasonably argue was their third-best team of the last five years. I'll have more on Clemson when I preview the Tigers, but for now, let's look at what our friend Paul Myerberg of the New York Times and Presnap Read has on the boys from Death Valley:
In a nutshell It's hard to win national championships, let alone compete for national titles, when you don't control the line of scrimmage - it's hard to compete for conference titles, in fact. Unless Clemson gets steady play on its offensive and defensive lines, this is a flawed team. It's a team with almost unbelievable coaching and speed on offense, from Morris to Boyd to Watkins on down, but this system and its explosive pieces simply won't be as explosive as they can be if the Tigers don't open up lanes on the ground and protect the passer. To say that the offensive line is a concern would be an understatement. Likewise on defense, where Venables looks to rally an inexperienced and thin group around one potential all-conference pick, Goodman. You see the similarities: Clemson has Freeman on offense and Goodman on defense - but question marks surround both pairs.
Then there's the inevitable learning curve as the defense moves into Venables' system. While there's absolutely no question that he's a coaching upgrade, not merely today but in the long term - and while his defense is much simpler than Steele's - the Tigers are going to need some time to come together as a group. This is especially true in the secondary. What will help matters is that the Tigers get Ball State and Furman between Auburn and Florida State, which should give this group some time to come together before hitting the heart of A.C.C. play. While not a Morris-level hire, Venables was a really nice pickup for Swinney and the Tigers.
Enough bad news. The good news for the Tigers is that the only thing missing is steady line play. If the offensive line comes together, this team should end the year as the second-best team in the A.C.C. - behind Florida State, I should add. If both the offensive and defensive line comes together there's no reason why Clemson can't make a run at both the league title or an at-large B.C.S. bid. That's how good this offense can be, and that's how much better this defense could be under Venables. But the reality of the situation is that you can't win titles with these sort of question marks, especially on offense, and there are four defensive lines on this schedule that could really give the Tigers fits. Barring unexpectedly strong play up front, Clemson does not look built to defend its A.C.C. title.
Dream season Clemson's offensive line is one of the great surprises in college football. This group helps lead the way for a top-five offense, not surprisingly, but the Tigers' biggest improvement can be found on defense. Clemson augments a top offense with a stout and steady defense, which helps land a second straight A.C.C. title and another B.C.S. berth.
Nightmare season The Tigers lose the big four games and another pair to Georgia Tech and N.C. State, falling from the top of the Atlantic to 6-6 and barely in bowl play.
Myerberg does a very solid job here and I do encourage you to read the sections specifically addressing offense, defense and special teams.