As Saturday’s clash between Florida State and ACC Atlantic rival Clemson approaches, most of the focus has centered on the impending battle between Mark Stoops’ defense and Chad Morris’ high-octane Clemson offense. But another intriguing coaching duel will also be on display. Jimbo Fisher matches gridiron wits with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables for the third straight year after seeing his defenses in 2010 and 2011 when he held the same position at Oklahoma.
While Venables arguably had an upper hand in terms of personnel in both of those games, there’s little denying that he has gotten the best of Fisher each time. Florida State's offense struggled to move the ball consistently and avoid mistakes against the Sooners in both 2010 and 2011.
In 2010, Oklahoma put a quick and forceful end to Christian Ponder’s short-lived CP7 for Heisman campaign in Norman. Granted, Florida State’s greatest problems that day stemmed from a defense that was completely dissected by Landry Jones. Still, Ponder had one of the worst games of his career, turning in an ugly day in which he completed just 11 of 28 attempts for 113 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. The Seminoles scored just seven points in the first three quarters of a 47-17 rout.
In 2011, Florida State’s defense was much better equipped to keep it in the game, but Fisher’s offense was again largely ineffective. With an offensive line that struggled all night, Florida State allowed six sacks and turned it over three times. The Seminoles ended up rushing for just 27 yards on the night as part of a 246 total yard performance. The offense didn't reach the endzone until the fourth quarter, and that came after EJ Manuel was knocked out of the game.
The good news for Fisher is that this time around, it appears the deck will be stacked in his favor at last. Florida State’s offensive line has made marked improvement, particularly in run blocking, giving the Seminoles a balance they lacked against Venables a year ago.
"It allows us to open up the offense even more, makes it harder for Clemson to prepare for what we have," Manuel said of the improved ground game. "They don’t know to prepare for me running, Chris [Thompson] running, me throwing. I think the fact that we have diversity in our offense is going to help us out."
The newfound productivity of the Florida State rushing attack could be a bad omen for Venables. His defense has struggled against the run thus far in 2012, despite only facing one major-conference opponent in Auburn. The other two games were against the less-than-fearful pair of Ball State and Furman. The Tigers rank just 87th nationally in rushing defense after ceding an average of 180.7 rushing yards per game.
Fisher still expects a challenge and some new wrinkles from his increasingly-familiar nemesis, though. "I think everybody has to constantly change year to year, and I think you keep your same foundations of things, because it’s your beliefs," he said. "Now you tweak ‘em, you turn ‘em, you add bells and whistles to ‘em, you learn as the game goes, and your personnel- depending one year you can do this a little better, the next year you do this, but Brent’s an excellent coach, and that’s why they went and hired him."
As far as what his offense needs to work on to have greater success against Venables this season, Fisher discussed a need for more sound play from his receivers. He noted the sloppiness of several drops last week against Wake Forest.
"All of the drops we’ve had are very technical things, what they’re willing to do, the kids are willing to make plays so bad that they forgetting, when you run a route and catch a ball it’s technical," Fisher said. "Once you get it, then its you and God. That becomes the playground, when you go do something."
If Florida State’s offense is indeed able to reduce its sloppiness, it appears Fisher will have his best chance to finally best Venables, who must overcome the disadvantage of being in his first season in a new job. Even Mark Stoops’ unit, one of the best in the country now, was lit up by teams like Oklahoma in 2010, his first season at Florida State. Clemson ranks just 58th in total defense, a stat that reflects the growing pains that even a proven coordinator like Venables must endure when attempting to build a unit in his first season.
It should be interesting to see how it plays out, but for what it’s worth, Fisher said he won’t do anything unusual to prepare for the duel, despite the seemingly countless ramifications of the nationally-televised battle.
"I don’t think you have to prepare special," he said of the task in front of his offense this week. "I think you have to prepare well."