Florida State at Clemson: Football preview and prediction

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

The pre-season is over. Both teams have made it to the ACC's marquee game unscathed. Who will make it beyond that?

Gameday is in Clemson, SC for the match up of two top ten teams. This is the match up the ACC has wanted and it's placed at a good spot in the season. Whoever loses is out of the National Title hunt and, likely, the ACC title hunt, but still has a good shot at making a BCS bowl.

8:22 | ABC | Line: -3

Clemson's Season so far...

The Tigers started the season with the game of the week and beat UGA at home. The game was a close match between two of college football's heavy weights but Clemson pulled away late and nabbed an impressive win. After an easy win against sacrificial lamb South Carolina State Clemson struggled to pull away from NC State in a Thursday night game in Raleigh but still came out with a win. After handily dispatching Wake Forest and Syracuse Clemson ran into problems against an improving Boston College team but survived to set up the top 5 match up against FSU Saturday.

v. Clemson's Defense

Clemson's front four has been very stout this year and is led by Vic Beasley. Beasley has 9 of Clemson's 24 sacks and has been a match up nightmare. Cameron Erving will have his hands full with Beasley, and expect FSU to give him help at times. FSU can't give him too much help as the rest of Clemson's line has been very good and can make FSU pay for not respecting that. Corey Crawford, on the other side, is also quite good and Bobby Hart could have his hands full. Shaq Lawson, the top defensive end backup, separated his shoulder against BC, but is expected to play and is not listed on the injury report.

The linebacking corps for the Tigers has been solid to very good this year and did a lot to help Clemson hold off Boston College. They do a good job of filling holes in the run game and getting to the passer, especially Stephone Anthony. Unfortunately, problems exist beyond the linebackers. Corners Bashaud Breeland and Darius Robinson have been good but the safeties have not. Robert Smith has been hit or miss all year and Travis Blanks has been fighting injury. If Clemson has to give Jayron Kearse meaningful time due to the Blanks' injury (which is not expected), FSU could have a field day throwing down field. The secondary often struggles to take correct angles in the run game also, meaning runs tend to go for 0 or 40 yards. Clemson has allowed seven runs of 30+ yards on the season. They also get a lot of tackles for loss.

Clemson's defense hasn't been great a on standard downs, but they haven't been awful either. However, when Clemson's defense knows the offense is going to pass they are down right filthy. The difference? Pass rush. If FSU can stay ahead of the sticks they could see good success against the Clemson defense, but things could go downhill real fast if they can't.

The Tigers will likely force FSU to work their way down the field by playing soft cover-3, as Jameis Winston has been hit or miss in taking what the defense gives him. On the plus side he's been so accurate, it hasn't mattered all that much. But will that last? Winston showed good patience later on in the Pitt game in working the offense down the field and must continue to do so if Clemson does force him to. This option could backfire fast if the Noles are successful in moving the ball, as the longer the FSU offense holds the ball, the less opportunities the Clemson offense has.

Clemson will probably play its soft coverage and hope for a tipped ball, an over-aggressive throw into tight coverage, a hit on the receiver, or a high throw. And it will hope that its four-man rush (not blizting) can create a tackle for loss or a sack to get FSU off schedule. And by limiting the big play, it may hope to get stops in the red zone -- an area of very high variance for even the most elite of offenses.

Not only does Winston need to do a good job of taking what the defense gives him in the passing game, but he also needs to be willing to check Florida State into a run play when the numbers present themselves to do so. Winston has crazy talent, and if he is willing to take the smart play, his talent will be put to its best use.

At this point it's almost ludicrous to think teams will try and blitz Winston, as FSU has done excellently against the blitz. Not only has Winston done well in getting the ball out, but the line has picked up blitzes well with Devonta Freeman's help. Winston sometimes holds onto the ball longer than you'd like, but has done a good job of escaping the rush and launching deep down field. Still, defensive coordinators love to blitz young quarterbacks, and Clemson DC Brent Venables will bring pressure if Clemson's soft coverage isn't working.

Fisher has thrown on first down early in games all year. Is this the game he breaks tendency? That depends on how Clemson lines up. If FSU goes with 11 personnel (one back and one tight end), it'll be tough for Clemson to cover Rashad Greene, Kelvin Benjamin, Kenny Shaw and Nick O'leary from a 4-3 look. If Clemson matches personnel, FSU will probably run more. If Clemson doesn't match personnel, look for FSU to throw. First down is the best throw down, and with a super-accurate quarterback like Winston, FSU should look to throw if it has the matchups.

The biggest advantage Clemson has coming into this game is where it's played. Death Valley is an extremely tough place to play, not only because Clemson is very good, but the fans there know how to get behind their team.  Look at what Tarlos Thomas, starter on the 1999 National Title Team, had to say about Death Valley.

Keep in mind that Thomas played in the Swamp and in the old Orange Bowl.

Winston has yet to see a road environment like this, and while he seems to thrive in pressure situations, this is another matter.

Poise will be super important here. FSU will have false starts and bad plays as a result of the environment. This must be expected. FSU needs to accept the bad plays and move on when they do come.

Breaking tendency might also be very important in this game as well. Florida State's offense has been the best it has been in more than a decade, but it has been very basic. Clemson will know FSU's tendencies, and if they overplay those tendencies FSU will need to run counters off of its base stuff, perhaps for big plays. Fisher will need to strike the playcalling balance between what FSU has done very well, and what Clemson is not expecting. FSU will also need to incorporate the screen game more than it has, and it will also probably use more jet-sweep type motion. And in a game like this, don't be surprised if Fisher runs Winston a bit more than normal, particularly if Clemson doesn't account for him.

Personnel use will also be important. If Clemson isn't blitzing, look for more Karlos Williams. If Clemson does decide to blitz a lot, FSU probably cannot trust Williams to pick it up, and that will necessitate more of Devonta Freeman.

Goals

  • More than 6.75 yards a play before garbage time (338 yards on 50 plays, 405 yards on 60 plays, 475 yards on 70 plays)
  • No more than 1 turnover
  • 60% or greater TDs in the red zone

v. Clemson's Offense

If you've never really watched a Chad Morris offense, you're really missing out. Morris uses backfield motion along with packaged plays to force a defense to hesitate. With the speed Clemson has, a momentary hesitation is enough to get their many play makers into space, allowing them to use their natural ability to punish defenses.

This offense really punishes the defense for its lack of discipline. All 11 players must be defended in the run and pass game, and Clemson packages a lot of window dressing around sound, base run plays that would be seen in any pro-style offense.

Much like last week against Maryland, correct eye discipline is key against the Clemson offense. Trying to make a play or getting distracted by all the motion spells doom for defenses. Every defender has a job and must stay singularly focused on that job, and not on the entire play unfolding in front of him.

Tajh Boyd is by far the best QB FSU will see in 2013, unless it somehow runs into Marcus Mariotta, of Oregon, in the post-season. He's a grown man playing amongst kids, is an accurate thrower, a great competitor, and a very good runner who consistently picks up first downs with his legs, particularly in shorter yardage.

Making Tajh Boyd's job easier is a host of very skilled athletes both in the backfield and outside. Not many offenses can continue to operate at a high level after losing multiple high NFL draft picks like DeAndre Hopkins, Andre Ellington and Brandon Ford, but Clemson has done an admirable job of executing Morris's scheme. The speedy Sammy Watkins still roams opponents' secondaries, with 6-5 Martavis Bryant starting opposite him. Bryant is a tall, strong receiver with tremendous speed, but struggles to keep focus and can disappear at times. He keeps defenses from always double teaming Watkins, but he is not nearly as effective as Hopkins was, and this offense clearly misses the pair of Hopkins and Ford. Adding to the trouble is that No. 2 receiver Charone Peak is done for the year with a leg injury.

The aforementioned Roderick McDowell is a very good back; consistently making many defenses look silly when trying to tackle him, but struggles to be the level of threat Clemson would like. It's not McDowell's fault but rather the inability of the offensive line to create many rushing lanes. This lack of push up front has forced Morris to run Boyd on more than he'd like this year. And Boyd will be running a ton Saturday.

Last year Clemson was able to move the ball using a bevy of trick plays but couldn't sustain much offense otherwise. Does Clemson go back to the well this year? Likely not to the same degree, but expect Morris to sprinkle in a few wrinkles just like Boston College did. Both freshman safety Jalen Ramsey and first-year starter PJ Williams need to be very focused throughout the game as Clemson is likely to target these two with their trick plays due to their lack of experience.

The Noles need to win the early downs as this offense does not do as well when the threat of the run is irrelevant. "Does not do as well" is a relative term though. Clemson is ranked 8th in S&P+ on standard downs but falls to 28th on passing downs. They're still good, but the drop off is quite noticeable. If FSU can take care of the run threat with it's front 7, they'll have a good shot of winning the early downs, and the effectiveness of Clemson's play-action is reduced.

One major battle up front will be between Clemson's right tackle and whomever FSU lines up over him. Clemson will probably start Shaq Anthony, a 285-pound youngster who has good athleticism but does not have great natural power. The other option is Gifford Timothy, an experienced vet who is much bigger, but who has molasses feet. Neither are great options. Anthony is unlikely to be able to handle FSU's jumbo defensive end, Mario Edwards Jr., and Timothy is probably not quick enough should FSU want to put the much smaller Christian Jones over him, though Timothy on Jones in the run game is probably a big advantage to Clemson. Clemson's tight end is not much of a blocker at all. If FSU is disciplined, it will be able to severely limit Clemson's run game, though not quite to the extent it did with Maryland.

Expect FSU to show Clemson multiple looks and blitz Boyd at times to force the issue. Being multiple against a player with Boyd's experience is very important, but he will pick apart repetitive looks. The best way to slow passing game of this type is to force Boyd to make his reads quicker than he'd like and tackle well once he gets the ball out of his hands. The problem, of course, is that Boyd is an excellent QB and can really make FSU pay.

FSU has had a week off from football entering the Clemson game. What does Pruitt come up with to combat the vaunted Clemson offense? The Maryland game was a good test run in that Maryland runs a similar offense, but can FSU man up Clemson's WRs with the same success? Pruit has had experience game planning for a Clemson-like offense before. At Alabama, Pruitt had to face off against Auburn under Gus Malzahn, of whom Clemson OC Chad Morris is a disciple. Expect more zone than FSU ran against Maryland, in order to limit the big play and make Clemson execute consistently as opposed to long scoring drives.

At times, though, FSU will man up against Clemson. When it does, expect help to be given to Sammy Watkins' side over the top from safeties. That will leave someone, likely P.J. Williams, manned up on Martavis Bryant. Williams is FSU's biggest and most physical cornerback, and he will have the opportunity to make some money.

This offense excellent at home, particularly when it is playing at its desired up-tempo pace. Communication on the defensive side of the ball isn't discussed as much, but it is very important to quickly communicate on the fly.

FSU has repped a lot of up-tempo during the season in practice in preparation for facing Clemson. And FSU's defense matches up much better against a spread team from a personnel standpoint than it does a pro-style team.

Goals

  • Less than 6 yards/play allowed before garbage time (300 yards on 50 plays, 360 yards on 60 plays, 420 yards on 70 plays).
  • Force 2 turnovers
  • Less than 60-percent touchdowns allowed in the red zone.

Special Teams

Special teams tend to be the deciding factor in games against highly ranked teams and this game is likely no exception. Punter Bradley Pinion has performed well for the Tigers booming at least 1 50+ yarder in all but 2 of Clemson's games. On the other side Cason Beatty's struggles continue. He hasn't kicked well this year and doesn't seem to get the ball out with the expediency you'd like from your punter. can Clemson turn this game in their favor with a blocked punt? It's certainly possible. Both kickers have been very good this season with Clemson PK Chandler Catanzaro missing the only kick between the two. Expect both teams to either kick the ball out of the end zone or kic it very high to limit gains in the return game.

Prediction

FSU has the better team but the better team doesn't always win. If this game were to be played in Doak or at a neutral site, FSU would be a healthy favorite. However, this game is in Death Valley and it's one of the toughest places to play. Add in the fact that FSU is in year one of it's new defense and starting a RS Freshman QB, and the outcome is far from certain. However, Winston doesn't play any where near the level of a RS Freshman and the defense has had ample time to prepare. The off week could not have come at a better time for FSU and Clemson is coming off a tough game against BC.

There are certain things beyond FSU's control which probably keep coaches up at night a bit. How will Winston handle his first huge test in a hostile environment? Will Bryant play up to his freakish physical ability? If he does, Clemson will have a great chance to win, because FSU can't afford to double him with Watkins on the other side. He's certainly an X factor. Will Clemson's safeties continue to take poor angles against the run, allowing 30+ yarders, or will they be more focused? Can FSU shut down Clemson's run game and force Boyd to throw the ball 45+ times?

Who knows. In a game of this magnitude with two excellent teams, the smallest of things can make the difference.

Bud's pick: Florida State 34, Clemson 27 | Chance of winning: 58%

EF's pick: FSU 35, Clemson 31

Other staff picks

Ricobert1: 45-31 Noles

JMNPD: 41-24

Dustin Tackett: I think majority of the match-ups favor FSU. The FSU run game will slow Clemson's rush and open things up for Jameis Winston to attack the CU secondary. During Winston's press conference on Wednesday, he said, "nervous isn't in my vocabulary." And I believe him. 'Noles win 41-28.

FSUED: I'm going 42-31 Clemson. Punt block get us in a hole that we can't dig out of. Statistically pretty even, but Jameis throws some late picks under the pressure of coming back.

Massnole: 45-27 I think the Noles dominate both lines of scrimmage. NOL has a big game.

Nolesblogger: Unless Jameis can't handle the hostile environment of Death Valley (and there's no reason to believe he can't), the Noles score 40+ again. The defense will give up some big plays but should be able to get enough stops. 45-38 Noles.

RaysNNoles: I think FSU will be able to run at will and hit a few broken pass plays for big yardage. FSU D gets burned big once or twice, gets put in bad field position by an offensive turnover and possibly by a big ST blunder. FSU pulls it out 41-31

Matt Minick: 40-37 Clemson, in OT. Special teams have a couple blunders and we just aren't quite ready to take an elite team's best shot on the road and beat them. But that time is coming...soon.

Michael Rogner: 43-21. Vegas rejoices.

FSUvaFan: I think this game comes down to whichever offense does the best at not stopping itself. Both defenses will struggle equally. FSU 38 - Clemson 35.

Pbysh: I think it is going to be something like 28-21 FSU. My disclaimer is that I think they are going to choose a punt to send the house to and if they get there I think it'll be enough to cost us the game.

SWFLNole: I've got 31-28 FSU. My thoughts mirror a lot of what has been said. I worry about their front 4 creating pressure without blitzing, and about their intangibles like playing at home and having more experience. I think overall talent leans towards FSU, and that our running attack will move the ball on them in chunks. On defense, I think this team is assembled to play against Clemson type teams, but they still have the weapons if they play well to move the ball on us because Boyd is terrific.

FrankDNole: Jimbo will have JW come out passing and it will force their defense back, and that will open up the running game. One of our backs (Wilder or Freeman) will get over 100 yards and the other 2 will also find success with over 5 yds./carry. Winston will throw a pick or 2, but he will also throw 4 tds. The defense will somewhat limit Clempsun's offense but they will still get 24 points. Only problem with that is FSU will have 38 points at the final gun. FSU 38-24.

DKFromVA: 29-28 Florida State. Both D-lines give the O-lines some problems, both teams try to make the run game a priority.

TimNole: I don't feel that FSU has seen a defense as good as Clemson's, but I also think that if Winston is clicking, that Clemson hasn't seen an offense as good as FSU's. Georgia's offense might be the same level and they put up 35 with a top WR going down. I'm thinking 28-21 FSU.

Composite Other Staff Pick: 37 - 29, FSU.

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