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Opponent Blogger Q&A: Shakin The Southland

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We always love Clemson week, in no small part because of the chance we get to work with Shakin' The Southland. The insightful FIGUREFOUR dropped by to answer our questions about the 2013 Clemson Tigers ahead of the biggest game in ACC history.

Streeter Lecka

TN: Florida State vs. Clemson games have taken on new significance recently, with the winner all but assured to represent the ACC Atlantic in December. How do Clemson fans feel about the budding rivalry between the Tigers and ‘Noles? Where does it rank on the CU rivalry hierarchy?

STS: We love having FSU as a rival. Florida State and Clemson are commonly referred to as the two schools in the ACC who probably should be in a different (more football-oriented) conference, we are the two schools who unapologetically place football ahead of the other sports, etc...The fact that both schools have gotten much better over the past half-decade or so makes it even better. If Clemson can't win the Atlantic, I would rather FSU win it over the others in the Atlantic.

All that being said, Clemson fans really like beating FSU after lagging behind the ‘Noles for their first decade in the ACC. Personally, I got tired of losing to FSU in the ‘90's and early 2000's and was almost overjoyed when Clemson pulled the upset in 2003. Since FSU joined the league, this game has (for better or worse) been circled on most every Clemson fan's calendar mainly because it was a "measuring stick" game for our program. In the past couple years, all that seemed to shift as both teams-especially Clemson-improved on the field and now the game is annually a the marque conference game of the year and has turned into the default ACC Atlantic Championship Game.

Overall, I've seen the trash talking between fans of the two schools escalate as both realize the importance of that game. In the grand scheme of things, FSU is probably just above the level of a Clemson/Maryland rivalry in the ‘80's (without the officiating drama) in that it is easily the most important game of the conference schedule for both teams. On that scale, I believe that FSU is now Clemson's biggest conference rival. Personally, I dislike Georgia with a passion so I'd put them on top of the pyramid though most Clemson fans want to win the season finale against Carolina simply because that is the one game everybody talks about all year.

This year's game with the ‘Noles does have more importance than any conference game that I can remember for several reasons. First, as stated above, the winner plays for the conference crown. Second, both teams have a legit shot at running the table. Third, Clemson has been pointing towards the '13 campaign as "the year" for several years now. We will lose a lot of talent next season and likely won't be in this situation in '14. FSU, on the other hand, is seeing their overall team talent level rising quickly. If Clemson doesn't win this season I am not sure we'll have the horses to run with the Seminoles for several years. The roster players we'll lose to attrition and the talent FSU has signed the past couple cycles places the talent advantage to the ‘Noles.

TN: The Tigers have suffered some injuries to important players like Blanks and Lawson (not to mention other season-enders). How is the injury report looking as of the current moment?

STS: Travis Blanks suffered a knee injury several weeks ago, did not play against Syracuse, and the coaches wanted to hold him out of last week's game against Boston College. Unfortunately, the game stayed too close to rest him for the entire BC game last week. Fortunately for Clemson, Blanks should be available this weekend against Florida State (in fact, he is not even listed on the injury report).

Shaq Lawson dislocated his shoulder last week. His shoulder was "popped" back into place and all reports had him looking fine after the shoulder was put back in his proper place. He's listed on as questionable on the injury report but will most likely see the field against the Seminoles.

Ben Boulware suffered a knee injury against Syracuse. He is out for the Florida State game. This loss (combined with Kellen Jones' season ending knee injury from earlier in the year) eats into Clemson's linebacker depth but is not a definitive game changing event for the Clemson defense. Clemson has done a good job recruiting quality depth and it is time for guys like Tony Steward to get into games and have definitive impacts (as he did last week forcing a fumble that was returned for a touchdown last week against Boston College).

Charone Peake incurred a knee injury early in the year. He was probably Clemson's #2 receiver at that point and was really making progress to become a reliable target in the receiving corps. Fortunately for Clemson, we have quality players at this position. Depth-wise, Clemson uses 4-5 wide sets often so the loss of a player of his caliber is definitely impactful there as it will force younger players into games and other receivers to get reps at multiple receiver positions. Adam Humphries, Mike Williams, and Germone Hopper will be called upon to fill the void lost with Peake.

TN: Clemson's defense has shown significant improvement from its 51st-ranked performance in 2012. To what do you attribute the steps taken forward? Who are key defenders ‘Noles fans should keep an eye on Saturday night?

STS: Clemson's defensive line is vastly improved this season. Clemson had little depth there two years ago and a lack of experienced depth last year. This season we have both along with remarkable performance from Vic Beasley at defensive end. We've also seen improvements at the linebacker position. The linebackers have become more fundamentally sound compared to last season, which is attributable to Venables' simpler system looking to have taken hold here. These factors improved Clemson's presence against the run and better contained/pressured opposing quarterbacks in passing situations. More pressure up front immediately improves your secondary. As a unit, the secondary improved fundamentally and has become more physical. Bashaud Breeland has shown himself to be a very capable corner. He has become a more physical player who will find the football. Spencer Shuey has proven to be a slower linebacker for Clemson but puts himself in the proper location.

TN: How do you expect Brent Venables to defend the Florida State offense and Jameis Winston? Which match-ups do you like and which ones worry you?

STS: The key to defending Winston is to assure he is contained. I realize that he can beat you with his arm but he can, on the road in a hostile environment, make mistakes as well. He is much less likely to make a mistake if he is out of the pocket and running to pick up yards. I'll remind you that Clemson has had a lot of trouble with running quarterbacks in the past, so I'd much rather see Winston forced to beat us with his arm instead of his legs. I think that Clemson's defensive line is vastly improved over last season's debacle down in Tallahassee. The Seminoles' OL embarrassed Clemson up front last year but that likely won't be the case this season. I've heard many mixed reviews of the FSU OL (they have depth but have had their share of issues this season) and think that Clemson can more than hold their own this time around. Obviously, the FSU wide receivers are very, very talented. This will be the best group we see all year and they will stress our secondary. A big concern that most may overlook here is TE Nick O'Leary against the Clemson defense. I see O'Leary potentially causing some potential matchup issues on Saturday.

TN: Tajh Boyd has had an excellent start to a 2013 campaign in which many consider him to be a Heisman contender, and has made significant contributions with his legs. What has his running brought to the Clemson offense this season and how important will it be against Florida State?

STS: Tajh Boyd's ability to move does several key things. He uses this skill to avoid pass rushers and extend the play many times. Sometimes this results in Boyd hitting a receiver downfield but more often than not Tajh pulls the ball down and uses his legs to move the sticks. Designed running plays featuring Boyd have been used frequently-many would argue too frequently-this season. Clemson has had little success in short yardage situations using our running backs and has resorted to a direct snap to Boyd then pounding him ahead to pick up the needed yard. Tajh ran the ball extensively last season in the Peach Bowl against LSU and has done so frequently this season as well. When we need a yard in Clemson, there is a good chance #10 will be barreling toward the line of scrimmage.

TN: The depth at wide receiver took a hit when Charone Peake was lost for the season. How have the receivers behind Sammy Watkins risen to the challenge and how do you feel they match up with the Florida State defensive backs?

STS: Clemson's Martavis Bryant has really picked up his game this season. Bryant is arguably the most athletic receiver on this team when you consider his size and blazing speed. In past seasons Bryant dropped key balls, was injured, and needlessly was suspended for the Peach Bowl for academic purposes. This season he has recommitted to the game and is having the tremendous season we all knew a man with his talent should have. I like the Bryant against the FSU secondary based on what we've seen this season out of this receiver. Adam Humphries is a tough receiver who is sure handed, will make tough catches, and will fight his tail off for the extra yard. He played a big role in past Clemson campaigns and is continuing that effort this year. Humph will be used on screens and intermediate type passes. He won't kill the Seminole defensive backfield but does provide Clemson a change of pace, an extension to the perimeter running game (via those little screens), and a sure handed receiver who can find open spaces and make big catches. Clemson is rotating in Germone Hopper and Mike Williams to provide support to the starters throughout the game as well.

TN: How do you expect The Chad to attack Jeremy Pruitt's FSU defense? What will be the keys to Clemson success on that side of the ball?

STS: Chad Morris likes to run a fast paced offense, as you guys likely know. We hope that Clemson can go out and establish the run early. Unfortunately, Clemson has yet to do this so far this season but we believe that, even if FSU shuts down the run early, Clemson has to be committed to at least trying to run the ball as the football game progresses. FSU is probably the fastest defense we'll face this season so I am sure Morris will try to use this speed against the Seminoles through misdirection and counter plays. You'll likely remember Clemson scoring on a wide receiver pass and I wouldn't be too surprised to see Morris pull one of those types of plays out of the hat.

Clemson will need to get push up front to run the football. Clemson has to fix its woes at the right tackle to keep the end and/or blitzing linebacker off Boyd's back. Additionally, if FSU can put pressure on Boyd we'll be watching Tajh's reactions. Hopefully he'll be able to use his legs to get out of trouble and extend the play. In the past, though, Boyd has gotten happy feet, actually walked into some quarterback sacks, or ran into issues with his mechanics (arm position and/or changes in footwork). His actions under duress and ability to avoid the big mistakes when he is pressured will obviously play a big factor in the outcome of this game. Clemson fans are hoping that the poised Tajh Boyd we saw against LSU and Georgia will be the player we see Saturday.

TN: The Florida State special teams, the punt unit in particular, have struggled a bit thus far in 2013. How have the Clemson special teams performed?

STS: Clemson's special teams haven't really made much of an impression either way this season. Clemson punter and kickoff man Bradley Pinion has a strong leg and has done a good job with both of those duties. I will say that we look to be running our lanes and containing better this season than in years past, though I am always scared to kick the ball to Florida State. Our kick return teams have been rather bland. We place Adam Humphries back to return punts. Humphries can be slippery but is back there because of ball security. I'll point out that Sammy Watkins did fumble a punt against Georgia and Humph has been the primary punt returner since. Kick returns for our Tigers have been similar. Chandler Catanzaro has been a quality kicker for Clemson the past three seasons. Catman was jam up all of last year and missed his first kick of the season last week. He's 5/6 on the season this year (2/2 40 yards plus) and last season he was 18/19 placekicking last season. The downside for Clemson is that we've wasted numerous timeouts this season during special teams plays and had a botched hold last week. Overall, nothing really exciting to discuss regarding CU and special teams.

TN: Finally, how do you see the game in Death Valley unfolding? Are you surprised that FSU is currently a 3-point favorite?

STS: I am not too surprised with Clemson being a three point dog, though thought that it would probably open as a pick ‘em or either team favored by 2 at the most (particularly when home field should be good for at least three points according to most "experts")...these lines are made in Vegas for the casinos to try and make the most money at the lowest risk (i.e., even out bets on both sides to hedge and clean up on the cost to make the bet) and I'd say the general public likes to bet FSU in football based on their history. The public sentiment was also likely swayed by seeing Clemson's struggle against Boston College and FSU slaughtering Maryland leading up to this one. Given the fact that the game is a night game in Clemson, I'd say there are a few folks in the Southeast who were a bit surprised at the 3 points, thinking it should be more around ±1 either way.

Predicting this one is nearly impossible. Both of these teams are talented on both sides of the ball. Both have had impressive defensive games. Clemson gave up a lot of points to Georgia but FSU surrendered some quick ones against BC. Could be a 17-20 struggle but more likely it turns into more of a shootout. I do think that either way, the networks will be happy because I believe this one will be a close one.

A big thanks to FIGUREFOUR for the information! Head on over to Shakin The Southland for all things Clemson.