The Florida State Seminoles will head to Death Valley on Saturday to take on the No. 1 team in the nation in a 3:30 p.m. ET showdown with Clemson on ABC. As it has done for six consecutive seasons, this matchup will likely decide the winner of the ACC Atlantic Division to take part in the league championship game in Charlotte in December, and it also carries CFB Playoff implications for both sides, especially the undefeated Tigers (8-0, 6-0 ACC).
Offensively, FSU (7-1, 5-1) has questions at quarterback following a concussion to Everett Golson that opened the door for Sean Maguire to throw for 348 yards and three touchdowns against Syracuse on 9.9 yards per attempt. The Clemson defense, however, presents a different animal entirely than Cuse, as the Tigers enter the week ranked fourth nationally in defensive S&P+.
While Clemson had trouble bringing down a mobile Jacoby Brissett a week ago in Raleigh, the mobility of Golson doesn't necessarily present the same challenge, as Brissett has about three inches and 30 pounds on Golson. Nonetheless, Golson's mobility could give him an edge against a Clemson defense that likes to bring pressure under Brent Venables, but Golson didn't take the starter reps in practice this week as he recovered his head injury, so it will be interesting to see which QB gets the nod from Jimbo Fisher.
According to Fisher, star running back Dalvin Cook was "on schedule" this week as he continued to bounce back from ankle and hamstring issues, and his services will be pivotal if FSU is to make a run at the upset. While freshman Jacques Patrick ran for 162 yards and three scores last week in Cook's stead, Cook has been one of the most explosive backs in football with 11 TDs on 8.17 yards per rush, and he will be counted upon to produce against an elite defense this week.
Mackensie Alexander is one of the nation's top corners for the Tigers outside, but opportunities could be there for the taking if FSU is able to get their 'backers in one-on-one coverage situations.
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Speaking of linebackers in coverage, FSU will badly need the services of oft-injured LB Terrance Smith this weekend against a Clemson offense that ranks first in S&P+ passing offense. Quarterback Deshaun Watson got off to a relatively slow start, but has hit his stride with 946 yards and nine TD passes in his last three games, including 420 yards vs. Boston College and a 383-yard, 5-TD showing last week vs. NC State.
FSU has been operating with a paper-thin linebacking corps of late, and neither Reggie Northrup nor Ro'Derrick Hoskins can provide what Smith can in terms of pass coverage. The 'Noles will hope that Smith is close to 100 percent in terms of his lateral agility if he can play this week, as has been insinuated by his participation in practice.
Although Clemson has been without receiver Mike Williams due to a neck injury, the slack has been picked up by WRs such as Charone Peake, Artavis Scott and Deon Cain. Targets that could be particularly worrisome over the middle, where FSU is weakest especially without Smith and Trey Marshall at the star, are tight end Jordan Leggett (17 rec, six TDs) and slot Hunter Renfrow (15 rec, two TDs).
Clemson's running game is also in the top 10 nationwide by opponent-adjusted numbers, so the Tigers are capable of gashing defenses via the air or on the ground. Wayne Gallman leads the way in the running game, but Watson has carried nearly 80 times this season with an average just below five yards per rush as well. FSU will hope that defensive tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample is healthy following a concussion of his own against Syracuse. Although he hadn't been present at practice early in the week, NLS was a participant as recently as Thursday, which could bode well.
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