We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week’s edition of our Opponent Q&A series features a chat with Ryan Kantor, editor over at Shakin The Southland, SBN’s Clemson blog. We talk expectations for a stretch run, replacing a legend, and young stars we’ll see for years to come.
TN: The defending champions currently sit at 8-1 and rank 12th by S&P+. What were your expectations for this year's Tigers, and what are they for the rest of the season?
STS: I picked Clemson to finish 10-2 and win the ACC Championship (hedging my bets a bit). The ACC looked to be down this year after sending so many QBs to the NFL and with FSU coming to Death Valley, I thought the Tigers had good a chance to take advantage and claim the conference crown. When Florida State faltered, the path obviously became easier. I bought my ACC Championship tickets about six weeks ago.
My goal for the season has been and is still to win the ACC Championship for the third consecutive season. The Tigers haven't done that since '87-'89. Such an accomplishment would cement Coach Swinney as the greatest head coach in Clemson history and this as the golden age of Clemson football. Anything beyond another conference title and playoff appearance is icing on the cake (though I'm sure my perspective will foolishly change when we get there).
TN: How would you evaluate Kelly Bryant's play at quarterback to date? How does this Clemson offense differ from the one Deshaun Watson ran for the Tigers?
STS: Kelly Bryant is coming off his worst performance of the year (at NC State), but more broadly he has done fairly well. Many expected him to be a dynamic game-changing runner, but a mediocre at best passer. He's met the first of those expectations. He has 548 rushing yards and 9 rushing TDs. On the latter, he's mildly exceeded "mediocre at best passer." He was 0-7 on balls thrown over 15 yards against NC State, and is just 16-42 on such passes on the entire season. He's made a living on short throws from 0-5 yards and made just enough longer passes to keep defenses honest.
Deshaun Watson is a classic Brett Favre type gunslinger. Bryant is more conservative and willing to take check down passes or run the ball. This is in part because he is a less confident and accurate passer and in part because he is a better runner. With more explosive running backs and a better running QB, Clemson has improved their rushing attack (and increased their insistence on using it) from last season. After losing QB Deshaun Watson and WR Mike Williams and with a running back corps that doesn't pass block as well as RB Wayne Gallman, the passing game has predictably taken a step back. Expect a run-centric attack on Saturday.
TN: Which match-ups do you think Clemson will try to exploit against the Florida State defense? Which, if any, concern you?
STS: Clemson matches up favorably against FSU. The Tigers have some issues in their secondary right now, but FSU is built to run the ball with Cam Akers, not to take advantage of holes in opponents' secondary. Clemson however should be able to focus on stuffing the run, a major strength, and then blitzing on passing downs against an FSU offensive line that has allowed 25 sacks this season. The Tigers struggled to get to Ryan Finley last week, but should manage to get pressure to the QB more quickly and avoid exposing their defensive backs like they did last week.
Obviously, slowing down the man who ran for 199 yards last week, Cam Akers, is a concern. Over the past few seasons it's taken elite running backs for opponents' running game to do any real damage. Derrick Henry, James Connor, Dalvin Cook, and Matthew Dayes come to mind. Although Clemson matches up well, Akers is developing into a elite running back and will likely make some big plays in this rivalry at some point.
TN: The Clemson defense has appeared to continue to roll right along. What would you say are this groups strengths, and do they have any weaknesses?
STS: Clemson DC Brent Venables opts for an aggressive defensive approach. With an elite defensive line, this results in an obscene number of sacks. The Tigers are second in the nation averaging 3.7 sacks per game. The Seminoles are 119th allowing 3.1 sacks per game. One has to think there is an opportunity for Clemson's pass rush to get to Blackman a few times in this game.
As I alluded to earlier, the Clemson secondary has been hit with several injuries. Three cornerbacks, Mark Fields, Marcus Edmond, and A.J. Terrell were injured against NC State. These are major contributors. Without them, the Tigers were forced to use WR Ray-Ray McCloud and 5'7" former 2-star (Rivals) CB Amir Trapp on the final drive of the game. It is unclear who will be back and if they will be 100% this weekend. If these injuries remain a problem, James Blackman has an opportunity to step up and have his first signature game. Weaknesses here could go a long way in negating what otherwise would be a ferocious pass rush and make an aggressive game plan much more conservative.
TN: As we are already looking to future years in Tallahassee, for obvious reasons, who are some young Tigers who have stepped up as the season has gone along?
STS: Three true freshman have really stood out. Cornerback A.J. Terrell has held up well in coverage and earned more playing time as the season has progressed. You'll likely see him getting a lot of snaps in the coming years. We hope to have him back from injury. MLB Tre Lamar is a big five-star recruit from suburban Atlanta and has helped Clemson overcome the graduation of the beloved LB Ben Boulware. Finally, RB Travis Etienne is a name to remember. He is possibly the most explosive player to don the paw since C.J. Spiller. He was a late add to this last recruiting class out of Louisiana. LSU missed on him after prioritizing other RB targets and focusing on him late. It's been a blessing for Clemson. He has the best acceleration I've ever seen from a running back and has already risen to past solid veteran running backs to claim the #2 slot on the depth chart.
TN: Finally, let's hear a prediction. Any trepidation after opening as 18-point favorites?
STS: 18 points feels excessive. Clemson should be focused with the big brand of Florida State football coming into town, but the Tigers seldom blow out a quality opponent. They often get up by about 10-21 points and sit on the lead. If the Tigers secondary plays well, the pass rush could really derail the Seminole offense and they'll have a chance to get some quick three-and-outs and build a hefty lead. If not, I could see this being a real battle. Florida State is still immensely talented and will be focused as they look to maintain the best bowl streak in America.
Big thanks to Ryan for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to Shakin The Southland for Clemson coverage. Our answers to their questions will be up shortly.