Florida State’s bye week has come and gone, and the Seminoles are now set to host No. 3 Clemson at Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday night for a prime-time matchup. The Tigers are also off a bye following a narrow win over NC State on Oct. 15.
While FSU’s defense has turned in improved performances against Miami and Wake Forest, allowing a combined 25 points in those two games, the Clemson offense will provide a truer test as to how much the ’Noles have really improved with their simplified approach on D. The pro-style Miami offense (37th in S&P+ offense), which featured a statuesque Brad Kaaya, and the flat-out poor Wake offense (101st) were much better matchups for FSU defensively than previous spread opponents like Ole Miss (5th), Louisville (2nd), USF (12th) and North Carolina (28th).
The Clemson attack is led by a lethal dual-threat quarterback in Deshaun Watson and features more of the spread elements and window dressing that have proven so effective in confusing the ’Noles D this season. But it also features elite athletes, most notably at receiver with 6’3, 225-pound Mike Williams. Williams has 578 yards this season and has caught four of Watson’s 20 touchdown passes, but he’s one of four Clemson wideouts with at least 250 yards and two TDs along with Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott.
Leading rusher Wayne Gallman (489 yards, 5 TD, 5.4 ypc) is a hard runner who expects to play this weekend (concussion), but if he can’t go C.J. Fuller will start in his place. Otherwise on the ground, FSU will have to be weary of Watson, who they can expect to see a lot of in the running game based on Clemson’s history of using his legs in big games. Watson is effective on designed runs and could be deadly on scrambles if the Seminoles stick with a heavy man coverage approach as they’ve shown in recent weeks.
Clemson is great at staying ahead of the chains on standard downs, so FSU will have to force the Tigers into passing downs where they’ve been good, but not great. It’ll take a big performance from the D-line, and competent alignment from the secondary for FSU to have a chance at the upset, as you won’t win a shootout against the Clemson defense.
The Tigers have been one of the nation’s best units on that side of the ball, sitting the near the top in several major categories. Clemson is No. 2 in opponent-adjusted S&P+ defense, and sits in the top 10 in scoring (15.3 ppg). The Tigers have allowed only 3.32 yards per rush this season (20th), and they’ve been great against the pass (5.2 yards per attempt – 2nd) and overall (4.17 yards per play – 4th).
Dalvin Cook is among the nation’s best in terms of all-purpose yardage, sitting top 5 without handling any return duties. He’s scored 8 total TDs and averages 7 yards per touch, but he and FSU will be going against a defense that has excelled at preventing big plays. He’ll need to continue making defenders miss this week, as D-tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins lead a front that is great against the run and even better against the pass, so early down success will be imperative to keep pressure off Deondre Francois.
Francois has been far from elite and missed a lot of throws against Wake (possibly aided by injury), but he’s won the respect of his team and shown flashes of potential while leading all freshman QBs in several categories. Clemson is top 5 in CFB on passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more), by far the best aerial defense Francois has seen to this point in his career. Additionally, along with their great success rate, Clemson excels creating chaos, ranking in the top 10 in havoc rate, which measures TFLs, forced fumbles and passes defensed.
Given the already difficult challenge Clemson’s defense presents and the danger that Watson and company pose offensively, the FSU offense absolutely can’t afford to struggle in the first half Saturday night the way it has against Power 5 opponents this season, or it’ll risk being out of this one early.
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