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Previewing 2017 FSU opponents: Clemson

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The two ACC heavyweights collide once again

NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

We continue our series previewing Florida State’s 2017 opponents with the Clemson Tigers.

Since 2011, the winner of the annual Florida State-Clemson game has gone on to win the ACC conference as a whole.

In most years, this game has national title implications. The Seminoles won the title in 2013 and made the inaugural College Football Playoff in 2014. Then, the Tigers made back-to-back title games versus Alabama, winning the second one last season for their first national title since 1981.

This year’s matchup figures to have similar stakes.

Clemson returns as the defending national champions, albeit without star quarterback Deshaun Watson and a plethora of draft picks on both sides of the ball. A return trip to the playoffs is not the expectation, but the Tigers have more than enough talent to make that a reality.

Meanwhile, Florida State will travel to Death Valley seeking revenge for the last minute loss to the Tigers in its home stadium this past season. The script is flipped this time however, as the Seminoles are the ones who are figured to contend for a spot in the playoff.

Watson is gone, but offensive talent remains

The loss of Watson, a first-round draft pick by the Houston Texans, is huge for Clemson’s offense.

In a similar theme to Florida State in a post-Jameis Winston era, Clemson has talent at the quarterback position but it remains to be seen if any the options are long-term answers.

The first man up is likely Kelly Bryant, who has backed up Watson for some time now. Being a dual-threat QB, Bryant brings a similar element to the offense that Watson did. His main competition figures to be five-star freshman Hunter Johnson, who might push for the job in a similar fashion that Watson did in 2014.

The Tigers lost four major receivers, but as Bill Connelly notes in his preview, whoever starts at quarterback will still have talented options to target.

Of course, returning junior wideouts Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow, and Ray-Ray McCloud combined for 131 catches and 1,691 yards themselves; when you play 15 games and spread the ball around a lot, plenty of targets rack up reps. None of the returning targets are taller than 6’1, so if a bigger, younger, four-star wideout like sophomore Diondre Overton or freshman Tee Higgins has a nice fall camp, there might be a role available.

Clemson lost Wayne Gallman to the draft, but players like Tavien Feaster, C.J. Fuller, and Adam Choice will be there to carry the workload this season. When combined with Bryant’s running ability, Clemson’s offense should look a lot similar to how it functioned under Watson.

The strength of the Tigers’ offense is its offensive line, which returns a combined 83 starts. All-ACC left tackle Mitch Hyatt has high draft expectations and Tyrone Crowder at right guard is another all-conference player. Clemson has to replace a talented center, but are in good position to reload.

Clemson’s defense should be elite

Even with the departures on defense, this figures to be another top-ten defense for the Tigers.

Up front, the story starts with defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. A freshman All-American, Lawrence was utterly dominant in his first year of play and only figures to get better with time. When combined with blue-chip players like Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant, Clemson figures to have a defensive line that might be the best in the nation.

Behind that dominant line will be a plethora of linebackers ready to clean up the mess.

Clemson controlled the line against Alabama and Ohio State — a.k.a. probably the two top teams in 2017’s preseason polls — and will almost certainly do so against every team they face this fall. It’s nice having that in your back pocket, considering what Clemson has at linebacker, ready to clean up messes: Kendall Joseph (12.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks), Dorian O’Daniel (10 TFLs, 2.5 sacks), and four-star sophomores (Tre Lamar, Chad Smith) and freshmen (Shaq Smith, Justin Foster, Logan Rudolph) just waiting their turn.

Clemson lost third-round draft pick Cordrea Tankersly at cornerback, but they return players like seniors Ryan Carter and Marcus Edmond to absorb his absence in the secondary. Former blue-chip recruit and FSU target Trayvon Mullen also figures to have a role at corner as well.

What will happen

For the seventh year in a row, this matchup might be the de-facto conference championship.

Clemson is “rebuilding” after losing many pieces of its title-winning team to the league, but the Tigers still have the talent to compete for a playoff berth. Meanwhile, the Seminoles will head to Death Valley seeking revenge for last year’s hard-fought loss.

Could this game once again have national title implications?