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Line of Scrimmage: How does FSU match up with Clemson? feat. Will Harper of Shakin the Southland

Florida State (4-2, 2-2) takes on Clemson (6-0, 4-0) at home on Saturday

Two shared opponents, two different outcomes in both matchups.

The ACC Atlantic has turned into one of the more competitive divisions in college football this season, with the No. 4 Clemson Tigers, No. 14 Wake Forest Demon Deacons, No. 15 NC State Wolfpack, No. 18 Syracuse Orange and Florida State all battling it out at the top. Clemson (6-0, 4-0 ACC), by way of wins over Wake and NC State, has separated itself as the leader of the pack while the rest scrap it out for pecking order.

FSU (4-2, 2-2 ACC) also faced off against the Demon Deacons and Wolfpack but came up short, both frustrating losses that showcased both the steps the Seminoles still have to make in order to elevate to the conference’s elite and the potential it has to belong with them.

The toughest test of the season for the Seminoles now comes as they prep to host Clemson at 7:30 p.m. inside Doak Campbell Stadium. The Tigers have won six straight in the series, dating back to a 2014 thriller between the two schools that Florida State pulled off in overtime.

Clemson, according to DraftKings, is currently a 3.5 point favorite over the Seminoles.

To help break down the Tigers, Will Harper of our SB Nation sister site Shakin the Southland jumped on the latest episode of Line of Scrimmage to talk about Clemson’s season so far, the evolution of quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, the Tigers’ strengths and weaknesses on each side of the ball and a prediction for Saturday night.

You can catch some of his answers below, or you can listen or find the episode on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to your shows.

Before the season, I had several discussions with other Tomahawk Nation writers about the stacked Atlantic division quarterbacks. One of the quarterbacks that seemed to cause the most division was Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei. In the offseason, there was even chatter about possible true freshman Cade Klubnik supplanting him but DJ has stepped up this year and solidified himself as the man in charge. Where has DJ grown the most this year and where does he still need to improve?

I’d say most of us felt the same way in the offseason. You know, there’s a lot of talk about our previous situations. You look at Cole Stout and Deshaun Watson in 2014, same thing with Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrance in 2018, how the talented freshmen kind of supplanted the senior. I think some of us may be expected that would be happening this year, but we’re all super happy with what’s been going on so far.

You can look at a lot of different areas — he lost about 30 pounds and thinned down, he’s moving a lot better. He’s reading defenses better, progressing well, and his footwork has improved, but in my opinion, one of the biggest reasons for his improvement has been the offensive line. He just has way more time than last year, we’ve seen the offensive line giving him so much more time to throw, to work through his reads, take his time and not force it. And that’s been huge for him.

From an outsider’s perspective, I feel as if Will Shipley is Clemson’s biggest offensive threat, in both rushing and receiving. Could you take a few minutes and help the listeners get to know where Shipley excels and what other skill players FSU needs to worry about from Clemson this Saturday?

They’ve really leaned on him in certain games when the run game has been able to take over. I think a lot of us expected the run game to be the primary force of attack for Clemson, given what we saw last year in the passing game. We’ve seen a lot more of a vertical attack and Shipley has been able to supplement that and make himself a two-headed monster for opposing defenses — he makes great cuts, he’s got pretty good vision, he really fights for every yard.

For other skill players, Antonion Williams has been such a big name. I don’t think any Clemson fan can honestly look in the mirror and say that the school has been worthy of the Wide Receiver U moniker for a while now — it’s been a while since a dominant, alpha receiver like Tee Higgins — but Antoino Williams has been a superstar so far. He leads the team in receptions and is I believe second in receiving yards, and he’s only a freshman. I think we’ve also seen a great resurgence of the tight ends.

Last offensive question, let’s spend a second on the big guys up front. I think the difference in this game could be the trenches. How are the big uglies for the Tigers this year?

It’s been a mixed bag — it certainly has been better in certain areas. Consistency has been an issue to the point — last year, I think there was something like seven or eight different starting lineups on the line. This year, the same five guys going all season, but the play on the field has yet to sort of really show the benefit of that consistency. Pass protection has generally been a step up from last year, but the run blocking has definitely been just not quite what we hoped it would be at this point. It feels like nine times out of ten, Shipley is getting hit at or behind the line of scrimmage — he’ll kind of makeup for that, but there’s just not been great consistency running the ball and imposing their will on other defensive lines. It hasn’t really come together yet.

The offensive line, I wouldn’t call it a strength, but I’m not sure I’d call it a weakness either. I think Florida State has the capability to take advantage of some of those issues, and I think that’s one of my biggest areas of concern moving into this game.

Alright, this is the area I’d really like to have avoided, but the Clemson defensive line is elite and it looks like they’ll also be full strength just in time for the Seminoles, which is bad news as FSU’s offensive line is not at 100%. Will the Tigers be rolling out the full arsenal against FSU?

It’s been kind of like a Whack-a-Mole game — who’s popping up where and who’s going back out on injury. We heard a lot of talk coming into this year from Clemson media and even some national outlets about how this could be the greatest group of defensive lineman for Clemson since 2018, 2014 — those kinds of legendary units that had so many guys drafted and we just haven’t quite seen that potential tapped into yet. They’re definitely getting there, we know these guys are talented, but it hasn’t quite materialized due to injury or just some inconsistent play. It was great to see Xaicer Thomas back this last week against Boston College — he only got like six snaps and still got ACC defensive lineman honors of the week. I think that when they’re there, they have the potential to be the best in the ACC.

So far, Wake Forest has had the best offensive success against Clemson. They were able to take advantage of the secondary mostly before having run success late. Is the secondary the weak link for the Tigers?

It was a great area of concern heading into the year — we were expecting the defensive line and linebackers to be really solid, and for the most part, they have, and the secondary has not been what we’ve been used to with Clemson and injuries have certainly not helped. It’s been a lot of youth back there.

They’ve responded well after that poor showing against Wake Forest — and credit to them, they have fantastic receivers and Sam Hartman is a great quarterback, but it was definitely a letdown performance. Part of that is on the coaches too, I think we’ve seen them adjust how they’ve playing them — a lot bigger cushions, some more zone coverages, more help with the safeties over the top, not as much pressure one on one. I’d definitely still say it’s the weak link in this defense, if there’s an area to attack, especially compared with the rest of the defense.

Finally, Clemson rolls into Doak Saturday night undefeated. Most think this is Clemson’s to lose, myself included. Do you feel the same way? And if FSU has any shot, what’s the one area of Clemson’s team that has the greatest opportunity to be exploited?

I’m forever the pessimist. I always approached Clemson’s gains with just a doubting heart, and in my season prediction, I called for a walk-off field goal win vs. Florida State. I’m confident it’s going to be close no matter what, whether it’s Clemson or Florida State’s way.

I think Clemson matchups up well in several areas — the defensive line and linebackers have the potential to really limit Florida State offensively, but we just mentioned the secondary and FSU has bodies that can really abuse them. Johnny Wilson is such a giant guy, he could take over against some of the younger corners.

But there’s reasons for optimism — DJ has shown dramatic improvement to this point. He’s playing well, he’s playing confident. Florida State’s key is disrupting DJ. Jared Verse is one of the better pass rushers in the nation when he’s healthy, and he could probably find some success and if he can get by and get DJ rattled early, that would probably throw Clemson off. I think the offensive line could have a hard time protecting DJ long enough to keep them in front of the Seminoles.

The run game has to be there. I would say right now, I’m feeling a close Clemson victory — not a 14-point win, I think it’s going to come down to the wire. It kind of makes me think of that 2016 game. I’m going with the Tigers in a close one, but by no means am I watching with 100 percent confidence.

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