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Florida State showed major signs of improvement against Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon, coming back from a 10-0 deficit and scoring 38 unanswered on the Demon Deacons. The 38-17 victory may have been the most complete performance of the season, with every facet of the team playing above or at its expectations.
That’s going to be much harder against the No. 2 ranked Clemson Tigers. The Tigers roll in to Tallahassee undefeated at 7-0 after putting up a dominant performance against ranked NC State. The Seminoles have quite the task trying to decipher a game plan against Clemson, who seem to be a lock for the College Football Playoff this season.
Who are the absolute best players for the Tigers? What can FSU try and exploit for an upset victory? Here’s a first look at Florida State’s toughest regular season test.
2018 Record: 7-0 (4-0 ACC)
2018 S&P Offensive Ranking: 11th
2018 S&P Defensive Ranking: 2nd
2018 S&P Special Teams Ranking: 77th
It is hard to pinpoint where Clemson’s offensive strengths lie. Not that it doesn’t have any, it is that it has so many options that you are never sure who deserves more of the credit.
Star quarterback Trevor Lawrence took over for Kelly Bryant early in the season and the team has never looked back. He’s arguably the most talented passer that FSU will face this year. The raw numbers are fine (68 percent completion, 1,176 passing yards, 12 touchdowns, and two interceptions) but keep in mind that he’s done it while only fully starting four games. Against Syracuse, he left before halftime due to injury, so it’s really 3 1/2. He’s got the arm to make every throw on the field and a beautiful touch on all his passes.
It helps to have two superstar wide receivers at his disposal. Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are the biggest threats here, mainly due to their raw talent. Ross is a shifty receiver who hits defenders with side-to-side action. Higgins is the big-body/physical receiver that makes 1-on-1 balls look easy. They’ve combined for almost 800 yards and eight touchdowns on over 17 yards per reception. Beyond them, the ever-reliable Hunter Renfrow returns, and sophomore Amari Rodgers continues to progress.
Yet running back Travis Etienne might be the most underrated playmaker in the nation. He’s run for 801 yards and 14 touchdowns on a ridiculous 8.1 yards-per-carry average. Everything about him screams “explosive”, from his initial burst in the backfield to his acceleration in the open. Florida State’s run defense has been superb this season, but it is going to have a whole new level of challenge against Clemson.
For all the (well-deserved) hype of Clemson’s defense, the Tigers haven’t actually changed all that much from 2017. Their entire defensive line continues to be a very imposing force, but they have weaknesses in the secondary that could be exploited.
Clelin Ferrell off the edge has taken the next step in his career, becoming the undisputed best defensive end on the team with eight tackles for loss and six sacks. Austin Bryant does a nice job opposite of him, and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins continues to be the versatile interior player with a ferocious pass rush. Somewhat surprising is true freshman Xavier Thomas, who has already beat expectations and become a major contributor as a defensive lineman.
The linebackers have also played better than expected, with Kendall Joseph and Tre Lamar headlining a very dependable group. Former safety Isaiah Simmons has also taken to his new position at linebacker and gets better each week. They’re stellar in run defense and competent in pass coverage, though they can be inconsistent in the latter.
Where Clemson still has questions is the secondary. While the Tigers were able to dominate Ryan Finley and the NC State passing game, they have not impressed nearly as much in the first half of the season. Texas A&M threw for over 400 yards and three touchdowns at one point. Beyond that, Eric Dungey of Syracuse also had 250 yards.
Starting cornerback Trayvon Mullen appears to be the best player in the secondary, while opposite starting cornerback A.J. Terrell is still adjusting. Their biggest weakness remains the safeties, as K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse have not impressed and routinely get caught out of place.
Luckily for them, the job becomes much easier when the defensive line can get pressure with just four.
Clemson hasn’t been forced to rely on special teams to win them any games. That’s good news for the Tigers, since their kicking game has been subpar for most of the year. Starting punter Will Spiers averages less than 40 yards per attempt and has only placed nine of 24 punts inside the 20-yard line.
Kicker Greg Huegel is perfect on extra points but just 5-for-8 on field goal attempts. His season long is 49 yards.
Amari Rodgers is the main punt returner. He averages a respectable 8.7 yards per return, but he had a bad muff in the Syracuse game.
Figuring out a realistic scenario for Florida State to win on Saturday requires quite the imagination.
On one hand, Florida State’s defensive line will give every offense trouble, and could fluster Trevor Lawrence enough to prevent a good outing from the true freshman. But that will also require the secondary to play an extremely disciplined game and to hope that cornerbacks Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers can handle a hyper-talented receiver group. Shutting down Etienne is very achievable and FSU could work from there.
It’s tough to see any realistic way that the FSU offense can put out an average performance on Saturday. This Clemson defensive line is probably the best in the nation, and it is going against an offensive line still struggling to handle mediocre defensive fronts. If FSU quarterback Deondre Francois can get it out quickly to his receivers and confuse the back end of Clemson’s secondary, the Seminoles could produce some explosive scoring plays. That’s probably the only tactic where FSU will be able to move the ball. If the Seminoles’ offense can produce an average game against Clemson, all compliments should go to head coach Willie Taggart and the staff.