2023 Preseason Opponent Preview: Clemson

The Clemson game has an interesting perspective this year. Now that the ACC has done away with divisions, allowing the best two teams to play for the title, there is a likelihood that, while not guaranteed, FSU and Clemson will play twice this year. There is a belief in college football that it’s hard to beat a team twice in the same year. However, the data shows that the winner of the first game wins the rematch about 51% of the time, so it’s certainly not impossible. If a rematch situation happens, do we think FSU wins in Death Valley, Charlotte, or takes both? Winning the game in Charlotte would be more important for either team.

The inner debate I’ve had about this game all offseason is that catching Clemson early in the year with a new QB in a new offense gives FSU the best chance to win. However, that means I have to pick FSU to go win in Death Valley, a place where FSU hasn’t won in almost a decade, and the Tigers haven’t lost an ACC game since 2016. Florida State is 8-9 all-time playing at Death Valley, but just 1-9 in the last 10 games.

The point is, it’s a hard place to win, but If there were ever a year that FSU could do it (since the recent decline), this would be it. Back to what I was saying earlier about catching them early. If I pick FSU to win just one, which do I choose, winning at Death Valley or beating them after having an additional 8 games to get Klubnik and the offense in sync? Personally, I’m more torn on this game than the LSU match up in week 1.

Last season, Clemson finished 11-3 with an ACC championship and NY6 bowl appearance, which was considered enough of a disappointment that everyone started to question whether the foundation was beginning to crack and led to a change at OC. However, one thing that has yet to change is Dabo’s unwillingness to use the transfer portal. It made doing their preview much simpler with not having to gather intel on a lot of transfers! Clemson only took one transfer this offseason: a quarterback from AZ State.

Getting to the offense, they will be under the direction of new OC Garrett Riley and his Air Raid style of offense. Clemson finished in the top 5 in scoring offense three consecutive seasons prior to 2021 when co-OC Jeff Scott departed. The Tigers then dropped to 82nd and 30th the following two seasons.

Riley comes in after winning the Broyles Award last year at TCU. He took the Horned Frogs from 65th in scoring offense to 9th in his lone season there. While Dabo has made some seemingly questionable decisions recently regarding hiring, often opting for internal promotions vs. hiring from the outside, this was a good hire.

For 2023, DJ Uiagalelei departed to Oregon St. and even criticized the offense on the way out as being too plain and not utilizing his abilities. Former 5-star Cade Klubnik (68.6 PFF) takes over and did see some action as a true freshman last season. Klubnik is still young and developing but has a high upside. He was the #2 QB in the 2022 class and the #13 overall prospect per 247 Sports.

We will talk about what Klubnik did last season with the caveat that he was still a true freshman. Klubnik saw action in 10 games last year but only had 3 games with significant playing time. He finished the season 60/100 (60%) for 692 yards with 2 TDs and 3 INTs. Let’s dive a little further into those numbers.

If we throw out Miami and Notre Dame because he only had three combined pass attempts, his completion percentage drops to 53.1%. Klubnik played most of the ACC Championship game against North Carolina and had a great game. His completion percentage was 82.6% on 23 attempts, and he threw for 274 yards and a touchdown. However, UNC had the 116th-ranked pass defense, allowing an average of 271.3 yards per game. Even FCS FAMU threw for 279 yards and 2 touchdowns against UNC while being down 20 scholarship players.

Klubnik then started in the Orange Bowl vs. Tennessee. He threw the ball a career-high 55 times and also had a career-high 320 yards. Like UNC, Tennessee had a terrible pass defense last season, finishing 127th. Even Anthony Richardson, who failed to cross the 200-yard mark through the air in 7 games last season, put up 453 yards passing against Tennessee. My point is that Klubnik has yet to face a defense nearly as good as Florida State’s was last year, and we expect them to be even better this year.

Granted, it was Klubnik’s first career start; he looked like a true freshman in the Orange Bowl, throwing 2 Interceptions, taking 4 sacks, and frequently getting happy feet when it wasn’t necessary. I’m not attempting to discredit Klubnik as a player, especially based on what he did as a true freshman. He’s a better pure passer than DJ, but he is still young and developing.

He might be the next Trevor Lawrence, but he’s not there yet, and that is why I feel it is beneficial for FSU to catch them early. I asked Klubnik how the transition to Riley’s new offense was going at ACC media days. He said it was similar to the offense he played in during high school, so the adjustment is going well. However, this is his second new offense in two years, so there will naturally be a learning curve.

One crucial thing to keep an eye on is that with DJ gone, Clemson doesn’t have much experience behind Klubnik. Last season the Tigers’ third leading passer was running back Phil Mafa with 19 yards. If Klubnik were to miss any time, it could spell trouble for Clemson. They brought in Paul Tyson from AZ State (formerly at Bama) for depth, but he didn’t have any passing attempts in 2022.

Klubnik won’t have to do all the heavy lifting, as Clemson has a pair of talented running backs. Will Shipley (78.5 PFF) returns as RB1 for the Tigers after earning first-team All-ACC honors last year. He rushed for 1,182 yards on 210 carries (5.6 YPC) in 2022, which included a 121-yard performance against the Noles.

Clemson also returns their power back Phil Mafa (81.7 PFF), who rushed for 515 yards on 98 carries (5.3 YPC), to go along with Shipley’s speed. The two combined for 19 touchdowns on the ground last season. Clemson will lose DJ Uiagalelei’s running ability as he was their second-leading rusher with 664 yards. Still, Klubnik does have wheels and put up 139 yards rushing on 42 carries last year.

If Clemson has one weakness for 2023, it is the receiving core. Clemson had a 1k-yard receiver in 2016, 18, 19 & 20, but their top target the past two seasons has not come close. In 2021, their #1 receiver had 514 yards and in 2022 the leader had 604. Last year, Clemson receivers not named Antonio Williams, with at least 10 targets, accounted for 14 dropped passes and only 9 touchdowns. The highest reception percentage of that group was 66.7%, and not a single receiver graded out above 70 on PFF.

True freshman Antonio Williams (66.8 PFF) led the team last season with 604 yards and is a talented young player. They lost their #2 WR Joseph Ngata and #1TE Davis Allen. Beaux Collins returns after being the #4 WR last year with only 373 yards but was tied with Allen for the most touchdowns. Collins has size at 6-foot-3, 210 pounds if he can put it all together. Jake Briningstool (284 Yds – 4 TDs) should step into the starting TE role and is 6-foot-6 giving them another big target to go along with Collins.

Overall, this group has struggled the past 2 years, but they haven’t had the greatest QB play either. Maybe Klubnik changes that, or does an underachieving receiver group paired with an inexperienced quarterback hold the Tiger offense back?

Up front, Clemson should have one of the best offensive lines in the ACC. While they lost first-team All-ACC OT Jordan McFadden, the other 4 starters are all back. This group enters 2023 with 99 combined career starts and is led by three-year starter and third-team All-ACC center Will Putnam. They also have a pair of guards who were All-ACC honorable mentions last year and plenty of talented depth players.

Given the layout of this offense, it would seem that Clemson’s rushing attack would be their strength. Last year at TCU, Riley’s offense ran the ball 54% of the time.

2023 Clemson Football Schedule

Clemson enters year two on defense under DC Wes Goodwin, who replaced long-time DC and now Oklahoma head coach Brent Venables. Goodwin has been on staff since 2018, so we expected much of the same defense. However, we questioned whether Venables’s success could be replicated without him at the helm.

Clemson had a top 5 scoring defense four out of the last five years under Venables. Last year, they slipped to
22nd, allowing 20.9 PPG, the highest since 2015. To be fair, it was year one for the new DC; they faced three top-25 scoring offenses (+UNC at 26th) and dealt with some injuries.

Clemson has had no shortage of NFL-caliber defensive linemen the past few years, and 2023 looks no different. Xavier Thomas (78.6 PFF) is back after missing most of last season with injury. He is a former 5-star who was the #1 DE and a top 5 player nationally in the 2018 class. Only three players with 500+ pass rush snaps have posted a higher pressure rate than Thomas’ 12.7%, and they were all 1st round NFL draft picks. However, Thomas has battled injury throughout his career, playing only 24% of Clemson’s defensive snaps during his three years there.

Second-team All-American Tyler Davis (82.9 PFF) also returns along with Ruke Orhorhor (77.7 PFF), who started 9 games last year and played in another 4. The current projected starters have only played together five snaps throughout their 4+ year careers. They may only have a little experience playing together. However, Clemson has signed 12 Blue-Chip defensive linemen since 2020 who are all still on the roster, so this room is deep with talent.

As loaded as they may be, Clemson lost a few really talented players from last year. Brian Bresee, Myles Murphy (2x 1st-team All-ACC), and KJ Henry all depart for the NFL. Despite all that talent, their sack rate was the lowest since 2011, and they had the lowest non-blitz pressure rate since 2015.

The outlook doesn’t change much as we move back to linebacker. Clemson has arguably the best linebacker duo in the country, with Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr.

Trotter started all 14 games for Clemson last season. Although it was only his first year as a starter, he led the team in tackles (89) and TFLs (13.5), was second in sacks (6.5), added 5 PBU’s, and was the 4th highest graded P5 linebacker in the country per PFF. (100 snap min)

Carter also had an exceptional first year as a full-time starter and finished as the 10th highest-graded P5 linebacker per PFF (100 snap min). He finished third in tackles (73), TFLs (10.5), sacks (5.5), and second in PBU’s (8). Carter is a versatile player who can line up inside, on the LOS, or out in coverage.

They lose Trenton Simpson, who had 27 career starts for the Tigers, and a couple of depth players. However, Trotter and Carter now have a full year of experience.

Clemson’s secondary battled injury throughout most of the season last year, contributing to their 76th-ranked pass defense. South Carolina, Wake Forest, and LA Tech all dropped 300+ passing yards on them, but they also held four P5 teams under 200 yards passing.

They bring back just about everyone for 2023. Safeties Jalyn Phillips (67.5 PFF), RJ Mickens (78.4 PFF – led the team in INTs), and Andrew Mukuba (50.2 PFF) bring back a combined 53 starts this season. Mukuba had a nice season in 2021 but did appear to regress last year when looking at the stat sheet. His PFF grade dropped from 77.0 to 50.2, his completion rate allowed rose by 16.6%, and he gave up 341 more yards and 4 more touchdowns in 2022 despite only being targeted nine more times than in 2021.

Nate Wiggins (77.9 PFF) and Sheridan Jones (71.0 PFF) return at the corner position after earning an All-ACC honorable mention last year. Wiggins led the team in PBUs with 12. Toriano Pride Jr. (61.1 PFF) also returns and played over 300 snaps as a freshman last year.

Clemson’s defense took a step back in 2022, but that step back was from being one of the best defenses in college football the past few years. When you look at their DF+ ranking (opponent and tempo adjusted), they were still a top-20 defense, coming in at 17th.

On special teams, Clemson will have to replace veteran kicker BT Potter, who hit 73 field goals over his career. Potter did miss 6 FGs last season, but he gave them range with 34 FGs over 40 yards during his time at Clemson.

On paper, FSU should have one of the best offenses in the country, while Clemson should have one of the best defenses. So, this becomes a battle of an unstoppable force vs. an immovable object.

All the recent talk about recruiting and Blue-Chip ratios brings up another interesting aspect of this game. Which will win out, pure talent or proven production? Clemson has out-recruited FSU since 2018. In that span, Clemson has signed 16 more 5-stars and 9 more 4-stars for a total of 25 more Blue-Chip players.

On the other hand, FSU has been able to consistently pull players out of the portal that have produced at the college level but may not have been a Blue-Chip player out of high school. Meanwhile, Dabo rarely, if ever, uses the portal.

From the calculations I’ve seen, Clemson’s BCR is roughly 20% higher than Florida State’s. However, FSU returns 2,797 more passing yards, 1,384 more receiving yards, 487 more rushing yards, and 107 more combined starts on the offensive line. (Transfers included)

FSU’s first goal this season should be to win the conference and end the 8-year drought. That means going through Clemson and potentially having to beat them twice. This feels like the year FSU is finally back in a position to do so, but Clemson is still really good, and many people think FSU is still miles behind.

As much as people outside Clemson seem to loathe Dabo Swinney, you have to respect what he’s done there. Since going 6-7 in 2010 and thinking he would get fired, Clemson has gone 142-24 and reeled off 12 consecutive 10-win seasons, 8 ACC titles, 6 playoff appearances, and 2 national championships. That’s one hell of a resume, but how long can their run last is the question we keep asking.

The architect of their dominant defenses, Brent Venables, has moved on, and they just had to make a change at OC. Their 40-game home win streak was snapped last season, and for the first time since 2011, they lost three games in consecutive seasons. At the time of writing this, FSU’s 2024 class also has a higher BCR.

Do those equal cracks in the foundation? It sure seems like it, but Clemson just made a splash hire at OC and, even in a “down year,” went 9-0 in conference play and won the ACC title. They have certainly benefited from FSU being down. In my opinion, FSU is the only PROGRAM (not team) that can stand toe-to-toe with Clemson in the ACC on a  consistent basis when operating as they should.

If FSU is going to take back the conference crown, it needs to strike right now while they have the weapons to do it. Getting a road win in Death Valley won’t come easy, and that’s a huge factor in this game. Much will depend on how much Klubnik’s has developed since last year. FSU has a good shot if they can rattle him as Tennessee did in the Orange Bowl.

Phil Steele’s position group rankings give FSU a 3-1 advantage on offense and Clemson a 3-0 advantage on defense. David Hale of ESPN ranked just the ACC but gave FSU a 3-1 edge on offense and 2-1 on defense.

I’m so torn on this game that it’s hard to call. As I said before, FSU getting them early means Klubnik has less time to get in rhythm in the new offense and less opportunity for FSU to get banged up as they have thinner depth at some spots.

The obvious choice would be to pick Clemson to win at home and FSU to win in Charlotte. However, unless they lose to LSU, that means you’d be saying they are probably going undefeated, which feels hard to do for a team that was 5-7 just two years ago. FSU is not guaranteed a rematch if they lose, so the first game is equally important.

Clemson travels to Duke to open the season, which will be a decent test, but I think Duke will return to earth this season with a much more challenging schedule. Between Duke and FSU, they play two cupcakes, so they won’t have been tested like FSU, who faces LSU in game 1. The Duke game should show enough to make a more confident pick once week 1 is in the books.

For now, my final verdict is still out, but this is the game I feel FSU is most likely to drop while also having a gut feeling that they can go get a road win. Chances are if both teams are still undefeated in week four, ESPN College Gameday will be there, and it will be a packed house for a night game. FSU will have to bring their best and play with composure, but I like the test in week 1 to help prepare them for the challenge.

Thanks for reading! Go Noles!

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