This Saturday, Florida State takes on Clemson in a battle between the two powers of the ACC. While Clemson remains on top of the mountain, a resurgent FSU program has intentions to dethrone the Tigers. This won’t come easy as the Noles have to travel to Death Valley, a place they haven’t won in almost 10 years.
Clemson got off to an unexpected start this season, dropping their season opener to Duke by a whopping 21 points. They have been plagued by mistakes this season, which had a lot to do with the Duke loss and subsequent fall from the top 25 rankings.
In game two, the mistakes remained an issue, and Clemson entered halftime against Charleston Southern, a 2-win FCS team last year, with only a 24-17 lead. However, they would dominate the second half and run away with a final score of 66-17.
Although the halftime score made the college football world do a double-take, the game wasn’t as close as it seemed. CSU scored on a pick 6 and a 1-yard touchdown drive after a Clemson fumble. Clemson outgained them by over 600 yards and only allowed 74 total yards. However, the mistakes were present once again, and those could be costly against a team like FSU.
Last week, Clemson played its cleanest game of the season beating an overmatched FAU team, who committed four turnovers, 48-14. While they have looked better week-over-week, it has been against bad competition.
That makes Clemson’s improvement a little hard to gauge as they have only played one Power 5 opponent and lost by 21 points. What they will face on Saturday will be a steep increase in the level of competition from anything they’ve seen so far.
Mistakes have also been an issue for FSU, so this game will depend a lot on who can play the cleaner game. Although FSU had a scare last week against Boston College, they still have arguably the biggest win of the 2023 season after blowing out currently 12th-ranked LSU.
While Clemson is still loaded with talent at a 70% Blue-Chip ratio (5th highest in CFB), there are some weaknesses on this team and they don’t appear to be quite what they were a few years ago. However, I don’t think they are as bad as most people think, especially playing in Death Valley.
Despite this game losing some of its luster after being projected as a top-10 matchup in the preseason, it’s still huge for both programs. Can the Noles finally get over the hump and take down the Tigers in their pursuit of the conference crown? Could this be a “get right” game for Clemson where they show the college football world they are still in the conversation with a win over a top 5 FSU team?
After a disappointing season on offense last year, Clemson made a change at offensive coordinator. The Tigers entered 2023 with optimism as former Broyles Award winner Garrett Riley came in from TCU and Cade Klubnik was now QB1, but it’s hardly been a fireworks show so far.
One thing I pointed out in the preseason was that I thought it was beneficial for FSU to get Clemson relatively early in the season. Klubnik is a talented quarterback, but he’s still young, inexperienced, and playing in a new offense.
Klubnik looked like a true freshman against Tennessee last year in the Orange Bowl. He threw two interceptions and was sacked three times. It was only his second start, so he got some leeway. However, his follow-up performance against Duke wasn’t stellar either and he was responsible for two turnovers in that game and then had two more turnovers against Charleston Southern.
If FSU can get pressure on Klubnik and rattle him, I believe they can force him into some of those same mistakes. Klubnik has accounted for 5 of Clemson’s 6 turnovers this season by way of 2 Interceptions and 3 fumbles.
Keep in mind that he still only has 4 starts under his belt and hasn’t played any really stout defenses. Last year he faced North Carolina and Tennessee who were 116th and 127th in pass defense. This season Duke has been the best pass defense he’s faced by far, and while they are 12th in pass defense currently, the Blue Devils haven’t faced anyone even remotely decent besides Clemson
To be fair, Florida State’s pass defense hasn’t been the best this season either, so this will be a matchup to keep an eye on. Pressuring Klubnik will be key in this game, but the challenge is to do it without devoting too many resources because his numbers have actually been better against the blitz.
However, there will be opportunities to get after him. Clemson is allowing pressure on just over 40% of their dropbacks against FBS teams this season. While Klubnik is no Jayden Daniels, he is not a statue by any means. His pressure-to-sack ratio is only 5.3%, but it was 10% against Duke. Klubnik’s turnover-worthy play rate of 4.2% is the 9th highest among power 5 quarterbacks with a similar sample set and it was 6.5% vs FAU. There will be opportunities to create turnovers if they can make him uncomfortable in the pocket and force some throws or maybe even get a strip sack.
Big plays through the air have been something FSU has struggled with this season, but fortunately, Clemson hasn’t been very good at creating them either. They had zero explosive pass plays through the air against Duke and only one against FAU. The majority of their explosive plays came against the FCS team.
Clemson has struggled to push the ball down the field this season. In fact, 68.5% of their passes have been under 10 yards. This was something we pointed out against LSU. It doesn’t necessarily matter how you move the ball as long as you do, but if they were to get behind, can they catch up with a dink-and-dunk offense?
Another issue for Clemson this season has been an underachieving receiver group. As a unit, they have 8 dropped passes and only a 35% contested catch rate. Beaux Collins has size at 6-foot-4 and is their leading receiver with 197 yards, but 137 of those came against the FCS team. Antonio Williams is more of a dynamic receiver, but he also racked up on the FCS team.
FSU’s secondary struggled against Boston College which doesn’t have the best receiving core, but this isn’t a group that scares you compared to what they faced against LSU with Malik Nabers, Kyren Lacey, and Mason Taylor. Hopefully, Akeem Dent will be available this week because his veteran presence on the backend of the defense was missed last week.
Clemson still has a legit run game and is the strength of this offense. They have a nice one-two punch in the backfield with Will Shipley and Phil Mafa who are both averaging over 6 YPC. Shipley is their speed back and put up 121 yards against FSU last season. The Tigers are averaging 217 yards per game on the ground, but against FBS teams that drops to 141 YPG.
The biggest key, in my opinion, to FSU winning this game is containing this run game as much as possible. Mobile quarterbacks have killed FSU on the ground this year, but they have done great against running backs. Of the 369 yards FSU has given up on the ground, only 160 have come from running backs, and a chunk of that came in garbage time against Southern Miss.
They can’t let Shipley run wild on them this year, but the defensive line situation is different for FSU this season. Overall, even with all the talk of FSU struggling on defense against BC, I think they will respond this week. I don’t expect them to shut out Clemson, but they held a better offense to 17 non-garbage time points.
The defensive line’s performance will be crucial to the outcome of the game. Pressuring Klubnik and containing Shipley may be easier said than done, but if they can do it they will put themselves in a great position to win the game.
At least we don’t have to face a dual-threat quarterback again this week. However, knowing FSU struggled against them, Clemson may draw up some plays for Klubnik to use his legs. Just keep in mind that Clemson has very little experienced depth at quarterback behind Klubnik.
When long-time DC Brent Venables left, we questioned whether it would be the downfall of their elite defenses. So far under current DC Wes Goodwin, they have still been good but have slipped in a few categories.
One area they have struggled this season has been generating sacks. Clemson averaged over 3 sacks per game since 2018. So far this season they are at 1.33 and that drops to 1 sack per game against FBS teams.
Clemson really feasted on that bad FCS team which makes their stats look somewhat inflated. They held Charleston Southern to only 74 yards. If we adjust for FBS-only competition the numbers tell a different story.
Their passing defense drops from 10th overall allowing just 148 yards per game to 31st at 193 YPG. Rushing defense comes in at 98 YPG which ranks 35th, but FBS adjusted jumps to 141 YPG which ranks 70th. Sacks and TFLs also follow suit.
Duke has a good offense led by a good quarterback. They ran for 199 yards against Clemson and put up 28 offensive points. Riley Leonard accounted for 98 of those yards from the quarterback position.
Duke struggled to block Clemson in that game, but Riley was able to move around to buy time and also make plays with his legs. I hope we see Jordan willing to run the ball on Saturday because I think they are going to need him too. If he does, they have an opportunity to get the ground game going, and moving the pocket will be key to avoiding pressure.
Clemson’s strength in their front seven on defense. They are loaded with talent on the front and have one of the best linebacker duos in the country in Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter Jr. However, they have somewhat underperformed so far this year.
FSU hasn’t run the ball as effectively as they did last year against the two Power 5 opponents they faced. I don’t see them hitting the 200-yard mark in this one, but if they are able to keep the chains moving, and keep the Tigers honest on defense, that might be enough.
Clemson’s secondary got a bad wrap last year and they did struggle, but they also dealt with a lot of injuries. This year they have talent and experience, but it’s not the most dominant group. The issue is they haven’t really been tested this year. Duke put up 175 passing yards on them, but they haven’t seen receivers like what FSU has. It will be interesting to see how they rise to the challenge of covering guys like Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson.
FSU has big play receivers, but they have to learn to take what the defense gives them. This was an issue against BC. They often forced the ball downfield to their playmakers when there were underneath routes open. Getting the ball to guys in space and letting them work will be important in this one to sustain drives, but I expect FSU to take some early shots to test this secondary.
Lastly, Clemson has had big issues in their kicking game this season. Their freshman kicker is only 1 of 4 (25%) and had multiple kicks blocked against Duke, which is something we know FSU has been good at. In a strange move, they actually brought back last year’s backup kicker who was taking online courses. He didn’t get a lot of action as they had veteran BT Potter last year, but he gives them another option.
While the noon kickoff disappointed a lot of people, and admittedly took some wind out of the sails for a big game atmosphere, I think it is a blessing in disguise for FSU. Clemson has not lost a home game at night since FSU beat them there in 2013.
Last season, Clemson played two noon games at home. One was a 27-21 win over Syracuse, which FSU beat by 35 points a few weeks later. The other game was a 31-30 loss to South Carolina that snapped a 40-game home win streak.
Clemson has yet to play a noon game this season, whereas FSU is coming off a noon-road game. Albeit it was not a great game, at least they’ve been through the motions of an early kick.
Clemson is still loaded with talent and is hard to beat in Death Valley. However, the Noles have more playmakers at the skill positions. If FSU plays up to their potential, they are the better team this year. It just really depends on which FSU team shows up.
I think they will respond this week after hearing all the noise following the BC game. There was also the possibility of the flu going around last week and it was their true first road game, day game, and a long trip at that. I think they also got caught looking ahead to this game. However, with the weight of this game and next week being a bye week it’s all eyes on Clemson.
Mike Norvell has been in killer mode this season and if he’s out to deliver a revenge tour, Dabo Swinney has to be the top name on the list after all the antics over the past few years and the way they beat FSU early in his tenure. I expect them to pull out all the stops in an all-gas, no-brakes type of game. Norvell usually has his teams ready and coaches well in big games.
Clemson probably isn’t as bad as people think they are, and they will surely embrace the underdog mentality. But if FSU shows up to play I don’t think it’ll matter. I’m honestly more nervous about this game than LSU because they have to play in Death Valley, and this game means so much to FSU as a program.
Don’t get me wrong they are all important, but if you want to take back the conference, this is FSU’s best chance to do it and I think they will. I have FSU winning 34-24 and bringing home what would arguably be the biggest win of Mike Norvell’s tenure at FSU.
LSU was big, but the implications are nowhere near what they are for this one. Part of me also feels that FSU could run away with this one if they are firing on all cylinders, but I’d also be perfectly happy with a 1-point win at a place they haven’t won in almost a decade, against a team they’ve lost to 7 consecutive times.
Rankings aside, noon kick aside, this is a HUGE game for FSU and I cannot wait until Saturday. As most of you know, I live in the Charlotte area which is predominantly Tiger territory, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had bragging rights. This one is a little personal for me and I hope they finally get over the hump and shove Clemson from the ACC mountaintop. Thanks for reading and Go Noles!
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