Florida State Opponent Preview: Clemson

Florida State is returning to the friendly confines of Doak Campbell Stadium this Saturday night to try and end a two-game skid. The Noles will have no time to sulk in the disappointment of the last two weeks as they face yet another top 25 team. This last matchup of the three-game stretch against ranked teams comes against the 4th ranked Clemson Tigers who are fresh off a 31-3 win over Boston College.

The Tigers have not looked as impressive as many thought this year, but they seem to have found some momentum the past few weeks. They have been another team that has been dealing with lots of injuries and unfortunately now look to be as healthy as they have been all season for the FSU game.

Despite losing all their coordinators from the championship seasons, namely Brent Venables, it hasn’t appeared to slow them down much. In my opinion this is where their recruiting success is paying off. They have been more talented than anyone they have stepped foot on the field with this year. Some of that does get credited to the schedule they have played which hasn’t been that difficult and is currently ranked as the 78th hardest per PFF. (FSU has played the 28th hardest schedule)

However, there have been a few times where Clemson struggled in games they should not have. I do feel like FSU has a shot to win this game, especially at home. When Doak is rocking it is a hard place to play and this will be the toughest road test they have faced this season.

The one looming factor that I just can’t ignore is the health of both teams and how they are trending in opposite directions. I really hope we get some positive injury news back this week because FSU will need all the weapons they can get.

It has already been reported by coach Norvell that receiver Ja’Khi Douglas will be available for the first time this season after returning from injury. He adds an element of speed and catching the ball out of the backfield that I really like for this offense. 

Robert Cooper has also been sighted at practice with no braces on so that is positive as well. I was really hoping they would get Fabien Lovett back for this one but that appears unlikely as he was still in street clothes in Monday’s practice video. With that said, let’s preview the Clemson team that we’ll see faceoff with Florida State on Saturday night.

FSU vs Clemson team stats

Offensive Preview

The Tiger offense was their biggest question mark coming into this season after an abysmal 2021. Quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggled last season and was thought to be replaced by talented backup Cade Klubnik by now. 

However, after a bit of a slow start he has found some rhythm and is having a better season this year and so is their offense. He has also slimmed down and become a better runner this year too. While he has improved as a passer he is still inconsistent at times.

He’s has struggled under pressure as well as against the blitz this season so it would be beneficial for FSU to be able to pressure him in this game. That may not be the easiest thing to do as he’s only faced pressure on 26.3% of his drop backs so far this year. He is still a bigger guy who is hard to bring down at times so if FSU does get home, they need to get him on the ground.

Looking at his passing by depth, he only has a completion percentage of 51.2% and a high turnover worthy play rate on throws of 10-19 yards. However, he does throw the deep ball well which is a big part of their offense accounting for 21.4% of passing attempts. Let’s look our passer profile for DJ.

To be fair, while it has been a better offense it is still not great by any means. They have some issues up front on the offensive line and lack a real dominant threat outside at receiver. They run the ball well with DJ’s added mobility, Will Shipley, and their power back Phil Mafah which is a concern with what we’ve seen from the FSU rush defense after losing so many interior defensive linemen. The good news, it appears Robert Cooper may be back this week, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for Fabien Lovett who’s absence has been a huge hit to this defensive line.

The Clemson offense runs an average of 74.7 offensive snaps per game. They have a run pass split of 54.9% pass and 45.1% run. They are not necessarily bad at anything just not great at anything either. As you’ll see below, they have a balanced attack on offense as far as strengths.

Clemson Offense Stats

They do have size at receiver and tight end which is something I’ve seen teams struggle to defend in the games I’ve watched. Clemson has been able to do enough on offense this season to allow their defense some room for error which was not the case last year. The nice thing about getting farther into the season is we can start comparing common opponents which these teams have had three of so far this season.

Against NC State, Clemson averaged 5.66 yards per play whereas FSU averaged 7.36. Versus Boston College, Clemson averaged 5.78 yards per play to Florida States 8.28. Finally, against Wake Forest, Clemson averaged 6.50 yards per play to the 6.24 put up by FSU. FSU also did better in explosive plays, stuffed runs allowed (runs for 0 yards or less) and havoc rate allowed against NC State and Boston College.

The one area, and probably most important, the Clemson offense was better in two of those three games was stop rate by the opposing defense. Stop rate is drives that end in a punt, turnover or turnover on downs…basically no points. It is a simple way to measure the effectiveness of a defense in today’s game of reaching their main goal which is getting off the field without giving up points.

What that tells me is the FSU offense might be “better” on paper, but they are struggling to turn that success into points at the rate Clemson has against two common opponents. Of course, we also have to account for the kicking situation between both teams. This has forced FSU to go for it more often than they would like whereas Clemson can just take the points having a really good kicker. One thing of note is Clemson has scored on 100% of their red zone trips this season.

That certainly doesn’t mean FSU can’t have success against this offense. So far this season, Clemson has had some slow starts even against bad defenses, Georgia Tech (80th ranked defense) was a 17-10 game late in the third quarter, Louisiana Tech (120th ranked defense) was a 13-6 game at half, and Boston College (67th ranked defense) was a 17-3 game at the end of the third quarter before Clemson was able to pull off late in each game.

Clemson has only faced one top 60 defense so far this season in NC State (17th) and Florida State currently has the 27th ranked defense so Clemson will be challenged in this game too. Clemson also hasn’t had to deal with a lot of crowd noise in a big game this season either. 

They got NC State at home, had to travel to Wake Forest which they appeared to outnumber in fans, and Boston College which isn’t exactly a deafening environment. I understand that is only a small factor but when you’re trying to knock off a top 5 team every advantage helps and Doak should one on Saturday night

Defensive Preview

As we shift to the other side of the ball this is where some of my main concerns reside. The Clemson front seven is one of the best in the country and unfortunately appear to be fully healthy for the first time this season. They have been excellent against the run and are currently ranked second in run defense in the country. 

It’s not going to be easy for FSU to move the ball on the ground against this group especially with some struggles on the offensive line. However, as most of you know I like to have context for everything and there is some to be pointed out here.

Of course, we understand they beat both teams FSU lost to which is a fair point, but they haven’t played the toughest slate of offenses out there either which is why some of these stats may appear over inflated. Now to be fair, they get credit for being good against bad offenses but let me expand on that.

So far this season Clemson has faced the following rushing offenses by rank, 70th, 78th, 87th, 121st, 128th and one FCS opponent. Their allowing an average of just 63.7 yards per game, but FCS Furman put up 128 yards rushing and Wake had 110 yards on the ground too, so it is not impossible. Their average gets a big boost for holding Louisiana Tech to just 6 yards rushing which is ridiculous.

Seeing that, I had to find out if that was Clemson being that good or LA Tech being that bad? The only other power 5 team they have played this season was Missouri who currently has the 61st ranked rush defense and they held LA Tech to only 11 yards. 

I’m not saying the Missouri defense even holds a candle to Clemson but as I said, context matters and I found that interesting. They did hold Boston College and NC State to only 34 yards rushing each but neither of those rushing offenses are very good either.

Granted FSU may have just lost its best running back they currently have the 25th ranked rushing offense that averages over 200 yards per game which is over 50 yards higher than the next best rushing offense Clemson has faced. Do I think FSU will rush for 200 yards vs Clemson? Not a chance, but getting over 100 would certainly help open up the pass which is where the opportunity lies against this defense.

It was nice to see Jordan rush for over 100 yards last week against NC State because they will likely need his legs again this week if nothing else but to avoid pressure. This is by far my biggest concern coming into this game. Even with mismatched starters out in most of their games Clemson has been able to create an astounding 132 pressures! 

The next highest on the schedule for FSU would be NC State at 101. How well FSU can block Clemson will probably determine the game for FSU. If they can give Jordan enough time, and the receivers actually catch the ball this week, the Clemson pass defense is a glaring weakness they can take advantage of.

Their passing defense currently sits at 95th in the country and their pass EPA rank is 99th. Again, to provide more context that’s also been against the following pass offenses, 23rd, 31st, 74th, 80th, 114th, and an FCS team. Florida State currently has the 45th ranked passing offense. 

When Clemson faced the two passing offenses ranked higher than FSU, they allowed over 300 yards passing in each game. To be fair, they had multiple starters out for the Wake game and still had some out last week vs Boston College too. At this time, I’m not sure how many will be returning this week.

When you watch them play, the secondary has not been great and provides an opportunity for FSU. When they decide to catch the ball, this is probably the second best receiver unit they will have faced outside of Wake Forest which Clemson had a hard time defending. Clemson had 85 yards of pass interference penalties in just the first half of that game. If they can give Jordan time or scheme around this front seven enough to get some passes off that will be one of the keys to success for FSU to win this game. 

We discussed common opponents earlier and for the defensive side of things Clemson has overall been better in most categories against the three common opponents than FSU which isn’t exactly surprising. However, FSU was closer in most categories than I expected and will be the second-best defense behind NC State that they will have faced to date. Let’s look at the defensive stats for Clemson so far this season.

Clemson Defense stats

Special Teams

As for special teams, Clemson is ok in return defense ranking 29th in kickoff return defense and 68th in punt return defense. On the flip side their return teams have not been that great ranking 118th in kick returns and 107th in punt returns which hopefully stays that way this Saturday. 

It is worth noting when I watched the Boston College game Clemson muffed two punts but managed to recover both. One was caused by friendly fire but in a game like this, one mistake like that could be the difference. Unfortunately, FSU will have to face another good kicker this week who is currently 22/22 on PAT’s and 10/11 on FG’s.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

As I mentioned before, Clemson has struggled in a few games this season against not good teams that they were able to pull off from late to make the score look more like you would expect. The Georgia Tech game was 17-10 with 5 minutes left in the third quarter, Louisiana Tech was a 13-6 game at half and just last week they found themselves in a 17-3 game against a bad Boston College team at the end of the third quarter before pulling off late.

This makes me feel that if FSU can get to the fourth quarter and still be within striking distance they have a good chance. Clemson has been able to “out depth” a lot of teams which was something I brought up about Miami early in the season. 

They had multiple games where a lesser team was giving them fits in the first half, but they were gassed late in the game allowing Miami to pull off. I kept saying once they ran into a team with a pulse that had depth, they were going to be in trouble which has been the case.

Given the current injury situation, I worry about this with FSU as well. However, the overall talent level and depth at FSU (at least in a few positions) is better than most of the other teams Clemson has faced or least or par with them. 

Wake Forest and NC State were the only solid competition Clemson has played so far that I would compare FSU to from a talent perspective. While they did win both games, one was in double-overtime and the other was a 10-point game in Death Valley where they apparently don’t lose.

FSU squandered a chance to beat NC State last week and I feel they were the better team in the first half at least. NC State was able to keep it with 10 points in one of the toughest road environments in the country given Clemson’s current home win streak.

This makes me believe that if FSU can show up to play this week, cut out some of the penalties and dropped passes, they certainly have a chance at pulling the upset inside Doak which is no easy place to play in its own right. This will be the toughest environment the Tigers have had to play in this season. While they had to travel to Wake and Boston College which FSU got at home, playing at night in Raleigh is a tougher environment than either of those.

After all that I probably just made it sound like FSU is a lock to win this one which is not the case. Do I think Clemson is beatable by FSU in Doak? Yes. However, I think FSU is getting them at a bad time. Clemson has only gotten healthier the past few weeks and has seemed to find some momentum too. FSU players continue to drop like flies and their play has regressed over the past two weeks.

I’ll be honest, I HATE picking against FSU and certainly don’t care for Clemson either. I live in South Carolina around primarily Clemson fans, I work with a Clemson fan at my full-time job. There isn’t much more I would love than to get bragging right for just the second time in the eight years I’ve lived here. I’m just not sure if FSU can handle their front seven on defense. 

FSU has a liability at the tackle position and Clemson can expose that with their talented defensive ends. Myles Murphy and KJ Henry have a combined 38 pressure and 4 sacks. Xavier Thomas also made an appearance vs Boston College and in just 6 snaps had 4 pressures and 2 sacks. I’m also not sure how many guys FSU will have back or how healthy they will be if they are back.

This is going to sound like a total cop-out, but I hate picking against FSU so much I’m not going to. I’m just going to leave it at this, in the preseason I predicted FSU to start 4-0 and then be 4-3 after this stretch. Something in my gut tells me Clemson has been cutting it close too many times and they are ripe for an upset, and I just have a feeling FSU can be the team to do it.

However, it’s going to be a tall task blocking that front as well as controlling the run if they don’t get some guys back on the interior defensive line. FSU will have to bring their A-game this week. No more sloppy halves, no more slow starts, no more spotting the other team 7 points after the half, do that and you never know what can happen on a Saturday night in Doak! Thanks for reading and Go Noles!

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