Tigers, Noles Prepare for Battle
By Brandon Rink
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The annual matchup between the Tigers (3-0) and the Seminoles (3-0) has decided the Atlantic Division each of the last three seasons.
The eyes of the college football world will fixate on Doak Campbell Stadium Saturday night, as the No. 4 Florida State Seminoles host the No. 9 Clemson Tigers.
The annual matchup between the Tigers (3-0) and the Seminoles (3-0) has decided the Atlantic Division each of the last three seasons, and after early stumbles around the ACC, it could very well decide the conference for a second-straight year.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney understands the hype of the rare ACC top-10 matchup (ninth-ever), but he’s trying to keep the showdown in perspective for his team.
“They understand,” Swinney said. “This is a huge game, but you gotta be careful…this is the fourth game. Our next goal is to win the division, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
“Is it a big game for the division? You better believe it, because the winner of the game is in control, and the loser of the game is at the mercy of others – but it ain’t over.”
The fourth-year coach has been peppered with questions about disrespect this week, with the experts in Vegas saying FSU has a two-touchdown-plus edge on his Tigers.
Swinney didn’t take the bait.
“If I was on the outside looking in, I’d probably pick them too,” he said. “Now, I’m not on the outside – I’m on the inside and I like where I’m at. (College) Gameday, top-four team in the country at their place – a team that’s playing really, really good out of conference with a great quarterback. I don’t think that’s a lack of respect.
“That’s just people looking at it from the outside saying, ‘Hey, this is a really good team.’”
Two really good teams will be on display in Tallahassee, battling to gain momentum towards being the great team in the ACC this season.
Time / Place / TV: 8:12 ET / Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla. / ABC
Florida State players to watch (2012 stats): QB E.J. Manuel (71.2 completion percentage, 525 passing yards, six TDs and one INT); RBs Chris Thompson (254 rushing yards and three TDs), James Wilder Jr. (220 rushing yards and four TDs) & Devonta Freeman (147 rushing yards and one TD); WRs Kenny Shaw (144 rec. yards and two TDs), Kelvin Benjamin (140 rec. yards and two TDs), Rodney Smith (101 rec. yards and two TDs) & Rashad Greene (79 rec. yards and two punt return TDs); DEs Bjoern Werner (6.5 sacks and nine TFL) & Cornellius Carradine (3.5 sacks and 4.5 TFL); LB Christian Jones (nine tackles and TFL); FS Lamarcus Joyner (nine tackles); CB Xavier Rhodes (eight tackles and an interception).
Stats to watch: Sacks (FSU’s Werner leads the nation with 6.5; Clemson has three as a team so far); FSU points allowed (The ‘Noles have allowed 19 or fewer points in 11-straight games; The Tigers have scored less than 20 three times under Chad Morris – losing all three); Red zone offense/defense (FSU has scored 19 touchdown in 23 red zone trips – their defense has let the opposing team in the red zone just three times period, allowing a field goal; Clemson is tied for first in red zone offense nationally, scoring 13-of-13 times with nine touchdowns); Yards per rush (The Seminoles lead the nation with a 7.6 average; Clemson is third in the ACC at 5.2); Rushing yards (Clemson rushed for 320 yards against a solid Auburn D-line in the opener; FSU has given up 63.3 rush yards in wins over the last two seasons); Plays (Clemson hit its 80-play goal against FSU last year, at 83, which usually equals a Tigers’ win).
Seminoles offense vs. Clemson defense: Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whose Oklahoma teams held ranked FSU squads to 15 points per game in wins the last two seasons, knows Saturday will be one of his bigger tests as a DC. Much of his new unit can still feel the sting of the last trip to the Sunshine State, and don’t want a repeat against a markedly-improved ‘Noles offense. FSU has made significant season-to-season jumps at this point in rushing offense (96.3 to 279 yards per game), total offense (421.67 to 543.67 per) and scoring offense (36.3 to 58.7 per). Sporting a more methodical scheme than their Atlantic counterparts, Fisher’s offense is still punching in a score every 8.8 plays, gaining 8.4 yards per (7.6 per rush and 9.5 per pass). Finally healthy, Seminoles senior running back Chris Thompson has taken off, ranking second in the ACC in rushing after twin 70-plus yard touchdown runs against Wake Forest last week. And he’s just one of a three-headed monster, also including sophomores James Wilder Jr. and Devonta Freeman (and fullback Lonnie Pryor is good for a solid carry and catch). Fellow senior and quarterback E.J. Manuel is completing over 70 percent of his passes to a loaded receiver corps. Venables has his hands full here, and just has to hope he can slow FSU’s attack enough to keep Chad Morris and co. in it.
Tigers offense vs. Seminoles defense: Mark Stoops’ Florida State defense came into Death Valley last season ranked fifth overall, allowing 195 yards per game, and 12th nationally in scoring defense (11 points per game). They left allowing the most yards (443) and passing yards (344) of the 2011 season – surrendering four touchdown drives of 77 or more yards and three of seven plays or more. The venue changes and close to 80,000 FSU fans will have something to say about the production of Morris’ no-huddle spread in primetime Saturday. What should alarm Seminole fans is that Clemson’s offense is better than last year. A more svelte Tigers quarterback Tajh Boyd has completed 76 percent of his passes for 747 yards and six touchdowns and an interception – and he’s a threat now in the running game, second on the team with 75 rushing yards. But he doesn’t necessarily have to run – senior tailback Andre Ellington is leading the ACC with 328 rushing yards and four touchdowns. And of course, Boyd’s armed with quite possibly the top receiver duo in college football, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre “Nuk” Hopkins. Down in Tallahassee through three games, FSU hasn’t skipped a beat, even missing returning starters Brandon Jenkins (season-ending foot injury) and Greg Reid (dismissed for violation of team rules). The competition level hasn’t been great (Savannah State, Murray State and Wake Forest), but they rank No. 1 in rushing, scoring, pass, pass efficiency and total defense nationally and lead the ACC in sacks. The fact they’ve allowed teams just three trips to the red zone – all season – is pretty amazing, and nobody has reached the end zone. Make no mistake, this is the Seminole D’s first real test, but they’re an elite unit that will shut down most any team they play this season. But if 19 points allowed is the standard (see stats to watch above), I think Clemson gets there and has the ever-so-slight-advantage head-to-head here.
Misc. (Coaching, Intangibles, etc.): The head-to-head Jimbo Fisher-Dabo Swinney tally is 1-1, with two down-to-the-wire contests between the Tigers and Seminoles. Road teams are 1-9 in the last 10 in the series, but the Tigers were the last road team to win in 2006. In road openers, Swinney’s teams are 1-2, but the two losses came by three points each, against the 2009 ACC champs Georgia Tech (30-27) and 2010 national champs Auburn (27-24 OT). The road opener win? By 20 points at Virginia Tech last season (23-3). If you’re into the Vegas deal, Swinney relishes the underdog role, covering the spread six of eight times as a road dog, but the favored team in this series has won four of the last five. The crowd will be rocking, but I like Clemson in a number of ways in this category.
Pick: FSU 38-27