FSU vs Clemson: Preview and Prediction

Florida St ADVANTAGES Clemson
FSU Run Game vs Clemson Defense

Florida State’s running game has been up and down this season.  They are averaging just 4.85 yards per carry, 40th in the nation.  S&P+ ranks the FSU rush offense as the 14th best in the nation. With the exception of an outstanding game against South Florida and a nice game against North Carolina, the Noles have been average on the ground.  In large part, this is thanks to a offensive line that has underperformed and forced running back Dalvin Cook to work for every yard he’s gained.  Cook has looked better the last month after not passing the eye test the first several weeks of the season. Despite assurance that he was not injured, Cook just didn’t look like the explosive back he’s shown himself to be his first two years.

S&P+ rates Clemson as the 13th best rushing defense in the nation. Clemson has been giving up just 3.32 yards per carry this season, tied for 20th best in the nation. Louisville (273 yards) is the only team to rush for more than 160 yards on the Tiger defense, but that was on 55 carries (4.96 yards per carry)  That was Louisville’s 2nd lowest yards per carry behind only the NC State game this past weekend.

The rush defense features an excellent defense line led by end Christian Wilkins. Wilkins is a 6’4″ 310 lbs defense end that leads the team in tackles for loss and is 5th on the team in tackles.  Massive freshman Dexter Lawrence (6’5″ 340) has been impressive, though not listed as a starter. Lawrence is 4th on the team in tackles and has 4.5 tackles for loss.  Clemson has just recently gotten back arguably their top defensive lineman in end Austin Bryant who missed the first six games this season with a foot injury.  His return further solidifies a stout line.  Linebacker Ben Boulware is the leading tackler on the team and is excellent and smart linebacker with great run fits that is also an emotional leader of the Tiger defense.

For the Noles to have a chance in this game, their going to have to get another big game effort from Dalvin Cook.  A dose of Jacques Patrick and using the legs of Deondre Francois would also go a long way in keeping the Tiger defense off balance.  While Florida State can have success here and Dalvin being Dalvin and breaking a run or two wouldn’t shock me, the Tigers have the advantage here mainly due to the matchup on the line.

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FSU Passing Game vs Clemson Defense

Clemson has one of the best pass defenses in the nation giving up just 166 yards per game (7th), 5.2 yards per attempt (2nd), and a 90.95 pass defense efficiency rating (4th).  The Tigers have only given up 4 touchdowns through the air while picking off 11 passes. That said, Clemson hasn’t faced many good passing offenses.  Really, the only good pass offense they faced was Louisville and the Cardinals finished with 295 yards and a 120 passer rating (a season low for Louisville). Clemson rates, though, as the 3rd best pass defense in the nation by S&P+.

It starts up front again for Clemson as they’re able to get good pressure with just their front four.  The Tigers are tied for 4th in the nation with 25 sacks.  Six defensive lineman have registered at least two sacks and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (6’5″ 305) leads the team with 4.5 sacks.  Cordrea Tankersly is the top corner for Clemson and has good size at 6’1″ 200.  Senior safety Jadar Johnson leads the Tigers with 3 interceptions.

Florida State is rated by S&P+ as the 8th best passing attack in the nation. Deondre Francois has had an impressive freshman seasons shown grit, toughness, and a talented arm. The Noles have dependable receivers in Jesus Wilson and Travis Rudolph, but none that are, as of now, game changers. Auden Tate is slowly working his way on the field more and more, though his production still hasn’t been much yet.  He is the guy that could give defensive coaches matchup problems and is a big play threat for Florida State.  Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders are both receiving threats from the tight end position. Like everything else, though, it all comes back to the play of the offensive line and there is a reason words like grit and toughness are used to describe Francois. The OL has been disappointing and, too often, Francois has found himself under pressure. There are times, however, that Francois has held on to the ball too long, taken too much time through his progressions, and been a victim of his own inexperience.

If Florida State can establish a running game and the offensive line can give Francois some time, then the Noles will have success throwing the ball.  That’s easier said then done and while I like the matchup of Dalvin Cook and the FSU tight ends against the linebackers and safeties of Clemson, the ability to pressure the quarterback gives Clemson the edge here.

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Clemson Run Game vs FSU Defense

Clemson is averaging just 4.6 yards per carry and Clemson ranks as the 39th rushing attack in the nation per S&P+. The Tigers haven’t done a great job of getting the ball into the hands of talented junior Wayne Gallman. Since the opening game against Auburn, where he had 30 carries, Gallman has only two games with more than 10 carries, though he did miss most of the NC State game after suffering a concussion.  While Gallman is technically questionable at the time of this writing, I expect to see him on the field Saturday night.  After Gallman, quarterback Deshaun Watson is the second leading rusher on the team. While slightly down in his carries per game, Watson is averaging almost a yard a half less per carry this season.  He’s dangerous with his legs, though, and has five 100+ yard games in his career.

The Clemson offensive line has been all over the map in terms of performance.  They’re 8th in the nation in Adjusted Line Yards, meaning the amount of rushing yards provided by the offensive line, but only 125th in Power Success Rate, the percentage of short yardage plays that are successful.

Florida State has the 29th rated rush defense in the nation by S&P+.  Most of that success, however, has been in defending against teams without a dynamic quarterback running the ball.  They have struggled mightily, though in defending zone reads with talented running quarterbacks and Deshaun Watson is certainly one of those.  The Noles are giving up 4.47 yards per carry, 81st in the nation.  They’ve given up almost 7 yards per carry, though, against the two teams with excellent running quarterbacks – Louisville and South Florida. On the bright side, Derrick Nnadi and Josh Sweat are healthier now than they were in those games and FSU has gotten some encouraging play from freshman linebacker Dontavious Jackson.  Oddly enough, former wide receiver Ermon Lane has also shown a willingness to get physical and attack from his safety position in the run game, too. It will be very interesting to see if those changes, along with a simplification of the defense amount to any improved success against Clemson this weekend.

The bottom line here is that for Florida State to be successful they have to win at the point of attack.  The Tigers two weakest games running the ball have been against Auburn and North Carolina, two teams that have above average to good defensive line play.  I actually think this matchup is closer than what what the Louisville and USF portend, but until the results on the field prove it, I can’t give Florida State the edge here.

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Clemson Pass Game vs FSU Defense

Deshaun Watson came into the season a Heisman frontrunner and while his 2016 hasn’t been as impressive as his 2015 campaign thus far, he’s still a supremely talented quarterback.  His numbers are down in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and passer rating, but he still has four 300+ yard games this season and S&P+ ranks the Clemson passing attack as the 5th best in the country.  The Tigers offensive line gives him time to throw as they’re only giving up a sack per game on average.

Watson also has one of the best group of wide receivers in the nation led by future NFLer Mike Williams.  Williams was injured in the season opener in 2015 and missed the rest of the year, but he’s bounced back to lead the Tigers in catches and yards. He is a size and speed mismatch for most defensive backs. Ray Ray McCloud and Artavis Scott are both shifty wide outs that have a lot more speed and big play ability than their yards per catch would let on and are 2 and 3 respectively in receptions.  Deon Cain has been the big play threat this season averaging just over 17 yards per catch and leading the team with 6 touchdown receptions despite just hauling in 15 passes.  Add in a capable tight end and it’s really a pick your poison situation for most pass defenses.

Florida State’s pass defense is rated as 25th in the nation by S&P+.  When you look at the raw stats it looks worse (83rd in pass eff. defense, 111th in yards per att.), but the Noles have gone against one of the best sets of quarterbacks and passing attacks in the nation. They have looked better the last two weeks, but they will be going up against a whole different animal with Clemson on Saturday.  On the bright side, as mentioned above, the Noles are as healthy on the defensive line as they’ve been this year and Josh Sweat and Derrick Nnadi are rounding into the players they were expected to be this season. Being able to put pressure on Watson without blitzing would make the job of the Florida State secondary much easier.

The secondary has struggled with communication, a major issue in zone defense and particularly in pattern matching zone defense like FSU likes to employ. Florida State was able to mask that issue the past two weeks with much more man to man coverage, they haven’t had to match up against the wide receivers or worry about the threat of a running quarterback, either. The question for Charles Kelly and the defensive coaches then becomes do you feel more comfortable allowing the possibility of getting beat one on one by the Clemson receivers and allowing the Tigers to exploit matchups or do you feel more comfortable trying to play zone and risk coverage busts and open wide outs.  It’s not an easy choice.

Florida State has to get pressure on Watson to have success and while I think they’ll have some success, I don’t think it will be enough and Deshaun Watson and the Clemson passing game will make plays. FSU defensive backs have been in good position plenty of times this year, but just lack some of the awareness and ball skills to allow them to defend passes.  Clemson has playmakers at wideout and can exploit that.

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PUSH Special Teams

Florida State’s Special Teams is rated 26th in the country by S&P+. The Noles have a good, but inconsistent kicker in Ricky Aguayo who is 73% on field goals this season.  Punter Logan Tyler has a nice punting average, but too often the kicks have been low or inaccurate and allowed for returns.  On kickoffs, Tyler has been very good and is averaging a touchback on 66% of his kicks. The Noles have been average in the return games, though in both kickoffs and punts they have the ability to break one at any time.

Clemson is ranked 68th in the nation by S&P+.  Placekicker Greg Huegel is making 80% of his kicks, but only 51% of his kickoffs are going for touchbacks. In the punting game, Andy Teasdall is averaging a pedestrian 38.39 yards per punt but only 5 of those punts have been returned all year.  Ray Ray McCloud and Artavis Scott handle the punt and kickoff returns and much like Florida State, while they don’t have much to show for it in 2016, they have the ability to break one at any time.

28 Prediction

Sure, Clemson has the advantage in every area (though not a distinct advantage in each area). Nothing is over until we decide it is. Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?  Hell no!  And it ain’t over now. Cause when the going gets tough…the tough get going. What the &$^! happened to the FSU I used to know? Where’s the spirit?  Where’s the guts? “Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you, Lilburn, we might get blown out.” Well kiss my ass from now on!  Not me! I’m not gonna take this. Watson, he’s a dead man! Gallman, dead! Boulware, dead!

In all seriousness, I think FSU plays an impassioned game under the lights at Doak and feeds off the crowd.  Effort and focus is there and they play one of their better games of the season.  Unfortunately, it won’t be enough because Clemson is just the better team this year.  Florida State absolutely has the ability to win this one and it wouldn’t shock me if they do, but based on the Florida State Seminoles that I’ve seen with my eyes this season, that’s not happening Saturday night.


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