A fourth straight ACC Atlantic division title will be on the line for Florida State on Saturday as No. 16 FSU travels to face top-ranked Clemson. The Seminoles have won three straight in the series, but four of the last five match-ups at Memorial Stadium have gone the way of the Tigers. FSU will also be aiming for its first victory over a No. 1 team since topping Florida in the 1996 regular season finale. To break down Saturday’s marquee contest, the Noled Out staff brings you “Five Things”.
1. On Clemson
Mike Ferguson: Clemson earned its No. 1 ranking by doing a number of things well. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is having an outstanding year for the Tigers, but Wayne Gallman has led an improved ground game. Defensively, Clemson has future NFL players at every position. At home, the Tigers are giving up fewer than 17 points-per-game.
Clint Eiland: Dabo Swinney has assembled perhaps the best Clemson team of the past decade, and the polls would seem to agree. The Tigers are undefeated so far with a marquee win over Notre Dame and a few dominating performances against teams like Miami and Georgia Tech. They have very few weaknesses and are highly-ranked in almost every area on both offense and defense. Their No. 1 ranking is not a fluke.
Jon Marchant: Clemson needs no introduction. The Tigers are the best team in the country and have no real weaknesses.
2. Players to Watch for FSU
Ferguson: Early indications are that sophomore running back Dalvin Cook will be ready to go for Florida State on Saturday and for the Seminoles to pull the upset, Cook needs a big day. Against Georgia Tech two weeks ago, Cook became the first FSU rusher since Warrick Dunn to go over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. For most of the year, Cook has been the heart and soul of the FSU offense. The Seminoles will need to find a way to get him out in space.
Eiland: Freshman safety Derwin James had a great showing against Syracuse last week and he’ll need to replicate that on Saturday if the Seminoles have a chance at upsetting the Tigers. It’s not a question of focusing on the run or pass since Clemson does both very well. James will need to be all over the field and try to force turnovers whenever he can.
Marchant: Whoever plays quarterback. FSU must be perfect in this game and head coach Jimbo Fisher must choose the right guy to start between Everett Golson and Sean Maguire. Whoever gets the start will have to take care of the football and make quick decisions to keep FSU ahead of schedule.
3. Biggest Concern for FSU
Ferguson: For Florida State to like its chances on Saturday, the Seminoles will need to settle in and play well early. FSU is in an unfamiliar position of being a decided underdog and will need to handle the early crowd noise and hostile environment. The Seminoles have less to lose in this one and if they can stay close, the pressure will shift to No. 1 Clemson.
Eiland: Deshaun Watson was able to slice apart an FSU defense last year in Tallahassee in a game where he split reps with Cole Stoudt. When he gets on a roll, he’s the best quarterback in the nation. The Seminoles will need to get pressure on him early and often or else, he will have the Clemson offense humming.
Marchant: The offensive line. The unit is young, inexperienced and has been hit with injuries. Clemson’s defensive line led by Shaq Lawson is better than expected. If the offensive line can’t protect or block, FSU will have a hard time moving the ball on offense.
4. X-Factor for FSU
Ferguson: The X-factor for the Seminoles in this contest is injuries. It’s no secret that FSU is a banged up bunch. Safety Trey Marshall is out for the season while fellow safety Tyler Hunter, Cook, linebacker Terrance Smith and quarterback Everett Golson are all nursing injuries. Going into Death Valley and earning a win will be a tall task regardless, but a much more attainable one if key bodies like Smith and Cook are back in the lineup.
Eiland: Running back Dalvin Cook and linebacker Terrance Smith being healthy are essential to predicting how FSU will perform. Florida State played last week with multiple starters out, but that will not work against Clemson. Having the coverage skills of Smith and the big-play ability of Cook are two ingredients necessary for an upset.
Marchant: The X-factor for this game is running back Dalvin Cook. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball and if he can play, he should have the opportunities to change the scoreboard.
5. FSU Wins If…
Ferguson: For Florida State to pull off the upset, it must maximize scoring opportunities, protect the ball and find a way to disrupt Deshaun Watson. Not getting touchdowns in the red zone was what cost FSU at Georgia Tech and a late interception didn’t help either. Despite being a true sophomore, Watson isn’t a guy who is easily rattled. The FSU pass-rushers like DeMarcus Walker, Jacob Pugh and Josh Sweat must find a way to get him out of his comfort zone and get stops.
Eiland: …the Florida State defense is able to force turnovers and keep the Clemson offense out of rhythm. You know what the best remedy for a stagnant FSU offense is? An opportunistic defense. Interceptions and fumbles must fall in Florida State’s favor if it wants to deter Watson from beating the Seminoles with his pure talent.
Marchant: If FSU wants to win this game, it will have to play almost perfect football. A complete “A” game. Unfortunately up to this point, FSU hasn’t done so for more than a half at most in any one game. The Seminoles must protect the football and create at least two turnovers on defense. I think the game plan here is to run Cook and freshman Jacques Patrick as much as possible to slow the game down and control the clock, limiting Clemson’s possessions. Turn it into an ugly slug-fest in the rain, hope for a one score game in the fourth quarter and the Seminoles have a shot.