Florida State Football: 7 Keys to Winning the Week 4 Clemson Game
After three straight home games and a tough ACC opener against quarterback Tanner Price and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, the Florida State Seminoles play host to their first ranked opponent of the year, No. 14 Clemson.
Clemson, ACC champion a year ago, boasts elite talent on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense, where Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins lead an explosive passing attack.
Boyd is coming off a 3,828 yard passing season with 33 TD, but will come into the 2012-2013 season with a chip on his shoulder, as he and his Clemson Tiger teammates were embarrassed by West Virginia 70-33 in the Discover Orange Bowl.
The Tigers, who along with the Seminoles and Demon Deacons are part of the best of the Atlantic division of the ACC, will face a huge early road test against the Seminoles. Though Clemson won this game 35-30 a year ago with the same core of playmakers, Florida State retains their core as well, and the home team has won nine out of the past 10 meetings between the two teams (Wikipedia, College Football Data Warehouse).
In what was once known as the "Bowden Bowl," named so for legendary Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden and his son Tommy, who coached Clemson from 1998 to 2008, Clemson has turned a lopsided rivalry in the 1990s into an even-matched affair.
Since breaking the Seminoles' 11-game winning streak over Clemson in 2002, Clemson is 6-3 vs. Florida State.
If the Seminoles can do these seven things, look for them to reverse this recent trend as they look to start 2012 and their run through the ACC with a 4-0 record.
Win the Quarterback Battle
The biggest difference between the 2011 matchup and the one set to occur in 2012 will be the playing status of Seminole quarterback E.J. Manuel.
Sidelined in 2011 with a shoulder injury, Manuel played much of the season with lingering effects of the injury and missed this crucial game.
Though backup Clint Trickett played excellently in a reserve role, accumulating 336 yards and three TD with only one interception, he was no match for the combination of Boyd and Watkins.
Boyd connected with the then-freshmen for 144 yards and two TD, as the Tigers built an insurmountable lead come the fourth quarter.
If Manuel and the offense can keep Boyd off the field, they should slow down the pace of the game and let their strong defense take over.
Preseason hype a year ago led many to believe Manuel was the better quarterback among the two, but injuries kept Manuel from elevating to the top of the debate over the ACC's best quarterbacks.
Several quarterbacks elevated their games, including NC State's Mike Glennon and North Carolina's Bryn Renne, while Manuel failed to meet expectations.
If Florida State can avoid the injuries that hurt their offense a year ago, look for Manuel to have a strong redshirt senior season and solidify himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the country. If the offensive line keeps him upright, he should have no problem out-dueling Tajh Boyd.
Protect EJ Manuel and Open Lanes in the Running Game
Keeping Manuel upright, however, is easier said than done. Clemson has a solid defensive line and playmakers in the front seven that could disrupt a Florida State unit that remains young.
An inexperienced O-line a year ago was the Achilles heel of the Florida State team, as injuries exposed a lack of depth at the position.
Florida State also lost their starting left and right tackles from 2011 to the NFL, as the Green Bay Packers took left tackle Andrew Datko in the seventh round and right tackle Zebrie Sanders went in the fifth round to the Buffalo Bills.
Datko, like his quarterback, suffered a shoulder injury in the early goings of the season, but his was more severe and he was unable to return after the incident occurred in October.
This forced the Seminoles to start seven different combinations on the O-line, as they struggled to replace Datko and Rodney Hudson, a guard who graduated in 2010 (via Tony Barnhart at cbssports.com).
Now with a battle-tested group who endured the hardships of receiving the blame for a disappointing 2011, in which the team was ranked nearly as high in the preseason as their current No. 7 ranking in the AP polls, Jimbo Fisher believes he has some depth at the position. Says Fisher:
Oh, I feel really good about where this group is because I know who they are blocking in practice. We are very good on the defensive line and our guys are blocking them. And I'm not talking just some of the time. They are giving our defensive line all they can handle. (via cbssports.com)
If Fisher's testaments hold true and guys like center Bryan Stark, right tackle Bobby Hart and converted defensive lineman Cameron Erving can step up for the Seminoles, the O-line could perform above expectations in 2012-2013.
Contain Sammy Watkins
In what will most likely be his second game back after serving a two-game suspension, Watkins will be amped up for his matchup with Xavier Rhodes and the Florida State secondary.
Florida State cannot afford to let Watkins run wild again in 2012.
With touchdown receptions of 24 and 62 yards a year ago, Watkins is always a dangerous threat to take the ball the distance.
Though the FSU secondary received bad news when senior Greg Reid was dismissed for violating the team's three-strike policy, the team remains confident in the potential of young corners like sophomore Nick Waisome and redshirt sophomore Keelin Smith.
If the younger players get beat, the Seminoles would prefer to let receiver DeAndre Hopkins get into a rhythm rather than Watkins, who is scary with the ball in his hands.
If the younger players can play up to par while Rhodes takes care of Watkins, the fierce Florida State pass rush will get to Boyd and make things difficult for the senior quarterback, who may have to hurry several throws while seeing pressure from all angles.
Take Advantage of a Weak Clemson Offensive Line
With standouts Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner, the Florida State defensive line is the anchor of the team.
And with a former defensive lineman, Tyler Shatley, starting at right guard for Clemson, the offensive line is far from the strength of the Clemson team.
Travis Sawchik of The Post and Courier projects the O-line as follows: Brandon Thomas (left tackle), Kalon Davis (left guard), Gifford Timothy (right tackle) and Tyler Shatley (right guard) as new starters, with senior center Dalton Freeman returning to anchor the line. The five combine for 48 career starts, with the majority of those belonging to Freeman.
Many think Florida State's defensive line may be the best in the nation, as Jimbo Fisher has emphasized the defensive front with every recruiting class he's had since taking full control in Tallahassee in 2010 (via news-press.com).
Along with Jenkins and Werner, the defensive line has former elite prospects like Timmy Jernigan, a member of the strong 2011 class. The 2012 class is full of standouts, as three top prospects, defensive ends Mario Edwards Jr. and Chris Casher along with the top defensive tackle in the nation, Eddie Goldman, all make up an incredible class that was No. 6 in the nation, according to rivals.yahoo.com.
This is a huge mismatch in the Seminoles' favor, and one they will look to exploit in order to take down the Clemson Tigers, who may struggle to protect Boyd all season long.
Avoid Special Teams Mistakes
Because the Seminoles and Tigers are almost identical teams with identical issues, the final outcome will likely come down to special teams or which quarterback gets the last possession and can put his team in field goal range.
It is here that the Seminoles can gain another big edge, as kicker Dustin Hopkins drilled a game-winner over Clemson earlier in his Florida State career.
As a sophomore in 2010, Hopkins drilled a 55-yarder with three seconds on the clock to give the Seminoles a 16-13 win.
A leading candidate for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker, Hopkins is an asset to a Seminoles offense that will need to take all the points it can get in what could turn into a defensive battle, given the permeability of both team's offensive lines.
Though Florida State lost their primary kick returner in Greg Reid, Coach Fisher certainly has enough athletes to find a suitable replacement for the dismissed senior.
Where their special teams could go wrong is in containing Clemson's Sammy Watkins in the return game. Longtime Florida State punter Shawn Powell has graduated, leaving the spot vacant for the Seminoles.
If they can kick away from Watkins and Hopkins can hit from long range, the Seminoles will gain a big advantage in what should be a very close game.
Live Up to the No. 7 Ranking
A year ago, the Seminoles were ranked very high in preseason polls and had similar hype going into the season.
They had a tremendous quarterback who showed flashes of brilliance filling in for current Vikings starter Christian Ponder.
They also had an awesome defense, and defensive line in particular, which helped them earn the title of the No. 1 ranked recruiting class in 2011 (per recruiting.scout.com).
And they had a head coach ready to solidify himself as one of the best in the business.
But adversity soon hit the Seminoles, as they were one of the leaders in starts lost due to injury in 2011 (via Phil Steele of philsteele.com).
Steele is a legendary college football analyst whose argument for any team's improvement one year after being decimated by injuries is strong hope for Florida State's title chances in 2012.
Given the number of Florida State players who were thrown under the fire when they thought they could spend a year learning the system from the sideline, many young Seminoles gained invaluable experience that should help them going forward.
Last year's Florida State squad squandered their high early-season ranking by losing to Oklahoma, Wake Forest and Clemson in the early weeks.
Do not expect the same to happen in 2012, when the team should be focused on reaching the National Championship game all season long behind a motivated defense and a quarterback on a mission to succeed.
Return to the 90's Glory Days
Before Tommy Bowden took over the reins at Clemson and returned the team to a stable point, his father Bobby had the Tigers' number.
Bobby Bowden had everyone's number in the 90s. The Seminoles reached the National Championship game five times, going 2-3 in those contests (via Gary Smitts of jacksonville.com).
His head coach in waiting since 2007, when it appeared Bobby Bowden began to grow out of the job, was offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher. After taking over the job in 2010, Fisher has performed well, but has yet to return Florida State to its comfort zone as one of the juggernauts of college football.
He has lost four games in each of his first two seasons, and despite an Atlantic division title in his first season and two postseason wins, the Seminoles have no conference titles under Fisher's leadership. Year three is a make-or-break year for Fisher, and with a relatively easy schedule against a weak ACC, now is the time for Fisher to leave his mark.
Beating Clemson, one of three currently ranked teams on the 2012 Florida State schedule, would be huge for Fisher in terms of filling the big shoes Bobby Bowden left behind.
The great teams of the Bowden era did it with a high-flying offense and a sack-happy defense, two things this year's No. 7 ranked Seminoles squad is certainly capable of doing.
No. 14 Clemson at No. 7 Florida State prediction:
Florida State 30, Clemson 24