It may be early in the season, but the Atlantic Division crown could be on the line when Clemson visits Florida State in an ACC clash of two teams ranked in the Top 10.
The contrast between the two teams is extreme. Florida State has one of the better defenses in the nation, and has given up just three points in three games (though the best team they've played is Wake Forest, to be fair).
Meanwhile, Clemson has one of the more exciting offenses in the country and is ranked in the top 30 in rushing yards, passing yards and points per game.
In other words, it doesn't get much better than this. Let's break down one of the key early-season matchups in college football.
Where: Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Florida
When: Saturday, September 22 at 8 p.m. ET
Betting Line: Florida State (-14.5), according to Bet Online
Clemson Injuries (via USA Today)
OL Reid Webster, Suspension, Out
LB Justin Parker Groin, Out for Season
QB Tony McNeal, Knee, Out for Season
CB Martin Jenkins, Groin, Out
Florida State Injuries (via USA Today)
DT Moses McCray, Concussion, Questionable
OL Daniel Foose, Back, Questionable
DE Brandon Jenkins Foot, Out for Season
TE Dan Hicks, Knee, Out for Season
DT Derrick Mitchell, Back, Out
RB Mario Pender, Groin, Out for Season
This one's fairly easy: The winner is in the driver's seat to win the Atlantic Division in the ACC and earn a berth to the conference's championship game. The loser not only has to hope for help to reach the ACC Championship Game, but is probably eliminated from National Championship consideration as well.
So yeah, this one is big. Real big.
Top 25 Implications
Unless this is a huge blowout, neither side will drop out of the Top 25. A win for Florida State will probably keep them at the No. 4 ranking they have this week, while Clemson would surely climb higher up the Top 10 with a win in Tallahassee.
What They're Saying
There are few causes for concern for the Clemson offense. The same can not be said for a mediocre defense, however, as Pete Iacobelli of the Associated Press (via Yahoo!) notes:
Right now, [defensive coordinator Brent] Venables says it's a work in progress. Clemson entered this week 98th nationally against the run, a number that figures to improve with just 110 yards given up in the Furman win. But the Tigers gave up their most passing yards of the season as the Paladins were 20 of 31 passing for 242 yards. That included a wide-open 37-yard touchdown pass from Reese Hannon to Jordan Snellings.
''We won. We have room for improvement, but that's every game,'' Clemson safety Rashard Hall said. ''I thought we played a great game, especially in the second half. We just have to get better.''
Clemson Player to Watch: Sammy Watkins
Was there any doubt?
A year ago, Watkins torched Florida State to the tune of seven receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns. After serving two games for a suspension, the super sophomore was up to his old tricks this Saturday, finishing with 117 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown against over-matched Furman.
The Clemson offense is full of weapons, but it's Watkins who is capable of doing the most damage. In his freshman year, he finished with 82 receptions, 1,450 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.
Florida State Player to Watch: Chris Thompson, Running Back
Talk about a big-play threat.
All Thompson did last week against Wake Forest was rush for a measly 197 yards on nine carries, scoring touchdowns from 74 and 80 yards out.
Of course, Clemson doesn't have to just worry about Thompson—James Wilder Jr. and Davonta Freeman are dangerous as well, as is quarterback E.J. Manuel—but Thompson is the most dangerous of the bunch. Against a team that struggles against the run, don't be surprised if Thompson has another big game.
Key Matchup: Tajh Boyd vs. the Florida State Front Seven
The duel-threat quarterback may not be my player to watch—Watkins is so electrifying I had to include him there—but Boyd is the key to Clemson's offense. In three games, Boyd has passed for 747 yards with a six touchdowns, one interception and a 73.3 completion percentage.
Florida State has one of the best front sevens in the country, so Clemson's stud runner Andre Ellington may find the going tough in the ground game. Boyd can certainly help in that regard but breaking off a big run or two.
But more importantly, if Boyd can keep Florida State honest by completing a high percentage of his passes and moving the chains—all while avoiding the very good Florida State rush—Clemson should be able to put points on the board.
Florida State's front seven is capable of controlling this game, namely if they put pressure on Boyd and shut down the running
On the Hotseat: Brent Venables, Clemson Defensive Coordinator
To be fair, it's way too early to say Venables is on the hot seat just three games into the season. Still, the seat might be getting a little warmer considering Venables was brought in to improve the Clemson defense and, well, they haven't been all that good just yet.
The team allowed a whopping 252 yards to Ball State two weeks ago, and surely the many weapons of Florida State will test the discipline of this Clemson unit, namely in the secondary.
With a talented Florida State defense to deal with, Clemson can't afford to try to simply outscore the Seminoles. If the defense doesn't step up, the Tigers aren't going to win, plain and simple.
Florida State's front seven, home field advantage and athletes on the offensive side of the ball will be too much for Clemson to overcome. The Tigers will keep it close until the end, but ultimately Florida State gets the win, 35-24.
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