Clemson is in the driver's seat this year. Some people don't like giving credence to the preseason rankings, but they mean a lot when it comes to BCS calculations. In years past, the Tigers have had to struggle just to get ranked, then dealt with a rankings free fall following a loss.
With a preseason rank at No. 14, the Tigers have some built-in goodwill with the voters. With that No. 14 rank, Clemson has been able to work its way up to No. 10 for the tilt against Florida State this Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium.
A road loss against the nation's top defense won't hurt the Tigers a ton unless it's a throttling, but a win could propel the team into BCS bowl talk.
Here are the five keys to the Tigers winning on Saturday:
1. Force FSU into Passing Situations
Last time the Tigers faced the Seminoles, they had the blessing of an E.J. Manuel injury. They won't be as lucky this time, as Manuel has looked strong and healthy thus far. Though E.J. has the 5-star pedigree and hype, his shortcomings have not been publicized much. While he's really good at handing the ball off to star back Chris Thompson and throwing the intermediate ball, he struggles with the longer throws.
Against a weak Wake Forest squad, Manuel completed 76 percent of his throws within 10 yards, but struggled to the tune of 40 percent on balls thrown over 10 yards (stats courtesy of ESPN's Todd McShay). How can the Tigers force FSU to have to throw deeper balls?
2. Generate Push Against FSU's Offensive Front
We're talking push that generates tackles for loss and sacks. The Tigers defense has struggled to move anyone off the block this year. Their opposing quarterbacks have dropped back 63 consecutive times without having a Tiger defender lay a paw on them. Things are going to have to change this week in order to force FSU into those 3rd-and-long situations.
Brent Venables, the Clemson defensive coordinator. is hopefully now starting to learn the weapons he has. Maybe it's time to stop waiting on Corey Crawford and Malicah Goodman to break through and instead draw up some corner blitzes or more complex attacks.
3. Stay Unpredictable on Offense
A balanced offensive attack is going to be key against a Florida State defense that has allowed only three points the entire season. The Tigers have plenty of playmakers, and spreading the touches will help keep the Seminoles defense guessing. Andre Ellington needs the ball. Even if the Tigers get behind seven or 10, the run needs to be an important part of their game.
Speedsters Sammy Watkins and Adam Humphries can also take the ball out of the backfield to add another layer to the offense. FSU DE Bjoern Werner has found himself in opponent backfields plenty on the young season with 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss. He's going to get through. When he does, Clemson has to make sure the ball isn't there.
4. Tajh Boyd Poise
This game is going to be tough for Tajh. There is going to be a ton of noise, and FSU defenders are going to be coming at him from every direction. In his second full year manning the helm, he has to make smart decisions: when to check down, when to audible out of the pass and when to throw out of bounds.
Clemson can't afford turnovers, so Tajh must take what the defense gives him. For someone who is usually against the old Rob Spence favorite receiver screen, quick plays like this are what's going to move the Tigers down field and ensure they don't get too liberal with the ball. Also, a receiver screen to Sammy Watkins is a lot different than a screen to Aaron Kelly.
5. Brent Venables
Clemson's first-year defensive coordinator has a history with FSU. He's played it the last two seasons, holding it to 13 and 17 points respectively, though with Oklahoma defenders. Three games into his Clemson career, he is starting to understand what he can and cannot accomplish with his personnel. He needs to take the successes he's had against the Seminoles and adapt a strategy that the Tiger defense can handle.
Venables knows E.J. Manuel needs to feel some pressure and also knows his team hasn't been supplying it, even against lackluster Furman and Ball State squads. By changing where the pressure comes from, hopefully, Venables and the Clemson D can "surprise" the FSU line into letting them by a few times.
Winning in Doak Campbell is no easy task, especially against this squad. FSU actually seems like it deserves most of its media hype this year. Clemson will have to stick to the keys above to emerge victorious and continue on what hopes to be a special season for this group.