Saturday, the bright lights will be on the ACC, and while folks watch to see Tajh Boyd put on a show to help his Heisman campaign, the Clemson Tigers defense will be tasked with some heavy lifting. Jameis Winston and the fifth-ranked Seminoles bring a potent offense into Tiger Town for this Top Five contest.
Defensively, the Tigers have taken a big step forward from 2012, coordinator Brent Venables' first season in Pickens County. Defensive end Vic Beasley is an emerging star. The defense leads the nation in tackles for loss, ranks second in total sacks, tops in sacks-per-game and is Top 10 in scoring and Top 20 in total defense, per CFB Stats.
Year 2 is where defenses show the most growth in a new scheme. Players grow from athletes on the field just trying to get lined up and get to the right landmarks to athletes who understand how the pieces of the defensive puzzle fit together.
That comprehension allows Venables to dial up more pressures and use more stunts without running the risk of his pass-defenders busting in coverage or blowing assignments. Here you see the Tigers line up and get a four-man rush, using a T-E stunt.
It is a simple stunt and only provides light pressure on Aaron Murray. However, because the defense understands how to read the keys and play behind the stunt, the Tigers get multiple bodies out to the quick pass Murray tosses.
Here in the run game, you see Venables dial up a blitz. The coordinator brings pressure from linebacker Spencer Shuey while dropping defensive end Corey Crawford into flat coverage.
Shuey gets penetration, uses proper hammer technique to stone fullback Quayvon Hicks, turning Keith Marshall's run inside to the filling defenders. After defeating Hicks' block, Shuey joins fellow linebacker Stephone Anthony in making the tackle.
That play is Clemson defense, folks. They want to create problems at the line of scrimmage, get playmakers like Beasley, Crawford and Shaq Lawson on the opponent's side of the field and let Shuey and Anthony clean up the mess.
For Florida State, the discussion is about Jameis Winston, the star redshirt freshman quarterback. Winston has inserted himself into the Heisman discussion with a 17-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 73.2 completion percentage. The two-sport athlete has proven that he is one of the most advanced redshirt freshman the nation has seen to date.
This is Winston's first major test as a Seminole. He is on the road, in a hostile environment, in a nationally televised night game, against a Top Five team and facing a defense that is going to try to confuse him with different fronts.
With that in mind, Winston has to be smart with the football. The freshman has excelled with ball placement, putting it where only his receivers can catch it. Against Clemson, under duress and against a ball-hawking defense, avoiding questionable throws will be paramount.
In addition to hitting his spots with the football, that also means Winston has to be safe with the ball. Beasley and the Tigers defense will be coming after the football, and for Winston that means tucking the ball away when he scrambles and throwing it away to avoid costly sacks. Turnovers are a major part of Clemson's defensive success, and protecting the football against an active Tigers defense must be Winston's job-one.
The plus for Winston is that center Bryan Stork is expected to return to help the redshirt freshman navigate the shifting fronts. Stork has seen a lot of defensive fronts and should help get the offensive line, and Winston, into the proper protections.
Stork is also going to help anchor another very critical element of the Seminoles' attack: the run game. Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr and Karlos Williams should be difference makers in a game where so much focus is placed on the quarterbacks. All three are high-quality ball-carriers that should give Clemson's defense fits.
Freeman is a polished runner who has tremendous vision and enough to shake to be a problem every play. Wilder is a violent runner that punishes defenses and makes tackling no fun. Williams is a converted defensive back, new to the position, who brings a lot of talent and tools to the table.
Even as Clemson has improved on defense, that run by Syracuse's Jerome Smith exhibits something the Tigers continue to struggle with: getting off blocks. When the offensive line gets hat-on-hat and linemen push to the second level, Clemson's players struggle disengaging from blocks and making the tackle.
Georgia and Todd Gurley proved this point in the first game, as Gurley got loose for 75 yards on that play, and 154 yards total. Gurley and Smith both exploded as the Tigers failed to defeat a block and make a play. Clemson's game against North Carolina State saw Shadrick Thornton expose the same issue.
While folks, like at USA Today, focus on the Heisman chances and the quarterback duel, Florida State's rushing attack will likely be the deciding factor in this ball game. Should Clemson find a way to shut down the rushing attack, the Tigers will be well on the way to a victory. However, if Florida State's three-headed monster finds success on the ground, the Seminoles will be the ones who emerge victorious.