CLEMSON, SC – Given that Clemson has never beaten a team ranked as high as No. 4 Florida State on its home field, Dabo Swinney knows Saturday night’s game in Tallahassee, FL, is a major opportunity for his No. 10 Tigers.
Swinney also knows, win or lose, the game won’t make or break the season.
“These guys aren’t isolated in a cave somewhere,” the Clemson coach said Tuesday during his news conference to preview the game. “They understand this is a huge game. But I think you’ve got to be careful… If you make this thing bigger than it is and go down there and win the game, what about Boston College the next week? What about Georgia Tech? We’re just a team trying to put a great season together.”
Still, there’s little doubt that beating the Seminoles (3-0) will be a giant leap in the right direction toward that goal, as each of the last three years the winner of this contest has gone on to represent the Atlantic Division in the ACC Championship.
And while Clemson (3-0) has won two of those three meetings – and six of the last nine in the series overall – Swinney knows few believe his team has much chance to win this week’s showdown.
“I know we’re a big underdog going down there, but I don’t know anybody other than Alabama and LSU who wouldn’t be,” he said. “Who wouldn’t be? This is the fourth-ranked team in the country playing at home.”
Florida State achieved that lofty ranking by outscoring its first three opponents by a combined 176-3, and not only ranks first nationally in scoring defense (1.0 point per game), but also second nationally in scoring offense (58.7).
And while the Seminoles’ offense has succeeded in breaking the half-century mark versus Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest, the defense is undoubtedly their headlining act, so to speak, and also what the Tigers consider their biggest challenge come Saturday.
“Their defensive line, it’s probably the best I’ve seen on film since I’ve been here,” Clemson senior center Dalton Freeman said. “Their defense as a whole is probably the best I’ve seen on film since I’ve been here, but their defensive line in particular has a lot of depth. There’s really not a lot of drop-off.
“Normally there’s a pretty significant change between the starter and the guy they bring in when he gets tired. But they rotate in about eight or nine guys, and they’re all pretty equal. It’s going to be a challenge for us, but we’re excited for it.”
Even with the loss of first-team All-ACC defensive end Brandon Jenkins to a season-ending injury, the Seminoles’ D-line has barely missed a beat. It has recorded 11 sacks on the season, 6.5 of those by junior Bjoern Werner, who leads the nation in that category.
“They have a great defensive line and a great defense,” Clemson junior guard Tyler Shatley said. “They’re really fast and work off their blocks well, and they just get to the ball. We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Florida State’s defensive talent isn’t limited to its front, however, as junior corner Xavier Rhodes leads a secondary that has prided itself on playing press coverage near the line of scrimmage and disrupting opposing passing attacks.
Of course, the Tigers have their own plans in that regard, as their receiving tandem of All-American Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, who is tied for sixth in the nation in receptions per game (8.67), hasn’t been successfully disrupted very often.
“I don’t care who’s guarding them, NFL players, Pro Bowl players, it doesn’t matter, if I’ve got a one-on-one matchup I’m going to take it every day of the week,” the Tigers junior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “And they look at it in that sense to. I feel like I’ve got the best receiving corps in country. All I’ve got to do is get them the ball. So it’s going to be fun.”
But even if few are expecting the Tigers to have very much fun at all Saturday night against that stout Seminole defense, Swinney knows there’s plenty of confidence where it counts – inside the Clemson locker room.
“We’re not a great football team right now,” he said. “If I was on the outside looking in, I’d probably pick them too. But I’m not on the outside. I’m on the inside. And I like where I’m at.”
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