WHERE: Doak Campbell Stadium (82,300) - Tallahassee, Fla.
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 22 (8:12 p.m.)
SPREAD: Clemson +14.5
In perhaps what could be the biggest ACC game of this century, Clemson and Florida State are set to do battle, like they've done each season since the Seminoles joined the conference in 1992.
Florida State leads the all-time series 17-8, which includes a 10-3 home record and a 9-1 mark in the last games in Tallahassee.
Clemson won last year's showdown, 35-30. A year earlier, in Tallahassee, Florida State won, 16-13, on a 55-yard field goal as time expired.
Saturday marks the eighth time in the history of the series that the two schools have entered the game in the AP top-25. In 2000, the only time both were in the top-10, Florida State won easily, 54-7.
Dabo Swinney is 32-19 as the head coach at Clemson, with a 2-2 record against Florida State. Jimbo Fisher is 1-1 against Clemson but is 22-8 overall.
FSU PASS RUSH/SECONDARY VS. CLEMSON PASS ATTACK
Tajh Boyd hit the Seminoles up for 344 yards and three touchdowns through the air during last season's showdown in Death Valley. Florida State had just one other game that season in which their opponent connected on multiple touchdowns through the air -- Wake Forest.
Duke, Maryland, Miami and Virginia also broke the 225-yard passing mark against Florida State in 2011. Like the Tigers, the Demon Deacons and Cavs also beat the Seminoles.
Sammy Watkins torched the Florida State secondary last year with eight catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. (Roy Philpott)
On Saturday, Xavier Rhodes is expected to spend most of his evening matched up with DeAndre Hopkins, not Sammy Watkins. Rhodes plays the boundary cornerback spot and Watkins, for the most part, lines up to the field side of the ball.
Rhodes, who may be one of the top cornerback prospects in next year's NFL Draft, checks in at 6-foot-2, 209 pounds. A third-year starter, Rhodes was named to the preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy and Thorpe Award. The 2010 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year is tied for second in the conference with five passes defended this season.
Needless to say, it's an intriguing matchup with Hopkins, who leads Clemson with 26 catches for 319 yards and four touchdowns. Covering Watkins will be another highly talented cornerback in Nick Waisome.
The Seminoles have a pair of safeties who could play cornerback for a number of teams in the country. LaMarcus Joyner may be small [5-8, 195], but he packs some punch. An All-ACC second-team performer in 2011, he was fourth among all Florida State defenders with 54 tackles. He was also first on the team with four interceptions.
Reserve defensive backs Tyler Hunter and Karlos Williams will help keep tabs on Clemson's skill players.
Where this matchup breaks down for Clemson is up front. The Florida State pass rush combination of Cornellius Carradine and Bjoern Werner could be in the Clemson backfield early and often.
The Tigers allowed four sacks to Auburn in the season opener. That figure would have been more if it wasn't for Boyd's awareness and improved mobility.
Florida State's pass rush is better than Auburn's, plus this is a road game for Clemson, not a neutral site. The Seminoles' pass rush gives them the edge in this matchup.
FSU FRONT SEVEN VS. CLEMSON RUN GAME
Along the inside, the Seminoles boast one of the nation's deepest, most talented collection of defensive tackles. Seniors Anthony McCloud and Everett Dawkins start ahead of a talented set of underclassmen. One day, in the not too distant future, sophomore Timmy Jernigan and freshman Eddie Goldman will combine to make up one of the nation's top defensive tackle duos.
Florida State has allowed an average of 33.7 yards rushing per game. Sure, the Murray State and Savannah State games may skew the numbers, but Wake Forest managed to rush 43 times for 35 yards. Take out the sack numbers [four for a loss of 26 yards] and the Demon Deacons rushed 39 times for 61 yards. More than half of that rushing total was on a 34-yard run.
DT Timmy Jernigan is one of numerous NFL prospects stacked across the Florida State front four. (Getty Images)
Andre Ellington may be the leading rusher at Clemson with 328 yards and 6.2 yards per carry, but he may not be the biggest key for the Tigers in this matchup. Sure, he'll need an Auburn-like performance to keep Clemson in the game, but it's Boyd who could have the biggest impact.
Boyd was able to keep the chains moving in the right direction against Auburn because of his awareness and mobility. He must be able to make plays with his feet when things break down around him. Though there was a time when Boyd wasn't much of a runner, he's improved that aspect of his game tremendously.
This season, Boyd is second among Clemson rushers with 75 yards. If you don't include the 21 yards lost because of sacks, he's rushed 23 times for 96 yards.
The amount of press-man coverage by Florida State could also determine how successful Boyd is running the ball.
Florida State gets the edge here, but Chad Morris could make things interesting with misdirection runs and zone read plays, assuming Boyd will be a willing runner.
CLEMSON PASS RUSH/SECONDARY VS. FSU PASS ATTACK
Brent Venables didn't hold back this week when talking about his secondary. Really, he hasn't held back since his arrival. Paraphrasing the first-year coordinator: the depth stinks and there are times when the starters have struggled to play well.
Not a good combination when matching up with a very talented group of wide receivers that includes Rashad Greene, Rodney Smith and Kelvin Benjamin. The problem, for Florida State, the guy throwing them the ball hasn't exactly been the most consistent passer.
E.J. Manuel is outstanding athlete who has settled down in Jimbo Fisher's offense. (Getty Images)
Smith's also had plenty of success against Clemson. He had a career-high 121 yards receiving against the Tigers in 2010. His longest career catch was a 57-yard score in 2011. He finished last year's game with four catches for a team-high 118 yards.
Benjamin, a redshirt freshman, drew plenty of praise during the preseason. The 6-foot-6, 238-pounder had a pair of touchdown catches against Savannah State. He's tied with Kenny Shaw for a team-best 10 receptions.
Manuel has completed 42 of 59 passes for 525 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. His efficiency rating of 176.1 is second-highest in the ACC.
But we're still skeptical he's got the goods to be an efficient passer against better quality opponents.
The question for Clemson is: Just how quality are the Tigers on defense?
So far, the group has struggled, as a whole.
If there is a strength to the Clemson defense it would be the pass defense. Though the group has a pass efficiency rating of 104.55 [23rd nationally], the Tigers haven't exactly played against top flight passing attacks.
The lack of a pass rush remains a concern as Clemson has just three this season. Their sack-a-game average is tied for 99th in the country. Against opponents like Ball State and Furman, one would think that the figure should be higher.
Of the three sacks, the only one recorded by a defensive end is the one Victor Beasley had on the next to last play of the Auburn game. DeShawn Williams and Jonathan Willard have the other two.
Given the lack of hard evidence that Manuel is ready to evolve into a quality thrower, it's hard to give Florida State the edge. Hence, it's a slight nod goes to Clemson, despite to the low sack total. Here's thinking that Florida State will take more chances downfield and leave fewer blockers than Ball State and Furman did for their quarterbacks.
CLEMSON FRONT SEVEN VS. FSU RUN GAME
To say Florida State struggled to run the ball last season would be an understatement. The Seminoles finished 104th in the country with an average of 112.2 yards on ground. Devonta Freeman, who led the team with 579 yards on the ground, was 16th in the ACC.
Through three games, the Seminoles rushing attack appears to be moving in the right direction. But, again, two of the first three contests of the 2012 season weren't exactly good games to gauge improvement.
Chris Thompson leads Florida State's ground attack with 254 yards through three games. (Getty Images)
Florida State will run a lot of zone stretch plays to the running backs while mixing in some option game with Manuel, who's rushed for over 500 yards during his career. Against Clemson in 2010, Manuel rushed for a career-best 71 yards with the majority of those yards coming on FSU's lone touchdown drive of the game.
But this is a much different looking defensive scheme at Clemson. First-year coordinator Brent Venables employs a zone-principled scheme. The previous marriage to press-man coverage may have been a contributing factor to Clemson consistently being burned by running/scrambling quarterbacks. However, Manuel rushed eight times for 49 yards against Oklahoma last season.
Running quarterback or not, opponents have managed to put ground numbers against the Clemson defense this season.
Auburn ran for 180 yards and Ball State put up 252. Had Auburn not totally abandoned the run game while in the red zone, Clemson could be 2-1, not 3-0.
Before Clemson can give the nod to the Clemson run defense, they'll have to show up against an equal or better opponent.
Here's guessing that neither Clemson nor Florida State wants to kickoff to the opposing team's return man.
Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro has connected on 14 straight field goals. (Roy Philpott)
The same could probably be said for the punts. Clemson won't want Greene to improve upon his 11 returns for 216 yards and two scores. Though Watkins hasn't returned a punt this season, Florida State probably doesn't want him to give him a crack at return No. 1.
The two teams also have two of the nation's top kickers in Hopkins and Chandler Catanzaro. Though Hopkins gets the nod when it comes to leg strength, Catanzaro is one of the most accurate kickers in ACC history.
Catanzaro has made 14-straight kicks, dating back to last season. That's tied for the longest streak in Clemson history.
If there's a touchdown, a touchback won't be far behind. Because of that, it's too tough to point this matchup in one direction or the other.
PREDICTION: Florida State 33 Clemson 23