Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well here it is, folks. The game we have all been anticipating with bated breath is finally nigh. It’s the ACC showdown that has decided the champion of the conference for the last 5 years and the winner of the Atlantic Division for the last 7 years. A couple of surprise losses for Florida State have slightly diminished the stakes and prevented the top-5 matchup most of us expected, but it is still an enormous game of national importance. With a two-game lead over the Noles and a head-to-head win over Louisville, the Tigers could lose this game and still win the ACC, but that is the furthest thing from any of our minds, as Clemson has aspirations for a return to the National Championship Game. And don’t think the Noles wouldn’t love to play the spoiler and deprive the Tigers of that opportunity in front of their home crowd! Doak-Campbell has been a tough place for anyone to win since the 80’s. The Tigers have beaten Florida State 7 times since Dabo joined the staff but only once in Tallahassee—back in 2006 with the help of two freshmen from the state of Florida named C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford. In fact, Florida State had the nation’s longest home win streak at 22 games until it was snapped earlier this season by a last-second UNC field goal. Thanks to that upset, Death Valley is now home to the nation’s longest home win streak. The Tigers should have easily left Tallahassee with a win in 2014, but a mistake-riddled game allowed the Seminoles to win in overtime and ultimately win the ACC Title. That was one of the first game experiences in Deshaun Watson’s career as a true freshman and one of his rare tastes of defeat. Watson has only lost one game in which he has started and finished, and that was the 5-point loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game. The Tigers might very well have won that 2014 game at FSU if he had started. This will be his last chance to win in Tallahassee, so you can bet that he wants this one!
This is also a Heisman showdown between two #4’s. Despite playing less than his best so far, Watson is still the second-favorite to win the Heisman according to Vegas, and let’s not forget he beat Lamar Jackson head-to-head, which counts for something. Dalvin Cook, the one-time Clemson commit, is currently 5th in the Heisman running. This will be an enormous stage under the national spotlight, so if Watson can put on a show like he did in the National Championship Game, you can bet he will close the gap with Jackson considerably. Louisville will not be in the spotlight at all again until the Houston game, and the relevance of that game is diminishing by the week after the Cougars suffered their second loss in blowout fashion at the hands of former Clemson Offensive Coordinator Chad Morris and SMU. Louisville’s last nationally televised game was on a Friday night against Duke, and Jackson had a mediocre game. Deshaun Watson is 25-1 in games he has started and finished—his lone loss coming in the National Championship Game by 5 points, a game in which he threw for over 400 yards! As exciting as Lamar Jackson has been to watch, Heisman voters remember November, and they will remember Watson’s performances on the big stage as well as his incredible win percentage.
The Tigers are coming off a bye following the heart-stopping overtime win over NC State. It was another mistake-riddled game that very much resembled the aforementioned 2014 game at FSU. The overriding difference, of course, being that the Tigers won this one in overtime. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that game. If you count the Tigers’ turnover on downs at the goal line, they gave the ball away 5 times—4 in the red zone, 3 inside the NC State 5-yard-line and a pick-six. That’s as potentially 35 points gift-wrapped for NC State, and the Tigers still managed to win. Alabama had 5 turnovers last year in a home night game against Ole Miss—not all of which impacted the scoreboard—and it was Bama’s only loss of the season en route to a national title. To me, there are two ways to look at the NC State game. You can take the perspective of the national media, looking only at the final score and the number of turnovers and say that Clemson is “struggling” like defending champs Ohio State last year or Florida State in 2014. Or you can consider it a triumph by a team with a remarkable will to win, overcoming the loss of Wayne Gallman on the opening drive and 5 turnovers for up to 35 points. Regardless of your interpretation, I think the win adds some mystique to this team and a sense that they could be a team of destiny. How many times have we seen the Yankees or Duke Basketball get “lucky” in critical moments on the way to championships? Certain teams just have a will and belief that they will win no matter what and seem to almost manufacture luck. Just about every year the eventual national champion gets a lucky break or two along the way—often they even lose a game—and we have already seen close calls for the Tigers against Auburn, Louisville and NC State. The Tigers are incredibly now 15-2 in their last 17 games decided by a touchdown or less! The only 2 losses are the 5-point loss to Alabama in the National Championship Game and, ironically, the aforementioned overtime loss at eventual playoff team Florida State, in which Watson didn’t start and the Tigers could have won by 20 if not for mistakes and turnovers. That is an unbelievable statistic, and it has to give you confidence that this team simply will not rattle and will find a way. Ideally, though, you’d like to see the Tigers stop shooting themselves in the foot and putting themselves in that position. If they hadn’t committed 5 turnovers against both Louisville and NC State, they blow out both teams and the narrative for Clemson is completely different. There would be many claiming Clemson is on the same level as Alabama if that were the case. The Tigers had no turnovers at Boston College a few weeks ago and won 56-10, so hopefully after a bye week and getting back to the fundamentals they will be able to play mistake free again in Tallahassee. Incidentally, that pick-six by Deshaun Watson against NC State was the first one he has ever thrown….in his life! For a detailed analysis of the NC State game, you can read my grades HERE.
A quick note on recruiting. Gary will have a list of confirmed visitors for the big game published by Friday evening. Obviously, the Tigers and Noles recruit a lot of the same players, so there will be a few Clemson targets in the stands to watch the primetime showdown. I asked Dabo about the significance of this game from a recruiting standpoint, and he downplayed it, saying that recruits choose Clemson because of the consistency of the program—not just one game. While that is certainly the case, I don’t think you can deny the influence that beating Florida State and Miami had on piquing the curiosity and interest of big-time Florida stars like C.J. Spiller and Sammy Watkins. And I would argue that beating FSU and Miami in the state of Florida has an even bigger impact. Perhaps Clemson has reached the level of national prominence that the incremental benefit is more marginal, but beating FSU in Tallahassee could only help the Tigers’ reputation in recruiting hot bed that is the state of Florida. As always, be sure to check our Recruiting Radar Screen forum daily for the latest recruiting updates and look for Gary’s Recruiting Radar every Monday for the best intel on the Clemson recruiting front!
On to the Florida State game…..
FSU leads the all-time series 20-9 that dates back to 1970….Clemson leads 7-6 in the last 13 games but has not won in Tallahassee since 2006….In 2003, Clemson beat #3 FSU, which is tied for the highest-ranked win in program history. The Tigers enter the game ranked #3 in both polls….Clemson and Florida State are tied for the second most wins since 2011 at 63 apiece. Only Alabama has more, with 70....Sophomore Clemson TE Garrett Williams is the son of Dayne Williams, who played for FSU and was involved in the infamous “puntrooskie” play that enabled the Seminoles to come from behind and beat Clemson in Death Valley in 1988. Williams took the snap and put the ball between the legs of Leroy Butler, who ran down the sideline for a first down, setting up the winning score….Clemson administrator and former coach Brad Scott was Offensive Coordinator on Florida State’s 1993 National Championship team. He was on the FSU sideline during the aforementioned puntrooskie play. Brad’s son Jeff, Clemson Co-Offensive Coordinator, grew up in Tallahassee and spent much of his youth on what is now called Bobby Bowden Field….Former Clemson Head Coach Hootie Ingram, who is credited with adopting the Tiger Paw as the Clemson logo, was the FSU Athletic Director in the 1980’s….Dabo Swinney is 16-17 as a head coach versus ranked opponents. He will be .500 with a win over FSU on Saturday. Dabo is already second in Clemson history for wins over ranked teams. Danny Ford is first with 20 such wins. Tommy Bowden had 13 such wins….Clemson has led the nation in tackles-for-loss each of the last 3 seasons, and Clemson’s total in each of the last 3 seasons was more than the 2012 national leader….Clemson is #3 in strength of schedule behind Tennessee and Oregon State. Clemson opponents are 24-8 this season. Clemson is the only undefeated team in the top-10 in terms of opponents' win percentage...Dabo Swinney is currently 7th on the active win percentage list at .752, just behind Nick Saban (.767). Jimbo Fisher is 3rd at .820.....Clemson has the longest active streak in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 17 weeks. Alabama is 2nd at 15 weeks....Wayne Gallman needs just one more 100-yard game to set the Clemson career record, breaking the tie with Raymond Priester....With the overtime win over NC State, Clemson is now 7-6 all-time in overtime games....
After talking to the coaches and players for the last two weeks, I get the sense that they understand how fortunate they were to survive that scare on Homecoming and to have been given a new lease on life. I think the players realize that they can’t afford to keep making mistakes and committing turnovers—even against lesser opponents—if they are going to achieve their objective. When I asked Dabo what was going through his mind after seeing NC State’s kicker drill the field goal after Dabo’s timeout, he said he didn’t even watch the second kick. He just watched the fans and their reaction. Without question, those are the types of games that test a team’s metal and resolve, and the experience can benefit the team later in the season. However, the Tigers have been playing a dangerous game, tempting fate and flirting with disaster. In a way, perhaps the utter confidence in their ability to overcome turnovers is a double-edge sword. I wonder if they would be just a little more obsessive about protecting the football if they didn’t have that confidence in the backs of their minds. In fact, this tendency actually goes back to last season, when the Tigers amazingly won 8 games in which they were minus two in the turnover battle. That is practically unheard of. It’s also unheard of to beat a team as good as Louisville despite turning it over 5 times. If the Tigers can eliminate this habit, they will enter the College Football Playoff with a perfect 13-0 record just like last season, barring injuries. It’s as simple as that.
Perhaps the turnovers and dropped touchdowns will prove to be a blessing in disguise. To the national media, they have obscured the fact that the Tigers are even better offensively than they were last year. I checked my math twice, and the Tigers have 62 more yards of offense than they did through 7 games last season. They are only 13 points short of last season’s mark, which included a 58-0 blowout over Miami, and they would easily have eclipsed that mark by 30 or more points if not for all the drops and turnovers. Watson has also missed several throws that he routinely made last season and would have resulted in touchdowns. He has not been bad by any means, but if he sharpens his game to the level at which he played in the second half of last season, look out. After throwing the first pick-six in his life against NC State, he proceeded to complete 14 consecutive passes and was an outstanding 39-52 for the game. Watson also rushed for his first touchdown of the season. If there’s one good thing that could come out of all the sloppiness on offense, it’s that it has given the team reason to improve and has kept the entire free world from calling this team unstoppable. Confidence combined with humility is a great recipe for success.
Obviously, the biggest concern over the last couple weeks has been the status of the Wayne Train. He appears to be fine after going through the concussion protocol and has been practicing full-speed. Gallman said that he couldn’t remember the moment in which he was hit in the head, and that’s never happened to him before, so obviously it was quite an ordeal for him. However, he is such a tough competitor that he was literally begging Dabo to put him in the game during the second half of the game, even after he was in street clothes. Through 7 games (6 if you discount NC State), Gallman has rushed for only 489 yards, but he’s averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry. Teams have been lining up to stop the Tigers’ running game, and that has affected Gallman’s rushing total—particularly early in the season. The offensive line also seems to be doing a better job finishing blocks and creating running lanes than they were early on. Jake Fruhmorgen has struggled at times, but the true sophomore right tackle played his best game against NC State. The temporary loss of Gallman was a somewhat alarming indication of what he means to the offense. The Tigers were unable to run the ball effectively against the Wolfpack with Choice, Fuller and Dye. Many, including myself, were expecting the coaches to give Feaster an opportunity—especially after Choice and Fuller were stoned on consecutive third-and-short plays. The coaches were close to playing him but ultimately decided against it because of his inexperience in pass protection and the sheer pressure of the situation. That is certainly understandable—especially given the turnovers by the Tigers—but I would have liked to see him get a shot late in the 2nd quarter or early 3rd quarter when the game wasn’t yet on the line, just to see what he could do. He had a nice 45-yard run at Boston College, and a confidence-builder like that can make a huge difference for a young player. Let’s just hope that Gallman doesn’t suffer any more injuries so they can bring Feaster along gradually like they plan to.
In the passing game, what a comfort it is to have Hunter Renfrow back! His reliable hands bring a different comfort level to this offense, and he picked up right where he left off against NC State. When it seemed like no one else on the offense could hang onto the ball, #13 didn’t drop anything even with a brace on his hand. Renfrow is listed as a backup behind Ray-Ray on the depth chart, but he will see plenty of action in Tallahassee. Mike Williams has caught a touchdown in each of the last 4 games. Deon Cain has 6 TD's on the season but didn't have one against NC State after catching 2 TD's in back-to-back games against Louisville and Boston College. The Tigers' passing offense is now ranked #18 at 305 yards per game and climbing the ranks steadily.
Defensively, the Tigers have exceeded preseason expectations, just as they did last year. This is becoming a common theme with Brent Venables. Despite losing several starters to the NFL again, you could argue the Tigers’ defense is even better than last year’s top-10 unit. They held GT to 124 total yards and 7 points, held BC to 10 points and Auburn to 13 points—all on the road. They held Louisville to 10 points in the first half and only 36 points for the game despite 5 turnovers by the offense and playing 99 snaps. They held NC State to just 10 points despite 4 turnovers by the offense. The biggest improvement on defense is in the big play department. The Tigers are currently tied for #7 in plays of 20 yards or more allowed. They are tied for #2 in plays of 30 yards or more. Last season, they were #102 and #90, respectively, and it was the primary reason they didn’t finish 15-0 with a national title. A big reason for the improvement has been the secondary, which has been outstanding despite the loss of 3 underclassman starters. Dabo called Jadar Johnson the MVP of the defense so far. He leads the team with 3 interceptions—no one else has more than one—and the second of his seven career interceptions came in Tallahassee, despite playing only 12 snaps in that game. Van Smith and Cordrea Tankersley have been stellar as well, and post-spring starter Marcus Edmond has battled back from injury to make two game-saving defensive plays in back-to-back home games. True freshmen K’Von Wallace and Trayvon Mullen have also contributed—Wallace recorded his first interception against NC State—and Ryan Carter had perhaps his best game in his start against the Wolfpack. It’s amazing how well the secondary has played with so much inexperience and would-be starter Adrian Baker recovering from a torn ACL back in the spring. Baker, by the way, has been practicing with the scout team and is very close to making his return. That will only help the depth later in the season. The Clemson pass defense is ranked #7, allowing just 166 yards per game. The Tigers are #8 in total defense (298.6 yards/game), #9 in scoring defense (15.3 points/game), #10 in 3rd down defense (28.8%) and #13 in red zone defense (69.6%). They are only #34 in rush defense, however, having played against some pretty good runners in Lamar Jackson and Matt Dayes.
Special teams have also been a pleasant surprise at the halfway point of the season. The Tigers have gone from #115 in kickoff coverage last season to #2 in the nation, allowing just 15.44 yards per return! If the Tigers had this coverage unit last January, they win a national title. As frustrating as that is, it says a lot for this coaching staff that the two biggest weaknesses on the team last year—big plays allowed and kickoff coverage—have turned into two of the biggest strengths the very next season. Huegel has done a great job on his kickoffs, getting a lot more touchbacks than we saw last season. Huegel is also 8-10 on field goals, and one of the misses was blocked. Teasdall has been solid with his punts all season long. The one concern with special teams is Ray-Ray’s recent troubles with dropped punts. He’s had 3 or 4 in the last few games, including one against NC State that he recovered. He did not recover his drop on the first punt at Boston College, and it set BC up inside the 10-yard-line. Fortunately, the defense held them to a field goal, and the game was a blowout, but the Tigers might not be so lucky if the same thing happens in Tallahassee. If Ray-Ray does nothing else on Saturday night, he needs to soundly catch every punt! The biggest problem with his technique has been misjudging the punts and catching them on the retreat. He needs to err on the side of compensation and catch everything going forward. Part of it has to be psychological at this point, however, and I know he’s been working hard on punts in practice. Dabo told me he’s going to continue to roll with Ray-Ray on punts.
Finally, what can you say about Christian “Slash” Wilkins? He’s the Tigers’ renaissance man and has already caught a touchdown, run for a first down on a fake punt short snap, blocked for a rushing touchdown and blocked a field goal. All of this while playing seamlessly at defensive end all season in place of the injured Austin Bryant! There is very little Wilkins can’t do on a football field, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him throw a pass at some point. ESPN recently listed the true sophomore as the #16 player in the nation after he was virtually forgotten by the national media and watch lists in the preseason. I asked him how excited he is about playing in Tallahassee for the first time, and I could tell he was chomping at the bit. Speaking of which, several Tigers will be making a homecoming to the state of Florida, including Jordan Leggett and Artavis Scott. In addition, it will be the first time playing in Tallahassee for Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and Jake Fruhmorgen. Cain was benched for the game at Miami last season and, of course, missed the Orange Bowl as well, so this will be his first game back in the state of Florida. Ray-Ray had 4 catches in the Miami game last season. Fruhmorgen grew up a Florida State fan, so he is fired up for this game! Tigers from the state of Florida are as follows:
TE Jordan Leggett
WR Artavis Scott
WR Deon Cain
WR Ray-Ray McCloud
OT Jake Fruhmorgen
DE Richard Yeargin
CB Trayvon Mullen
CB Adrian Baker (will not play)
TE Garrett Williams
WR T.J. Chase
QB Tucker Israel
From a health standpoint, the Tigers are in good shape. As mentioned, Gallman and Renfrow are both fine. Jalen Williams is back from his hamstring injury, and Tremayne Anchrum should be able to play, back from a high-ankle sprain. I asked Dabo if Austin Bryant is close to pre-injury form, and he said he’s real close. It would be great to see him have an impact on the game Saturday night! Adrian Baker is getting very close to making his return but will not play on Saturday.
FLORIDA STATE SYNOPSIS
Like Clemson, Florida State is rested after a bye week. For the Noles, it all starts with their Heisman hopeful who also wears #4, Dalvin Cook. He has performed much better since Louisville shut him down for only 54 yards and 3.4 yards per carry. It was probably the worst game in his career, and he followed it with 267 yards on 10 yards per carry and 2 touchdowns against USF. He hasn’t let up since then. Cook already has 900 yards on the season (almost twice Gallman’s total) with 7 touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. He also has 21 catches for 356 yards and a touchdown. You can expect Fisher to throw to Cook out of the backfield at least a few times on Saturday night. Cook has the best career rushing yards per game average in ACC history at 112.5 per game, and the one-time Clemson commit had a huge game against the Tigers last year in Death Valley. He had a 75-yard touchdown run on the Noles’ second play from scrimmage and finished with 194 yards and 9.2 yards per carry. That is disconcerting, given that the Tigers had trouble stopping NC State RB Matt Dayes in the second half. Despite the huge game from Cook last season, the Tigers were able to hold the Noles to just 13 points, but I don’t think they can afford to let him run for 200 yards again at home. In my humble opinion, the solution is as simplistic as it sounds: crowd the line of scrimmage to bottle up Cook and force freshman Deondre Francois to beat you with his arm.
Francois was on the national stage against Ole Miss in their season opener and played well in the second half, but this will be the best defense he has seen, and you can expect Venables to try to rattle and confuse him with multiple looks and exotic blitzes. On the season, Francois has completed 62.4% of his passes for 1,876 yards, 10 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He’s been sacked 19 times. In their 17-6 home win against Wake Forest two weeks ago, Francois was 22-37 for 319 yards with one TD and one INT. Francois has rushed for 3 touchdowns this season, but he is not a running threat with only 144 yards on 2.1 yards per carry.
FSU has some weapons at wideout. 6’2, 192-pound junior Travis Rudolph leads the team with 32 catches for 497 yards and 3 touchdowns. Auden Tate is a 6’5, 225-pound sophomore from Irmo, just outside of Columbia, who has 4 touchdowns in just 8 receptions on the season. He scored the Noles’ only two touchdowns in the Louisville game and caught the only touchdown thrown by Francois in their last game against Wake. I’m sure he can’t wait to make a play against the Tigers. 5’10, 184-pound senior speedster Bobo Wilson has 30 catches for 390 yards on the season and went over 100 yards in both the Ole Miss and UNC games.
You’ll see RB Jacques Patrick at some point in the game. He is a very capable backup to Cook, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, which is better than Cook’s average. He has 3 touchdowns this season.
Defensively, the biggest threat without a doubt is DeMarcus Walker. He is second in the nation with 8.5 sacks and took over the Ole Miss game in the second half. He was my preseason vote for ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and he’s well on his way to winning that honor. Walker has forced 7 fumbles in the last 2 seasons, including 3 already this season. Walker has just 10 tackles-for-loss, however, including the sacks, so he is a pass-rush specialist. The Noles suffered a massive loss when All-American safety candidate Derwin James injured his knee in the Charleston Southern game. That was the game preceding Louisville, and many partially attribute the blowout loss to the absence of James as a play-maker and leader. There has been wide speculation on whether James will be available for Saturday’s game, and Fisher did not reveal his status one way or another, but I would intuit that he will not play. Even if he does make a return, you’d have to wonder how well he’d be able to perform after missing so much time—especially against this Clemson offense. Since the embarrassing loss at Louisville, the Florida State has slowly improved. They allowed 35 points against USF, 37 points at home against UNC, 19 points at Miami and 6 points at home against Wake. Keep in mind, however, that Wake’s offense is atrocious and Miami’s offense struggled against Virginia Tech, allowing 8 sacks in that game. It was reported that Jimbo Fisher asked Derwin James what he thought was wrong with the defense, and his reply was that they lacked heart. This will be the toughest offense FSU has faced since it was torched for 63 points by Louisville. The home night crowd and Tomahawk Chop should give them some extra juice, but this has not been the FSU defense to which we’re so well accustomed.
Finally, Florida State is sound in special teams. They cloned Roberto Aguayo—perhaps the greatest college kicker of all time—but his brother Ricky appears to be human. The freshman is only a modest 14-19 (73.7%) on field goals this season, with all the misses coming from 40 yards and deeper. That would be more than acceptable for most programs, but FSU is used to 90-100% over the last few years. They have seemingly had the best kicker in the nation for the last 30 years. Bobo Wilson is a dangerous punt returner, averaging 17.2 yards per return.
INJURY UPDATE: WR Bobo Wilson will miss Saturday's game with an injured foot. He was a consistent contributor in the passing game and a weapon on punt returns, so this could be a significant loss. Also, starting safety Nate Andrews suffered a torn pectoral in the Miami win and is out for the season. That means FSU is playing minus both of their starting safeties from the start of the season.
This is a tough one to predict as far as the score goes. The Tigers have been as inconsistent (from a turnover and scoring standpoint) as the Noles have been on defense. Both teams are coming off byes, so I hope that means we will see a clean, mistake-free and penalty-free game, but that’s impossible to predict. I will say that I believe the Noles have a little more life and bounce in their step after the missed PAT to beat Miami and the win—albeit close—over Wake. Make no mistake. Florida State still has a lot of pride, and you can bet they are taking this game as seriously as any on their schedule, including Miami and Florida. They would just love to ruin Clemson’s perfect season and national title hopes—even if they can’t win the ACC themselves. Even though they have struggled this season, they still have arguably the best running back in the nation and it’s still Doak Campbell at night.
That being said, I think Venables will have a game plan for limiting Dalvin Cook and forcing Francois out of his comfort zone. The Tigers have had two weeks to get back to basics and eliminate the mistakes. Wayne Gallman is back. Hunter Renfrow is back. The boys are sick and tired of hearing from everyone that they aren’t as good as last year. This team has won 24 of its last 25 games, folks, with only a 5-point loss to Alabama preventing the nation’s longest win streak. The Tigers have won 8 straight road games and 12 straight ACC games. Make that 13. Clemson exerts its will in Tallahassee and reinforces the changing of the guard at the top of the ACC. The Tigers were named the #1 team in the nation during the regular season for the first time ever last year in the first CFP rankings, which preceded the FSU game. This time, the first rankings are released following the FSU game, and the Tigers may not be #1, but you can bet they will be #2 with a big nationally-televised primetime road win at #12 Florida State!
The Prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16, a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff and a second National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 38 Florida State 20