The final breakdown

CLEMSON - The Tigers have been here before ... can they finally win the big game with a potential division championship on the line?

Florida State Passing Game vs. Clemson Secondary
This is the matchup that's had everyone talking since last Saturday night. How will Christian Ponder stack up against the Clemson defensive backs?

Clemson has the fifth best pass defense in the nation right now, giving up just 146 yards through the air per game while Florida State has the ninth best passing offense in the nation, averaging 307 yards per game.

Though Ponder's rib contusion may limit his production on the ground, it could even limit his abilities as a passer. The battle, which we think is the most important in deciding who's going to win, starts with Ponder and Clemson strong safety DeAndre McDaniel.


What helps account for Christian Ponder's efficiency is Florida State's scheme to get its receivers with the ball in space on quick hits- that could also have a huge impact on Clemson's blitz packages. (Getty Images)
Since moving back to his natural position this season, McDaniel has made quite the name for himself as a ball hawking safety. He's tied for the national lead with seven interceptions. Safety Rashard Hall isn't far behind with four. He's tied for 10th place nationally among 14 others.

Ponder is the 13th best quarterback in the nation, in terms of passing efficiency. He completes nearly 70 percent of his passes. His most reliable receiver, Bert Reed, has only started one game for the Seminoles. He's one of five Florida State receivers with at least 25 catches this season.

What helps account for Ponder's efficiency is Florida State's scheme to get its receivers with the ball in space on quick hits- that could also have a huge impact on Clemson's blitz packages. Rod Owens leads the team with three touchdown receptions. Jarmon Fortson is the biggest of the Florida State receivers at 6-3. It will be interesting to see if Jimbo Fisher tries to get Fortson matched up on Chris Chancellor, who, at times, has struggled vertically against bigger receivers.

Clemson corner Crezdon Butler has seen few passes thrown his way this season. He finally got one he could get both hands on last week and recorded his first interception of the season against Coastal Carolina, nearly taking it to the house.

Clemson should be able to match up well with the Florida State receivers. As good of tacklers as McDaniel, Hall and Marcus Gilchrist have been this season (all three are among the top five tacklers on the team), the Seminoles best shot at having success in this matchup will come down field--much like Miami was able to do.

ADVANTAGE:

Florida State Offensive Line vs. Clemson Defensive Line
The chess match in the trenches between Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett and Clemson defensive tackle coach Dan Brooks/defensive end coach Chris Rumph is intriguing enough in itself.

For those fans who like to pay attention to the slugfest along the line of scrimmage, this is one they'll be watching closely.

Keeping the pass rush of Ricky Sapp, Malliciah Goodman and the rest of the Clemson defensive front out of Ponder's face the next matchup that will dictate the outcome of Saturday's game.


Freshman Malliciah Goodman will get the start in place of the injured Da'Quan Bowers on Clemson's defensive line. (Kevin Bray)
Fortunately for Seminole fans, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers is expected to miss the game because of a PCL/MCL sprain. Bowers is second on the team with three sacks. The team's best pass rusher--Sapp--has four. We think Goodman is more of a pure pass rusher than Bowers is, so there may not be a whole lot of drop off there.

Clemson averages 2.75 sacks per game and Florida State allows 1.75.

Left tackle Andrew Datko was a Freshman All-America last year and center Ryan McMahon was named a candidate for the Rimington Trophy. He was also honorable mention All-ACC last season. Left guard Rodney Hudson has started since he was a freshman in 2007. He was named First-Team All-ACC last season, and is an All-America candidate this season.

Right guard Michael Spurlock was one of the most highly graded players on the Seminole line last year as a true freshman. To his right is tackle Zebrie Sanders, who started 11 games as a true freshman a year ago.

As stout as the Seminole offensive line has been this year, none of the five starters weigh over 290. The way Brooks and Rumph like to rotate their personnel; it could start to wear down the Florida State offensive line in the later portions of Saturday night's game. Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson are among the best interior defensive linemen in the ACC. It'll be interesting to see how well they can perform against some of the best interior offensive linemen in the conference.

If Clemson is going to have an effective pass rush, it all starts here. It's a tough one to call. The ACC's best defensive line vs. the ACC's best offensive line.

ADVANTAGE:

Clemson Running Backs vs. Florida State Linebackers
Simply put, C.J. Spiller and Dekoda Watson are two of the best players, for their respective positions in the ACC.

Spiller could make his biggest Heisman Trophy push this season with a big game on Saturday. Though he ran just five times last week, and has had two other outings with less than 10 carries, he's rushed for 574 yards and four touchdowns.

He'll be complimented by Big Bit and Little Bit--Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington. Both had big outings last week against Coastal Carolina, but it was against Coastal Carolina. Harper came through in a big way by converting short yardage situations against Miami. It'll be interesting to see if his number is called for those situations on Saturday. The duo has rushed for 496 yards and three touchdowns this year.


Clemson's rushing offense is ranked 52nd best in the nation, averaging 152 yards per game. (Kevin Bray)
Clemson's rushing offense is ranked 52nd best in the nation, averaging 152 yards per game.

Watson leads the Seminole defense from his strong-side linebacker spot. He's the team's leader in sacks with 4.5 and tackles for loss (eight) and is fourth with 36 tackles.

The team's top tackler, middle linebacker Kendall Smith, has 57. Flanking him on the weak-side is Nigel Bradham- Scout.com's No. 1 middle linebacker in the 2008 class. He's third on the team in tackles.

After holding its first two opponents to less than 100 yards of team rushing, Florida State has given up some big days on the ground. The Seminoles rank 101st in the nation in rushing defense--183 yards per game.

ADVANTAGE:

Clemson Passing Game vs. Florida State Secondary
In one week, Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker goes from throwing for over 300 yards on the road against nationally ranked Miami to completing seven of 16 passes for 70 yards and two interceptions against Coastal Carolina.

Not quite a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde performer, Parker has to be more consistent. In case Clemson needs keep up on the scoreboard, he'll have to be clicking on all cylinders and making smart decisions.

He'll make the occasional freshman mistake- see the fumble and interception against Miami. But he's also showed guts- see final play in the same game.

Parker is completing over 50 percent of his passes; he's thrown 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions and still has that rocket of a right arm.

The team that some thought to have the best passing attack that Florida State would see this year- BYU- threw for less than 200 yards against the Seminoles. Everyone else has torched the secondary, including Ryan Perrilloux and Jacksonville State (324), a freshman at South Florida (269), Boston College (340)--the same Boston College that hit up Clemson for 25 yards passing, the run-first Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (359), a struggling North Carolina offense (395) and Russell Wilson's N.C. State, whose yet to win a conference game (277).


In recent weeks, the tight ends have become a big part of the Clemson passing attack. Michael Palmer- Kyle Parker's second favorite target- is back this week after missing the Coastal game because of the concussion he suffered against Miami. (Getty Images)
In recent weeks, the tight ends have become a big part of the Clemson passing attack. Michael Palmer- Parker's second favorite target- is back this week after missing the Coastal game because of the concussion he suffered against Miami. Then, there's the always dangerous Jacoby Ford, who leads the Tigers in all receiving categories. Throw in Spiller, who is just as dangerous catching the ball as he is rushing, and the Tigers are looking at another 300 yard day.

Granted, Florida State's secondary is experienced: Korey Mangum, Patrick Robinson and Jamie Robinson are all seniors. The results indicate they're not going to do much in the way of defending the pass.

ADVANTAGE:

Florida State Special Teams vs. Clemson Special Teams
The big question surrounding Clemson's special teams this season is no different than that of the past.

Will they kick to Spiller?

Whichever way you look at it, there's the unenviable catch-22 that opponents are faced with each week. Kick to Spiller and you run the risk of giving up six points. Squib kick it and leave the Tigers with very favorable field position. Clemson ranks in the top 15 in punt returns and the top 10 in kickoff returns. Florida State gives up 21 yards per kick return and seven yards per punt return this season.


Florida State's freshman return man- Greg Reid is no slouch. He averages over 10 yards on punt returns and 23 yards on kickoff returns. (Getty Images)
Florida State's freshman return man- Greg Reid is no slouch. He averages over 10 yards on punt returns and 23 yards on kickoff returns. The Seminoles have yet to score a touchdown in the return game.

Just looking at the numbers, Clemson appears to be vulnerable when covering punts. Take away the 85-yard return for touchdown by Georgia Tech and Clemson has given up 13 returns for 78 yards. The kickoff coverage team is holding opponents to just under 20 yards per return.

Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins has done well in his first year in Tallahassee. Four of his five misses have come from the 40-49 yard range. He's also made one from 52 yards. Still, he's a freshman kicker that's never had to make a kick in a hostile environment with the game on the line. Clemson kicker Richard Jackson has a strong leg and ranks third in the nation for average number of field goals made per game.

Spiller is already the best return man in the country and Jackson is making a name for himself as one of the country's best kickers.

ADVANTAGE:

Florida State Running Backs vs. Clemson Linebackers
The Seminoles are easily a pass first on offense. The top rusher, Jermaine Thomas has just 69 carries for 378 yards, with over 180 of those coming in last week's come-from-behind win over N.C. State. In all, it's a solid 5.5 yards per carry average with a ground attack that seems to be improving through the second half of the season. But if Florida State gets into an early hole, carries could be few and far between.

Surely, Fisher noticed the success Miami had running the ball against the Clemson defense, particularly with a handful of big plays. The 177 yards Miami racked up on the ground has to leave Tiger fans concerned about the Seminole rushing attack.



Don't be surprised if Florida State spreads out the Clemson defense with three and four wide receivers and pounds the run. Kavell Conner and Brandon Maye are both quality tacklers for Clemson, combining for over 100 this year.

In addition, despite his injury, Ponder is always a threat to run and Clemson's defense has struggled defending mobile quarterbacks this season. Ponder is actually third on the team with 166 yards rushing.

ADVANTAGE:

Clemson Offensive Line vs. Florida State Defensive Line
Clemson outweighs the Florida State front four easily. None of the starting four along the Seminole front checks in over 300 pounds. Backup defensive tackle Moses McCray is the heaviest among the first two teams listed on the depth chart.

Minus Budd Thacker, Florida State is without its best tackle up front on defense.

Thomas Austin and Chris Hairston lead the bigger, more experienced Clemson offensive line. Austin was confident earlier this week when talking about the Florida State defensive line, which doesn't make any bones about its scheme.

Austin said last week's early struggles running the ball versus Coastal was due to the lack of fundamentally sound play and gap control on the Chants' part. Against defenses this season that are like Florida State's, he said that's when Clemson has "played its best ball". The Seminoles average 2.13 sacks per game while the Tigers offensive line gives up an average of 1.8.

ADVANTAGE:

PREDICTION: Clemson 38 Florida State 27

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