John Crist: The Tigers are undefeated, but they are a tough team to read at this point. They were losing to Troy at halftime and then struggled tremendously with Wofford before beating defending national champion Auburn this past Saturday. What's your general impression after three games?
Roy Philpot: Before I answer this question, go check out what happened in the Troy-Arkansas game. Troy is capable of competing with and beating many BCS conference teams. It's not popular to write that, but it's the truth. It was also Clemson's first game running a new offense while also replacing five defensive players that have gone onto to the NFL, so there were some growing pains. They still doubled the Trojans up with relative ease after a big second half.
With Wofford, it runs the triple option and has routinely given teams fits over the years as well, nearly beating South Carolina twice. Clemson's defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, also elected to play a large number of freshmen in those two games so his unit could gain some much-needed experience for later in the season. He's admitted the stats wouldn't look pretty after two games, and they haven't. Wofford scored two touchdowns on a true freshman -- a guy that didn't play in the Auburn game.
Clemson held Auburn out of the end zone the final two and a half quarters this past Saturday. You'll be hard pressed to find any team that does that the rest of the year, I assure you. Auburn may be without Cam Newton, but it still has Michael Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and Emory Blake.
Overall, Clemson is exactly where we predicted it to be two months ago: 3-0. The offense is significantly better than a year ago, while the defense isn't quite as good playing so many young players. My impression after three games? Clemson is on schedule and improving by the play.
JC: On the offensive side of the football, quarterback Tajh Boyd has been both productive and efficient, compiling a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10-to-1. Nevertheless, he has been sacked seven times. How mobile is Boyd, and does Clemson have protection issues up front?
RP: Boyd wasn't sacked against Auburn. The redshirt sophomore isn't Charlie Ward, but he doesn't pretend to be, either. He'd rather throw it the run it, and that will be the philosophy Saturday against FSU. He does need to get better in the zone-read game, which should equal more rushing yards, but I don't think that will happen working against Florida State's front seven this weekend. They are too good.
The offensive line played down to its competition the first two games, then helped pave the way for 624 yards against Auburn. I expect their biggest test by far on Saturday working against Florida State's front seven. Should be an entertaining matchup from what I've seen of the Seminoles on film.
JC: Defensively, the Tigers have been suspect against the run in all three games thus far. This is a program that has produced some big-time ballers along the defensive line in recent years. What has been the issue, and could this be the week FSU's ground game finally rights itself?
RP: If Florida State had Michael Dyer, I'd be concerned about its running game "righting itself." Sure, I suspect FSU will find it easier running the ball against Clemson than Oklahoma, no question, but what that means in terms of production remains to be seen. Clemson gave up massive yards to Wofford on the ground because you almost don't have a choice. The Terriers completed two passes, attempting just eight on the day, so it was ground and pound via the triple option for four quarters. At some point, you are going to give up yards, and Clemson did- usually when it was rotating first-year players on the field.
The Seminoles will likely find success with misdirection plays Saturday against a defense that overpursues, especially early. Whether that equals 100 or 200 yards rushing will likely determine who wins the game. Keep in mind Clemson's scheme has been vulnerable to running quarterbacks over the years, so if E.J. Manuel plays, that's a big advantage. If not, I question how Florida State will be able to consistently move the football, especially with the wide receiver injuries and lack of identity on offense.
JC: The Seminoles should have a big edge on special teams no matter the opponent. Clemson appears to have kicked and punted reasonably well in 2011, although both return units seem to leave a little to be desired. What are the strengths and weaknesses in the game's third phase?
RP: Ask Florida State's coaches if Clemson's return game leaves a little to be desired with Sammy Watkins and Andre Ellington returning punts and kicks. I do agree FSU has been much more explosive thus far in the return game, and that has grabbed the attention of Clemson's coaches early this week. Certainly, that's an advantage thus far. But athlete for athlete, you'll have a hard time convincing me the Seminoles put more on the field Saturday than Clemson.
Dustin Hopkins, to me, is the biggest advantage and was last year when it came to special teams. A 55-yarder at the buzzer to win the game? Are you kidding? I've never even heard of something like that. What a kick, and what a kick under pressure. Clemson's special teams haven't proven to be nearly as solid in that department. If Saturday becomes a field-goal battle, that's a huge advantage for the ‘Noles.
JC: While the Tigers have produced NFL talent the last decade or so, seemingly every year they disappoint and lose games they shouldn't. Why should fans in attendance Saturday at Death Valley believe this squad is any different from the one that was 4-4 in ACC play a season ago?
RP: That's a good question. Rarely has Clemson put together back-to-back quality performances, especially against ranked opponents. My hunch is this team isn't the same as the other ones, but I've said that before and it turned out not to be the case.
The main difference between this team and last year's is the offense. There's an identity now. There are multiple playmakers at running back, wide receiver and tight end. Last year at Doak Campbell, Clemson didn't have anything close to that. Ellington was injured and there was no receiver to throw to, and that's about it.
Also, so far Boyd has played out of his mind. I do think he will be tested in a major way this weekend because Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops will come at him with blitz packages and try to force him to make quick decisions that don't work in Clemson's best interest. He's going to have to play even better this week than against Auburn if Clemson is going to win because FSU's defense is so much better. This team is very much aware of that.
To read Part II of this Behind Enemy Lines series, where John answers five questions from Roy, Click Here.
John Crist is the editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Roy Philpott is the publisher of CUTigers.com.
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