Without a doubt, the Tigers' offense will give the FSU defense the biggest test they'll face all regular season.
That said, Clemson is not as strong on defense as they have been in recent years—even compared to the unit that gave up 30 to a banged-up FSU offense and 70 to West Virginia in last year's Orange Bowl. Their defensive line, which has been a major strength the last few years, is not nearly as stout as it has been, and FSU the FSU offense should have a significant edge over the Clemson defense. Here are a few things to look for tonight.
FSU on Defense
I underestimated how well this defense could play against a decent Wake Forest team last week, as the defense far exceeded the standards I set in last week's preview column, in particular on three-and-outs and third down conversions. These are critically important yet again this week, as the defense's inability to get itself off the field on third down was the difference in the game last year.
Obviously everyone knows about the explosiveness of Sammy Watkins, who will be a major focus of the Clemson offense. But the real key to the Clemson offense is their outstanding running back, Andre Ellington, who has rushed for more yards after contact this year than Florida State has given up on the season. The Clemson offense relies on its quick tempo to create mismatches and ultimately wear down the opposing defense. In order to do this, they absolutely must stay ahead of the sticks. If Clemson is unable to run the ball on neutral downs, they are capable of some of the fastest three-and-outs in the country, which only puts more pressure on their own defense.
If the FSU defensive front is able to maintain good gap integrity and stop the run without committing an extra man to the line of scrimmage, Clemson will be in for a lot of quick drives, giving the football right back to the FSU offense. It will be key for Florida State to be able to stop the run out of their nickel and dime packages, not allowing Clemson to get the matchup edge in the passing game. Stopping Ellington out of these packages—something FSU was unable to do last year, as it only had four experienced defensive backs and could not play nickel—will in itself limit the damage Watson and fellow wideout DeAndre Hopkins can do in the passing game.
Clemson will use the bubble screen and jet sweep (usually to Watkins) as key elements of their run game, so it is critical that the FSU corners and other perimeter defenders get off blocks and make tackles on these plays, especially early in the game. This horizontal pressure on the defense is why it is so critical for the FSU defensive line to win its matchup with the Clemson offensive line, allowing that extra perimeter defender to play the outside constraint plays "honest." As far as the passing game goes, look for Mark Stoops to vary the coverage looks he presents, one time jamming Watkins on the line and the next time playing softer. Disguise and varied coverages are ways to slow down an elite receiver—if only ever so slightly—by forcing him to think.
One thing FSU has shown in the three previous games is a tendency to flip the corners when in nickel—that is, Xavier Rhodes moves from his boundary position in the base 4-3 defense to the field corner in the nickel, putting him in a more exposed position than the less experienced Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby. Rhodes is not as natural as a field corner, so look for Clemson to try to take advantage of him out wide early in the game when in that look. Rhodes is still an outstanding corner and has great safety help over the top, so Clemson may regret this decision.
I expect FSU defensive front to win at the point of attack and Clemson to be in a lot of longer yardage plays. Clemson likes to run a lot of dig, drag, and "rub" routes over the middle on longer yardage, as their swift receivers can typically create space easily over the middle. Against FSU's outstanding safeties, however, this could be dangerous for the Tigers. Look for a few big hits on throws over the middle on third down, and any high throw could turn into a key turnover.
FSU on Offense
Many fans and pundits this week have suggested the results of this game will come down to how quarterback E. J. Manuel plays, but don't believe it. This game will be decided up front, where FSU has a decided advantage over the Tigers' defensive front. The Seminoles' dominance up front and in the running game will make life easier on Manuel, who will look far better in this game than many expect. Unlike the previous weeks where the Seminoles had no need or desire to show their full offense, this is a true statement game. Look to see a lot of Manuel in the option and spread-option running game early, setting up significantly more vertical passing than in prior weeks—with a few long pass attempts to redshirt freshman Kelvin Benjamin early in the game.
Many people think the appropriate response to an uptempo offense like that of Clemson is to slow things down on offense by running the football and preventing one's own defense from getting worn down. Thanks to its outstanding depth on the defensive side of the ball and physical edge on offense, this is the opposite of the approach FSU should (and likely will) take in this game. Expect to see the ‘Noles offense come out at a high tempo itself, taking Clemson's gamble and raising it in the expectation that the superior (and deeper) team will benefit from more plays.
The FSU offensive line did not quite live up to my expectations last week in terms of giving up negative plays (not having Menelik Watson in the lineup didn't help), but the improvement over last year is obvious through three games. Although they did give up a couple more negative plays than hoped (a couple of which were actually on Manuel or a back in pass protection rather than the line), this line's ability to get to the second level in the running game and on screen passes was one thing that definitely stood out. Very few lines this size can get to the second level (linebackers) and seal defenders as we saw last week. Watson's return to the starting lineup should also help substantially, particularly in pass protection and short yardage, where the ‘Noles did have some trouble on the goal line last week (though Wilder actually got in the end zone on first down). I expect the line to be somewhat improved on the Wake performance, though the Clemson front is better than that of the Demon Deacons. Look for FSU to run for another 250+ yards and score over 40 points in this game, looking much like the Miami blowout in 2010.
Clemson is a dangerous team, but this is a very good Florida State team, and the FSU offense is much better than people realize. Look for a lot of points in this one as both teams push the tempo, but the FSU defense will clamp down on Clemson early and create opportunities for the offense, leading to a comfortable and dominant win for the Seminoles.