Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
Well, this may not feel like a typical Clemson-Florida State game, in which the winner has been guaranteed an ACC title every year since 2010, but there is still an abundance of talent on both sides, and there will be no shortage of vitriol between the two teams. This has annually been one of the biggest matchups in all of college football for the better part of a decade, and it has routinely been a primetime kickoff. This will be the first noon game in the series since 2005, when the Tigers beat a top-10 FSU team 35-14 in Death Valley. The Tigers are favored by 17 points, and the Noles have not been such a big underdog at home since Bobby Bowden took over more than 40 years ago.
The Tigers are coming off their best two performances of the season, winning 63-3 at Wake Forest and 41-7 over #15 NC State on Homecoming last week. The 34-point win over the Pack was tied for the second-largest margin of victory over a ranked opponent in program history. The game played out exactly as I predicted in last week’s preview, with State loading the box to stop Etienne and the run game and Trevor Lawrence passing for 300 yards for the first time in his career. Etienne rushed for just 39 yards on 15 carries, but he managed to find the end zone 3 times for the 3rd consecutive game—a first in Clemson history. Etienne is suddenly ranked #4 on ESPN’s Heisman rankings. He’s now #1 in the nation with 14 touchdowns, and 13 of them have come in the last 5 games! He needs just 3 touchdowns to tie James Davis and Lester Brown for the Clemson single-season rush TD record. If Etienne averages exactly 150 yards per game through the National Championship, he will be the Tigers’ first 2,000-yard rusher in history. He is #3 in the Power Five for yards per carry at 8.16. Ironically, freshman Lyn-J Dixon is #1 in the nation at 10.42 yards per carry!
The defense was also superb for the second straight game, holding State to just one score. The Pack came into the game averaging 33 points per game. They had the #6 passing offense in the nation, averaging 335 yards per game, and the Tigers held Ryan Finley to just 156 passing yards. State was also #1 in the nation in 3rd down offense, converting 61% of the time, and the Tigers held them to 2 of 12 on 3rd down with 6 three-and-outs. I’ve nailed the Tigers’ point total on offense in the last two games, missing by just one point combined. I guess I need to give the defense more respect, though. I predicted 62-20 at Wake and 41-17 against NC State. Still, I was much closer than Vegas on both games!
Before I dive into this week’s big ACC showdown, I wanted to let you know that the Duke and South Carolina games are now sold out. There are, however, still limited tickets for the home game against Louisville. Call 1-800-CLEMSON to order tickets! Also, your Hardwood Tigers are #22 in the Preseason AP Poll and were picked to finish 6th at ACC Media Day. That's quite a leap forward from last year's vote of 13th! First regular season home game is November 6th against The Citadel!
On to the good stuff….
Clemson is 11-20 all-time versus Florida State, but the Tigers have won 3 straight meetings. The home team has won 13 of the last 16 meetings. Clemson has broken serve twice over that span, FSU once….Each of the last 9 years, the winner of this game has won the Atlantic Division. Each of the last 7 years, the winner has won the ACC Championship….No school has beaten FSU 4 years in a row in ACC play….Dabo and the Tigers have won their last 6 straight games in the state of Florida against Alabama, Virginia Tech, FSU, Oklahoma (twice) and Miami….The Tigers are looking to start 8-0 for the 7th time in program history and 3rd time in the last 4 years. Dabo has done it 3 times. Howard, Ford and Bowden each did it once….Clemson is 17-1 in its last 18 true road games….Clemson has won a school-record 23 consecutive Saturday games. That is the longest such streak in the nation….Clemson is 25-1 in last 26 ACC Atlantic games….Clemson is 29-2 in its last 31 ACC games….Clemson and Alabama have almost an identical differential between total yards gained and total yards allowed. The Tigers are +256.1, and the Tide is +256.4….Clemson has not passed for 300 yards in consecutive games since Deshaun Watson’s final game in the 2017 National Championship Game….Sophomore Travis Etienne is already #9 on the Clemson career touchdown list with 28. Next on the list is Sammy Watkins with 29…..The Tigers have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 9 of their last 12 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 35 straight games. He needs one touchdown to tie Jacoby Ford, Derrick Hamilton and Terrance Roulhac with 16 career TD's, 10th on the all-time Clemson list…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 51 weeks. Next is Georgia at 20….
Obviously, this is not the FSU powerhouse we are accustomed to seeing. Willie Taggart took over for Jimbo Fisher, who left for the Texas A&M job. Taggart was at Oregon just one season, coaching them to a 7-6 record before leaving for his dream job at Florida State, the team he grew up rooting for. Before Oregon, Taggart was the head coach at USF and Western Kentucky before that. Taggart actually visited Clemson to watch the team practice in the spring before last, just after he took the Oregon job. I asked Taggart what he took away from that trip, and here is what he had to say:
“It was a nice trip. They were very welcoming. Allowed us to go around and meet with some coaches and watch practice and see the new facility. Had a chance to sit down and talk with Coach Sweeney, which was great. It was really nice to go and see how champions do things. You can see why they are winning and winning at a high level that's in that building and around that building, everything is channeled towards winning; from the secretary to the custodian or whatever is around there, they all are moving in the same direction.”
I asked Dabo about the visit as well on Tuesday, and he said he wouldn't have arranged the visit if he had known he'd be playing against Taggart a year later! You have to wonder how much of an advantage that is for Taggart, having been allowed behind the curtain, so to speak. Personally, I was critical of the hire right off the bat. I thought FSU could and should do better than someone with Taggart’s resume. I guess the same thing was once said by many about Dabo, but I just have never been very impressed with Taggart’s apparent football knowledge or ability to run a big-time program. Time will tell, but so far it’s looking like I was right about the hire and just about everyone on ESPN was wrong.
Taggart and the Noles got off to a horrendous start, getting pummeled 24-3 at home by Virginia Tech in the season opener, losing 30-7 at Syracuse and trailing Samford in the 4th quarter between the two. They should have also lost to a Louisville team that is reeling, but a confounding play call by Bobby Petrino allowed FSU to intercept a first-down pass in the waning seconds, and Francois found Nyqwan Murray for the game-winning touchdown in the final minute. Thanks to that, the Noles come into this game with a winning record at 4-3 rather than 3-4. They did have Miami on the ropes on the road a few weeks ago, but the Canes rallied to win 28-27.
The most startling thing to me about this FSU team is their inability to run the ball this season. The Noles are averaging just 98.43 yards per game on the ground and are ranked #125 in rushing offense. One more time: #125 in rushing offense. I have no idea when the last time they were this bad at running the football, but I’m sure it was pre-Bowden, or maybe his first year in 1976. The only thing more shocking to me is that Stanford is actually ranked below FSU at #127. The only other teams ranked below FSU are UTSA, Northwestern, Wazzou and San Jose State. With Cam Akers and Jaques Patrick coming back, I expected them to be a very respectable running team. The offensive line has been terrible the last couple years, but their issues have been more in pass protection than the run game. They weren’t great at running the ball last season but were much better than they’ve been so far this season, and that was Cam Akers’ true freshman season.
Florida State has been better in the passing game this season, ranked #33 at 265.7 yards per game. Deondre Francois is a tough veteran and won’t get rattled. He has completed 62.9% of his passes this season for 1,859 yards and 13 touchdowns with 6 interceptions. Francois has some play-makers at his disposal in Nyqwon Murray, Keith Gavin and Tamorrion Terry. 5’11, 192-pound senior slot receiver Murray (#8) leads the team with 35 catches and has had big games against the Tigers in the last two meetings, with 4 catches for 73 yards last year and 6 catches for 96 yards and a touchdown two years ago. He has 3 touchdowns this season, which is second on the team. Junior Keith Gavin (#89) is a big receiver at 6’3 and 215 pounds. He has 22 catches and a touchdown this season, averaging 16.3 yards per catch. They also have a talented freshman WR in Tamorrion Terry (#15), who is 6’4 and 197 pounds. He’s basically the Noles’ version of Justyn Ross. He only has 14 catches on the season, but 5 of them have gone for touchdowns. He’s averaging over 22 yards per catch.
The Noles are #93 in scoring offense (25.1 points/game) and #99 in total offense (364 yards/game). They are #8 in rush defense (100.43 yards/game) but #113 in pass defense (271.3 yards/game). They are #52 in scoring defense (24.0 points/game) and #54 in total defense (371.1 yards/game).
On defense, the Noles resemble what we’re used to. They have athletes across the board and have carried the team at times. There best and most disruptive player is easily DE Brian Burns (#99). He leads the Power Five with 9.5 sacks, and Jeff Scott told us Burns is the best pure pass rusher he’s seen on film since Clowney. That’s quite a statement! He’s seen quite a few NFL defensive ends in the interim. Burns also has 11.5 tackles for loss, which is #7 in the Power Five. As a team, FSU is tied for 3rd in the nation with 3.57 sacks per game, trailing only Oklahoma State and UAB. Freshman DB Jaiden Woodbey (#20) is an impact player in the secondary. Free safety Stanford Samuels (#8), Strong Safety A.J. Westbrook (#19) and CB Levonta Taylor (#1) each have 2 interceptions apiece this season. The Noles have only forced 10 turnovers this season, which is tied for #76 in the nation. However, they have 7 interceptions, which is tied for #37 in the nation. FSU has a turnover margin of -0.17, so the Tigers have that in their favor.
On special teams, look out for D.J. Matthews on punt returns. He is #4 in the nation, averaging nearly 16 yards per return, and he has a return for a touchdown this season. Spiers has had his issues this season on punts, but the coverage has been good, and they will have to be on Saturday if they’re going to avoid a big momentum play for the Noles in the punt game. FSU has an Aguayo place kicking for seemingly the 20th straight year. Ricky Aguayo, however, has not been nearly as automatic as his brother Roberto was. Ricky is just 7-12 this season, but he is 2-2 over 50 yards. FSU has a lefty punter, so that will be an adjustment for the Tigers, especially when he punts rugby-style. He is averaging 43.3 yards per punt and has a long of 61 yards. He’s been blocked once this season.
Dabo told us on Wednesday evening after practice that the team is probably sick to death of hearing the War Chant at practice all week. He likened it to when he played at Alabama and had to hear “Rocky Top” everywhere he went the week of the Tennessee game. In talking to the players all week, I got the sense that they are excited about the opportunity they have this week to make some history and become the first Clemson team to win back-to-back in Tallahassee as well as the first to win four straight against FSU. Don’t for a second think that they might be underestimating the Noles because of their record. Dabo has made it very clear to them that Clemson is 1-8 against FSU in his 9 recruiting classes as head coach, as far as the rankings go. The players are fully aware of the talent they’re up against and that the Noles will be looking at this game as their Super Bowl, hoping to spoil the Tigers’ season. There is still a lot of pride in the FSU program, and you can bet they are sick and tired of hearing about how Clemson owns the ACC.
The Tigers’ 91 rushing yards last week knocked them down in the rankings a bit, but they are still the #9 rushing team in the nation at 253.71 yards per game. They are the #31 passing offense in the nation at 268.7 yards per game, but expect that to go up as teams continue to load up to stop the run like NC State did. The Tigers remain one of the most explosive offenses in the nation. They are #9 in plays over 30 yards, #4 in plays over 40 yards, #2 in plays over 50 yards and #4 in plays over 60 yards. The Tigers are #9 in total offense at 522.4 yards per game and are still the only team in the nation ranked in the top 10 for both total offense and total defense! Alabama is uncharacteristically #15 in total defense.
The Tigers are #4 in total defense, allowing just 266.3 yards per game. They are #3 in scoring defense, allowing just 13.4 points per game. They are #6 in 3rd down defense, with opponents converting just 26.61% of the time. They are #3 in tackles-for-loss at 9.43 per game. The Tigers have created at least one turnover in 16 consecutive games and have 4 interceptions in their last 3 games after no interceptions, with se3veral drops, in their first 4. K’Von Wallace finally got that monkey off his back last week with a terrific INT and return against the Pack. He has amazingly recorded an interception in all 3 of his games against Ryan Finley and NC State . I asked him what it is about State that brings out the best in him, and the VA native said that he always has a chip on his shoulder when he plays NC State because they didn’t recruit him. Big mistake! I told Brent Venables about that on Monday, and Venables joked that he was going to remind K’Von that FSU didn’t recruit him either. They were plus three in turnover margin last week and are now back on the positive side of turnover margin for the season at 0.14. The Tigers have been nearly unbeatable when they don’t turn the ball over! Even when they have turned it over, their record is astoundingly good. In fact, they had a negative season turnover margin when they won the national title two years ago.
With Cornell Powell red-shirting, you can expect to see a lot more of freshman Derion Kendrick on kick returns. He’s very explosive and could be a big weapon for the Tigers in the second half of the season. He had a great 40-yard return last week against NC State.
One of the big matchups I’ll be watching on Saturday will be a couple of All-Americans going head-to-head in DE Brian Burns against LT Mitch Hyatt. This will be the best defense the Tigers have faced this season, and you can bet that they will look to stop the run game just as NC State did, testing Trevor Lawrence’s ability to beat them with his arm. FSU has a stout run defense, but they are vulnerable against the pass, and I think Trevor Lawrence will be equal to the task, just as he was last week. It will be interesting to see how intimidating Doak Campbell is at high noon. Even 2 years ago—though that game was primetime and featured a top-10 matchup with the ACC Atlantic on the line—the seats still weren’t all filled. Tickets are going for as little as $40 on stub hub, which is a good indicator that there will be a lot of empty seats for this one. Regardless, I don’t think Trevor will be phased by the atmosphere either way. There will never be more pressure than he faced in his first career road game, at A&M in front of a Gameday crowd of 105,000 at night on national television, and he threw a 64-yard touchdown on his very first play! I think Trevor will throw for over 300 yards for the second straight game, and the Tigers make another statement, serving notice to Alabama that there is one team out there every bit as good and then some.
The Tigers’ ACC dominance is reinforced, becoming the first ACC school to beat FSU 4 straight years, and Christian Wilkins, Mitch Hyatt, Hunter Renfrow and the rest of the seniors become the first Clemson class ever to go 4-0 against the Noles. The Tigers have won both games I’ve been to Tallahassee—their only wins there since the 80’s. Make it 3 for 3!
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 3rd National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 38 Florida State 13