GAME NOTES: The date circled on ACC calendars before the season started is almost here, as the fifth-ranked Florida State Seminoles collide with the third-ranked Clemson Tigers this weekend in Death Valley with conference championship implications on the line.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers looked sluggish last weekend at home against an upstart Boston College squad, but rallied down the stretch to post a 24-14 victory over the Eagles and move to 6-0 on the season, setting up this monumental matchup with the Seminoles. The win over BC moved Clemson to 4-0 in conference play.
Swinney was impressed with his team's resiliency against BC.
"It's good to know that we can win a street fight. You have to give Boston College credit. They were a tough team, but we battled, we played very physically and we were just a little bit deeper than they were. It's good to pull out a win."
Jimbo Fisher's Seminoles should be well rested as they were idle last week. Florida State comes into this contest at 5-0 following a 63-0 demolishing of previously unbeaten Maryland on Oct. 5. With the win, FSU moved to 3-0 in ACC play.
Florida State owns an 18-8 series advantage against Clemson and won last year's clash in Tallahassee, 49-37. However, Clemson has won five straight meetings at home, as FSU has not ben victorious in Death Valley since 2001.
It has been a seamless transition for Florida State in terms of quarterback play, as EJ Manuel's departure to the NFL coincided with redshirt freshman Jameis Winston's arrival. The 6-foot-4 youngster has exceeded all expectations thus far and his play has people talking about a Heisman in Tallahassee. He certainly isn't doing it by himself, as FSU is averaging a gaudy 53.6 ppg, on 549.0 yards of total offense per outing.
For his part, Winston is completing a ridiculous 73.2 percent of his passes, for 1,441 yards, with 17 touchdowns against just two interceptions. To this point, the game hasn't been too big for Winston, who has a full array of weapons at his disposal. A deep receiving corps is highlighted by wideouts Kenny Shaw (23 catches, 466 yards, 3 TDs), Rashad Greene (23 catches, 407 yards, 5 TDs) and Kelvin Benjamin (17 catches, 299 yards, 3 TDs) and tight end Nick O'Leary (11 catches, 132 yards, 5 TDs).
A ground game that is netting a hefty 228.2 yards per game is led by tailbacks Devonta Freeman (385 yards, 7.1 ypc, 3 TDs), Karlos Williams (244 yards, 8.7 ypc, 6 TDs) and James Wilder Jr. (214 yards, 5.9 ypc, 2 TDs).
Everything is made possible by arguably the nation's best offensive line, which features All-American talent across the board.
FSU's production on offense by no means takes away from the team's defensive success. The Seminoles are allowing just 12.0 ppg this year (third nationally) and are particularly stingy against the pass (149.0 ypg). Overall, the team ranks seventh nationally in total defense (276.8 ypg).
Senior linebacker Telvin Smith has star potential in the middle of the defense and leads the team in total tackles (32), with 4.0 TFL and one INT. Senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner (25 tackles, two sacks) is an All-American candidate in the secondary, as opposing quarterbacks shy away from his side of the field on most occasions.
Despite FSU's gaudy defensive numbers, it will be taken to task by the best offense the unit has faced all season long. Clemson has had no problem moving the football up and down the field, averaging 514.5 yards per game, with great success both running (172.5 ypg) and passing (342.0 ypg).
Of course, it all revolves around the play of All-American Tahj Boyd. The senior signal caller is probably a wrung or two ahead of Winston on the Heisman ladder, a true testament to Boyd's excellence under center. On the season, Boyd has completed 66.5 percent of his throws, for 1,783 yards, with 15 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has also added five scores on the ground and definitely keeps defenses honest with his ability to improvise.
The ground game lacks a workhorse, although tailback Roderick McDowell (4.9 ypc, 385 yards) is certainly capable of moving the chains. Still, the top offensive weapon outside of Boyd is All-American wideout Sammy Watkins. After a sub par sophomore season in 2012, Watkins has revived his big-play career as a junior, leading the team in receptions (36), receiving yards (582) and TD catches (4).
No longer a one-dimensional program, Clemson takes great pride in its defensive play in 2013. The results certainly back that up, with the Tigers ranking 10th nationally in scoring defense (16.2 ppg). The team is allowing a mere 344.8 yards per game, showing a penchant for strong pass defense (158.3 ypg). A lot of that has to do with a devastating pass rush, as Clemson leads the nation in sacks (24). It helps to have one of the country's premier players in that regard in defensive end Vic Beasley (nine sacks).
Other defenders of note include linebackers Stephone Anthony (team-high 65 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Spencer Shuey (57 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and defensive ends Corey Crawford (24 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Shaq Lawson (18 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks).
Putting this game into context is something that Fisher has tried to do for his team.
"We understand this is a pivotal game for the season. It's an important game but it isn't the last game. We still have seven games to play. This is the next one. It's the most important one because it is the next one. We understand the implications of what it means. That's why you come to Florida State, to compete in these kind of games, atmospheres and environments and we have a huge challenge on our hands going up there."
This is the highest ranking showdown in the ACC in the last eight years. In 10 of the last 11 meetings in this series, the home team has won. This should be a classic battle between two of the nation's best. A veteran quarterback could be the difference in this one. Expect Winston to play well, but to be trumped by Boyd.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Clemson 31, Florida State 30