Clemson-FSU matchup more competitive with Winston suspension

Jameis Winston will be suspended for the first half of Saturday's FSU-Clemson tilt, which makes a top-25 matchup that much more interesting after FSU's dominating victory last year.

As soon as the week after the two programs’ 2013 meeting, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney continued to insist that his team was on par with Florida State. Now, he has the chance to prove it.

The Seminoles have suspended Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston for the first half of Saturday’s game due to something he yelled on campus. And as the Tigers travel to Tallahassee, that certainly gives Clemson a window.

When Swinney first insisted that the Tigers weren’t that far behind the Seminoles in spite of last year’s result, it seemed laughable.

But even this July, Swinney was singing the same tune.

"The gap is not that wide. It’s really not," Swinney said at the ACC Kickoff. "There’s not anybody we beat that can’t beat us. And there’s not a team that we can’t beat."

To Swinney, last year’s game, which Florida State won 51-14, and this year’s game both come down to three things: turnover margin, limiting explosive plays and being better in special teams. Last year, Clemson had four turnovers, allowed 444 passing yards to Winston & Co. and didn’t cover kicks all that well.

"A lot of things we’ve got to do better than we did last year to have a chance, but certainly those are the major things," Swinney said.

For a half at the very least, those explosive plays might be limited anyway while Winston sits out. His backup, Sean Maguire, will get the start. He was last year’s third-string quarterback behind both Winston and Jacob Coker, who transferred to Alabama in the offseason. At one point, Maguire was fourth-string behind both Coker and another transfer, Clint Trickett, who injured his knee and missed the season.

Fourth-string is not encouraging. But Maguire was behind two quarterbacks that have since transferred and either won or competed for the starting job at two major programs. So it’s hardly a knock. Maguire, who came in with Winston as a recruit, was 15 of 28 for 203 yards in the spring game, and he was 3 of 5 for 28 yards in garbage time against The Citadel. He also has the benefit of being behind a great offensive line with plenty of weapons surrounding him.

FSU won’t be the only team that uses two quarterbacks, either.

Clemson starter Cole Stoudt has been the guy, and will continue to be the guy. But the fans are all abuzz over the play of freshman Deshaun Watson, who has seen action for a few drives each game and has been very effective. Stoudt is 38 of 60 so far for 446 yards and a touchdown, while Watson is 10 of 13 for 213 yards and four touchdowns. Against Georgia, Stoudt was 16 of 29 for 144 yards, no touchdowns and an interception while Watson was 2 of 4 for 59 yards and a touchdown.

Of course, the Clemson offense won’t matter much if the Clemson defense can’t take advantage of Winston’s first-half absence and get stops. Clemson’s defense was made to look silly by Georgia in the opener, although to be fair, Todd Gurley does that to a lot of teams. Florida State’s offensive line stymied the Clemson line a year ago, and obviously that’s going to have to be flipped if Clemson wants to have a chance in this one.

From a big-picture standpoint, though, this has turned into a game where Clemson would be given credit if it competed to one where Clemson is, arguably, expected to win — or at least come close. If nothing else, it’s a big chance for Swinney and the Tigers to prove what he’s said all offseason is true: the gap is not that wide.

"It’s a huge opportunity. I mean, you don’t get many opportunities to play the No. 1 team in the country," Swinney said. "It’s not something that just comes around very often. It’s exciting from that standpoint."

Fisher enjoys the game, too. And he’s happy that most of the national eyeballs will be tuned into ACC football at its best.

"Dabo has done a tremendous job of building his program and putting them in position to be successful," Fisher said. "We’ve done a good job with our program, and I’m very proud of Clemson. I think this has turned into a heck of a game."

Fisher wouldn’t complain if the margin was similar to last year’s, of course.