Does Clemson have enough for FSU?
Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said earlier this week his team hasn't come close to playing its best game. Not even close.
He's right. So his No. 10 Tigers better play that “best game” on Saturday night for a shot at victory in their much-hyped matchup at No. 4 Florida State.
"This is a huge challenge going to Tallahassee to play a very good Florida State team, especially at their place," Swinney said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "More importantly, it's kicking off ACC play for us. This is not just ACC play, this is a (Atlantic) division game, and a really, really critical ball game on the schedule."
It's more than that. This game is a test for Swinney's program: Is it still the paper Tiger that got blasted 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl eight months ago, or is Clemson on the cusp of taking the next step?
Offensively, Clemson has the firepower with Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Andre Ellington at tailback, and Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins running pass routes. The Tigers aren't going to get shut out Saturday night. They will score, and probably hit on some big plays against perhaps the nation's top defense. Clemson is that capable with the ball.
But here are two of several keys to consider: Can Clemson put together sustained drives that consume time and thus keep its still-developing defense off the field; and are the Tigers ready for this moment?
Swinney thinks in many respects those two keys are one in the same.
"The big thing for us offensively is handling the environment," the coach said. "It's going to be a big crowd, a great venue to play a college football game. But half the stadium is not for you like it was in Atlanta. The whole stadium is against you. We might have a small pocket there, and hopefully we can bring them to their feet a few times.
"Handling that environment, being able to communicate, having good ball security, and not committing stupid penalties are going to be big parts of it. Guys have to make plays to be able to win a game like this."
Clemson has those guys offensively, but that might not be the case on defense.
The Tigers have some NFL talent over there, but that group hasn't been stout in three games this season, and the 70 points WVU dropped on it in the Orange Bowl continues to hang over this unit like the clouds above the Addams Family's house.
So far, versus Auburn (now 1-2), a decent Ball State team that won at Indiana over the weekend, and FCS member Furman, Clemson has allowed 1,103 yards in outscoring the trio 119-53. And it isn't like one team had a huge day, they've all been close and fairly effective moving the ball. Auburn racked up 374 yards, Ball State 380, and Furman 349. Granted some of the yards came in the second halves of two blowouts, but the numbers are still what they are.
Consider that FSU's defense through three games — and much more lopsided blowouts — has allowed a total of 310 yards and has outscored FCS members Murray State and Savannah State and ACC foe Wake Forest 176-3.
The challenges are everywhere for Clemson, but it may be most difficult trying to slow down the Seminoles offense that now includes a running game to go with quarterback EJ Manuel's arm.
FSU has 15 rushing touchdowns thus far, though it's easy to dismiss the competition in the first two contests. But Wake Forest, last Saturday's opponent, is a legitimate quality opponent that was coming off a victory over North Carolina and entered the game having won four of the last six against FSU.
And versus the Demon Deacons, the Noles ran for 385 yards, including 197 yards on nine carries by Chris Thompson and 94 yards on 16 attempts by James Wilder Jr., the son of a former NFL tailback. FSU isn't just running the ball conventionally, the option has worked really well because defenses must respect Manuel's ability to run.
"The option is a concern because they've been successful," Swinney said. "They love that outside lead play. Their fullback is a very good player, He can cut guys down in a hurry. He's a very good blocker. The biggest thing is that we have to mix it up. We can't just give them the same looks as far as who's containing the play and that kind of thing. Guys just have to play fundamental football."
Clemson has to play a nearly perfect game. Do the Tigers have it in them?