(10) Clemson (3-0) at (4) Florida State (3-0)
Saturday, September 22, 8:00 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: A top-10 collision course is set for Tallahassee this weekend, as the fourth-ranked Florida State Seminoles take on the 10th-ranked Clemson Tigers in a crucial Atlantic Coast Conference affair.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers come into Doak Campbell Stadium with a great deal of momentum. The defending ACC champions are finally at full strength on offense and have won each of their first three games, with the margin of victory increasing each time. The season-opener against Auburn resulted in a 26-19 victory, followed by a 52-27 win over Ball State and finally last week's 41-7 drubbing of FCS foe Furman.
While Clemson is the defending champion, Florida State is viewed as the ACC favorite in 2012. Jimbo Fisher's squad has done very little to change that opinion. The Seminoles were criticized for a lack of competition in the first two weeks, recording routs of both Murray State (69-3) and Savannah State (55-0), but jumped into ACC action last weekend with similar results, recording a 52-0 shutout of Wake Forest.
Florida State holds a 17-8 series advantage. The Seminoles are 10-3 against the Tigers in Tallahassee and have won nine of the last 10 meetings at home. However, Clemson won last year's matchup, a 35-30 decision in Death Valley.
After sitting out the first two weeks on suspension, All-American wideout Sammy Watkins was back on the field last weekend against Furman, making his presence felt with a 58-yard TD run. Getting a game under his belt to shake off the rust is a good thing, because the Tigers will have their hands full with FSU's stingy defense.
Swinney was certainly impressed with Watkins' play.
"It was like he just shot out of a cannon. It was a thing of beauty. He is a special player and it doesn't take long to find him on the field. He is electric."
It will be up to quarterback Tahj Boyd and the rest of the offense to keep the Seminoles guessing. Boyd has played well in the early going, connecting on just over 73 percent of his throws, for 747 yards, with six TD passes and just one INT.
In Watkins' absence, the Tigers found another go-to-guy in the passing game in WR De'Andre Hopkins, who already has 26 catches, for 319 yards and four TDs.
The solid passing game (298.0 ypg) is enhanced by an equally powerful rushing attack (219.3 ypg), spearheaded by tailback Andre Ellington (109.3 ypg, 6.2 ypc, four TDs).
With the team putting up over 500 yards of offense, the Clemson defense just needs to manage the game. Although the team has shown some weakness against the run (179.7 ypg), the pass defense has been stellar (188.0 ypg).
The squad already has five interceptions on the season, led by safety Rashard Hall's two. Sophomore middle linebacker Stephone Anthony has been all over the field and leads the team with 27 total tackles, with one INT of his own.
The Seminoles have been explosive on both sides of the football thus far and although the defense is a given, it is the consistency on the offensive side of the ball that will ultimately write FSU's story this season. Florida State currently ranks second nationally in scoring (58.7 ppg) and 12th in total offense (543.7 ypg), getting huge gains on the ground (279.0 ypg) and through the air (264.7 ypg). The team actually became the first program in ACC history to open the season scoring 50 or more points in three straight games.
Senior QB EJ Manual doesn't throw the ball a lot, but he is ultra-efficient when he does, completing 71.2 percent of his throws for 525 yards, with six TDs and just one INT. Kenny Shaw (10 receptions, 144 yards, two TDs) and Kelvin Benjamin (10 receptions, 140 yards, two TDs) have nearly identical numbers to lead the receiving corps.
Florida State has finally revived its ground game, but not with a workhorse back. Instead the team has multiple weapons in the backfield. Chris Thompson leads the way with 254 yards on the year (14.1 ypc), although 197 of that came against Furman last weekend. James Wilder Jr. (220 yards, 6.9 ypc, four TDs) and Devonta Freeman (147 yards, 6.4 ypc, one TD) provide other options at Fisher's disposal.
There aren't many teams in the nation that could lose an All-American defensive end and actually still thrive. Florida State has done just that. The team lost two-time All-ACC rush end Brandon Jenkins to injury early on, but the Seminoles have filled the void.
The numbers are eye-popping, as FSU leads the country in all the vital defensive stats, allowing a minuscule 1.0 ppg thus far, while showing equal disdain for the run (33.7 ypg) and the pass (69.7 ypg).
Defensive coordinator Mark Stoops didn't have to go far to find another leader up front. Junior defensive end Bjoern Werner has NFL first-round talent and has certainly played like it thus far, leading the nation in sacks (6.5) and the team in TFLs (9.0). The other side of the line now features senior Cornellius Carradine, who leads the team in tackles (12), with 3.5 sacks. Linebackers Christian Jones (9 tackles, 3.0 TFLs) and Vince Williams (9 tackles) are getting the job done in the middle, while All-American candidate Xavier Rhodes (8 tackles, one INT) highlights the play in the secondary.
A ferocious pass rush is what Fisher credits for the defense's success.
"We are able to get pressure to the quarterback, which makes the ball come out; you don't have to cover as long. That rush makes a difference, now. When you control the line of scrimmage and make that ball come out guys can't double move you. They can't run all the way across the field."
These are two of the few programs in the nation that could bring an end to the SEC's reign of supremacy regarding national titles. Unfortunately, the loser will probably be on the outside looking in the rest of the way.
Swinney realizes the significance of this game.
"This is going to be big boy football. It's a tough place to go and win. This is an important week for us, and we need to play our best game of the season. It's a big challenge, but I look forward to it.
Clemson got the better of Florida State last year, but it will be the Seminoles earning the win here and no big surprise - the defense will be the difference.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida State 23, Clemson 17
09/19 10:45:23 ET