Friedlander: The numbers say Florida State has its hands full at Clemson on Saturday, the eye test says otherwise
Before you can be the best, you have to beat the best.
That, boiled down to its most basic terms, is what’s at stake for Florida State on Saturday.
There’s still a long way to go before a champion is crowned. And nothing is guaranteed even if the Seminoles march into Death Valley and take down a Clemson team that has won 7 of the past 8 ACC titles.
But it sure would be one giant leap in the right direction if Mike Norvell and his 4th-ranked team can pull it off.
It’s not going to be easy, even though FSU comes in as the favorite – something only 6 other teams have done in Dabo Swinney’s 15-season tenure with the Tigers.
Clemson won the past 7 meetings between the ACC’s 2 most nationally relevant programs, and 8 of the past 10 at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers haven’t lost to an ACC opponent at home since 2016 and are averaging better than 40 points per game despite being held to only 7 in a self-destructive opening loss to Duke.
But while the numbers suggest the Seminoles are going to have their hands full in the most anticipated game on the ACC’s regular season schedule, the eye test paints a much different picture.
FSU has looked faster, more physical and significantly more talented in comparison to Clemson through the first 3 weeks of the season. Even last week, when it sleepwalked its way to a much closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Boston College.
The starkest contrast came in their opening games.
Twenty-four hours after the Seminoles left an SEC contender looking as if it was playing slow motion during a 3-touchdown victory against LSU, Clemson was losing by the same margin to ACC rival Duke.
Nothing against the Blue Devils or their talented roster. But if the Tigers couldn’t figure out how to contain Duke quarterback Riley Leonard – whose slippery 44-yard touchdown run early in the 2nd half was a game-breaker – just wait until they get a glimpse of Jordan Travis and his supporting cast on Saturday.
Except for perhaps running back, where Trey Benson and Will Shipley are a virtual toss-up, a case can be made that the Seminoles are better at every other position group on the field.
On both sides of the ball.
While Swinney is combing the beaches of Charleston for 11th-hour reinforcements, Norvell beefed up his already-loaded lineup with the likes of wide receiver Keon Coleman, tight end Jaheim Bell, offensive guard Casey Roddick, defensive end Braden Fiske and cornerback Fentrell Cypress from the transfer portal.
And don’t get too caught up overanalyzing last week’s close call at Boston College
It was probably the best thing that could have happened to the Seminoles before heading to Death Valley.
If you’re going to get caught believing your press clippings and taking teams for granted, as Verse suggested he and his teammates did, better to do it in a trap game against an ACC bottom-feeder than a showdown with the defending league champion and preseason favorite.
Beyond that, the spotty performance at Chestnut Hill helped expose a number of blemishes that had gone previously unnoticed, giving Norvell and his staff an opportunity to work on covering them up before heading to Clemson.
The 3 biggest were the Seminoles’ inability to contain the Eagles’ dual-threat quarterback Thomas Castellanos, breakdowns in the secondary that allowed far too many big-yardage gains and a loss of focus once they appeared to have things under control early in the 2nd half.
While Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik isn’t as mobile as Castellanos, he is a good enough runner to cause problems. And without pressure to force him into making the costly decisions that have plagued him thus far in his young career, he’s more likely to do damage downfield.
Those are technical issues that can be addressed through repetition and adjustments. And Norvell said they’ve been addressed.
As for the lack of killer instinct, that’s something the players will have to correct themselves.
Norvell warned them in his postgame locker room speech about “the importance of every snap, every rep and every opportunity,” and challenged them to bring more of an edge moving forward.
They’ll need every bit of surliness they can get in what promises to be the most electrically charged, hostile atmosphere they’ll face all season.
— Chris Nee (@CNee247) September 18, 2023
“I think our guys got the message,” Norvell said during his weekly press conference Monday. “Now they have to go do something about it.”
The Seminoles have been waiting an entire offseason for this opportunity.
They’ve been patted on the back by their fans, hyped by the media and used as a bargaining chip by their Board of Trustees as part of a power play designed to squeeze a higher percentage of revenue from the ACC.
Now their moment has arrived.
It’s their chance to back up all the talk and prove that they’re worthy of being the best by going into Death Valley and beating the team that has been the ACC’s best for 7 of the past 8 years.