Final thoughts: Where FSU, Clemson have edge and brand debate

On Fridays during football season, we’ll take a look at Florida State, the opponent and the matchup. The Seminoles play at Clemson on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. on ESPN.

Strengths and struggles

The game may lack the appeal of a top-5 showdown like in 2013, and it’s quite clear Clemson won’t be in the College Football Playoff. But it’s FSU-Clemson and the game is significant to the coaches for different reasons as well as recruiting. The Seminoles haven’t had a victory in the series since 2014 and they haven’t beaten a rival since taking down Florida in Nov. 2017. 

For more on the teams and the matchup, we talked to ACC Network analyst Eric Mac Lain (a Clemson offensive lineman from 2011-15). Below in Q&A form:

What teams have you seen find success against Clemson’s defense and how can FSU take what they have seen on film and apply it to the strengths of the Seminoles’ offense?

Mac Lain: Defensively, the only team that we’ve really seen have great success it’s been two kind of different styles. One was (Syracuse running back) Sean Tucker getting out and getting really open, and (quarterback) Garrett Schrader, which I think favors what FSU should try to do and try to copy that as much as possible. And then the other of course a passing attack from (Pittsburgh’s) Kenny Pickett and (N.C. State’s Devin Leary, two of the most prolific passers in the ACC right now. I think if there’s a game plan that Florida State can replicate it’s certainly what Syracuse did offensively.

FSU’s strength is in the run game, accumulating 200-yard rushing days in six of seven games. But the Seminoles have done it more with chunk plays and less methodical drives. How important is the big play, on the ground or in the air, to attacking Clemson’s defense?

Mac Lain: I definitely think we haven’t seen a team be able to ‘four yards at a time’ beat these guys. There has to be some type of big play. There has to be something that changes momentum or swings the game or really gets things going. And I think when you look at it that’s really how you beat any great defense, right? You try to catch them in adverse situations or getting a matchup that you like and take advantage of a big play when it presents itself.

Clemson has had a revolving door of starters due to injuries. The offensive line has been hit especially hard. What do you see as far as continuity concerns on the line?

Mac Lain: Yeah, it is tough because it is a position that you want to have a solid five group that you feel really good about and that you feel like, ‘Hey, moving forward. These are our guys. We can count on them.’ And Clemson, quite frankly, hasn’t been able to do that quite yet. Just injury bug, a young man having to sit out with COVID. And now even a worse injury, taking a young man out for the season in Matt Bockhorst. Still it seems like it’s just trial by fire with these guys and not sure if they found a five that they like. Seems like there’s a five that they’re going to have to use, especially Saturday with young freshmen at left guard. Mason Trotter at center and then Will Putnam at the right guard.

FSU has a young team that hasn’t faced a tough road environment. Crowd noise could cause pre-snap issues? What challenge does Clemson’s crowd present and how do you prepare as well as endure it on Saturday?

Mac Lain: They’re gonna blast music as loud as they can in practice to try to replicate. I know anytime that anytime we would go to FSU we would hear that war chant just over and over and over and try to get prepared as best you can for it. But at the end of the day, it’s so hard to replicate stadium noise, and speakers really just don’t do it justice. So Clemson packs the house and comes to town as we think the fans will it’s going to be a tough environment. Those guys are going to have to use silent count, rely on each other to communicate very quickly before and when things inevitably will happen. But it’s certainly a challenge and a big deal that honestly we haven’t seen this year as much as I thought, especially coming off of a COVID year. But I think there are instances in the ACC where you’re playing at a Clemson, at an NC State where we’ve seen it impact the game.

FSU has had six offensive line starting lineups in seven games. What have you seen from the line as well as the Seminoles’ offense?

Mac Lain: I think (Dillan) Gibbons is playing really well. He’s a guy that has come in and I think his leadership, his style of play has impacted these guys very quickly. For years and years, it seems like that’s been a real weak point of this team is the offensive line and those guys figuring it out and great job by the coaches to identify, ‘OK, what is our team good at? What can we do effectively?’ And that is run the ball. And that’s run the ball with a great running back in (Jashaun) Corbin and (Treshaun) Ward has been a nice little surprise. And then an in electric quarterback in JT (Jordan Travis) that can fly all over the place. That certainly makes your pass blocking look a lot better even though it might or might not be — he’s just so hard to tackle. And so when you have a guy that is that elusive and fast and quick, it just it alleviates the pressure from everybody.

What else should we be watching in the matchup? What other thoughts do you have on FSU or Clemson?

Mac Lain: I think that the really cool thing has been to see the emergence of (Jermaine) Johnson up front and the things that he’s been able to do, the defensive leader he is skill-wise. Leading all defensive linemen in tackles and the ACC in sacks, so what a fun addition he’s been. And then on the other side, when you look at Clemson’s defense and FSU’s offense, something to really pay attention to throughout the course of this game is going to be Clemson probably is going to stop the run early — don’t be afraid to keep running it. Don’t get out of your game plan because you have a couple of negative plays or maybe don’t have this instant success, because that’s who you are. And it is very evident that this team is playing with a new confidence because they have their identity, they know who they are. And so moving forward that makes you a really strong team and confidence is certainly a key and they have all the momentum in the world going into this game. And I think no pressure for Florida State. Just play free. With Clemson, man, it’s everybody’s talking about you, the world is kind of closing in. And now it’s like, ‘Oh, buddy, don’t lose the Florida State.’ And so I just think that those guys are going to be playing uptight. And it’s just really a big advantage for Florida State going into this weekend.

Biggest concern at Clemson

Should we say it, mouth it or use hand signals? The biggest concern of playing at Clemson: Crowd noise. Clemson’s defense is statistically among the top 5 and is the best at red-zone defense. But everything that makes you feel better as a follower of FSU football in the last three games, besides (duh) the wins, is that the offense isn’t making the pre-snap alignment or movement penalties and has played with focus. If the Seminoles play with a focused mindset, aren’t rattled by the noise and the pre-snap checks, then they will have already stared down half of the battle. Then it will be down to executing the play and winning 1-on-1 matchups.

But, yes, as mentioned by Pat Burnham in his Tuesday Takeaways and by us on the FSU-Clemson preview podcast, the matchups are more favorable with Devontay Love-Taylor and Dillan Gibbons on the field.

On brand, off brand

Maybe it’s because we have a default mechanism and it leans on past performance and prestige. The brand or the logo is strong. It represents a national championship pedigree with coaches who have won and recruited at a high level.

We are all guilty of failing the eye test. Florida State was supposed to win games because of coaching and talent, and the reasoning was fair but flawed. We did it when the Seminoles were “good” and we’ve done it even to some extent during the struggles of the last five seasons.

With Clemson, we see a mix of expectations from the preseason to midseason. There are national analysts who have been sounding the alarm since last season — The offensive line isn’t good enough and even a great back like Travis Etienne doesn’t have running room.

But then we went into an offseason and there was still unrestrained optimism over Clemson. A number of major media outlets picked Clemson as a preseason top-5 team and the ACC champion. In the ACC preseason poll, of which there were 147 voters, Clemson was picked by 146 to win the Atlantic and by 125 to take the league title. NC State earned a first-place vote to win the Atlantic and the ACC. Athlon projected Clemson would go 13-0 and Wake would finish 6-6 and sixth in the Atlantic Division. Lindy’s projected Clemson as No. 2 in the nation in the preseason, with Wake taking third in the division.

Now, the expectations have shifted as Clemson is viewed as formidable on defense, weak on offense and overall are vulnerable (although the Tigers have yet to lose at home this year).

The reverse eye test failed us again with Wake Forest, which is 7-0 for the first time since 1947. Media and analysts praised the Demon Deacons for the experience that would return in 2021 as well as noting how good a coach Dave Clawson has been in his years at Winston-Salem, N.C. Who in their right mind could or would forecast Wake Forest to win the Atlantic let alone be in position for a spot in the playoff? It couldn’t happen because we still see Wake as a brand, one lacking in a rich football tradition through the decades. And that’s even if we admit in the last 15 years that Jim Grobe (77-82 record) and Clawson (47-45 but that includes back-to-back 3-9 seasons upon his arrival in 2014 and ’15) have squeezed as many wins out of the talent they have brought in as well as the school’s high academic standards.

With that in mind, it’s more important for us to do the blind comparison – Team A does this and Team B does that – when looking at a college football team and not thinking about the stature or prestige of a college football program.

Wake is 7-0 and plays Duke on Saturday, followed by what could be a challenging November: at North Carolina, NC State, at Clemson and at Boston College. The winner of the NC State-Wake game (which is in Winston-Salem, a break for the Deacons) on Nov. 13 should be in the driver’s seat for the division title. 

But, then again, we have seen so much inconsistency from the likes of all of Wake’s remaining opponents. Wake is definitely an off brand in the ACC in football but could very well be in Charlotte, N.C., for the league’s title game.

Tip of the hat to Oktoberfest

No one will compare FSU’s 1981 gauntlet of playing at Nebraska (loss), Ohio State (win), Notre Dame (win), Pittsburgh (loss) and LSU (win) during a five-game stretch to FSU’s 2021 schedule. But the Seminoles are in position to win as a double-digit dog at North Carolina and now as a double-digit dog at Clemson on Saturday. Those would be two memorable pieces of sod and it would be fitting on the 40th anniversary of Oktoberfest.

Podcast plug

If you’ve read this far, thank you. And we appreciate you reading even through what has been a wild football season. One area where we are looking to grow is through podcasts and that continues with our commitment to produce weekly episodes of Seminole Sidelines (football) and Tuck Talk (basketball).

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The more listeners we can have the better as we look to share what we think or hear with you in a personal way. With our voices as well as those of our friends, especially experts like FSU football player and graduate assistant Mark Salva, recruiting analyst Charles Fishbein and more. Tuck Talk also features exclusive interviews, like this week’s with FSU hoops veterans Harrison Prieto and Justin Lindner.