CLEMSON — TALLAHASSEE, FLA. – Dalton Freeman embraced reality this week.
For two weeks, Clemson players and coaches spoke of a “nameless, faceless opponent,” and “playing to the standard,” two of coach Dabo Swinney’s most leaned-upon clichés.
It is no coincidence that the Tigers were taking on Ball State and Furman, whom they dispatched by a combined 93-34 score.
Saturday, the stakes are, oh, slightly higher: No.10 Clemson (3-0) visits No.4 Florida State (3-0, 1-0 ACC) in an 8 p.m. kickoff nationally televised by ABC. It is the ACC’s first meeting of top-10 teams since 2007, and the Tigers’ ACC opener figures to play a significant role in setting 2012’s course, for better or worse.
“Nobody’s hiding under a rock,” Freeman, the Tigers’ senior center said. “We know what’s at stake in this game.”
Clemson has not beaten Florida State in Tallahassee since 2006, and the Tigers are 14.5-point underdogs. Four years ago, they lost 41-27 in Swinney’s third game as interim head coach. Two years ago, Dustin Hopkins’ 55-yard field goal as time expired handed Clemson a gut wrenching 16-13 defeat that ultimately cost the Atlantic Division title.
Saturday's winner will be the clear favorite in the Atlantic Division and the ACC as a whole, given Coastal preseason pick Virginia Tech’s struggles.
“This is a huge game,” Swinney said. “But you’ve got to be careful not to make this game something it’s not. It’s the fourth game. Our next goal is to win the division. Is it a big game for the division? You better believe it. The winner of the game is in control, the loser is at the mercy of others.
“But it’s a long season. You win, you’re 4-0, great, you’re just a team trying to put a great season together, you’ve still got a whole season in front of you. You come out with a win, you’re in the driver’s seat. If you lose, you don’t control your destiny, other things have to happen, but you still have to take care of your business.”
Swinney drew a parallel to last year’s Alabama-LSU series, which saw LSU beat Alabama in the teams’ regular season meeting to win the SEC West, only to lose the national title game in New Orleans.
No one is suggesting that Clemson and FSU are on a collision course for the BCS national title game, but Swinney wants his players to keep perspective.
To slide into the proverbial driver’s seat, Clemson must solve a Seminole squad which is deep and talented across the board. FSU has outscored its opponents 176-3 and leads the nation in total defense (103.3 ypg), scoring defense (1 ppg), pass defense (69.6 ypg) and is second in scoring offense (58.6 ppg).
Florida State is also balanced; last week, tailback Chris Thompson – who missed last season with a fracture in his back – gashed Wake Forest for 197 yards on nine carries, including scoring runs of 74 and 80 yards. The Seminoles average 279 rushing yards per game, 11th nationally.
Clemson is allowing 184.6 per game, 80th nationally.“
You’re handicapped if you can’t stop the run,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “That’s any defensive coordinator’s challenge, just to play good defense and be strong up front and up the middle of your defense. When you’re not where you need to be, that makes things very difficult. That’ll be the challenge this week, to play more consistently and be the more physical team.”
Keeping junior quarterback Tajh Boyd upright will also be crucial. Injuries have limited continuity for the offensive line. This week's starting five will be the same as the season opener against Auburn, but in between, three starters – left guard David Beasley, right guard Tyler Shatley and right tackle Gifford Timothy – missed time with injuries.
Florida State has 11 team sacks; defensive end Bjoern Werner has 6.5 by himself, which would rank 55th in the FBS team stats.
“Their defensive line is probably the best I’ve seen on film since I’ve been here,” Freeman said. “Their line has a lot of depth, not a lot of dropoff. Normally there’s a dropoff between the starter and the guy they bring in when he gets tired. But they rotate in about eight, nine guys and they’re all pretty good.”
Boyd also must beat one-on-one press coverage with talented receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins to keep pace with Manuel and the Seminoles’ prolific offense.
It won’t be easy, but it’s the kind of game that will shape Clemson’s season, for better or worse.
“Top teams, championship teams, win on the road in situations like these,” Boyd said. “I feel like this program on its way to being where it’s supposed to be, where it needs to be. Games like this clarify what kind of program you are.”