TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — We have confirmed that the sun will rise Sunday morning, no matter what unfolds in Doak Campbell Stadium before a national audience tonight. Clemson and Florida State still have eight games to play this season, and they’ll all count toward the final record.
There is no questioning, however, the importance of the ACC’s first top-10 clash since 2007. When the No.10 Tigers and the No.4 Seminoles meet, the course of the Atlantic Division will be set. The winner will be in the driver’s seat, the loser left to run the table and hope for a pair of slipups.
That said, here are five things to watch for when Florida State and Clemson take the field:
1. How will Sammy Watkins impact the game: Following a two-game suspension, Chad Morris gave fans a taste of Watkins’ abilities against Furman; the star sophomore receiver had four catches for 52 yards as well as a 58-yard dash down the right sideline for his first career rushing touchdown. It was enough to make us remember why Watkins is special, yet wonder what he’ll do next. A year ago, Watkins dazzled the Seminoles’ secondary, catching seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-30 win. Expect him to be very involved in the offense, with motions, quick slants and deep balls against an FSU defense which will likely press in man coverage while rushing four men.
2. How will the offensive line hold up?: A revamped line was very impressive against Auburn, paving the way for 320 rushing yards, but due to injuries, it hasn’t played together since. Sophomore left guard David Beasley missed last week with a sprained knee ligament, and sophomore right tackle Gifford Timothy has been limited the past two weeks with lingering knee soreness from an August surgery to repair a torn meniscus. With only two starters – senior center Dalton Freeman and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas – returning from 2011, continuity is a major concern in what will be a hostile environment. Clemson blared crowd noise all week, and Freeman acknowledged the line won’t be able to hear at the line of scrimmage. They’re ready, but saying and doing are two very different things, especially with a nasty defensive line led by sack-happy defensive end Bjoern Werner staring them down from the other side.
3. Can Clemson contain Florida State’s offense?: The Seminoles average 58.6 points per game and over 540 yards per game. Those numbers were built against Wake Forest and FCS foes Murray State and Savannah State, but they’re impressive, regardless. Clemson’s defense gives up an alarming number of big plays – last week, 109 of Furman’s 310 yards of offense came on three snaps. If the same kind of busts occur Saturday, momentum will be difficult to recover.
4. Will Clemson handle the road?: A year ago, the Tigers walked into Lane Stadium and acted like they’d filed a tax return in Blacksburg, whipping Virginia Tech 23-3. But outside an ACC title-game whipping of the Hokies in Charlotte, Dabo Swinney’s bunch was lost away from Death Valley’s comfortable confines. They needed the second-biggest comeback in program history for a 56-45 win over a bad Maryland team, and were waxed at N.C. State and South Carolina. And the less said about the Orange Bowl, the better. A young team took confidence from beating Auburn before a 50-50 Georgia Dome crowd, but the Doak’s environment will be something entirely different. The War Chant. The flaming spear at midfield. A crowd that utterly hates them. How will a young line and junior quarterback Tajh Boyd handle a negative environment? We’ll see.
5. Will special teams be special?: Swinney said this week that special teams could decide the game, and he’s not entirely off-base. Junior kicker Chandler Catanzaro has made 14 consecutive field goals and is a very different player from the freshman who missed a pair of field goals in the Tigers’ last trip here, a gut-wrenching 16-13 loss in 2010. Watkins is a difference-maker in the return game who didn’t have many opportunities against Furman; his 89-yard kickoff return touchdown turned the Maryland game on its ear. Florida State’s Rashad Greene has a pair of return touchdowns, and I’m pretty sure I saw Dustin Hopkins’ 55-yard field goal that beat Clemson sailing somewhere over Interstate 75 in south Georgia on the trip down Friday.
In a game that could devolve into a shootout, special teams might provide the play everyone remembers.