Sept. 21, 2012
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It's like two prize fighters stepping to the middle of the ring. Two heavyweights prepared to engage in a battle based on strategy, strength, preparation and pure guts.
Both with a lot to prove. And even more to gain.
It's No. 4/4 Florida State and No. 9/10 Clemson and the bell is about to ding in this Atlantic Coast Conference bout broadcasted live at 8 p.m. on ABC for the nation to see. To the winner goes a place in the driver's seat in the league's Atlantic Division; to the loser goes the inability to control its own destiny in the trek to the annual conference title game in Charlotte, N.C.
'[I'm] very anxious to watch our guys, how we respond to this as far as going through all the media and being able to eliminate the clutter of the things," said FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, whose program will host ESPN College GameDay for the second year in a row, "and keep focused on the ballgame but still be able to deal with the extracurricular things that are part of this, and it's a very important game for us at Florida State, a very important game for Clemson, a very important game in general."
Clemson (3-0) marks first true test for FSU (3-0, 1-0 ACC) this season a week after Wake Forest was supposed to serve in that same role. But in a 52-0 drubbing of the Demon Deacons, the Seminoles looked no different than they did against overmatched FCS schools Murray State and Savannah in the weeks prior: dominant defensively and high-powered offensively.
The Tigers are a different story.
Clemson comes to Tallahassee as defending conference champions and winners of six of the last nine in the series. They boast All-American candidates at quarterback, wide receiver and running back and know how to utilize them.
With widely respected offensive coordinator Chad Morris calling the shots, the Tigers' offense is averaging 517 yards per game behind quarterback in Tajh Boyd, who is completing more than 73 percent of his passes this year and has tossed six touchdown passes.
DeAndre Hopkins has been Boyd's favorite target in wins over Auburn, Ball State and Furman and the talented wide receiver is currently sixth in the nation with an average of 8.67 catches per game. Hopkins' chances may take a slight dip now that All-American Sammy Watkins is back following a two-game suspension. The ACC's rookie of the year a season ago torched the 'Noles with two touchdowns and 141 yards receiving in Clemson's 35-30 win in Death Valley and he poses a serious threat for young FSU defensive backs like Nick Waisome and Tyler Hunter.
If that isn't enough, Clemson also boasts a speedster at tailback in Andre Ellington as he is averaging 109 yards rushing per contest. Long story short: Clemson has dangerous weapons that will test even a defense as stellar as Florida State's.
"It's what everybody is talking about: great offense vs. great defense," FSU junior defensive end Bjoern Werner said. "I have a lot of respect for their offense because they have so many playmakers and you just have to prepare well. It's going to be decided on Saturday when you play the game but you have to practice well to get to that point where you can make the game-changing plays."
Helping FSU in those efforts this week has been the team's tremendous depth.
The attention to detail and focused preparation on the practice focus that has made FSU's defense the best in the country after three weeks. But allowing only three points in three games and leading the country in a host of defensive categories doesn't matter if you can't perform that way with so much on the line against a conference foe.
"It's a game where you can't take a play off because one of [Clemson's playmakers] will slip by you or break a tackle or whatever they have to do to make a big play," Fisher said.
FSU's third-year coach is hoping he sees his offensive players do some slipping by of their own against a Tigers defense that hasn't been overly impressive through three games.
The 'Noles enter Saturday's game with an offense that ranks second nationally in points-per-game with 58.67 and 12th in the country with a total yardage mark of 543.67 per contest. On the flip side, Clemson has allowed teams to register nearly 370 yards per game.
Leading the 'Noles' offensive charge is quarterback EJ Manuel, who had to watch from the sidelines a year ago as his team lost to the Tigers after being injured the week before against Oklahoma.
A year later he's healthy and ready to do his part to put FSU in that driver's seat -- and perhaps register that knockout blow in the heavyweight fight.
"The fact that there is so much build up going into the game is obviously something that you grow up as a kid wanting to be a part of," Manuel said. "Being from Virginia we watched the Florida States and the Miamis and these were the types of games that they had. ... That's what you want to be a part of; that's what you want to play in.
"The situation couldn't be any better ... we just have got to go out there and play."