Leading up to taking questions following Wednesday evening’s practice, Dabo Swinney tried to unofficially poll the dozen or so media members and video recorder holders for how many were going to pick No. 10 Clemson to beat No. 4 Florida State on Saturday night.
It was a light-hearted exchange, culminating in Swinney telling a story about how his 1992 Alabama national championship team had let the one forecaster who had chosen the Tide in a major upset earlier that season lead the title parade around Tuscaloosa.
Only one attendee told Swinney he was selecting the Tigers, with the majority abstaining, yours included.
Swinney might well have been just making conversation for his own curiosity. Or he could have been gathering more kindling for the motivational fire Clemson is clearly stoking.
With an earnest chuckle and a smile, Swinney commented that no one believes the Tigers have a chance against the Seminoles.
What this observer felt compelled to note, as much in George Costanza-esque after-the-fact retort, was that such sentiment isn’t necessarily the case.
Clemson does stand a realistic shot at victory. But the odds just weigh in FSU’s favor.
Now, that’s not reflected in the betting line, nor the opinions of many predictions I’ve read this week.
Here’s what the ‘Noles have going for them: The defensive line is loaded with talent, with the starters being established high-end talent. The defense is overall healthier than it was in last year’s five-point loss at Clemson, and coordinator Mark Stoops has more personnel options at his disposal. FSU has a mobile quarterback this time around who can exploit Clemson’s tendency to be brought to its knees by scramblers, and this Tigers’ defense hasn’t given reason for their fan faithful to think they will consistently stop a decent offense.
Moreover, can’t help but get stuck on the fact that Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ offense has scored 23 points or less in four of his five true road games, with losses coming in three of those four decisions.
Now, that slide coincided with the phase in which quarterback Tajh Boyd got fat and happy, literally. Then there’s the variable for how much Sammy Watkins’ injury impacted two of those four offensive performances.
So, yes, it’s easy to see how or why FSU should win. Any maybe they do cover.
Yet the disparity between these teams just doesn’t look what it’s being made out to be.
The Seminoles should be a strong team, and maybe Jimbo Fisher is finally tying together his string of top-five recruiting classes into the sum of its parts.
But have we really seen evidence they’re there yet? Last season’s end-of-year results wasn’t exactly an “FSU-is-back” caliber surge. Nipped a ho-hum Notre Dame team in the bowl, beat a punchless Florida offense and split a pair of nail-biters against Virginia and Miami.
Improved? Certainly. Momentum building toward a successful season, perhaps even their first ACC title since 2005? Sure.
But can we hold Chief Osceola’s horses on them being an overpowering, abominable force until we have a body of work to point to?
Which brings us back to Clemson’s chances.
A number of schematic and personnel reasons why the Tigers could fare well. Morris has new wrinkles to unveil, too. The offensive line showed in the Auburn game that it can be superior to last year’s line, although that hinges on right tackle Gifford Timothy and left guard David Beasley being up to snuff. Tough to count out the ability of an offense featuring Sammy Watkins, Andre Ellington, DeAndre Hopkins and Tajh Boyd finding ways to put points on the board. Plus new defensive coordinator Brent Venables may well have a plan that matches well against FSU’s offense from his two wins against it as Oklahoma’s coordinator.
Maybe as pertinent as any of those visible components, though, is the notion for how Clemson perceives its underdog status.
Athletic superiority, refined skill, coaching Xs and Os, poise, execution under duress – it all dictates outcomes. Some folks believe that the emotion stuff goes out the window after a hit or two.
To some degree, there can be truth there. But I think we’ve all seen differences when an individual or team plays with a chip on its shoulder.
Doesn’t automatically make that team the better one that day. But it’s another feather in its cap.
And anyone who has paid attention to Clemson football the last decade has witnessed the pattern, which probably isn’t all that uncommon everywhere else, either.
When the Tigers truly perceive their backs to the wall, they tend to compete at a higher level, especially under Dabo Swinney.
It might be sophomore-ish to those outside the forum, but there is indeed no better way to rally and inspire high school and college age young men than to play the respect card. This specific game certainly doesn’t require extra motivation. But when it’s served to you on a 14-point spread platter, you take it if you’re a keen motivator like Swinney.
Take the emotion out of it, and I’m probably choosing FSU to win in a close one. The last two meetings were decided by five and three points, respectively, while the previous two – both 14-point victories, split decisions – were one-possession games midway through the fourth quarter.
So yeah, the Seminoles are just as likely to meet the spread. But that doesn’t mean the contest won’t be close and competitive.
All this rambling said, though, I can’t seem to remove the emotion from it (and not in any homerific way). Clemson players and coaches are conveying a palpable edge heading into this showdown, and that’s a favorable start.
At some point, they will have to weather a storm when momentum invariably swings in FSU’s favor at home.
I’ve written and rewritten this line several times, hedging between my preseason prediction (FSU 35-24) and my contrarian one (Clemson 27-24). So I’ll merge the two into …
PREDICTION: Clemson 31, FSU 27
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