Clemson and Florida State are set to renew their rivalry under unusual circumstances.
For the first time in a long time, there’s no national ranking attached to either team. Neither one, at least as of now, is in serious contention in the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The teams enter the weekend with a combined record of .500.
But don’t tell Clemson coach Dabo Swinney this year’s matchup feels different.
“It’s Clemson-Florida State,” Swinney said. “It’s a huge game. Has been forever and will be forever. There’s no doubt about that.”
The teams will square off Saturday at Memorial Stadium for their first matchup since 2019 after a contentious pause in the series last season amid the coronavirus pandemic. It will also be Clemson’s first home game since squeaking out a win over Boston College on Oct. 2, which extended the Tigers’ 31-game home winning streak that will be put on the line in a game that figures to be more competitive than most would’ve expected at the beginning of the season.
“We need to really have the Valley at its best, and we need to be at our best as a team,” Swinney said.
With an offense that continues to struggle mightily, Clemson (4-3, 3-2 ACC) has already lost three games for the first time since 2014 after falling at Pitt last week. D.J. Uiagalelei threw a pair of interceptions, including a pick-six, which got him briefly benched for the first time this season and opened the door to a quarterback competition during practice this week between he and backup Taisun Phommachanh, who played two series in the second half — one of those resulting in points — before Uiagalelei re-entered the game in the fourth quarter.
Uiagalelei was still listed as QB1 on Clemson’s updated depth chart earlier this week, but that was based more on the pecking order at the end of last week’s game. Swinney said everything would be evaluated between the two throughout the week before a starter is ultimately determined.
The Tigers still rank 115th nationally or worse in points, yards and passing yards despite the ground game finding some consistency recently. Clemson, which averaged 5.5 yards a carry against Pitt, is averaging more than 170 rushing yards over its last three games, though the Tigers won’t have leading rusher Kobe Pace (COVID-19 protocols) this week.
“I know everyone is going to focus on the quarterback, but we’re just evaluating everything,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We are where we are, and we understand some of the challenges. But we’ve got to evaluate everything to see what we need to do to give our guys the best opportunity to be successful and see can we get this thing fllpped and turned, hit that switch and start clicking on all cylinders.”
Meanwhile, Florida State (3-4, 2-2) is playing some of its best football with three straight wins after an 0-4 start to the second season of the Mike Norvell era. The Seminoles have done it primarily with a rushing attack that’s taken off with Jordan Travis permanently at the controls of the offense.
FSU’s primary backs, Jashaun Corbin (683 rushing yards) and Treshaun Ward (419, are both averaging more than 7 yards per carry. Travis also poses a threat with his legs as a dual-threat quarterback.
“Their two running backs and quarterback are probably as explosive as anybody with the ball in their hands,” safety Nolan Turner said.
Stopping FSU’s run game starts with corralling Travis, who’s changed the dynamic of FSU’s offense with his legs since being inserted into the starting lineup permanently Oct. 2 against Syracuse. In the three games since, Travis has accounted for 711 total yards and eight touchdowns with just one interception.
He’s averaging 104 rushing yards during FSU’s winning streak. Clemson has already seen one true dual threat in Syracuse’s Garrett Shrader, whom the Tigers held to a season-low 6 net rushing yards. But Travis is a different kind of elusive than the tall, long-strided Shrader, Swinney said.
“He can flat out beat you by himself,” Swinney said. “They’re doing a great job schematically and really taking advantage of his gifts. He can throw the ball down the field, but man he can just move. Out of the pocket. Designed runs. He can scramble. He’s created a lot of explosives.
“He’s dangerous. He’s hard to corral even when you blitz him. He makes people miss. And when you’re playing man coverage and somebody misses, it’s a huge play.”
Clemson will counter with a defense that’s largely hemmed up every running game it’s seen this season. The Tigers rank 29th nationally against the run (120 yards per game) and, with defensive tackle Tyler Davis back in the fold, will try to take away the Seminoles’ strength and make Travis try to beat them with his arm.
Clemson would like to think it could force some turnovers if it does that, which has been another key to FSU’s 180-degree turn. After committing 10 turnovers through their first four games, the Seminoles have turned it over just three times during their winning streak.
“We know that’s going to beat you every time,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Turnovers is the key to winning and losing. … They’re doing a great job developing their team.”
It’s one facet that will go a long way toward deciding a game that still matters around these parts despite the records and standings.
“It’s important to a lot of people,” Swinney said.
Clemson Variety & Frame is doing their part to help bring you some classic new barware and help one of the local businesses that helps make Clemson special.
Order your Nick’s barware and do your part to help. #SaveNicks