That Florida State has remained a firm three-point favorite despite what seems to be relatively heavy gambling action in favor of Clemson, suggesting that the Vegas sharps see something else in this game. As is often true, the sharps will be correct here. Following are six reasons Florida State will walk out of Death Valley after a comfortable victory.
1) Clemson's offense is not what they were or what people think they are. The 2012 Clemson offense was among the best in the country, with Tajh Boyd surrounded by playmakers Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Brandon Ford, Andre Ellington, Charone Peake, and Martavis Bryant. It was a true "pick your poison" situation for opposing defenses, as there were always five true weapons on the field for Clemson.
This year, however, three of those players have moved on to the professional ranks, and Peake has been lost for the season with a knee injury. Their replacements have not been of the same level, leaving Watkins and an inconsistent Bryant as the two primary weapons that Florida State can focus on rather than having to account for five elite threats on the field at once. That difference has been visible against both NC State and Boston College so far this year, and it will be exposed against FSU's athletic defense.
Those losses are especially big in two areas: the Clemson running game and third down offense. Ellington was an elite back and Ford was a very good tight end who could both seal the edge in the running game while providing an outstanding receiving threat downfield, especially on third down. Clemson lacks an outstanding tight end this year, which has negatively impacted their ability to run the football and has hurt their ability to create mismatches in the passing game, especially on third down.
The loss of Hopkins only compounds that absence on third down, as Hopkins was statistically the best third-and-long wide receiver of the past decade in college football. Watkins and Bryant can both stretch defenses downfield, but Hopkins was incredibly reliable when plays needed to be made and created space for those other receivers to work. This year's FSU defense will simply need to account for fewer playmakers around Boyd and therefore be better able to apply pressure over the course of the game.
3) The right side of Clemson's offensive line has been a major liability this year. The Tigers will likely start 6'4, 280 pound sophomore Shaq Anthony at right tackle in place of 6'6, 315 junior Gifford Timothy, who has slower feet and has had trouble in pass protection. Anthony, however, lacks power and experience and will be a target for the exotic blitzes FSU will throw at Clemson all game. The Tigers will struggle to run the football and protect Boyd's right side, which is a big reason Boyd's performance against the blitz has not been as good this year as it has been in the past. Watch that right side of the Tiger offense all game to see one of the bigger advantages the Noles will have in this game.
4) Seminole defensive coordinator's defense is built to stop exactly what Clemson does on offense. FSU has pretty close to the ideal personnel to run an anti-spread scheme, and we should see a lot of 3-3-5 personnel packages with Christian Jones in his natural position on the edge as a hybrid end/linebacker. FSU is less well-suited to stop the jumbo power packages showed by Boston College three weeks ago and which they'll see when they face Florida at the end of the year, but Clemson does not have the personnel to take advantage of the Seminoles' weaknesses on defense. The Tigers are an outstanding team, but this is as poor a matchup for them as they could get. I think the Tigers will have a difficult time scoring over 24 points in this game without significant turnover help from FSU.
5) Florida State will neutralize Clemson's outstanding pass rush. Clemson's defense is significantly better than the one Florida State faced in 2012 and has feasted on opposing offenses on passing downs, thanks to a fierce pass rush led by explosive end Vic Beasley. Jimbo Fisher, however, will protect his young quarterback by throwing on first down and avoiding those long yardage situations, maintaining leverage against a Clemson defense that has only been a little above average on neutral downs (first down, second and medium, etc.).
Another underestimated factor in this game is the size of FSU quarterback Jameis Winston. I remember hearing USC defenders talk about how much bigger Vince Young was than they had realized, making it so much more difficult to tackle him even after getting to him. It may well be a similar situation for Clemson in this one. As good as Beasley is, he's still only about 235 pounds—meaning he is no bigger than Winston. Even if he does get to the quarterback, Winston may still be able to keep plays alive by breaking tackles inside and outside the pocket, much like he's done all year.
5) Clemson's safeties have been a serious liability for the Tigers all year, taking poor angles and missing tackles in the secondary. With FSU's speed across the board, that's a bad recipe, and safety is about the last place you want a weakness against Winston, who throws as good a deep ball as anyone in the country and has thrown with accuracy between the hashes. Unless the Tiger safeties change their stripes for this one, the big plays they have been giving up could be killer in this one.
That weakness will help limit the kinds of blitzes Clemson is able to throw at Winston, which will also allow big-play threat Karlos Williams on the field more at running back as the game carries on, with Williams' explosiveness a clear X-factor.
6) Finally, although punting remains a minor weakness for the Noles, Florida State will have an edge on special teams. Do not be surprised to see Williams or Kermit Whitfield make a difference in this game with a big kickoff return, and young kicker Roberto Aguayo gives FSU a reliable weapon both on kickoffs and on field goals that Clemson simply does not have.
All told, the one hope Clemson has here is to come out swinging and finish the first quarter up by two touchdowns or more. If FSU is able to weather the initial storm of the early emotion, I expect the Seminoles to win comfortably, as the gap between these teams is even bigger than it was last year. Florida State wins, 41-20. (Win Probability: 70%).
Geoff: I do not think that Florida State could be better prepared for this game. Despite the weak schedule, both Pitt and BC were on the road and FSU struggled early, but responded behind the aerial attack of Jameis Winston. The 'Noles probably can't get off to a similar start in Death Valley and I do not expect them to. Pre-season the big question mark for FSU was the quarterback position. It was a legitimate concern at the time and it gave Clemson a HUGE edge in this game with senior Tahj Boyd. That edge no longer exists and I like FSU's depth of talent across the roster. Winston will come to play, but it will be the FSU running game that puts this game away. Florida State wins, 45-24.