- David M. Hale, College football
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To say this is the biggest game of the season for Florida State and Clemson might be an understatement. It's potentially the biggest game in a decade for two programs with sights set on a BCS title. There are myriad storylines at play, but these five areas to watch might be the biggest in determining which team emerges from Death Valley with a win.
1. The quarterbacks: The showdown between Heisman contenders Tajh Boyd and Jameis Winston has been discussed at length this week, and for good reason. Boyd's legacy might be on the line in this one. He has won big games before, but a loss would put Clemson's ACC title hopes in peril, and Boyd would hate to spend his final two seasons with the Tigers finishing in second place. Winston, meanwhile, faces a test unlike anything he's seen during his impressive five-game run to start his FSU career. Will Boyd's veteran savvy overwhelm Florida State? Will Winston live up to the moment the way he has at every turn thus far? Odds are, neither quarterback will disappoint, but only one of them can come out on top.
2. FSU's ground game: Lost in the talk of the quarterbacks is perhaps the more substantive issue of Florida State's ground game against a Clemson defense that has been feast or famine vs. the run this season. Clemson looks decent overall, ranking in the middle of the pack in rush yards allowed and racking up a national-best 61 tackles for loss. But dig deeper, and the Tigers don't look nearly so imposing. Against FBS teams, not counting sacks, Clemson is allowing 5.62 yards per rush -- good for 107th nationally. Meanwhile, FSU rushed for 287 yards in last year's win without this year's starter, Devonta Freeman, getting a single touch. Freeman, Karlos Williams and a healthy James Wilder Jr. could do a lot in opening things up for Winston in this year's game.
3. Clemson's pass rush: Looking back on the Tigers' Week 1 win over Georgia, the difference might have been the fearsome pass rush from Vic Beasley, which thwarted the Bulldogs momentum and allowed Clemson to take command. The same trend has followed all year, as Beasley leads the nation with with 9 sacks. Florida State's offensive line has been solid this season, but this is by far its biggest test. Allowing Winston time to look downfield will be crucial, particularly given the quarterback's penchant for avoiding check-downs in favor of the big play.
4. Ramsey's test: Jalen Ramsey opened the season by becoming the first Florida State freshman to start at corner since Deion Sanders. He acquitted himself nicely, but when Tyler Hunter went down with a season-ending neck injury, Ramsey was shuffled to safety, where he also has managed to hold his own. Of course, none of those games involved Boyd or Sammy Watkins, which makes this week's test a whole different animal. Last season, Terrence Brooks was burned for a long touchdown early, and that memory has lingered ever since. This season, both Ramsey and Brooks figure to be tested downfield. Boyd has 23 touchdown passes of 20 yards or more since the start of 2012 -- four more than any other quarterback in the nation.
5. The special teams: It has been 25 years since the famous "Puntrooskie" play that helped Florida State topple Clemson in 1988. But the significance of special teams in this rivalry shouldn't be lost to history. Perhaps the biggest play in last year's Florida State win was a 90-yard kickoff return by Lamarcus Joyner that swung all the momentum to Florida State's side midway through the third quarter. Clemson was up 10, but Joyner's return set up an EJ Manuel TD pass to ignite a 28-6 FSU run to end the game.
To say this is the biggest game of the season for Florida State and Clemson might be an understatement. It's potentially the biggest game in a decade for two programs with sights set on a BCS title.