Florida State Seminoles: 2013-FSU-Clemson

FSU, Clemson both revert to old ways

October, 20, 2013

CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the third quarter of Saturday’s dismantling of No. 3-ranked Clemson, Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith approached wide receivers coach Lawrence Dawsey on the sideline and asked him a question about his playing days with the Noles, an era in which the program experienced its first four 10-win, top-five poll finishes.

“I said, ‘This is how it felt when y’all were doin’ it?’” Smith said. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely how it was.’”

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin, Darius Robinson
AP Photo/Richard ShiroKelvin Benjamin and FSU looked like the Seminoles of old and there was little Clemson could do about it.
They’re back -- Florida State AND Clemson.

On Saturday night in Death Valley, on the biggest stage college football had to offer in the first half of the season, both No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State reverted back to their signature ways. For the Seminoles, that meant playing with a confidence and swagger not seen since the ’90s. It meant an elite group of athletes who simply looked superior against what was expected to be their toughest opponent of the season. For Clemson, it meant imploding like it was 2008. It meant another monumental collapse when it mattered most -- an embarrassing 51-14 loss on home turf with national title implications at stake.

Florida State didn’t just look like the best team on the field on Saturday. The Seminoles looked like one of the best teams in the country. Period.

“We’ve got that swag,” quarterback Jameis Winston said with a smile.

This would have been a different story had Clemson lost a close, exciting, hard-fought game, but the Tigers were flat-out dismissed at home by a better team. From the opening play of the game, a Clemson turnover that led to an FSU touchdown, the Tigers looked rattled and out of sorts -- exactly how many expected FSU to look on the road. FSU proved that the gap between the two programs was far wider than their top-five rankings have indicated. The Noles proved that they are good enough to be great again.

“Since my four years here, I think this is the first brotherhood I’ve been a part of to embrace that challenge, because of the tradition and the history we have here,” cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. “There’s so much pressure to pick that back up, and this has been the first team to embrace that. And we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”

For all of the hype surrounding this game, all of the build-up and questions swirling around Winston, whether or not the 19-year-old would be able to handle the unforgiving environment of Death Valley -- the rookie redshirt literally smiled in the face of it before taking his first snap. Winston practically scoffed at the notion crowd noise might fluster them.

"I said, 'Guys, we don’t play against noise,'" Winston said. "'We’re playing against the Clemson Tigers.'"

This team is not cocky, but it’s good and it knows it. So does anyone who watched the game. Florida State’s receivers seemingly can’t miss. As good as the offense was, the defense was the story of the game. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd was sacked four times. He threw two picks and one touchdown and completed just 17-of-37 attempts for 156 yards. It was arguably the worst game of his career, considering he was the veteran at home, and he was outplayed by Winston.

“I just didn’t perform the way I was capable,” Boyd said. “As a leader, it’s my job to go out and lead and perform, and I just didn’t do that tonight. There were a couple moments that I would like to have back, but you just have to keep on working.”

Florida State had the edge in just about every matchup. Offensive lineman Cameron Erving kept Vic Beasley at bay, and while Winston was sacked three times, none came from Beasley. The Noles had two 100-yard pass catchers as tight end Nick O'Leary had 161 yards on five catches and Rashad Greene had 146 yards and two touchdowns on eight catches.

Sammy Watkins was limited to eight catches for 68 yards and a touchdown.

“I feel like I have the best receiving corps in the whole land,” Winston said. “It tells. Stats tell. Sammy had a great game, he’s a great person. Our defense had an even better game. Tajh had a good game, but my guys -- I feel like our team is legit, too legit to quit. They are playing amazing.”

No team left on the Noles’ schedule -- including Miami or Florida -- has looked comparable to Florida State so far, and FSU further distanced itself from the rest of the ACC on Saturday night with the country watching.

Nobody got a closer look, though, than the Tigers.

“Florida State might be the best team in the nation,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “... They might be the best team in the country.”

Clemson certainly did its part in helping them look like it.

CLEMSON, S.C. -- The game was over, but for the final seconds still waiting to tick off the clock. A horde of Florida State fans were all that remained of a sell-out crowd in Death Valley. They cheered their quarterback's name from the edge of the stands, while a few overwhelmed security personnel held signs asking them not to climb the wall.

It didn't matter.

The game ended, the crowd poured onto the field and surrounded Jameis Winston, their conquering hero.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Bryan Stork
AP Photo/Mike StewartFlorida State and quarterback Jameis Winston throttled Clemson on Saturday night, at one point scoring 34 unanswered points en route to a 51-14 victory.
Winston talked to television reporters, then escaped to the locker room to change into a perfectly tailored gray suit with a purple tie. He emerged like a politician at a rally, eyes bulging and arms waving as he regaled the assembled media with the rhetoric of practice and preparation and the will to be great.

This is what has galvanized Florida State's fans, Florida State's players and Florida State's coaches.

Jameis Winston, the quarterback, was exceptional in dismantling No. 3 Clemson 51-14 on Saturday. He completed 22 of 34 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns, adding a fourth on the ground. His lone interception was the fault of a broken headset that resulted in a bad play call, coach Jimbo Fisher said. In four ACC games, Winston has topped 300 yards and three touchdowns every time. He helped FSU score the most points a visiting team has ever tallied in Death Valley.

But it was Jameis Winston, the leader, who was front and center Saturday.

"You see what he does every week," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "It's to the point where we come into an environment like this and we say, OK, we know what Jameis and the offense is going to do. Everyone looks up to that guy."

For two weeks, Florida State heard about the noise in Death Valley. The Seminoles were asked to relive five straight losses here. They were told, again and again, that this game would define their season.

Winston slept on the bus ride to the stadium.

"One in a million quarterbacks act like that," receiver Kelvin Benjamin said.

When he arrived, Winston was all energy, of course, but he was hardly bothered by the 83,428 fans berating the Seminoles from the opening snap. Winston stepped into the huddle for FSU's first drive, and he grinned a familiar smile.

"I said, 'Guys, we don't play against noise,'" Winston said. "'We're playing the Clemson Tigers.' And we played our hearts out."

Florida State scored on that drive, and then eight of the next 11. Winston was electric on every one.

Asked after it was over for the difference between last year's Seminoles -- a team that lost two games and often played down to its competition -- and this year's group, Winston offered a simplistic, yet utterly reasonable answer.

"We've got that swag," he grinned.

That swag comes directly from the freshman quarterback with a fiery competitiveness and overwhelming confidence few players his age share. But what sets Winston apart from even the best of his competition is that through it all, playing football remains immensely fun.

"He throws jokes," Benjamin said. "If you look at us a lot of times in the huddle, we're laughing. It's like pee-wee football all over again."

Winston laughed in the locker room with teammates. He danced on the field during warm-ups. He soaked in the rabid Clemson fan base, and he relished the moment.

It's simply who he is, but his teammates took notice.

"He's not coached up to be a leader that way. He's being himself," Joyner said. "When someone is genuine like that -- it's very rare in this culture to have someone that's genuine at heart like that, so we respect it and we go off that. Guys walk around all serious, and you see Jameis all goofy before a big-time game like this, it's like, 'OK, let's do this, man.'"

It's all fun for the Seminoles at this point. With Saturday's win, they boast a resume worthy of consideration as the nation's top team. Several players suggested they were, in fact, No. 1, but Winston stopped just short.

There's more work to do, Winston assured, but if his team prepares the way it has, the Seminoles can play with anyone.

"Our team is legit," he said. "Too legit to quit."

He's serious, and he's not. He means every word he says, but he's also enjoying every moment he gets to address a crowd and embrace the spotlight. The stage on Saturday was immense, and Winston couldn't wait for his chance to embrace it.

"I've got so much confidence in that kid, just him being himself," receiver Rashad Greene said. "I knew he wasn't going to let his teammates down."

The performance figures to vault Winston to the forefront of the Heisman discussion. Greene said that's exactly where he belongs. But Florida State likely has seven more games to play before then, which means the award isn't likely to be much of a consideration.

"I know he's not worried about a Heisman," Greene said.

Instead, Winston said he was just looking forward to food and sleep when it was over.

"One game at a time," Winston said. "We're not doing the partying or the rah-rah stuff."

Instant analysis: FSU 51, Clemson 14

October, 19, 2013

CLEMSON, S.C. -- It had been 12 years since Florida State won in Death Valley, but Jameis Winston insisted that didn't matter. This was a new Seminoles team, and they weren't interested in the past.

After No. 5 Florida State's 51-14 dismantling of No. 3 Clemson, however, comparisons to the past seem entirely appropriate. The Seminoles look to be every bit as good as they did in their 1990s heyday, and Winston is on a Heisman pace that mirrors the campaigns of Charlie Ward or Chris Weinke.

It was a dominant performance all around, and Florida State now appears firmly in the BCS championship mix.

It was over when: Winston drove Florida State 42 yards for a touchdown to open the third quarter. The Seminoles had all the momentum to end the first half, but just hadn't driven the final dagger through Clemson's comeback hopes, but a long kick return by Levonte Whitfield and a personal foul flag gave Winston a short field, and he delivered quickly. The touchdown put FSU up 34-7, and Clemson showed little life afterward.

Game ball goes to: Winston is the easy choice, but it's impossible to ignore the impact cornerback Lamarcus Joyner had on this game. He forced three turnovers, including a fumble on Clemson's first offensive play. FSU turned that into a touchdown to set the tone for how the rest of the game would unfold. Another forced fumble on a sack of Tajh Boyd led to a field goal, and Joyner added a pick at the end of the first half to complete the hat trick. For good measure, he shadowed Sammy Watkins for much of the game, and Clemson's passing game was effectively shut down throughout.

Stat of the game: 444. That's the number of yards Winston threw for against Clemson on Saturday, to go with three passing touchdowns and another on the ground. Winston has now played in four ACC games, and he's topped 300 yards and three scores in each one. There were plenty of other numbers worth noting -- FSU created four turnovers for the first time in two years, Boyd had perhaps the worst start of his career -- but Winston was the showstopper. His Heisman campaign is gaining steam with every game.

What Clemson learned: The Tigers aren't the class of the ACC. Perhaps it's unfair to judge Clemson too harshly here. Florida State is obviously a great team, and the momentum shifted in Florida State's favor so quickly that the Tigers had little chance to recover. Boyd struggled badly though, and whether it's fair or not, his long and successful career will certainly be remembered, in part, by his inability to beat Florida State during his final two seasons in Clemson.

What Florida State learned: The Seminoles' defense is really good. After a rough start to the season in which the unit looked shaky against the likes of Bethune-Cookman and Boston College, there were legitimate concerns that new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt had installed a scheme that simply wasn't going to work with FSU's personnel. Turns out, they just needed a little time. Pruitt's 3-5-3 scheme worked to perfection against Clemson's spread offense, and Joyner, Telvin Smith and Christian Jones led the charge in a dominant defensive performance against one of the nation's elite offensive units.

What it means: Florida State is a legitimate national-title contender. It's tough to predict what the BCS standings will look like when they come out for the first time this week, but the Seminoles have easily the most impressive win of the season in college football, and they've rolled both of the ranked opponents they've played. Winston may be a Heisman favorite, the defense is clicking on all cylinders, and the Seminoles have now topped 40 points in every game this season. It's a resume that stacks up nicely against Oregon and Alabama.

#CampusConnection: Noles-Tigers Live

October, 19, 2013
The first top-5 matchup of the season – and the first in the ACC in eight years -- is almost here. As Florida State and Clemson battle it out on the field, head on over to Campus Connection at 8 ET and follow the action along with five of our reporters, including three from Death Valley.

Post your comments and questions and we’ll include as many of them as possible.

Get ramped up for Florida State-Clemson

October, 19, 2013

Editor's note: To watch the show on your smartphone, click here.

Get ready for Florida State-Clemson as reporters Andrea Adelson and Mark Schlabach preview Saturday night’s Top 5 matchup. Join us at 7:45 p.m. ET.

FSU-Clemson puts ACC in spotlight

October, 19, 2013
The most anticipated college football game in the ACC will kick off in Death Valley later today, putting the league squarely in the national spotlight.

That is where the league wants to stay.

Either Clemson or Florida State will remain a national championship contender. The loser has a shot at staying in the top 10, and earning an at-large BCS berth should it win out.

"We are the only league out there that's got three undefeated teams, and to have two of them not only match up and play, but be in the same division, I think it's great," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "I don't have any doubt that regardless of the outcome of this game, Clemson and Florida State are going to be very much in the picture the rest of the year. This is two really good football teams that are going to do everything they can to win this game."

Indeed, for the second straight year both teams face each other ranked in the top 10, with both national championship and ACC title hopes on the line. The winner of this game has produced the Atlantic Division representative in the ACC championship game in each of the last four years, making Florida State-Clemson a burgeoning rivalry.

The high stakes only add to it.

"You have a rivalry, it's usually when both teams are very competitive and both teams have success and it will decide something, and this has definitely become that in my opinion," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.

So who has the edge? Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who faced both teams already this year, has been besieged with that question from the media, friends and even family. Even he is undecided.

"They're really both two outstanding teams. I mean, absolutely justified in the rankings that they have," Addazio said. "They could be No. 1. They're that talented. They're each a little different maybe, but at the end of the day, they've got two powerful defenses, two explosive quarterbacks and teams that are loaded with playmakers. So I just think you're going to see one of the truly outstanding football games of the season. I think it's great for the ACC to have the quality of teams that we have in here, and now you have two of these teams on a national stage.

"I can tell you from my years in the SEC and in the Big Ten and different places I've been that I would put these two teams up against anybody."

This game is the headliner, but there are several others on the ACC slate in Week 8 that will have potential bowl ramifications. Here is a quick look at the other matchups.

Syracuse (3-3, 1-1) at Georgia Tech (3-3, 2-2), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. Even though the Jackets have lost three straight, their average of 421.3 yards of total offense ranks as the sixth-highest in school history. Syracuse, meanwhile, is averaging 220.7 yards per game on the ground -- on pace to be the team’s best mark since 1998 (228.4). The Orange have posted back-to-back 300-yard rushing games, the first time that has happened since 2003.

Maryland (5-1, 1-1) at Wake Forest (3-3, 1-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. There is no doubt Maryland has to keep an eye on Wake Forest receiver Michael Campanaro, who has two games this season with double-digit receptions. He needs 11 catches to pass Desmond Clark (1995-98) as the school's career receptions leader. Clark holds the mark with 216. Meanwhile, the Maryland run offense will provide a big challenge for the Deacs. Nikita Whitlock, who has 11.5 tackles for loss, will be a big key.

Duke (4-2, 0-2) at Virginia (2-4, 0-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. One team will pick up its first ACC win of the season. One key matchup to watch is Virginia running back Kevin Parks against the Duke run defense. The Blue Devils have shown flashes of defensive improvement but have been wildly inconsistent. They had a great showing last week, but coach David Cutcliffe wants to see that type of performance each week. Parks, meanwhile, had his third 100-yard rushing day last week against Maryland, giving him consecutive 100-yard rushing days.

Old Dominion (4-2) at Pitt (3-2), 7 p.m., ESPN3. The Panthers' run game has come to a screeching halt over the last two weeks, with a combined 31 yards on the ground against Virginia and Virginia Tech. Some of that has to do with the sacks that have lost yardage, but no running back has gone over 31 yards rushing since the win over Duke on Sept. 21. Coach Paul Chryst says there are a few things that can be done schematically to help the Panthers get back on track.

Five things: Florida State-Clemson

October, 19, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargeVic Beasley
Jerome Davis/Icon SMIClemson DE Vic Beasley has recorded nine sacks in six games, including three multi-sack games.
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.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The last Florida State quarterback to win a game at Clemson was a freshman.

It happened in 2001, and Chris Rix didn't realize he was supposed to be intimidated. He was from California, and the chaos of Death Valley was completely foreign to him. Ignorance, it turned out, was a luxury.

When Rix returned two seasons later, the noise and the energy and the crowd made for an overwhelming obstacle. James Robert Kennedy, the inspiration for the movie "Radio," led the Tigers down the hill and onto the field. The game hadn't begun, and Rix knew Florida State was in trouble.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJameis Winston will get his first taste of the Death Valley experience on Saturday night.
"We had just seen the movie," Rix said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, shoot.' "

The No. 3-ranked Seminoles, fresh off a 37-0 thumping of Notre Dame, were stunned by Clemson, beginning a run of five straight losses in Death Valley -- a streak that looms over them in Saturday's matchup like a black cloud.

In four of the five losses during this streak, Florida State was the higher-ranked team when it arrived in Clemson. The players have changed -- from the veteran Rix in 2003 to Clint Trickett making his first start in relief of an injured EJ Manuel in 2011 -- and the results have been the same. There have been close losses (a 35-30 final in 2011) and ugly ones (35-14 in 2005, part of a three-game overall losing streak to end the regular season).

For all of its success under coach Jimbo Fisher, all of the rebuilding the program has done in the past four seasons, this remains a towering obstacle, and the Seminoles are making it a point of emphasis this week.

"Twelve years? That's crazy," senior linebacker Telvin Smith said. "I know I haven't won there, and that's a goal of mine. That's what this team is about -- overcoming obstacles and being defiant."

And yet, Death Valley has a history of swallowing up the defiant and overwhelming the unprepared.

Few ACC venues provide the same unwaveringly intimidating atmosphere, from the crazed crowd to the deafening noise to the frenetic entrance Clemson's players make, charging down the hill and onto the field, ready for battle.

"It's a crazy atmosphere, especially at the beginning of the game," Smith said. "If you're not a strong-minded person, you can definitely get intimidated in there."

Fisher said the atmosphere at Clemson compares favorably to the most intense SEC stadiums, and he said he'll wear two sets of headphones just to tune out the crowd noise and ignore the claustrophobic confines. James Wilder Jr. said tailbacks can't hear a quarterback standing just a few feet away. Former FSU coach Bobby Bowden said Clemson and LSU were easily the loudest stadiums in which he ever coached. It's an environment tailback Karlos Williams said can't be replicated in practice, though he said Fisher tries to rattle his players by pumping in "terrible" music over loudspeakers during the week.

Still, as Fisher said, it's not the atmosphere that has stymied Florida State for the past 12 years -- it's the players on the field.

"Does the atmosphere make the players, or do the players make the stadium?" Fisher said. "First off, they have good players. Secondly, they're coached extremely well. And then third, to have a great environment of 80,000 folks that love football and are very passionate, I think all three of those things make it very tough to win in Death Valley."

When Florida State takes the field this season, again there will be a freshman at quarterback, and Jameis Winston insists he's not the type to be overwhelmed by his surroundings. Instead, he said, he's eager for the opportunity.

Many of Winston's teammates know exactly what to expect, however, and the memories of that 2011 loss remain fresh in their minds.

"We left with a nasty taste in our mouths last time," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We were there, knowing we should've won that game. We're going up there now, knowing it's going to be a loud, hostile environment. It's setting up for a great game."

Looking back on that win in 2001, Rix said his naiveté was a weapon on the field but admitted he never would have imagined that 12 years later, Florida State would still be looking for its next win in Death Valley.

When Clemson and Florida State take the field Saturday, however, the magnitude of the game and the environment won't be lost on anyone. With 12 years of frustration behind them, and a national championship potentially on the horizon, the Seminoles know what's at stake.

"I'm ready," safety Terrence Brooks said. "They know the expectations for this game. It's going to be a good one, and I can't wait."

Death Valley is their fortress. And come Saturday night, Clemson players know they must use their home field to their great advantage.

That is simply how it works at Memorial Stadium.

Flash back to the opener against top-five opponent Georgia, with all the noise, the overstuffed grandstands, the goose-bump-raising run down The Hill with Dabo Swinney memorably showing off his 4.4 40 skills. Clemson won 38-35 thanks to an assist from its manic crowd.

Georgia offensive lineman Chris Burnette, a fifth-year senior used to his fair share of ear-popping SEC stadiums, admitted, “Clemson was one of the more electric games and stadiums and atmospheres that I've been in since I've been playing.”

Clemson's Death Valley
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson fans aim to break a record for the loudest crowd roar at a stadium.
Everybody at Clemson expects a more electric atmosphere against No. 6 Florida State, given the higher stakes on the line. Both teams not only want to keep their national championship hopes alive, but the winner here gets the upper hand in the race to the ACC title game.

To that end, the Clemson athletic department announced this week that it wants to break the Guinness World Record for loudest crowd roar at a sports stadium on the first defensive snap of the game. The current record -- 137.5 decibels -- was set just last week at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City during a Chiefs game.

Florida State practiced all week with noise piped in, standard procedure when it hits the road. But Clemson is not Pitt, nor is it Boston College. Clemson is a place where noise truly does become a factor.

The Seminoles have not won at Clemson since 2001, but they are not alone in their Death Valley struggles. Swinney is 18-2 in ACC home games (.900), the highest winning percentage in league history. He recently moved ahead of former Clemson coach Ken Hatfield, who had a 12-1-1 record at home against league foes from 1990 to '93. Bobby Bowden is third on the all-time list for home winning percentage at .861, with a 62-10 record in home ACC games at Florida State.

“Playing here in Death Valley, we’re trying not to ever lose a game,” defensive end Vic Beasley said. “It’s a great atmosphere; the fans support us and it’s a great place to play. When we come out here, we don’t want anybody to invade our territory.”

South Carolina was the last team to do the invading, winning last year in Death Valley. But you have to go back to 2010 to find the last ACC team to win in Death Valley: Miami, 30-21. The Hurricanes went into the game as the higher-ranked team and did not let the surroundings intimidate them.

“It’s not intimidating because once you’re on the field, you eliminate all the distractions in the stands,” said Miami receiver Allen Hurns, who played special teams as a freshman in that game. “You have to focus on what you have to get accomplished.”

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston also tried to downplay the advantages the Tigers have playing at home, saying, “All the noise stuff, the way we communicate on the field and the way we do things, I don’t really think that’s going to be a big factor. From the momentum standpoint, if the crowd gets into it and their players start getting amped up, that will probably be a big factor in the game, but the noise I don’t think has nothing to do with our offense.”

Winston has never experienced Death Valley, nor an atmosphere anywhere close to the one he will be a part of Saturday, so he can only assume what awaits him and his teammates.

His counterpart, Tajh Boyd, already knows.

“Clemson is different from any stadium I’ve ever played at because the fans truly are a factor,” Boyd said. “A lot of teams like to call their field the 12th man and this and that, but Clemson really does have an influence. If you look at that redshirt sophomore year, when we won those three games in a row -- Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech -- the Auburn game, I really, truly believe the interception came because it was so loud. It was crazy. The defense feeds off of that. The offense feeds off of that. It’s a ridiculous place to play in.

“The Florida State game [in 2011], whoever sacked Clint Trickett that year, the place just went into an uproar. Same way with the Georgia game this year. It’s live every game, but you get one of those real huge teams coming in here and it’s a ridiculous place to play at.”

For the record, it was Rennie Moore who had the key sack on Trickett on fourth down late in the game, with the Seminoles trying to drive for the winning score.

There was plenty to play for in that game. Both teams were in the Top 25, with ACC title hopes hanging in the balance. This game, though, means so much more. It just might be the best home atmosphere any Clemson player has experienced.

“Our fans, the environment they create, it's very, very loud, and then we've got good players that have really bought into taking a lot of pride in playing here at home,” Swinney said. “If you’re going to be a consistent program, you have to be consistent at home. Our guys have done a great job of that over the last few years.”

Indeed, home-field advantage could be the difference in the game.

University of Georgia reporter David Ching and ACC reporter Heather Dinich contributed to this report.

Video: ACC Game of the Week

October, 17, 2013

David Hale in Tallahassee previews Saturday's matchup between No. 5 Florida State and No. 3 Clemson.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was perhaps the signature play of running back James Wilder Jr.'s career, and he's gotten to watch it over and over this week.

Florida State clung to a four-point lead as the fourth quarter began in last season's game against Clemson, and Wilder had carried the ball just twice. His third run, however, changed the entire dynamic of the game.

[+] EnlargeDevonta Freeman
Zuma Press/Icon SMIRB Devonta Freeman, who leads the Seminoles in rushing this season with 385 yards, didn't have a touch in last season's win over Clemson.
Wilder took the handoff from EJ Manuel, barreled over defenders, stiff-armed another and broke free for 35 yards to the Clemson 9-yard line. Two plays later, he scored, and Florida State cruised to a 49-37 win.

In the week leading up to this season's game, friends and fans have reminded Wilder of that run repeatedly, sending pictures and videos to his phone along with a message.

"'Do this again,'" Wilder said. "Everybody tells me every day, 'Stiff-arm them like last year.'"

As Florida State preps for this week's top-five showdown against Clemson, Wilder is finally feeling like that might be a possibility. Through the first five games of the season, his longest run is 24 yards -- 11 shy of his highlight against the Tigers in 2012 -- and he has been hampered by a sore shoulder since the opener.

But after a lighter workload early in the season and an off week to heal up, Wilder said he's finally feeling ready to run with that same bruising power he displayed last season.

"My shoulder is OK, full and back again," he said. "I feel more comfortable running the ball, not holding my arm up or nothing like that, using it like I’m supposed to. No hesitation."

That's good news for a Florida State running game that has flashed plenty of potential in the early part of the season but still hasn't clicked on all cylinders.

Against two overmatched nonconference opponents, FSU averaged a stellar 8.4 yards per carry, scoring 10 times on the ground. But in its three ACC games, Florida State is moving the ball at a far more pedestrian rate of 4.4 yards per rush with just six touchdowns. That's more than a yard per carry less than the Seminoles averaged in ACC games last season.

"There is definitely room for improvement," left tackle Cameron Erving said. "We feel we've left a lot out there every week."

If Florida State plans to improve those numbers this week, Clemson figures to provide an interesting challenge.

The Tigers rank in the middle of the pack in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing an average of 3.9 yards per carry this season. That's actually a solid improvement from a year ago, when FSU ran for 287 yards against them. What's more, Clemson leads the country in tackles for loss with 61, with its defensive line making a slew of big plays behind the line of scrimmage.

But break down the numbers a bit more, and there does seem to be room for optimism for Florida State. Against FBS teams, Clemson is 12th in the ACC, allowing 4.43 yards per rush. Factor out yardage lost on sacks and examine only running plays, and opponents are averaging 5.62 yards per rush, 19th-most in the nation. And on all plays in which a runner makes it across the line of scrimmage, Clemson's defense has been gouged for 6.6 yards per rush.

"It seemed like they were kind of struggling to stop the run [against Georgia and Syracuse]," Wilder said, "but they're at home, and you can't really look at that."

Rather than worry about Clemson's stats, Florida State is focused on improving its own fundamentals. Erving said the tailbacks have worked to be a bit more patient, and Devonta Freeman, who didn't have a touch in last year's win, said a few new wrinkles were worked into the ground attack.

Freeman thinks the two weeks FSU has had to prepare against its own defense in practice should have the Seminoles ready.

"They're a very aggressive team. Their D-linemen and linebackers play as a whole unit," Freeman said. "But I feel like we see that every day in practice with our defense. It's going to be great competition to be out there."

Wilder has had plenty of reminders of what's expected, and he has passed along that motivation to his teammates in the Florida State backfield.

Last season's game showed the potential, but this season has shown there's still more work to be done.

"We’re definitely nowhere near satisfied, nowhere near our expectations running the ball," Wilder said. "We definitely are trying to pick it up this week.”

Recruits' eyes will be on Death Valley 

October, 17, 2013
Clemson and Florida State aren't going head-to-head for a bunch of prospects in this year's cycle, but both teams definitely would reap the benefits of a win Saturday.

What's more, the Tigers will have a plethora of national recruits on campus that night, including some on the list below. Will a win help sway these prospects?

Trash talking spices up FSU-Clemson

October, 16, 2013

In his weekly news conference, Jimbo Fisher was asked about the challenges presented by Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins. The Florida State coach shrugged and smiled.

"You got about an hour?" Fisher laughed before reeling off a string of compliments that actually lasted about a minute.

The praise for Watkins is nearly unanimous among Florida State's players, too, with all of the Seminoles' top defenders offering one platitude after another during the past two weeks.

[+] EnlargeTelvin Smith
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsTelvin Smith (22) and the FSU defense must their physical play with their strong words against Clemson.
But all of that figures to end once the teams take the field on Saturday because, as good as Watkins is with his legs and his hands, he might be even better with his mouth.

"It just comes out, whether it’s a profanity or just nice words," Watkins said of his on-field conversations with Florida State players. "It just happens."

Watkins isn't alone. In a rivalry game with so many implications on both the conference and national levels. The intensity is always high, and that leads to ample trash talk.

It also just so happens that Florida State and Clemson are experts in that area.

"We get into it with a lot of teams. I don't know why us," FSU receiver Kenny Shaw said. "That's something [that happens] when you've got two big teams playing each other."

Shaw and Watkins are actually close friends, which adds some extra juice to the rivalry.

A South Florida native, Watkins knows many of Florida State's players well, which allows for a more intimate dialogue on game days. Watkins knows what gets under their skin; Florida State's defenders know how to dish it back.

"It's no secret we know who he is and what he is," FSU corner Lamarcus Joyner said. "He's a great football player."

All those great players on the field add up to some great trash talking once the game begins.

"That’s one of the biggest trash-talking games I’ve ever played in," Watkins said. "Even if they tackle you and you get 10 yards, they’re still going to say something. It’s about keeping your poise during the game. The game is about talking trash. I like it, and it keeps me going and it keeps the offense going."

Ferns A lot of the rules that we have in college football can help offenses that are willing to try and take advantage of them.

-- Nick Saban
Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith can appreciate that stance. Few players are as adept at talking trash as he is -- whether it's taunting his opposition on game days or his own offense on the practice field.

Smith already has offered a few choice barbs for Clemson. Asked if he had any friends on the Tigers' roster, Smith said he didn't care about anyone who wasn't on his team. Asked if FSU might struggle to keep pace with Clemson's offense, Smith offered that three-and-outs don't wear down the defense.

The way Smith sees it, the trash talk is actually a sign of respect. When two teams are jawing, it's usually because the play on the field is so intense. It's just how he likes to set the stage for a great game.

"[People] are always comparing us that we're the two teams that lead the ACC," Smith said. "We want to say we're the best team, and there's no better way to say that you're the best than be tougher than that guy, to impose your will on that guy. We go out there to be physical and make it a hard-nosed football game."

Clemson figures to do the same -- and that goes beyond just the players on the field.

If the Tigers do their share of talking, the fans in Death Valley follow that lead. The barbs flying from the stands can be far more derisive as anything exchanged between players, and FSU receiver Rashad Greene said he'd be lying if he didn't take notice.

"The fans are -- I would say rude," Greene said. "They're very rude -- being on the sideline, just getting a taste of what they say."

For as heated as the rivalry might be, however, there's actually little bad blood. Greene and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd actually exchanged phone numbers while getting to know each other during the ACC's preseason kickoff event and have stayed in touch. Greene said Boyd asked him to drop a few balls in this year's game, but he politely declined.

Boyd and former FSU quarterback EJ Manuel grew up near each other in Virginia, too, and Manuel's fondness for his rival was passed along to this year's quarterback at Florida State.

"EJ told me he was a great person," Jameis Winston said of Boyd. "I see him on TV, and I like the way he presents himself. He's always dressed nice. And he's a great quarterback."

And that's really what injects the most life into the rivalry.

For all the talk going on between players, it's the respect they have for one another's games that sets the stage. Watkins said he's inspired by what's at stake against the ACC's other elite team. FSU corner P.J. Williams said he's eager to test his mettle against a player he considers the best receiver in the conference.

In the end, Shaw said, that respect means the best jabs between the two sides are left unspoken.

"Make some catches and look over to the sideline," Shaw said. "But just watch out. There's going to be a lot of smack talk and little jabs going out."

FSU vs. Clemson: Who wins?

October, 16, 2013

No. 3 Clemson and No. 5 Florida State will have fans divided all over the country this week as to which team is actually going to win this game. We’re here to help. ACC reporters David Hale and Heather Dinich each came up with three good reasons each team can pull off the win. Check them out, and then cast your vote as to who will finish Saturday atop the Atlantic Division standings.

[+] EnlargeTajh Boyd
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesTajh Boyd's experience and leadership will go a long way against FSU.

1. Tajh Boyd. The story of the game and the most intriguing matchup will between the quarterbacks, Boyd and Jameis Winston. They both have had fantastic seasons so far, and are both winners, but Boyd has the edge in experience, and that will be the difference in the game. He’s beaten Georgia. He’s beaten LSU. He’s experienced the pangs of losing and matured from the setbacks. He is also a senior in his last chance to win a national title. Winston hasn’t gotten that far and hasn’t faced a lot of adversity. His biggest spotlight on the national stage was in the season opener at Pitt. Boyd has already played in front of a nationally televised GameDay crowd -- and won. Overall, Winston’s numbers have actually been slightly better, but Boyd’s intangibles and experience will outweigh the stats.

2. Defensive improvement. This isn’t the same defense that allowed FSU 49 points and 667 total yards last year. Clemson’s defensive progress has been the missing link in the Tigers’ hopes for a national title. Defensive end Vic Beasley leads the nation in sacks, and the Tigers are good enough to pressure Winston into some mistakes. Clemson’s defense has now held five straight opponents to 14 points or less and is 10th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 16.2 points per game. Clemson, which has built its success on Chad Morris’ offense, actually has a higher national ranking in scoring defense than scoring offense (17th, 40.8) right now. Clemson opponents have converted just .237 on third down, best in the nation. It is even better in ACC games as opponents have converted just 11 of 65 opportunities, just 17 percent. The Tigers also rank fourth in the nation in red zone defense, first in the nation in sacks, first in tackles for loss per game, and 12th in forcing turnovers.


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3. The 12th Man. It ain’t easy to win in Death Valley. The home field advantage cannot be overlooked in this game. In 10 of the past 11 years, the home team has won in this series. Clemson has won five in a row against FSU in Memorial Stadium with the Noles last win coming in 2001. No freshman quarterback has won in Death Valley since former Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor in 2007. Boyd, meanwhile, is 17-1 as a starter at home. This is a nationally televised night game, the GameDay crew will be there, and Clemson has experienced it all just eight weeks ago against Georgia. If Death Valley is anything like the scene it was on the opening week, the crowd alone is worth a few points.

-- Heather Dinich


1. Jameis Winston. The quarterbacks are obviously going to get most of the attention heading into this game, and Clemson has the guy with the better credentials so far. But through five career starts, Winston has exceeded every expectation, so it's certainly possible he'll deliver his best performance yet on the biggest stage. In his three ACC games so far, he's thrown for at least 300 yards and four touchdowns in each, and his 91.0 adjusted QBR ranks fifth nationally -- 36 spots ahead of Tajh Boyd. Winston is coming off his best game (393 yards, 5 touchdowns) and has had an extra week to prepare for Clemson's D. For a quarterback with a remarkably flat learning curve, that could be a recipe for another big game this week.

[+] EnlargeJalen Ramsey
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesHow Jalen Ramsey and the Noles secondary matches up with Sammy Watkins and Co. will be a key matchup for FSU-Clemson.
2. The running game. There's no questioning the playmaking ability of Clemson's defensive line, with the Tigers leading the nation in tackles for loss. But it's also worth noting that on runs that cross the line of scrimmage, Clemson is allowing 6.6 yards per carry this year. In fairness, Clemson's competition -- Todd Gurley (UGA), Jerome Smith (Syracuse) -- have certainly had a lot to do with those numbers, but Florida State has a trio of tailbacks capable of big games, too. Last year, FSU averaged 7.2 yards per rush and scored five times on the ground and Devonta Freeman, James Wilder Jr. and Karlos Williams will be looking for a repeat performance in Death Valley.

3. The secondary. Boyd and Sammy Watkins are as good a playmaking duo as there is in the ACC, and Florida State's defenders don't try to hide their admiration for Clemson's stars. But while Boyd and Watkins are off to an excellent start this year, they haven't played a defense quite as good as Florida State's either. The Seminoles held Watkins to just 24 receiving yards and Boyd to his second-lowest QBR of the season in last year's win. So far in 2013, FSU's secondary is allowing just 149 passing yards per game (fifth fewest in the country), and opponents are converting just 22 percent of third-down throws (ninth nationally).

-- David Hale

Big-game stakes won't overwhelm FSU

October, 16, 2013

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The signs have been everywhere this week, so there's no use ignoring the obvious, Telvin Smith said. Camera crews have shuttled through the football facilities, speakers on the practice field boom with artificial crowd noise, and the students around campus are buzzing with excitement.

It's Clemson week, a battle of two top-five opponents with national-title implications. By any measure, this is a big game, but Smith said his teammates are doing everything they can to ignore all the buzz.

Florida State's Jameis Winston
Jeff Gammons/Getty ImagesJameis Winston and Florida State face a tough road test in Clemson. The Seminoles haven't beaten the Tigers on the road in 12 years.
"Obviously this game comes with a little edge, but it’s just another game," Smith said. "It’s just more people watching, more cameras on you."

This is the party line at Florida State, but players insist their actions have backed up their words. In seasons past, the atmosphere became the story, and Florida State's minds wandered. But this is a more mature team, and Smith said the team has filtered out everything but the task at hand.

“For the last few years we’ve been blessed to be in this position," Smith said. "But I feel like for long enough we’ve chased numbers at this school, trying to get to No. 1. I feel like we’re not focused on that, we’re really focused on one game at a time.”

A brief examination of Florida State's recent history in these games underscores why a change was necessary.

It has been 12 years since the Seminoles last went to Clemson and came away with a win. It has been six years since Florida State last beat a team ranked as high as the Tigers are now. Since 2000, the Seminoles are a woeful 1-8 against teams ranked third or better.

Some of those struggles date back well before the current crop of Seminoles donned their jerseys, but it was just two years ago that FSU hosted No. 1-ranked Oklahoma in a game that was supposed to define the Seminoles' season. It ended with a loss, and two more losses followed. The veterans of this season's team remember that feeling, and they said they've learned from the experience.

"The past years I’ve been here we always had a lot of talent, always a talented football team, but this year I see that it’s maturity," senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "It's a brotherhood and a belief -- a standard that we have set. We have finally bought into Coach [Jimbo] Fisher and his philosophy."

Fisher's approach has been business as usual, even if he admits these games were once a selling point for players to come to Florida State.

During last week's bye, Fisher didn't have his team planning for Clemson. Instead, the Seminoles worked on their own weaknesses. This week, they haven't talked about what's at stake beyond another win in the standings, in spite of the prodding of one reporter after another. The game on Saturday will already have been won or lost based on what happens this week.

"It's never pressure," junior Karlos Williams said. "I believe the pressure comes in the week of practice. We have a good week of practice, we'll play very well."

Florida State will need to play its best game of the season to come away with a win. Clemson's dynamic offense will test a new defensive scheme that has struggled at times this year. The Tigers' aggressive pass rush will put pressure on freshman quarterback Jameis Winston to play with the poise of a polished veteran. The outcome could mean the difference between a shot at a national championship and a second-place finish in its own division.

But the difference this year is that those stakes aren't new.

No, this isn't just another game -- no matter how much the Seminoles insist they're treating it that way. But Florida State has been here before, failed, and learned from its mistakes. A lot is riding on this next opportunity, senior Terrence Brooks said, but Florida State is ready.

"It's not any intimidation," Brooks said. "We want those late games with the big lights. We want people to all be tuned in to that. You shouldn't shy away from that. That should be something that gets you going. I'm ready. I've had this one marked down. I'm ready to go."


Top Position Battles Heading In To Spring
While a good portion of the country is buried in snow, spring football is underway. Adam Rittenberg looks at some of the top position battles heading in to spring practice.