CLEMSON — You cannot ignore the offensive firepower that will be on display Saturday at Memorial Stadium when third-ranked Clemson squares off against fifth-ranked Florida State.
It all starts with the Heisman Trophy-candidate quarterbacks, Tajh Boyd for Clemson and Jameis Winston for Florida State. They are the trigger men to offenses that rank among the top four nationally in total yards per game, and in the top 20 nationally in scoring and passing yards per game.
Nearly everyone expects a shootout, perhaps one of epic proportions. Breakaway runs, long passes, points galore, yardage by the bushel.
All that being said, defense will win the game. It usually does in big games.
“Yeah, yeah, most of the time,” Dabo Swinney said when asked if this game, which likely will determine who wins the ACC’s Atlantic Division and who remains in the national championship hunt, will be won by the team that plays the best defense.
Both defenses are playing at a high level. Florida State ranks third nationally, allowing 12 points per game, and Clemson ranks 10th by permitting 16.2 per game. Florida State is seventh nationally in yards allowed per game at 276.8, and Clemson is 21st at 344.8.
Florida State won a season ago in Tallahassee, 49-37, in what proved to be a lesson in needing solid defensive play to win. Florida State made those plays in limiting Clemson to 426 yards. Clemson did not, and Florida State piled up 667 yards of offense.
“Man, I had to turn it off,” Swinney said of watching videotape of his team’s defense in that game. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Spencer Shuey, Clemson’s senior linebacker, said watching the same videotape served as a gauge for how much progress the defense has made.
“We kind of watched that and laughed at some of the mistakes we made,” Shuey said. “It’s incredible to see how much guys have grown in understanding their roles, and understanding the defensive scheme in general, how much better we are this year.”
The turnaround for Clemson’s defense began midway in the 2012 season. To that point, Clemson had allowed 446 yards and 27.3 points per game. In the remaining seven games, the Tigers permitted 354 yards and 22.7 points. Through six games this season, Clemson has extended that success, allowing 345 yards and 16.2 points.
Swinney says the defense has grown up.
“Freshmen became sophomores, sophomores became juniors,” Swinney said. “We’ve got the same players. ... They were good players then. Now they’re good players with experience. That’s it.
“I mean, they’ve been through the battles. They’ve grown up. We’ve got the depth, the experienced depth that you need in the key positions. We’re much more confident, much more confident.”
That confidence showed most in the two wins that have propelled Clemson to near the top of the national rankings and into the national championship picture — a 25-24 win against ninth-ranked LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to conclude last season and a 38-35 win against fifth-ranked Georgia to open this season.
The Clemson defense limited LSU to nine first downs, 99 yards rushing and 219 yards of total offense. LSU converted three of 13 third-down situations. On LSU’s final 10 possessions, the Tigers managed a touchdown and a field goal.
On the surface, it appears that Georgia’s offense had its way with the Clemson defense in the season-opener, rolling up 35 points and 545 yards. Yet when Clemson most needed stellar play from its defense, it got it, essentially winning the game.
Georgia scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions to take a 21-14 lead early in the second quarter. Over Georgia’s next 10 possessions, the Bulldogs scored one touchdown and turned the ball over twice. By then, Clemson had a 38-28 lead.
That kind of play has caught the eye of, perhaps, the defense’s biggest cheerleader, Boyd.
“It gives them another opportunity, another platform, to prove how special of a unit they are in a game like this,” Boyd said of the Clemson’s defense. “They’re ready to go out there and just show what type of unit they are, what type of team we are, and I’m just excited to get a chance to watch them play this weekend.”
Even Boyd probably recognizes that the game’s outcome will be determined by which team plays better defense.