Clemson University

Five burning questions for Clemson against FSU — and a prediction

No. 2 Clemson host Florida State on Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. The two teams have combined to win the ACC Atlantic Division each of the past 10 years, with Clemson winning the last four meetings in the rivalry. The Tigers enter the game as 27-point favorites.

Here are our top five questions heading into the game:

Can Travis Etienne get going?

The junior running back had an incredible start to the season, rushing for 205 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Tech. He has rushed for 76 yards or less in the four games since then, averaging 64 yards per game during that stretch. Etienne carried the ball 14 times for 67 yards in Clemson’s last game against North Carolina, but only three of those carries came in the second half of the Tigers’ 21-20 victory. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn’t worried about the running game yet, but he did acknowledge there is plenty of room for improvement.

“We’re very committed to the run. I think we’re one of the best running teams in the country,” he said. “After five games we’re probably not as good as we wanna be. We’ve got a long season ahead.”

Can FSU slow down Trevor Lawrence and Clemson’s passing game?

Florida State has one of the worst pass defenses in the country. The Seminoles are allowing 302 yards per game through the air, which ranks No. 121 out of 130 FBS teams. That is good news for a Clemson offense that has been inconsistent through its first five games. Lawrence entered the season as a Heisman favorite but is currently not in the conversation. The sophomore has passed for 1,131 yards, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions. Lawrence is fully healthy, according to Swinney — he has just failed to live up to expectations.

“He’s not some cyborg robot that’s never gonna make a mistake. I just think that his success maybe creates a little different standard that people have for him,” Swinney said. “He’s made huge plays with his legs. He’s made some big time scramble throws. Big time. Like, elite. So I think he’s done pretty good. I didn’t think he played great at North Carolina. ...Could he do better? Sure, absolutely. There’s not anybody coaching or playing that can’t get better.”

Will Clemson play “soft” against the run?

Clemson’s run defense has been decent through five games as the Tigers rank No. 5 in the ACC, allowing 105 yards per game. But Swinney described is as “a little soft in the last couple of games” leading up to this week’s matchup against Florida State. Clemson can’t afford to be soft Saturday facing off against one of the best backs in the country. FSU star Cam Akers is averaging 116 rushing yards per game, good for 10th nationally.

“Cam Akers, everything goes through him. He’s a workhorse. He’s physical. He’s a very committed runner,” Swinney said. “We’ve gotta match that physicality and that mindset, because this back, he’s a committed dude. You better have your big boy pads on. He may get some zeros. He may get some ones. He may get some twos. But he just keeps coming and they keep giving him the ball.”

Which team wins the turnover battle?

Florida State is plus-five in turnover margin, while Clemson is minus-one. If the Seminoles are going to hang around as nearly four-touchdown underdogs, they need to win the turnover battle on Saturday. Clemson failed to force a turnover for the first time this season in its last game against North Carolina. The Tigers are 49-3 when winning the turnover margin since 2011.

“That’s a big factor in this game. ... That’s an area we’ve got to improve in, taking care of the football,” Swinney said. “We’ve been very advantageous that way, so we’ve got to get back to getting our hands on the ball, creating some turnovers and taking care of it offensively. That will be a huge stat in this game. If we can win the turnover margin, we’ll win the game. It’s as simple as that.”

Can FSU’s offensive line give its quarterbacks time to throw?

Florida State quarterbacks James Blackman and Alex Hornibrook have been solid this season and both will play against Clemson. The Seminoles have a talented group of receivers, led by Tamorrion Terry, but they also have an offensive line that has had its share of struggles in recent years. FSU is averaging 308 passing yards per game, which ranks in the top 20 nationally. But the Seminoles are also allowing nearly four sacks per game, which ranks No. 120 in the FBS.

“They’ve got some speed. They’ve got fast and they’ve got real, real fast with those guys on the outside,” Swinney said. “You’ve gotta do a good job of challenging them. You give them some of those easy plays, they can make a guy miss and take it the distance.”

Prediction: Swinney pointed out this week that Florida State has the talent to compete with Clemson, but there is a big difference between talent and production. The Tigers are angry after having two weeks to hear about how they struggled against North Carolina, and they should come out and put together their best performance of the year.

The pick: Clemson 42, Florida State 10

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