CLEMSON, SC - SEPTEMBER 24: Tajh Boyd #10 of the Clemson Tigers runs with the ball against the Florida State Seminoles during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 24, 2011 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Florida State's dominance in 2012 has been absolute, but on Saturday, will the Seminoles be ready to dominate what might be the best opponent they play all year?
Florida State's opponents thus far: Murray State, Savannah State, and Wake Forest. Before we get started, I just wanted to make perfectly clear that everything you are about to read about Florida State's ridiculously dominant start should be taken with a grain of salt. No one here is arguing the Seminoles have been beating up on the powers of the collegiate football world, but on the flipside, no one can argue the Seminoles haven't taken care of business as well as they possible could have.
Heading into this week's big game against tenth-ranked Clemson, No. 4 Florida State's performance this season has simply been out of this world. Even the most basic of stats can tell you how overwhelming the Seminoles have been throughout the first quarter of their season. In their three victories, the Seminoles have outscored their opponents, 176-3. That's an average score of 58.7 to 1.0. Ouch!
The Seminoles' offense has been quite balanced in the early going, averaging 264.7 passing yards and 279.0 rushing yards per game. James Wilder, Jr. and Chris Thompson -- a dynamic thunder and lighting duo -- have been the early-season workhorses in Florida State's deep stable of running backs. Last week against Wake Forest, the two backs accounted for 291 yards and two touchdowns on just 25 carries.
But while the ground game will be vital, the key to success for the Seminoles on Saturday (and for the rest of the season) will be the play of forever-hyped quarterback E.J. Manuel. The enigma of Manuel is his inconsistency from week to week, and even sometimes from play to play. On a given play, the uber-talented Manuel will do something magical. But too often, on the subsequent play, despite plenty of time for setting his feet, he will drastically overthrow a wide-open target. When you have a player with Manuel's upside, taking the bad with the good just comes with the territory.
As solid as the Seminoles' offense has been in the early going, the calling card of this national championship contender is their loaded defense. Even with the loss of two-time All-ACC defensive end Brandon Jenkins, the Seminoles depth and speed makes this unit one of the best in the nation. While some defenses play with a bend-don't-break mentality, implying they are willing to give up yards but eventually stiffen and prevent points, the Seminoles seem to have elevated the concept. Through the first three games, the Noles have applied the mantra to first and second downs before shutting the door on third downs. In last week's game against Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons had a tad of success on first and second downs, but the Seminoles figuratively built a brick wall on nearly every third down. Wake Forest went just one-for-16 on third-down attempts. This wasn't a one-time thing for the Seminoles' defense either. For the entire season, Florida State opponents are just five-for-44 on third-downs, an 11.4 percent conversion rate.
The two biggest reasons for the Seminoles' success on third downs are defensive end Bjoern Werner and a secondary that doesn't allow yards after the catch. If you haven't seen Werner play, you have missed out on one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the nation. He leads the nation with 6.5 sacks. Werner's explosion off the line and non-stop motor look like a blend of a young Jared Allen with a hint of Kyle Vanden Bosch. Warner often looks to be a good three yards into the backfield while his fellow defensive linemen (talented in their own right) are still getting off the line.
When offenses have actually found time to throw this season, the Seminoles secondary hasn't left many guys open. Playing a majority of man-to-man coverage, Florida State simply believes their athletes are superior to those of their opponents. So far, the Seminoles have been right. Against Wake Forest, in the rare instances the Demon Deacons completed a pass, their receivers were not going anywhere after the catch. In the six passes Wake Forest completed downfield (which discounts screens behind the line of scrimmage), Florida State held Wake Forest to just 17 total yards after the catch, a ridiculously low average of 2.8 yards. Florida State's secondary has excellent closing speed, and it showed.
But to reiterate the point at the opening, Florida State hasn't been whipping up on any world beaters in its early victories. At times last Saturday, Wake Forest's players looked as if they were running with cement blocks on their feet while trying to chase down the Seminoles. This Saturday, the speed differential will be much, much closer.
The defending ACC champions, the Clemson Tigers, present plenty of problems of their own. A dynamic, seasoned offensive core consisting of quarterback Taj Boyd, running back Andre Ellington, and wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and recently-reinstated Sammy Watkins, overwhelmed Florida State last season. In the Tigers' 35-30 victory, Boyd threw for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
While Clemson will take occasional shots downfield, offensive coordinator Chad Morris' calling card is getting the ball into the hands of playmakers as quickly as possible, knowing that they can turn something short and simple into a big gain. The Tigers will utilize their talented receiving corps, especially Watkins and Hopkins, with fly sweeps, bubble screens and short crosses, trusting their dynamic open-field running abilities to eat up large chunks of yardage. Watkins' playmaking ability will be critical if the Tigers are going to have any shot at an upset the road; last season, he torched FSU for seven catches, 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Everyone knows the Tigers can score points, but we also know they are not afraid to give them up (see: 2012 Orange Bowl). While Clemson has had a tougher schedule in the early going (they did beat Auburn in Atlanta to begin the season), this is clearly the first enormous test for either squad. And it is conceivable that this is the toughest game on the schedule for either team. Both teams have proven capable of playing inconsistent football under the spotlight, but the winner of this matchup will find itself on a short list of legitimate national title contenders. The main question could be this: Is Florida State's dominance completely legitimate, or has an early-season cupcake schedule left the Seminoles ill-equipped to prevail against a truly strong opponent in this season-defining contest?
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