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4 things we'll learn about from Clemson-Florida State, even if FSU wins big

Florida State is a 17-point favorite over Clemson and will likely pull away from the Tigers at some point, despite missing Jameis Winston for the first half. But this game will help to define how we look at each of these teams for the rest of the season.

Florida State's run to the 2013 national title was marked with perfect hurdles, some title-specific and some more specific to the Seminoles. There was the "win the big game on the road" hurdle at Clemson. The "avoid the road nightmares that tripped you up before" hurdle. The Rivalry Game hurdle at Florida. The "don't choke now!" conference title game hurdle. The "win with a redshirt freshman" bonus hurdle.

Not many of those hurdles were actually very high, but it had been a long time since the 'Noles had a completely clean run on the track.

No matter how good FSU looked in rolling through the first few weeks of the season, for many the title run didn't officially start until October 19, when the Seminoles visited Clemson. But after the Seminoles' 51-14 destruction of the Tigers, there was no more getting around it. They were for real.

The early-season stats suggested that, despite not playing a top team yet, Florida State was pretty incredible. The Seminoles went out and left no doubt on Saturday night in Clemson. [...]

Florida State is terrifying. The Seminoles are loose. They're intense, fun, and mean. Despite absurd turnover on his coaching staff and a redshirt freshman in command of the offense, head coach Jimbo Fisher has crafted a two-deep with leadership and athleticism, wily experience (especially on the offensive line) and precocious youth. Florida State committed quite a few penalties (12 for 104 yards) on Saturday and made some clear mistakes; the Seminoles also beat a top-five team on the road by 37 points. And the only reason it wasn't worse was that the backups allowed a touchdown with 13 seconds left.

Every year follows its own path, and every team takes on its own identity. Three weeks into the 2014 season, we don't exactly know what the path of either Florida State or Clemson is going to be. The Seminoles followed up a tight win over Oklahoma State with a glorified scrimmage (an easy win over The Citadel) and a bye week; Clemson faded at Georgia, thwacked South Carolina State, and took a bye week as well.

Whatever the story line ends up becoming for either team in 2014, it begins Saturday night in Tallahassee. And it begins temporarily without the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.

Signs point to a relatively easy Florida State win, even if you take Jameis Winston's first-half suspension into account.

A. The Seminoles faltered against Oklahoma State but still won, while Clemson got pushed around late by a Georgia team that, two weeks later, couldn't push South Carolina around late.

B. Clemson is in between present and future tense at the moment, starting senior quarterback Cole Stoudt while grooming both Deshaun Watson and a deep, unproven skill position set. FSU, meanwhile, has likely 2015 draft picks in nearly every unit and will be facing its own youth movement a year from now.

C. The game is in Tallahassee.

Still, even if the Seminoles do pull away from the Tigers at some point, it might take them a bit longer without Winston. And if you think back to the questions we had about FSU two weeks ago, Clemson is the right opponent for finding answers.

Key matchup No. 1: FSU offensive line vs. Clemson defensive line

Clemson was just spectacular up front last year. The Tigers had an aggressive identity, and it stemmed from a line that featured four players with 10-plus tackles for loss. Brent Venables' defense harassed quarterbacks, forced negative plays, and lived with the occasional big play allowed. Even while getting blown out against Florida State last year, they managed six tackles for loss (two sacks) and seven passes defensed.

They have questions to answer after Georgia was able to wear them down and maul them in the second half of their season opener, but they are fierce and experienced.

Meanwhile, FSU faced an aggressive Oklahoma State defense in Week 1 and occasionally faltered; OSU managed five tackles for loss (two sacks), seven passes defensed, and a forced fumble, flustering Winston at times and forcing running back Karlos Williams to cut outside (where he was usually met by speedy linebackers) to search for running room. Williams' own decision-making was questionable, and if he's either forced to, or chooses to, bounce runs outside, Clemson has more than enough speed to punish him.

Florida State's offensive line (which returned four two-year starters) and Clemson's defensive line (which returned its top 12 tacklers from last year) are among the most experienced units in the country. Both have significant track records, but both showed flaws we didn't expect in Week 1. Now we get to find out if those were temporary glitches or holes.

And for the first 30 minutes, we'll be gauging the situation with backup quarterback Sean Maguire in the lineup for FSU. Maguire might be fantastic, but he might also be more flustered in the face of a tough pass rush if the running game isn't working.

Key matchup No. 2: FSU vs. the goal line

On both sides of the ball, FSU was one of the best drive finishers in the country last season. The Seminoles ranked second in Points Per Trip Inside the 40 (5.5) and fourth in Points Per Trip Allowed (3.2). If you're creating more scoring opportunities than your opponent, and you're coaxing out more points per opportunity as well, you're almost impossible to beat.

The roles were reversed against Oklahoma State. The Cowboys scored 31 points in seven scoring opportunities, but FSU scored just 30 in eight. One "failed" drive doesn't really count (FSU ran out the clock at the OSU 35 on the final possession of the game), but in seven other trips FSU scored three touchdowns, settled for three field goals, and threw an interception. That's not awful (especially when you have a ridiculously good kicker in Robert Aguayo), but it doesn't meet last year's standard. The loss of monstrous receiver Kelvin Benjamin and big running back James Wilder, Jr., could hurt FSU's averages.

Clemson finished with three touchdowns and a field goal attempt in four scoring opportunities against Georgia. Of the issues the Tigers had against the Dawgs, finishing wasn't one of them. Of course, the defense was mostly pushed around on Georgia's scoring opportunities, but if the end zone is an enemy of FSU's in 2014, we'll know after this game. If Clemson makes more of its opportunities than FSU, the Tigers could hang around for a while, even if/when they allow more opportunities than they create.

Key matchup No. 3: Winston and Maguire vs. their progressions

Melina Vastola, USA Today

FSU has one of the best receivers in the country at its disposal. Despite playing only about 1.5 games, Rashad Greene already has 15 catches for 281 yards, averaging 18.8 yards per catch with a 65 percent catch rate. Punishing tight end Nick O'Leary has caught eight of nine passes after catching 33 in 2013.

Against most defenses, Greene and O'Leary, mixed with the occasional check down to Williams, will be more than enough. But Clemson has experience in senior corners Garry Peters and Martin Jenkins and upside in redshirt freshman Mackensie Alexander. They haven't been asked to do much this year, but they could hold their own with Greene.

Clemson could actually force FSU to have a No. 2 wideout at one point or another. So who is that, exactly? Thus far, Greene has two more catches than the rest of the Seminoles' wide receivers combined. Lord knows there's all sorts of upside in guys like sophomore Kermit Whitfield, blue-chip freshman Ermon Lane, etc., but they haven't had to show it yet. They might on Saturday.

Key matchup No. 4: Clemson vs. everything else

We can talk about the ways in which Florida State will be tested, but there's a reason why the Seminoles are still a two-touchdown favorite.

Clemson's new-and-old quarterback combination will be searching for open receivers among a secondary that features cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams. The Tigers got away with horizontal passing in the first half against Georgia, mixing in a couple of deeper balls to sophomore Mike Williams. That well went dry in the second half, and Georgia teed off on both Stoudt (three sacks in 32 attempts) and Watson (two in six) once it was official that Clemson couldn't run the ball (C.J. Davidson and D.J. Howard: 23 carries, 71 yards).

And it probably goes without saying that if Clemson couldn't create space for Davidson and Howard against Georgia, finding it against FSU's line -- ends Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Mario Edwards Jr., tackles Eddie Goldman and Nile Lawrence-Stemple, and a bunch of blue-chip backups -- won't be likely.


If Clemson can stifle FSU's ground game like Oklahoma State did, and if the Tigers take full advantage of the scoring opportunities they create, they could make this a game for the better part of 60 minutes. Plus, while Winston is obviously one player, his absence for the first two quarters could give Clemson an opportunity to frustrate and harass Maguire, especially on passing downs.

Florida State still is probably going to win. We know this, even if Winston's absence creates a little bit more doubt. This game is as much about defining how the rest of the season will play out.

If or when FSU pulls away on Saturday night, the focus will shift to Notre Dame, which visits Tallahassee on October 18. Sure, there are a couple of semi-notable road trips in that span (at NC State and its improving offense on September 27, at Syracuse and its aggressive defense on October 11), but FSU is going to be heavily favored to be 6-0 when the Irish come to town. Win that one, and we look ahead to trips to Petrinoville on October 30 and Miami on November 15.

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Really, FSU's biggest 2014 opponent could be itself. Lots of great champions returned a strong nucleus but faltered along the way. Since 1980, it's only been done either two or three times. Nebraska did it in 1995, Alabama did it in 2012, and USC sort of did it in 2004 (the Trojans were AP, but not BCS, champions in 2003, then won the BCS in 2004 but later vacated the title).

FSU looked hungover against Oklahoma State and now must deal with Winston's brief absence; will the Seminoles find their championship form in 2014 before a slip-up or two? Another plodding win, or a Winston-related loss, and the hangover narrative might take hold. Another blowout win over Swinney's Tigers, and we'll assume all is well.

Clemson's still trying to figure out what it's going to be in 2014. The Tigers are immensely experienced up front on defense and still have four-star talent across the board on offense, but after losing Tajh Boyd and star receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant, not to mention three multi-year starters on the line, they're still searching for an offensive identity this year. They didn't find it against Georgia, and they'll probably be 1-2 and a little on the punchy side when they host North Carolina next week. But will they be 1-2 and licking wounds after another blowout? Will they be catalyzed by a stellar performance? Will we all be talking about how good Deshaun Watson looked and how he's destined for the starting lineup sooner than later?

In the college football season, September's primary job is to define October and November. Clemson-FSU is one of the most defining game on the docket.

Note: This story was amended to account for the news of Jameis Winston's suspension.