On one side of his mouth, Dabo Swinney called it a “critical ballgame” and a “huge, huge challenge.” On the other side he tried very hard to downplay its ultimate significance.
“It’s a big, big game, no doubt about it,” Swinney said. “It’s (ESPN’s College) GameDay and all that with the media. For us it’s Game 4. It’s conference play. It’s just the beginning of conference play.”
For the ACC – desperately seeking a place of relevance in the national championship conversation for the first time since 2000 – this game is massive. It’s the only hope the conference has of vetting a legitimate contender. The ACC needs a winner to step up from the key Atlantic Division matchup and run the table all the way to the BCS title game in Miami.
Florida State at No. 4 and Clemson at No. 10 are the only two ranked teams the conference has, and Saturday’s loser will for all intents and purposes be eliminated from the national title picture if not the conference race.
Swinney, however, can’t afford to let his players think that way. All he can do is prepare them to slow down the nation’s No. 2 scoring offense while punching holes in the nation’s No. 1 defense.
“We’re a big underdog going down there, but I don’t know anybody but Alabama and LSU who wouldn’t be,” said Swinney of his two-touchdown underdog Tigers.
The names Alabama and LSU were brought up so often in Swinney’s Tuesday news conference that you would have thought it was a Southeastern Conference pep rally. But Swinney was trying to use last year’s unique dual “Games of the Century” between the SEC West rivals to illustrate his point that all might not be lost with a loss Saturday.
“Is it a big game for the division? You better believe it,” he said. “The winner of the game is in control. The loser of the game is at the mercy of others. But it ain’t over. It ain’t over for anybody. … It’s a long season, guys.
“We all remember Alabama-LSU last year. Same similar deal – top 10 teams, division game. LSU had to go into Tuscaloosa. They won the game, but guess who won the national championship.”
Of course LSU and Alabama were more than just top 10 teams. They were the top two. Still are, in fact. And they play in the SEC, which doesn’t need to prove itself. There is no chance – zero – that Florida State and Clemson will play some kind of rematch this postseason.
They might both make it to Miami if things break really lucky for them, but the best they could do is play a week apart in January.
The only guarantee the Tigers and Seminoles have is Saturday afternoon. And there are a lot of questions about both to be answered.
Is Florida State really all that? The Seminoles have outscored their opposition 176-3, but when the opposition includes Savannah State, Murray State and Wake Forest you can’t be but so impressed.
But then again, all Clemson has of note is a victory over Auburn that looks less impressive every time Auburn takes the field.
While there is no question that Clemson’s offense should be able to stress the Seminoles with an abundance of skill Florida State hasn’t seen all year, it’s the defense that is the biggest question mark.
The Tigers got pushed around enough by a winless Division I-AA Furman team last week that new defensive coordinator Brent Venables said it made him “want to throw up.”
“(Florida State will) break the scoreboard next week if we don’t play better and more consistent,” Venables added.
Swinney doesn’t disagree, and he has the scars from last year’s 70-33 whipping at the Orange Bowl to know what a scoreboard breakage looks like.
“We’re going to have to get better in a hurry,” he said.
Especially against the run. A year ago, Florida State got only two 100-yard rushing games from its backs, while this year it’s had a pair of 100-yard rushers three consecutive games. Chris Thompson is averaging 14.1 yards per carry, with touchdown runs of 80 and 74 yards against Wake Forest last week.
“He’s a handful,” Swinney said of Florida State’s most explosive weapon.
You can downplay Florida State’s gaudy offensive numbers because of its competition thus far, but there is no ignoring Clemson’s shaky defensive stats against similarly suspect foes. The Tigers rank 82nd against the rush (179.7 yards per game) and 56th in total defense (367.7 average yards allowed).
“That is a concern,” Swinney said.
Clemson’s offensive stars need to make up the difference, and the Tigers need to shed their tendency of settling for too many field goals (four in 13 red-zone trips and seven overall). Florida State ranks No. 1 in most defensive categories, giving up only 33.7 rushing yards and 103.3 total per game with only one field goal yielded in three opposing red-zone situations.
“Points are at a premium, and we’re going to have to score more than three to win,” Swinney said. “This is a complete football team we’re playing, and we’re going to have to play a complete game.”
That Clemson has won six of the past nine meetings between the ACC rivals including the 2006 game in Tallahassee hasn’t swayed the sentiment toward the Tigers. But that doesn’t bother Swinney.
“All I know is we’re not a great football team right now,” he said. “If I was on the outside looking in I’d probably pick them too. But I’m not on the outside, and I like where we are. … We’ve never been picked to win the division much less the conference. And we have won it twice.
“Start worrying about all that kind of stuff you’re not where you need to be. The game is played in between the lines by the players. Any else is irrelevant.”