Looking forward to real, live football, NoleNation takes a run through Florida State’s 2012 schedule, going game-by-game to find the best storylines and matchups of the upcoming season.
Saturday, Sept. 22: at Doak Campbell Stadium
2011 record: 10-4 (6-2 ACC). After an 8-0 start and a No. 5 national ranking, Clemson dropped three of its final four regular-season games only to rebound and topple Virginia Tech in the ACC title game for its first conference championship in two decades.
Coach: Dabo Swinney (29-19, fifth season).
Series record: 25th meeting, Florida State leads 17-7.
Players to watch: Tajh Boyd (QB, Jr.) threw for a conference-record 33 touchdowns, completed 60 percent of his passes and accounted for a league-leading 3,828 passing yards en route to an All-ACC selection; Sammy Watkins (WR, So.) was Boyd's favorite target, catching 82 passes for 1,219 yards and 12 TDs as a freshman; Andre Ellington (RB, Sr.) rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last year; DeAndre Hopkins (Jr., WR) had 72 catches for 978 yards and 5 TDs; Rashard Hall (S/Sr.) led Clemson with 81 tackles last season; Jonathan Meeks (S, Sr.) had 53 tackles and a team-leading three interceptions in 2011.
Deciding the division. Hype shouldn't be a problem for this Week 4 affair, which will pit last year's ACC champs against this year's ACC favorites. If Clemson can get past Auburn in their opener, it's likely both teams will be undefeated when they face off in Tallahassee, and that means the outcome will go a long way to determining who will win the Atlantic Division this season.
Will Watkins be ready? The freshman phenom destroyed FSU's secondary last year, catching seven passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns during Clemson's 35-30 win, and by year's end he was a household name. But this offseason, Watkins was arrested on two misdemeanor drug charges, and Swinney has yet to officially determine the length of his suspension. Watkins will almost certainly be back in time for the showdown with FSU, but it will be interesting to see how much time he misses in the lead-up to the Tigers' ACC opener, and how much effect -- if any -- the layoff has on him.
Manuel gets his shot. EJ Manuel missed last year's game against Clemson after getting injured the previous week during a loss to Oklahoma. Backup Clint Trickett filled in admirably, completing 24-of-38 passes for 336 yards and three touchdowns. Still, the Seminoles have to be wondering how much different the matchup against Clemson -- and its veteran secondary, in particular -- might be this time around with their No. 1 QB under center.
Fun fact: Clemson fans are known to use $2 bills as currency on road trips as a means of demonstrating the spending power of their fan base in rival cities. The tradition began during a dispute with Georgia Tech, which had refused to play at Clemson, in the 1970s.
Key matchup: Florida State front four vs. Clemson's offensive line: On paper, these two teams match up pretty well, both with veteran QBs, standout young wide receivers and veteran secondaries. But if there's one huge mismatch going into this game, it's in the trenches. Clemson lost five senior offensive linemen from last year's team, while Florida State returns one of the most fearsome defensive lines in the country. Last year, Boyd shredded FSU's defense, but if the Seminoles front four can control the line of scrimmage and put consistent pressure in the face of the Clemson QB, things could look at lot different this time around.
Tigers will win if: The O-line develops quickly and the Boyd-to-Watkins pairing lights up the scoreboard again. If Boyd gets time behind his new-look line, he's more than capable of finding holes in even a strong secondary like Florida State's. Given how last year's game played out, the Seminoles have no incentive to get into a shootout, so it will be up to the pass rush to keep Boyd on the run and the secondary to keep Watkins under control.
Noles will win if: They play smart. Boyd, Watkins and Ellington are too good to be held in check for long, so a defensive battle is unlikely, even with Clemson's questions up front. But for as much as the Tigers offense stunned FSU a year ago, the biggest culprit might have been the Seminoles' own problems with penalties (11 for 124 yards) and on third down (Clemson converted nine of 17 chances). Of course, a few TD throws from Manuel and a half-dozen sacks by the defensive line wouldn't hurt either.
Note: Read the Blue Ribbon Preview of Clemson's season here.