- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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Heading into this season, the offensive lines at both Florida State and Clemson were two of the biggest question marks in the ACC. The Tigers had to replace three starters up front, and the Seminoles were coming off a Champs Sports Bowl win against Notre Dame in which four true freshmen were in the starting lineup.
You’d never know it by looking at the stats so far this season, as deceptive as some could be.
As No. 10 Clemson and No. 4 Florida State prepare to face each other in Tallahassee on Saturday, both offensive lines have shown significant improvement through the first three games of the season. Florida State is No. 2 in the country in scoring offense, racking up its stats against two FCS opponents and an overmatched Wake Forest team. Clemson is No. 23 in the country in scoring offense, with its most impressive win coming against Auburn. Both Clemson and Florida State are allowing fewer than two sacks per game.
Both groups, though, still have something to prove -- particularly at Clemson. The Tigers’ offensive line will arguably get its biggest test of the season Saturday when it faces Florida State’s defensive line. The Noles are tied for No. 10 in the country with 3.67 sacks per game. How Clemson fares up front could be the key to the entire game.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge, no doubt about it,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “But we’re going to find out Saturday night one way or another.”
Clemson’s starting lineup against Auburn was Dalton Freeman, David Beasley, Gifford Timothy, Brandon Thomas and Tyler Shatley. Timothy was injured on the last offensive play of the game and missed the Ball State game. That opened the door for redshirt freshman Shaq Anthony to start and also play the first half against Furman.
Beasley was injured against Ball State, allowing Kalon Davis to play most of that game and all of the Furman game. Shatley was injured against Furman and missed the second half. Redshirt freshman Ryan Norton played the second half of that game.
Swinney said his offensive line was “pretty average” in last week’s 41-7 win against Furman.
“Nothing great,” he said, “just OK.”
“They are a question mark; they’re still a question mark,” Swinney said. “I don’t think that’s changed. … We’re a long ways away from being a great offensive line right now.”
The good news for Clemson fans is that the starting lineup used against Auburn should be healthy and ready to play at Florida State. And the backups have now had some significant experience. Entering the FSU game, Clemson has eight different offensive linemen who have played at least 98 snaps.
Florida State’s improved pass protection has been measurable. So far, the line has allowed three sacks in 194 snaps and 84 pass attempts. All three sacks, though, came against the best competition they’ve played -- a Wake Forest team that was missing one of its top defensive linemen in injured nose guard Nikita Whitlock.
It’s still a foreshadowing of improvement since last season, when the Noles allowed 41 sacks in 820 offensive snaps, which amounts to one every 20 plays. Only eight teams in the nation yielded more sacks than FSU in 2011.
There’s no question that FSU is also running the ball better. In 2011, the Seminoles produced just 112.2 rushing yards per game -- their lowest average since 2006 -- and managed 1,458 yards on the ground. Through three games the Noles are averaging 279 rushing yards.
The numbers are skewed because they’ve been racked up against unheralded FCS competition in Murray State and Savannah State, but FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said he likes what he has seen so far.
“I think they’re very good players,” Fisher said. “They’re all very talented. It took a little bit of time to learn, and that’s a position that’s very hard to adapt to, and we loved them because of their size and athleticism. I think that’s where you’ve got to control both lines of scrimmage -- that’s where it’s got to start.
“I’ve been very pleased with them, but I don’t think we are close to where we can be,” Fisher said. “I think each challenge is bigger and bigger each week.”
This one, of course, might be the biggest of the season.