ACC: Artavis Scott

Story of the season: Clemson

January, 20, 2015
Jan 20
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It’s funny, but Clemson’s season really began the same day most people assumed it had ended.

In the locker room following the Tigers’ 23-17 overtime loss to Florida State on Sept. 20 was a morbid scene. Clemson had controlled the game throughout and was driving deep in FSU territory with a chance to take the lead in the final minutes of the fourth quarter before a C.J. Davidson fumble changed everything.

[+] EnlargeRobert Smith
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesRobert Smith and the Tigers finished the 2014 season strong, winning nine of their final 10 games.
 Instead of a defining win, the Tigers watched as Karlos Williams rumbled into the end zone in overtime, and suddenly, less than a month into the season, they were 1-2, their season on life support and their ACC title chances effectively gone.

“We basically handed that game to them,” defensive back Robert Smith said. “That locker room was the most pain I’d ever seen. I saw freshmen crying and fifth-year seniors crying. Nobody had an answer. We were looking around like we didn’t understand.”

That should have been the end. In its first year without Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, Clemson could’ve played out the string, gone to a bowl and regrouped for 2015. But that didn’t happen. Instead of the devastating loss in Tallahassee torpedoing the year, it galvanized the team. The Tigers won nine of their next 10 games, finished with the nation’s best defense, found their offensive stars of the future and ended the year with a dominant performance in the Russell Athletic Bowl to secure their fourth straight 10-win season.

The story of 2014 for Clemson wasn’t about a march toward success, but rather a slow, deliberate slog for one win after another. And that, guard Reid Webster said, made the season all that much more rewarding.

“During the season you don’t realize it as much, you want to be clicking on all cylinders,” Webster said. “When that’s not happening, it can be tough to keep the morale up. But you get to look back on what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished, and it’s just incredible.”

Nothing came easily for Clemson in 2014. The season opened with plenty of doubters as the team worked to rebuild an offense that had lost its three-year starter at QB, its leading rusher and its top two receivers. A close game for three quarters in the opener against Georgia ended under an avalanche of Bulldogs’ rushing scores in the fourth quarter, damaging the confidence of a veteran defense. The FSU game tested the team’s will, and multiple injuries to their emerging star quarterback continued to deflate the Tigers’ game plan as the season wore on.

There were impressive wins, like the 41-0 thumping of NC State, and there were ugly ones, like the 23-17 squeaker against Louisville a week later, when the offense failed to find the end zone even once. Style points didn’t matter. This season was about winning by any means necessary.

“If the offense turned it over, of if they scored on us, we knew it couldn’t get much worse than [Florida State],” Smith said. “It was just confidence. Everything we went through early in the season resulted in why we had the season we had.”

Success came easier for the defense. This was a group that had grown up together and now featured one of the most dominant pass rushes in the nation to go with an underrated secondary that utterly frustrated opposing passing attacks.

The Georgia game had been a tough test, as Clemson played without defensive end Corey Crawford, and the Bulldogs’ ground game eventually overwhelmed the Tigers’ front. Clemson surrendered 328 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in that game, but once Crawford returned to the lineup, things changed. Clemson allowed just six more rushing touchdowns all season, no team in the nation allowed fewer rushing yards, and opposing QBs completed just 48.2 percent of their throws, the third-best mark in the country.

“At ACC media days, Vic Beasley looked right at the camera and said we’d be the No. 1 defense in the nation,” Smith said. “After that Georgia game, people said, ‘yeah, right.’ But next thing you know, we were No. 3, No. 2, and it just worked out. It was a real blessing to be a part of that.”

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsDeshaun Watson started to show flashes of what he can become in the Florida State game.
The offense, however, was much more of a roller coaster.

The silver lining to come from that Florida State game was Deshaun Watson. The freshman opened the year as the backup to Cole Stoudt at quarterback, but against the Seminoles, he quickly proved he was an ideal fit in the Tigers’ offense, completing 68 percent of his throws for 266 yards and running for one score. A week later, Watson was the starter, and his debut was one for the record books. Against North Carolina, he completed 75 percent of his passes, threw for 435 yards and tossed six touchdowns in a 50-35 win, and suddenly it looked like the Tigers’ offensive attack would march through the rest of its ACC schedule.

Two weeks later, that changed.

Watson went down with a broken hand against Louisville, and Stoudt’s return to the lineup stifled the offense. A goal-line stand in the waning seconds helped Clemson emerge with a win, but over the course of a month with Watson playing sparingly, the Tigers scored just seven touchdowns on 71 offensive drives.

Watson returned for the South Carolina game, and Clemson emerged with its first win over its in-state rival in six years. Afterward, Dabo Swinney announced the freshman had played on a partially torn ACL, and that put Stoudt back in charge for the bowl game. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris bolted for the head-coaching job at SMU soon after, and by the time Clemson took the field against Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, there were once again ample reasons to doubt the Tigers. And once again, the Tigers responded with an emphatic win, dominating on both sides of the ball in a fond sendoff for the winningest senior class in school history.

“It was definitely difficult, definitely not a smooth road,” Webster said. “But the way we finished the season as a testimony to how we overcame that adversity. The Oklahoma game, beating South Carolina for the first time in years — it was a testimony to how much heart this team had and how much we wanted to win.”

Watson’s emergence and the stellar play of freshmen like Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman and Mackensie Alexander now have Clemson firmly established as an ACC favorite in 2015, and it would be easy enough to define this past season as the year in which the Tigers put all the pieces in place for a big run next year. But that would be missing the point.

This Clemson team was special in its own right, and if the way it won wasn’t always pretty, that’s all the better.

“A lot of people said this was a rebuilding year, but we were reloading,” Smith said. “We kept that mindset, even when we were down. It was adversity, something we weren’t used to, but we had to put our minds to it and dig deep, and we finished the season strong.”

Final Top 25: Who missed the cut

January, 20, 2015
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Our ACC Top 25 player countdown for the 2014 season has begun. As somebody who has helped put these lists together for three years now, this may have been the toughest ranking to do. The proof is there -- we had a tie in the rankings from 21-25 -- and were forced to leave off several deserving candidates.

So who just missed the cut? Consider these the honorable mentions in the ACC postseason Top 25.

Tre' Jackson, OG, Florida State. This was probably a tougher omission than P.J. Williams because Jackson was among the best guards in the entire country. The ACC has three All-Americans at this position. We chose the two who were on better offensive lines.

P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State. His omission might raise some eyebrows, but the truth is he was not the best player in his own secondary -- a group that did not live up to lofty preseason expectations. Williams finished with just one interception and 11 passes defended.

Mike Williams, WR, Clemson. Williams finished with 1,030 yards receiving and six touchdowns, averaging 18.1 yards per catch (fourth-best in the ACC). The other three 1,000-yard receivers made the Top 25. He should have a spot in the 2015 preseason Top 25. Same goes for teammate Artavis Scott, who ended with 965 yards receiving and eight touchdowns.

Roberto Aguayo, PK, Florida State. Even though Aguayo did not win the Lou Groza Award, he still is the most valuable kicker in the entire nation, having scored 136 points this season to rank No. 2 in the ACC. But he did miss three kicks this year so that kept him off the Top 25.

Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami. Kaaya blossomed as the season went on and is sure to have a spot on this list when the 2015 preseason Top 25 makes its debut in the summer. Kaaya finished first in the ACC in pass efficiency (145.9), passing yards per completion (14.5) and second in passing yards (3,198).

DeVon Edwards, DB/AP, Duke: Edwards provided tremendous value to the Duke defense and on special teams, finishing second on the team with 133 tackles, tied for second with 4.5 sacks, while leading the team with 10 passes defended. He also ranked fourth in the ACC in kickoff return average and returned one for a score.

Synjyn Days, BB, Georgia Tech. When Days got his opportunity midway through the season, he took full advantage. He ended up with 924 yards rushing and nine touchdowns -- 835 yards and eight of those touchdowns came in the final seven games of the season.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. Watson showed flashes of brilliance when he was on the field. But the problem was he wasn't on the field nearly enough to make the Top 25. He's almost a lock to be a top-5 preseason pick in 2015.
Florida State has won three straight ACC championships, but the Seminoles are not a lock to be the preseason favorites to win the league again in 2015.

This could be the season to catch the Seminoles -- especially with Georgia Tech and Clemson returning top-25 teams.

[+] EnlargeJustin Thomas
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsJustin Thomas and the Yellow Jackets will aim to defend the nation's top-ranked rushing offense next season.
Everybody knows what Florida State has done over the past three years to re-establish itself as a national program. The Seminoles will remain a national program in 2015, but they may not be as dominant as they have been, given all the players they must replace.

You thought having to replace 11 NFL players off the 2012 team was bad? At least the Seminoles had Jameis Winston coming in at quarterback, and returning standouts such as Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary and Lamarcus Joyner on defense.

Now, the Seminoles have to replace perhaps the best player in program history (Winston), the best receiver in program history (Greene) and the best tight end in program history (O'Leary). Not to mention four starting offensive linemen and at least two All-ACC defenders who have declared early, with up to two more on the way.

When it is all said and done, Florida State could end up getting at least another 11 players drafted. That would bring its three-year total to 29 drafted players -- more than the 26 players Miami had drafted off its heralded teams from 2001-03.

Not even a coach that has recruited as well as Jimbo Fisher has can easily reload after losing so many veterans that laid the foundation for multiple ACC titles, a national championship and a 29-game winning streak.

What could make the difference is quarterback. That remains a big uncertainty in Tallahassee. But Georgia Tech and Clemson return two of the best quarterbacks in the ACC -- both sure to earn preseason votes for ACC Player of the Year.

Justin Thomas had a breakthrough season for the Yellow Jackets, the catalyst for an 11-win season and what should be a top-10 final ranking. He has two more seasons in Atlanta. While it is true the Jackets lose terrific players in Zach Laskey, Synjyn Days, Shaq Mason and DeAndre Smelter, the biggest key to efficiency and productivity in the Georgia Tech offense is its quarterback.

Thomas was terrific in his first year as a starter, becoming just the second quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in school history. He ranks No. 4 in the nation in QBR, a measure of how good a quarterback is on a play-by-play level. From a team perspective, Georgia Tech ranks No. 1 in the nation in rushing offense and third-down conversions, No. 3 in time of possession and No. 7 in first downs -- all testaments to how well the triple-option worked this season with Thomas behind center.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Rainier EhrhardtDeshaun Watson and the Tigers finished second in the Atlantic Division in 2014, and will likely be a preseason favorite to take over No. 1 in 2015.
At Clemson, we all saw the potential Deshaun Watson has -- provided he can stay healthy for an entire season. With Artavis Scott, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman and a host of other young offensive players returning, this offense has the potential to be as good -- if not better -- than the crew Tajh Boyd led a few years ago. The Tigers could end up being the top preseason choice in the Atlantic.

On the whole, the Atlantic Division should be tougher than it has been over the past few seasons. Louisville showed it is a team that has the potential to make some noise in the ACC in Year 1; NC State is vastly improved, and the last ACC team to hand the Seminoles a loss. Boston College has played the Seminoles close the past two seasons, nearly pulling the upset in Tallahassee a few months ago.

Of those three, the Cards and Wolfpack also return their starting QBs.

The ACC schedule will also be more challenging. The Seminoles swap Virginia for Georgia Tech from the Coastal, and the game is in Atlanta. So is their annual Atlantic showdown with Clemson. Already, those two games are setting up to be pivotal in the 2015 ACC race.

There is no doubt Florida State has plenty of talent in the pipeline. But whether the Seminoles will be able to put it all together for 2015 and play like a dominant force remains a question mark, leaving the door open for another team to raise the championship trophy.

ACC morning links

December, 30, 2014
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Clemson routed Oklahoma, 40-6, on Monday night to win the Russell Athletic Bowl and lift the ACC to a 3-4 mark so far in the postseason. Depending on one's view of Notre Dame, or the ACC, or the program and league's arrangement, one or two more opportunities await the league Tuesday, against high-profile SEC opponents.

These are the games -- outside of the obvious New Year's Six games -- that the ACC needs to win to help turn around its national perception. The Tigers did their part in resounding fashion in Orlando, Florida, and it was a win that could go a long way toward reshaping the league's image.

Think about it: Everyone knows reigning national champion and current Playoff team Florida State, but the ACC needs to establish more national players. Clemson re-asserted this season, and specifically on Monday night, that it is darn close to that conversation, if not already there. Four straight 10-win seasons? A 34-point rout of a brand-name opponent, with much-maligned back-up quarterback Cole Stoudt leading the charge, no less? It certainly helps that the Tigers have scheduled aggressively as well, with South Carolina, Auburn and Texas A&M all on-deck in the next four years.

The fact that Clemson lost its leading passer, rusher and receiver from a season ago and still managed to reach double-digit win totals speaks volumes about the operation that Dabo Swinney is running. Throw in the fact that they had to work around the injuries that their stud freshman quarterback endured, and that they had to overcome the loss of their offensive coordinator — Chad Morris, who took the SMU head job — and Clemson's 2014 looks all the more impressive.

The decision by Swinney to bring aboard defensive coordinator Brent Venables from Oklahoma never looked more brilliant than it did against the Sooners, when the Tigers' top-ranked defense dominated from start to finish. The program has come a long way from its 70-33 meltdown against West Virginia in the Orange Bowl three seasons ago, as it has now won its last three bowl games, all against programs that have won national titles since the turn of the century (LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma).

Clemson will now say goodbye to the winningest senior class in school history (42), a group heavy on defensive star power, one that joins just three other programs in winning 10-plus games in the past four years (Alabama, Oregon, Northern Illinois). But the Tigers should return a Heisman Trophy candidate under center in 2015 — provided that Deshaun Watson is healthy — along with a number of standout offensive weapons (Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott and Mike Williams among them).

We probably learned more about the direction of Clemson through its ups-and-downs of this season than we had in recent years, and the possibilities that still await Swinney and the Tigers have to be enticing to the fan base.

Here are your ACC links:
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No Deshaun Watson? No problem for Clemson. The Tigers, playing without their star quarterback, had no trouble demolishing Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl, scoring early on a long touchdown and utterly frustrating the Sooners' offense behind a smothering defensive effort to secure a 40-6 win, Clemson's third straight bowl victory.

How the game was won: Clemson's defense entered the game as the No. 1 unit in the nation, and Oklahoma quickly found out why. Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett & Co. were dominant, utterly baffling Trevor Knight throughout and largely stifling freshman tailback Samaje Perine until the game was out of hand. But credit the Tigers' undervalued secondary, which helped create five turnovers in the game. Oklahoma racked up some yards as Clemson waited for the clock to run out, but the Tigers' 40-0 lead through the first three quarters was built on the back of a stellar defensive effort.

Game ball goes to: Cole Stoudt. It's hard not to feel good for a guy who had as tough a season as perhaps any quarterback in the country. Stoudt won the starting job at the end of the spring, but after a 1-2 start to the year, he was supplanted by Watson. When Watson went down with an injury, Stoudt was forced back into action and struggled badly while dealing with both a shoulder injury and confidence issues. His past two performances against Power 5 foes were dreadful, but he stepped up against Oklahoma, tossing a 65-yard touchdown on his first throw and never letting off the gas. Stoudt finished the game 26-of-36 for 319 yards with four total touchdowns and no turnovers. The future remains Watson's, which offers ample optimism for Clemson fans, but Stoudt's bowl win was an appropriate sendoff for a quarterback that had given his career to the Tigers.

What it means: It's another nice feather in the cap of the ACC, which has picked up a number of marquee wins this season. It's also a big win for Dabo Swinney, who has often taken a backseat to his high profile offensive coordinator in recent years. Chad Morris left earlier in the month for SMU, but Clemson's offense didn't miss a beat. It's also the 10th win of the season for Clemson, which marks the fourth straight year the Tigers have reached double digits. Only Alabama and Oregon have longer active streaks among Power 5 programs. It's also Clemson's third straight bowl win, all against teams that opened the season in the top 5.

Best play: The tone for the game was set early, when Stoudt hit Artavis Scott for a 65-yard touchdown on Clemson's first offensive play of the game. The Tigers never looked back, and Stoudt turned in the best game of his career in his final game.

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Clemson did not have to look far for its new offensive coordinator.

Scratch that. For its co-offensive coordinators.

Coach Dabo Swinney decided to promote two assistants to fill the spot new SMU coach Chad Morris left behind: receivers coach Jeff Scott and running backs coach Tony Elliott will share the duties.

It is an interesting move, considering Morris was one of the highest paid coordinators in the entire country. Swinney could have paid big bucks to an assistant on the rise.

But Swinney believes he has two assistants on the rise on his own staff. Not only did Scott and Elliott learn under Morris, they helped recruit and develop the offensive talent that returns for 2015.

"These are two of the brightest young coaches in the business," Swinney said in a statement. "They have had a huge impact on our offense when it comes to the overall game plan, game day decisions, coaching their positions and have also been big reasons for our recruiting success.

"One of my overall philosophies is to promote from within when it is feasible. Both of these coaches are highly qualified and ready for this opportunity. We have been prepared to make this staff move for some time.

"Tony and Jeff were teammates at Clemson at the same position for three years and have worked together as coaches for four. They have a great relationship.”

Swinney obviously thought about this well before Morris left Monday. He had to, because Morris had been linked to other head coaching jobs over the last several years. It was only a matter of time before he left to become a head coach.

What he leaves behind is perhaps the most talented offensive team in the ACC next season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is a rising star, so long as he can stay healthy. So are Artavis Scott and Wayne Gallman, not to mention Tyshon Dye, Adam Choice and Mike Williams. Everybody except Watson has been coached by either Scott or Elliott.

Scott had a hand in bringing all those players in as recruiting coordintor. Since he took that job in 2009, Clemson has had Top 20 recruiting classes every single season. The 2015 class is currently ranked No. 4.

The only real question is how play-calling duties will be split. Neither one has been a coordinator before, so they will have to learn on the fly. The benefit is the two are close, having played together at Clemson. Perhaps that relationship will allow for a smooth transition.

Because after an up-and-down season, all eyes will be back on the Clemson offense in 2015, with the expectation that the aerial show will résumé.

By the numbers: Week 14 recap

December, 1, 2014
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We’ve reached the end of the regular season, which means we’re blowing out the last installment of our stats recaps.

Georgia Tech’s big win

Georgia Tech’s win against Georgia was the fourth time this season an ACC team knocked off a non-conference top-10 opponent (Virginia Tech against Ohio State, Boston College against USC and FSU against Notre Dame were the others). The other four Power 5 leagues had just two wins against non-conference top-10 foes combined this season (both by the Pac-12).

Georgia Tech forced two crucial turnovers in the red zone against Georgia, and also had an interception to seal the game in overtime. That has been par for the course for the Yellow Jackets, who rank 10th nationally in turnover margin (+11), 12th in takeaways (27), fourth in points off turnovers (123), and second in red-zone takeaways (7).

In its past five games, Georgia Tech has 17 takeaways. Only Louisiana Tech has more during that span in the nation (18). And considering Georgia Tech averages the highest time of possession per drive (3:02), not only do all those takeaways lead to points, but it also accounts for average of 11 extra minutes of possession time per game. Not coincidentally, the Jackets’ time-of-possession edge during the past five weeks is an average of 12 minutes, 12 seconds.

Lucky No. 14 for Holliman

Louisville’s Gerod Holliman snagged his 14th interception of the season to clinch Saturday’s win against Kentucky. The interception also clinched the FBS record for Holliman, who tied the mark set by Washington’s Al Worley in 1968. If Holliman can snag one more pick during Louisville’s bowl game, he would match the highest total by any player in NCAA history, regardless of division.

Holliman’s 14 interceptions are astounding. No other ACC defender has more than four. Ole Miss' Senquez Golson is the closest nationally with nine, but only three other players in the country have even half Holliman's total. In fact, there are only 12 players from Power 5 teams in the nation who have more total passes defended than Holliman has interceptions.

The term "ball hawk" gets thrown around pretty loosely, but Holliman’s exploits in 2014 certainly warrant the moniker.

ACC's top tight ends

The ACC will have two-thirds of the Mackey Award finalists for the nation’s top tight ends, and we saw their impact in Week 14.

Clive Walford had four catches for 49 yards in the early going for Miami, but he went down with an injury with the score 21-13. Miami came up empty on four of its final six drives without him, and Brad Kaaya completed just 12-of-32 passes the rest of the way.

Nick O'Leary was Jameis Winston's top target in the red zone against Florida, catching four passes for 52 yards and two scores.

Though Walford and O’Leary are two of the nation’s three best tight ends, they are not exactly head and shoulders above the rest of the ACC.

Bucky Hodges helped lead Virginia Tech to an 11th straight win against Virginia on Friday. David Grinnage had a TD against UNC on Saturday, and Wake Forest’s Cam Serigne had six catches and a TD against Duke.

In fact, there are only seven Power 5 tight ends with at least 500 receiving yards this season, and the ACC is responsible for four.

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Overall, the ACC has six tight ends with more than 300 receiving yards, nine with at least 20 catches, and eight with at least three touchdowns.

Cook comes of age

Dalvin Cook was the hero for Florida State yet again Saturday, rushing for a career-high 144 yards on 24 carries against Florida.

Since Cook emerged in Week 7, only four players in the ACC have accounted for more yards from scrimmage, and they are all pretty good: Duke Johnson, James Conner, DeVante Parker and Tyler Boyd.

But parse the numbers a little more, and it’s easy to see why Cook has been such a huge factor for the Seminoles. In the second halves of games since Week 7, no ACC player has more scrimmage yards than Cook (468), and he ranks eighth nationally in second-half yardage during that span.

Wolford steps up

It was a rough freshman season for Wake Forest's John Wolford, who was thrown to the fire early and then endured the highest sack rate of any quarterback in the nation. But if there is reason for optimism in Winston-Salem, it is because of how Wolford finished the season.

After tossing 13 interceptions in his first eight games, Wolford had just one in his final four games. In his first seven ACC contests, he completed 55 percent of his throws, averaged 4.9 yards per attempt and had three TD passes with seven interceptions. Against Duke on Saturday, he completed 67 percent of his passes, threw for 251 yards and had a career-high three touchdown passes without an interception.

Pitt’s dynamic duo

The regular season ended with Pitt’s Conner (1,675 yards) and Boyd (1,149 yards) as one of just four sets of Power 5 conference teammates to top 1,000 yards. The others were USC’s Nelson Agholor (1,223) and Javorius Allen (1,337), Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong (1,062) and D.J. Foster (1,002), and Michigan State’s Tony Lippett (1,124) and Jeremy Langford (1,360).

If you add a tailback’s rushing and a wideout’s receiving yards together, only Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Alex Erickson (2,911) and Colorado State’s Dee Hart and Rashard Higgins (2,894) had more yards than Conner and Boyd (2,824).

Extra points
  • In the past two seasons, Miami is a combined 13-3 with an average scoring margin of +17 in games before playing Florida State. The Hurricanes are a combined 2-7 with a scoring margin of -10 from the FSU game on.
  • Entering this season, Florida State had at least four tackles for loss in 56 straight games. Saturday’s win against Florida marked the third time this season FSU has finished with three. In nine of the Seminoles’ 12 games this season, they recorded zero or one sack. They had produced only 15 such games in the first four years of Jimbo Fisher’s tenure.
  • Only five Power 5 conference teams held every opponent this season to less than 450 yards of offense. Two of them are in the ACC: Boston College and Virginia.
  • Here is the complete list of quarterbacks with at least 2,000 passing yards, 300 rushing yards, 20 passing TDs and no more than five interceptions this season: Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley and NC State’s Jacoby Brissett. In fact, in the past five years, only eight Power 5 conference quarterbacks have matched those numbers.
  • J.C. Coleman racked up 118 yards on 18 carries in Virginia Tech’s win against Virginia. He has now topped 95 yards in all three games since Marshawn Williams went down with an injury. The last Hokies tailback to do that was David Wilson, who did it in seven straight in 2011.
  • Parker had his fourth 100-yard receiving day of the season against Kentucky. Only 10 players in the country have had more against Power 5 opponents, which is made even more impressive given that Parker has only played in five games total. Despite missing the first seven games of the season, Parker still ranks seventh in the ACC in receiving.
  • Miami’s Phillip Dorsett finished off the regular season as the nation’s leader in yards-per-catch, averaging 26.65. Colorado State’s Higgins (19), a Biletnikoff Finalist, is the only receiver in the country with more grabs of 30-plus yards than Dorsett (12).
  • Clemson’s Artavis Scott set a school record for freshmen with 185 receiving yards against South Carolina. Scott now has 851 yards this season, which is second to only Illinois' Mike Dudek among Power 5 true freshmen.
  • Clemson finished the regular season averaging 10.2 tackles-for-loss per game, tops in the country and the difference between the Tigers and No. 2 Virginia Tech (1.47 TFL per game) is the same as the difference between No. 2 and No. 19. In fact, Clemson's numbers are historically good. Since 2008, only two other teams even averaged 9 TFLs per game -- and one of those was last season's Clemson team.
  • With 11 tackles on Saturday, FSU's Reggie Northrup now has 101 for the year. He's the first Seminoles defender to top 100 tackles in a season since Buster Davis in 2006.

ACC helmet stickers: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
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Well, as rivalry weeks go, this is about as good as it gets for the ACC. And with that in mind, there’s plenty of competition for the helmet stickers.

Virginia Tech DL Dadi Nicolas: The Hokies needed a win to continue a decade-long streak of wins over rival Virginia, but more importantly, to get bowl eligible. Michael Brewer, Bucky Hodges and the offense did just enough to get the win in the end, but it was the defense that set the stage, and Nicolas was the star. He racked up nine tackles, including two for a loss, a sack and five QB hurries in the game, and Nicolas helped stifle the UVA running game to the tune of just 38 yards allowed.

Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and WR Artavis Scott: Watson’s passing numbers certainly looked a lot better Saturday thanks to his roommate. Scott took three short throws and raced downfield for big gains, finishing with seven catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Watson played on a torn ACL, as Dabo Swinney admitted after the game, but still accounted for four touchdowns. And most importantly, for the first time since 2008, Clemson toppled its in-state rival.

Georgia Tech RB Zach Laskey: The senior had never beaten Georgia, but he did his part to ensure it happened Saturday. Laskey ran 26 times for 140 yards with three touchdowns, including a 2-yarder that proved to be the difference in overtime. Of course, a big hat tip still goes to kicker Harrison Butker, whose 53-yard field goal as time expired sent the game to OT, and to D.J. White, who picked off Hutson Mason to seal the win.

Louisville WR DeVante Parker: Down both of its top two QBs, Louisville didn’t need to worry. Parker makes everyone look good. Kyle Bolin came on in relief of Reggie Bonnafon and connected with Parker three times for scores. Overall, Parker caught six passes for 180 yards to help the Cardinals knock off Kentucky. But a special helmet sticker also goes to Gerod Holliman, who sealed the game with an INT -- his 14th of the season, tying the NCAA record.

NC State QB Jacoby Brissett: Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the Wolfpack thumping North Carolina, and Brissett was the star. He completed just nine passes for 66 yards, but threw three touchdowns and added another on the ground, while rushing for 167 yards in the win. Teammate Shadrach Thornton chipped in with another 161 yards and a TD, too.

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook: The storyline is getting awfully familiar. FSU falls behind early. Jameis Winston coughs up some costly turnovers. And then the freshman tailback saves the day late. It was more of the same against Florida as Winston slumped through four INTs, but Cook was spectacular. He rushed 24 times for 144 yards and caught two passes for 28 yards. Overall, Cook had eight plays of 10 yards or more in the win.

Pitt receiver Tyler Boyd: The Panthers needed a win in Miami to get bowl eligible, and Boyd did all he could to ensure it happened. He caught five passes for 72 yards and scored on an all-out dive for the end zone. He also added 190 yards in the return game to set Pitt up with terrific field position throughout the game. The end result? Two 6-6 teams headed in completely opposite directions.

Q&A with Clemson WR Artavis Scott

November, 20, 2014
11/20/14
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Clemson's hopes for winning the ACC are already gone, but there's still a lot of drama surrounding the Tigers. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is rehabbing a knee injury. His backup, Cole Stoudt, struggled mightily last week against Georgia Tech, but will get another chance this week against Georgia State. And in two weeks, the rivalry game with South Carolina looms large. To find out the state of the team, we checked in with freshman receiver Artavis Scott.

You're one of a number of young guys -- particularly in the Class of 2014 -- making a big impact immediately for Clemson. How rewarding has that been for you?

Artavis Scott: It's been big for us. Most people don't get to come in and make an impact right away. You've got to build a trust, and we've been able to do that and show we should be out there. When they call our name, we can make plays. We're doing what we have to do so they can keep trusting us. And when we're out there on that big stage, we remember we've got to have fun and be playmakers.

[+] EnlargeArtavis Scott, Justin Simmons, John Johnson
Fred Kfoury III/Icon SportswireFreshman Artavis Scott was asked to contribute right away in the Clemson offense.
As a receiver, has it been tough bouncing back and forth between two starting quarterbacks this year?

Scott: It's not tough at all. You like both of the quarterbacks, and if something doesn't go right, we build each other's confidence up. Everyone makes mistakes, and you just have to help them go through it. Nobody's perfect. Everyone can't play that position, at quarterback.

How has Cole responded after struggling so badly last week in the loss to Georgia Tech?

Scott: He came out like a champion. He's responded well. He took the criticism, and he learned from it. He watched the film and learned from everything that happened in the game. We're all behind him. He knows he messed up, and it's something you can't dwell on. We all have adversity, and it's how you respond from it. You can't live in the past. It's over. So you have to move forward.

Have you guys made a point of stepping in and trying to boost his confidence a little, let him know you still support him?

Scott: Of course. But he should already know that. Just because you're not having the game you want or living up to other people's expectations doesn't mean everything's over. It happens. Everybody sees what happened in the game, but they don't know what caused that to happen. There's a lot to it, and we don't look down on him. He knows he messed up, but he's going to keep fighting like he's been doing this whole season.

As a team, where's the mentality of the locker room at? Can you bounce back quickly from a really tough loss?

Scott: Oh yeah, we know we've got to bounce back from that. It was a tough loss for us, and we all didn't expect that. But we've got to bounce back and we've got to finish our season out strong to get to where we want to be.

One of the perks of a big rivalry game is that, for the fans at least, a win over South Carolina would cover up for any of the struggles earlier this season. Is the team looking at that game as a chance to really define the season?

Scott: You've got to take it one step at a time, but from the fans' standpoint, a lot of people want us to beat them. We haven't beaten them in five years, so they're wondering what we're going to do to change that. We know what we have to do, and when that time comes, we're going to be fine and we're going to take care of it.

You're a Florida guy. Did you pay much attention to the South Carolina-Clemson rivalry growing up?

Scott: No, I haven't really followed it until last year when I really saw how big that games was. Now I'm about to experience it.

Well, you're also Deshaun's roommate. How many questions are you getting every day about whether he'll be ready for the Gamecocks?

Scott: Yeah, people ask me all the time how Deshaun is, and is he going to be back for the game. To be honest, we don't know what's going to happen. You can't rush him. We're trying to get him right and we don't want him back just to win the game. We feel like we can win the game with Cole, and whoever's in there, that's what we're going to do.

ACC mailblog

November, 14, 2014
11/14/14
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It’s Friday, so let’s dig into the mailbag to see what burning ACC questions you’ve got for us...

Nick in Fort Lauderdale writes: Could an undefeated Florida State actually get left out of the playoffs? … I can see Mississippi State staying in the top four with a loss to Alabama. If the committee will jump Oregon over an undefeated FSU, then why not TCU, and that could push FSU out of the top four altogether.

David Hale: I just don’t buy that talk. Credibility is going to be a concern for the committee in Year 1 for obvious reasons, and leaving out a defending national champ without a loss just seems like it would undermine so much of what the playoff was created to accomplish. I agree with you that a loss might doom FSU’s season, but until that happens, I think the Seminoles are safe. Besides, TCU’s remaining schedule is atrocious, so if the Horned Frogs were going to jump Florida State, it would’ve had to have happened already.


Vinny writes: FSU has always tried to rotate D-linemen, but it seems they aren’t using guys like [Justin] Justin Shanks and [Keith] Keith Bryant as much. Matchup? Scheme? Injuries? Also, do you think Mario Edwards would be more effective from the tackle spot?

David Hale: Scheme has a lot to do with this. When Mark Stoops left for Kentucky, the defensive scheme changed a lot, and the Seminoles have worked so much in nickel packages this year, we’re seeing a lot fewer snaps for the down linemen. Add the fact that you have two stars in Edwards and Eddie Goldman, and the drop-off in talent for those rotations is much more noticeable. With the injuries and inexperience at linebacker, keeping those guys on the field is paramount. Shanks was also banged up early in the year and hasn’t quite recovered that playing time, while Bryant perhaps hasn’t developed quite as quickly as Derrick Nnadi and Desmond Hollin. As for Edwards, he's such a mismatch where he is because of his size-speed combination. I think that's the best spot for him.


Steve in New Jersey writes: Can you tell me what is going wrong with my Hokies? Is it the talent? Bad Coaching? Bad playing? Or all the above?

David Hale: It’s a lot of factors — as it almost always is when a program declines steeply — which makes it harder to isolate one thing that needs to change. I think Virginia Tech has a lot more talent this year than the last few, and I’d credit Frank Beamer for giving so much playing time to young players. You’ve got to take the good with the bad in those scenarios, but in the long run, it will be a big benefit for the Hokies.

Beyond that though, I think there are two big concerns: The first is injuries. Virginia Tech has been devastated by them this year, and the hope should be that the bad luck evens out in 2015. The second is the offensive line, which has been a massive disappointment throughout the last few years. The run-blocking has been really bad, and without a steady run game, the Hokies are going to have a tough time getting back to 10 wins. The recruiting philosophy has shifted a bit and Stacy Searels is a good coach, but that part will take some time.


Dave in VT Land writes: So, it looks like the alphabetical listing of the Coastal Division teams is turning out to be the most accurate prediction! Who'd have thought?

David Hale: Akron is applying for Coastal Division membership as we speak… (And the Zips already have a win over Pitt!)


Jon in Atlanta writes: I cannot say enough on how surprised I am to see Georgia Tech with seven wins. Early in the season, I would have laughed if 7-8 wins this season was even mentioned. With a really good recruiting class coming in, how good do you see GT getting down the road?

David Hale: I’m not sure any team in the country has exceeded my expectations as much as Georgia Tech this season. There were just so many areas of concern entering the season, and to Paul Johnson’s credit, he’s found ways of plugging all of those holes. The D isn’t good, and that remains a big concern, but the offensive philosophy makes up for that in a lot of ways, and Justin Thomas has really added that missing element to the option. The other big knock on Johnson in recent years has been recruiting, and as you said, even that is starting to change. It’s really tough for longtime coaches to turn the tide when a program starts going south (see: Virginia Tech) but Johnson has done a splendid job of it this year.


David Hale: I’ll be surprised if Clemson isn’t the overwhelming favorite in the Atlantic to open next season because Watson is back with a very talented young offense around him. Mike Williams and Artavis Scott have been exceptional this year despite the revolving door at QB, and Wayne Gallman is finally beginning to make some progress for the running game. Yes, a lot of talent will be leaving on the defensive side of the ball, but Mackensie Alexander, Shaq Lawson and Jayson Kearse will be back to ease the transition. Meanwhile, Florida State figures to see a mass exodus of talent after this season, including the entirety of the offensive line, along with Jameis Winston, Rashad Greene and likely Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman.

The bottom line though is that Watson is a star in the making. He’s a perfect fit for Chad Morris’ offense, and he’ll have a good bit of talent around him, so there is plenty of cause for excitement if you’re a Clemson fan. The one big concern though: Can the Tigers keep their two coordinators?

ACC morning links

October, 24, 2014
10/24/14
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Clemson and Texas A&M announced late Thursday that the Tigers would replace Oregon on the Aggies' schedule in 2018 and 2019.

How about a round of applause for Clemson, everyone?

Seriously, look at the Tigers' future nonconference schedules. In addition to the Aggies, they get Auburn in 2016 and 2017. They get rival South Carolina every year. They get Notre Dame in 2015, 2020, 2022 and 2023. (Yes, those games with the Irish are not entirely their doing, but rather part of the ACC's agreement with Notre Dame.)

Still. This is a program that faced Georgia this year and last year. It faced Auburn in the three years before that.

We know all about how the College Football Playoff has forced others to schedule tougher. Having an athletic director on the selection committee in Dan Radakovich only drives home that point for Clemson. Can others step up to the plate now, too?

Here are the rest of your Friday links:

By the numbers: Week 8 recap

October, 20, 2014
10/20/14
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Digging into some numbers from Week 8 in the ACC ...

Winston is the comeback kid

Amid all the off-field chaos, it's easy to forget how good Jameis Winston is on the field, and he's been particularly impressive when his team needs him most. Winston is awfully good at rallying his team. In the second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, Winston was a sterling 15-of-16 for 181 yards, leading two touchdown drives.

This is nothing new. While Winston hasn't been tested often, his numbers when playing from behind are off the charts. Since the start of last season, Winston has completed 81-of-109 passes (74 percent) for 1,104 yards (13.6 yards-per-attempt) with 12 touchdowns and one interception when FSU is trailing. That's absurd.

Winston also excelled against the blitz Saturday. In 2013, he completed 69 percent of his throws, averaged 11.8 yards-per-attempt and tossed 21 TDs to just three picks vs. the blitz, but to start this season, his YPA dropped to 8.1 and he had just three TDs on 54 attempts. Against the Irish, however, Winston was 9-of-11 for 113 yards with two TDs and no picks when facing the blitz.

Noles' ground game struggling

On Saturday, FSU mustered just 50 yards on 26 rushing attempts -- a dismal 1.92 YPC. Last season, FSU averaged 5.6 yards per rush, but it has yet to hit that mark in any game against an FBS foe this season.

It's not all on the tailbacks, however. The biggest difference appears to be the O-line.

.

FSU's runners are averaging roughly the exact same number of yards after first contact as they did in the previous two seasons, but they're getting more than two yards-per-carry less before contact than they did in 2012.

Boyd and nothing else

Pitt toppled Virginia Tech on Thursday despite QB Chad Voytik completing just 10 passes (on 17 attempts). What's perhaps even more noteworthy about Pitt's passing game, however, is that the only wide receiver to catch a pass was Tyler Boyd, who had six receptions on nine targets.

That's hardly a surprise. For the season, Boyd has 34 catches against FBS teams. The rest of Pitt's receiving corps has 22.

Overall, Boyd has accounted for 41.4 percent of Pitt's targets and 49.7 percent of its receiving yards vs. FBS foes -- both the highest rates in the nation.

Clemson stuffs the run

Remember in the opener when Todd Gurley ran all over Clemson's defense? Georgia racked up 328 rushing yards and five TDs on 41 carries. It was ugly.

Since then, however, the Tigers have surrendered just 395 more yards in six games. Clemson is allowing just 2.0 yards-per-carry since the opener, the best rate in the nation. Against Boston College on Saturday, it held the Eagles to nearly 200 yards below their season rushing average, and the Tigers racked up 14 tackles for loss. It was the fourth time in the last six games Clemson has had double-digit TFLs, and since that opening game against UGA, no defense in the country has created a higher percentage of negative rushing plays than Clemson's (36.5 percent).

Marquise the magician

For the second straight week, North Carolina QB Marquise Williams was terrific. Williams enjoyed his third 300-yard game of the season (Winston is the only other ACC QB with as many), chucking four TD passes and adding a fifth score -- along with 70 rushing yards -- on the ground in a win against Georgia Tech.

It's the second straight game Williams had 300 passing yards, 70 rushing yards and at least three total touchdowns. In the past decade, the only other Power 5 conference QB to do that in back-to-back games was Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.

Heels, Jackets struggle on D

Entering Saturday's game, the only Power 5 conference team allowing more yards-per-play than Georgia Tech (6.3) and North Carolina (6.2) was South Carolina (6.35), so it was no surprise that the two defenses coughed up 1,190 yards and 91 points when they faced off.

For Georgia Tech, it's the continuation of a downward trend. In Ted Roof's first eight games against FBS teams as Tech's defensive coordinator, the Yellow Jackets allowed 5.5 yards-per-play and held five opponents below 101 yards rushing. In his last nine, opponents have rushed for an average of 173 yards per game and are averaging 6.5 yards-per-play overall, good for 115th in the nation in that span.

But things are even worse for the Tar Heels. In the last decade, just five Power 5 conference teams have allowed more yards in their first seven games than UNC (3,659) and only four have allowed more touchdowns (40).

Quick hitters
  • Entering the game, Virginia QBs were completing 63 percent of their throws to wide receivers this season, but against Duke, the Hoos completed just 45 percent. Matt Johns targeted wideouts on 70.2 percent of his throws in the game — the second-highest percentage of throws to WRs for Virginia quarterbacks this season. Cavaliers wideouts haven't caught a touchdown pass in their past three games after hauling in six in the first four.
  • Johns did hit running back Khalek Shepherd for a passing touchdown. It was just the third one Duke has allowed this season. Only San Jose State and Ole Miss have allowed a lower rate of touchdown throws in the nation.
  • Ryan Switzer in 13 games last season: 32 catches, 341 yards, three TDs. Switzer in seven games this season: 34 catches, 429 yards, three TDs.
  • The two highest completion percentages for Power 5 wideouts (min. 30 targets) reside in the ACC, and both are true freshmen: Clemson's Artavis Scott (38 catches on 46 targets) and NC State's Bo Hines (28 catches on 35 targets).
  • UNC's defense has struggled, but it has also been opportunistic. The Heels have 80 points off turnovers this year, the third-best total in the country. On the flip side, the Heels have allowed 77 points off turnovers, the second-worst total in the country.
Dabo Swinney said before the season that a lot of people would be asking him about Clemson's new receiving corps by the end of the year. Consider the Tigers' pass-catchers ahead of schedule.

Gone are Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant from last season. So, too, are DeAndre Hopkins and Jaron Brown from the year before. But the depth of this young group has been evident through five games, with three different players catching 15 or more passes, and six different players hauling in touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeMike Williams
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsMike Williams showed his explosiveness last Saturday in Clemson's win over NC State.
Clemson leads the ACC in passing, averaging 335.8 yards per game, and the unit figures to only grow as the schedule eases and the adjustment to bigger roles continues.

"Not surprised, because we had a couple of them here this spring, Demarre Kitt and Artavis (Scott) came in January, I think that really helped those guys and I'm proud of then," Swinney said. "They're doing a nice job for us. Some of our young tight ends continue to develop. I really like the fact that we've been able to involve our running backs in the passing game as well, and a young guy like Germone Hopper, who's not a freshman, he's a sophomore, been around here a couple years, I think he's been a huge addition as well, and it's really just him he's finally bought into the way we do things here at Clemson. It's really good to see these him reap those rewards from buying in and working hard and being committed to being a great player."

Hopper has been a big-play threat, catching eight balls for 233 yards and two scores. Mike Williams has led the group, with the sophomore hauling in 21 catches for 520 yards and four touchdowns. He is tied with seven other ACC players for the league lead in receiving scores, and within the conference he trails just Florida State's Rashad Greene (576) in receiving yards and Miami's Phillip Dorsett in yards per catch (31.3).

Williams said he had a goal this season of reaching 1,000 yards receiving, something that appears well within reach with at least seven games remaining. He celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday in a 41-0 win over NC State by hauling in six catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, both of which came in the game's first six minutes.

"I felt good," said Williams, who said he told quarterback Deshaun Watson before the game that he wanted two scores as a gift. "I felt like I played one of my best games here at Clemson on my birthday, so that was all pretty good."

Williams said Watson, the true freshman signal-caller, has been instrumental in the receivers' growth, from pulling players aside in practice to taking control in offseason 7-on-7 work.

"That's where the chemistry's developed," Swinney said, "the nuances of your passing game, and those guys spending that extra time, getting just reps, because ultimately it's about reps and just the chemistry that comes from getting those reps together is critical."

Scott is second on the Tigers in receptions (18), yards (305) and receiving touchdowns (three). He arrived to campus this past January with Watson, and the two are roommates. But the freshman admitted he did not envision this much success this soon for an offense facing so much personnel turnover, though it helped having eventual NFL receivers offer him advice on his visit and again around draft time.

"I talked to Sammy and Martavis," Scott said of last year's go-to threats. "They told me when you come in here to be ready, because you'll get an opportunity and when it comes take full advantage. Do the things you know you can do. Don't overthink it."

ACC Upset Watch: Week 7

October, 7, 2014
10/07/14
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The week that was in college football was filled with one upset after another. Surprisingly, the ACC remained status quo. Hmmmm ... does that mean things will change in Week 7?

Duke (4-1, 0-1) at Georgia Tech (5-0, 2-0), 12:30 p.m., ESPN3. Line: Georgia Tech by 5. The Jackets have dominated the series, winning 10 straight against the Blue Devils and 18 of the past 19. But Duke has had an extra week to prepare for the Georgia Tech offense, and the Jackets are coming off an emotional win against Miami on Saturday night. Duke did not look great in its last outing against Miami, but the Blue Devils have shown a propensity to run effectively, and Georgia Tech remains near the bottom of the ACC in rush defense. Duke also is one of the better teams at protecting the football, and that could come into play against an opportunistic Georgia Tech defense.

Boston College (3-2, 0-1) at NC State (4-2, 0-2), 3:30 p.m., ESPN3. Line: NC State by 4. The Wolfpack are in the most difficult stretch of their schedule, and BC is not going to be a pushover. Forget about the loss to Colorado State, the Eagles will have an opportunity to run the ball against the Wolfpack, who are giving up an average of 171 yards on the ground this season. Last week, NC State gave up 226 yards to Clemson. Do you know who has a better rushing offense than Clemson? Boston College. The Eagles have had a week to prepare, and NC State comes into this game off back-to-back tough games against Florida State and the Tigers. BC cannot be counted out.

Louisville (5-1, 3-1) at Clemson (3-2, 2-1), 3:30 p.m., ESPNU. Line: Clemson by 13. There is no doubt the Louisville defense is facing its biggest challenge to date, a dynamic Clemson pass game featuring true freshman Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and company. But if there is a defense equipped to slow down the Tigers, it is this one. Louisville ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense and No. 6 in turnovers gained, and has super safety Gerod Holliman, who leads the nation with seven interceptions. Watson has been nearly perfectn, with 12 touchdowns to just 1 interception, leading the nation in total QBR. If Louisville can force him into mistakes, the Cards could have a chance. But they need their offensive line to have the game of their lives against the best front seven in the ACC.

If Clemson has been busy cooking up a few new wrinkles for Florida State during the bye week, the trigger men on offense certainly aren't tipping their hand.

Chad Morris loves Deshaun Watson, but he downplayed the freshman's role in Saturday's game plan.

QB Cole Stoudt wants to look deep a bit more often against Florida State, but of course, he'll take what he's given.

The Seminoles haven't exactly looked as dominant on defense as they did a season ago, but don't go asking the Tigers if they've found a weakness to exploit.

"It's all in the strategy and game plan," Stoudt said. "We could have the same thing [as earlier games]. We could have something different. We'll mix it up."

In other words, don't bother asking. You'll find out Saturday.

But just because Clemson isn't touting any matchup advantages this week doesn't mean it hasn't been studying hard for what promises to be its biggest test of the season.

There's some juicy tape to watch on both sides of this matchup, Morris said, and that's a good thing.

Clemson's offensive hibernation in the second half against Georgia was an eye opener, and the fireworks the freshmen set off a week later against South Carolina State provided some much-needed reps for some inexperienced offensive talent.

On the flip side, Oklahoma State helped magnify some of the weak links on Florida State's defense, and while Morris certainly isn't suggesting the Seminoles aren't still loaded with talent, he said one of the big takeaways of the early season has been how much FSU misses some of last year's key contributors.

"The guys they lost were big-time players," Morris said. "To find the right combination -- they're a lot like we are offensively -- it takes some time to find the guys to play that role. The dynamics for them have changed because of the playmakers they've lost. That's what you see out of the first two games with those guys."

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsThere are plenty of unanswered questions for QB Cole Stoudt and Clemson's offense as the Tigers enter their Week 4 game at Florida State.
That's what makes this matchup so intriguing. FSU is trying to adjust to life without Telvin Smith and Christian Jones and Timmy Jernigan up front. Clemson is wondering just how sharp its offense can be with Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd gone and Stoudt and a cast of unknowns taking their place.

The first two games of the season set a template. This week's matchup should answer some major questions for both teams.

"Even if you're a veteran, you haven't gotten into the groove of playing and first games are like Forrest Gumps. They're a box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get," Jimbo Fisher said of his young defenders in new roles. "At time we were in good shape and at time we became hesitant. Those are things we can't let happen, you have to go and play those guys and that's what we did last week and we'll continue to do this week."

The same is true on Clemson's offense, where Morris spent much of Week 2 giving his young talent a long look. Watson saw increased action and looked sharp. Freshman receiver Artavis Scott emerged with six catches for 164 yards and a TD. Adam Choice and Wayne Gallman -- both freshmen -- led the ground game.

The strong running of the young backs is particularly encouraging as Clemson looks to establish a ground game against a battered Florida State front.

"Those guys are good," Clemson defensive lineman D.J. Reader said. "They work hard in practice, and there's a bunch of guys back there that run hard. They find the holes."

But, of course, big numbers against South Carolina State won't mean much against Florida State.

"They've got to continue to grow, absolutely," Morris said. "We knew they would be great players for us, but it's bringing them along at the right time."

For Florida State, the bye week has provided some answers. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman returned to practice this week and should be good to go against Clemson. Linebacker Ukeme Eligwe could be back, too, which would be a huge boost to the Seminoles' defensive front.

At Clemson, Morris thinks he has a better handle on his players, too, even if he's not sharing much of that information yet.

Will Watson play more? Will FSU's young linemen take a step forward? Will the Tigers' ground game be a focal point?

That's the fun of a mid-September matchup, really. No one really knows much of anything yet.

"We'll have to see when we get to game day what works best," Stoudt said. "Sometimes you go into games thinking one thing and then something else works better. We'll have to see when we get out there."

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