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Important non-QB matchups in Clemson-Florida State

Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire

Saturday’s matchup between Clemson and Florida State will be the ACC’s biggest of the week.

In the preseason, many expected this game to decide both the ACC championship and a potential College Football Playoff spot. While it still will for Clemson, FSU hasn’t quite met expectations.

However, the Seminoles still present a tough challenge for the Tigers. FSU is coming off back-to-back wins with strong defensive performances. The Seminoles have bounced back from two losses with a resilience worthy of the program.

The focus of Saturday’s matchup has been on the quarterbacks. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is arguably one of the best players in college football. Watson finished third in the Heisman Trophy vote last season and was crucial to the Tigers’ College Football Playoff run.

This season, the junior has thrown for 1,950 yards, 20 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 164 of 258 passing and has rushed for 279 yards and one touchdown on 71 attempts.

He will face an FSU defense that will once again be without star safety Derwin James. The Noles rank ninth among ACC teams with 233.4 passing yards allowed per game.

FSU’s Deondre Francois also possesses a dual-threat ability. The redshirt freshman has thrown for 1,876 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions on 138 of 221 passing. Francois has also rushed for 142 yards and three touchdowns on 67 attempts.

He will face the ACC’s top pass defense in Clemson. The Tigers have allowed 166.1 yards per game and have recorded more interceptions (11) than touchdowns allowed (4).

While that matchup will be crucial to both teams’ success, there are several others that will also be important.

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Along with Francois, running back Dalvin Cook has been outstanding in recent weeks. Cook has recorded more than 100 yards in four consecutive games, including a season-best 267 yards to start the trend in Week 4.

Neither Cook nor Francois, however, will produce without a strong performance from FSU’s offensive line. The Seminoles have allowed 21 sacks (13th among ACC teams) and 49 tackles for loss (11th). Clemson ranks second in both sacks (25) and tackles for loss (63) among ACC teams.

Clemson dominates on the offensive side of the trenches as well. The Tigers rank second in both tackles for loss allowed (30) and sacks allowed (7), with the majority of the latter coming in their first two games.

However, FSU’s defensive line has been the best position group of its defense in 2016. The ‘Noles D-line has accounted for 22 of the 24 sacks by the team, including DeMarcus Walker’s team-best 8.5. Walker also leads FSU’s D-line with 31 tackles, including nine for loss.

Both battles in the trenches will be crucial. When FSU has the football, there’s a huge advantage in favor of Clemson. When the Tigers have the ball, it’s more like two juggernauts battling for supremacy.

Florida State can hang on defense, but it needs a spark from its backfield and the offensive line operating in front of it. Francois and star receiver Travis Rudolph will face the best secondary in the ACC. With Clemson ranking first in pass defense and seventh in rushing defense, the latter is hardly a weakness, but it’s definitely a flaw by comparison. Cook has to loosen up the Clemson defense — for its own sake, but also to set up big-play passes on play action or in other situations that might go against tendency.

There’s no way to avoid the following conclusion: FSU’s O-line will need to step up against a Clemson defense capable of blowing up plays in the backfield.

Both teams are supposed to be stacked from top to bottom, especially with the rest of the Noles defense starting to find its stride. However, the battle in the trenches could be the most important, especially with most focusing on the quarterbacks standing behind them.

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