Oct. 12 NCAA Football Picks and Preview — Florida State (3-2) at No. 2 Clemson (5-0)

(Tee Higgins photo courtesy Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Saturday, Oct. 12, Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C., 3:30 p.m. EDT.

Having had a bye week to reflect on their great escape, No. 2 Clemson looks to extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 21 games Saturday when it hosts Florida State in a key Atlantic Division matchup of ACC teams.

The Tigers (5-0, 2-0 ACC) were ranked second behind Alabama for the second straight, with the gap widening as the Crimson Tide got three more first-place votes than last week while Dabo Swinney’s team got three less.

Clemson edged North Carolina 21-20 on Sept. 28, with the key play coming from the defense as it prevented Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell from turning upfield on a run option for the two-point conversion with 1:17 to play. The Tigers got just enough production from their offensive stars as Trevor Lawrence threw for 206 yards, including a 38-yard tiebreaking touchdown pass to Tee Higgins with 9:54 left, and Travis Etienne had 64 yards rushing and a score.

The Tigers defense limited North Carolina to 290 yards and has yet to let an opponent surpass 300 this season. The Tigers, though, struggled to contain North Carolina’s ground game, yielding 146 yards.

Once the dominant team of the ACC, Florida State (3-2, 2-1) can play itself into the thick of the division title race if it can beat a ranked opponent for the second time in eight games under second-year coach Willie Taggart.

The Seminoles, who were on the short end of a 31-24 scoreline at then-No. 25 Virginia on Sept. 14, regrouped with back-to-back wins after that defeat and are coming off a 31-13 victory over North Carolina State on Sept. 28.

Alex Hornibrook had his second straight impressive game in his first start with Florida State, completing 29 of 40 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns. The Wisconsin transfer, who replaced injured starter James Blackman when he sprained his left MCL on Sept. 21 versus Louisville, has completed 44 of 60 passes for 571 yards and five TDs without an interception.

Florida State has dropped nine of its last 10 games against AP Top 25 teams, including a pair of defeats to Clemson teams ranked fourth or better. Lawrence threw for 314 yards and four touchdowns in less than three quarters of work last year when the Tigers humbled the Seminoles 59-10, handing them their worst home loss in school history.

The Tigers have won the last four games between the schools by a combined 150-71 margin.

Taggart to start Blackman while Hornibrook will get snaps

Taggart quickly addressed the quarterback situation at his weekly media availability Monday, noting that Blackman will start while Hornibrook will also receive playing time in this contest.

“They (each) bring something different,” Taggart said. “James brings James, and Alex brings Alex. … They both understand our offense. They both have done a great job of executing our offense. They both have done a good job of taking care of the football, which is always important.

“So, really like what both have done for us, and hoping they continue to do a great job for us.”

Regardless of who is under center, this game offers Taggart the opportunity to get a sorely needed direction-changing victory for the Seminoles. Florida State is 1-12 all-time against reigning national champions in school history and 15-15 since the start of the 2017 season after going 68-13 in the previous six, highlighted by winning the national title in 2014.

“Another opportunity to get on the field and compete, and not only get to compete, we get to compete against the defending national champions this week. Go to their place, and (it’s) one unbelievable opportunity for our football team. I know our guys are practicing hard, practicing well, and getting ready to take on a great challenge.”

Left tackle Juan Williams is expected to return after missing the last three games due to an ankle injury, offering support against a Clemson defense that has recorded 19 sacks, good for ninth in the country. Cam Akers is sixth in the nation with 582 rushing yards, but the running game tails off severely behind him as the rest of the team has totaled 24 yards when factoring in lost yardage by quarterback sacks.

Florida State will play the first half without defensive end Janarius Robinson, who was assessed a targeting penalty in the second half of the win over N.C. State. He is tied for second on the team with 3.5 tackles for loss and has recorded 1.5 sacks.

After opening the season with a 36-31 home loss to Boise State in which they squandered an 18-point lead and gave up 621 yards, the Seminoles have tightened defensively which each progressive game. A key to their success has been stopping teams on third down, allowing a conversion rate of 33.3 percent (20 for 60) after the Broncos went 10 for 19.

Maybe the Seminoles are finally getting it after winning their last two games by a margin of 65-37.

“I think just guys understanding what they’re doing,” said Taggart during Monday. “Not only understanding what they’re doing, last year was the first time a lot of these guys ran the style of offense that we played. Before they were huddling up in the pro style, and so we brought a different style of offensive play, and it took some adjustment for a lot of them, and a lot of guys were young and playing. So there was a lot of mistakes, and now you see guys having a better understanding of what we’re doing now and being able to execute a lot better and more efficient without a lot of mistakes.

“I think guys are just comfortable with it. Coach Briles and our offensive staff has done a great job of being on the same page and getting our guys to be on the same page, and then taking care of the football.”

Swinney looking for Tigers to force turnovers

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney sounded like a man who put the bye week to good use in terms of recharging his batteries. He was complimentary of the Seminoles at his weekly press conference, putting the emphasis on stopping Akers and forcing turnovers.

“I think they are running the ball a lot better in what they’re trying to do in the run game. Different from last year. Cam Akers— everything goes through him. He’s a workhorse. Everything goes through him,” Swinney said.

“We were probably soft in the past couple of games against the run. So we’ve got to match that physicality and mindset. He’s a committed dude so you better have your big-boy pants on or he will bloody your nose. He may get some zeros, some ones, some twos but he just keeps coming and they keep giving him the ball.”

The Tigers have run hot and cold against the run defensively, giving up 146 or more yards in three games but also held then-No. 12 Texas A&M to 53 yards on 27 attempts in last month’s home win. Swinney is also looking for his defense to help his offense with some takeaways after failing to record one for the first time in nine games in the win over North Carolina.

“They are plus-five in the turnover margin. Have had some short fields to work with,” the Tigers coach noted. “That’s a big factor in this game because we are minus-one in the margin. We have got to take care of the football and we did not get a turnover at UNC. First time in a long time we did not have a turnover.

“That will be a huge stat in this game. We win the turnover margin, we win the game. Simple as that. And vice versa because they are as talented that we have played or will play.”

Clemson’s pass defense has picked up the slack — holding opponents to 150.4 yards per game, good for ninth in the nation — and has recorded five interceptions in addition to the 19 sacks.

Neither Lawrence nor Etienne have produced stellar individual statistics thus far, but Clemson is still averaging 38 points and 486 yards offensively. Lawrence has thrown for 2,440 yards and 21 touchdowns in helping the Tigers to 11 straight conference wins, while Etienne has totaled 142 yards and two TDs in Clemson’s wins over Florida State in the last two seasons.

“I don’t think he’s up and down. I’m not going to agree with you on that,” Swinney said when asked to assess his QB’s play. “I think he’s 5-0 and has made a lot of great plays. He’s not perfect. When you say up and down, you’re trying to get me to agree to that. And I don’t agree with that at all. He’s been very consistent, actually. He’s not some robot that is never going to make a mistake. I think his success creates a different standard for him.”

Notable Trends

Clemson is:

  • 8-2 ATS in its last 10 games vs. ACC teams.
  • 9-2 ATS in its last 11 home games vs. Florida State.
  • 3-1-1 ATS in its last five games coming off a bye week.

Florida State is:

  • 1-6-3 ATS in its last 10 road games vs. teams with an above-.500 home record.
  • 4-10 ATS in its last 14 games vs. Clemson.
  • 5-11-3 ATS in its last 19 games vs. above-.500 teams.

*****5-Star Pick*****

Clemson -21/UNDER 67 teaser (-110)

This is a game that does not have the feel that 10 touchdowns will be scored between them. And getting a chance to knock Clemson’s number down to a manageable three touchdowns with an offense that should be sharp after a week off is worth an aggressive play.

****4-Star Pick****

Clemson -16.5 first half (-110)

The absence of Robinson in the first half could loom large for the Seminoles, who have not exactly been world-beaters on defense. This is a team yielding 302.2 yards per game through the air, and again, a Tigers offense that likely spent the bye week getting chastised by Swinney is likely going to come out aggressive.

OVER 13.5 points first quarter (-115)

The teams have combined for 104 first-quarter points, with Florida State scoring 59. It would not be surprising to see both teams score on their first possessions to carry this number, but even if that fails to occur, both teams have enough big-play potential to be aggressive and take the over here.

***3-Star Picks***

Clemson -27 (-115)

This could be the game that determines how Clemson plays for the rest of the season. The narrow win against the Tar Heels two weeks ago could be the game that serves as the wake-up call for Swinney’s team to be the elite national champion with some swagger in its step, or it will be a team a notch or two below that where the Tigers win without covering huge spreads like this one.

With this game at home and also with Florida State missing Robinson for the first half as well as a muddled quarterback situation of Taggart’s own choosing, Clemson is the pick here to regain its form and roll to victory.

UNDER 59.5 points (-110)

If the Seminoles are committed to Akers and the ground game, or at least as much as Swinney thinks they will be, that could shorten the game if the clock keeps moving. While the over has been the trend in the series, the under has delivered well of late for Clemson. It is 5-1 in its last six ACC tilts and hit in the last five games coming out of bye weeks.

The under is also 19-9 in Florida State’s last 28 games coming off an ATS victory and 26-12-1 in its last 39 versus conference rivals.

UNDER 33.5 points first half (-110)

This is close to a toss-up, especially with Florida State’s shaky defense, but the feeling is the teams will get just under the number here with five touchdowns feeling just out of reach. If the Seminoles can string together some first downs with Akers, they can shorten the game to help this pick.

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