The difference between No. 2 Clemson and Florida State in 2018 was on clear display for the fans that decided to show up in Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday with one team battling to remain in the ever-shrinking national championship picture while the other fights to make a bowl game. While the Tigers are well on their way to a top four ranking when the College Football Playoff Rankings are revealed for the first time this season on Tuesday after a 59-10 win, the Seminoles are left with even more questions and concern heading into the final month of the regular season.
The final result matched the worst loss in program history, sharing that “honor” with a 49-0 defeat to Florida in 1973, stands as the worst home loss in program history and now marks the worst loss by Florida State in its series with the Tigers. The previous worst loss at home had been a 58-14 loss to Southern Miss in 1981 and prior to Saturday the Seminoles had never lost by more than 21 points to Clemson in 31 meetings.
Clemson has only a handful of victories against Florida State in Tallahassee, Florida, but the current state of the ACC Atlantic rivalry, one that has produced the division champion every year since 2009, is entirely one-sided. The Noles showed fight early in a scoreless first quarter, particularly standing tough on the defensive side, but penalties, more injuries and an overall ineffectiveness on offense gave way to a Clemson rout by halftime. Right now, the Tigers are the deeper, more experienced and more talented team, and that gap is what Willie Taggart is tasked with closing.
But even before we can talk about Florida State closing the gap with Clemson, there is the issue of a decades-long bowl streak that is in jeopardy. The NCAA and Virginia Tech have their own ideas of whole holds the official bowl streak record, but fact of the matter is that Florida State has played in a bowl game in each of the last 36 seasons. It may have required rescheduling a previously cancelled game against Louisiana-Monroe in order to get to 6-6 last year, but the streak at least continued. Saturday’s loss to Clemson moves Florida State to 4-4 on the season, but there’s not a single game left on the schedule where the Seminoles should expect to be favored. But forget being favored, where in a stretch of at NC State, at Notre Dame, Boston College and Florida … is Florida State going to find two more wins?
This reality was already present before Saturday’s loss, but a more close and competitive game would have provided a boost or at least more confidence in the possibility of winning its final two ACC games against NC State and Boston College. Taggart’s first year at Florida State always had a limit to its expectations, particularly with what has been acknowledged as a very tough schedule. The preseason win total for the Seminoles hovered around seven, and no one would have been crazy to think 6-6 was in the cards. But snapping the program’s 36-year bowl streak was the worst-case scenario for year one of the Taggart era, and heading into the final third of the schedule things appear to be headed in that direction.
Here are four more things to know about Clemson’s 56-10 win.
1. Mandatory Trevor Lawrence report: pretty good! Lawrence left the game in the third quarter after completing 20-of-37 passes for 314 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. It was the kind of game where Lawrence’s steady hand was his most valuable asset, avoiding a bad mistake and putting the ball in spot where Clemson’s ridiculous wide receivers can make plays in open space. Amari Rodgers (six catches, 156 yards, two touchdowns) was the big-play threat of the day while top receiver Tee Higgins (six catches, 62 yards, two touchdowns) was a matchup problem for FSU in the red zone.
2. Florida State couldn’t get out of its own way: The final total was 15 penalties for 124 yards, but Florida State penalties — which also included multiple ejections by the end of the game — handed the game away early, directly setting up the two Clemson touchdowns that broke the game open in the second quarter. A roughing the kicker penalty negated a missed field goal on one drive that ended in a Tigers score, then a pass interference penalty in the end zone set up the Tigers with first-and-goal from the two on the next. Florida State’s defense stood strong early, but with little help from the offense and miscues extending Clemson drives, there wasn’t going to be any way the Noles could hang in the game for long. It was enough to make this guy just turn to a book for consolation.
Making matters even worse? FSU quarterback Deondre Francois was hit hard and often all afternoon and eventually knocked out of the game. Backup James Blackman took over in his absence, a substitution that could have been made earlier without much change to the game’s outcome. Francois walked off the field on his own power but continued on to the locker room for further evaluation.
3. Get the Piesman Trophy committee on the phone: There isn’t a short-yardage package in the country more terrifying than when Clemson lines up defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence in the offensive backfield. The 6-foot-4, 350-pound Lawrence served as fullback and lead blocker for the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Wilkins on this touchdown run that should get some consideration for the Piesman Trophy, awarded annually to best display of a lineman doing un-lineman things.
4. Clemson’s depth builds with every game, every year: It was embarrassing for Florida State’s starting offense to be on the field in the third and fourth quarter getting beat, badly and often, by the Tigers’ second- and third-string defensive players. Dabo Swinney and his substitution patterns have become a talking point recently, coming off an NC State win where more than 80 players saw the field. Swinney believes that the early experience not only makes the Tigers better down the road, but helps keep his starters fresh for a season that Clemson hopes to extend into a 14th and 15th game.
So when Clemson starts to get a little bit of a lead, Dabo gets more players in the game, and because this practice has been in place for a while now there have been more games where Clemson has a big lead. More players get more experience, the program is better prepared for turnover and thus less likely to take a step back from year to year. Clemson is putting winning begets winning in new context for college football as it pertains to program depth, and it showed in the second half as backups were beating up on FSU’s starters.
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