Sapakoff: Tajh Boyd, Jameis Winston QB show is icing on Florida State-Clemson clash
CLEMSON — Loud celebrities will open ESPN’s “GameDay” telecast Saturday at 9 a.m. The curtain won’t close on the Florida State-Clemson extravaganza until Sunday morning, or close to it. Someone will cue up Katy Perry’s “Roar” while fans mingle on the field and mouth “eye of the tiger” lyrics in celebration, or in sadness.
The real star power in the top five matchup is a compelling quarterback contrast, ideal for this long-awaited Atlantic Coast Conference clash.
Clemson’s Tajh Boyd is the battle-hardened senior with gaudy career statistics and a thinking man’s beard. He has been a big brother type to several teammates, including wide receiver Sammy Watkins.
Florida State’s Jameis Winston is the young gun, a strong-armed redshirt freshman one big performance away from Heisman Trophy favorite status. The Seminoles, it seems, lost EJ Manuel in the first round of the NFL draft and upgraded at quarterback.
“(Winston) plays older than he is,” Boyd said Tuesday.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said the 6-4, 220-pound Winston “looks like a full grown man.”
Boyd is the consummate Big Man on Campus. He wore a “Details” T-shirt for a “SportsCenter” interview this week. In a separate interview with ESPN Radio, Scott Van Pelt wondered about Boyd’s confidence in Clemson going into this week’s game.
“Do you believe?” Van Pelt asked.
“Do you believe?” Boyd playfully shot back.
There are good reasons to trust Boyd and Winston.
Boyd has never lost to Florida State at Clemson (won 35-30 in 2011).
Winston has never lost, period (5-0 this season).
Boyd’s ‘big challenge’
The kid completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and his first touchdown at Pittsburgh in his very first college game.
The veteran led Clemson to back-to-back victories over top 10-ranked SEC teams (LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Georgia in the season opener).
Clemson at the ACC’s Operation Football in July received 102 votes in the Atlantic Division poll; Florida State got just 18.
But the Seminoles are a 3-point favorite, mostly because of the emergence of Winston, No. 2 in the nation in passing efficiency.
The serious scrutiny starts Saturday.
“Big challenge for our quarterback, because you’re not going to have guys running wide open,” Swinney said. “There’s going to be tight windows — tight, contested catches. And Tajh is going to have to play a great game.”
The contrast extends to strategy.
Brent Venables, a veteran defensive coordinator in his second season at Clemson, will try to baffle Winston will different coverages.
Florida State’s Jeremy Pruitt, in his first season as a defensive coordinator, prefers to aggressively press wide receivers. Pruitt learned plenty while coaching defensive backs for Nick Saban at Alabama.
The Seminoles’ defense is better than Georgia’s. It’s probably better than Clemson’s.
But Winston might lack the poise of Aaron Murray, and Venables and the Tigers found ways to frustrate the Georgia senior.
Winston already has played against Clemson, in baseball. He’s an outfielder and pitcher for the Seminoles baseball team.
Baseball as much as any sport, Swinney said, helps athletes develop “a thick skin.”
Jameis vs. Death Valley
Boyd, familiar with hostile crowds, gets the friendly confines this week.
Winston has won on the road this season. But Pittsburgh and Boston College are nothing like a sold-out Saturday night at Death Valley.
“It will be different for him here, but we’ll see how he handles it,” Boyd said. “I was in a similar situation and I was a year older as a redshirt sophomore, but going to play in different venues is always fun and always exciting. You never really know how it is until you actually step in that arena.”
Boyd says trash talking is always part of Clemson-Florida State games, though he was unable to identify the chattiest Seminoles.
“When you’re underneath that pile,” Boyd said, “you can’t particularly catch a number, but they’re all talking and saying stuff.”
Winston will get his share, too. But you get the feeling both quarterbacks can handle it.
Winston replaced EJ Manuel, a Buffalo Bills starter when he’s healthy.
Boyd just replaced NFL veteran Charlie Whitehurst as Clemson’s career passing leader.
Together, they might combine for 180 snaps Saturday night. It’s not over until Katy Perry sings.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff