CLEMSON — The last time Clemson and its opponent each entered a game ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll was in 2000 at Tallahassee, Fla., when No. 4 Florida State routed No. 10 Clemson, 54-7.
Twelve years later, Clemson is once again ranked No. 10 and will once again travel to face No. 4 Florida State at 8 p.m. Saturday (WCIV/ABC-TV).
For Clemson (3-0) to avoid another thumping in the Florida panhandle, the Tigers must slow what might be the nation’s best defensive line. Florida State (3-0, 1-0 ACC) is allowing one point per game — yes, one point — in large part because of a defensive front analyst Phil Steele rates as the nation’s best. Steele said their second-team defensive front is so talented, that if ranked alone, it would be a top 10 unit.
The depth has been apparent as the Seminoles have continued to dominate despite losing star defensive end Brandon Jenkins in the first game to a season-ending foot injury. FSU is fresh off a 52-0 shutout win over Wake Forest. German-born defensive end Bjoern Werner leads the ACC with 6½ sacks. Fellow pass rusher Cornellius Carradine has more sacks (3½) than the entire Clemson defense (3).
At defensive tackle is a pair of athletic 300-pounders in the 6-2, 322-pound Anthony McCloud and 6-2, 301-pound Everett Dawkins. In reserve is the nation’s top recruit from the 2012 class in defensive end Marion Edwards and another consensus top 10 recruit in 6-4, 310-pound freshman defensive tackle Eddie Goldman.
Eight of the last 11 national champions have produced at least one defensive lineman who was selected in the first round of the NFL draft, and the FSU line might contain a handful of early NFL selections.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the FSU defensive front is his foremost concern.
“They are very deep, very talented, very fast,” Swinney said. “They lost arguably the conference’s best defender (Jenkins) …. and they don’t seem to be missing a beat on defense.”
While Florida State has played a weak schedule to date, the Seminoles have still posted ridiculous numbers.
Florida State is holding opponents to 1.2 yards per rush. The Seminoles are allowing just 2.7 yards per pass attempt. FSU opponents are 5 for 44 (11 percent) in converting third downs.
“A lot of people are picking them to win it all, and rightfully so,” Swinney said. “There really are no weaknesses when you look at their defense.”
But the defensive success starts up front.
As Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables noted, when the front four can produce pressure without help, it opens up the defense to be creative with blitzes and cover schemes.
It all means a young Clemson offensive line is on the spot.
The group has not allowed a sack in its last 10 quarters but did allow four sacks in the first half of the Auburn game. While the Auburn front was talented, the Florida State group is more gifted and deeper, meaning Clemson’s up-tempo offense might not be as effective.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said his line wasn’t as “aggressive” as it was in its first two games. He said right tackle Gifford Timothy has to play with more of an edge.
Said Swinney of his offensive line: “They are still a question mark. We’re doing OK.”
But to contend for an upset at Florida State, and to avoid a repeat of 2000, the group will have to be more than OK — it must be great.