CLEMSON, S.C. -- Grady Jarrett paused. Clemson’s senior defense tackle had just spent 10 minutes extolling the strengths of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston to a group of reporters. Jarrett explained how Winston makes plays with his arm and his legs, and how he’s calm under pressure and avoids big mistakes.
Before he finished, Jarrett felt it necessary to offer a disclaimer.
“I mean, I’ve acknowledged that he’s a great player, but we don’t fear him,” Jarrett said of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner on Tuesday. “I don’t want y’all getting at that. So, we’re going after him. But we know what we’re up against.”
No one would blame Clemson for fearing Winston. What the quarterback did in the Seminoles’ 51-14 rout of the Tigers last October was likely disturbing for most of the 83,000-plus fans in attendance at Memorial Stadium. This Saturday, however, Clemson won’t have to worry about Winston quite so much.
Florida State suspended Winston on Wednesday for the first half of this week’s matchup. A Deadspin report cited multiple sources on Twitter who saw Winston stand on a table in public and shout a phrase that included profane and sexual content. School officials called Winston’s comments “offensive and vulgar” in a release announcing the suspension, and redshirt sophomore Sean Maguire -- who has attempted just 26 passes in his college career -- will start against the Tigers.
A lesser dose of Winston is a good thing for Clemson, but the ‘Noles aren’t without other weapons. Florida State starts five seniors on the offensive line. It boasts an All-America tight end (Nick O’Leary) and a big-play receiver (Rashad Greene). That’s not to mention a defense that finished first nationally in points per game allowed (12.1) last season.
Still, the memory of Florida State’s offense marching up and down the field lingers most for Clemson. In last year’s game Winston went 22-of-34 for 444 yards with four total touchdowns. The ‘Noles cruised to the end zone in 1:39 or less in three of Winston’s five scoring drives. Florida State built a double-digit lead by the end of the first quarter and never looked back.
The Seminoles’ defense did plenty of work, too, forcing quarterback Tajh Boyd into three turnovers. But the Tigers haven’t gotten over their performance. “I think a lot of guys are taking that personally,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Can this year’s unit fare better? The Tigers look questionable through two games this fall. They imploded in the fourth quarter of a season-opening 45-21 loss to Georgia on Aug. 30. Clemson allowed 201 yards and 21 points in the final 15 minutes as tailback Todd Gurley ran wild. Georgia’s offensive line pushed around Jarrett, defensive end Vic Beasley and the rest of the Tigers’ front seven.
Jarrett said the key to defending Florida State on Saturday is making the offense one-dimensional. However, Clemson did that last season as well. Florida State managed just 3.2 yards per carry while Winston picked apart the Tigers through the air. “It’s hard to rush when they’re throwing the ball in two seconds,” Jarrett said. “But that’s the plan.”
Clemson also needs to limit big gains. It surrendered 12 plays of 15 yards or more in last October’s clash. Preventing those -- and the way they immediately deflate a defense -- will be crucial. “We’ve got to contest more plays,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “If you watch our game last year, they threw a hitch for a 75-yard touchdown. A hitch. It was a four-yard completion, maybe five yards. And [Greene] went 75 yards. Totally uncontested, missed tackle, 75 yards. So, we have to start with playing with more confidence and making those space tackles.”
Florida State wasted no time setting the tone in Death Valley last fall. It recovered a fumble on Clemson’s first play from scrimmage and scored three snaps later. With Winston sidelined for two quarters, Clemson will look to make a similar statement in Tallahassee, and the way Swinney manages his quarterbacks will be key. Senior Cole Stoudt is the starter, but fans are clamoring to see true freshman Deshaun Watson, who has led Clemson on five touchdowns in six drives this year. Both are likely to play on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the ‘Noles hope Maguire can prevent a drop-off in Winston’s absence. The Sparta, N.J., product has spent two years in coach Jimbo Fisher’s system and passed for 203 yards with a score in the spring game. He is a known commodity in the program, so players say it’s premature to put the Seminoles on upset alert. “I don’t think the outcome will change,” Greene told SI.com. “My chemistry with [Maguire] is as good as with Jameis. We spend time with both of the quarterbacks in case situations like this happen. We’re ready for it. We won’t miss a beat.”
Regardless, Clemson players didn’t shy away from underdog talk this week. The Tigers have never beaten an opponent ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, and the same team that went 11-2 in 2013 opened as a 20-point ‘dog this week. (That line dropped to 17 after Winston’s suspension.) Some Tigers were surprised at Vegas’ slight. Others remembered how last year’s game turned out. “You can’t just demand respect,” senior safety Robert Smith said. “You’ve got to go earn it, and that’s what we’ve got to do. They beat us last year. All the credit to them.”
Respect is an especially intriguing theme heading into this matchup for another reason. Winston visited Clemson’s campus with the Florida State baseball team this spring. Before heading home, he tweeted a photo of Memorial Stadium with the caption “Our house.”
Winston’s tweet didn’t sit well with a number of Clemson players, many of whom responded in kind. The ‘Noles quarterback later apologized, but the damage was done. Saturday’s rivalry game became more than a shot at revenge. It turned into a prime opportunity to shut Winston up.
“It was pretty disrespectful to the Clemson program, the people that came to Clemson even before us,” Jarrett said. “It’s a guy that wants to make it about him, and he wants it to be about him. We’ll let him have that. But it’s a team game, and we plan on going there as a team and putting up a good show. That picture, his TV performances -- because they are performances -- have no implication on the game.”
Smith added: “He apologized for it, but that’s still something you’ll have in the back of your mind in preparation to go against him.”
Social-media barbs and notions of payback make for good narrative, but Swinney stressed the importance of putting things in perspective. It’s September. No one knows what the college football landscape will look like in a few weeks. Swinney cited Boston College’s upset of USC and East Carolina’s road win at Virginia Tech as case studies in the sport’s inherent unpredictability.
Yet no one doubts how much this game matters to Clemson. The Tigers and Seminoles are tied with the most ACC titles (14) of any team in league history. Over the last three seasons, the winner of this game has gone on to win the conference title. It’s not unreasonable to view the matchup as a de facto Atlantic Division championship -- just don’t expect that line of thinking from Swinney.
“If that's how you think, you're probably going to get beat,” Swinney said. “Because I just said, when you think you have it all figured out, here comes Virginia and they beat somebody you don't think they're going to beat, or here comes Syracuse and upsets everybody. You just never know what's going to happen in college football.”