October 25, 2016 - by

Bye Week Behind Them, Noles Turn Focus To Tigers

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Whereas Florida State’s rivalries with Miami and Florida were first built on state bragging rights and then later evolved into annual battles for national supremacy, the Seminoles’ rivalry with the Clemson Tigers has something of a different feel.While the Seminoles and Tigers played a number of memorable affairs in the 1980s and 90s – think the “Puntrooskie” game in 1988 and the first “Bowden Bowl” in 1999 –

– it wasn’t until coaches Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney took over at their respective programs that the rivalry between the two schools really gained momentum.

Consider that the winner of the FSU-Clemson game has gone on to win the ACC Atlantic Division in every year since 2009. And that Saturday’s game will mark the fifth straight season in which both teams meet as ranked opponents – and third in which at least one team was ranked in the top five.

In addition to redefining the ACC, FSU-Clemson in recent years has evolved into a series of national significance: FSU used a win over Clemson in 2013 as a springboard to the BCS National Championship and, a year later, reached the College Football Playoff after topping the Tigers in overtime earlier that season. The Tigers, meanwhile, last year snapped a three-game losing streak to FSU as part of a run to the CFP national championship game.

The next chapter takes place Saturday, when the No. 12 Seminoles host No. 2 Clemson at Doak Campbell Stadium. FSU hasn’t lost to Clemson in Tallahassee since 2006.

“I’ve seen this rivalry evolve since before I got here,” said junior running back Dalvin Cook, who made his mark on the series with a 194-yard performance in Death Valley last year. “With guys like Telvin (Smith), Jameis (Winston), (Lamarcus) Joyner, Devonta (Freeman) – all those guys here before me made this game what it is today.

“The talent level in this game is the best in the country, one of the best in the country. That’s what’s made this game the level it’s played at right now.”

That star power will once again be on full display come Saturday.

Cook, of course, is one of the top running backs in college football, and his 1,256 yards from scrimmage are the most among “Power 5” players.

Then, on the other sideline, is Deshaun Watson, a Heisman finalist a year ago and still one of the frontrunners for the award through seven games this season.

Beyond those two, each roster is littered with former blue-chip prospects on both offense and defense.

“Everybody knows about their quarterback,” senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “They have great wide receivers, physical running backs. They have some great athletes.”

Added Cook: “They do a good job of recruiting just like we do. They replaced the guys that left to the NFL last year and they’ve got a bunch of guys playing at a high level.”

Players on both sides should be well rested and as healthy as they could reasonably hope for at this time of year.

Both the Seminoles and Tigers had their bye weeks leading up to the game and, from FSU’s perspective, the open date came at a perfect time.

Fisher said FSU re-laid the foundation for some basic techniques before installing its game plan for the Tigers, and he saw improvements in the team’s blocking, tackling and route-running, among other things.

“We got to get back a lot of fundamentals and get a lot of things done and evaluate a lot of things,” Fisher said. “Where we’re at, what we’re doing, things we can just tweak and turn a little bit better fundamentally in all three phases.”

Elsewhere, the week off allowed a few injured Seminoles – safety Derwin James (knee) and receiver Jesus Wilson (foot) in particular – some extra time to rehabilitate their ailments without a game looming on the horizon.

Those players’ statuses for Saturday’s contest remain uncertain, although Fisher was hopeful that Wilson, the team’s leading receiver at the time of his injury, could return to practice early this week.

With four ACC games left to play, the Seminoles have some work to do if they’re to catch up with the 7-0 Tigers in the Atlantic Division standings.

If FSU is to have any realistic shot to win the division, a win over Clemson is a must. The Tigers have a two-game lead over Florida State and, by virtue of their win over Louisville earlier this season, would need to lose twice in order for the Cardinals to surpass them.

The Seminoles, though, insist they’re focused only on playing well.

“We’re in the best position we want to be in,” Cook said. “We’re right here, we’re 5-2, we’re (ranked) 12 in the nation, we’re right where we want to be at. Right in the mix. But we’re not looking at any of that, what happened.

“You have games like that, the North Carolina game, the Louisville game, but you can’t look back. We’ve got to take that next step in the second half of the season and play some good football. I think guys will realize that.”

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