WATCH: Layne Herdt and Tim Linafelt break down FSU’s visit to No. 2 Clemson
GREENVILLE, S.C. — As the Florida State football team prepared this week for its visit to No. 2 Clemson, a game which represents FSU’s biggest challenge to date and perhaps the marquee contest on its schedule, the Seminoles’ players and coaches echoed a familiar sentiment.
“This is why you come to Florida State.”
That phrase, or one similar, was uttered by head coach Willie Taggart, defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett and virtually every player that spoke to reporters over the last few days.
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” Barnett said. “This is why you come to a Florida State, to play in games like this.
“A lot of these guys grew up watching Florida State and seeing all the games Florida State has played in over the years. Again, this is why you come to a place like this.”
In the Seminoles’ case, “a game like this” means a game against the defending national champions, a team that has won 20 consecutive games and has potential first-round picks across its roster.
And “a place like this” means Clemson’s Memorial Stadium — otherwise known as “Death Valley” — a towering structure that seats 80,500 and that will be among the most difficult environments that the Seminoles will play in.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in something that’s going to be that loud,” sophomore receiver Keyshawn Helton said.
In years past, “a game like this” also meant a national spotlight and national championship implications.
The spotlight is there, as a national broadcast on ABC will attest. But this time around, the Seminoles are hoping that their performance against the Tigers indicates that they’re steadily moving back toward national prominence.
There have been encouraging signs in recent weeks, a strong effort at then-No. 25 Virginia and back-to-back victories over Louisville and North Carolina State among them.
But Taggart wasn’t brought to Florida State just to beat Louisville and NC State. He was brought in to get the Seminoles back to the days of beating Clemson, winning the ACC and competing for national titles.
Whether the Seminoles are indeed ready for that kind of challenge will be determined by Saturday evening.
But Taggart and his team are determined to dive right into it.
“We know Clemson is a good football team, and they’re the defending national champs,” he said. “They’re the defending ACC champions, and I think that’s what we’re all shooting to do, is to be champions.
“We’ve been working all season to try to be ACC champions, and we know that we’ve got to go through Clemson, and fortunately, that game is this week, and that’s what we’re up against.”
Oddsmakers expect a Clemson victory on Saturday, but the Seminoles have a few reasons for optimism.
After those wins and a productive open week, the program is riding what might be its most positive wave in the last few years.
The offense is scoring more than 30 points per game, the defense has improved in seemingly every facet in the last month and Taggart believes his group has finally developed the attitude and mindset that it needs to compete at a high level.
And, if fans don’t want to take Taggart’s word for it, maybe they’ll find Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to be more persuasive.
“This is the most talented team we’ve played by far,” Swinney said. “And they’re getting better. Should be 5-0.”
“They’re growing up,” Taggart said. “Our young football team is growing up and understanding what it’s going to take to win ballgames.”
And, good as the Tigers have been, they’ve also appeared vulnerable at times, most notably in a 21-20 victory at North Carolina two weeks ago.
Star quarterback Trevor Lawrence has fallen off the pace of his stellar freshman season, All-ACC running back Travis Etienne hasn’t rushed for 100 yards since the season opener and receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross have seen their production take a step back as well.
Perhaps the Tigers used their open week to fix their issues, and the Seminoles might find themselves in the middle of a defending champion’s “get-right” game.
Or maybe, similarly to Florida State’s 2014 team, the Tigers are finding that the expectations placed on a defending champ with several key returners can be a heavy burden.
Taggart isn’t counting on that, though.
“I really don’t buy into any of that talk,” he said. “I watch the film and our guys watch them and go off of that. …
“They’re still defending national champs, the last I know. It’s been a while since they lost a ballgame. I think that’s the obvious.”
Which means that, to win, the Seminoles will need the kind of effort and production they had the last time they were toppling the nation’s elite.
No matter how things play out, Taggart insists that he won’t let his team go in timid. They intend to go for the big prize.
“We never coach not to lose anything,” he said. “We’re always coaching to win. We’re going to Clemson to win.”
Odds and ends …