Tonight the No. 3 Clemson Tigers head to North Carolina State to take on a 2-0 Wolfpack team looking to take advantage of a home field crowd on a Thursday night. Due to the circumstances, the ACC has raised the Clemsoning Threat Level to Orange, the second highest threat level under the brand new color-coded system.
The third-ranked team in the country currently represents the ACC's best chance to have a BCS title contender but a trip to Raleigh is anything but a sure win for Clemson. Just ask Florida State.
Last season the Seminoles traveled to North Carolina State under eerily similar circumstances, although a little later in the year. Ranked third in the polls, Florida State was looking to make a return to the national championship picture but an ugly loss to North Carolina State dropped the Seminoles from that conversation and thus took the first legitimate title contender from the ACC since maybe Virginia Tech in 2005 out of the picture.
Of course, Clemson is well aware of how much of a trap a road game at North Carolina State can be. During the 2011 season the Tigers visited Raleigh ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, only to be blown out by the Wolfpack 37-13. The loss ignited an unfortunate ending to the 2011 season for Clemson. The following week the Tigers lost at rival South Carolina, 34-13, and although they captured the ACC crown against No. 5 Virginia Tech in blowout fashion, Clemson fell victim to one of the worst defensive efforts seen in a BCS bowl game when they were unable to keep up with West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
This year the question is whether or not this Clemson team can be taken as a legitimate title contender, not just in the ACC but the BCS as well. Things got off to a great start in week one when Tajh Boyd scored five touchdowns in a victory over SEC contender Georgia. The win helped Clemson quickly rise in the polls. Clemson started the year ranked eighth in the AP poll and they enter this weekend ranked third, just ahead of Big Ten favorite Ohio State and behind Alabama and Oregon. After a week off following a walkthrough game against South Carolina State, will the Tigers be able to flip a switch on the road? To say this is a tricky situation for Clemson would be an understatement.
If Clemson is going to prove to be a top contender, this is a must-win situation. North Carolina State may lack the overall talent Clemson possesses, but this is a program that shows up to play in these situations.
As Dave Miller of National Football Post notes this morning, North Carolina State has defeated the last three top 10 teams to visit Carter-Finley Stadium. Clemson, a 14-point favorite Thursday night, must be prepared for a battle. A loss would be great for North Carolina State's chances to appear in the Top 25 despite getting a real scare from FCS Richmond their last time out. The Wolfpack have had just as much time to prepare for this game as Clemson as well, so we will see what kind of game plan Dave Doeren has cooked up for what will be his biggest challenge as a head coach yet.
For Clemson, protecting the football will be a must. NC State leads the nation in fumble recoveries and Boyd is known to throw an interception during the course of the season. Boyd has tossed an average of one interception per game over the last two years but he has yet to throw a pick this season. The challenge for NC State will be to capitalize on any opportunities Clemson gives them in the turnover game. Clemson enters this game with a +3 turnover margin this season and had a -2 last season in road games with four fumbles lost and six interceptions in six road games, including the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU.
Do I like Clemson to win tonight? Yes, I do. But if North Carolina State were to win Thursday night, I am not sure I would call it a "mammoth upset." Would you?