ACC: Clemson Tigers

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The spotlight was going to be on Jameis Winston regardless. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, engulfed in controversy for the better part of a year, was suspended for the full game less than 24 hours before No. 1 Florida State's matchup with No. 22 Clemson.

As the game approached, though, the attention was supposed to turn to redshirt sophomore Sean Maguire, the other quarterback -- the starting quarterback, if only for three hours.

Except Winston invited the cameras and microscope with his pregame antics, appearing from the locker room in full pads and taking practice snaps with the rest of the quarterbacks.

[+] EnlargeTallahassee, FL - September 20, 2014 - Doak Campbell Stadium: Sean Maguire (10) of the Florida State University Seminoles during a regular season game (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesAfter a rocky first half, Florida State backup quarterback Sean Maguire came through with some big second-half throws to help defeat Clemson.
It was supposed to be Maguire’s moment, and it was being taken away from him before he even took the first snap. The latest distraction was another viral video relapse, creating another issue that ate at the Seminoles’ focus.

Then it carried over into the game. The spotlight was not on the Seminoles until the ball was finally kicked off at 8:23, but for the first 30 minutes the team played like it was a secondary story: Breakdowns on the offensive line, a negative rushing total and a defense that allowed 249 first-half yards to Clemson.

For the most loyal Winston supporter, this was the perfect scenario as late as Friday evening. The offense was sputtering and in need of a spark as it entered halftime trailing 10-3. But now Winston was relegated to the bench for the second half, too, and it was time for Maguire to earn the spotlight he hadn't received since being named the starter Wednesday.

So Jimbo Fisher was left with Maguire, and if the Seminoles were going to win, he was going to have to take them there. He did, tossing a 74-yard touchdown to Rashad Greene with 6:04 left to tie the game, which Florida State eventually won 23-17 in overtime.

“I felt a lot of pressure was on him,” cornerback Ronald Darby said. “… We put him in bad situations, but he pulled out the win.”

Maguire learned he'd play the entire game not long before he went to sleep Friday. There weren't any dreams of big touchdown passes or improbable overtime wins. But he lived it Saturday.

“I can’t put into words,” Maguire said. “It’s the greatest feeling in my life so far that’s for sure.”

Maguire played nervous early while teammates played distracted. In the first half, Maguire played like a quarterback who only saw the field in mop-up duty previously, completing only 6 of 17 passes in the first half.

In the second half, Fisher took the training wheels off. There were shotgun and first-down passes and no-huddle offenses to start the second half. The game was going to be in Maguire’s hands, which most honest Florida State fans did not trust leading into the game.

In the second half, he was 15-of-22 passing and finished with 305 yards.

“We got him in a rhythm and got him some confidence,” Fisher said.

Would Maguire have been confident enough to throw that deep fourth-quarter pass to Greene in the first quarter?

“Probably not,” Fisher said. “And it comes after he takes a sack he shouldn’t have taken. But that’s what I loved about him tonight -- he just kept playing the next play, and that takes a lot for a first-time starter.”

The narrative nearly turned for Maguire in the final three minutes of the game. Maguire took a chance over the middle and threw an interception. Clemson had the ball at the Seminoles’ 26-yard line and was killing the clock to set up a game-winning field goal attempt.

That is when Maguire’s teammates secured the backup quarterback’s moment in the spotlight, no matter how fleeting it was destined to be, by forcing a fumble.

“Oh my God, we got the ball back,” Maguire said.

And Maguire finally got his limelight.
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With two minutes to go in regulation Saturday night, the end seemed near -- for both the ACC and Florida State.

Jameis Winston stood in track pants on the sideline, his suspension threatening to shred national championship hopes. His backup, Sean Maguire, had just thrown a bad pass that Clemson safety Jadar Johnson easily intercepted, putting the Tigers in prime position to win.

On second-and-2 from the Florida State 18, C.J. Davidson took the ball. All the Tigers had to do was get a few more yards to set up for a game-winning field goal. Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman converged, and got his hand on the ball. It squirted out.

Hearts sank on the Clemson sideline. The nation had seen Clemson fumble opportunities before, mistakes that have turned its school name into a verb that has come to symbolize what it means to give away games.

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesSean Maguire and No. 1 Florida State overcame early struggles to rally past No. 22 Clemson on Saturday.
But this fumbled opportunity became a golden gift for the Seminoles, and, in turn, the ACC. Momentum shifted in an instant. There was no way Florida State would lose this game now, not with its suddenly rejuvenated defense leading the way. Overtime arrived, and the Seminoles’ defense made another huge play, stopping Clemson on fourth-and-short.

All that was left was victory. Karlos Williams, ineffective all night, knew what he had to do. He would not let his teammates down. His 12-yard touchdown run gave No. 1 Florida State a 23-17 win, preserving its championship hopes and saving face for the ACC.

“It just shows we have great players on this football team besides Jameis Winston,” Williams said. “Although he's our captain, he's our leader, he's the best player in college football, we showed tonight we also have great players on this football team -- Rashad Greene, Bobo Wilson. Sean Maguire is a great quarterback. I believe that we proved we're Florida State and we're on the right track.”

With all due respect to Clemson, the ACC needed Florida State to pull out the win. Saturday was the worst weekend of the year for the ACC, as the league went 3-5 in nonconference play against FBS opponents, including an ugly 0-3 against the Big Ten.

Had Clemson won, the ACC would have gone from front-runner to outsider praying for a shot in the College Football Playoff.

Watching Florida State win the national title last year helped get the ACC some major respect. Watching Florida State go down at home in September to a team it has owned the past two seasons would not make a compelling case for inclusion. While it is true a one-loss Florida State team may not have been completely eliminated from contention, the ACC strength of schedule is simply not going to hold up this season against the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Not with the Week 4 results as an example.

So to guarantee staying alive for another week, Florida State had to win. It looked bleak in the early going, with the Clemson defensive line dominating and Clemson freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson taking a star turn of his own.

While Clemson played better for large parts of the game, it left points all over the field -- unacceptable for a team with its own championship hopes. Cole Stoudt, who started the game at quarterback, missed a shot at a sure touchdown in the first quarter when he threw the ball at his receiver’s feet. Clemson missed a field goal.

In the third quarter, Clemson had first-and-goal on the 1. A bad snap sailed over Watson’s head on second down. Clemson ended up missing another field goal. All the while Maguire started playing better, and so did his offensive line. It helped that Greene and Nick O’Leary were more involved, a big reason why the Noles stayed in the game.

But the biggest play of all belonged to Goldman, who matter-of-factly described his crucial forced fumble late in the fourth quarter.

“I knew it came loose,” he said. “When you're in the heat of the moment, you're not really thinking.”

Was there ever a moment of doubt when his teammates took the field, with the clock winding down and Clemson in prime position to win the game?

“You can't think of losing,” Goldman said. “One thing that Jimbo Fisher tells us is that you're never out of the fight until it's over. That's the mentality.”

Winston will be back at practice Monday. He will be under center next Saturday, when Florida State continues its playoff quest at NC State. The Seminoles proved they can win with Winston, and they can win without Winston.

Now they need to prove they can keep on winning. Because once again, the Noles are left alone carrying the banner for themselves.

And the banner for the ACC.

What we learned in the ACC: Week 4

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
12:54
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Well, that was a bad Saturday for the ACC. Bad losses, high-profile suspensions, a Group of 5 team hanging 70 on a supposed Coastal contender. Yeah, it might be another long year in the ACC, but the rough day did offer a few lessons.

[+] EnlargeTallahassee, FL - September 20, 2014 - Doak Campbell Stadium: Sean Maguire (10) of the Florida State University Seminoles during a regular season game (Photo by Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesFlorida State QB Sean Maguire had a gutty performance, but the Seminoles' offense missed Jameis Winston on Saturday.
 Clemson found its QB, and the Seminoles didn’t need theirs. Two things should be mentioned here that weren’t necessarily reflected in the final score of Florida State's win over Clemson. First, if Jameis Winston had played, there’s a good chance all the late drama wouldn’t have been necessary. While Sean Maguire certainly showed guts to stay in there and atone for some mistakes, FSU’s struggles on offense also showed just how much Winston brings to the table. At the same time, while the Seminoles survived, Clemson outplayed them at virtually every turn, but coming up empty in three trips to the red zone makes it tough to win. But the good news for both teams is that they’ll have much better QB situations moving forward. Winston will return, and FSU’s title hopes remain. Clemson’s season won’t end with a playoff berth, but Deshaun Watson’s emergence means there’s still a lot for Tigers fans to be excited about.

The ACC didn’t have bragging rights for long. Remember when the Big Ten was a laughingstock and the ACC was comfortably in the No. 4 spot in the conference power rankings? Well, that didn’t last long. The ACC went 0-3 against the upstart Big Ten on Saturday, including home losses by Pitt (to Iowa) and Syracuse (to Maryland). The Pitt loss is particularly galling, as the Panthers were on the brink of hitting the Top 25 and might have established themselves as a Coastal favorite with a win. Now? It’s tough to see a team that’s going to gain any national respect in this conference beyond FSU.

North Carolina isn’t a contender. The Tar Heels rolled over for ECU a year ago in an ugly loss. They saw the Pirates upset Virginia Tech last week. They had an extra week to prepare for Shane Carden and Co. before Saturday’s showdown. The result? A brutal 70-41 loss that offered a long, long list of embarrassments. The 789 yards of offense by ECU is the most against an ACC team in at least a decade, and the most any team has racked up so far this season. The 70 points is the most scored against an ACC team since Clemson’s Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia in 2012. Carden’s 438 passing yards were the second most against UNC in the last decade. After three games, UNC hasn’t looked ready to stop anyone on defense, which certainly doesn’t bode well for the ACC slate to come. Up next? Clemson.

Jacoby Brissett took care of the little guys. No one will mistake NC State’s early-season schedule for a murderer’s row of talent, so it’s way too early to buy in on the Wolfpack’s ACC chances. But the bottom line is that they’re 4-0, need just two more wins to become bowl eligible, and a year after enduring chaos at the quarterback position, Brissett has appeared to have all the answers. Through four games, he’s completing 70 percent of his throws and has tossed 10 touchdowns with just one pick -- and that came early in the opener. He’s now thrown 108 straight passes without an interception. Of course, the task gets tougher in Week 5, when Florida State comes to town.

We were high on the wrong Tech. OK, it was tough to hype Georgia Tech too much. The Yellow Jackets have trailed in each of their four games thus far, and even against Virginia Tech on Saturday, they were outgained (424 to 375), had fewer first downs (24 to 19) and converted just 4-of-12 third downs. But the Georgia Tech D made plays when it had to, and the offense cashed in with 17 points off turnovers. So maybe instead of nitpicking the Jackets’ flaws thus far, we should’ve been noting how well they’d overcome them. Justin Thomas has Georgia Tech at 4-0, and with home dates against Miami and Duke, there’s a perfect opportunity for the Jackets to take command of the Coastal.

QBs of the future took a step forward. OK, so Miami lost, Clemson lost and Wake Forest barely escaped Army. That’s not ideal, but fans have to at least be excited about how the freshman QBs performed. We already mentioned Watson, who has immense talent, and Miami's Brad Kaaya looked markedly better than he did in his Week 1 performance against Louisville, and John Wolford continues to improve in spite of very little help from the rest of the Deacons’ offense. Overall, the three true freshmen combined to complete 69 percent of their throws, averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, tossed five touchdowns and ran for a sixth while largely limiting any killer mistakes. On a brutal weekend in the ACC, the kids at least offered a reasonable silver lining.
video Mario Edwards Jr., Florida State’s best defensive player, didn’t play a down in the second half after suffering a concussion. His backup, Chris Casher, a headache most of his career in Tallahassee, was asked to replace him.

He did so admirably, coming up with the biggest play of the game in overtime. On a fourth-and-inches that Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney had little choice but to go for, it was Casher who awaited Clemson running back Adam Choice. It was destined for a head-on, man-against-man collision, and Casher gave no ground. He held Choice until Reggie Northrup cleaned it up to force the turnover on downs.

Two plays later, Florida State running back Karlos Williams waltzed into the end zone to keep the No. 1-ranked Seminoles undefeated.

Casher was asked to do what few players in the country can do in replacing Edwards, who has a rare mix of size, power and speed. Casher made play after play throughout the second half as the Tigers wanted to test the backup. Casher answered the bell every single time.

It is a career-defining moment for Casher, who was injured early in his career and has been engulfed in controversy since. During the summer, FSU had placed Casher on probation for one year for two violations of the university's student code of conduct stemming from the sexual assault investigation into quarterback Jameis Winston. And in 2012, police briefly detained Casher and Winston after a person reported two men were carrying a gun on campus, which turned out to be a pellet gun. He was also part of a BB gun incident that damaged an apartment complex’s property.

Whether Edwards returns in time next week, Casher might have done enough to earn a starting job back with his clutch performance. He lost his spot to sophomore DeMarcus Walker, but Casher gave Seminoles coaches something to consider with his performance.

Lee Corso's pick: Clemson at Florida State

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
12:26
PM ET
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Lee Corso enlists Ethan Fisher to help make a prediction for the Clemson Tigers at the Florida State Seminoles.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 4

September, 20, 2014
Sep 20
8:00
AM ET
The best day of the week is finally here. Is the best league game of the year here as well? Probably. Here's a primer on all of the action throughout the day. Be sure to follow along on Twitter with all of the hashtags below.

Noon

Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, ESPN, #GTvsVT: The Yellow Jackets have gotten to 3-0 in the most wayward of fashions. The Hokies are coming off a home loss to East Carolina, one week after upsetting a top-10 Ohio State team on the road. Could their trouble be on defense? Brandon Facyson has been playing hurt all season, sure, but Virginia Tech has surrendered 22 plays of 20 yards or more this season, fourth-most in the nation and half its total from last season (44). The big-play threat might not exactly be there with Georgia Tech, but as Jared Shanker noted this week, the visitors do bring with them a knack for converting third downs. Virginia Tech has won the past four games in this matchup.

Iowa at Pittsburgh, ESPNU, #IOWAvsPITT: Third-year Panthers coach Paul Chryst hosts a familiar foe this weekend, as he faced the Hawkeyes six times while he was offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, going 3-3. Pitt is looking for its first 4-0 start since 2000, and it will likely turn to the nation's leading rusher, James Conner, to try to get there, despite Iowa's stingy run defense (No. 7 nationally). Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, by the way, will experience a homecoming of sorts, as he went to Upper St. Clair High in Pittsburgh.

12:30 p.m.

Maryland at Syracuse, 12:30, ESPN3, #MDvsCUSE: The Terrapins are in their first year away from the "basketball" conference that is the ACC, as coach Randy Edsall said this summer, and the Big Ten newcomers will look to avenge last year's 20-3 home loss to the Orange, which came without receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long. Syracuse, meanwhile, looked like a new team in last week's 40-3 win at Central Michigan, as it came off a bye and had quarterback Terrel Hunt back running the show on offense. Syracuse is looking to get to 3-0 for the first time since 1991, which would provide a big boost to a team that will embark on a difficult three-week stretch against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.

Tulane at Duke, ESPN3, #TULNvsDUKE: Has there been a more overlooked team than Duke recently? All the Blue Devils have done is take care of business, coming off a 10-win, division-title season and starting 3-0 this season in methodical fashion (albeit against bad competition). In any event, the unranked Blue Devils close their nonconference slate against American Athletic Conference newcomer Tulane, which is no stranger to the ACC this season, having lost to Georgia Tech two weeks ago. Here's one interesting stat surrounding Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information: The Blue Devils have lost yardage on just three percent of Boone's snaps, the lowest percentage of any Power Five quarterback with at least 150 plays.

[+] EnlargeTyler Murphy
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesTyler Murphy and Boston College hope to avoid a letdown after their upset of USC when they face FCS Maine on Saturday.
1 p.m.

Maine at Boston College, ESPN3, #MEvsBC: It's all about avoiding a letdown this week in Chestnut Hill, where the Eagles produced one of the young season's greatest upsets last weekend against USC. The Black Bears should hardly pose a huge challenge to BC, which, with Tyler Murphy under center, has been able to stretch the field much more than last season, even if the run game is still its bread and butter. Murphy leads all quarterbacks in rushing yards this season with 401, 40 more yards than he has tallied passing the ball (361).

3:30 p.m.

Louisville at FIU, Fox Sports 1: The Cardinals are looking to rebound from their first defeat of the second Bobby Petrino era, while the Golden Panthers welcome their second straight ACC foe to Miami. FIU gave Pitt a handful last week before the Panthers pulled away, but Louisville will probably not be so kind coming off the loss at Virginia. Louisville beat FIU 72-0 a year ago, and while there are plenty of new faces, quarterback Will Gardner will try to bounce back after getting pulled a week ago. His offensive line will look to get its act together as well.

Virginia at No. 21 BYU, ESPN, #UVAvsBYU: Speaking of the Cavaliers, they should serve as one of the toughest tests the Cougars face all season, as the home team has the best chance of anyone in the nation at running the regular-season table (21.7 percent, per ESPN's FPI). We'll see just how good this Virginia defense really is after strong showings through the first three weeks, as BYU quarterback Taysom Hill and his home field will be a handful to handle. Virginia beat BYU last year in the season opener, one of just two games it won all season.

Army at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #ARMYvsWAKE: The Demon Deacons' defense has actually been pretty good through three games despite a 1-2 record. And while the offense showed signs of life late in last week's loss at Utah State, it cannot afford to give away points, and it would help to develop some form of a ground game. The Black Knights were shut out last week at Stanford. They also boast, at this point, the nation's slowest offense at 31.1 seconds per play, according to data from ESPN Stats & Info.

North Carolina at East Carolina, ESPNU, #UNCvsECU: The Pirates came awfully close to beating a South Carolina team that is probably better than we initially gave it credit for, and they went into Blacksburg, Virginia, last week and took down the Hokies. Now they get the Tar Heels in a rematch of last year's 55-31 ECU rout in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have looked underwhelming through two games, and they will be without starting guard Landon Turner. But their offense is still capable of putting plenty of points on the board, and this is a team that certainly has not forgotten about the way it was embarrassed by the Pirates last season. A shootout between Marquise Williams and Shane Carden could be on the horizon. And given UNC's upcoming slate -- at Clemson, Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame -- it better hope it can keep up this time around before league play starts. One thing to keep in mind: With Brian Walker's 100-yard interception return for a touchdown two weeks ago at San Diego State, UNC now has 10 non-offensive touchdowns since last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info. That is tied with North Texas for the second-best mark in the nation during that span, trailing only Florida State's 11.

6 p.m.

Presbyterian at NC State, ESPN3, #PREvsNCSU: The Wolfpack's laughable nonconference slate concludes, and a win here would make them 4-0 after a disappointing 3-9 mark last season. Still, it should do wonders for a young team looking to go bowling in Dave Doeren's second year at the helm, especially if it can replicate its dominant performance from last week at USF. Like its rival in Chapel Hill, NC State needs to do itself a favor, with back-to-back games against FSU and Clemson awaiting in the next two weeks to open conference play. As David Hale notes, quarterback Jacoby Brissett has been invaluable so far for the Pack, leading the ACC in touchdowns and yards and second only to Georgia Tech's Justin Thomas in passer rating.

8 p.m.

Miami at No. 24 Nebraska, ESPN2, #MIAvsNEB: Andrea Adelson and Mitch Sherman did a wonderful job recapping some of the great matchups between these old rivals. What might be the difference at Memorial Stadium, however, is the ground game. Duke Johnson has rushed for at least 90 yards in each of his past five games dating back to last season, while Ameer Abdullah has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in 12 of his past 14 games and has tallied more than 100 yards from scrimmage in 16 straight games, the longest active streak in the nation. The ACC is 6-3 against the Cornhuskers in the past nine meetings, though the Hurricanes are just 1-6 in their past seven games against AP-ranked teams, with an average point margin of minus-22.4.

8 p.m.

No. 22 Clemson at No. 1 Florida State, ABC, #CLEMvsFSU: Here's the matchup we've all been waiting for, but it won't include Jameis Winston. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will sit out the entire game, the school announced late Friday, after reportedly making profane remarks in public. It will be Sean Maguire's turn to run the show. Maguire has not started a game since Nov. 12, 2011, his senior year at Seton Hall Prep (New Jersey). Coach Jimbo Fisher is 3-1 against Clemson since arriving in Tallahassee, but the lower-ranked team has won two of the past three meetings. The Tigers, meanwhile, are 0-4 all time against AP No. 1 teams, with the last such game coming in the 1999 "Bowden Bowl I" against FSU, a 17-14 Seminoles win. Coming into this contest, ESPN's FPI ranks Clemson 19th, FSU 2nd, and it gives the Seminoles a 77 percent chance to win.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris are two of the best offensive minds in football. But they go about their business in very different ways. Fisher is a little more old-school by 2014 college football standards, while Morris subscribes to lightning speed and triple-digit play counts.

One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but just with all offensive philosophies, there are positives and negatives to both. Each coach offers insight into his offense on the eve of the ACC showdown between No. 1 Florida State and No. 22 Clemson. Jared Shanker spoke with Fisher about his "complex" model, which backup quarterback Sean Maguire will operate without restrictions, and David Hale talked with Morris about his "left lane" preference.

Fisher looks at championships and points, not plays
[+] EnlargeJimbo Fisher
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher thinks Florida State has an advantage when his pro-style Seminoles line up on offense.
Fisher was in his element at the Seminoles’ media day in August. He was talking Football 101, discussing X's and O's and, taking a page from public speaking handbooks, actively engaging his audience by moving across the dais.

Toward the end, he was asked about the latest trend in college football offenses. It’s no longer just spread offenses and no-huddle drives, but now coaches, including Saturday’s opposing offesive coordinator, have their eyes on running as many plays as possible with the intention of reaching 100.

“We scored the most points in NCAA history and didn’t go no huddle,” Fisher said in August. “And Alabama didn’t win a bunch of national championships with no huddle.”

The fifth-year Florida State coach wasn’t criticizing the up-tempo faction of coaches -- in 2014 that’s a losing battle as far as numbers go -- but pointing out that recent national champions, himself included, aren’t relying on any gimmicks offensively.

Florida State is No. 1 in the country again, and while Fisher said his teams are capable of exhibiting no-huddle and up-tempo concepts, why would he mess with a winning formula?

With the overhaul of offensive philosophies throughout the country -- five of the top-10 teams in the AP poll are spread, up-tempo or both -- Fisher said it is an advantage when his pro-style Seminoles line up on offense.

“Being able to play conventional plays into our hands because not many people are doing it,” Fisher said in August. “It used to be the teams that spread, you don’t know how to play it [on defense]. Now all teams are playing spread, it makes the team you’re playing, say they’re a 4-2-5 nickel defense, now they have regular people running with a 260-pound tight end, 240-pound fullback and take an iso or counter. How much time do they see it in practice and practice against it?”

Several players have referred to Fisher’s offense as “complex,” and Fisher himself said it’s “probably a little more NFL-laden” with multiple-line protections, formations and the freedom for the quarterback at the line of scrimmage to make checks between a run or pass.

“It’s been successful, and it develops guys for the league,” Fisher said. “You go to school to be a lawyer, you go to the best law school. You want to be an NFL player, you go to teams that run NFL systems. When our guys get [to the NFL] they say they’re very comfortable, the schemes and concepts are very similar.”

Morris not deviating from uptempo style
[+] EnlargeChad Morris
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsOC Chad Morris' fast-paced offense has proved to be a winning formula for Clemson.
When he met with reporters earlier this week, Morris was asked whether he might slow down his usually fast-paced offense to eat some clock and keep Florida State’s offense off the field. It was a reasonable plan, but it never crossed Morris’ mind.

In fact, if Morris has a regret this season, it’s that he hasn't been aggressive enough.

In the opening week of the season, Clemson was saddled with awful field position throughout a disastrous second half at Georgia. Morris decided to go conservative, hoping to avoid a bad mistake. It was the wrong move. The Tigers had seven second-half drives and punted seven times. A three-point game at the start of the fourth quarter ended as a 45-21 Georgia win.

“Obviously if I had to do it over, I’d have thrown three straight deep balls,” Morris said. “If I’d known we’d be three-and-out, I’d have made everybody in the stands go, ‘Ooh, ooh, ooh.’”

Most of the time, that’s exactly what Morris wants to do. In his three-plus seasons at the helm of Clemson’s offense, the fireworks have been routine, and the pace has been frenetic. Among Power 5 teams since 2011, Clemson has run the second-most plays and ranks seventh in touchdowns, sixth in passing yards and seventh in plays of 20 yards or more. Morris has been at the forefront of the fast-and-loose style that has turned offenses like Clemson, Texas A&M, Baylor and Oregon into the some of the most entertaining spectacles in college football.

Morris’ offensive philosophy stands in stark contrast to the man calling plays for Clemson’s opposition this week, and the contrasts in style between Morris’ game plan and Fisher’s makes for lively debate. In each of the past two seasons, Fisher’s pro style has won the day, and last year, it set scoring records and paved the way to a national title. Still, Morris doesn’t see the head-to-head showdown Saturday as a referendum on his approach.

“We’re going to do what we do,” Morris said. “You’re just trying to get your guys to play at a high level. And in games like this, your big-time players have to show up, and it’s our job as coordinators to put them in a position to be successful.”

And if putting players in position to succeed is the ultimate goal, it’s hard to argue with Morris’ up-tempo style. While Fisher’s playbook is mercilessly complex, the main goal of Morris' offense is simple -- to move fast and make quick decisions. That means paring down the decision-making to the most important details and then letting athletes go out and make plays.

Still, at the end of the day, Morris said the underpinnings of what he does aren't a whole lot different than Fisher’s philosophy.

“You try to find weaknesses and exploit them and do what you do good,” Morris said.

Of course, what Morris does best is to open up the throttle and let the offense test its limits.

“I’m used to putting it in the left lane and put the hammer down,” Morris said.

ACC morning links

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
AM ET
Louisville is still waiting on running back Michael Dyer to get healthy, hoping he can give its ground game a jolt.

The bigger question is whether it matters who is carrying the ball given the issues the Cardinals have had on the offensive line.

Dyer has yet to play in a game this season after bruising his thigh during a scrimmage in mid-August. He was able to practice this week, and coach Bobby Petrino said Thursday there was "definitely" a chance Dyer could play against FIU. According to the Courier-Journal, Petrino said:
"We saw some really good things from him. The thing that's hard on that is it's not only the injury that he's overcoming, it's the soreness from not doing those things for five weeks -- not running hard and cutting and doing all that. The rest of his body is sore."

Dyer has had a difficult time staying healthy since he arrived at Louisville and has yet to recapture the form that he displayed during his first two seasons at Auburn, when he ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman and a sophomore. Given his talent and past production, he is the best running back on the roster, and Louisville could absolutely use his help.

Would he be an absolute difference maker? Petrino said this week he had opened up the competition on the offensive line to try and shake things up among a group that has struggled both in the run and pass game. With Dyer out, Louisville has relied primarily on Dominique Brown and L.J. Scott at running back. If you throw out the game against FCS Murray State, Louisville is averaging just 104.5 yards rushing. Some of that has to do with sacks allowed but even if you add in the yards lost by quarterbacks, Louisville is averaging just 123 yards per game on the ground.

Essentially, Louisville has not been as explosive as it wants to be out of the backfield. Brown had over 100 yards in the opening win against Miami but averaged 4.3 yards per carry. Against a much better Virginia defense, Brown averaged 3.7 yards per carry. As we discussed in an earlier mailbag, Petrino needs an effective run game for his offense to run smoothly.

Clemson's Watson proves a quick study

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
1:00
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His teammates called him “Rook” -- short for “rookie” -- back when Deshaun Watson was starting as a 14-year-old freshman at Gainesville High. The nickname stuck, but it was never an apt moniker.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Watson
AP Photo/Anderson Independent-Mail/Mark CrammerClemson fans would like to see highly-touted QB Deshaun Watson take the field sooner rather than later.
 His first start was against the defending state champions, but Watson was never flustered. After his first four games, he’d already become a star, and when head coach Bruce Miller called him into his office to talk about handling success, Watson simply shrugged.

“Don’t get a big head,” Miller told him. “I never have,” the 14-year-old shot back.

By the time his high school career was over, Watson had thrown for more than 13,000 yards, run for another 4,400 and produced 218 touchdowns, but during Christmas break last year, just days before his college career would begin at Clemson, Watson called up his quarterback coach and asked to meet him at the field. He wanted to throw for a while.

Watson was the top quarterback recruit in the country last year, a perfect mix of poise, presence, arm strength and athleticism. But if there’s a secret ingredient that sets Watson apart, it's that maturity. The kid has always played beyond his years.

“He watches film like an NFL veteran,” Miller said. “He just knows so much, and he’s so gifted athletically, I’m not sure he couldn’t pick up a set of golf clubs and go play par. He’s just a gifted athlete with a very special personality.”

It’s no wonder then that just two games into his Clemson career, a vocal contingent of Tigers fans are ready to see Watson ascend to the throne as the team’s QB1, and Dabo Swinney is left to deflect the spotlight that inevitably comes with a quarterback controversy.

To hear Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris tell it, there is no debate. Cole Stoudt won the job in the spring, won it again this fall, and the senior who spent three years toiling in Tajh Boyd’s shadow has played well enough to keep the job so far. But that’s all the practical logic. Fans have seen the future and they want more.

Maybe it was Watson's bullet to Charone Peake in the end zone, as pretty a pass as Boyd threw in three years as the most prolific QB in Clemson history. It came on just the third pass of Watson’s career.

Maybe it was the swagger that Watson exuded each time he trotted onto the field in the glorified scrimmage against South Carolina State a week later, leading four touchdown drives in four chances.

Maybe it’s the sales pitch Clemson’s coaches had already delivered so many times in the previous nine months, touting Watson as a can’t-miss talent who would, one day, lead Clemson to the promised land.

“We have a guy [in Stoudt] that won the job clearly, and he’s our guy,” Swinney said. “But we have this other guy in Deshaun that has just, from the time he got here, has gotten better and better. He’s closed the gap. There’s not a lot of drop-off.”

That’s not to say Swinney is ceding ground to the rabble calling for the Watson era at Clemson to begin now.

Away from the prying eyes of the public, Stoudt has shined and Watson has, at times, looked every bit like a rookie.

“His first week-and-a-half of camp, it was really bad,” Swinney said. “But that last week, man, he came on. He did not win the job. But you can't just make a guy a starter on potential. It doesn't work that way. Guys have to earn things.”

[+] EnlargeCole Stoudt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsDespite Watson's progress, coach Dabo Swinney says Cole Stoudt remains his starter.
 Stoudt earned the job. But in these first two games -- a loss at Georgia and a drubbing of an FCS team -- Watson has looked awfully sharp.

Stoudt has one touchdown throw after 60 attempts. Four of Watson’s 13 passes have gone for scores.

On throws of 10 yards or more, Watson is 5-of-8 with two touchdowns. Stoudt is 5-of-17, including an interception.

Stoudt can run a little, but Watson is a weapon with his legs -- a talent he’s yet to fully demonstrate, but a skill that fits Morris’ game plan perfectly.

That’s the other mark in Watson’s column. He’s the new face in the locker room, but Morris’ playbook is old hat. At Gainesville High, Watson ran virtually the same offense.

“He’s been doing [it] since he was 14,” Swinney said. “The learning curve was very small as far as running the zone-read, the snap, the cadence, the timing of the snap, the shifts, the tempo we play at, reading first level, second level, third level. It was second nature to him.”

And so the rumblings get louder and, as Clemson prepares for its showdown against No. 1 Florida State, the program feels like it’s at a crossroads. Stoudt will be the starter, but his performance Saturday may well dictate the direction of the program. If he’s good and Clemson wins, it’s easy for Swinney to remain patient. If he struggles and the Tigers fall, it becomes harder to draw a distinction between Clemson’s present and future. And no matter what, Watson will play Saturday and have another chance to shine on a big stage.

“I wasn’t expecting to get as much playing time as I am right now, to be honest,” Watson said. “I always work to compete and play. You don’t want to sit on the sideline and watch. You want to be out there playing. So any time I have an opportunity I want to take advantage of it.”

He has, and that’s why there’s a debate now. That’s a good thing, Swinney insists. He says there’s “an urgency” at quarterback that hasn’t existed at Clemson in a long time, a battle between a veteran in his waning days with the program and a freshman whose future seems limitless. That’s fun, not controversial.

Watson hasn’t stoked those fires, either. He wants the starting job, but he’s not campaigning for it.

“He’s Cole’s biggest supporter,” Morris said. “They’re a great tandem together.”

How the dynamics of that tandem will work on the field Saturday remains covert information. Morris says there’s a plan in place for Saturday and beyond, but he isn’t sharing, and Watson insists even he doesn’t know how much playing time he’ll see against Florida State.

What’s clear is that Watson intends to take advantage of the opportunities he'll get. He’s proven, Morris said, that no moment is too big for him.

“He’s to the Nth degree of what you want in a quarterback,” Swinney said. “He’s got everything. There’s nothing this man lacks to be a great quarterback, but he’s also the type of person you want as a leader of your program. He’s on his way to quite a career, and it’s going to be fun to watch this young man blossom.”

It’s just a matter of time. Everyone agrees on that. The question is simply whether the time is now.

ACC Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
AM ET
The ACC has a full slate of interesting games in Week 4. Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna, David Hale and Jared Shanker give their takes on who will win and why.

Andrea Adelson: If East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden can rack up 417 yards on one of the best secondaries in the ACC, what hope does North Carolina have in this game? North Carolina can talk revenge all it wants, hoping for a little payback for its embarrassing loss last year. But the Tar Heels have come out flat in both of their games this season, have had problems on the offensive and defensive lines and have been inconsistent in their run and return games. Just about every matchup arrow points in East Carolina's favor. East Carolina 31, North Carolina 21.

David Hale: If we learned anything from last week’s game, it should be this: In September, momentum swings quickly. Virginia Tech was riding high, ECU was overlooked and the end result was a dramatic win for the Pirates. Fast-forward to this week, and we have an overlooked North Carolina against an ECU team with an increasingly crowded bandwagon. The Tar Heels have a chip on their shoulder, remembering what happened last season. UNC’s secondary is solid, and Carden completed just 15 of 36 passes last week after ECU’s first two drives. The Pirates won’t sneak up on North Carolina this time around, and that’s the biggest advantage for the Heels. North Carolina 28, East Carolina 24.

Hale: It was just last year that Virginia’s underrated defense helped knock off BYU in Charlottesville, and those Hoos certainly weren’t as good as this year’s group. Yes, BYU has improved, but the Cougars still don’t have the most explosive offense. More importantly, BYU has thrown four interceptions and fumbled six times (four lost) in its first three games, and UVa’s defense will be by far the best the Cougars have seen so far. The onus will be on the Cavaliers’ offense to put a few points on the board -- no easy task against BYU -- but this could be a game in which the first team to find the end zone twice wins. Virginia 20, BYU 17.

Matt Fortuna: UVa is clearly a much-improved squad from last season and shouldn't need a two-hour rain delay to pull off the upset, as may have been the case last season. But the Hoos will still have their work cut out for them in Provo, Utah. Taysom Hill is a much better quarterback than he was a year ago. He has rushed for 356 yards through three games, second most nationally. Further complicating matters is the altitude of LaVell Edwards Stadium, which will test the depth of the UVa defense. The BYU defense has been flat-out salty against the run, and too much will be put on the Hoos' passing attack. BYU 30, Virginia 27.

Adelson: The Deacs showed some signs of life on offense in the second half against Utah State a week ago. Now the trick is to limit the turnovers and get the run game going. The bet is that will happen this week against Army, which has a run defense that ranks 84th in the nation, allowing 176 yards per game. The Wake Forest defense has played well for the most part, ranking 17th in the nation in total D, and will do enough to slow down the Black Knights. Wake Forest 21, Army 20.

Jared Shanker: It is not the sexiest matchup in Week 4, as both Army and Wake Forest have struggled in recent seasons. Army has not had a winning season since 2010, and Wake Forest is considered by many to be the worst Power 5 team in 2014. It isn't as much a case of having confidence in Army as it is questioning what Wake Forest will bring to the table. Stanford shut out Army last weekend, but the Black Knights were able to score 47 points against Buffalo, a team much more comparable to Wake Forest than the Cardinal. Wake Forest is playing a true freshman at quarterback and Army has a more experienced player leading the offense, and I think that will be the deciding factor. This will be a game decided in the final four minutes. Army 13, Wake Forest 10.

Fortuna: The Tigers know they are better than what they showed last season in a humiliating home loss to Florida State. Jameis Winston's declaration that Memorial Stadium is his house this past spring only fueled that fire, and now Winston won't even be around for the first half. All of that plays perfectly into the formula for a Tigers upset. Their highly touted defensive front has not lived up to expectations through two games, but if Clemson can create pressure early, get to backup QB Sean Maguire and force him to throw to someone other than Rashad Greene, the Tigers will give themselves a chance. Clemson 31, Florida State 27.

Shanker: It's almost as if this whole Winston half-game suspension sets up for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to add to his legacy. Maguire is a solid backup, so the smart money is on him keeping the game close heading into halftime. At that point, the offense's keys are handed back to Winston, who torched the Tigers last season. The Florida State defense stifled Clemson's offense last season, and this version of Chad Morris' offense is not quite as talented as last season's. If the Florida State defense is motivated, it certainly could give Cole Stoudt and Deshaun Watson fits. Florida State 24, Clemson 17.

Unanimous predictions

Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech: The Hokies have won four straight in the series, as defensive coordinator Bud Foster seems to always find a way to slow down the Jackets’ triple-option offense. Though Virginia Tech is coming in off a loss, it has looked like the stronger team in the first three games. Virginia Tech 20, Georgia Tech 17.

Iowa at Pitt: If there is anyone in the ACC who should be familiar with the Hawkeyes, it is coach Paul Chryst, who coached against them during his time at Wisconsin. Though Iowa ranks No. 6 in the nation in rush defense, James Conner will find a way to get his 100 yards and lead the Panthers to a 4-0 start for the first time since 2000. Pitt 28, Iowa 17.

Maryland at Syracuse: The Orange beat the Terps 20-3 last year in their first meeting as ACC members, though Maryland was missing several of its best players in the game. In a battle of mobile quarterbacks, Terrel Hunt will better C.J. Brown and get Syracuse to 3-0 for the first time since 1991. Syracuse 28, Maryland 24.

Tulane at Duke: The Blue Devils have gone through their nonconference schedule with ease, but cannot get caught looking ahead to a looming showdown with Miami. The big question is whether Shaun Wilson can duplicate his 245-yard performance against the No. 94 rush defense in the country. Duke 41, Tulane 10.

Maine at BC: BC has to guard against a letdown after an emotional win over No. 9 USC last week. Coach Steve Addazio kept the intensity going at practice this week, hoping his team can carry on the momentum it has gained. Bank on that, behind another 100-yard rushing game from Tyler Murphy. Boston College 34, Maine 7.

Louisville at FIU: FIU put a scare into Pitt last week, so Louisville has to ward against overconfidence. Of course, the last time these two teams met a season ago, Louisville won 72-0. This should be a bounce-back game for the Cards’ offense, which struggled a week ago in a loss to Virginia. Louisville 45, FIU 0.

Presbyterian at NC State: The Wolfpack looked good last week in a road win over USF, and need to build off that win against Presbyterian, with a showdown against Florida State set for next weekend. The nonconference schedule has been weak, but after winning three games all of last season, NC State will take win No. 4. NC State 42, Presbyterian 10.

Miami at Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a big edge on the Hurricanes in the trenches, and that is where this game will be decided. Miami’s defense has played better, but it will have a tough time slowing down Heisman contender Ameer Abdullah on the road in a nationally televised game. Nebraska 35, Miami 24.

Records this season
Shanker: 32-3
Adelson: 29-6
Fortuna: 29-6
Hale: 29-6

ACC morning links

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
8:00
AM ET
We start today with Jameis Winston, because the reigning Heisman Trophy winner dominated conversation Wednesday, again for all the wrong reasons.

Florida State suspended Winston for the first half of Saturday's primetime game against No. 22 Clemson. But is that enough? Our Mark Schlabach thinks the consequences could have a reverse effect if a certain scenario plays out.
Some might argue that Winston's punishment for the latest incident isn't severe enough. In fact, FSU officials might have set him up to return to the spotlight once again after getting a slight slap on the wrist. What if backup quarterback Sean Maguire, who has attempted only 26 passes in his college career, struggles against Clemson, only to have Winston come into the game after halftime and lead the Seminoles to another victory? Winston will be the hero once again.

Others have expressed similar sentiments, including USA Today's Dan Wolken. Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman, meanwhile, wonders if Winston has learned anything at all, especially in light of comments both the player and head coach Jimbo Fisher made this summer. Yahoo Sports' Pat Forde also thinks Winston's half-game suspension is a half-measure taken by FSU.

SI.com's Zac Ellis says the message from the school to Winston to shape up is loud and clear.

How any of this affects the Noles in their chase to repeat as national champions remains unclear. But it is more evident than ever before that Winston needs to grow up, and grow up fast. Incident after incident figured to show him that, but it appears that has not been the case just yet. Now he has let down his teammates as they prepare for their biggest game of the season so far. How they respond -- and whether that will teach Winston a lesson -- remains to be seen.

Elsewhere in the ACC …
video
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Nick O’Leary is the definition of a player who allows his play to speak for him. Any reporter looking to speak with the talented Florida State tight end is surely a glutton for punishment.

His teammates weren’t much help initially, either, expounding on O’Leary’s succinct, stone-faced answers, but that primarily was because of their exuberant and gleeful expressions watching the Mackey Award candidate’s highlights from the Clemson game last season.

“Nooo! Oh my goodness!” cornerback P.J. Williams said before repeating himself.

“Haha! You’re going to see more of that,” safety Jalen Ramsey said.

“Hehe. … It looks like buddy lost that one,” linebacker Terrance Smith added.

[+] EnlargeNick O'Leary
AP Photo/Mike StewartLike in last season's game, Nick O'Leary is looking to get physical against Clemson on Saturday.
All three were shown the video clip of O’Leary sending Clemson safety Travis Blanks tumbling out of bounds after the 6-foot-3, 247-pound tight end lowered the boom on the Tallahassee, Florida, native (a tidbit not lost on Smith. “He’s actually from Tallahassee, ain’t he?”)

As O’Leary watches the replay, he breaks character and cracks a smile, however fleeting. He calls it “just a play that happened in a game” before walking.

The play and explanation define O’Leary’s business-like approach to tight end. He is a throwback to a position that is in the midst of transformation. Rare are tight ends in this pass-heavy era that are capable of blocking a defensive end at the point of attack one play and registering a 94-yard reception the next.

And whether he’s blocking or breaking tackles, at the end of the play, he lifts himself from the turf and jogs back to the huddle without as much as a word. He’s the lone receiver on Florida State’s team that doesn’t wear gloves, either. He wore them for one play and dropped a pass, so since then he has went with the bare hands approach, which, of course, only accentuates his renaissance act.

“Nick’s just a football player, man,” Smith said. “He doesn’t get all that flashy stuff. He goes out and plays. He’s going to block anybody, catch on anybody. His routes are some of the best routes I’ve had to cover. Nick is just an old-school football player. He just comes to play ball.”

“He likes to get nasty,” receiver Jesus Wilson said.

O’Leary is the grandson of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus, but he resembles a grizzly bear more than the Golden Bear. O’Leary needed a sport that was a little more violent. As O’Leary hauled in Jameis Winston’s pass against Clemson, he closed in on the sideline but decided to turn up field for extra yardage. Oh, and the score was 34-7 at the time, and the game was decidedly in hand.

“I’ve always had the mentality of being the more physical guy out there,” O’Leary said. “[On the Clemson play], I knew that one guy wasn’t going to take me down.”

Teammates aren’t immune either from getting embarrassed at the hands -- and shoulder -- of O’Leary. Defensive lineman Mario Edwards Jr. said O’Leary is just as intense and physical in practice, calling the Clemson play “normal for him to do.”

So, allow the Florida State defenders to offer No. 22 Clemson’s defense advice on what to do if O’Leary is bearing down Saturday night.

“You got to know how to hit that person and know how fast and know high or low. Shoot, you see right here [Blanks] really didn’t know,” Williams said. “I guess he didn’t know what he had coming.”

Clemson has not had much luck against Florida State over the past few years, a high hurdle that coach Dabo Swinney knows he must clear.

He may have gotten a little help in their matchup Saturday night. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will sit out the first half for yelling obscenities on campus, opening the game right up for Clemson to steal.

The week did not exactly start with many people believing the Tigers could pull the upset. They have lost three of their last four games against Florida State -- including an embarrassing 51-14 loss at home last season -- and were a 20-point underdog on Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeDabo Swinney
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyDabo Swinney needs a victory over Florida State regardless of which Noles play in which half.
While it is easy to infer that the punishment is a slap at Clemson -- hey, look, we can beat you with our backup quarterback! -- Florida State would have presumably made the same call no matter who was on the schedule this weekend.

It just so happens to be the biggest game of the season for both teams. The winner of this game has gone on to play for the ACC championship the last five seasons, bumping up not only league title stakes but College Football Playoff stakes as well.

While every team wants to get credit for beating its opponent at full strength, Clemson has to take advantage of the opportunity that awaits. That means its supremely hyped defense needs to seize the moment.

All eyes must be on a veteran defensive line that saw its players take 3,079 combined snaps last season. Vic Beasley has had a quiet start to the season. It's time for him to make some noise. The same goes for Grady Jarrett and all the rest. So far, Clemson has 19 tackles for loss on the season -- but only five in the opener against Georgia. The game against the Bulldogs was a mixed bag for the defense. While the Tigers started off well, they fell apart in the second half and allowed Todd Gurley to have a field day.

While the offense did not make enough first downs to help keep the defense off the field, defensive coordinator Brent Venables has said he was disappointed with the fourth quarter. Clemson had 13 missed tackles in the final 16 minutes of that game as players got tired and less aggressive. Florida State essentially owned the Clemson defensive front a year ago. Virtually the same groups of players return on both sides. While the Seminoles have not played up to standards on the offensive line, Clemson cannot allow Florida State to be the more physical group again.

Especially with Winston out.

Because a victory with Winston out for a half still counts, especially if Clemson can shut him down in the second half.

Detractors may want to downplay it if the Tigers win in Tallahassee for the first time since 2006. But that should not matter. An asterisk will not go into the record book next to this game (*-Winston played only a half).

A W will. A W that would allow Swinney to leap over one hurdle and allow Clemson to control its ACC destiny.

ACC playoff watch: Week 4

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
3:00
PM ET
The roller coaster ride of perception for the ACC has already had its share of highs and lows, and this week figures to be about as big as any when it comes to setting the table for the College Football Playoff. So let’s see where the conference stacks up through the first three weeks of the season.

Where the ACC stands: Once again, the conference is stationed in the No. 4 spot in ESPN’s power rankings, still well behind the Big 12 and down a net of 8 points in the ratings compared with its nearest competitor. The Big Ten actually gained ground on the ACC last week, and with three ACC-Big Ten matchups Saturday, that lead could be precarious.

Top playoff contenders: Florida State (No. 1 AP, No. 2 FPI), Clemson (22/19), Pitt (NR/27).

Nonconference record: 27-5 overall (7-2 last week), 15-5 vs. FBS, 4-2 vs. Power 5.

Week 3 recap: How bad was the Hokies loss to ECU really? The Hokies started slow but powered back in what would’ve been the biggest comeback in program history had they pulled it off. ECU might be the best team from the Group of 5, and its performance the previous week against South Carolina only looks better now. And just as Virginia Tech’s hype machine probably revved up a bit too fast after the Ohio State game, the Hokies probably aren’t as bad as they’re being portrayed now.

The problem, however, is that perception drives so much in college football, and all you need to do is look at the polls, where Ohio State remains a top-20 team after routing a listless Kent State, while Virginia Tech has tumbled well down the list of "others receiving votes."

On the upside, however, Boston College did a lot to win back any mojo Virginia Tech lost with its punishing of USC. It was a stellar performance from the Eagles defense and ground game, and BC was clearly the deeper, more physical team throughout.

Really, what Week 3 probably illustrated more than anything is that the ACC can certainly play with just about anyone in the Power 5 conferences, but it also isn’t that far ahead of the elite teams from the Group of 5. As a result, the conference has just two teams ranked in the Top 25 in ESPN’s FPI, but has seven ranked in the next 25.

Week 4 preview: When it comes time for the selection committee to judge the ACC, there’s a good chance this week’s games will tell a big part of the story.

Start with the three games against the Big Ten. That league is so down at this point that any losses by the ACC would look bad, but Miami could actually benefit a bit from a win over Nebraska, one of two still unbeaten Big Ten teams. The Hurricanes have improved at QB the last two weeks, and this is a big chance to show the Week 1 loss to Louisville was more growing pains than anything.

Then there's the matter of Pitt and Iowa. The Hawkeyes' loss to Iowa State took most of the luster off this game, but Pitt is still poised as a fringe playoff contender and the ACC's third-highest-ranked team. The league and the Panthers would take a big blow with a loss here.

Virginia Tech gets a good test with Georgia Tech, and it will be interesting to see how the Hokies respond to last week's loss and the departure of receiver Josh Stanford. It's worth remembering that Virginia Tech has the easiest remaining schedule in the ACC, and if it were to win out and knock off an undefeated Florida State in the ACC title game, the playoff would still be a realistic possibility.

Meanwhile, North Carolina has a chance to revitalize its playoff chances with a win at ECU, while a loss might actually help bolster Virginia Tech's chances by illustrating that last week's result was no fluke and the Pirates are the real deal.

The biggest game of the week for the ACC might be Virginia at BYU. It figures to be a defensive battle, but UVa knocked off the Cougars at home last year, and certainly the Hoos are a better team now. BYU is No. 18 in the FPI, the highest-ranked foe for any ACC team this week.

Then there's the big question of the week: What’s better for the ACC? If Florida State wins, it keeps the Seminoles on the path toward the playoff, but it knocks Clemson down to 1-2 and out of the Top 25, meaning it won’t even be much of a marquee win for FSU. If Clemson wins, the ACC can trumpet another legitimate contender, but it’s at the expense of the league’s best hope for a national title. The one sure thing is that Clemson needs the game more than Florida State for playoff purposes, but the Seminoles could probably reassure a lot of uneasy fans with another impressive win.


A year ago, Jameis Winston marched his offense onto the field in Death Valley, cracked a few jokes in the huddle to lighten the mood, then proceeded to dismantle the Clemson defense for 60 minutes straight. He threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns, and when the carnage had ended, Florida State was a legitimate contender for the national title and Winston was a national celebrity.

In the 11 months since, that spotlight has unraveled so much of the veneer Winston’s win over Clemson created, and now, just four days before the rematch, the scenario for Florida State and its star-crossed QB feels entirely different.

Sean Maguire will be the man leading Florida State’s offense onto the field this time around, thanks to a half-game suspension levied against Winston for his latest off-field troubles. The Seminoles will remain favorites to win, but Wednesday’s news means Florida State is hardly the safe bet it once seemed.

[+] EnlargeSean Maguire
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsFlorida State is hoping that quarterback Sean Maguire will be a quick study this week.
Really, the questions began long before Winston stood atop a table in (or near) FSU’s student union and shouted obscenities that resonated around the country in a matter of moments, thanks to social media.

Winston’s offseason was a whirlwind of awards ceremonies and off-field scrutiny, and when the season began with a sluggish win over Oklahoma State, fans immediately began to wonder whether he was the same QB who’d looked so unflappable as a freshman.

Seminoles stars departed for the NFL, including Lamarcus Joyner, who forced the fumble that started the FSU avalanche in Death Valley last season, along with offensive stalwarts Kenny Shaw, Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman. Through the first two games of 2014, those absences were felt by Florida State, and the Seminoles were clearly searching for the right replacements to step up.

But even throughout all the turbulence since Jimbo Fisher hoisted the national championship trophy a year ago, Florida State remained the nation’s safest bet for the College Football Playoff, and Winston was the constant.

Now, for the first 30 minutes of a game that will likely decide the ACC Atlantic Division, nothing seems certain.

Make no mistake, Maguire is capable of handling the role. He’s spent two full seasons learning Fisher’s system. He spent three chaotic weeks in November 2013 as FSU’s top backup during a time when the courts held Winston’s future in limbo. Winston said Wednesday he'd be spending extra time watching film and studying the playbook with Maguire to get him ready for his first career start. Maguire is prepared for this moment, but all the preparation in the world won’t entirely close the gap in talent between the Heisman winner and the anonymous backup.

Clemson’s pass rush is as good as any in the nation, and Maguire’s calm under pressure will be tested. That was always Winston’s strength.

Karlos Williams is a talented runner who could help ease the transition for the backup QB, but look no further than the Week 1 game against Oklahoma State to find serious concerns about Florida State’s ground game. Without Winston, the Tigers will almost certainly stack the box and dare Maguire to beat them downfield.

And while Rashad Greene remains as consistently productive a player as there is in the conference, there were already nagging questions surrounding the receiving corps' supporting cast. Now the burden falls on Maguire to help inexperienced targets like Jesus Wilson, Kermit Whitfield and Ermon Lane develop on the fly.

It’s just 30 minutes of football, and the stage will be set for Winston to return to action in the second half and erase a few more demons on the field. But last year, those first 30 minutes meant everything, with the Seminoles jumping out to a 27-7 lead that never allowed Clemson to get out of the starting blocks.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney grabbed headlines afterward, suggesting the talent on the field was split evenly, but the early momentum of the game tipped the scales Florida State’s way. This time around, there will be no excuse for the Tigers to cede the game within the first few drives. If the talent really is evenly split, Winston’s loss tips the scales back in Swinney’s favor.

But a year ago, there were questions about Winston, too, when Florida State’s bus motored into Death Valley, and he emerged a conquering hero.

Don’t expect the first chapter of the legend of Sean Maguire to be written in Tallahassee on Saturday. But the backup to college football’s biggest star will have a chance to script one heck of a footnote in the story of the Seminoles' 2014 season.

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