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.

Maryland-Syracuse: Tale of the tape

September, 19, 2014
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Saturday's Maryland-Syracuse game at the Carrier Dome has all the makings of a delicious matchup -- if it were taking place on a basketball court.

So, OK, these two schools are known more for their basketball. But the relative new ACC member and the recently departed ACC member do have some gridiron legacies as well. Here we present a tale of the tape:

ACC's top recruiting visits 

September, 19, 2014
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This weekend kicks off the meat of the big visit weekends for the ACC with the marquee matchup of Clemson at Florida State taking center stage. Not to be outdone, Virginia Tech has a very big weekend on the horizon featuring the nations top ranked prospect.

Our reporters will periodically offer their takes on important questions in college football. They'll have strong, though often differing, opinions. We'll let you decide who is right.

[+] EnlargeBo Pelini
AP Photo/Nati HarnikBo Pelini's Huskers are close to returning to national prominence.
Nebraska and Miami renew a unique rivalry on Saturday night in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers and Hurricanes have played 10 times -- the past five in bowl games, four of which crowned the national champion. Most recently, Miami beat Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl. Since the Canes joined the ACC a decade ago, neither program has made it to a major bowl game.

So today's Take Two topic: Which is closer, Nebraska or Miami, to a return to the top of college football?

Take 1: Mitch Sherman

I'll go with the Huskers, though almost by default as Miami continues to feel its way through the new world order in college football, having lost five games or more in six of the past eight seasons. Sure, Miami uses a proven recruiting formula under Al Golden, but that's the problem. Florida State does it better. And so does half of the SEC.

Some might make similar claims about Nebraska. After all, the Huskers play in the Big Ten, where Ohio State resonates more deeply with recruits, and Penn State has seized momentum in recent months.

At least the Huskers have stability. Say what you want about coach Bo Pelini's lack of championships, but his teams have played in league title games three times in his six years, and he's never won fewer than nine games. Those 9-4 and 10-4 records do little to soothe the feelings of Nebraska fans who long for the glory years, but that era is long gone.

This week, Nebraska can take some solace in knowing that it's closer, by the numbers, to regaining elite status than Miami. And the weak Big Ten, despite conventional logic, might help Nebraska, which has upgraded its talent while others in the conference have not.

A win over Miami would complete an unbeaten nonconference season. Hurdles remain in the league, but for the Huskers, a re-emergence nationally is closer than many envision.

Take 2: Matt Fortuna

[+] EnlargeMiami
AP Photo/Alex MenendezAl Golden's ability to recruit in talent-rich Miami bodes well for the Hurricanes.
The idea that Miami has not played in a single ACC championship game yet is perplexing. Instead, the men's basketball team is the one that can claim a league title. Go figure.

Looking down the road, though, I think the Hurricanes have the more direct path back to their glory days, or at least at getting closer to what they once were. For one: Location, location, location. There is simply too much talent in Miami for this program ever to fall on down times. Golden, in his fourth year, has taken advantage of this, on pace for his fourth straight top-15 recruiting class. Let's not forget that this was also a program that was operating under the black cloud of the Nevin Shapiro scandal for two-plus years.

The same argument that the Big Ten provides a clearer path for Nebraska can be used for the ACC and Miami; the Coastal Division is a mess. But the most promising aspect for the Canes may be just that: promise.

Yes, fans want more out of this regime, which has lacked some punch at times. But there is still time to clean things up and for Miami -- which, we should note, has had some pretty awful luck with injuries offensively -- to improve. What Pelini has done in Lincoln is no small task, and I do think he is taken for granted, but I wonder if he has maxed out there. That may be tough to accept for a fan base that is so used to dominance, but as you said, that era appears gone.

What isn't gone is the talent in Florida, and in the Southeast. By virtue of its location, and by surviving a potentially program-crumbling scandal, Miami at least has the upside to make a return to the top of the college football world a possibility in the not-so-distant future.

Latest Dish: Five things I learned

September, 19, 2014
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Here are five things I learned in college football this week:

1. Sure, No. 5 Auburn greatly benefited from No. 20 Kansas State’s red zone miscues and three missed field goals in Thursday night's 20-14 victory at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. But give the Tigers some credit for making plays when it mattered most, especially on defense.

Auburn limited the Wildcats to only 40 rushing yards on 30 carries (1.3 yards per carry) and surrendered only one run longer than 10 yards to KSU tailback Charles Jones, who came into the game averaging 6 yards per attempt. Also, Auburn only allowed two passes of more than 15 yards, and held quarterback Jake Waters to minus-7 rushing yards on 11 attempts.

Auburn might not yet have a championship-caliber defense, but it is certainly making strides under second-year coordinator Ellis Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsThe Seminoles are used to getting off to a fast start in games when Jameis Winston is under center.
2. No. 1 FSU is used to starting fast with quarterback Jameis Winston on the field. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seminoles had a halftime lead of at least seven points in 15 of the previous 16 games Winston started at FSU. The only team that stayed within six points of the Seminoles in the first half was Auburn, which had an 11-point halftime lead in last season’s BCS National Championship. FSU rallied for a 34-31 victory in the second half to claim the school’s third national title.

We’ll see if No. 22 Clemson can keep it close in Saturday night’s ACC showdown at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida. Winston is suspended from playing in the first half after making vulgar comments in the FSU student union Tuesday, and redshirt sophomore Sean Maguire is expected to make his first career start. Maguire hasn't started a game since November 2011, when he was a senior at Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey.

3. Although hindsight is 20/20, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo accepted blame for not having tailback Todd Gurley more involved in the offense when the Bulldogs faced first-and-goal at South Carolina’s 4-yard line in the closing minutes of last week’s 38-35 loss. UGA attempted a play-action pass on first-and-goal, and quarterback Hutson Mason was penalized for intentional grounding. After two more plays, the Bulldogs missed a chip-shot field goal that would have tied the score, and the Gamecocks were able to run out the clock.

Bobo's first-down call was an aggressive one, and it can certainly be argued that he should have put the ball in the hands of Gurley, who might be the country's best running back. But if the play-action pass had worked, we'd be talking about how brilliant Bobo's call was. And, of course, if Bobo had called for Mason to hand the ball to Gurley on four straight plays and the Bulldogs didn't score, we'd be talking about how vanilla and uncreative his play calling was.

4. West Virginia's defense surrendered 447 yards of offense in last week’s 40-37 win at Maryland, but Mountaineers defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said 188 yards came on three plays. Quarterback C.J. Brown threw a 77-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs and had a 75-yard scoring run of his own. The Mountaineers didn't give up a touchdown after Brown’s long run on the first play from scrimmage in the second half (the Terps kicked a field goal and scored on a long punt return in the fourth quarter).

West Virginia will need a similar defensive effort if it’s going to upset No. 4 Oklahoma in Morgantown on Saturday night. Last season, the Sooners defeated the Mountaineers 16-7, their fewest points total during the previous two seasons.

5. Oregon’s recent dominance over Washington State is making it one of the most lopsided conference series in the country. The No. 2 Ducks have won seven straight games over the Cougars heading into Saturday night’s game in Pullman, averaging 52.4 points per game with an average margin of victory of 32.1 points. Ouch.

ACC morning links

September, 19, 2014
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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.

Fisher brushes off Winston criticism

September, 18, 2014
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher dismissed any criticism that Jameis Winston's half-game suspension for his profane and sexually charged outburst was too light.

"We're in charge. It's our team. That's we thought. We went with the consequences and we're ready to move on," Fisher said Thursday.

Florida State interim president Garnett S. Stokes and athletic director Stan Wilcox suspended the No. 1 Seminoles' star quarterback for the first half of Saturday's game against No. 22 Clemson in a joint statement Wednesday. They denounced Winston's behavior Tuesday, calling it "offensive and vulgar."

To continue reading this story, click here.

By the numbers: Atlantic contenders?

September, 18, 2014
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Two ACC Atlantic Division teams went on the road last week and thumped an overmatched opponent with impressive performances on both sides of the ball. The surprise, perhaps, is that those two teams were NC State and Syracuse.

Why were those strong performances such a revelation?

Syracuse lost three of four true road games last year. Each of the losses was by at least three touchdowns, and the Orange allowed 48 points or more in all three. Syracuse’s opener this season was a double-OT win over FCS Villanova.

NC State hadn’t won a road game by more than a field goal since 2011. It needed furious second-half comebacks in each of its first two games against Georgia Southern and Old Dominion — two teams that were playing FCS ball as recently as 2012.

Neither team was heavily favored last week, yet the Orange thumped Central Michigan 40-3 and the Wolfpack upended USF 49-17. In both cases, it was cause for ample optimism for two beleaguered fan bases.

But here’s the question: As FSU and Clemson do battle for the title of Atlantic favorites this weekend, are either NC State or Syracuse ready to take a step up in class and join the fray atop the division?

For Syracuse, the narrative is fairly straightforward. Terrel Hunt missed the majority of the opener, but once he was back on the field against CMU, the Orange offense looked sharp. The up-tempo style worked well, Hunt was decisive in the pocket, and the ground game appeared varied and dynamic. The defense, meanwhile, has nine sacks in two games, marking the best two-game stretch for the Orange since 2009.

Syracuse has also won six of its past eight games dating back to last season, with one loss to eventual national champion Florida State and the other coming by just a single point to Pitt.

At NC State, the bulk of the excitement comes from quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who has been exceptional so far. Since his first-half interception in the opener against Georgia Southern, Brissett has been other-worldly, completing 72 percent of his throws, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt and tossing seven touchdowns without a turnover. Brissett leads the ACC in touchdowns and yards and is second only to Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas in passer rating.

More encouraging still for NC State: Only Pitt, with Heisman contender James Conner at tailback, has a higher rate of rushing touchdowns than the Wolfpack.

In other words, it’s hard to blame fans for being excited about the prospects for both programs right now. But all those impressive numbers so far should also be placed into context.

In fact, it was just last year that NC State started the season 3-1, with the lone loss a close game against eventual Orange Bowl champ Clemson. The three others were nonconference games against lower-tier teams. The results looked a lot like this season’s.

First three nonconference games, 2013: 3-0, combined score of 111-49
First three nonconference games, 2014: 3-0, combined score of 119-74

What followed for the Wolfpack was an 0-8 finish to the season.

Similarly, Syracuse looked awfully dominant against teams outside the Power 5 last year, too, beating Wagner and Tulane by a combined score of 106-17. In those games, Hunt was exceptional.

Hunt vs. Wagner and Tulane: 31-of-39 (80%) for 440 yards (11.3 ypa), 7 TD, 0 INT
Hunt in all other 2013 games: 136-of-234 (58%) for 1,192 yards (5.1 ypa), 3 TD, 8 INT

That’s not to rain on anyone’s early season parades, of course, but rather to add a pinch of reality to the proceedings. Road wins are nice and rarely come easily, so Syracuse and NC State deserve credit. It’s true, too, that Brissett has the Wolfpack offense running at a much more efficient pace than it did a year ago, and Hunt appears miles ahead of where he was in ACC play last season.

But bigger tests await. Syracuse gets Maryland this weekend and NC State gets Presbyterian. Neither game has gotten much traction in a week that features a host of intriguing ACC matchups. After that, though, things get interesting.

Syracuse’s next three are against Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State.

NC State’s next three are versus Florida State, Clemson and Boston College.

Much more so than last season, there is reason to believe those six games could provide a signature win or two for programs on the rise rather than lopsided losses for teams that can’t measure up with the cream of the crop.

We’ll know more by mid-October, of course, but the fun of September is that there are still plenty of places to find optimism, and with the way Syracuse and NC State performed last weekend, you don’t even have to look too hard.

Clemson's Watson proves a quick study

September, 18, 2014
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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.

Make-or-break time for North Carolina

September, 18, 2014
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North Carolina has only played two games this season, but it is not an exaggeration to say the Tar Heels are about to embark on make-or-break time.

Starting at East Carolina on Saturday, North Carolina begins its toughest stretch of the season -- seven straight games against teams that currently have winning records. Three of the next four are on the road, including games next week at No. 22 Clemson and at No. 9 Notre Dame on Oct. 11. Also in the mix are games against Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Miami.

"We know that the next couple games are tough and of course they’re all away, but we know we have to buckle down and we don’t need to start as slow as we have and hopefully we’ll get it together starting ECU week," defensive back Tim Scott said. "We’ll be ready for the games when they count."

North Carolina certainly has not looked ready in its first two games, closer-than-expected contests that turned on defensive plays. That defense has been a puzzle to figure out in the early going. It has the capability of creating turnovers -- it has forced nine in the first two games. Scott's interception in the end zone saved the win against San Diego State in Week 2.

But the defense also has given up way too many big plays. North Carolina ranks last in the ACC in total defense and scoring defense, and No. 13 in the league in pass defense.

None of that is encouraging considering the team it faces Saturday. East Carolina has one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the country in Shane Carden, who already has 1,031 yards passing in three games.

Getting off to a slow start in a third straight game cannot be an option. It is not as if North Carolina needs any more reminders, given the way the Pirates beat them in 2013. In that game, East Carolina jumped out to a 28-10 lead at halftime and North Carolina never recovered. Then last week, East Carolina built an early 21-0 lead on Virginia Tech and won.

Scott said he would give his team a C-plus for its performance in the first two games.

"We’ve come out with the Ws but we came out both games very slow, very unenthusiastic," Scott said. "San Diego State, they were a big test and they showed they were a good team and we weren’t ready to play at the time but in the second half we came to play and we showed what our team is capable of doing."

When asked for an explanation about why there have been lapses, Scott said, "We’re not sure. Our effort’s there at times. On defense, if you’re not running to the ball, then the big plays show up. That’s what happened. We weren’t running to the ball. Coach just has us making sure we’re running to the ball and making sure we get in our positions really quick because ECU, they’re one of those spread teams that likes to go fast and they can expose you if you don’t get there."

North Carolina is headed into this tough stretch off a bye, so the hope is that extra time in practice going over the fundamentals and getting extra reps for its young players will help. Coach Larry Fedora said he was happy the bye week came so early because it would help his young team get more work in "so that we can continue to get better at each and every position, which is going to help us as we get into that stretch."

Based on its showing in the first two games, North Carolina could use all the help it can get headed into the next seven weeks.

North Carolina's upcoming schedule

Saturday at East Carolina

Sept. 27 at Clemson

Oct. 4 Virginia Tech

Oct. 11 at Notre Dame

Oct. 18 Georgia Tech

Oct. 25 at Virginia

Nov. 1 at Miami

Kickoff Live: Week 4 (1 ET)

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
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ESPN.com reporters Ted Miller, Edward Aschoff and Heather Dinich join host Chantel Jennings to discuss the latest on Jameis Winston and preview the weekend slate of games.

If you're reading this blog, you probably already know about Florida State's ball boy celebrity, Red Lightning.

Well, it took him only a week this season to get some competition as the most famous ball boy in college football. His rival -- at least we'd like to think they're rivals -- is from the team the Seminoles beat in last year's national title game, Auburn. In the season opener, Jake Longenecker (aka "Blue Thunder") showed off his blazing speed and inspired Sport Science to compare his quickness to Red Lightning.

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ACC Week 4 predictions

September, 18, 2014
Sep 18
9:00
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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 …
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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.”

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