ACC: Florida State Seminoles
Where the ACC stands: Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the middle of the pack in the ACC is dragging the conference down yet again. The ACC tumbled again in ESPN’s conference power rankings, with just two teams ranked in the top 35 of our Football Power Index. The other four major conferences have at least five apiece. Pitt’s home loss to Akron ended the Panthers' chances, according to our Playoff Eliminator, leaving just five ACC teams still in the mix with two months of games left to be played.
According to the Playoff Eliminator, here's how the conferences stack up:
ACC: 5 teams (4 "on the fence," 1 "in contention")
Big Ten: 9 teams (8, 1)
Big 12: 5 teams (3, 2)
Pac-12: 9 teams (6, 3)
SEC: 12 teams (7, 5)
Other: 3 teams (2, 1)
Of course, there was one big positive for the ACC -- and particularly FSU -- to come from the playoff committee this week: It doesn't sound like overall conference strength will be a major factor when deciding the top four teams.
Top playoff contenders: Florida State (No. 1 AP, No. 5 FPI), Louisville (No. 41 FPI), Georgia Tech (No. 52 FPI).
Nonconference record: 34-13 overall (2-3 last week), 20-10 vs. FBS, 4-6 vs. Power 5 (plus Notre Dame)
Week 5 recap: Syracuse fell to Notre Dame in New York, and that was expected. Boston College couldn’t close out a game at home against Colorado State, and that qualified as a minor upset. Akron upended Pitt at home, and that was just a slap in the face for the ACC.
There were bright spots, including the return of Jameis Winston, who threw for four TDs, and the arrival of Deshaun Watson, who tossed six against the overwhelmed North Carolina secondary. NC State earned some attention in a loss, too, with Jacoby Brissett's standout performance against the nation's top-ranked team. But overall, it was another bad week for the conference.
In the last two weeks, the ACC is just 7-8 in nonconference play, while the once-vilified Big Ten is 16-1.
The end result: Even after a come-from-behind win in which it scored 56 points, Florida State is already teetering on the edge of many playoff predictions right now.
Week 6 preview: Georgia Tech is barely on the playoff radar at the moment, but with a perfect 4-0 record and dates with Georgia and (potentially) FSU to end the year, the Yellow Jackets have plenty of time to make up ground, but that has to start with this week’s game against resurgent Miami. Another win for Tech would put it squarely in the driver’s seat in the Coastal, and it might force pollsters to start taking notice.
Still, it’s probably time the ACC shifts its focus from an internal discussion of playoff contenders to some extra scoreboard watching that may help the league’s overall profile.
Florida State remains the league’s most viable candidate for a playoff bid, and it should have an easy time against Wake Forest on Saturday. But outside the conference, the Seminoles can gain some ground.
If Notre Dame can upend Stanford to remain unbeaten in time for its Oct. 18 trip to Tallahassee, Florida State will have a shot to earn one of the signature wins of the season. There are 14 Power 5 conference teams still unbeaten (plus the Irish and BYU), but only UCLA, Texas A&M and Florida State have multiple wins over top-30 opponents. FSU’s strength of schedule could still wind up looking impressive, regardless of the ACC’s image problems.
Meanwhile, Alabama, Oregon, Texas A&M and Oklahoma — four of the FPI’s top six — take on undefeated opposition this week, while Auburn (No. 3 in FPI) gets LSU. Losses for the Seminoles’ top competition would be a nice bonus, even if it’s still early in the year.
And don’t ignore the Michigan State-Nebraska game either. If it comes down to a Big Ten vs. ACC debate for the No. 4 spot in the playoffs at year’s end, it’s likely it will be one of these two teams the Seminoles will be battling. It’s a coin flip as to which team FSU should be rooting for, however, and both have just one remaining ranked foe on their schedules after Saturday.
That's when a 6-foot-1, 204-pound defensive back took on the former role of a 5-foot-8, 180-pound defensive back, who, despite his lack of size, was the quintessential edge blitzer -- full of heart and unbridled willpower. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey looked like Lamarcus Joyner, a Florida State star who graduated after last season.
“You just don’t see a guy [Ramsey’s] size that has his burst,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said.
It was the sack-strip combination that was reminiscent of Joyner’s time at Florida State. As a senior in 2013, Joyner led the team with 5.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Joyner’s tackles-per-game and fumbles-per-game averages last season are similar to what Ramsey has done through four games in 2014. Ramsey is not as proficient at blitzing yet, but even that resembles a young Joyner, said Fisher.
“Joyner, he would miss tackles sometimes because he was so reckless, especially early in his career, because he played so hard. Jalen’s a little bit like him,” Fisher said. “[Ramsey] can clean up a little bit tackling, and I don’t mean that as criticism. He gets there so fast and he is so athletic. He could have had a couple more sacks on the day, but I think he is doing a great job with providing pressure off the edge, and covering in the slot with his length and size and playing the run. He can close on the ball.
“I think he has the chance to be a heckuva nickel now.”
The tackling issue is not specific to just Ramsey. Missed tackles have been an issue for the Seminoles all season, but there were more than 30 missed tackles against NC State, which Fisher deemed “inexcusable.” He said it was the most missed tackles he has seen in a game since becoming head coach in 2010.
“"Guys just want to sometimes do their own thing and dive in there and try and cut them down. You just have to keep your eyes up,” said safety Tyler Hunter, who was one of FSU’s defensive players of the game Saturday. “… I'm telling guys just to work on the fundamentals, telling them on the sideline what they needed to do, then going out and thinking they're going to do it. Sometimes it's in one ear and out the other."
On Tuesday, however, Fisher called Florida State’s practices one of the best he’s seen this season. The Seminoles spent extra time Monday and Tuesday practicing tackling. With Saturday's opponent Wake Forest providing little offensive threat, it’s an opportune time for Florida State to work on tackling basics.
There has not been any living hitting or tackling to ground, but the Seminoles are practicing “thudding,” the act of wrapping up a ball carrier or receiver but keeping him upright.
Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and linebacker Ukeme Eligwe are expected to return against Wake Forest, and veterans Eddie Goldman, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Terrance Smith were all banged up against NC State. Fisher believes the health of his team played a role in the missed tackles, too.
“We had a lot of space-tackling drills, guys moving better, stepping on toes, and had some guys not as healthy in that game that I think will be healthier in this game,” Fisher said Tuesday.
Through Florida State’s first four games this season, however, Winston has only 57 fewer passing yards, and that is with one fewer game because of the Week 4 suspension. In 2014, Winston is averaging 40 more yards per game (330), and his 69.5 completion percentage is more than two points higher than last season’s number.
“We're definitely confident in the offense, knowing they can score any time. It's not really like ‘Oh, we know we're going to lose,'" safety Tyler Hunter said. “We're always going to be confident in the offense, that it can go up and score on anybody.”
Winston is coming off his best game of the season against NC State, completing 26 of 38 passes for 365 yards and four touchdowns. In the second half, he led touchdown drives on five of the Seminoles’ seven possessions, and on the last drive, Winston orchestrated a four-minute drive and ran for a critical first down to seal the win.
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has struggled with turnovers through his first three games, however. He fumbled in the first half against NC State and threw two second-half interceptions. The second came inside the Seminoles’ 15-yard line while they were nursing a tenuous fourth-quarter lead.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and co-offensive coordinator Randy Sanders were already prepping to give Winston an earful as he trotted to the sideline because it is a play Fisher said the offense runs “all the, all the, all the, all the time.” But he acknowledged sometimes quarterbacks misread the defense or suffer from information overload, which causes a split-second breakdown.
“It is like driving home and you drive past the turn to turn into your house. Sometimes you can be distracted. There’s so much on these quarterbacks today, especially like an offense like ours,” Fisher said. “These guys are making every decision -- run, pass where it goes and who gets it. There is so much on them. No matter how mature a guy is he’s still got a young mind.”
Fisher said those minds often work like computers. If it freezes, set it aside and give it a minute to reboot. Florida State knows any malfunction with its quarterback is not a product of a growing virus in need of persistent troubleshooting.
“Those guys have that true confidence in themselves. They know they messed up but they will come back,” Fisher said, “… and you are going to keep going back to them and they are going to keep making plays.”
He just kept going, and going and going, all the way to an NCAA-record tying five punts returned for touchdowns. It was easy to take what Switzer did for granted, because he made it all look so effortless.
Excellent returners sometimes get two or three in a season. Five? Only one other player in NCAA history had ever done that.
Switzer entered the season as a marked man. Teams started game planning for him in the return game, either punting to him in the boundary so they can try and pin him, or launching sky kicks with good hang time to allow the coverage to converge on him.
He has had between four and five new faces trying to block for him up front, including several who are playing special teams for the first time. Switzer himself has missed a few opportunities with the ball in his hands because of mistakes he says he has made.
To date, Switzer has not returned a punt for a touchdown and is averaging just 6.4 yards per return -- down from the 20.9 yards he averaged a season ago.
But he is not alone. Return units across the ACC have struggled five weeks into the season, somewhat surprising considering the All-America talent returning.
“Obviously people are excited now when I’m back there, as they should be because we did great things last year,” Switzer said in a phone interview. “It’s eventually going to happen. That’s all I can really say about it because we are getting a lot better at it, and I do think we practice it more than anybody else in the country so it will eventually come.”
So far, the ACC is the only power 5 conference without a punt return for a score. Over the first five weeks of 2013, the league had three -- including two from Jamison Crowder at Duke.
Overall, punt return average is down across the league. Last season, teams averaged 10.1 yards per return. This season, that average is down to 8.7. Crowder, an All-ACC selection as a return specialist a year ago, is averaging nearly 10 yards fewer per return. No ACC player with nine or more punt returns is averaging more than 9.7 yards per kick.
“What you have to realize is every return is not going to be a touchdown,” Crowder said in a phone interview. “Sometimes, you catch yourself forcing the issue a little bit and that throws off your decision making. Sometimes when you do that, you may fumble or muff a punt and that will ultimately hurt the team. So you can’t force the issue.
“You have to be patient and just go out there and play each play and if a return happens to open up and break, then that’s all good, but if a return doesn’t open up and break, I want to be able to make the right decisions so I can put the offense in a good position.”
Kickoff returners who had big performances a year ago also have struggled in the early going. Kermit Whitfield, who led the nation in kickoff return average a year ago, is not even listed among the ACC leaders. He is averaging 16.8 yards fewer per return than 2013.
Coach Jimbo Fisher specifically pointed to missed blocking assignments on kickoff returns last week against NC State, saying, “It’s nothing to do with the returner. You give him a crease and he’ll get out of there.”
Returning punts and kicks takes a true team effort, and it requires great deal of fortitude as well. The good news is the season is still young. Switzer did not return his first punt for a touchdown last year until the Virginia game on Nov. 9. He also has more return yards now than he did a year ago at this time.
As the season wears on, the units should get better, and that should open up more opportunities for the highlight-reel returns we have come to expect.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Switzer said. “You just learn how to be patient and pick the right time to try and make something happen.”
At Florida State, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher addressed how the nation’s top-ranked team deals with in-game concussions. Defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. and running back Mario Pender missed Saturday’s game with concussions, and freshman Trey Marshall left the game with a concussion.
“If there’s anything it comes to me and then it’s up to [doctors] and they make a decision when a guy goes back in. It has nothing to do with me,” Fisher said. “We get [the player] directly to them and they come to me and say ‘It’s OK’ or ‘There’s no chance.’
“… That’s doctors. It has nothing to do with me, and I don’t want that responsibility. There’s no game or no situation that’s worth it, if a coach knows [of a concussed player]. I don’t know the circumstances [at Michigan]. A doctor, that’s his expertise. … I want to have the best for these guys and that’s an expert.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the Tigers have a “monstrous medical staff. We have doctors for doctors.”
While the last few days in Michigan have not put the school or athletic department in a positive light, hopefully this leads to more knowledge and a better response for the future.
Here are a few more ACC links:
- Miami receiver Stacy Coley had a big drop early in the Duke game, but it did not come back to hurt the Canes. Still, the Miami offense needs Coley to play like he did as a freshman.
- Clemson did not have to face Jameis Winston this season as the FSU quarterback was suspended for the contest. But Swinney will face Jacoby Brissett, who stood toe to toe with Winston last weekend and who reminds Swinney of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
- North Carolina had Eric Ebron at tight end last season, and Frank Beamer needed to game plan for him. So he called upon Bucky Hodges, the scout team quarterback. A year later, Hodges will play tight end against the Tar Heels.
- Louisville is concerned with containing Syracuse's quarterback, and the Cardinals are dealing with quarterback problems of their own.
- Syracuse has "decided to part ways" with freshman Naesean Howard.
Florida State's Jimbo Fisher fired back Monday at NC State coach Dave Doeren, two days after Doeren had accused the Seminoles of faking injuries in FSU's 56-41 win.
"Well, I accuse him of not knowing what he's talking about," Fisher said Monday, as our Jared Shanker wrote. "They're not fake injuries. No one faked injuries, and we wouldn't do that. We'll coach Florida State, and he can coach North Carolina State."
As Shanker writes, Eddie Goldman, Derrick Mitchell Jr. and Terrance Smith needed help off the field Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Doeren softened his stance Monday but did not exactly back down, saying that the issue is not specific to FSU and that a rule should be in place that a player has to sit out for more than one play if he leaves the game in such a situation.
None of this, of course, is particularly new to college football, which has publicly wrestled with the hurry-up, no-huddle debate going on three years now. There is no real clear answer yet.
Surprisingly, a poll embedded in Shanker's story shows fans are overwhelmingly OK with Doeren's suggestions, saying that he did not cross a line. But our David Hale likely had a point Saturday when he tweeted that if you're going to fake injuries to slow the offense's tempo, you probably don't do it with Goldman in the red zone.
On to the rest of your ACC links ...
- With BC entering its bye, ESPNBoston.com's Jack McCluskey takes a look at where the Eagles stand after a disappointing loss.
- Georgia Tech's Shaq Mason has some new motivation, Ken Sugiura writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: He became a father last month.
- Will Gardner returned to practice but his status remains unclear, Jeff Greer writes in the (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
- Larry Fedora is going about correcting UNC's mistakes, Andrew Carter writes in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
- Pitt is looking for answers after its latest loss, Jerry DiPaola writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- Syracuse is trying to develop green cornerbacks during a tough stretch, Nate Mink writes in the (Syracuse) Post-Standard.
- The (Newport News) Daily Press' David Teel says Virginia's clash with Pitt is important and intriguing for the Coastal division.
There are two schools of thought on why the Seminoles dropped: The first is that to be the man, you've got to beat the man, as pro wrestler Ric Flair has so eloquently put it for the last 40 years. The other is that 2013 should have no bearing on 2014, and the reigning champion is on equal footing with the rest of the country; every undefeated team has a rightful claim to the No. 1 ranking at this point.
That all makes for hotly debated Sunday afternoons, but not much else. The only ranking that matters now is the one the playoff committee will release next month.
Following Saturday’s 56-41 victory over NC State, Fisher said it is “frustrating” the Seminoles have not played as well as he would like through the first third of the regular season. Here are the bigger takeaways from Saturday's game moving forward. The loosening grip on the No. 1 ranking is not one of them.
1. The rushing attack found some life
Based purely on talent, there was a faction of Florida State fans who expected Karlos Williams, a former five-star recruit, to be one of the Seminoles’ most prolific running backs since Warrick Dunn. The numbers were paltry through three games, however, as the running backs and offensive lines tagged each other in and out of Fisher’s doghouse. Against NC State, however, Williams ran for a career-high 126 yards and three touchdowns. That was a product of much better blocking, too, as a Florida State running back made it at least five yards past the line of scrimmage before getting touched an astonishing six times in the second half, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is a sign of an offensive line paving the way, and the rushing attack needs to be clicking by the time Notre Dame rolls into town on Oct. 18. The offensive line was criticized heavily following the Clemson victory, but the unit can be proud of the holes it opened Saturday and use that confidence moving forward.
2. A battered defense is struggling at the line of scrimmage
It is tougher to gauge this Florida State defense when it is without two starting defensive linemen, but the injury bug has bitten the unit hard. Playing without Mario Edwards Jr. (concussion) and Nile Lawrence-Stample (pectoral, out for season), NC State carved up the Seminoles defense. It is not an issue that will be fixed over the course of a week, if it can be fixed at all. The Florida State defense is not as talented as it was last season at every level. Shoddy tackling has added to the mediocre defensive numbers, too. Whether it was a running back, receiver or a scrambling Jacoby Brissett, the Seminoles whiffed far too many times. But with the limited bodies, does Fisher even risk increasing the physicality in practice? To the defense’s credit, after a program-worst 24 points allowed in the first quarter, the defense tightened up and allowed touchdowns only following FSU turnovers the remainder of the game. Young bodies along the defensive line also played major roles in the second half and showed the promise you would expect out of a freshman class ranked No. 3 in the country.
3. The offense is hitting its stride …
... and that should compensate for a defense still finding its bearings. It is no surprise the offensive production is apples and oranges when it is Jameis Winston at quarterback vs. anybody else. Winston was brilliant the majority of the game and showed no signs of rust. Complementing the passing game was a rushing attack that sealed the victory in the fourth quarter. The Seminoles converted 8 of 11 third-down attempts, and Winston was 7-of-9 passing on third down, with an average of 12 yards per attempt. While receiver Rashad Greene continues to state his case as the country’s best receiver, the Seminoles found a competent option outside of the senior. Sophomore Jesus "Bobo" Wilson had 109 yards and two scores. One issue is the offensive line did not pass block particularly well for a second consecutive game.
Miami was picked to finish No. 1. Virginia was picked to finish No. 7. Duke coach David Cutcliffe, whose team was selected second, described the randomness we all expected to see out of the division when he said:
"If you look at the Coastal Division, you could really do a real serious one through seven and then for fun, right on the other piece of paper, flip it, make seven to one and go right back down. It would be interesting to see which one was the most accurate."
Time for some fun.
It is pretty clear the Noles are carrying the flag for the entire ACC, a league that suffered a little more embarrassment over the weekend when Pitt lost to Akron and Boston College lost to Colorado State. Florida State has not looked unstoppable, but thankfully for the league, the Noles remain in the thick of the College Football Playoff discussion.
To make an undefeated run and secure their spot in the final four, they will have to win the ACC championship game. Who are the two most likely teams take them down in Charlotte?
None other than Virginia and Pitt, the two teams picked to finish last in the Coastal. As of Monday morning, Pitt's chances of winning the ACC were 3.7 percent, based on 10,000 simulations of the rest of the season. The Hoos -- the only team that failed to receive a first-place vote to win the Coastal -- have been given a 2.8 percent chance to win the ACC.
Looks like Cutcliffe may have been on to something.
We will have a chance to see just how well Virginia matches up with Florida State when the two play in the regular season Nov. 8 in Tallahassee. But the Hoos will not be penciled in as an automatic W for anyone, not based on the way their defense has played. They are relentless, an opportunistic group that has 19 sacks, 39 tackles for loss and 18 takeaways in five games.
Based on the defense alone, Virginia should be in each of its Coastal games this season. That includes Virginia Tech, which has won 10 straight and 14 of the past 15 in the series. But that is getting way ahead. First, the Hoos are in one of three critical Coastal showdowns this weekend against Pitt. Miami-Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech-North Carolina are the others.
Would it surprise you to know that nobody is favored by more than five in any of these games? Miami and Virginia Tech are each one point favorites; Virginia is the biggest favorite, with the five-point line over the Panthers. The line makes perfect sense based on what we have seen out of Pitt the past two weeks.
Plus, Virginia has one big advantage against Pitt. Its run defense is giving up less than 100 yards a game; Pitt’s strength is its run game behind James Conner. As Akron showed this past weekend, neutralizing Conner means relying on quarterback Chad Voytik to be a difference maker. Voytik, as we have seen, has been unable to deliver the past two weeks late in games.
It is obviously way too early to start crowning any Coastal champs. It may be too early to crown anybody until the final week of the regular season. Nothing can be counted on, not even these percentages.
Expect them to fluctuate wildly from week to week based on the inevitable upsets and unpredictability that come with Coastal life.
But headed into a big weekend for the division, it seems pretty safe to say there is no way Virginia should be overlooked the way it was in July.
College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Louisville
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia Tech
Belk Bowl: Virginia Tech
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: NC State
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Virginia
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Duke
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: Boston College
* Note: Notre Dame is eligible for a bid to any ACC tie-in game unless it is selected for a New Year’s Six game, which can include playing an ACC team in the Orange Bowl.
NC State quarterback Jacoby Brissett: How can you overlook Brissett's efforts in NC State's 56-41 loss to top-ranked Florida State? The Florida transfer completed 32 of 38 passes for 359 yards with three touchdowns, while rushing for 38 yards as well. It was a loss, yes, and it will be tough to get up for every game the way you do when the No. 1 team in the country comes to your backyard, but Brissett gives NC State a completely new look offensively, and the program has to be excited about the rest of the season going forward.
Wake Forest defensive end Tylor Harris: When you set a national record, you likely end up with a helmet sticker. The junior did just that for the Demon Deacons in a tough 20-10 loss at Louisville. Harris set a new FBS record by recovering three fumbles in a game. No FBS players has totaled three fumble recoveries since it became an official stat in 1992. Harris now has four on the year, one shy of the school single-season record of five. He had a strip-sack and fumble recovery in the end zone for a score in the third quarter to give Wake the 10-7 lead at the time. This defense will give the Deacs opportunities to stick around in some games in which they are overmatched this year. Hats off to Harris.
Miami linebacker Denzel Perryman: The Hurricanes looked like a completely different team than the one that was run over by Duke late last season, topping the Blue Devils, 22-10. Perryman was a big part of that, forcing a fumble, picking of one pass and breaking up another. His interception with 1:55 left all but clinched the win for Miami, handing Duke its first loss and shaking up the entire Coastal Division race once more.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson: How about this for a first career start: 27-of-36 passing for 435 yards, six touchdowns, one interception, in addition to 28 yards rushing. The Tigers bounced back appropriately from last week's heartbreaker at Florida State and beat North Carolina, 50-35. With a true freshman quarterback already this good, it's easy to get excited about the future for the Tigers, both short- and long-term.
Florida State running back Karlos Williams: If FSU has plans on repeating as national champions, it is going to need some production out of its backfield. And the Seminoles finally got that Saturday in their 56-41 come-from-behind win at NC State. Williams carried the ball 21 times for 126 yards and scored three touchdowns. He added three catches for 29 yards. As our David Hale noted, before overtime of the Clemson game last week, Williams had tallied just 152 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries. This was a huge development during an otherwise concerning afternoon for the Noles.
2. Do not count out Miami. A week ago, Miami defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio was the most wanted man in South Florida after the Canes looked completely out of it in a loss to Nebraska. Would you look at that defense a week later? Miami completely shut down Duke and its run game, holding the Blue Devils to 264 total yards and 2-of-16 on third down while forcing three turnovers. But maybe the best news of all in its 22-10 victory -- Miami made some exceptional tackles and that has to be encouraging moving forward. While critics might want to quickly dismiss the win because it came against a Duke team that feasted on weak competition to date, Miami deserves credit for bouncing back from a dreadful tackling day against the Huskers. Duke Johnson finally got to 100 yards rushing and Brad Kaaya keeps getting better. The rest of the Coastal is a mess, so why not Miami?
3. Jacoby Brissett is for real. We thought Brissett might be for real based on his first four games, but after his performance against Florida State, we know it now to be true. Brissett had some pretty terrific Houdini moments and ended up going 32-of-48 for 359 yards and three touchdowns, while adding 13 rushes for 38 yards. His presence in the offense makes NC State a radically different team. Just look at the difference in the games between these two teams over the span of a year. Last season, NC State trailed 35-0 after the first quarter. This season, Brissett had NC State on the verge of an upset. The Wolfpack have improved as the season has worn on -- having Brissett behind center is a big reason why.
4. Pitt, BC are not for real. On a day when the ACC kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive, the league took yet another double-whammy hit from its middle-of-the-pack teams. Pitt and Boston College lost to Group of 5 programs and it’s hard to gauge which home defeat was more stunning. Was it the Panthers, who showed no signs of life in a 21-10 loss to Akron? Or was it Boston College, blowing a fourth-quarter lead and losing 24-21 to Colorado State? Just two weeks ago, the Eagles pulled their own stunner, beating down USC in a performance that should have served notice. Instead, BC falls into the same trap Virginia Tech did, albeit a few weeks apart. Neither team could keep up the momentum it created after taking down a ranked team. As for Pitt, the nonconference schedule presented four winnable games. The Panthers only won two. They failed in just about every area against Akron, most notably rushing the ball. James Conner had his 100-yard streak snapped. If Pitt can’t run, it has little hope to win.
5. Mixed bag for young QBs. Clemson's Deshaun Watson got his first career start and wowed just about everybody, setting a school record with six touchdown passes in a 50-35 win over North Carolina. If only he had started against Georgia and Florida State. … Meanwhile, Kaaya keeps showing growth in the Miami offense, going 20-of-34 for 223 yards and two scores. These two look like future quarterback stars in the ACC. As for some of the others? Louisville fans clamored for Reggie Bonnafon the way Clemson fans wanted Watson. Bonnafon got his shot against Wake Forest with an injured Will Gardner on the sideline and showed some flashes, going 16-of-32 for 206 yards. But he also had two critical fumbles, including one in the end zone Wake Forest converted into a touchdown. The offensive line did him no favors, and his receivers also had several drops in the 20-10 win. Wake quarterback John Wolford continues to have a tough time, throwing three interceptions.
Winston followed the announcement with a dynamic performance. He threw for 365 yards and four touchdowns and added a 20-yard run to convert a crucial third down to ice the game. But when the 56-41 Florida State victory was finally in the books, the question remained: Are the Seminoles back?
A team that dominated nearly every opponent it faced a year ago trailed at the half for the second straight week. That hadn’t happened since 2011.
An NC State team that was thoroughly manhandled by Florida State’s defense a year ago posted 24 first-quarter points and etched its name into a dark column of the Seminoles’ record books.
It was a win for Florida State, and that was good, but even the Seminoles admit this isn’t how the country’s top-ranked team is supposed to look.
“It was very fun, but that’s not Florida State football,” tailback Karlos Williams said. “We’re not used to that. That’s not the way we play football here. We’ve got to start fast [and] finish faster.”
This wasn’t Florida State’s style, at least not compared to the juggernaut that pummeled all comers the past season.
Winston’s final numbers were impressive, but he turned the ball over three times.
Rashad Greene had another stellar outing as the team’s go-to receiver, but he flubbed a punt return that led to an NC State score.
The defense made some crucial stops late in the game, including a forced fumble by Jalen Ramsey, as NC State drove toward the red zone with a chance to pull within four midway through the fourth quarter. But the unit that was so dominant the past season allowed a whopping 520 yards to the Wolfpack -- the most an FSU defense had surrendered since 2009.
“It all starts with we’ve all got to want it,” linebacker Reggie Northrup said. “I don’t feel like we’re that far, but we’ve got a ways [to go]. Ability-wise, we’re there. But it’s your will, paying attention to detail, making sure we execute better.”
It was a sentiment echoed by Jimbo Fisher, too. He’s got talented athletes all over the field right now, he said. But he’s looking for talented football players, and this group remains very much a work in progress.
There was, of course, ample silver lining. Freshmen defensive linemen Lorenzo Featherston and Jacob Pugh had strong performances and offered some hope the Seminoles’ woes on the defensive line can be addressed. The stable of young receivers finally provided an adequate complement to Greene on the outside. The running game, led by Williams and Dalvin Cook, had its most impressive performance of the year.
Oh, but this wasn’t a team that was supposed to need silver linings. This was a team that was supposed to set the cruise control and head directly to the College Football Playoff. Instead, Saturday’s chaos in Raleigh was actually the easiest win -- by final margin, anyway -- that FSU has had against an FBS opponent so far this season.
This clearly isn’t last year’s Florida State.
“This year, we have to create our own identity,” Eddie Goldman said. “We’re not trying to live off last year’s team. We have to do our own thing.”
Perhaps that’s how Winston can be encouraged after a game such as this. Compared to the past year’s team, it was ugly. But compared to a loss -- something that had happened in this house of horrors for Florida State five times in its past eight trips to Carter-Finley -- it was a thing of beauty.
“That was a beautiful game, man,” he said. “We overcame a lot. It’s fun when you see that. It’s heartbreaking to the other team when they think they’ve got us on the ropes, and we come back and fight. But that’s the true meaning of being a warrior and doing whatever it takes to win football games.”
Trailing by 10 midway through the third quarter, Florida State rallied for a 56-41 win at NC State.
How the game was won: For Florida State, the game was brutal at times, but Seminoles' fans can walk away feeling OK because at times both the offense and defense played exceptionally -- for the first time all season. The Seminoles were able to win because, despite allowing a school-record 24 first-quarter points, the defense was tough the rest of the game, with breaks only after turnovers. When the offense didn’t turn it over, it was scoring touchdowns behind an energized Jameis Winston and improved rushing attack.
Game ball goes to: The freshmen of FSU’s No. 3-ranked 2014 class deserve this one because they made critical plays throughout the third quarter. Defensive end Lorenzo Featherston is credited with causing the fumble that helped the Seminoles to their first lead. Fellow freshmen Jacob Pugh was next to Featherston as they pressured Jacoby Brissett on that fumble. Receiver Travis Rudolph had a big catch, and Dalvin Cook had a 19-yard touchdown. It all came in the latter part of the third quarter, when FSU began taking control.
What it means: There is no such thing as an ugly win when every loss has the potential to cripple a season. It was a close win, but coach Jimbo Fisher can leave Raleigh, North Carolina, feeling pretty good about how his offense played. Winston was sharp, Karlos Williams played his best game at running back, and the offensive line provided lanes to rush the football.
Playoff implication: As the No. 1 team in the country and the defending champions, all Florida State needs to do is win. An undefeated FSU is not going to be left out of the College Football Playoff, so every win -- despite margin of victory -- is critical for Florida State. Fisher doesn’t need to worry about style points.
What's next: The Seminoles get a bit of a reprieve as unranked Wake Forest travels to Doak Campbell Stadium next weekend before a road date at Syracuse. Those two weeks should provide an opportunity for FSU to build on this performance before undefeated Notre Dame comes to Tallahassee.
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