Week 4 provided yet another reminder of the wonderful uncertainty and unpredictability of the college game.
And suffice to say, the drama tends to center on the guys taking the snaps. Shortcomings at quarterback have leveled the playing field among Power 5 and Group of 5 programs, and several breakout performers on under-the-radar teams have emerged to steal the spotlight.
So as we pass the season's one-quarter mark, my updated list of the top 10 quarterbacks in college football will reflect all of the upheaval, from the emergence of Kenny "Trill" Hill to the unfortunate decisions of the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
While current productivity remains at the forefront of my thought process when compiling this list, each passer's NFL projection is equally important.
With that in mind ... Seeeet. Hut.
1. Marcus Mariota | Class: Jr. | Oregon Ducks
College production: 9.5
NFL skills: 10
Preseason rank: 2
"Tremendously," Fisher said when asked how missing Saturday's 23-17 overtime win over Clemson affected the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. "I think you could see it on the sideline ... [but] he was a great influence for Sean [Maguire] and the other guys on the sideline. It was not for show or go. It was something heartfelt. I think it hit home, there's no doubt."
Fisher reinstated Winston on Monday and named him the starting quarterback for this weekend's game against NC State.
Winston was suspended last week after he stood on a table outside FSU's on-campus student union Tuesday and yelled a profane and sexually explicit phrase, mimicking a popular Internet video.
The suspension was initially for the first half but was extended to the entire game Friday night after he misled the administration, sources told ESPN.
Winston again garnered headlines during pregame warm-ups when he ran out of the locker room in a helmet and full pads, taking practice snaps with the rest of the quarterbacks.
When Fisher emerged from the locker room and saw Winston running drills, he sent him back to change. Winston spent the game on the sideline in jeans and a baseball hat.
Fisher took blame for the pregame stir.
Abdullah and Winston both grew up in the Birmingham, Alabama, area and trained together at the same gym. Abdullah said he considers Winston a friend.
"It's kind of hard for me to understand what's going on with him right now, but from a general standpoint it's the maturity level," Abdullah said Monday. "Think before you act. Understand the bigger picture. Everything that you do, say or how you present yourself can have dire consequences. That's something I feel like he definitely needs to assess more."
Winston was suspended for Saturday's overtime win against Clemson after making "offensive and vulgar" comments on campus. In April, Winston was caught leaving a supermarket without paying for crab legs and crawfish and was ordered to perform community service. He was accused of sexually assaulting a student in 2012, but a prosecutor declined to press charges.
Abdullah, a 21-year-old senior, said the 20-year-old sophomore Winston seems to lack common sense.
* Florida State’s Rashad Greene was a hero yet again Saturday night. His 74-yard touchdown grab with 6:04 to play tied the game at 17 and gave the Seminoles a chance to win in overtime.
The big catches are nothing new for Greene. In fact, you could argue that he’s been on the receiving end of the most significant throws in the college career of four different quarterbacks:
2014: Sean Maguire, 74-yard touchdown to tie game versus Clemson
2013: Jameis Winston, 49-yard completion with less than a minute to play to set up a game-winning touchdown in the BCS national championship
2012: EJ Manuel, 39-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left to beat Virginia Tech, keeping FSU’s hopes alive for Jimbo Fisher’s first ACC championship
2011: Clint Trickett, 56-yard touchdown with 9:32 left to tie Oklahoma
The last one occurred in a game FSU eventually lost, but it’s a play many Noles fans recall as the loudest Doak Campbell Stadium has ever been.
Beyond Greene’s contributions historically though, he’s on an immensely hot streak right now. In his last three games against Power 5 teams, he has 29 catches for 485 yards and two touchdowns. Nineteen of those 29 receptions have gone for first downs.
Currently Alabama’s Amari Cooper is the only receiver in the nation with a longer active streak of 100-yard games against Power 5 teams.
* Georgia Tech is 4-0, and a big reason for that success thus far has been quarterback Justin Thomas, who ranks 10th in ESPN’s Total QBR so far this season. The presumption is the Yellow Jackets are finally embracing the passing game, and therefore the offense is more dynamic.
But that’s not entirely true. Georgia Tech has had the QB drop back to pass on 27 percent of its plays this year, which is just a mild uptick from 2013, when the QB dropped back on 26 percent of its plays.
What’s different is the success Thomas has enjoyed on those dropbacks. Tech is averaging more yards per dropback, been sacked less often and those plays are accounting for a greater percentage of its total offense than it did a year ago with Vad Lee at quarterback.
* While Thomas has been sharp as a passer, DeAndre Smelter is blossoming into a star as a receiver. The former baseball player has three 100-yard games already this season (only Cooper and West Virginia’s Kevin White have more) and only Cooper, Pitt’s Tyler Boyd and Air Force’s Jalen Robinette have been responsible for a higher percentage of their team’s targets than Smelter (40.3 percent).
* Yes, Boston College’s game Saturday was only against Maine, but here’s a ridiculous stat for you: The Eagles rushed for 413 yards, while only allowing 16 yards on the ground.
More ridiculous: A week earlier, against USC, Boston College ran for 452 yards and allowed just 20.
In the past 10 seasons, there were just eight other examples of a team rushing for more than 400 while allowing 20 or fewer yards on the ground in a game, and BC managed to do it in back-to-back weeks.
* Panic time for some other ground games around the ACC?
Virginia Tech’s rushing game was bad last year and is again in 2014. Overall, the Hokies rank 10th in the ACC in yards-per-carry on non-QB rushes (4.29) and their running backs are averaging just 3.2 yards-per-carry against FBS teams.
North Carolina and Virginia (with 1,000-yard rusher Kevin Parks) are 12th and 13th, respectively, in non-QB yards-per-rush.
Clemson is 11th (4.02), and even with FSU’s best defensive lineman, Mario Edwards Jr., out for much of the game Saturday, the Tigers mustered just 3.2 yards-per-carry. Take away the Clemson QBs, and the ground game had just 47 yards.
Then there’s Louisville. Two weeks ago at Virginia, the Cards’ ground game averaged fewer than 4 yards per rush, and on Saturday against FIU, things were even worse. Set aside Dominique Brown’s 18-yard scamper on the first play of the game, and Louisville had just 34 yards on its final 30 attempts.
* Virginia Tech’s once-stifling defense has really struggled so far this year. Part of it is the game plan Bud Foster has implemented, but the big plays have killed the Hokies. In four games, Tech has coughed up 32 plays of 19 yards or more (once every eight plays). Last year, it allowed just 53 all season.
* Plenty of credit for Georgia Tech’s win should go to Ted Roof’s defense, which rattled Michael Brewer into three turnovers that translated to 17 points. So far this season, the Yellow Jackets have racked up 45 points following turnovers, tops in the ACC.
* And finally, here’s a number that pretty much sums up Clemson’s season so far: In two games against FBS teams, Clemson is averaging 2.37 yards-per-play in the fourth quarter and overtime (fourth-worst nationally) and has picked up just three first downs (worst in the nation).
"Do you think Florida State should remain No. 1 after this performance?" the reporter asked.
It was a superfluous detail in a game with layers of juicy plotlines that easily filled the four-hour telecast. And frankly, Fisher's answer can be tossed into the circular file with the rest of the minutiae from Saturday's game, which includes every page of team statistics and numbers with the exception of the final score.
Florida State won. It did it without its best player, Jameis Winston, for the entire game, and arguably its second-best player, Mario Edwards Jr., for the final half.
The Seminoles were tested this weekend, but the grades from the coaches and AP pollsters don't matter. We learned more about them Saturday than what any poll with waning belief in the reigning national champions could ever indicate.
"We challenged our guys to find out who we are," an emotional Fisher said. "We're not where we want to be, but we do know who we are."
The Seminoles know they're a group with the fundamental resolve required to earn one of the four College Football Playoff bids. On Saturday, they looked like a pumpkin instead of the horse-drawn carriage driven by a Heisman winner, but this is the fall season, the time when carved, misshapen pumpkins are celebrated.
The team was distracted. After the game, Fisher and his players copped to falling victim to the unavoidable lapses in focus that accompany a suspension (and a second one) to the star player for standing on a table in the busiest intersection of campus and unloading an obscene and profane outburst.
The backup quarterback completed six passes in the first half. Yet in the fourth quarter, he unleashed a 74-yard pass to the tie the score. Hero might be a strong word to frame Sean Maguire's performance, but only in the sense that the word is incessantly used to overstate the contributions of a player in a glorified game. Considering the pressures dropped onto Maguire's shoulders days before potentially the biggest game of FSU's season, he exceeded expectations.
The defense that has been under fire for mediocre early returns and already deemed unfit to succeed 2013's No. 1 national unit allowed 249 first-half yards. Yet in the second half, they lined up inches from national irrelevance only to hold Clemson out of the end zone and scoreless on that drive. When the Tigers tested the defensive line on fourth-and-inches in overtime, the maligned unit disrupted the play in the backfield. The only reason they were in overtime was because defensive tackle Eddie Goldman stripped C.J. Davidson of the ball as the Tigers bled the clock before setting up for a game-winning score.
The running backs had 38 yards in regulation. Yet in overtime, Karlos Williams ran the final 25 yards to ignite the celebration.
The punter, who has received the harshest criticism from fans, had his first kick go 37 yards; that was a half yard longer than his season average entering Saturday. Yet over his final seven punts, Cason Beatty pinned four of them inside Clemson's 20-yard line.
This wasn't a rag-tag group of players -- the Seminoles have possibly the country's most talented roster -- but it was a rag-tag performance driven by star efforts rather than star ratings. Certainly Clemson punctuated its #Clemsoning trademark with a comedy of errors, but they were often forced by Florida State. Two goal-line tackles before the bad snap. Davidson didn't just drop the ball. Adam Choice didn't trip on the 16-yard line and fall inches short of the first-down marker.
Before the game, we wondered if the top-ranked Seminoles, which looked beatable in their first two games, were a suitable No. 1 or a product of the country's best player calling the shots under center and rising to the situation weekly.
But it was the definition of a team win, and a gutty one at that. It was something we did not see at all during the regular season from the Seminoles last year, if only because they rewrote the handbook on dominance. It might be the prettiest Florida State win over the last two seasons considering the pregame Winston malady.
Maybe Florida State didn't look like the No. 1 team Saturday. But they looked like a championship-caliber team, and an undefeated one at that, which means they can still lay claim to the No. 1 ranking.
"We ain't lost in 19 straight games," Fisher said, answering the reporter's question. "We're No. 1 until somebody beats us."
Clemson fans obviously wish that decision had come a few days earlier, but it’s hard to fault Swinney for showing loyalty to his veteran, Cole Stoudt, for as long as he could. Besides, most true freshmen would’ve been rattled by the big stage in Tallahassee on Saturday. It’s just that Watson isn’t like most freshmen, and that’s why this was an easy decision moving forward.
Four weeks into the season, Watson is the fourth backup QB in the ACC to see signifiant action, and he’s clearly been the best. Watson leads all ACC quarterbacks in Total QBR and is sixth nationally.
The true freshman has only been on campus since January and he missed the latter half of spring ball with an injury, but as we wrote last week, he's a quick study and Chad Morris' offense is second nature already.
Watson might be licking his chops for his first career start, which will come this week against a reeling North Carolina team that just coughed up 789 yards of offense to ECU and ranks 125th nationally in passing defense. It’s so bad for the Tar Heels that Larry Fedora admitted he needs to re-evaluate how he’s doing his job, writes the Charlotte Observer.
Of course, as Fedora tries to right the ship in Chapel Hill, it’s possible he could turn to his backup QB, too. Starter Marquise Williams struggled against ECU, completing 14 of 25 passes for 127 yards (just 5.1 per attempt) and tossed a disastrous interception that was returned for a TD. Two early scoring drives led by Williams were actually finished by TD throws from a wide receiver and punter, respectively.
Mitch Trubisky wasn’t markedly better, completing 8 of 16 throws for 103 yards and a touchdown, but it’s fair to wonder if UNC fans will start clamoring for the highly recruited freshman to start over the veteran QB soon, too, just as Clemson’s fans did.
Sean Maguire largely held his own in his first start for Florida State, and it was a wild ride for his family, writes Warchant. But he’s headed back to the bench as Jimbo Fisher made clear that Jameis Winston will be the starter again, effective today.
Then at Virginia, the Hoos remain optimistic despite a third straight 2-2 start, writes The Daily Progress. But questions still linger at QB, after Matt Johns finished things off for Virginia against BYU following an injury to starter Greyson Lambert. Lambert says he'll be back this week, but Johns has the better numbers through four games.
But if there’s QB drama in those places, there is none in Clemson, where Watson is clearly the future.
“Turn his tape on, watch him play and the moment was never too big for him, even as a freshman playing varsity,” Morris told me last week. And that was before Watson looked like a savvy veteran in raucous Doak Campbell Stadium.
The Tigers are 1-2, and for the third straight year, it looks like winning the ACC won’t happen. But after Clemson fans licked their wounds Sunday, they should certainly feel good about the future with their new QB.
A few more links:
- There’s no doubt Winston was missed Saturday, but Florida State showed its depth in the win over Clemson, writes Sports Illustrated.
- It was a lot of little things that let Florida State squash Clemson, writes Tomahawk Nation. Of note on those little things: Clemson was 2-of-5 converting third-and-short against the Seminoles.
- This headline from the Washington Post certainly summed up Clemson's performance Saturday succinctly.
- Michael Brewer took the blame after Virginia Tech’s loss to Georgia Tech, writes The Roanoke Times. No Power 5 QB in the country has thrown more interceptions this season than Brewer (eight).
- There are plenty of numbers for Boston College to be happy about after four games, but BC Interruption points out a couple sobering stats: The Eagles didn’t force a turnover against Maine and currently rank 104th nationally with a minus-3 turnover margin. BC has just three points off turnovers this year, too. Only six FBS teams have less.
- Another year, another long list of complaints about Miami’s defense, writes The Sun-Sentinel. Is there anyone in the ACC whose job seems less secure right now than Mark D’Onofrio? Since he came aboard in 2011, only Duke has allowed more yards per game to Power 5 teams than Miami (446.2) and no ACC team has allowed a higher percentage of third-down conversions (46.1).
- James Quick’s breakout game against FIU was worth the wait for Louisville, writes The Courier-Journal.
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College Football Playoff: Florida State
Orange Bowl: Duke versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Clemson
TaxSlayer Bowl: Georgia Tech
Belk Bowl: Virginia Tech
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Louisville
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Pittsburgh
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Virginia
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Miami
Quick Lane Bowl: Boston College
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: NC State
* 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.
The fifth-year coach then turned to his team and his players as they took a knee around him in the locker room. He stood there, sizing up a room of 105 players that battled to a 23-17 overtime win against No. 22 Clemson without its best player for an entire game and best defensive player for the final half. He rubbed his eyes.
“Let 'em flow, Coach!”
“Let it out, Coach, let it out!”
“Don’t cry, Coach!”
If the pregame video of Jameis Winston prepping his team before last season’s Clemson game was for the cameras, the 2014 post-game version was unadulterated emotion.
Florida State great LeRoy Butler, who spoke to fans before the game about the legendary Puntrooskie play against Clemson, filmed the locker room scene in a series of videos he posted to his YouTube page.
“How good it is to come to work and work with people like you,” a vulnerable Fisher told his team in the video. “God, I’m a lucky man. Let me tell you that right now. I’m a lucky man.”
The Seminoles dealt with distractions through much of the week after Winston jumped on a table in the middle of Florida State’s campus and yelled a profane and sexually explicit statement. He was suspended Wednesday for the first half. Fill-in starter Sean Maguire said the team initially viewed it as a distraction before moving on.
Then Winston was suspended for the entire game late Friday night, and the headlines and distractions recycled.
In the first half, the Seminoles played like a team that looked distracted, but the defense kept Florida State in the game until Maguire launched a game-tying 74-yard pass with 6:04 left. In overtime, after a fourth-down stop by the Seminoles’ defense, the rushing game found new life as Karlos Williams rushed for the final 25 yards and game-winning touchdown.
“Each person, we have flaws, but I’ll tell you that’s what a family does -- love and trusts and believes in each other, that plays until the end. I don’t have words for you,” Fisher said.
Assistant coach Sal Sunseri addresses the team in the next video and gives the game ball to Fisher.
In the final video, Fisher is mobbed by his team.
Each week throughout the season, the Playoff Forecast will use ESPN's Football Power Index and human logic (i.e., the eye test) to determine which teams are best positioned in the chase for the inaugural College Football Playoff. These rankings take into account perceived team strength (including injuries) and remaining schedule difficulty (including prospective conference championship games).
The Playoff Forecast is not intended to be a prediction of the selection committee's weekly Top 25, which will be released every Tuesday starting Oct. 28. It is a projection of which teams have the best chance to be in the top four come December.
FPI's chance of winning out: 22.1 percent
FPI's chance of winning the conference: 58.5 percent
After clearing one of their most difficult road hurdles with an impressive second-half performance at West Virginia, the Sooners seem as good a bet to go undefeated as any team in a Power 5 conference. Their most highly regarded remaining opponents, Baylor and Oklahoma State, must both visit Norman, and the toughest test away from home seems to be at TCU, which comes on Oct. 4 after OU has a bye week to prepare. Also, the fact that the Big 12 has no conference championship game is another factor that enhances Oklahoma's chances of finishing the regular season unblemished.
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East Carolina is ranked in The Associated Press college football poll for the first time since 2008 and Mississippi State moved into the Top 25 for the first time in two seasons after breaking a long losing streak against LSU.
The Pirates were last ranked Sept. 21, 2008. That team finished 9-5 and won Conference USA. East Carolina (3-1) is in its first season in the American Athletic Conference.
Mississippi State is No. 14 after beating LSU 34-29 to end a 14-game skid to the Tigers. The Bulldogs were last ranked in 2012.
College Football Minute: Sept. 23
Final Georgia Tech 27 Virginia Tech 24 Final Iowa 24 Pittsburgh 20 Final Maryland 34 Syracuse 20 Final Tulane 13 Duke 47 Final Maine 10 Boston College 40 Final Louisville 34 Florida International 3 Final Virginia 33 21 BYU 41 Final Army 21 Wake Forest 24 Final North Carolina 41 East Carolina 70 Final Presbyterian 0 North Carolina State 42 Final Miami (FL) 31 24 Nebraska 41 Final/OT 22 Clemson 17 1 Florida State 23