NCF Nation: 2013 ACC championship

What we learned in the ACC: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
Here’s a look at three things we learned from the ACC championship game in no particular order:

[+] EnlargeKelvin Benjamin
AP Photo/Bob LeveroneKelvin Benjamin's jersey number explains FSU's status before and after a rout in the ACC title game.
1. The No. 1 team in the country didn’t slip, trip or even stumble: The Noles can’t control the computers or what happens in the rest of the country, but Florida State did its job and beat Duke 45-7 for the program’s 14th ACC title. The ACC wasn’t its own worst enemy, there wasn’t any epic upset, and the magic ended for Duke, which means it hasn’t quite ended yet for Florida State. For weeks, FSU has been projected to play in the BCS national championship game, and the Seminoles haven’t done anything to derail their hopes. The final BCS standings and bowl pairings will be announced at 9 p.m. ET on Sunday, but Florida State hasn’t given any reason to doubt it belongs in Pasadena.

2. Reality set in for Duke: Duke knew it was the underdog going into this game, and it embraced that role, the whole time truly believing it could accomplish the unthinkable. Duke went to Charlotte not just happy to be there, but legitimately trying to win. The Blue Devils, though, were completely overmatched by the abundance of elite talent on Florida State’s roster -- just as they were a year ago. Duke had no answer for Florida State’s defense, which was all over quarterback Anthony Boone and pressured him into two interceptions and no touchdowns. Duke struggled on third downs (7-of-20), and couldn’t capitalize on Florida State’s three turnovers. The best team in the Coastal Division was once again no match for the ACC’s top-ranked team.

3. Jameis Winston has put the off-field allegations behind him and still has Heisman hopes in front of him: With last week’s news that no charges would be filed against Winston for allegations of rape, Saturday’s title game was the first time since mid-November that he played free of any off-field legal distractions. It was also the first time in four games that Heisman voters, whose ballots are due on Monday, had a chance to see Winston play knowing he would not be charged. While it wasn’t a flawless performance (two interceptions), Winston still had remarkable numbers, throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns, and running for another 59 yards and a touchdown. It was enough to earn game MVP honors. With a poor performance by NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch in a 47-27 loss to Bowling Green in the MAC championship, the Heisman race further narrowed. The only question remaining is how many Heisman voters will continue to question Winston’s character. Saturday’s performance against Duke, though, wasn’t any reason to question his resume.

ACC's helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
Florida State won its second straight ACC championship game, and it did so in resounding fashion, thumping Duke 45-7 on Saturday to secure a bid to the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.

Florida State QB Jameis Winston: It’s a credit to how good Winston has been this season that Saturday was perhaps one of his worst performances, and yet he still took home the game’s MVP honors. Winston completed 19-of-32 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns, adding another 59 yards and a touchdown on the ground. In the process, he set the FBS record for touchdown passes and passing yards for a freshman. His two interceptions were uncharacteristic, but Duke was unable to translate either into points. It was the seventh 300-yard game of the season for the Heisman Trophy favorite.

Florida State LB Telvin Smith: There was plenty of credit to go around on the defense, but Smith was one of the night’s biggest star. He finished with eight tackles, including two for a loss, one sack and an interception. FSU’s defense held Duke scoreless until the final drive with the backups on the field. Aside from a 15-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a missed field goal in the first quarter, Duke’s other 12 drives against Smith and the first-team D ended with nine punts and three turnovers.

Duke CB Breon Borders: It may not have been a particularly close game, but it was as physical a matchup as Florida State has played all season, and while Winston still earned an MVP, Duke’s secondary didn’t make it easy. Borders was the star, picking off two of Winston’s passes, while racking up four tackles. The two interceptions were an ACC championship game record, and Borders set the Duke freshman record with four INTs on the year.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- They talked about Pasadena, spoke about the final destination within the confines of their team meeting rooms and practice fields.

Now that the moment had arrived, what unfolded seemed surreal. Florida State players dangled roses and put on championship hats and T-shirts after a 45-7 rout of No. 20 Duke in the ACC title game Saturday assured them a spot in the BCS national championship game.

But senior receiver Kenny Shaw admitted afterward what he and his teammates had accomplished was still hitting him. He flashed back to his freshman season, arriving on campus as part of Jimbo Fisher's first recruiting class.

The first week brought the first surprise: a conditioning test. Nobody passed. Not even close. "We died," he recalled. The first thought: Florida State was going to be miserable place to be for the long haul. But he knew, and the players in his class knew, Florida State ultimately would win championships again. The misery would have a payoff, somehow, some way.

[+] EnlargeKarlos Williams
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsKarlos Williams and Florida State finally can celebrate the program's return to college football's peak.
Shaw and his senior class kept working, and each successive class kept working, too, until Fisher had assembled the most talented team in America headed into 2013. Fisher knew it, and so did the players.

"We did envision this after last season, because we felt like we left a lot on the table," linebacker Telvin Smith said. "We felt like there was so much that we were supposed to accomplish that we came back and we had a little -- not a vendetta ... it was just a reckoning. We tried to put ourselves back to where we were supposed to be."

Anybody with any doubts about the schedule Florida State plays should check out Florida State itself, brimming with one NFL prospect after another, a year after losing 11 players to the draft.

Though Florida State did not play its best game against Duke, leading just 17-0 at halftime, you got the feeling the onslaught would be a formality given the sheer talent advantage on the side of the Seminoles. Indeed, Florida State scored 21 third-quarter points to effectively put the game out of reach, extending its domination over a Duke program that has never won a game in the series.

It seems only appropriate, then, that Florida State will get to face off against the SEC and Auburn in the BCS national title game. The conference that has lorded over not only college football but the ACC in particular has boasted for seven consecutive years that it has the most talent in America and the best teams in America.

Florida State, finally, seems ready to answer that argument. Nobody had more players drafted into the NFL last year. Not Alabama. Not LSU. When asked about the prospect of taking down the SEC, Seminoles players were not quite ready to start trash-talking a league that has come to dominate the ACC during regular-season matchups. Just last weekend, the ACC went 1-3 against the SEC, with Florida State posting the only victory, over Florida.

"I feel like the ACC is one of the best conferences in the nation," Florida State receiver Kelvin Benjamin said. "We've got a lot of great players."

So from a players' vantage point, is it irksome that the SEC is declared the best in America without much question or debate?

"Not even, not at all," Benjamin said. "The national championship is not here yet. We'll show them who the best is."

Fisher has molded his program into an SEC program, learning under Nick Saban and coaching at SEC schools. He served as quarterbacks coach at Auburn from 1993-98. He is intricately familiar with how the conference works, and how many of the programs in the conference work. It is no coincidence he has gotten to this level, then, following a similar framework.

The ACC has not had a team play for a national championship since Florida State faced Oklahoma following the 2000 season. It has watched every other conference get a swing at the SEC in the BCS national championship game and miss.

Now it finally gets its turn, with the undisputed No. 1 team in America, loaded with prospects and the Heisman Trophy front-runner in Jameis Winston. The ACC has waited on this moment, to finally stand on the top of the college football world.

Stepping on the SEC and ending its championship hold would make the victory all the more rewarding.

To Pasadena, then.

Winston basks in ACC championship

December, 8, 2013

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jameis Winston stood on a stage wearing a white T-shirt and black baseball cap proclaiming his team ACC champion, dancing and laughing and smiling as he waited to accept his MVP award.

This was not a man burdened, or a personality dimmed, by controversy. He had abruptly ended a postgame TV interview when he grew tired of the questions about the sexual-assault investigation that came to an end this week without charges being filed, but when he grabbed the microphone on that stage just a few moments later, he preached with the same gregarious enthusiasm that has endeared him to Florida State fans all season.

Winston struggled in the early going of Saturday's 45-7 win over Duke that assured his team a spot in the BCS National Championship, but he was quick to denounce any insinuations that he'd been distracted by three weeks of innuendo and speculation and, in the end, relief.

If there was any mark of the scandal that dogged Winston's final push toward a national championship, it came entirely from the veiled questions from reporters and never from the man himself.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsIt took Jameis Winston and Florida State a while to get rolling, but then they rolled to the ACC title.
"I don't feel it was a burden," Winston said. "When everything came up, we took the initiative as a team, like hey, let's focus, let's get this done, let's make it happen. We had one goal in mind, and we haven't reached that goal yet, but we're headed there."

Florida State appears set to play Auburn in the BCS championship game in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6, and Winston's meteoric rise from hyped freshman to Heisman favorite has been the catalyst.

Against Duke, he wasn't at his best, but he still was exceptional. Winston completed 19 of 32 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions, added another 59 yards and a score on the ground, and Florida State rolled past Duke to yet another easy win. It was Winston's sixth game accounting for at least four touchdowns, his seventh throwing for at least 300 yards. He set a new FBS record for touchdowns and passing yards by a freshman in the process.

After the game, confetti rained down on Winston and coach Jimbo Fisher, and Florida State players romped around the field at Bank of America Stadium with roses jutting from their mouths. Florida State is 13-0, having won every game by at least two touchdowns, having dominated the four ranked opponents it faced by a combined score of 200-35. It was, linebacker Telvin Smith said, "a reckoning."

But Saturday's win was also a turning point, when the conversations finally could shift from the off-field drama to the on-field celebration.

"I think my teammates were more relieved than I was," Winston said. "It was a process, and we've got to keep moving forward."

That's what the process has been for Winston. The external distractions never filtered into the locker room, and the football field was a sanctuary from the chaos that surrounded him. That chaos came to an end Thursday, and Winston's march toward a berth in the BCS title game followed two days later.

"To already have so much pressure and stress on him, and then to add on to the negativity," cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "He embraced it and kept fighting for us. He could've easily went into a tank. To keep all the weight on his shoulders because of his [teammates], he's a special young man, and he deserves everything he gets."

Winston has asked for little attention or praise. He won game MVP honors Saturday, and he is expected to be awarded the Heisman Trophy next weekend, but as he has all season, he shifted the attention to his teammates.

And throughout the past month, as Winston's name was linked to ugly accusations and each of his public appearances became sideshows with hordes of reporters hoping he'd address the one topic Florida State staff assured wouldn't be discussed, it was his teammates who insulated Winston from the distractions.

On Saturday, they celebrated together, Winston again in the spotlight, looking as comfortable to be there as he has been all year. A national championship game awaits, and Winston isn't spending time worrying about what's already behind him.

"We done made it to where we are," Winston said, "and we're not done yet."

Video: Building a winner

December, 7, 2013

Duke football coach David Cutcliffe discusses the rise of his program and the advice Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski gave him on how to improve.

Five things: Florida State vs. Duke

December, 7, 2013
It’s certainly not the matchup most fans expected way back in August, but Florida State and Duke will face off Saturday night in the ACC championship game. At stake for Duke is history, its first trip to a BCS bowl game and its first conference title since 1961. For Florida State, however, there’s even more on the line. With a win, the Seminoles are all but guaranteed a shot to play for a national championship. The pundits heavily favor Florida State, but there’s still plenty to watch for when the Seminoles and Blue Devils kick off in Charlotte.

1. Big game or business as usual? For Florida State, ACC championship game weekend is old hat. The Seminoles were here just last year, after all, and this marks their third trip in Jimbo Fisher’s four years as coach. Fisher even began tweaking the team’s travel schedule earlier this season to prep for the distractions this weekend would bring. For Duke, however, its division title comes as a mammoth surprise, and none of these players had played in a game of this magnitude. Experience is clearly on Florida State’s side, but Duke has managed to live up to big moments all season, and while players might be new to a conference championship game, David Cutcliffe is not. He’ll have the Blue Devils prepared.

2. History as a guide: The numbers are ugly for the Blue Devils: In 18 previous meetings with Florida State, they’ve gone 0-18, lost by an average of 34 points, and never finished a game within two scores of a win. Yes, Duke already has had a history-making season, so perhaps a little more history is in the works. But if that’s the case, Florida State will need to buy into the conventional wisdom and come out slow, while Duke will need to forget everything that has come before.

3. Winston vs. Duke’s DBs: Jameis Winston looks poised to win a Heisman Trophy, and he has been spectacular all season. He’ll be a focus for Duke, but the Blue Devils’ secondary has shown a propensity for big plays. After allowing 10 pass touchdowns in its first two ACC games of the year, Duke’s secondary has allowed only six more in its next six games, while racking up 12 interceptions. Ross Cockrell and DeVon Edwards have led the charge, but they’ve not faced a challenge as immense as Winston. Florida State has four receivers ranked in the ACC’s top 11 in yards per catch, and Winston loves going for the big play.

4. Crowder vs. FSU pass defense: Asked earlier this week about the danger presented by Duke’s Jamison Crowder, the ACC’s leading receiver, FSU safety Terrence Brooks smiled. The Seminoles’ secondary isn’t afraid of anyone, he said, and it will take more than one weapon to beat them. It might sound a bit overconfident, but Brooks has the numbers to back up his boasts. Florida State ranks No. 1 in the nation in pass defense, and its 23 interceptions are tops in the country.

5. Ground gains: Florida State’s backfield rotation is running wild, averaging 9 yards per rush with nine touchdowns in its last three games. Devonta Freeman is now just 148 yards shy of rushing for 1,000 yards, and he has been stellar in two previous games against Duke. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils will want to establish the run, too, but might face a tough obstacle in doing so. Florida State’s first-team defense hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season, and on first down, the Seminoles are allowing just 3.2 yards per carry -- the sixth-best rate in the country.

2 QBs are better than 1 for Duke

December, 6, 2013
There were some schools in the ACC -- such as Virginia and NC State -- that had trouble finding one quarterback this season.

And then there’s Duke -- which legitimately has two.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Boone
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesAnthony Boone has been at his best when it mattered the most.
A two-quarterback system is often scoffed at, rarely works, and is in place only because there’s no star on the roster to single-handedly orchestrate the offense. That’s not the case at Duke, where starter Anthony Boone and his backup, Brandon Connette, are responsible for 40 of Duke’s 47 offensive touchdowns this season.

Somehow, they’ve managed to put team ahead of self and avoid anything resembling a quarterback controversy. Instead, their shared role has become the center of Duke’s offensive identity.

While Florida State quarterback and ACC Player of the Year Jameis Winston has stolen the position’s spotlight this fall, Boone and Connette have worked together to get Duke to the exact same place as the Noles -- Saturday’s ACC championship game.

"The reason why it works is mainly because of the character we have in the quarterback room, the unselfishness is unbelievable," Connette said. "At a lot of schools where you have two quarterbacks who are capable of playing at such a high level, sometimes there can be some animosity in the room, somebody thinks he should be starting over the other one. The great thing about our room is nobody really cares who's starting, who's getting more playing time, things like that. All we really care about is getting the win."

Together they've gotten 10 wins this season -- the most in school history.

Boone and Connette have helped Duke's offense make a seamless transition into the first season without 2012 veteran Sean Renfree. Boone is 10-0 in his career as Duke's starting quarterback, including 9-0 in 2013. Connette has scored three game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdowns this season. Connette has been more of a short-yardage, third-down, goal-line situation quarterback, but the coaching staff clearly isn't afraid of letting him run the offense for a few series. He has earned the nickname "The Phantom" on the team for his ability to play just about any position. Connette said he doesn’t care how he's used -- as long as he sees the field.

"I can do everything," he said. "Obviously I like to be on the field, that’s why I came to Duke. I came to Duke to play. I like being a part of success, so whatever role I have to play for us to be successful is a lot of fun for me. … Last week I got my first catch. To be able to do things like that every single week is just rewarding and a lot of fun for me."

Not to mention the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Connette
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBrandon Connette is versatile and willing to accept any role.
With Boone and Connette sharing time, Duke's offense ranks fifth in the ACC in scoring at 33.7 points, is tied for fourth with 24 rushing touchdowns, and fifth with 23 passing touchdowns. Both quarterbacks have thrown for more than 1,000 yards.

"Well, I think they've created roles for each other, and they understand what each guy is going to do," Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. "… I think now both of them are throwing it and running it pretty equally. So I mean, they're very tough guys to defend, and it gives them two different guys, and each guy is fresh."

Boone started Duke's first two games but suffered a broken collarbone in Week 2 against Memphis, opening the door for Connette to throw nine passing touchdowns in his three-game stint as the starter. Boone returned against Navy and has directed Duke to six consecutive wins. Boone has been at his best when it has mattered the most. Against Wake Forest and North Carolina, he completed 75 percent of his passes for 530 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

"That's just a testament to the players around me, the offensive line doing a great job of pass protecting and running the ball and being able to have our two-headed monster with me and Brandon," Boone said. "Just the guys around me really helped me with the success that we're having and that I'm having."

It's not often that two quarterbacks are better than one, but for Duke, this season has been twice as nice.

Kickoff Live

December, 5, 2013
To watch on you smart phone click here.

SEC reporter Chris Low, Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson join host Chantel Jennings to discuss Championship Saturday.

When Duke went on the road in late October and shocked then- No. 14 Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils did so without converting a single third down. Quarterback Anthony Boone threw zero touchdown passes -- and four interceptions. And yet Duke rolled out of Blacksburg having snapped a 42-year losing streak against ranked teams on the road.

The difference? Duke was finally able to win a game with defense and special teams.

[+] EnlargeKelby Brown
Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon SMIKelby Brown and Duke's defense will face their biggest challenge on Saturday against Florida State.
“To win a defensive game 13-10 is just such a boost of confidence on defense,” said linebacker Kelby Brown. “It was really encouraging. That’s when we showed people this defense is for real. This team is for real.”

If Duke is going to have a shot at upending No. 1 Florida State on Saturday in the ACC championship game in Charlotte, it will need to be sharp in every phase of the game. It will have to rely most heavily upon what has become an opportunistic defense, and a special teams unit that has the ability to score and create good field position.

Duke has scored four times on kick returns (two punt return touchdowns and two kickoff return touchdowns), and freshman safety DeVon Edwards leads the nation in kickoff return average (32.7).The defense has caused turnovers in 11 of 12 games (including three in the red zone), and enters the ACC title game with 16 interceptions, nine forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. Duke is tied for fifth in the ACC with 21 takeaways and the 16 interceptions are the most in the David Cutcliffe era.

“A lot of guys have stepped up into new roles, and our D-line is really experienced now,” Brown said. “They’re doing a great job up front of allowing the linebackers to fly around and make tackles. That’s something, just old-school, 4-3 style defense, the way Boston College has always run it, a great D-line that holds up the line and that’s been huge for us. And I think we’re the most athletic we’ve ever been in the secondary. Even though we have some young guys back there, they have speed and they can tackle. It’s all kind of clicked from the front line all the way to the back.”

Duke, a heavy underdog, knows it has no margin for error. The Blue Devils have never beaten Florida State in 18 tries, and the Noles have won every game this season by at least 14 points. In 2012, Duke’s defense was steamrolled by FSU in a 48-7 loss, and many are predicting a similar result. Of all the times these two programs have faced each other, though, only one other time has Duke been ranked -- in 1994, when it was No. 16.

The numbers prove, though, that Duke’s defense is the best it’s been in over a decade.

Duke is allowing just 23.0 points per game, which would rank as the program’s best mark since the 1994 season (22.45 points per game). Duke has 22 sacks this season, and linebackers David Helton and Kelby Brown and safety Jeremy Cash are the top three tacklers in the ACC.

We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.

-- Ross Cockrell, on how Duke's defense can find success against Florida State

Duke’s fourth-quarter defense has also been outstanding. It's allowing an average of just 9.1 points in the second half compared to 13.9 in the first half. Duke has surrendered only 3.1 points and outscored opponents 113-37 in the fourth quarter.

“Well, we run better on defense,” Cutcliffe said. “First thing you've got to be able to do is get to them to get them on the ground. You can't get them on the ground if you can't run. We run better. We'd better run better in this one because these guys have I think more weapons than anybody in the country.”

Starting with Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin.

“We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with Benjamin,” Cutcliffe said. “He's just a monster and with great skills.”

Against Florida’s stingy defense last week, Benjamin single-handedly outgained the Gators’ offensive output (212 yards to 193). He scored three touchdowns, and had nine receptions. Last season against Duke, Benjamin had three catches for 77 yards.

“Yeah, we've done a great job, I think, defensively,” said Ross Cockrell, one of the top defenders in the ACC. “But one of the things that we took away from last year was that you can't give up a lot of big plays, especially in the passing game, the deep passes that we gave up. We can't give up those kinds of plays and expect to win ballgames. We know we have a very good team. We have a very good offense who can put up points on anybody. We've just got to make sure that we limit people, and the best way to limit people is by making them drive the length of the field on you and not giving up the 50 and 60 yard passes.”

Duke’s defense and special teams have been good enough to win the Coastal Division, but they will have to be great to win it all on Saturday.

What to watch in the ACC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
So it comes down to this. No. 1 Florida State and No. 20 Duke square off in Charlotte, N.C., with the ACC title on the line, and with much more at stake for the Seminoles, who are a win away from a berth in the national title game. Here are a few things to keep an eye on Saturday night (8 ET, ABC) when both teams take the field:

[+] EnlargeDavid Cutcliffe
Ellen Ozier/USA TODAY SportsDavid Cutcliffe and Duke are out to shock the college football world and upset No. 1 Florida State.
1. The noise factor. No, we're not talking about the volume of the crowd here. We're talking about the external factors going into this game for both teams. Duke has been written off as a four-touchdown underdog, has been criticized for its allegedly easy path to the Coastal Division title and has been told over and over again that it has no business being in this game. Florida State, meanwhile, will know the outcome of the Jameis Winston saga by kickoff. How each responds emotionally once the game is underway is worth watching.

2. Red zone efficiency. Florida State ranks at or near the top of the ACC in most statistical categories, including red zone efficiency (No. 1 in offense, No. 2 in defense). Duke, on the other hand, is ranked near the middle of the pack in most categories, but the Blue Devils are No. 4 in red zone defense, which does not exactly underscore just how good they have been in recent weeks when pressed inside their own 20 (six touchdowns allowed in their last five games, after surrendering 15 in their first seven). If the Blue Devils can hold the Seminoles to some field goals on what are likely to be several trips into their territory, or even force a turnover or two, they will give themselves a chance to pull off a monumental upset.

3. Special teams. What will help Duke even more? Big special-teams plays. And the Blue Devils have excelled in that department. They are No. 2 in the ACC in punt return average (13.6), yards and touchdowns (two), and they lead the conference in kickoff return average (26.2) and touchdowns (two). Can DeVon Edwards and/or Jamison Crowder come through again for Duke? It certainly would not hurt to steal a few points in the third phase of the game if the Blue Devils want to crash the BCS and help re-shape the national title picture.

AA put some distance between herself and HD with the picks last week. HD admits she choked with the vaunted predictions trophy on the line, going 4-5 in Week 14. AA kept chugging, going 7-2 to open up a four-game lead on HD in the overall standings. AA stands at 85-23 as we head into the postseason. Seems like a pretty insurmountable lead at this point.

No headway to be made this week, either -- not when the easy choice to win the ACC championship game is Florida State. Here is how we both see the game playing out.

AA picks: Exactly zero media prognosticators had Florida State playing Duke in the ACC championship game when the season began. Of the 120 ballots tabulated, only 15 declared the Seminoles their preseason choice to win the ACC. That handful of voters will turn out to be right after Saturday comes to a close. Florida State is too talented and too deep to have much of a problem with the Blue Devils. Duke has been such a terrific story to watch unfold throughout the course of the season, and the Blue Devils do have some rising stars in Jamison Crowder, Kelby Brown, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. They deserve an inordinate amount of credit for turning around a moribund program. But they still have a ways to go to match the upper echelon not just in the ACC, but in the nation. Florida State lost 11 NFL draft picks off last season's team; Duke has had eight players drafted in the last 20 years. So you see the talent disparity. Duke has never beaten Florida State and has lost by an average margin of 34.5 points per game. The Blue Devils are a much better team than they were the last time these teams played last season. But the problem for Duke? Florida State is a much better team, too. Florida State 48, Duke 10.

HD picks: The magic ends here, where good meets great. Duke will play better than many expect, as it has an opportunistic defense and the ACC’s coach of the year, but it won’t be enough to overcome the matchup problems the Noles’ elite talent will create. This won’t be as ugly as it was last year during the regular season, but it won’t be pretty, either. Duke has recruited talent and speed, but not enough to match the likes of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin or quarterback Jameis Winston. Florida State will win the turnover battle, and Duke’s defense will give up too may big plays and struggle to get FSU off the field on third down. FSU has given up more than 17 points just once this season (to Boston College). Duke’s preparation, discipline and determination will get it to 20, but it will only be good enough for a moral victory. Florida State 45, Duke 20.

Telvin Smith leads by example

December, 4, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- In a few moments, the dam would burst, the energy and emotion would erupt from the locker room, spill onto the field and swallow up the utterly overwhelmed Florida Gators, the latest in a succession of opponents vanquished by a Florida State team now poised on the brink of the BCS National Championship.

But first, Telvin Smith had to finish his speech.

The senior linebacker is a master orator -- part preacher, whipping his congregation into an exuberant frenzy, and part wartime general, rallying his troops for the battle ahead.

"This is our destiny," Smith announced.

The crowd roars.

"This is our season," Smith proclaimed.

The team clamors for more.

"Nothing can stop us," Smith implored.

The fervor reaches its apex.

Suddenly Smith's attention turns to Nick O'Leary, the star tight end who garnered national headlines months earlier thanks to the horrific video of his motorcycle colliding with a city bus near campus. The accident looked gruesome at the time, but O'Leary escaped with only minor injuries.

"Look at O'Leary," Smith barked. "They tried to hit him with a bus, and he's still here."

In an instant, the rabid aggression transforms into roaring laughter. All of the tension and nervous energy evaporates with Smith's punch line. The weight of the moment was made clear, then lifted. It was a vintage performance by Florida State's unquestioned leader.

To read the rest of this story, click here.

Who says you can't win big at Duke?

December, 4, 2013

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke coach David Cutcliffe has never been one to make promises he can't keep.

It's a big part of who he is and helps explain his unprecedented success at a place that his athletic director, Kevin White, concedes foreclosed on football for much of the past 40 years.

"They just said it was unimportant and maintained it at some level just to stay in the ACC, but weren't really working at it and knew they weren't working at it," White said.

Then along came Cutcliffe, after being hired in December 2007, with a vision, a plan and what seemed like a far-fetched dream to everybody but those players, coaches and staff members who will board the team buses to Charlotte, N.C., to face No. 1 Florida State on Saturday night in the ACC championship game.

"This wasn't a rebuilding job. It was a total resurrection," said Gerald Harrison, one of several people to follow Cutcliffe from Tennessee to Duke and who is now an associate athletic director for the Blue Devils.

"We were trying to raise it from the dead."

And that's hardly an exaggeration.

To read the rest of this story, click here.

Duke embraces its big moment

December, 4, 2013
DukeESPN Stats & InfoIt seems almost everything Duke has done this season has been the first in forever -- or ever.
After the improbable happened, they retreated to the visitors’ locker room with one familiar possession and one completely new.

A celebration was in order.

So they jumped up and down. All of them, even coach David Cutcliffe. They sang. They danced. They screamed.

Then their new ACC Coastal Division Trophy started getting passed around like a second helping of pumpkin pie, each guy more eager than the next for a taste. Cornerback Ross Cockrell feared it would break because so many hands reached for it all at once.

[+] EnlargeDuke football
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDuke retained the Victory Bell by beating North Carolina and earned the right to celebrate.
Players started taking out cameras, snapping pictures. Others sat on the Victory Bell, back for another stint on the Duke campus after a second consecutive victory over nemesis North Carolina.

“We had those two big trophies that mean so much to us,” defensive end Kenny Anunike recalled in a phone interview. “We didn’t want to leave. We would have slept in that locker room if we had to.”

In a locker room. In enemy territory in Chapel Hill, N.C. If that does not capture the unique moment in time Duke football occupies right now, not much else does. The Blue Devils own their state, own their bitter rivals and own the headlines over their more famous basketball counterparts.

Enthusiasm on campus is so high, strangers walk up to Anunike on campus and shout, “Great job, Kenny! You guys are doing awesome, we appreciate what you’re doing!” Enthusiasm among football alums is so high, Anunike has been flooded with texts from former players, all wearing Duke football gear. Players from the “Dark Ages,” as Anunike says, all too eager to claim their piece of the history only this 2013 group can claim.

So much had to go right for No. 20 Duke to get to this moment, three days away from facing No. 1 Florida State in the ACC championship game. Two critical turning points paved the way. Rewind to September, after Duke dropped to 0-2 in ACC play following back-to-back losses to Georgia Tech and Pitt.

A players’ only meeting was called. The seniors spoke up.

“We all stood up and talked to the younger players and let them know these two losses did not define our season,” Anunike said. “That there’s a lot of football left to be played. We had to play harder and faster than any team we were going to face in the near future.”

They each reiterated the mantra that had become commonplace around the practice field, the weight room and the meeting rooms: Finish. Two nonconference wins followed. Then more adversity hit on the road at Virginia. Duke trailed 22-0 to the worst team in the ACC.


The Blue Devils rallied to win, then beat Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., the following weekend to end a 12-game losing streak in the series. That was when Anunike realized this team may be in the middle of a history-making season. More wins followed, pressure building as the stakes grew larger each week.

Yet Duke – a team that had not been in contention for an ACC title in 24 years – never flustered and never faltered.


“I didn't know how we were going to handle the success, either,” offensive guard Dave Harding said. “But this team has shown a maturity and a workmanlike attitude in our success, and what really has given us that edge is the fact that we have great leadership at every position on the field. We have guys who know what got us to this point and that’s a whole lot of hard work.

“Coach Cutcliffe is so adamant about doing things the right way, even though it's not the cool thing to do nor the easy thing to do. This team has learned how to do that. Since we know how to do it when it's tough, we know how to do it when things are going well, too.”

The next challenge requires quite the balancing act – savoring all the success while maintaining their focus to prepare for the best team they have faced all season. Duke is well aware it is a prohibitive underdog. But that is not unusual.

Duke is in this game to win it. And if the Blue Devils do not win it, they plan on making a return trip to try again. Cutcliffe has reminded reporters several times this season his program is not a flash in the pan. When football supersedes basketball in December, you know the culture has changed.

“I know we’re definitely here to stay and we’re going to continue this dream season and next year they’re going to repeat it,” Anunike said.

Anunike said something similar one year ago, after Duke made its first bowl game since 1994. He promised Duke would go bowling again this year.

Nobody believed him. Duke was selected to finish last in the Coastal in the ACC preseason poll in July. Maybe it is about time everybody started listening.

FSU's Benjamin a matchup nightmare

December, 3, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It’s sort of a running joke among the Florida State defensive backs. It’s a confident group -- ranked No. 1 in the nation two years running -- so no one admits when they’re overmatched, but they know covering Kelvin Benjamin is a tough job, and so they can’t help but laugh when someone else tries to do it.

Lamarcus Joyner, all 5-foot-8 of him, has battled Benjamin for jump balls in practice, but how many corners can combat a 6-foot-5 frame?

[+] EnlargeBenjamin
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsKelvin Benjamin's 12 touchdowns leads Florida State's receiving corps.
P.J. Williams is tall enough to at least pose a threat on those plays, but then, he has to account for Benjamin’s surprising burst of speed, too. How may 6-5 receivers get used on end-arounds, after all?

Terrence Brooks plays with a unique blend of speed and physicality, but mixing it up with Benjamin isn’t exactly fun. A receiver with size and quickness that still likes to hit, to block downfield -- how many players in the country do that?

“It’s like it’s easy for him,” Brooks said. “I don’t think they make him anymore in the factories.”

This is how it’s been since Benjamin arrived at Florida State in 2011, a physical freak of nature who performed such astonishing feats of athleticism and strength on the practice field that the accounts from teammates were often met with skepticism from those who hadn’t seen it firsthand. But making it look easy was actually what made life hard for Benjamin.

His first year was a waste. He was overweight, unprepared and redshirted.

The 2012 season represented a big step forward, but still a disappointment. His focus wandered, and his production waned. He caught 30 balls, but he had just 52 receiving yards in the final five games of the season.

This season, however, Benjamin is blossoming into the player his teammates always knew he could be -- a monster few defensive backs are capable of taming.

“Anybody can make mistakes and have a season like [2012] and throw excuses out there,” Benjamin said. “I felt like the season just improved me as a player.”

Benjamin’s improvements began in the weight room. He shed some excess pounds and got into the best shape of his life. He hit the film room, studying the playbook with renewed vigor, knowing a new quarterback was taking the reins of the offense, and he’d have a fresh start and a bigger role. He talked with Rashad Greene and Kenny Shaw, the veterans of the receiving corps, about finally showing the rest of the world what had so often been confined to the practice field.

“He’s a lot more focused mentally than anything,” Greene said. “He’s always had the ability, the skill, the talent. But the way he’s been locked in and just been all in for the team -- he can tell you, he’s really focused compared to what he was last year. And it’s showing all around.”

It’s helped, too, that Benjamin’s role has increased dramatically.

A year ago, the receiving corps was deep -- a solid mix of veterans and younger players all eager for their share of throws. For Benjamin, however, there simply weren’t enough footballs to go around. He’d be on the sideline for long stretches, then his head wasn’t in the game when he took the field.

But this offseason, Florida State lost three seniors for the season before fall camp concluded, and that’s meant a tight rotation on game days and plenty of throws for Greene, Shaw and Benjamin, who are now all within reach of 1,000 yards.

“A receiver wants to touch the ball as many times as you touch it in practice, and my first season, I wasn’t doing that,” Benjamin said. “I let that get to me, wanting the ball more and the rotation. This year, we stay on the field until we finish the game. It’s just staying in there and having that feeling that consistently you’re in the game and you’re warm and can go out there and do it.”

In last week’s win over Florida, Benjamin was constantly in quarterback Jameis Winston’s sights. He had a career-high nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns. It was the first time a Florida State receiver topped the 200-yard mark in 11 years. It was the eighth-best single-game total in school history, and Winston had predicted it earlier in the week.

"I said, 'KB, you are an unstoppable force. If you go out there and do what you're supposed to do, no one can cover you,'" Winston recalled after the win.

None of it comes as a surprise, of course. Just look at Benjamin, and it’s always been obvious he would become a star. There simply aren’t other receivers who do what he can do.

Duke corner Ross Cockrell said the key is to challenge Benjamin at the line of scrimmage, play physical with him. But really, Cockrell is grasping at straws. Benjamin has five inches and 50 pounds on the Duke corner.

“We'll be working all week on that answer,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said of defending Benjamin. “We don't have anybody that can line up and match up physically with him. He's just a monster and with great skills.”

Benjamin has always been a monster, but after three years, Jimbo Fisher has finally convinced him to prepare as if he were a mere mortal. Now those skills are well refined, and Benjamin presents a matchup as perplexing for defenders as any in college football.

And that’s when Florida State’s own defensive backs can break character and admit, covering the monster can’t be done. They know. They’ve tried.

“Seeing him go against other guys,” Brooks said, “we sit there and laugh about it.”