Commentary

Winston in rare freshman company

Originally Published: October 25, 2013
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

There used to be an old adage in college football that you could look out on the field and count a loss for every freshman in the starting lineup.

The gridiron sage who coined it obviously never saw Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston play.

Granted, Winston is a redshirt freshman and has at least been through a spring practice (while also playing baseball), but the next time he looks like a freshman -- in any capacity -- will be the first.

Winston's brilliant performance last week in the Seminoles' 51-14 beatdown of Clemson only reinforced how talented, how poised and how remarkably beyond his years he really is.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jimbo Fisher
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJimbo Fisher has been able to unleash Jameis Winston this season, and the Seminoles are back in the national title picture.

Freshmen aren't supposed to go into a raucous environment like Death Valley and treat it like their own little playground. Winston made it look easy.

From the opening snap, he was in total control and torched the Tigers for 444 passing yards and three touchdowns, and also ran for a touchdown.

The No. 2 Seminoles are a talented bunch. Let's not kid ourselves. I had one scout tell me recently that they had the most impressive array of talent from top to bottom that he had seen this season in college football.

So while Winston's supporting cast is star-studded in its own right, he's the engine that's making this Seminoles train go right now.

"When he's confident, it's a trickle-down effect," said Cameron Erving, Florida State's junior left tackle. "Everybody else feeds off of him. He's relaxed and confident about what's going to happen out there on the field. It's like, 'Hey, you don't have to be so tense. ... Relax, but don't be too relaxed.'"

It's a rarity that a freshman as hyped as Winston lives up to the hype. He's not only lived up to it. He's exceeded it, and never mind that he was replacing a first-round draft pick, EJ Manuel, who was an opening-day starter this season for the Buffalo Bills.

It's even rarer that a freshman quarterback has his team in national championship contention this late in the season.

Again, though, nothing seems to be too big for Winston, whose feel for the game and the way he has so profoundly affected his teammates have surpassed even his gaudy statistics. He's second nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown 20 touchdown passes and only three interceptions in his first six games.

He's the first player in the past 10 seasons to pass for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of his first four conference games, and he's completing 61.8 percent of his passes thrown 20 yards or longer, which leads all quarterbacks from automatic-qualifying conferences.

Good luck in trying to rattle him, too.

Winston is completing 71.2 percent of his passes when opponents send five or more pass-rushers and is second among quarterbacks from automatic-qualifying conferences with nine touchdown passes against the blitz.

Even the Florida State defensive players marvel at the way Winston has taken the reins of this team at such a young age.

[+] EnlargeWalker
Getty ImagesAs a freshman, Herschel Walker led Georgia to a national title with a win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.

"Everyone looks up to that guy," senior cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. "We embrace that leadership. To have that belief in him, that helps us elevate the defense."

The gold standard in college football when it comes to a freshman putting a team on his back and carrying it to a national championship is Herschel Walker at Georgia in 1980.

Yes, it was a different position, but Walker ran his way into immortality that year on his way to 1,616 rushing yards, including three 200-yard-plus games in his last four regular-season contests, and then followed that up by playing through a separated shoulder and willing his way to 150 rushing yards in the Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame.

Walker is and always will be football royalty. It's unfair to compare anybody to him, and in Winston's case, he does play a different position.

But just as Walker was different, and you could sense it from the first time he stepped onto the field in 1980, Winston is also different.

It's almost as though he has been here before.

And yet, there have been just a handful of freshman quarterbacks who've guided their teams into national championship contention. The only one to go wire-to-wire from the start of the season to the finish and bring home a national championship was Miami's Bernie Kosar in 1983.

The Hurricanes won their first national title that year, and Kosar also was a redshirt freshman.

Jamelle Holieway, only a true freshman, took over for an injured Troy Aikman in the fifth game of the 1985 season and led Oklahoma to a national title.

[+] EnlargeHolieway
Allen Steele/Getty ImagesAs a true freshman, Jamelle Holieway stepped in for an injured Troy Aikman and led Oklahoma to a national championship.

There also was Michael Vick's memorable redshirt freshman season in 1999, when he guided Virginia Tech to an unbeaten regular season and a Sugar Bowl berth before the Hokies were beaten by eventual national champion Florida State.

Sam Bradford, who was a redshirt freshman in 2007, set an NCAA record for freshmen that season with 36 touchdown passes. The Sooners rode Bradford's red-hot arm to a No. 4 ranking in the BCS standings, but stumbled in a late-season loss at Texas Tech.

And while we're on the subject of freshmen making huge impacts in national championship runs, let's not forget about Ohio State's Maurice Clarett.

Despite the way Clarett's life unraveled, the Buckeyes probably don't win the 2002 title without him. He rushed for 1,237 yards and scored 18 touchdowns that season, and his strip of Miami's Sean Taylor in the BCS National Championship after Taylor had intercepted a pass in the end zone might have been the play of the game.

So we've seen freshmen come up big on the biggest of stages before in college football. And with high school programs and offenses becoming more advanced and more complex by the year, freshman sensations are only going to multiply at the quarterback position.

But the more I watch Winston, the more I'm convinced that we're watching something truly special.

Until last year, the thought of a freshman winning the Heisman Trophy seemed far-fetched.

But nothing seems far-fetched with Winston, not even a Heisman and a national championship in the same season.

• • •

The SEC's lower half makes a move

Remember that statistic we threw out last week, the one about the top six teams in the SEC (the teams nationally ranked to start the season) being 43-1 against the bottom eight teams since Missouri and Texas A&M joined the conference in 2012?

Well, five of those so-called bottom teams won last week. Missouri beat Florida. Tennessee knocked off South Carolina. Vanderbilt defeated Georgia. Ole Miss beat LSU, and Auburn upset Texas A&M.

Not only that, but Tennessee and Vanderbilt both ended long losing streaks against nationally ranked foes. Tennessee won its first over a ranked team after 19 straight defeats, while Vanderbilt ended a 14-game drought against ranked opponents.

Maybe the SEC isn't quite as strong at the top this season. Then again, maybe it's evidence that the league is as deep as it has been in several years and only reinforces what I thought and wrote back in August. The SEC may end up being its own worst enemy this season in terms of keeping alive its national championship streak. All but three teams in the league have at least two losses.

• • •

Dabo's dubious statement

I'm all for a coach going out of his way to show his players that he still believes in them after a disappointing loss. But Clemson's Dabo Swinney saying that the Tigers would probably win five times if they played 10 more games against Florida State is a bit much. He might think that, and he might tell his team that. But do you really say that publicly after getting your backsides handed to you? It's like going out and shooting 100-plus at Augusta National and saying, "If I played it 10 more times, I'd shoot under par five of those times." The bottom line: The Tigers had their shot (at home) and got declawed.

• • •

Mizzou's Michael Sam bursts onto the scene

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Zumapress/Icon SMIMissouri's defensive front has been impressive, but Michael Sam has been a terror to opposing offenses.

My vote for the breakthrough player of the year in college football is Missouri fifth-year senior defensive end Michael Sam. He was always a solid contributor and started in nine games a year ago, but he has exploded into one of the most dynamic pass-rushers in the SEC this season. He leads the league with nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. The Tigers, period, have been impressive across the defensive front this season. They've consistently been able to generate pressure with their front four and lead all AQ schools with 21 sacks and 61 pressures without having to blitz. And think about this: The Tigers lost tackle Sheldon Richardson early to the NFL draft this year. Richardson was tabbed this week by ESPN's Mel Kiper as the top rookie in the NFL to this point.

• • •

Targeting penalty likely to be targeted

Coaches are grumbling all over the country about the application of the targeting rule, but not so much that the rule is in place. A 15-yard penalty that stood last week after a targeting ejection was reversed cost Georgia the game at Vanderbilt, and that only ratcheted up the conversation. But the rule isn't going to be tweaked midseason, meaning 15-yard penalties are not going to be rescinded even if a review of the play reverses a player's ejection. You can bet, though, that the penalty yardage won't go against the team next season if the targeting penalty is reversed.

• • •

NFL's need for QBs could mean college exodus

The St. Louis Rams inquired about Brett Favre coming out of retirement this week. No, Favre hasn't suddenly discovered the fountain of youth. It's more a sign how desperate the NFL is for quarterbacks right now, which could lead to an exodus of all the top draft-eligible quarterbacks this year in college football.

• • •

[+] EnlargeDerek Carr
Marco Garcia/USA TODAY SportsFresno State's Derek Carr is on a pace similar to a couple of recent Heisman Trophy winners.

Derek Carr's eye-popping numbers

Speaking of top quarterbacks, don't sleep on Fresno State's Derek Carr. He has been responsible for 20 more touchdowns than he has turnovers through six games, which matches what Johnny Manziel and Robert Griffin III did in the first six games of their Heisman Trophy seasons. Fresno State is ranked No. 17 in the first BCS standings, the program's highest ranking and best start since 2001, when Carr's older brother, David Carr, was the Bulldogs' quarterback.

• • •

Oregon coordinator's rant doesn't make sense

You watch college football long enough, and you hear it all. But it was a first for me, hearing Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti ripping Washington State coach Mike Leach for leaving in his starters late in a 62-38 rout and continuing to throw the football. Aliotti has since apologized for his "low class" comments regarding Leach and said his adrenaline after the game got the better of him. It's an emotional game, and I'm always amazed that more coaches don't blow their tops when talking to the media right after games. But in this case, what was Leach supposed to do -- run the ball up the middle, take his whipping and then ask for another? Had to sneak in a little "Animal House" humor.

• • •

Baylor-Texas Tech game has different look

All right, be honest. Who out there circled the Nov. 16 Baylor-Texas Tech game back in August and predicted that the tussle between the current unbeatens could decide the Big 12 championship? That could very well be the case when those two meet up at Jerry World in Arlington, Texas.

Chris Low | email

College Football

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