Chat: CFB Saturday Live

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
Chat live with our writers from 9 a.m. to noon ET and then again starting at 8 p.m. ET for the prime-time games. In between, keep this page open as we bring you the latest real-time reaction, analysis, pics and video from our ESPNers scattered throughout the country.

ACC mailblog

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
Enjoy the weekend, gang.

Ramon Capra (@RCap_UM) writes: Duke Johnson, ACC's best chance of Heisman?

Matt Fortuna: Ramon, no one is taking away from Johnson's dominance Thursday night, and throughout much of the season. But you still cannot ignore Jameis Winston. Yes, having won the Heisman last year makes it all the more difficult to win it this year. Yes, his childish antics cost him a chance to face Clemson (and nearly cost his team the game, division and repeat national title shot in the process). But on the field he has been, again, superb, especially in the second half last Saturday against Notre Dame, completing 15 of 16 throws for 181 yards and a touchdown. If the Seminoles win out and make the College Football Playoff, he will remain the Heisman front-runner from the ACC.

Stephen Lackey (@Slackeys) writes: If Duke wins out and beats FSU in the ACC championship game, do they go to the playoffs?

Matt Fortuna: Stephen, Duke reminds me a lot of Minnesota, in the sense that both lost an early game convincingly, have quietly won out since and now we're all realizing, "Holy cow, do we need to start talking about these guys in the playoff discussion?" The scenario you present is a big if — at least the beating FSU part — but there are still so many unknowns for me to really lean one way or the other. You have to assume the SEC winner will get in, and that conference might even get two, especially if Georgia or someone from the East tops the West in the league title game. If Michigan State wins out, I'd imagine that the Spartans are in good shape, considering their lone loss is at Oregon. Do Pac-12 and Big 12 teams then just beat each other up and ruin each league's chances? A 12-1 Duke team with a win over FSU could possibly knock out a potential 11-1 Notre Dame team, too, as the Irish's lone loss (at Florida State) would look worse, and they'd have no win to match Duke's best win. There will be so many fascinating subplots to all of this as we hit the home stretch in the inaugural year of the playoff. Also, wins such as Miami's rout at Virginia Tech last night certainly help Duke, too, considering the Hurricanes were the only team to beat the Blue Devils.

Wayne from Tallahassee, Florida, writes: So what's your take on the play in the FSU-ND game? I think the correct call was made and applaud the officials to make the call at that point in the game. I have always hated the philosophy to swallow the whistle in the final minutes. How far do you go with that --do you allow the receiver to just tackle a defender? I guarantee they wouldn't swallow the whistle on a late hit on the quarterback. PJ should have been flagged; that is one thing we can all agree on. I didn't see him remove his helmet live, but saw it on a replay.

Fortuna: Couldn't have said it better myself, Wayne. Well done.

Lynn Turk from Valley Center writes: Oh, oh! What about this view? From this vantage point, ND was robbed. Neither Fuller nor Prosise committed any fouls. FSU the aggressor in both cases. If ND wins out, will they be 11-1** (actually won)

Fortuna: Lynn, a wide receiver cannot block a defensive back on a forward pass like that. The call was correct. Now, if you want to talk about P.J. Williams not getting flagged for taking his helmet off after the play, as Wayne from Tallahassee just mentioned, then you have a valid argument, in my mind.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Travis Rudolph sensed Notre Dame’s Matthias Farley before he even whipped his head around to turn toward the end zone. Farley had the angle until Rudolph gave him the okey-doke and high-stepped into the end zone to tie the game.

Florida State needed to match scores again in the third quarter, and this time it was Jesus Wilson who was called upon. He cut across the middle, but when he turned his head to locate the pass from Jameis Winston he saw the ball was placed well behind him with the Irish’s Max Redfield eyeing an easy interception. So Wilson contorted his body and made what he considers one of the best catches of his career. Florida State scored on the next play.

[+] EnlargeJesus Wilson
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsJesus Wilson is tied for the FSU team lead in touchdown receptions with four.
The Seminoles’ young receivers are emerging, and it is coming at the perfect time for No. 2 Florida State.

“I’m so proud of the young guys,” Winston said. You can’t be prouder than [when] a young guy just [steps] up in the clutch.”

All offseason, Florida State was peppered with questions on whether it had legitimate options in the passing game outside of receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O'Leary. The Seminoles were littered with highly ranked receivers, but all played sparingly or not at all. The three blue-chip recruits had promising talent, which doesn’t always yield promising results.

Restlessness among anxious Seminoles fans began setting in after Greene was the only receiver counted upon in Week 1. It wasn’t until the end of September against NC State when fears were assuaged.

Now seven games into the season, the receiving corps has the makings of a unit that could soon be considered one of the team’s greatest strengths, and it is due in part to Rudolph, a freshman, and Wilson, a sophomore. They’ll be counted on heavily going forward, and the passing game will be tested Thursday when the undefeated Seminoles play Louisville’s top-ranked defense.

“I’ve grown a lot,” Wilson said. “I’m more relaxed on the field. I’ve got a chemistry with Jameis.”

Both Rudolph and Wilson’s growth was stunted early in the season for different reasons. Wilson was initially charged with a felony for stealing a student’s scooter and missed the opener after he pleaded down to two misdemeanors.

Rudolph underwent offseason foot surgery and was hampered throughout camp, and FSU coach Jimbo Fisher felt that injury weighed on Rudolph mentally just as much as it did physically.

But now he’s 100 percent healthy, and his best game of his young career was against Notre Dame when he caught six passes for 80 yards and a touchdown.

“He has the ability to stick his foot in the ground and run full speed and run the whole route tree, and he’s very strong,” Fisher said. “He’s also explosive as a runner. He’s got route-running skills and the guys with [speed] don’t always have route-running skills and he’s got a combination of both.”

Talking with media members after he caught 11 passes for 203 yards, Greene was frustrated. He felt the passing game needed to be ironed out, and it began with finding a few complements at receiver. The steady progress from the rest of the receiving corps has been clear to see, but Fisher said he still saw Notre Dame bracketing defenders around Greene and O’Leary.

“You can call [plays] all you want and design [but] people will take things away, so when you go back to your outlets, those guys have to perform,” Fisher said. “And that’s why I’m so happy. [Wilson] and [Rudolph] are doing a great job right now.”
Syracuse coach Scott Shafer has never been the type of guy to hold back. He says how he feels, and, sometimes emotions get the best of him.

We’ve all been there.

But our emotional outbursts are rarely, if ever, caught on camera.

Shafer is a head coach, so the cameras find their way to him -- in the best of times, and the worst of times. So it has come to be that the most famous moment of his head coaching career revolves around an emotional outburst that has not been easily forgotten.

After all, it is not often you see one coach curse another from across a football field. But that is what Shafer did last year when Clemson came to the Carrier Dome, hurling expletives when Dabo Swinney elected to go for it on fourth down, up 35-7.

The two teams play again Saturday in Death Valley, bringing the spotlight back to a moment Shafer would love to forget.

Shafer has apologized profusely, and even told reporters in Greensboro, North Carolina during media day in July that his daughter made him take a picture with the Swinneys as proof they were on good terms.


Swinney jokes about it now, telling reporters in Clemson on Tuesday, “People made a big deal out of that because it was caught on TV. There's a lot of people in the stands doing the same thing to me every week. They just don't get caught on TV. Just kind of a heat of the moment type of deal. We've had some good laughs about it.”

Indeed, Shafer said this week, “I didn't do a good job of controlling my emotions in that. I've got all the respect in the world for Dabo ... I just look forward to coming down to Death Valley and really experiencing that venue. ... All that's water over the dam, I guess you would say.”

What really gave the story broader reach was its nearly instantaneous appearance on social media. A video clip started circulating, and within minutes, details of the game became irrelevant. Some players missed what happened in real time, finding out later when they checked Twitter.

Linebacker Cam Lynch says his teammates missed the outburst. “After the game, I saw a Twitter meme, but I didn’t see it in the game.”

Shafer also took some heat last January on social media, when he responded to a snow-covered Atlanta jammed with gridlock as “soft-nosed.”

For those rare outbursts that have gotten him into trouble, there are also the more frequent moments when he speaks his mind and nobody notices -- when maybe they should. Go back to his introductory press conference in January 2013, and you get the first glimpse of who Shafer is, and who Shafer will forever be.

That sideline burst last year taught him a lesson, but it won't change Shafer. Nobody would want that, anyway.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 9

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
Miami silenced Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium fairly early Thursday night. Will we find more drama in the rest of the Week 9 slate?


North Carolina at Virginia, ESPN3, #UNCvsUVA: Marquise Williams is coming off consecutive career outings. Virginia is looking to get back on the winning track after losing to reigning Coastal division champion Duke last week. Can its defense make another big stand and make life difficult for the red-hot UNC offense? Or have the Heels found their second-half groove after a poor start, much like they did last year?

3:30 p.m.

Boston College at Wake Forest, ESPN3, #BCvsWAKE: John Wolford is good to go for Wake after leaving last week's 30-7 home loss to Syracuse. He'll face a BC team that gave Clemson all it could handle last week before falling just short. Still, the 4-3 Eagles are on the brink of back-to-back bowl games under Steve Addazio in his first two years, and their rushing game (No. 9 nationally) should be a handful for a Demon Deacons defense that has been stout this season.

Georgia Tech at Pitt, ESPNU, #GTvsPITT: Is it panic time in Atlanta? A 5-0 start has been met with consecutive losses, including a 48-43 defeat last week at North Carolina in which the defense simply could not make a stop late. Pitt hopes it turned the corner last Thursday in its win over Virginia Tech, but it needs more diversity on the offensive side of the ball, which has been too reliant on James Conner and Tyler Boyd. Its defense does not have Aaron Donald and his dominant performance last year against the Yellow Jackets, but it has been playing well so far this season, ranking 14th nationally in scoring average (18.6).

7 p.m.

Syracuse at No. 21 Clemson, ESPNU, #CUSEvsCLEM: Scott Shafer and Dabo Swinney have made up after last year's Tigers rout in the Carrier Dome. Both teams are in their second straight week with their current signal-caller, as freshman AJ Long led the Orange past Wake Forest in their first career start and Cole Stoudt returned as Clemson's starter in its win at BC. Will the Orange's offensive line give Long a chance against the Tigers' stout front? This game ends a brutal stretch for the Orange, who faced Notre Dame, Louisville and Florida State before Wake last week.
Here are five things I learned in college football this week:

1. Last season, we all wondered how in the world Stanford was good enough to defeat six ranked opponents during the regular season, but couldn’t beat Utah on the road.

The Utes, who finished 5-7 in 2013, upset the Cardinal 27-21 in Salt Lake City, an ugly loss that might have prevented Stanford from being selected for a four-team playoff if it had been around a year earlier.

After watching Virginia Tech lose to Miami 30-6 at home Thursday night, the Hokies’ stunning 35-21 upset of then-No. 8 Ohio State on the road Sept. 6 looks like the biggest head-scratching result of 2014.

Since upsetting the Buckeyes, the Hokies have dropped four of their past six games and have looked terrible on offense. Miami outgained the Hokies 255-36 in the first half to build a 24-0 lead, and then forced them to fumble on their first three possessions of the second half.

Virginia Tech’s 250-game streak of scoring even seemed to be very much in doubt, until backup quarterback Mark Leal threw a 14-yard touchdown to Isaiah Ford with 1:30 to go.

Sure, the Buckeyes have looked much better since losing to Virginia Tech, scoring more than 50 points in four straight victories. But OSU had better hope the College Football Playoff selection committee wasn’t paying attention to the Hokies on Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesBarring a quick turnaround to the Gators' season, the Will Muschamp era in Gainesville appears to be drawing to a close.
2. Unless Florida can run the table the rest of the season, which would include upsets of No. 9 Georgia in Jacksonville, Florida, on Nov. 1 and No. 2 Florida State on the road on Nov. 29, the Will Muschamp era will probably come to an end after four seasons.

The early list of candidates being mentioned for the not-yet-open UF job include Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen, Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze, Arizona’s Rich Rodriguez and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops.

Florida has contacted Stoops about its openings in the past, but he has always been reluctant to leave the Sooners. Mullen, who was Florida’s offensive coordinator under former coach Urban Meyer, seems like an obvious choice. But Mullen and UF athletics director Jeremy Foley didn’t always see eye-to-eye during their previous working relationship, so those past differences would have to be worked out.

I don’t think Foley, one of the most respected ADs in the country, can afford to make another mistake. With Muschamp’s tenure seemingly headed to a disappointing end, Foley is batting 1-for-3 in football coaching hires since legendary coach Steve Spurrier left. Foley struck out on former UF coach Ron Zook and hit a home run with Meyer. He can't be wrong again.

3. Here’s a great stat from ESPN Stats & Info, which says a lot about the current state of affairs in Michigan: According to Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, Michigan State is a 17-point favorite against Michigan this weekend. According to historical lines data from The Gold Sheet going back to 1957, it is the highest betting line in the rivalry in the past 57 years. Before this week’s game, the most points Michigan State was favored by in the rivalry was 13 in 1966 (MSU won 20-7).

4. Given Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel’s play the past two seasons, it’s hard to believe that he was actually the last quarterback to defeat Florida State. Driskel led the Gators to a 37-26 victory over the Seminoles on the road on Nov. 24, 2012, completing 15 of 23 passes for 147 yards with one touchdown. The Seminoles were undone by five turnovers in that loss, including three interceptions thrown by former quarterback EJ Manuel.

Since that loss, the Seminoles have won 22 games in a row. Meanwhile, the Gators have dropped 11 of their past 18 games.

5. More than a few athletic directors around the country had to cringe when Texas AD Steve Patterson suggested earlier this week that the Longhorns were budgeting $6 million annually to pay student-athletes $10,000 in cost-of-attendance and likeness stipends per year.

Patterson said the Longhorns are prepared to pay each of their student-athletes $5,000 for full cost of attendance (which would cover educational expenses that a full scholarship doesn’t currently pay) and $5,000 in compensation for the university’s use of the player’s name, image and likeness.

Patterson said Texas is prepared to provide the stipends if the NCAA doesn’t win its appeals of its current legal battles concerning student-athlete compensation.

The bottom line: Paying an additional $6 million to student-athletes is a drop in the bucket for an athletic department such as Texas. In fact, it’s only 3.6 percent of the Longhorns’ annual operating budget for athletics. But for smaller (and poorer) FBS programs such as Iowa State, Purdue, Wake Forest and Washington State, the additional costs will be significant.

ACC's top recruiting visits 

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
This weekend has the look of a slow one on the recruiting trail. While there could certainly be news and visits pop up late, this looks to be a big weekend for Clemson in the 2016 class. Looking ahead, the struggling Virginia Tech Hokies are set to host a number of key targets in two weeks.

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Earlier in the week, Willie Byrn said he expected an air of desperation between his Virginia Tech team and Miami in Lane Stadium on Thursday night.

One team played with desperation.

The other looked desperate for answers.

With each team needing a win to stay alive in the Coastal Division, Miami dominated from start to finish, playing its most complete game of the season in a decisive 30-6 win. Duke Johnson was unstoppable, running for a career-high 249 yards as Miami racked up 364 yards rushing -- the most ever given up by a Frank Beamer-coached team.

The defense, meanwhile, played with an unmistakable edge, holding Virginia Tech scoreless until the final 1:30. It added up to the first road win of the season for the Canes, and it came at the best time imaginable.

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
AP Photo/Steve HelberDuke Johnson led Miami with a career-high 249 yards and a touchdown.
Miami has renewed Coastal title hopes -- with North Carolina coming to town next week. At 2-2 in ACC play, they remain one loss behind Duke, Pitt and Virginia. Miami owns the head-to-head win over Duke, with games against Pitt and UVa coming up in November.

"No one wants to go on the road and lose. No one wants to take a plane ride somewhere and not come back with a W," Miami offensive lineman Shane McDermott said. "We take pride in that. This is an ACC Coastal game and we wanted to execute. We needed to execute to keep alive in the Coastal. We came out and did that."

For Virginia Tech, it looked about as hopeless as it has over the last three uncharacteristically weak seasons. That might seem like a harsh assessment, but this team has regressed after showing some early glimmers at Ohio State. Indeed, that victory in September continues to confound many. How could Virginia Tech look so good in that game, but so bad in its four losses?

After falling behind 24-0, three third-quarter fumbles sealed their fate against Miami. Now, the Hokies are staring at a 1-3 deficit in ACC play, strange and uncharted territory for a program that has made its name as the Coastal flag bearer.

As bad as it has been for Virginia Tech, the Hokies have never before been 1-3 in conference play, calling into question not only why this team has failed to progress, but how much progress can definitively be made as long as Beamer is in charge.

Yes, there are some terrific young players. But Miami also has terrific young players who have gotten better each week. Take the quarterbacks, for example. Miami freshman Brad Kaaya looks nothing like the player that started the opener against Louisville. Three times in the last four games, he has not thrown an interception and is finding ways to make plays.

While he was not asked to do much against the Hokies, Kaaya made some good throws and did not get the Canes into any trouble. Michael Brewer, a transfer from Texas Tech, does not have nearly the same type of command. Perhaps it is because Kaaya has a much better supporting cast. But there is no denying Kaaya has made improvement. Brewer does not give Virginia Tech an edge at the position.

"It wasn't a pretty picture all night, but I saw some things we can certainly build on," Beamer said afterward, trying to put an optimistic spin on the night. "We are going to be a better football team. We have a lot of good players on this team. I look forward to the future because I think we are going to be pretty good."

While that might be true, the reality is Miami ran circles around Virginia Tech in every imaginable way -- and Beamer is being judged not on potential in 2015 but what he has in front of him now. The Miami coaching was better; the play calling was better; the game plan was better; the talent was better.

Miami's problem this season has been an inability to put everything together in one game. Finally, the Canes got the best out of their offense and defense. Maybe that was due to the Hokies, not exactly a juggernaut this season. But after weeks of criticism and questions, Miami and its coaches deserve some credit.

They got the most out of their players in a place that has vexed the program since 2005. What awaits next is tougher: sustaining that edge, effort, drive and intensity for the final four games.

"We're getting better," coach Al Golden said. "We had really good practices leading up to this game, good attitude, everybody concentrating on what they need to concentrate on and block everything out. We've got a long way to go. But I think the guys have made a commitment to get better each week and each day and are staying positive."

ACC morning links

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
Clemson and Texas A&M announced late Thursday that the Tigers would replace Oregon on the Aggies' schedule in 2018 and 2019.

How about a round of applause for Clemson, everyone?

Seriously, look at the Tigers' future nonconference schedules. In addition to the Aggies, they get Auburn in 2016 and 2017. They get rival South Carolina every year. They get Notre Dame in 2015, 2020, 2022 and 2023. (Yes, those games with the Irish are not entirely their doing, but rather part of the ACC's agreement with Notre Dame.)

Still. This is a program that faced Georgia this year and last year. It faced Auburn in the three years before that.

We know all about how the College Football Playoff has forced others to schedule tougher. Having an athletic director on the selection committee in Dan Radakovich only drives home that point for Clemson. Can others step up to the plate now, too?

Here are the rest of your Friday links:

Miami welcomes aboard Carter Hucks

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
videoCarter Hucks was on the sideline Thursday night in Lane Stadium for Miami's game at Virginia Tech. The Make-A-Wish child was wearing a beanie and, of course, an orange No. 8 jersey, for his favorite player, running back Duke Johnson.

The third-grader, who is fighting a life-threatening disease, was the Hurricanes' special guest at an Oct. 8 practice, spending some time around the program before its Oct. 11 home game against Cincinnati. He wore the pads, helmet and jersey that the rest of the players did. He had his own locker. The band and cheerleaders welcomed him to practice, which he entered through a smoke-filled entrance. He was carried off the field, and he was carried on the field Thursday before the Canes' game against the Hokies.
Johnson, his favorite player, impressed, rushing for 249 yards and a touchdown in Miami's 30-6 win.

Kudos to Miami for making Carter's dream come true. If he has his way, it may not be the last the program sees of him.

"I was making a joke that hopefully by the time this whole procedure is over the next time he's in Coach Golden's office he's here to commit to playing his next four, five years at the University of Miami," his father, Derrick, told a local TV station, per Yahoo.

Check out Carter's day with Canes below.

Enthusiastic ref strikes again!

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
Do you remember Ron Cherry? He's the ACC referee who gained quite a bit of Internet fame back in 2007 when he penalized an NC State player because he was "giving him the business."

That's exactly how Cherry phrased it to the audience. It happened, it was glorious, and it is on the Web for the world to see until the end of time.

Luckily, Cherry is still officiating ACC games and is still as charming as ever. Check out his moves as he was confirming a call amid boos at Thursday night's Miami-Virginia Tech game.

Syracuse University's men's basketball and football programs are under NCAA investigation for allegations, including providing extra benefits and academic issues, that date back at least 10 years, a source told ESPN's Brett McMurphy.

Syracuse will go before the NCAA's Committee on Infractions in Indianapolis on Oct. 30-31, sources said.

The majority of the allegations -- and the most serious -- involve the men's basketball program. Among the allegations facing the men's basketball team are receiving extra benefits and academic issues, a source said. Those allegations go back about 10 years and are as current as the 2013 season, a source said.

"There were things going on consistently (with the men's basketball program) for a long time," a source said.

Jim Boeheim has been Syracuse's head basketball coach since 1976.

The football team is also facing allegations involving extra benefits, but only for a two-or-three-year stretch around 2004 or 2005, a source said. From 1991-2004, Paul Pasqualoni was Syracuse's football coach, followed by Greg Robinson from 2005-08. Pasqualoni is now a defensive line coach with the Chicago Bears, while Robinson is defensive coordinator at San Jose State.

To read the rest of Brett McMurphy's report click here.

Clemson, Texas A&M set home-and-home

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
Texas A&M has replaced Oregon with Clemson as a high-profile home-and-home opponent for the 2018 and 2019 seasons, the schools announced Thursday night.

The Aggies will host the Tigers on Sept. 8, 2018, before traveling to Death Valley on Sept. 7, 2019.

"We are excited to play the Clemson Tigers, who have been on Texas A&M's non-conference schedule previously," Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman said in a statement. "As a fellow land-grant institution, Clemson is very similar to Texas A&M with a great football tradition and passionate fans. This will be a great non-conference series for both schools."

The Aggies hold the all-time series lead 3-1, with the Tigers winning the most recent meeting 25-24 in 2005.

Click here to read the full story.

By the numbers: Is Florida State dominant enough to repeat?

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
Florida State is 7-0, but you might not know it from the national pessimism surrounding the team. With three close games (against three teams currently ranked in the top 26 in the nation, mind you), the prevailing wisdom seems to be that the Seminoles are struggling to get by, and it’s just a matter of time before they’re felled.

In fairness, that’s partially true. The FSU secondary blew the coverage on what could’ve been a game-winning touchdown for Notre Dame, and if a flag hadn’t been thrown in the process, the Seminoles would be in a tough position in the chase for a playoff spot.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston, Jesus Wilson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesFlorida State hasn't been as dominant as they were last season when they won the national title.
Part is probably an exaggeration. The close game against Clemson came without Jameis Winston. The comeback win over NC State was actually a 49-17 FSU advantage after the first quarter. The narrow margin against Oklahoma State was a mix of first-game jitters and a failure to put the Cowboys away, rather than any real threat that the Noles might lose that game.

But narrative is important when discussing a subjective playoff system, so it remains a talking point for Florida State. The question is, does a less-than-dominant season necessarily preclude a team from winning a national title?

We figured the best way to determine that was to look back at history — specifically the past 10 national champions — to figure out what level of dominance was most characteristic of a championship team.

First off, it’s worth noting that of the last 10 national champs, half had a loss -- LSU had two of them in 2007 -- so simply being undefeated at this stage of the game is a check mark in FSU’s column. But we’re talking about dominance, so let’s look at margin of victory, too, since that seems to be the biggest evidence against the Seminoles.

Last year’s FSU team set a new standard in that department. Florida State won all its games by an average of 39.5 points. That’s the high-water mark for champs, but it’s not exactly a outlier.

Of the past 10 national champs, seven had an average point differential of 20 points or more. All 10 had at least a two-touchdown advantage over their competition, on average. Great teams win games by solid margins.

Still, Florida State’s margin this season is 16 points per game, which ranks just 19th nationally, but would equal that of the 2006 Florida Gators or the 2010 Auburn Tigers -- both national champs.

So perhaps it’s not the average, but the specific examples. FSU has three games this season decided by seven points or fewer. Is that a lot?

Last year, of course, FSU didn’t have a single game decided by less than 14 until the national championship. The 2005 Texas Longhorns, 2008 Gators and the 2011 Alabama team each had just one game decided by one score en route to their national title appearance, while the 2009 Tide had just two.

That might lead us to believe that Florida State’s lack of dominance does foreshadow a fall somewhere along the line, but that’s not necessarily true either. Two national champs -- ’06 Florida and ’10 Auburn -- had six games decided by a touchdown or less. FSU is still at just half that total, and while the Seminoles have a few tough games remaining (Louisville, Miami, an ACC title game) they’ll likely be favored to win each by more than eight points.

Ah, but there’s that word that also seems to sum up the FSU narrative this year: favored.

Point spreads are largely a function of expectations. Las Vegas adjusts them to even out betting, so the more the public thinks a team will win by, the higher the spread goes. And when we get into those expectations, Florida State falls well short. The Noles are a woeful 1-6 against the spread this year -- tied for the second-worst mark in the nation.

That’s pretty uncommon for a national champion. The ATS record for last 10 title winners leading up to the national championship game was 78-46-1 (a .628 winning percentage). Of those 10 teams, just three had a losing record against the spread. In other words, national champs don’t just meet expectations -- they exceed them. That certainly hasn’t been true of Florida State this season.

But there’s another factor to consider there. Current expectations are largely set by past performance, and FSU’s 2013 season set some awfully high expectations. Not surprisingly, one of the champs with a losing ATS record was 2012 Alabama -- a team coming off a national championship, too. Expectations were set high from the previous year, and the Tide struggled to meet them routinely. In fact, if we look at the follow-up seasons for the last 10 national champs, they’re just 55-59-1 against the spread (a .483 mark) and just three had winning records versus the spread. In other words, it’s really hard to follow up greatness with more greatness.

So what does all this mean for Florida State? Probably not much other than what we all already know: Nothing the Seminoles have done thus far eliminates them as a legitimate title contender, but they’re definitely not as good as they were a year ago.

That’s not a bad position to be in, but FSU would still be wise to keep those wins coming. The margin of error -- both in terms of narrative and numbers -- is small.
When you think Bobby Petrino, you immediately think offense.

But that has not been the case for Louisville this season, and that could be a good thing for the Cards as they prepare to host No. 2 Florida State next Thursday night.

Defense has to take priority in this matchup.

Defense is exactly how the Cards have won this season.

Time to embrace that defensive mentality, Louisville fans.

[+] EnlargeGerod Holliman
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsGerod Holliman and the Louisville secondary will face a strong Florida State offense.
Louisville ranks No. 1 in the nation in total defense, but that is not a stat that gets defensive coordinator Todd Grantham going.

What has him most encouraged is the way his defense has limited scoring opportunities. That has jumped out at Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, too. When asked for his first impressions on the Louisville defense, Fisher said, "Not many people get points and not many people get yards."

In the six ACC games Louisville has played, the Cards have held all their opponents to below their scoring average. In all but one game, they have held their opponents below their total offense average.

They are aggressive, they are stingy, and they can easily set the tone against a Florida State offense that has struggled to move the ball at times throughout the course of the season.

"Any time you're in big games, you’ve got to be able to play a balanced game, offensively and defensively, but at the same time, anytime you can be sound on defense and hard to score on, it gives your offense a chance to stay on track and not have to abandon the game plan," Grantham said in a phone interview this week.

"So as long as the score’s in a low number and it’s a one-possession game, then everybody can stay with the game plan. The issue that always occurs is when you get down multiple points and people have to abandon what they do. So our job is to be hard to score on and keep that number to a low number."

Florida State has not faced a scoring defense quite as good as this one. While Clemson and Notre Dame might have presented the strongest challenge to the Seminoles up front, Louisville has the stronger secondary, a group that has thrived playing a pattern-match scheme that is predicated on defensive backs truly understanding receiver routes.

The Cards also stress having players win one-on-one matchups not only in the secondary but in the front seven as well. They have been able to do so a majority of the time this season. As an example, Louisville has safeties Gerod Holliman and James Sample, along with cornerback Charles Gaines -- in the top 11 in the ACC in passes defended. That’s more than any other team.

Louisville also has three players ranked in the top 11 in the ACC in sacks -- Lorenzo Mauldin, Sheldon Rankins and Keith Kelsey. That’s tied for the most with Virginia.

"I felt we had individuals who could be really good at their positions, so we talk about that as winning your one-on-one matchups," Grantham said. "As you go through the day and you work, try to be the best at your position and if you’re the best at your position, and we can get you in one-on-one situations, you’re going to affect the game, which is good for our team. We’ve been able to get some matchups that are positive for us and those guys have made some plays."

Controlling what happens in the pass game could be critical for Louisville, considering how big a threat Jameis Winston is to take over at any moment. If the Cards can take away options like Rashad Greene and Bobo Wilson, their chances improve greatly.

No team has held Florida State to fewer than 30 points with Winston as the starter; nobody has scored 30 on Louisville this season.

It is obvious that Louisville will have to hold the score down to win. At least the Cards have practice doing that.

Cannot ask much more than that headed into the biggest challenge of the season.