Florida State Seminoles: ACC
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.
"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.
So head on over to Campus Connection at 7:45 ET and follow the action along with several of our on-site reporters, including Ted Miller (Pac-12), Andrea Adelson (ACC), David Hale (ACC), Brian Bennett (Big Ten) and Adam Rittenberg (Big Ten). Post your comments and questions and we’ll include as many of them as possible.
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.
We start with a difference of opinion on who should play in the BCS national title game.
Hans in Winter Haven, Fla., writes: Notre Dame went undefeated with a lame schedule last year and this year we have Ohio State with the 53rd rated schedule toughness and FSU with 70th in schedule toughness but now 42nd with Duke on schedule. How many undefeated teams in the NFL won the Super Bowl? In other words when are reporters actually going to talk about what if Auburn played FSU's schedule or maybe Alabama playing Ohio State's schedule then who would be undefeated at the end of the year? An undefeated team playing lesser opponents and getting into final two is a joke. Thank goodness for some sort of playoffs next year because Alabama or Auburn would kill FSU and beat overrated OSU. Complete bias and horrible voting. The two best teams are Auburn and Alabama with Missouri not far behind.
Andrea Adelson writes: Where should I begin? First, college football is not the NFL so there is no need to even compare or talk about the records of teams in the Super Bowl. They have a playoff. College football does not yet. Second, what purpose would it serve to imagine Alabama hypothetically playing another conference's schedule and vice versa? These teams cannot up and flip conferences. Florida State and Ohio State must play the schedules laid out in front of them. It is an impossibility to switch them into the SEC just to see how it would play out. Also, we are talking about two legitimate conferences here, not the Sun Belt and the MAC. I am completely dumbfounded as to why only an unbeaten run in the SEC should be celebrated in college football. What makes you believe Auburn, with two fluke wins and several others that came down to the final possession, would beat Florida State? Because they are in a superior conference? That is hogwash. It should matter when you WIN all your games. Auburn should not get a mulligan for losing by two touchdowns to a three-loss team that almost lost to Arkansas (winless in SEC play).
Adam in Nashville, Tenn., writes: "Winning all your games in a power conference should be good enough for a shot at a national championship."Tell that to the '04 Auburn team.
Adelson writes: I felt bad for Auburn that year. But guess what? Two undefeated teams made it in ahead of the Tigers. This year, a one-loss Auburn team is asking to move ahead of an unbeaten squad. Not the same.
Greg in Newark, Ohio, writes: Thank you for putting together a well thought out article that gives a viewpoint of why FSU and OSU should get the chance to play for the NC provided they win.
Adelson writes: Thanks, Greg. I will reiterate: going unbeaten matters.
Jason in Atlanta writes: Am I correct in assuming that bowls must select 7-5 teams over 6-6 teams? So my Jackets (and BC and Maryland) are safe, right?Thanks!
Ryan in Clemson writes: Hey Andrea, I saw that you had Miami in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, however I thought there was a rule that would force them to pick Duke. The "Boston College" rule or something like that. I'm probably just remembering the rule wrong, but I was wondering if you could explain it? Thanks and have a great day!
Adelson writes: Let me answer Jason and Ryan at the same time. There is only one rule requirement in the bowl selection process: the one-win rule. Using the conference records of each team, if a bowl passes on a team with the best available league record, it can only choose another team within one conference win. So for example, if a bowl passes on a team that went 5-3 in league play, it could only choose another team that went 4-4. In the case of the Chick-Fil-A Bowl, Miami would be an eligible candidate. We kept the Hurricanes there based on a better potential national matchup vs. the SEC. Either Clemson, Miami or Duke will play in that game, depending on what happens with the Discover Orange Bowl.
Adam Kessler in Charlotte, N.C., writes: Thank you for your incredible profile of Coach Grobe. I was at Wake during probably the best 4 years of sports imaginable (2004 - 2008), and Coach Grobe was an absolute standout. I am so glad you were able to share his Wake Forest legacy with the rest of the country with your wonderful article. In a time filled with coaching scandals, recruiting violations, and testy media relationships, Coach Grobe always did things the right way. I think our fan base agrees with his decision to step down, and while we're sad he's leaving, we're excited to have (hopefully) some new life in our football program. Thanks again!
Adelson: I know I speak for Heather when I say we are going to miss talking to Coach Grobe dearly. One of the nicest coaches I have ever had the privilege of knowing.
Vern in Atlanta writes: Andrea: I just saw the "All-ACC" team. All I can say is WOW. The No. 1 scoring defense and No. 1 pass defense (FSU) has only ONE player listed on the "first team" (Lamarcus Joyner). Moreover, the placekicker from FSU has only missed one kick -- all year -- and he's second-team" Who selects the "all-ACC" team - a Florida Gator cheerleader???
Adelson: Very funny, Vern. The team you referenced was selected by 65 voting members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association. I do not have a vote and neither does Heather. I understand why Florida State fans were upset, but there are other players in this league who had outstanding seasons. I only had issues at two spots: I would have had Telvin Smith and Christian Jones in at linebacker. Timmy Jernigan could have made it in over Nikita Whitlock at defensive tackle. You can also make the case for Roberto Aguayo at kicker, but Nate Freese made all 18 of his attempts, including two 50-yarders. Aguayo obviously got many more opportunities to score points because he was on a far better offensive team. I did not think that choice was as egregious, even though Aguayo is the Groza finalist over Freese. Let us also remember Florida State had 17 total selections to lead everyone. The coaches will come out with their own team next Wednesday, so we can compare then.
Two ACC schools lead the way for Florida commitment Dalvin Cook. And more prospects begin to set up their official visits as national signing day nears for the Class of 2014.
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Freeman has set career highs in rushing yards (852), touchdowns (13) and yards from scrimmage (1,087) this season, despite averaging just 13 touches per game.
Q: Has it dawned on you yet that you might be just one game away from playing for a national title?
A: It’s scary. It hasn’t hit me yet, to be honest. It hasn’t even hit me yet that we’re No. 1. I don’t know if that’s natural or what, but it hasn’t hit me yet. It seems insane, but it’s kind of natural, too. We’re kind of used to the great success we’re having. Now that we’re No. 1, we know we’re supposed to be No. 1. I just feel like it hasn’t changed anything. Or maybe it hasn’t hit me yet. I don’t know which one it is.
Q: Florida State’s offense has a chance to have three receivers top 1,000 yards, and you’re on pace to reach that, too. Is that a source of pride?
A: I think that’s good, something to be accomplished here at Florida State. But I haven’t paid attention to it too much. But I think it’s a great thing if we accomplish that.
Q: Is it indicative of how everyone on the offense seems to get their share of touches?
A: Jimbo does a great job spreading the ball a lot. And we’re so hungry, we make plays. Any time we get the ball, we know we might not get it again until three series later, so we try to take advantage of the opportunities we get. We’re getting good YAC yards and things like that.
Q: You’re having a career year. James Wilder Jr. has been running well since returning from a concussion. Karlos Williams has had a full season to get used to playing tailback. Is this the best your position group has looked all season?
A: I think there’s still work out there. But I think as a unit, we’re getting better and better every day. I wouldn’t say we’re at our best, but I feel like we’re increasing.
Q: People don’t seem to be giving Duke much chance to win this game. Does it worry you when everyone is overlooking the team you’re about to play?
A: To me, those are the teams that are most dangerous. I remember in high school, I was in a similar situation. We were playing Miramar, and we weren’t worried about them. They shocked us. They beat us the game before state. So those are the teams you can’t take for granted. You have to prepare well for them, because they’ll bring their ‘A’ game.
Q: What stands out to you about Duke’s defense?
A: They’re going to be everywhere they need to be. They won’t have too many missed assignments. They have a lot of guys who do the right thing every time.
Q: Can teams like that be more of a challenge than ones that are very athletic, but not completely disciplined?
A: I think it’s going to challenge us to just be consistent. Be more consistent than them because we know they’ll be everywhere they’re supposed to be. And that will challenge us.
- Yahoo! Sports' Pat Forde has plenty of fan reaction to Thursday's Jameis Winston news. Dan Wetzel says that Willie Meggs' clumsy attempt at humor undermined the gravity of the situation.
- USA Today's Dan Wolken says that Winston and the Florida State community quickly got back to football following Thursday's announcement.
- Here is a rundown of Andre Williams' ESPN car-wash Thursday.
- Clemson's juniors can soon check out their draft stock, Aaron Brenner writes in the (Charleston) Post & Courier.
- Justin Breen has a great profile of Duke guard Laken Tomlinson, who moved from Jamaica to Chicago when he was 10.
- The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph's Bill Shanks says that Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech program has stagnated.
- Maryland has put together a rather hilarious video about its future bowl experience.
- Miami quarterback Stephen Morris has accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, Christy Cabrera Chirinos writes in the (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel.
- NC State running back Shadrach Thornton is suspended from the team indefinitely after being named a suspect in a sexual battery case, Joe Giglio and Andrew Kenney write in the (Raleigh) News & Observer.
- Here is a funny Q&A that Paul Chryst took part in with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
- The (Syracuse) Post-Standard's Nate Mink looks at some of the Orange's potential bowl destinations.
- The (Newport News) Daily Press' David Teel wonders if Virginia Tech's defense was slighted in the all-ACC voting.
- The (Raleigh) News & Observer issued an editorial Thursday on how much Wake Forest will miss Jim Grobe.
- Duke has clinched its first 10-win season, is on an eight-game winning streak for the first time, has been ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 1994, has two wins against ranked teams for the first time since 1989 and will be playing in consecutive bowl games for the first time.
- Duke has outscored opponents by an FBS-high 76 points in the fourth quarter.
- The Blue Devils' plus-nine turnover margin in the fourth quarter is also the nation's best.
- Duke has gone for it 13 times on fourth-and-1 this season, tied for the most in FBS. The Blue Devils have converted 10 first downs on those 13 plays.
- Jamison Crowder has 587 yards after the catch, second-most in the ACC behind Sammy Watkins (837). Crowder has 21 receptions in which he gained at least 10 yards after the catch.
- Crowder has been targeted 142 times this season, 25 more than any other ACC player. He has caught an ACC-high 34 screen passes and has averaged 6 yards per catch on screens.
- Florida State has 13 ACC titles (11 outright, two shared), one shy of the record held by Clemson. The Seminoles will be playing in their second straight ACC title game after beating Georgia Tech last year.
- Duke is looking for its first conference championship since it shared the ACC title in 1989 with Virginia, and it is going for its first outright title since winning the ACC in 1962. The Blue Devils are playing in their first ACC title game.
- Florida State has a decided advantage in the series, winning all 18 meetings against Duke by an average of 34 points per game.
- Florida State is 12-0 for the first time since it won the BCS national championship during the 1999 season. The Seminoles have won all 12 games by at least 14 points and their average margin of victory (plus-42.7) is on pace to be the highest since Army set the record in 1944 (plus-52.1). They would become the first team to win all of their games by at least 14 points since Urban Meyer’s 2004 Utah Utes. Their average in-game win probability is 84 percent, the highest for any team in the last 10 seasons. (Average in-game win probability is a team’s chance of winning across all of its plays.)
- Jameis Winston leads the FBS with a 91.9 opponent-adjusted QBR. The leader in opponent-adjusted QBR in three of the last six seasons went on to win the Heisman Trophy, including Johnny Manziel last season. Winston had an opponent-adjusted QBR of 90 or higher in eight games. In the last 10 seasons, only Russell Wilson (9) in 2011, Andrew Luck (9) in 2010 and Sam Bradford (9) in 2008 have had more such games in a season.
- With Winston under center, the Seminoles have scored more than 35 points in all 12 games, the longest active streak in the nation and tied for the third-longest streak in FBS history. Winston has already set ACC freshman records for both passing yards and passing touchdowns. Winston has 35 passing touchdowns this season, the most in the ACC and third-most in the FBS. He throws a touchdown every 9.1 attempts, best in the nation.
- Winston averages 11 yards per attempt, second-best in the FBS behind Baylor’s Bryce Petty. He has 62 completions that gained 20 yards or more, fourth-most in the nation. He had eight of those completions against Florida last Saturday, the most allowed by the Gators since 2007, when they gave up eight to Florida Atlantic.
- Winston has completed 68.8 percent of his passes this season, ninth-best in the nation. He is the only player since 2000 to complete at least 90 percent of his passes in two games in the same season (minimum 15 attempts). Winston did it against Pittsburgh (25 of 27) and Syracuse (19 of 21).
- On third down, Winston leads all FBS quarterbacks with at least 60 attempts in completion percentage (71.0), yards per attempt (11.5) and Total QBR (99.3). Winston has converted a first down on an FBS-high 61 percent of his passing plays (pass attempts plus sacks) on third down. No player in the last 10 seasons has finished a season with a higher third-down conversion percentage on passing plays.
- On plays in which he is pressured (knockdown or hurried), Winston completes an AQ-high 65.9 percent of his passes and is averaging 12.2 yards per attempt. The AQ average for a quarterback when pressured is 35 percent and 4.8 yards per attempt. When opponents send five or more pass rushers, Winston leads all AQ players in completion percentage (70.3), touchdowns (19) and yards per attempt (12.4).
- Winston completes an AQ-high 59 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or longer this season. On such passes, he has 17 touchdowns, second-most among AQ quarterbacks behind Baylor’s Petty (20).
- Florida State averages 8.2 yards per play with Winston under center, the highest for any AQ quarterback who has taken at least 100 snaps. The Seminoles have scored a touchdown on 57 percent of Winston's drives. The FBS average is 27 percent.
- Florida State’s strength of schedule ranks 68th in the FBS. According to ESPN’s adjusted win percentage, it is more difficult to go 10-2 against either Stanford or Arizona State’s schedule than it is to go 12-0 against the Seminoles' schedule.
- Florida State leads the nation in scoring defense and ranks second in scoring offense. According to ESPN’s team efficiency rankings, the Seminoles have the highest-rated offense and defense in the FBS.
If the legal system isn't going to derail Jameis Winston this season, it’s quite possible nothing will.
On Thursday afternoon, the state attorney’s office announced the decision not to press charges against Winston, who was accused of rape almost a year ago. If Florida State exhaled with the news, it wasn't louder than a whisper, because anyone who has watched the Seminoles play in November knows they weren't winning while worrying. Certainly not while they were beating rival Florida by 30 points, or Syracuse by 56, or Idaho by 66. Not once has Florida State or Winston allowed this heavy allegation to weigh it down. Not once during the regular season has Winston even addressed the incident with the media. Instead, he continued to play and win, week after week.
Winston’s status hasn't changed, so don’t expect the Noles to.
If that’s how Winston plays under duress -- averaging 11.0 yards per attempt, completing 71 percent of his passes on third downs, and leading the nation with a 91.9 opponent-adjusted QBR -- then Duke’s defense will need a miracle now that Winston is free to play the two most important games of the season without any legal issues looming.
While the court of public opinion might still be deliberating Winston’s innocence, it’s not as if he has anything more to prove on the field. One of the biggest questions heading into this season was how Winston -- just a 19-year-old freshman -- would handle the pressure of playing for a national title contender in his first season as a starter. In one week, he answered it: 25 of 27 completions for 356 yards and four touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in a stunning performance in the season opener at Pitt.
One of the biggest questions across all of college football last month was how much of a distraction the allegation of rape would be. In three days, Winston answered it: 19-of-21 for 277 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-3 dismantling of Syracuse.
“It’s the same thing every single week,” Winston said matter-of-factly that day.
Remarkably -- almost even eerily -- the only thing that would have changed Florida State’s pattern of winning would have been a felony charge.
The only statement to come from Florida State’s football program regarding the state attorney’s decision was from coach Jimbo Fisher, who has already redirected the focus to Saturday’s title game.
“Right now, we’re all looking forward to what we have in front of us on Saturday,” Fisher said.
It’s the same thing every single week, right?
As far as Florida State athletic director Stan Wilcox is concerned, “Winston’s status as a Florida State University student athlete remains unchanged.”
So does Florida State’s place in the BCS standings.
ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson react to the news that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston will not be changed with a crime.
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.
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.
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.