We continue with the matchup between the Florida State offense and Oregon's defense.
1. Can Oregon be the first team to stop freshman running back Dalvin Cook?
Jennings: As long as the Oregon defense continues its upward trajectory, then yes. In the Pac-12 championship game, the Ducks held Arizona to 111 rushing yards, more than 75 yards fewer than the Wildcats’ season average at that point. Arizona running back Nick Wilson, who had averaged 6.2 yards per rush coming in to that game, averaged 2 yards per rush against the Ducks. Now, the Oregon run defense hasn’t been stout all season, but it has looked good lately. I think Don Pellum is going to be able to keep the Ducks going strong there.
2. Can Oregon's pass rush expose the Florida State offensive line?
Jennings: This will be another interesting matchup because both Oregon’s pass rush and Florida State’s O-line have been spotty at times this season. However, in the last four games of the season, the Ducks held opposing quarterbacks to an average adjusted QBR of 34.9 and held quarterbacks to just a 35.3 percent completion rate on third-down passing attempts. Though the Ducks have only sacked opposing quarterbacks on 6.1 percent of passing plays (No. 61 nationally), they have allowed just 5.5 yards per pass attempt (17th nationally).
Shanker: The Seminoles’ offensive line was exposed often through the early portion of the season, but the unit jelled late in the season with the insertion of freshman Roderick Johnson at left tackle. Four of the five starters have posted season-high grades along the offensive line since Johnson took over for Cam Erving, who was moved to center. In August and September, the unit ranked 95th in sacks per game; in November it ranked 16th. However, Oregon could make Jameis Winston uncomfortable by coming off the edges. As good as Johnson has been, he is still a true freshman, and right tackle Bobby Hart has struggled at times. A couple of exotic blitzes off the edge could confuse the FSU offensive line and leave Winston vulnerable.
3. How will Jameis Winston fare if the Ducks take away wide receiver Rashad Greene?
Shanker: It’s no secret Winston has an affinity for throwing the ball to Greene, one of the country’s best receivers. It’s also no secret the rest of the young group of receivers has been largely inconsistent. The Ducks might let Ifo Ekpre-Olomu cover Greene one-on-one, which puts pressure on Jesus Wilson and Travis Rudolph. While both have played well at points, they’ve also disappeared at times. At times, opponents have been able to effectively take away tight end and Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary, who was held without a catch in two games this season. What shouldn’t be forgotten is teams have tried to take away Greene all season and the senior still finished seventh nationally in yards and eighth in receptions.
Jennings: One of the areas in which the Oregon defense has been the most inconsistent is in giving up big plays, specifically big pass plays. Oregon has given up 56 plays of 20 or more yards, and 40 of those were pass plays. Chances are with how good the chemistry is between Winston and Greene, they’ll be able to pull of one or two big plays, but the Seminoles will need to make sure they cash in on those. During the past month the Ducks have improved greatly there as well, only giving up nine pass plays of 20 or more yards.
Today, we start with three questions on how the Oregon offense and Florida State defense match up.
Jennings: Probably not. He's a freak and he's playing his best football right now. FSU isn't just going to start pass rushing like crazy. If they did, they probably wouldn't be able to do it consistently and Mariota is at his best in broken plays. How the Seminoles can best "get to" Mariota would be by making him do too much. If they can take away his weapons -- which, it's fair to say, no one really has this season -- then they can limit him a bit. If running back Royce Freeman can't rush the ball and it's all on Mariota, he might not be able to do as much. Or, if the secondary can take away his options down field, that obviously limits him as a playmaker. Again, these are all big "ifs" and "maybes" and I'd bet donuts to dollars that we're going to see the best version of Mariota we've seen so far this season when he hits the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day.
Shanker: Over Mariota's three-year career as starter, few teams have successfully contained him, and it rarely happened in 2014 en route to winning the Heisman Trophy. He's as dynamic running as he is throwing, and he made a handful of NFL throws in the Pac-12 title game. That's the bind he puts every team in -- do you challenge him throwing or rushing? Mariota won't completely overwhelm Florida State's defense, though. Defensive backs Ronald Darby, Jalen Ramsey and P.J. Williams are all first-day NFL talents in the traditional sense, and up front Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman are among the country's most athletic 300-pound linemen. The linebacking corps is suspect, but there are more than enough pieces to contain Mariota. That doesn't mean Florida State will, and smart money is on Mariota to make a fair number of plays.
2. Will the Freeman show continue?
Shanker: Much like Dalvin Cook, Freeman is playing his best football, too, with three straight 100-yard games and an eight-game streak of at least 98 yards rushing. Considering how poor the FSU defense tends to play in the first half, Freeman could have 100 yards by halftime. The question will be whether the success continues in the second half. Seminoles defensive coordinator Charles Kelly has been terrific at making second-half adjustments. Freeman should run wild on Florida State early -- most teams do -- but without a strong second half it might not matter.
Jennings: I'm with Jared here. FSU hasn't exactly put a full four quarters together defensively. But, a big part of the Freeman show isn't just Freeman. Opponents can take him away but then they still have to deal with sophomore Thomas Tyner and junior Byron Marshall who's much more of a dual threat WR-RB for the Ducks. Can FSU stop Freeman? Then Tyner? Then Marshall? (And remember, Mariota is averaging 51 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown per game.)
3. Is the Mario Edwards versus Jake Fisher one of the best matchups within the matchup to watch?
Jennings: It'll be one of them. However, with how many injuries and shifts the offensive line has gone through it'll be a minor miracle if Fisher is actually still playing left tackle a month from now (only slightly joking). Edwards has registered three sacks and two quarterback hurries this season, but that doesn't fully explain how much of a force he has been on the O-line for the Seminoles. This matchup will be fun to watch and a huge test for both players.
Shanker: All one has to do is put on the tape of last year's national championship to see the impact Edwards can make. He has battled inconsistency in his career, but the former No. 1 recruit is athletically gifted. He wreaked havoc in Auburn's backfield last January. Edwards will be tasked with more than just getting to the quarterback, too. With Oregon spreading the field, his role includes setting the edge, freeing up linebackers and making tackles in space when called upon. Fisher will have his hands full.
4. How much of an impact will FSU's all-everything Jalen Ramsey play in the game?
Shanker: If Florida State wins, Ramsey will probably have a major impact. Ramsey was one of the best freshmen in 2013, but he moved to nickelback -- or the "star" position in FSU's scheme -- before 2014. It took Ramsey a few games to adjust, but the sophomore is filling up the stat sheet now. Mariota needs to account for and find Ramsey before every snap, because he impacts the game in so many ways. He has possibly emerged as FSU's best defensive player, but Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost are skilled offensive coaches. The playcalling could limit Ramsey's effect on the game, but the 6-foot-1, 204-pound sophomore's athleticism could still have him in the right spot at the right time anyway.
Jennings: This might be a game in which he won't show up in the stats sheet as much but he'll still play a huge role based on whom he takes away as an option down field for Mariota. The Ducks have several wide receivers who've really made some major strides late in the season -- Darren Carrington, Charles Nelson, Dwayne Stanford -- but if Ramsey takes Devon Allen or Keanon Lowe, then Mariota will be relying more on these younger players, which could be good or bad for the Ducks.
Florida State appears on the way to another top-three recruiting class in 2015, and the Class of 2016 continues to build steam as Jimbo Fisher and staff are carrying as much momentum on the trail as any program in the country. On Monday, the nation's No. 1 junior tight end Isaac Nauta added his name to the 2016 class that now has five ESPN Jr300 commitments, including No. 3 overall and No. 1 dual-threat quarterback Malik Henry:
There are many moments that define a season, but this is the first year plays defined a playoff.
It wasn't just Baylor's nonconference schedule that doomed the Bears' playoff hopes; it was the loss at West Virginia that knocked them out of the top four. It wasn't only the performance by Ohio State third-string quarterback Cardale Jones in the Big Ten title game that punched the ticket for the Buckeyes; it was the win against Michigan State that put them in position to get there.
Here's a look at how the top four spots were won -- or lost -- in a historic season for the sport.
The opponents: Arkansas and Mississippi State.
The moments: The first came in the fourth quarter at unranked Arkansas, when Landon Collins intercepted Brandon Allen on third-and-10 to seal the 14-13 win. The second moment wasn't a single play -- it was a 15-play drive in the fourth quarter against then-No. 1 Mississippi State. Alabama was clinging to a 19-13 lead when that 76-yard touchdown drive ate 6:07 off the clock and added a 25-13 cushion with T.J. Yeldon's 7-yard touchdown run. Blake Sims converted all three third downs himself (one pass, two rushes). It was Alabama's first win over a No. 1-ranked team in Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The outcome: The win at Arkansas was critical not only for the SEC West standings, but from an emotional standpoint, as well. The Tide had to rebound from the previous week's loss at Ole Miss. The upset of Mississippi State put Alabama in the selection committee's rankings for the first time -- a spot the Tide would never relinquish.
That could certainly change in 2015, when the ACC has several emerging stars who could contend for the award. Here’s a quick look at the league’s top challengers for the 2015 Heisman Trophy.
(Note: We’re assuming that Winston and Miami’s Duke Johnson won’t return for 2015, but if either does come back, he would immediately jump to the top of our rankings.)
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
If he had stayed healthy all season, Watson might have been a contender for the award as a true freshman. Assuming he can stay on the field in 2015, he looks poised to be the biggest playmaker in the conference for an offense in which he will be surrounded by young talent.
2. Miami QB Brad Kaaya
Kaaya had his ups and downs as a true freshman in 2014, but he showed plenty of poise and was arguably the ACC’s top deep-ball threat. Miami’s offense has plenty of skill-position talent, but Kaaya will need the Hurricanes to finish better than 6-6 if he wants a crack at the Heisman.
3. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
There will be plenty of enthusiasm surrounding Cook’s sophomore campaign in 2015, and if Florida State makes another run at the playoff, he would likely be in the Heisman conversation. The problem for Cook is that he will likely be starring on an offense forced to replace its top receiver, top tight end, four starting linemen and Heisman-winning quarterback.
Few players in the country carried a heavier share of their team’s offensive load in 2014 than Conner did for Pitt. While he was a bit overshadowed by the Big Ten's top running backs, his 1,675 yards and 24 rushing TDs would have had him in the Heisman Trophy discussion most seasons. He could certainly match or exceed those numbers next year.
5. Georgia Tech QB Justin Thomas
In his first year running Paul Johnson’s offense, Thomas was exceptional, but as the Georgia Tech coach was quick to point out, this could be just the tip of the iceberg. With a year of experience and wider latitude in directing the offense in 2015, Thomas could easily emerge as one of the country’s most explosive offensive threats.
6. North Carolina QB Marquise Williams
Williams’ numbers in 2014 were exceptional, but he was largely overshadowed by UNC’s rocky season defensively. If the Tar Heels can finally emerge into a Coastal contender with Williams leading a high-powered offensive attack, he could emerge as one of the nation’s biggest dual threats at quarterback. His numbers this year were already similar to Dak Prescott, so perhaps 2015 will be Williams’ chance to spend the season getting the Heisman hype.
7. Pittsburgh WR Tyler Boyd
It’s tough for wide receivers to push their way into the Heisman campaign, but Boyd’s numbers in 2014 were exceptional. Whether he can turn in a 2015 season similar to what Alabama’s Amari Cooper did this year depends greatly on whether there is a new coaching regime at Pitt and the progress of Panthers QB Chad Voytik. But Boyd’s talent as a receiver and on special teams certainly will be worth monitoring.
8. Miami RB Joseph Yearby
He played second fiddle to Johnson this year, but it’s easy to see why Miami fans are so excited about the future for Yearby. As a true freshman, he averaged 6.1 yards per carry and 600 yards of total offense. With a starter’s share of the offense next season, Yearby could emerge into an all-purpose star for the Hurricanes.
Defensive players aren’t usually in the Heisman conversation, but with so much turnover expected on FSU’s offense in 2015, it will be up to Ramsey and the defense to keep the Seminoles afloat. Ramsey is already one of the nation’s top defensive backs, and in his third year as a starter, he could easily take the next step into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a few big plays at crucial times -- much as Notre Dame’s Manti Te'o did in 2012.
10. Duke RB Shaun Wilson
Here’s an under-the-radar player to watch as a potential Heisman hopeful in 2015. Wilson wasn’t Duke’s starter this season, but as a true freshman he still led the Blue Devils in rushing (590 yards) and was second in TDs (5) while finishing sixth in the nation in yards per rush (8.0). He could secure the starting job next year on an offense that could be more run-heavy, giving Wilson a chance to rack up huge numbers as one of the league’s most explosive runners.
Others to watch: Boston College RB Jon Hilliman, Louisville RB Brandon Radcliff, NC State QB Jacoby Brissett, Virginia RB Taquan Mizzell
Eric in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., writes: Does the selection committee have it out for FSU and the ACC? FSU was ranked fourth the previous week, so why not just leave FSU in that spot? By moving FSU up a spot it seems the selection committee is trying to make it hard as possible on FSU and its fans. Playing in the Sugar Bowl would have been a neutral site game for FSU, but the Rose Bowl is giving Oregon a home game vs. FSU. FSU wins the positional matchups against Oregon and Oregon isn't as good as Alabama, but the travel is much tougher. The fans can't reasonably be asked to go to both the Rose Bowl and Dallas. Fans are going to have to choose between one or the other and Dallas is both cheaper and the championship game. When it comes to the ACC itself it smells fishy that the selection committee can reasonably justify jumping an idle Mississippi State team over an idle Michigan State team. Mississippi State had the most impressive idle week ever. That cost the ACC the Citrus Bowl, so that had to be intentional on the part of the committee.
Andrea Adelson writes: Conspiracy theorists are out in full force, aren't they? From my perspective, I believe Florida State should have been given the opportunity to play in New Orleans, as the only team, with an unbeaten record. The selection committee has tried to justify its ranking because Florida State has not passed "eye tests" or had much "game control" but I still cannot understand how a team that won all its games is ranked No. 3. It certainly feels like a shot fired at the ACC. As for Mississippi State, I have seen many suggest that move was made to help the Big Ten fill its entire bowl allotment (voila! It did). But one person I spoke to in the ACC office said it would be hard to believe the committee concerned itself with another conference's bowl ties beyond the New Year's Six games. It all is quite interesting, isn't it?
Matthew Gann in Washington, D.C., writes: I was wondering if anyone asked the CFP Committee why Mississippi State found themselves ranked ahead of Michigan State in the latest rankings. Neither team played a game. Did they just change their minds in 5 days? Was it a geographical decision, seeing as Mississippi State will go to Miami instead of Michigan State? Whatever the reason is, I'd like to know.
Adelson writes: The committee wants to remind everybody that it starts with a clean slate each and every week, and does not use its previous rankings as a starting point. So forget about the rankings from last week. In looking at Mississippi State and Michigan State without a ranking attached, the committee believed the Bulldogs have a better body of work. Michigan State essentially lost to the only two good teams it played, against Oregon and Ohio State. Though Mississippi State ended the season with losses in two of its final three games, the Bulldogs also had more quality wins, against Auburn and LSU. So that was their rational. And that is why these weekly rankings served to confuse us all.
Jon in Atlanta writes: Do you think that Winston's off the field issues is what kept him out of the voting for the Heisman? also ... Do you think GT is getting a little disrespected as a 7 point underdog?
Adelson writes: I think there are a variety of reasons. I do think off-the-field issues played a role. I do think winning last year played a role as well. But I think above all, Jameis Winston was not nearly as good this season as he was last season, nor was he as good as Marcus Mariota. It is tough to invite a quarterback with 17 interceptions to New York, especially when he only has 24 touchdown passes. His completion percentage also is down, and so are his passing yards. Though we all know how Winston has performed in the clutch, he did not consistently perform well all season.
Smittyknows1961 in Milledgeville, Ga., writes: Under the current Playoff format, Mark Richt, although he has the highest integrity of all college football coaches, will need to take his foot off the break and slobber clobber every team we play from here on out. That is the message this playoff selection committee is sending. Style over what was once good old fashioned football. The bling is the thing now. I say screw the bling and go to 16 teams down to 8 down to 4 down to 1. You're going to have cut out the patsy teams on your schedule and schedule higher ranked schools. All these years of helping those lesser schools athletics departments out with payout checks on Saturdays comes to a screeching halt. If the big schools want to help the smaller schools out with a paycheck - then let all the big boys donate funds into an escrow account during the year from each game played. If you got to be out for blood!, then let the blood flow. The game is not what it used to be. There could be a bye week system built into a format that includes more teams. The 16 team format gives Baylor and TCU of this year an opportunity for what their players worked so hard for -- a chance to relish a championship!
Adelson writes: Not just Richt. Jimbo Fisher has never been somebody to run up the score, and he reiterated this season he refuses to do so. But he had opportunities to ratchet up the score in several of the "close" games this season. What if the Virginia win goes from 14 points to 21? Does that make a difference? As for going to 16 teams, I cannot see programs eliminating cupcake games. The financials are not only important for the teams they are bringing in, but for the schools hosting, because home games generate good money. And athletic directors don't want to kill their players with impossible schedules. I know the game is radically different, but these are still college students (I know that sounds ridiculous in the face of so much money changing hands with the current playoff structure). The 16 teams would also force teams to play way too many games. I already think this format, with all 4 playoff teams potentially playing 15, is an enormous stress on the players being asked to perform at a high level over such a long season. I know the selection did not work out smoothly this season, but let's see how four works out first.
Martin Lisius writes: Hi Andrea. I have a solution to determine a national champion among the 6 top college football teams. 1. Name only the top two teams. 2. Tell the remaining 4 they are all worthy but only two more spots remain and ask those schools if they would consider an impromptu set of games at a neutral site one week prior to the semifinals. They will accept. This is brilliant because it allows 4 high quality candidates to have a chance to prove themselves on the field. This will make pretty much everyone happy and would be the right thing to do. I'm pretty certain the committee has the authority to do this if the schools agree as this new playoff thing is a work in progress. I think not doing this would be irresponsible.
Adelson writes: Well the current contract only calls for four teams over a 12-year period. The format you suggest essentially would give the top 2 teams a first-round bye, correct? As I mentioned above, I am not sure playing more games is the answer. Under the BCS, several qualified teams got left out of the national championship game. This is not really unprecedented, but with more opportunities and now a selection committee comes much more controversy.
It takes a rare mix of individual skill, team talent and luck to pull it off: Only eight have ever done it. With Oregon set to face off against Winston's Seminoles in this year's Rose Bowl playoff semifinal, Heisman finalist Marcus Mariota has a chance to be the next QB to join the club.
How many can you remember?
But since we don’t want to ignore those near-misses entirely, here is a quick look at some of the toughest decisions we had to make for this year’s All-ACC team.
Quarterback: The bottom line is that there is no better player in the conference than Jameis Winston when he’s on, but unlike last season, he had his share of struggles, too. Meanwhile, Marquise Williams emerged as a tremendous dual threat for UNC, helping to overcome a lot of the Tar Heels’ defensive struggles with some huge performances on offense, and Justin Thomas injected new life into Paul Johnson’s old option offense at Georgia Tech. Both Thomas and Williams were deserving candidates for first team — and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson would have been, too, if he had stayed healthy all season. Overall, it was a stellar year for quarterback play in the ACC.
Offensive guard: The problem with debating the merits of offensive linemen is that there aren’t many stats to use to break a tie, and when it came to our top three choices at guard -- Laken Tomlinson, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson -- there was ample debate. In the end, we went with the first two, but Jackson’s contributions -- particularly with the revolving door at center for FSU this season -- shouldn’t go unnoticed. He might have been the Seminoles’ best offensive lineman.
Tight end: In the end, numbers set Clive Walford apart here. He led all ACC tight ends in yards, touchdowns, first downs, yards-per-catch and receptions per game while working with a true freshman quarterback. Still, it’s hard to ignore Nick O'Leary’s fine season (plus bonus points for taking on a bus and winning). Bucky Hodges, Gerald Christian, David Grinnage and Cam Serigne all had fine seasons as well.
Defensive end: OK, we cheated here. Vic Beasley was the obvious choice, but for the opposite side of the line, the debate between Dadi Nicolas and Mario Edwards Jr. was intense, with viable arguments made for both players. Edwards was a crucial cog on FSU’s defense, one of the most dynamic mixes of size and speed in college football. Nicolas was a force throughout the season and stepped up when interior lineman Luther Maddy went down with an injury. In the end, we followed the playoff selection committee’s precedent and avoided the tough question altogether by making our defense a 3-4 unit instead. Sorry, Dadi and Mario -- but now you know how Baylor and TCU feel.
Linebacker: There probably isn’t a more stacked position in the ACC than linebacker. Denzel Perryman and Stephone Anthony were exceptional. David Helton led the ACC in tackles. Lorenzo Mauldin was the most dynamic pass-rusher on Louisville’s stout defense. They all made the cut, but it meant a host of deserving options were left out, including BC’s Josh Keyes, Virginia’s Max Valles and Henry Coley, Syracuse’s Cameron Lynch and Georgia Tech’s Paul Davis.
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WR Rashad Greene, Florida State: Whenever FSU was in trouble, Greene was there to save the day. He made big catch after big catch, took big hit after big hit, and ended the season with 93 catches for 1,306 yards, helping him break both FSU's records for receptions and receiving yards.
WR DeVante Parker, Louisville: The senior caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five touchdowns, the latter two numbers among the top 10 in the ACC. Oh, did we mention he missed the first seven games?
TE Clive Walford, Miami: Was there a more complete tight end in the country? The numbers say there might not be: 44 catches (third nationally), 676 yards (third), 7 TDs (third nationally). Walford did this all with a true freshman QB, too.
OT Cameron Erving, Florida State: Erving repeated as the ACC's blocking trophy winner, moving from left tackle to center in Game No. 10 this season and staying there, further showing his value to a unit that had dealt with interior injuries but came on strong late to help running back Dalvin Cook bloom into one of the country's finest freshmen.
OT T.J. Clemmings, Pittsburgh: Clemmings ought to get at least a piece of James Conner's player of the year trophy. The converted defensive end was among the nation's most improved players, starting every game for the second season in a row while using his athleticism to ace a position switch he had resisted earlier in his career.
C Andy Gallik, Boston College: BC lost a Heisman finalist at running back and actually improved its rushing totals this season. A dual-threat QB explains part of that, but so, too, does a powerful offensive line, led by Gallik in the middle, who helped pave the way for the league's No. 2 rushing attack.
OG Shaquille Mason, Georgia Tech: The only ACC team that rushed for more than BC? The only one that kept its QB unscathed more than Duke? The Yellow Jackets are the answer to both, with Mason captaining an oft-overlooked unit that was absolutely integral to the program's resurgence this season while running its famed triple-option attack.
OG Laken Tomlinson, Duke: The future pro turned in his best season yet, helping a Blue Devils offensive line that anchored a balanced offensive attack and kept QB Anthony Boone upright all season long, as Duke surrendered just 13 sacks, tied for 11th-best nationally.
QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The reigning Heisman winner was not as sharp as last season, but he once again put up big numbers (3,559 yards, 24 TDs) while leading FSU to another perfect mark. Winston is 26-0 for his career as a starter. You simply cannot beat that.
RB James Conner, Pitt: The ACC player of the year rewrote the Pitt record books -- no easy feat for a place that boasts names like Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy. Conner rushed for 1,675 yards and 24 TDs, responding to each defense's best shot game after game.
RB Duke Johnson, Miami: Like Conner, Johnson set himself above his peers at a program that has produced plenty of great running backs. Coming off an injury-shortened 2013 season, the junior ran for 1,520 yards and 13 TDs, becoming Miami's all-time leading rusher and its career leader in all-purpose yards.
DE Vic Beasley, Clemson: The ACC's defensive player of the year has seen his decision to return for his senior season pay off, as Beasley led the ACC in sacks (11) and tackles for loss (18.5) while making Clemson's defense the top-ranked unit nationally.
DT Eddie Goldman, Florida State: Who can forget Goldman forcing a Clemson fumble late to keep FSU's perfect season alive? The junior was in the right place at the right time often, a versatile threat who moved back inside this season after playing end. He dominated the line of scrimmage, and one just needs to look at how FSU fared without Goldman -- giving up 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech as he went down early -- to see his value.
DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson: Ends might get all the stats and glory, but Jarrett's impact on offenses might have been as big as Beasley's, as he helped form arguably the top defensive line in the country. Jarrett had 6.5 TFLs and 11 QB hurries, freeing up those around him and making running the ball next to impossible down the stretch for opponents.
LB David Helton, Duke: The senior led the ACC in tackles (125) and ranked 11th nationally. Helton helped Duke overcome the preseason loss of linebacker Kelby Brown and led a unit that continued its ascension under coordinator Jim Knowles, finishing fifth in the ACC in scoring average (20.6 ppg), and 20th nationally.
LB Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville: A step-up in competition for Mauldin and the Cardinals meant even better results, as the hybrid notched a career-best 45 tackles and led the team in tackles for loss (13), while notching 6.5 sacks. Louisville's defense was one of the most surprising units in the country this season in its first year under coordinator Todd Grantham, ranking No. 6 nationally.
LB Stephone Anthony, Clemson: The leading tackler (73) on the nation's top defense, Anthony impacted games in a number of ways for the Tigers, making 9.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage while forcing two fumbles and picking off one pass.
LB Denzel Perryman, Miami: The senior led the Hurricanes in virtually ever major category: Tackles (102), TFLs (8.5) and forced fumbles (3) among them. He validated his decision to return after last season, recording yet another 100-tackle season and making his case as perhaps the top linebacker in the ACC.
S Gerod Holliman, Louisville: Fourteen interceptions. Fourteen! What more needs to be said? Holliman broke the ACC record and tied the NCAA mark. He had four multi-pick games, including a three-pick performance at BC. And he did this all after transitioning from corner to safety under Grantham's tutelage.
S Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: The sophomore made big play after big play, giving FSU's D an edge at the star position. He clinched the Miami game with a late pick and had two on the season to go with two forced fumbles, 11 break-ups, 13 passes defended and 9.5 TFLs. He blocked a kick, too.
CB Kendall Fuller, Virginia Tech: The last in line of the storied Fuller family to come through Blacksburg, the sophomore showed plenty of the same NFL promise that has guided his older brothers. One of only a handful of Hokies to start every game, Fuller finished second in the ACC in passes defended (15), recorded 4.5 TFLs and recovered one fumble.
CB Garry Peters, Clemson: As overlooked as one can be on a defense loaded with stars, Peters quietly executed his job to a T, picking off one pass, breaking up 11 and defending 12. He forced a fumble and managed eight TFLs as well on a pass defense that ranked No. 3 nationally.
K Roberto Aguayo, Florida State: Just another year at the office for Aguayo: 25-of-27 on field-goal attempts, perfect on extra points and a number of crucial kicks, which wasn't always required last year when he first stepped into the national spotlight. Aguayo is a whopping 46-of-49 for his career on field-goal attempts.
P Will Monday, Duke: Monday averaged 43.4 yards per punt, with 12 of his boots going for 50 or more yards. Eight of his punts were touchbacks, 19 were fair caught and 17 were inside the 20-yard line.
KR DeVon Edwards, Duke: Edwards averaged 25.4 yards per kick return, including a 99-yard touchdown in a high-scoring affair at Pitt, which the Blue Devils ended up winning in OT.
AP Tyler Boyd, Pitt: Boyd was a jack-of-all trades for Pitt, catching 69 passes for 1,149 yards and eight touchdowns. He was also the ACC's top punt returner, averaging 10.8 yards per return, which ranked 15th nationally.
Olsen, who posted the news on Instagram, will be hoping for a fresh start at Towson after a brief Hurricanes tenure that went about as poorly it possibly could have. The former four-star recruit and brother of ex-Miami star TE Greg Olsen had several run-ins with the law and eventually left school this past September. He would be eligible to play for the FCS Tigers in 2015. Here's hoping he is able to turn things around off the field and resurrect his promising career.
Kimble, meanwhile, will likely be taking the FCS route as well. The redshirt freshman told Syracuse.com's Nate Mink that Illinois State, Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois are among the schools he is considering. Kimble had entered the season as the Orange's No. 4 signal-caller and saw limited time with the rest of the reserves after Terrel Hunt went down for the season in October.
Kimble is a Jerseyville, Illinois, native, which would help explain some of the programs he is looking at.
Here are the rest of your ACC links:
- The ACC led all conferences on USA Today's All-America team.
- Vic Beasley is one of the few proven entities among pass-rushers in the 2015 NFL draft, Aaron Brenner writes in the (Charleston) Post and Courier.
- FSU landed four players on CBSSports.com's All-America team.
- Georgia Tech may have fared off nicely without Vad Lee, but he's done pretty good for himself this year, too: The James Madison QB was named the Dudley Award Winner, given to the top Division I player in Virginia.
- Flipper has chosen Georgia Tech to win the Capital One Orange Bowl, so that's a nice start for the Yellow Jackets.
- The NFF's Josh Ellis profiles Laken Tomlinson and how the Duke guard is living his dream.
The decision on Florida State's playoff berth was made Saturday, Fisher declared upon winning another ACC title. This was no beauty contest, there were no style points. The Seminoles were 13-0, the lone unbeaten team. They were the defending national champs, and their slide from the top of the rankings would grind to a halt, at least according to their coach.
Then came Sunday, and the Noles were ranked third, and their repeat run was extended (at least) a few more weeks by the selection committee, and none of the other chatter surrounding their legitimacy seemed to matter.
"I don't get into all that," Fisher said when asked if FSU should be No. 1. "Whether you're in and whether you're 1 or 3 or 4 or 2, whatever it may be, you're going to play a great team."
Fisher can breathe easy and say that now in the era of the College Football Playoff. That his team will travel 2,000-plus miles to the Rose Bowl for its first playoff game does not matter to him so much as the fact that his team, at the end of the day, is in the tournament.
Still, there was all that late-season politicking. From an undefeated coach from a Power-5 conference. The only undefeated coach.
And his team only checked in at No. 3.
If it takes all that for a brand-name program riding a 29-game winning streak to crack the field, how does the future bode for other perfect teams in this system? Moreover, is FSU lucky that its supposed underwhelming 13-0 mark -- as underwhelming as a 13-0 mark that featured 12 Power-5 opponents can be -- came in the first year in which four teams are playing for the title instead of two? The latter is unlikely. By most measures, FSU would have probably been No. 1 this year had the BCS formula been in play.
Should that come as a sigh of relief for other programs that have been in the Noles' shoes before? Or should those programs look at what happened this season and thank the football gods that their perfect seasons came during the time period that they did?
At the heart of the matter is the simple question of whether winning games is no longer enough to control one's championship destiny.
"Winning's too hard in college football not to be evaluated on a full body of work," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said, adding, "When you win 12 games and you go undefeated, no matter how you do it, you cannot overlook that kind of work. So I would be hopeful in saying this because I can't speak for others, but I know how I feel. It's too hard to win in college football, and to leave somebody out that's undefeated would go against the reason why we compete for only 12 or 13 weeks a year."
Kelly speaks from the experience of coaching a 12-0 team two years ago. As the lone unbeaten team, the Irish were a given as the regular season's No. 1, regardless of the fact they entered the national title game as double-digit underdogs, a forecast that proved prescient when No. 2 Alabama routed them. Kelly's last team at his previous stop, Cincinnati, also ran the regular-season table, ranking third behind two fellow unbeatens.
Knowing what it takes to win every week -- and perhaps helping his own team, which lost in Tallahassee this season -- Kelly voted FSU No. 1 in his final coaches poll ballot. He had company: Cincinnati's Tommy Tuberville, UConn's Bob Diaco and Memphis' Justin Fuente had the Noles atop their ballots as well. All three coaches have been part of perfect campaigns before — Tuberville at Auburn, and Diaco and Fuente as assistants at Notre Dame and TCU, respectively.
That was not exactly the norm, though. LSU's Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban both had FSU third. Joining them were two coaches who know what it's like to be on the outside looking in despite undefeated seasons: TCU's Gary Patterson ranked FSU fourth, and Washington's Chris Petersen, formerly of Boise State, ranked the Noles third.
Looking out for your conference brethren is one thing -- though Patterson didn't even do that, voting his team third behind Alabama and Oregon -- but what explains the gap between between No. 1 and FSU? Has the new way of thinking already permeated the voters?
"In the old system, we know we needed to be undefeated," said Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin, who was an assistant on two undefeated Broncos teams that did not play for the title. "The way it is now, that’s not the case and here we are."
Harsin is referring to Boise State's spot in the VIZIO Fiesta Bowl despite two losses. But his reasoning may help explain the current way of doing business at the top of college football.
"I think as far as we’re concerned, the years of winning and what we’ve done in the past does help us in the position we’re in now," he said. "We can use an Alabama as an example. One-loss Alabama over undefeated Florida State. Florida State’s undefeated but Alabama’s ranked ahead. Why? Because it’s Alabama."
On Sunday, with his postseason fate settled, Fisher sounded at ease. He talked about everyone learning the new process at once. He reasoned that criteria would become clearer and more consistent with time.
What had to seem like a charade these last seven weeks proved strenuous. The ensuing defense routine was fatiguing. FSU was on to play Oregon, and maybe play beyond that, and that was all that seemed relevant moving forward.
"I just think winning is so hard and when you repeat things, people are going to prepare for you differently," he said. "They're going to prepare for you in the offseason, and to overcome so much adversity and the things we've overcome defending our championship and still being able to go undefeated, I think is a tremendous feat."
So, too, does the committee. At least in this case.
Fisher: Winston's Choice Won't Be A Surprise
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