Florida State Seminoles: What we learned

What we learned: Week 14

December, 1, 2013
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Florida State at least had the decency to build a little drama early, but by the middle of the third quarter, it was clear the Seminoles were well on their way to 12-0 and a third win over Florida in the last four tries. Here’s what else we learned from Saturday’s 37-7 Seminoles win.

Benjamin is a beast: For all of Florida’s problems this season, the secondary wasn’t one of them. The Gators entered Saturday’s showdown ranked No. 2 in the nation in pass defense (trailing only FSU), but Jameis Winston and Kelvin Benjamin had a field day. Winston enjoyed his seventh 300-yard game of the year (and he’d have had eight if Benjamin had held on to a pass that turned into an INT on Winston’s final throw against NC State), while Benjamin racked up 212 yards on nine catches with three touchdowns. That’s the first FSU player to top 200 receiving in 11 years. And the crazy part? Benjamin dropped two potentially huge passes and Winston barely overthrew him on another.

Fisher owns the rivalries: In his four years as a head coach, Jimbo Fisher is now 7-1 against Florida and Miami, the best mark during any four-year stretch in Florida State history. Saturday’s win marked the biggest margin of victory for a Florida State team against the Gators since 1988.

Noles are poised for the BCS: Florida State closed out the regular season with a perfect 12-0 record, and now all that stands between the Seminoles and a spot in the BCS title game is Duke and the minds of voters who might still be worried about Winston’s long-term status as a sexual-assault investigation remains ongoing. The on-field half of that formula looks favorable for FSU. The Seminoles are 18-0 all-time against Duke, with no game closer than 19 points. The off-field half is a bit more vague. State attorney Willie Meggs suggested it’s unlikely a decision on whether to charge Winston would come before the final BCS standings are released. But with Ohio State narrowly escaping Michigan on Saturday and Alabama falling to Auburn, Florida State's case -- with or without Winston -- has only gotten stronger.

What we learned: Week 13

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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Florida State wrapped up a perfect 7-0 home slate for the year with an 80-14 win over Idaho on Saturday that once again only provided a brief glimpse of the Seminoles’ starters. Still, we learned a few items worth noting in Week 13.

Shaw can break 100: It certainly seemed like it might never happen after Kenny Shaw finished last week with 99 yards -- his sixth game with at least 89 but none topping 100. But when he hauled in a 20-yard touchdown throw from Jameis Winston to end the first half Saturday, Shaw finally cracked that elusive century mark, finishing the game with five grabs for 107 yards and two scores. Shaw needs to average just 57 yards per game the rest of the way to break 1,000 for the season.

The defense is deep: Another game, another four interceptions for Florida State’s defense. Saturday saw Telvin Smith and E.J. Levenberry record picks and return them for scores, while Jacobbi McDaniel and Keelin Smith added interceptions of their own. For the year, 16 different FSU players have recorded at least one interception, and the Seminoles have a nation-leading 23 INTs for the year. The two TDs give Florida State a school-record eight defensive touchdowns this season, too.

Winston still rolling: The legal battle surrounding Florida State’s star quarterback rages on, but Winston seems no worse for the wear. He completed 14 of 25 passes for 225 yards and four touchdowns against Idaho, giving him 32 passing TDs for the year -- one shy of Chris Weinke’s school record. And if the off-field issues don’t derail his on-field success, Winston has all but locked up the Heisman.

What we learned: Week 12

November, 17, 2013
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Another week, another blowout victory in which the starters saw only a small taste of action in the second half. It’s getting tougher to find much meaning in the easy wins for Florida State, but this week’s thumping of Syracuse, 59-3, did uncover a few noteworthy items.

Winston doesn’t get rattled: The suspicions and distractions and diversions created a cloud of uncertainty at Florida State for much of the past week. However, for all the questions floating outside the locker room, there seemed to be little concern inside the Seminoles’ inner circle that Jameis Winston would be ready for the spotlight once again when he stepped back onto the field. Sure enough, Winston delivered — completing 19-of-21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns in another blowout win. Winston is the first quarterback since at least 2000 to have two games in the same season in which he completed at least 90 percent of his passes. And, of course, all of Winston’s damage came before the half. In fact, in his past four games, he's thrown just 22 passes and led seven drives in the second half.

Whitfield is electric: He touched the ball just twice in Saturday’s win, but each time the ball is in Kermit Whitfield’s hands, a big play is possible. Whitfield’s first touch against Syracuse came on a toss, which he took 74 yards for a touchdown (with an assist from Winston on a big downfield block). Whitfield now has 15 touches this season, which have gone for a combined 493 yards (average of 33 yards per touch) and three touchdowns. Tailback James Wilder Jr. said the toss that went for the long score was a play Florida State had practiced all week for Karlos Williams. But Whitfield is even faster, so on Saturday, it was the freshman who got the call. As the big plays continue to pile up (four of at least 30 yards in the past four games), Whitfield’s opportunities will only increase.

FSU’s defense is dominant: It’s not as if Wake Forest and Syracuse were offensive juggernauts, but that shouldn’t undermine what the Florida State defense is doing right now. For the second straight week, the Seminoles won by a score of 59-3 becoming the first team to score at least 59 and allow three or fewer in consecutive weeks since 1988. In those games, FSU’s defense -- which didn’t employ starters in the second half of either -- has allowed just 2.9 yards per play and forced nine combined turnovers. The first-team defense, which gave up just 68 yards on 30 first-half plays against Syracuse, has allowed a grand total of 21 points in its past six games. Florida State’s D has also scored 28 points during that span.

What we learned: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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Florida State put the memories of past failures in Death Valley to rest and looked squarely to a future, which may well include a shot at a BCS title, with an emphatic 51-14 win over Clemson on Saturday. Here's what we learned from the victory.

No stage is too big for Winston: It was silly to doubt him in the first place. Jameis Winston wasn't going to be intimidated by the enormous crowd or deafening noise in Death Valley. He was inspired by it. He stepped into the huddle on the first drive, the crowd berating the Noles, and he told his teammates to enjoy it. He proceeded to throw for a career-best 444 yards while adding three touchdowns through the air and one more on the ground. Through six games, Winston has been as good as any quarterback in the country, and there's a reasonable argument that he's now the Heisman frontrunner.

This defense was built for Clemson: Remember a few weeks ago when there were legitimate concerns about whether Jeremy Pruitt's scheme could work in the short term? Bethune-Cookman and Boston College had success running the ball, and players said they were still trying to grasp the nuance of the system. That seems like an eternity ago now. Pruitt's 5-3-5 scheme perfectly negated Clemson's spread attack, and the result was arguably the worst performance of Tajh Boyd's career. The senior quarterback completed 46 percent of his throws, averaged 4.2 yards per attempt, and turned the ball over three times. FSU finished the game with four takeaways, most since the penultimate game of 2011.

The expectations are through the roof: Before the season, there was excitement. After a 5-0 start, there was hype. Now, it's BCS or bust for Florida State, which figures to be a heavy favorite in each of its remaining games. The dominant win over Clemson was the best resume-builder for any team this season, and assuming the Seminoles don't flub a game down the road -- something they've been known to do in recent years -- there's ample reason to think they'll play for a national title in January. Numerous players eagerly pronounced FSU the best team in the country after the game, but Winston warned there was still work to be done. "We're not letting any of that affect us," he said. "We're a great football team, and that's what we're here to do, play football."

What we learned: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
10/06/13
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A battle of two ranked, undefeated ACC teams was supposed to teach us a lot about both Florida State and Maryland. Instead, it was clear by halftime that the Terps were in over their heads, and Florida State was clicking on all cylinders. Here's what else we learned from Saturday's 63-0 win.

Jameis Winston is a magician: His teammates have taken to downplaying Winston's tremendous start to the season. They see so many highlights in practice, Rashad Greene said, that it's second nature on game day. And then Winston goes and ducks through a surefire sack, rolls out to his right and delivers a TD throw to Nick O'Leary, and even Greene has to admit -- it's amazing. "You don't see him break tackles in practice," Greene said, "so when you see it in a game, it's just a great feeling seeing how athletic that guy is." Winston now has accounted for 19 touchdowns this season, the most by any QB in his first five games in the past decade.

The defense isn't dead: Players were angry after last week's ugly performance against Boston College, Jacobbi McDaniel said. They knew there were doubters, and they aimed to quiet those concerns. It started with an intense week of practice and it ended with a shutout in which the D dominated every facet of the game. The D line -- McDaniel, Jernigan and Mario Edwards Jr. -- played its best game of the season, and the rest of the pieces fell into place from there. One week after coughing up 200 yards on the ground, FSU allowed Maryland just 33 yards on 25 carries.

Two weeks will feel like a lifetime: The company line after Saturday's blowout win was patience. The next big date circled on the calendar, Jimbo Fisher said, wasn't Clemson, but rather Tuesday's return to the practice field. That's the right mantra inside the locker room, but for ACC fans, it's going to be a long wait until Oct. 19 when FSU and Clemson face off in Death Valley. The Noles rolled Maryland, and the Tigers thumped Syracuse. Now only a BC-Clemson matchup and a bye week in Tallahassee is in the way of a showdown between two top-10 teams that figures to determine who'll take the ACC Atlantic.

What we learned: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
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After Jameis Winston's dynamic debut against Pitt, Florida State fans had to wait an interminable two weeks for his encore. The wait actually ended up lasting through most of the first half, but once Winston and FSU got going, things escalated quickly. Here's what we learned along the way ...

Winston isn't perfect ... but he's close: Sure, even the most optimistic fans had to expect a flubbed throw from the reshirt freshman eventually, but it was no less shocking when Winston lobbed a high throw down the middle of the field for an easy interception in the second quarter Saturday. But if there were questions about how Winston would respond to adversity, he answered them ardently against Nevada. After the pick, Winston was 13-of-13 passing for 184 yards and led six straight touchdown drives, including a picture-perfect two-minute drill before the half.

Jimbo Fisher knows what he's talking about: Nevermind that Fisher turned wide receiver Xavier Rhodes into an NFL first-round pick at corner. Or that he might do the same for defensive tackle-turned-offensive lineman Cameron Erving. Fisher's latest position swap may end up his best. Karlos Williams practiced just eight days at tailback after spending his career at safety, but he still turned his first carry into a 65-yard TD run and finished the game with eight carries for 110 yards.

Jeremy Pruitt can play it safe, too: After three years under Mark Stoops' conservative philosophy, the promise from Pruitt was lots of blitzing and lots of aggression. That still may be the case, but against Nevada, FSU's D didn't push the envelope much. The lone takeaway was gift-wrapped for Tyler Hunter, FSU had no sacks and just two tackles for loss before garbage time with the backups, and yet the uptempo Wolfpack still managed just 219 yards in the game. Nevada ran nearly 20 fewer plays than its season average, in spite of a sizable time-of-possession edge. And like the opener in Pittsburgh, FSU's D got better as the game wore on -- allowing Nevada just 76 yards on its final nine drives.

FSU has some depth: Sure, it was Nevada. And sure, the Wolfpack had their reserves in the game for much of the second half. But it's nevertheless rewarding for Fisher to see some of his younger players and reserves make some noise. Ruben Carter got the start at right guard for injured Tre Jackson and looked good. Freddie Stevenson and Ryan Green got their first touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Reggie Northrup and Ukeme Eligwe made some big plays on defense. In all, Florida State's eight touchdowns were scored by eight different players.

What we learned: FSU 41, Pitt 13

September, 3, 2013
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Remember the talk before Monday night about the overhyped quarterback and the obvious trap game circumstances in Pittsburgh? That talk didn't last long. Here's what we learned about Florida State in Week 1 instead ...

Believe the hype: Before it's all over, Jameis Winston will play in somewhere between 23 and 55 more games at FSU, so there's plenty of history left to be written before anyone crowns him as an all-time great. But as far as debuts go, they don't get much better than this. Winston was 25-of-27 passing for 356 yards and four TDs (there was a fifth on the ground), shattering even the most extreme expectations. Before the game, it was easy to wonder if all the hype was too much for a guy making his first start on the road amid massive expectations. Now, the only question is what he'll do for an encore.

The freshmen got to play: Winston wasn't the only freshman to make some noise Monday. Demarcus Walker and Jalen Ramsey both got starting nods on defense, with Ramsey hauling in a first-half interception and making four tackles. Roberto Aguayo connected on both of his field-goal attempts. Isaiah Jones and Ryan Green saw some late action as well. FSU got a chance to see a lot of youngsters Monday, and that bodes well moving forward.

The defense is a work in progress: There was plenty to like about how FSU played, forcing a couple of turnovers (and having their hands on a few more potential takeaways) while essentially shutting down Pitt's offense in the second half. But Pitt's Tom Savage isn't going to be the most challenging QB the defense faces all season, and still, the Seminoles' defense didn't get much pressure unless they brought the blitz. That's a bit of a concern, as were the numerous big plays Pitt made by getting outside the tackles. There's work to be done, and DC Jeremy Pruitt will no doubt be pushing the unit hard before Nevada arrives in Week 3, but at the end of the day, FSU still allowed just 297 total yards of offense.

Depth issues? What depth issues?: Maybe Florida State's limited depth chart at receiver and tight end will be an issue at some point down the road -- and certainly, one injury in either area could be a major problem -- but it was smooth sailing Monday. Nick O'Leary finally delivered a game that so many fans had assumed would be the norm when he arrived, becoming Winston's favorite end-zone target and catching three TDs. Meanwhile, the veteran receivers looked the part, as Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin combined for 17 catches, 293 yards and a touchdown.

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