Florida State Seminoles: nick o'leary
First, there’s the subtle smirk. There’s a story there, some amusing anecdote that springs to mind immediately. The smirk evolves into a wry grin, followed by a shake of the head when the teammate remembers that O’Leary only lets the curtain be pulled back so far. Then the answer arrives, bland and boring, as if O’Leary had scripted it himself.
Nick’s just a normal guy.
If that’s a story worth telling, it won’t be O’Leary gushing details.
“He’s not in to being out there,” said QB Sean Maguire, O’Leary’s roommate. “That’s just his personality.”
Among strangers, O’Leary’s personality might best be compared to a bouncer at a biker bar. He’s a brooding behemoth, masked in a scraggly red beard and hair spiked with sweat. He’s not much of a talker, but he’s a mammoth presence.
What’s best known is O’Leary’s pedigree. He’s the grandson of Jack Nicklaus, a tidbit offered with all the subtlety of a jackhammer by virtually every broadcaster who’s called one of his games. O’Leary says he doesn’t mind the constant reminders, but he’s not interested in living off grandpa’s reflected spotlight.
A better window into O’Leary’s psyche is the motorcycle accident, when he did battle with a Lexus and won. The daredevil act was caught on a bus’ security camera and is replayed routinely as further evidence of O’Leary’s toughness. And he is tough.
On the field, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound O’Leary means business -- like the game against Clemson when he hauled in a short pass from Jameis Winston, steamrolled the Tigers’ safety, then rumbled another 15 yards to set up a touchdown.
In his third year as FSU’s starting tight end, he’s made enormous strides in his blocking. He’s racked up more yards and touchdowns in 11 games in 2013 than he had in his previous two seasons combined. He’s picked up a first down on 65 percent of his targets this year, tied for the best rate among tight ends in the country.
“He’s like a silent assassin,” Jimbo Fisher said.
But what about those sly grins from teammates? Surely they know something the rest of the world doesn’t. There must be something more there, some depth of character that rarely shines through the surly public persona, right?
“He’s a simple guy, and he enjoys simple things,” said Jack Daniels, O’Leary’s high school coach. “He loves football. He loves to be outdoors. He loves to be around his friends. There’s just not much more to him.”
O’Leary joined Daniels’ team at Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach midway through his high school career. He’d transferred from a much smaller school, looking to showcase his skills against stiffer competition.
Daniels remembers the day he met O’Leary -- this big kid from a famous family, carrying himself with a self-assured swagger that could easily rub you the wrong way if you didn’t really know him.
“He struck me as being pretty cocky,” Daniels said.
But the coach soon understood that it wasn’t arrogance. It was determination. No one wanted success more than O’Leary. The kid could’ve had anything he wanted by virtue of his grandfather’s fame, but O’Leary didn’t want anything he hadn’t worked for. Practice was a constant competition.
“We pushed each other,” said Gerald Christian, O’Leary’s teammate at Dwyer, who now plays at Louisville. “We’d go all practice without a drop.”
Still, the drops happened. Daniels remembers a game O’Leary dropped three passes in a row. The next morning -- a Saturday --O’Leary was back at the school, out on the practice field, catching balls. He had to get better.
That’s what made life so tough at Florida State. In high school, he could flub a play then get another shot on the next snap. At FSU, his mistakes lingered.
In last year’s win over Miami, O’Leary caught the first pass of the game, attempted to hurdle a defender, and fumbled the ball away. He didn’t catch another pass for two weeks.
“The most disappointing thing for him,” Daniels said. “All he wanted was another chance to make up for the fumble.”
O’Leary learned from the mistakes though. He’s been as sure-handed as anyone on Florida State’s roster this year. He’s caught a team-leading 79 percent of his targets, and he hasn’t fumbled once. Mistakes happen, but O’Leary never backs down.
“When a fight breaks out in practice, if it’s his fight, I’ll run over and help him,” center Bryan Stork said. “If it’s mine, he’ll run over and help me. It’s good to have him on my side. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
But really, O’Leary’s not a fighter. He just wants people to think he is. He was born into privilege, so he’s developed a hard shell, a tough-as-nails, country-boy air so no one can accuse him of being soft.
Beneath the hardscrabble exterior, though, there’s a gentle side. Maybe.
“Nick is like a little teddy bear,” Kelvin Benjamin said. “Everybody thinks Nick’s mean because he’s got that ‘Duck Dynasty’ beard going. You get to know him, and he’s a very cool cat.”
Getting to know O’Leary isn’t easy though. He’s not particularly interested in letting the rest of the world into the sanctuary he’s created, but he knows the spotlight is getting brighter.
“I guess it comes with winning,” he said.
With each win, O’Leary’s legend grows. He set the school’s all-time record for career touchdown receptions by a tight end two weeks ago. Winston slathers him with praise often. The quarterback also let slip that O’Leary booted a 53-yard field goal in practice last week. There’s really nothing O’Leary can’t do.
Well, almost nothing. He’s still not much of a talker.
Quizzed on his improvement this season, O’Leary suggested his rapport with new tight ends coach Tim Brewster has been a key.
“It was tough at the beginning,” he said, “but once we got to know each other and know how people like to be treated and all that, we grew a great relationship where we can talk about anything.”
Suddenly O’Leary realizes he’s said too much. His relationship with his coach is for insiders, not for the masses.
So he found common ground with his outspoken coach?
“Yeah,” O’Leary says.
And the relationship has been rewarding?
“We’re good,” he says.
And now that he’s having so much success, perhaps those broadcasters won’t need to mention his grandfather?
“I don’t care,” O’Leary said. “I don’t listen to the game.”
The finalists for the Home Depot College Football Awards were revealed on Monday with strong representation from the ACC. Here is a look at the ACC players up for the major awards to be handed out Dec. 12 in Orlando and shown at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Chuck Bednarik Award, defensive player of the year: Aaron Donald, Pitt
Biletnikoff award, most outstanding receiver: Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Lou Groza Award, most outstanding kicker: Roberto Aguayo, Florida State
Maxwell Award, college player of the year: Jameis Winston, Florida State
Davey O'Brien Award, best quarterback: Jameis Winston, Florida State
Outland Trophy, most outstanding interior lineman: Aaron Donald, Pitt
Jim Thorpe Award, best defensive back: Lamarcus Joyner, Florida State
Doak Walker Award, best running back: Andre Williams, Boston College
John Mackey Award, outstanding tight end: Eric Ebron, North Carolina; Nick O'Leary Florida State
Only one award does not have an ACC finalist: Ray Guy Award, which goes to the best punter in the nation.
For a complete list of finalists, click here.
(Last week’s rankings in parentheses)
1. Jameis Winston (1): With Johnny Manziel and Bryce Petty both losing Saturday, the Heisman race is pretty much over, as long as Winston’s legal difficulties don’t scare voters away.
3. Timmy Jernigan (3): If Jernigan was the only player on the field for FSU’s defense, he still would have won a majority of the battles. He dominated Idaho’s O-line, racking up six tackles, 4.5 for a loss and 2.5 sacks in less than a half of action.
4. Devonta Freeman (4): His chase for 1,000 yards is back on after a stellar 11-carry, 129-yard day against the Vandals.
5. Telvin Smith (6): Four tackles and a pick-six. A fitting send off in front of the home crowd for one of FSU’s most vocal leaders.
6. Rashad Greene (5): Another quiet day for Greene, who had just two catches for 29 yards. But while teams focus on him, his counterparts are racking up a myriad of big plays.
7. Jalen Ramsey (8): If you ranked the five biggest hits delivered by FSU defenders Saturday, Ramsey would’ve had at least three of them.
8. Kenny Shaw (NR): Finally hit the 100-yard mark, catching five passes for 107 yards and two scores. Shaw, like Greene, is on pace to top 1,000 receiving yards this year, but he’s already over 1,000 all-purpose yards.
9. Christian Jones (7): Relatively quiet day for Jones, but that’s to be expected given how little time the first-team D spent on the field.
10. Nick O’Leary (9): Just one catch for 13 yards, but O’Leary continues to be a huge weapon over the middle.
Honorable mentions: S Terrence Brooks, WR Kelvin Benjamin, RB Karlos Williams
(Last week’s rankings in parentheses.)
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): Here’s the list of quarterbacks since 2000 to have two games in the same season with at least 15 completions in which they completed at least 90 percent of their throws: Winston. That’s it. That’s the list.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four more tackles, 1.5 more sacks. Joyner is making a strong case to be named the ACC’s defensive player of the year.
3. DT Timmy Jernigan (5): Of course, if Joyner’s not the ACC’s top defender, maybe Jernigan deserves the honor. He had six tackles (one for a loss) all in the first half, and he now has 37 tackles on the season. While he was in the game, Syracuse had five yards rushing on 18 carries.
4. RB Devonta Freeman (3): A few weeks ago, Freeman’s quest for 1,000 yards looked like a sure thing. After two blowouts in which he’s carried just 10 times, he now needs to average 75 yards a game to make 1,000.
5. WR Rashad Greene (4): He’s suffering a similar fate as Freeman. He’s had just 87 receiving yards in his last two games -- a total he’s topped in a single game five times this season. Still, Greene is just 140 yards shy of 1,000 for the year.
6. LB Telvin Smith (6): Four tackles, one for a loss, and a pass break-up -- Smith’s draft stock is rising by the week.
7. DE Christian Jones (10): His move to the line has been huge, and he finished with four tackles (one for a loss) against Syracuse.
8. S Jalen Ramsey (7): Three tackles, a QB hurry, and another terrific performance from one of the country’s most consistent true freshmen.
9. TE Nick O’Leary (NR): His third-quarter touchdown reception from Sean Maguire made O’Leary Florida State’s record holder for career TDs by a tight end.
10. S Terrence Brooks (9): He returned from a concussion with four tackles as FSU’s secondary was once again dominant.
Honorable mentions: DB Nate Andrews, WR Kermit Whitfield, RB James Wilder Jr., WR Kelvin Benjamin, WR Kenny Shaw, RB Karlos Williams, DT Eddie Goldman
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- He started with 11 straight completions, an answer to anyone who wondered if this chaos would finally unravel the unflappable focus of Jameis Winston.
He lounged on the sideline throughout the entirety of the second half of yet another blowout win, joking with former Heisman winner and Florida State great Charlie Ward. If Winston was worried that an off-field scandal might squash his hopes of following in Ward’s footsteps, his wide smile and relaxed demeanor didn’t show it Saturday.
Once the 59-3 shellacking of Syracuse was over, Winston lingered on the field for a few extra moments, then darted toward the tunnel, stopping behind the end zone when he found coach Jimbo Fisher’s young son. He shared high-fives with a contingent of kids, then exited the field through a cadre of fans reaching out their hands and shouting his name, disappearing into the locker room that is his sanctuary.
This was Florida State’s first mantra this week: Everything stays the same.
Eventually, Winston emerged to face the cameras and the reporters. During his five-minute news conference, he faced a slew of questions about his focus, but not one about his potential involvement in a sexual-assault case being investigated by the state attorney’s office. Media had been instructed that Winston would discuss football only, but those unanswered questions tinged every aspect of Florida State’s victory on Saturday.
That is the other mantra at Florida State until there is some resolution to this case: No comment.
“One thing about Florida State, we’re a big family,” Winston said, “and we stay inside the family.”
A sexual assault was alleged to have occurred last December, and at some point after that, Winston became entangled in the investigation. On Wednesday, that information became public, but few other details of the story have emerged since.
Fisher skillfully dodged questions during a postgame media session that was, at times, more like a chess match between those who wanted details and a man who might have some.
Winston turned the focus onto his teammates, just as he had all season. Florida State’s defense once again was dominant. The offense scored touchdowns on its first five drives. There was too much love to go around to belabor the ugly story that overshadowed everything else for the previous four days.
The rest of the Seminoles were subjected to similar scrutiny, but they were careful not to provide any spark that might further ignite this growing media firestorm. It was, defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan said, the closest thing possible to business as usual.
“The guy, he’s had a lot going on around him from the start of the season,” Jernigan said of Winston, a redshirt freshman. “When you play like he plays, a lot’s going to come with it, whether it’s in a good way or a bad way. He’s just going out and playing his game. Nothing’s going to bother him.”
Indeed, Winston hardly seemed flustered by the off-field distractions. He finished the game completing 19 of 21 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered a devastating block 40 yards downfield on a 74-yard touchdown run by freshman Levonte Whitfield. He nearly drew a flag sprinting onto the field to celebrate a defensive touchdown. He beamed after his backup, Sean Maguire, threw the first touchdown pass of his career in the third quarter, a beautiful lob to tight end Nick O'Leary in the end zone that may offer some hope for Florida State’s offense should this scandal derail Winston’s season.
“Nothing’s going to hold Jaboo back,” tailback James Wilder Jr. said of his QB. “He’s always happy, always cheering. He was tuned in, locked in.”
Before the game, the 1993 national championship team was honored, and even Seminoles 20 years removed from their playing days faced questions. Ward offered support for Winston. After an 11-month delay in investigating the incident, Ward suggested the timing of Tallahassee police’s decision to send the case to the state attorney was curious.
Derrick Brooks, a defensive star on that 1993 team, said this year’s Seminoles would rally around Winston. Championship teams, he said, always face adversity, and the cure was to step back onto the field.
But adversity seems like the wrong word. Fans cheered his name, and reporters studied Winston’s face for signs that the cloud of suspicion would finally crack his unflinchingly upbeat facade. But the alleged victim in the case remains nameless and faceless to the public, another in the stream of details still unknown.
Saturday’s game did little to part the clouds of the growing storm surrounding the program. It simply proved once again that, with Winston at quarterback, Florida State is a team more than capable of playing for a national championship.
“When you have great veterans around you and great people you trust,” Winston said, “you want to go out on that battlefield and play your heart out for them.”
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): It wasn’t Winston’s sharpest performance, but who could blame him? The offense barely saw the field in the second quarter, and it was incredibly difficult to get in a rhythm. The question is, given the remaining opponents, when will it be easy to get into a rhythm?
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four tackles, including assisting on a TFL. Another solid performance from Joyner, who somehow managed to finish without a pick in a game when FSU defenders had six of them.
3. RB Devonta Freeman (3): Slow going for Freeman, who found little running room. He had just 11 yards on six carries -- a long of 3 -- but did score for the ninth time this season.
4. WR Rashad Greene (4): He was FSU’s leading receiver (5 for 47 yards) but it wasn’t a big day for any of usual the offensive stars, and Greene did have a key drop.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (6): Six tackles by halftime, dominating the line of scrimmage, and utterly stuffing Wake’s run game up the middle.
6. LB Telvin Smith (5): Three tackles, but like most of the starters, he didn’t need to do much.
7. S Jalen Ramsey (NR): For the most part this season, Ramsey has been so good he’s gone unnoticed. His scoop and score on a fumble Saturday was a highlight, but really, Wake didn’t test him much. It’s saying something that a true freshman is earning real respect from the opposition.
8. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (10): Since he returned to the lineup following hand surgery in Week 6, FSU’s first-team defense has allowed 21 points in five games. Edwards picked off a pass against Wake to go with a TFL.
9. S Terrence Brooks (7): Brooks missed Saturday’s game with a concussion, but that may have actually been a nice contribution. Brooks’ replacement, Nate Andrews, created three turnovers and scored on one.
10. DE Christian Jones (9): His impact at rush end has been big, and he was in the backfield often Saturday, despite finishing with just one tackle.
Honorable mentions: Andrews, TE Nick O’Leary, RBs Karlos Williams and James Wilder Jr., LB Terrance Smith, WRs Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin
“He was so bad,” Fisher joked before escaping the media throng.
Indeed, Saturday’s performance -- 21-of-29 for 325 yards, one TD and two interceptions -- is what constitutes a struggle for Winston, the Heisman hopeful whose season has offered few opportunities for skepticism. He’s set the bar high enough that eventually, he was bound to fall short.
“I keep forgetting he’s a freshman, too,” said Fisher, who has rarely referred to his quarterback by his class designation this season. “I’m not used to him making many mistakes either. But he didn’t make many.”
It’s parsing an otherwise strong performance -- Winston’s adjusted QBR for the game was a sterling 94.6, the sixth-best performance of the week -- but there were those two noticeable mistakes.
Both interceptions came on similar throws -- deep balls down the middle of the field, where Winston had neglected to consider a safety coming over the top. On the first, it appeared receiver Rashad Greene got tangled with the corner. On the second, there looked to be an obvious miscommunication with tight end Nick O’Leary. And yet, both throws were clearly poor decisions by Winston.
For Miami, that was the idea.
The conventional wisdom from the outset of the season was to blitz Winston, forcing the inexperienced quarterback into a mistake. But Winston has made defenses pay for such an unimaginative approach. Entering Saturday’s game, he was exceptional against the blitz, completing 70 percent of his passes for an average of 12.4 yards per attempt with 11 touchdowns and just two INTs, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
(*For the season, Winston has faced five or more pass rushers on 36 percent of his attempts.)
By the time Miami arrived in Tallahassee, the secret was out.
“They blitzed a little bit, but they did it more like fire zone, slanting the line,” tackle Cameron Erving said. “They were coached well.”
Miami still blitzed on roughly one-third of Winston’s attempts, but the Hurricanes prioritized coverage over the top, hoping to lull the aggressive Winston into a mistake downfield. In the first half, the plan mostly worked.
On both interceptions, Fisher said there was a better option underneath that Winston should have looked to, but it’s hard to ask a quarterback having so much success downfield to change his stripes in an instant.
“He’s just aggressive,” Fisher said. “If you say ‘whoa’ and you’re hesitant, you can’t play. He’s made so many plays. We’ll live with a few of those [mistakes], and he’ll grow from them. He loves throwing the ball in the middle of the field, and we’re going to continue to be aggressive in there.”
Fisher was correct on both counts.
Winston did learn from his mistakes. At halftime, he promised his teammates there wouldn’t be another turnover. He was true to his word, with just two second-half passes falling incomplete. Winston adjusted to the game plan, checking down to his backs and tight end more often. For the game, they accounted for 10 of his 21 completions and 152 of his 325 passing yards.
Florida State also ran the ball more than it had all season. Sixty percent of the Seminoles’ plays were runs, the highest of the season against an FBS foe. The ground game’s effectiveness paid off for Winston, too. He was a stellar 10-of-11 for 183 yards off play-action passes against Miami.
But Winston remains aggressive, and the fact that three of the six interceptions he’s thrown this season were balls deep over the middle hasn’t altered that philosophy a bit.
“Most of my completions are on the deep ball in the middle, too,” Winston said. “I just made mistakes forcing the ball, and I can’t do that. I’ve got to check the ball down and just move on.”
Chalk it up to a learning experience, Fisher said.
Teams will continue to adjust, hoping to find an answer to Winston’s offensive exploits. Winston must adjust, too, and Saturday’s win provided a template for how that can happen while Florida State still marches to an easy win.
“I don’t know if I learned a lot about myself, but I learned a lot about this team,” Winston said afterward. “They really put me on their shoulders and carried me the whole way.”
1. QB Jameis Winston (Previous rank: No. 1): If the worst game of Winston’s career is a 27-point win in which he throws for 325 yards, Florida State fans won’t be too concerned.
3. RB Devonta Freeman (6): Yes, Freeman racked up an impressive 176 yards of offense and three TDs, but here’s another area his impact was felt: Winston was 10-of-11 for 183 yards on play-action against Miami.
4. WR Rashad Greene (3): One of just six ACC receivers averaging more than 90 receiving yards per game this year.
5. LB Telvin Smith (4): Four tackles, including one for a loss, in the win over Miami.
6. DT Timmy Jerngian (5): Four tackles and he sat on a guy vs. the Hurricanes. Jernigan has been an absolute beast in the middle all season for Florida State.
7. S Terrence Brooks (7): He left early with concussion symptoms, but coach Jimbo Fisher said Brooks appeared fine in the locker room after the game. He made his impact early anyway, finishing with six tackles, including a big sack, in the early going.
8. LT Cameron Erving (9): Thoroughly dominated Anthony Chickillo throughout and helped open running lanes against a stout front seven for Miami.
9. DE Christian Jones (7): Continues to look like a strong addition in his new role coming off the edge.
10. DE Mario Edwards Jr. (NR): The biggest difference for FSU’s defensive line the past few weeks has been a healthy Edwards, who finished Saturday with four tackles, including two for a loss.
Honorable mentions: TE Nick O’Leary, WR Kenny Shaw, WR Kelvin Benjamin, LB Terrance Smith, DT Eddie Goldman
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was billed as a return of one of college football’s best rivalries. For the first time in nine years, Miami and Florida State met with both ranked in the top 10 and both undefeated.
The first half saw Miami prove the hype was deserved, and Jameis Winston struggle for the first time in his career, but by the time it was over, Devonta Freeman and the third-ranked Seminoles had once again asserted their dominance, thumping No. 7 Miami 41-14.
It was over when: Nate Andrews picked off Stephen Morris on Miami’s first drive of the fourth quarter, effectively ending the Hurricanes’ hopes for a comeback. Miami moved the ball relatively well on the previous drive, but Nile Lawrence-Stample stuffed Duke Johnson on a fourth-down run, leaving the Hurricanes with no wiggle room the rest of the way. Unfortunately for Miami, Morris coughed up his second pick three plays into its next drive, and Florida State (8-0, 6-0 ACC) largely ran out the clock from there.
Game ball goes to: Freeman. The Miami native picked up the slack when Winston, the redshirt freshman quarterback, struggled, and for the second consecutive season, he was the difference in a Seminoles victory over their in-state rival. Freeman finished the game with 29 touches for 176 yards and three touchdowns. His 48-yard catch-and-run was the game’s highlight play, but his punishing style in the ground game was the tone-setter.
Stat of the game: 44. That’s the number of rushes for Florida State’s offense, tallying a total of 192 yards and four touchdowns on the ground. On a day when the passing game scuffled at times, the runners -- including Winston, who converted two third downs with his legs -- made all the difference. There were big runs -- 19-yard scampers by both Winston and Freeman -- and a bunch of tough ones that helped FSU dominate the time of possession and control the tempo of the game. The 44 rushes were a season high for the Seminoles.
What Miami learned: It’s not at an elite level yet. Al Golden’s bunch actually put up more of a fight than a lot of pundits believed it would, but in the end, Miami got most of the breaks it needed and still wasn’t particularly close to knocking off Florida State. Johnson ran fairly well, Morris made some of his best throws of the season, and Winston gave Miami 14 points. That was supposed to be the recipe for an upset, but it wasn’t to be. Miami (7-1, 3-1) has clearly made progress, and with the black cloud of NCAA sanctions mostly gone, that progress should continue. But Florida State is clearly playing at another level.
What Florida State learned: It can win without Winston. It’s not that the phenom was horrible, but he did throw two big interceptions that led directly to Miami’s two first-half touchdowns. Both occurred on deep balls over the middle, while the bulk of his success came on check-downs to Freeman and tight end Nick O'Leary. Still, Winston’s struggles didn’t exactly hamper the offense. The unit piled up 517 yards, led by Freeman’s big game. Of course, while it was Winston's worst performance thus far, he still finished 21-of-29 for 325 yards.
What it means: Florida State has made its case for the BCS. The rest is up to the voters. Yes, the Seminoles still have five more games to impress, but there won’t be another showcase like Saturday’s game. The remaining slate -- Wake Forest, Syracuse, Idaho, Florida and a potential rematch with Miami in the ACC title game -- won’t have the same hype, but the Seminoles’ two wins over top-10 teams by a combined 92-28 margin make an awfully strong argument that, if they finish the season without a loss, they belong in the national title game.
WHY FLORIDA STATE WILL WIN
2. The rejuvenated defense. It took the Seminoles a while to adjust to new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s scheme, but they seem to have things pointed in the right direction now. They ended September by allowing 200 yards rushing to Boston College, and for the month, they coughed up an average of 152 yards per game on the ground. In October, however, they’ve trimmed that average by nearly 40 yards (against better teams). Moving Christian Jones to defensive end and getting Mario Edwards Jr. healthy has been a big part of the improvement, but much of the difference is simply experience in the new system. Add in FSU’s aggressive blitzing strategy against a quarterback who’s battled an ankle injury all season, and there’s a good chance the Seminoles’ D could have a big day.
3. The intangibles. The numbers already suggest a pretty clear advantage on the field for Florida State, which enters the game as a three-touchdown favorite. But more than that, all the off-the-field markers are tipped in FSU’s favor, too. Seniors like Lamarcus Joyner, Terrence Brooks and Telvin Smith are eager to wrap up a 4-0 career against their archrivals. Florida State is expecting a sellout crowd at Doak Campbell for the first time this season. It’s a big-game environment, but FSU already knows that feeling, having played two prime-time games already, including one against Clemson just two weeks ago.
WHY MIAMI WILL WIN
1. Duke Johnson and the run game. The Hurricanes have relied heavily on their run game all season, specifically to pull out comeback wins in the fourth quarter of their past two games. Miami is averaging 214.7 yards per game on the ground this season -- its highest total going back to 1960. In fact, Miami has averaged more than 200 yards rushing just twice in that time span. Johnson leads the way with a league-high 6.7 yards per rush. Dallas Crawford runs hard, too, and he won the North Carolina game for the Canes. Do not overlook this offensive line, either. Miami only has one underclassman in its starting lineup and presents the best line the Seminoles have seen to date.
2. Stephen Morris is finally healthy. Morris is the healthiest he has been since the start of the season after playing through a lingering ankle injury in the past five games. That injury forced him to change his footwork and mechanics, and it did not allow him to take snaps under center as much as Miami wanted. The Canes are hoping a healthy Morris means fewer mistakes and better decisions. "Definitely need to be better on first-down efficiency, making the right decision on first down," Morris said. "Setting up an easy second and third down is huge for us, and when we get into our third down, our money downs, we have to stay on the field. I need to make better decisions, I need to see the field better, and especially in the red zone, converting touchdowns instead of field goals."
3. Improved pass defense. As was mentioned above, Miami is much better defensively this season than last. One of the biggest keys to slowing down Winston is not so much flustering him or blitzing him, because he does well under pressure. Rather, the Hurricanes need to take away the guys who make plays for him. In this instance, Miami must do an excellent job covering receivers Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin, along with tight end Nick O'Leary. That means tackling well and not allow those guys to get behind them for a big play. Miami has forced 19 turnovers in 2013, second-highest in the ACC and better than Florida State. Of those, 12 are interceptions, which is tied for No. 12 in the nation.
On to the picks!
Virginia Tech (6-2, 3-1) at Boston College (3-4, 1-3), noon ET, ABC/ESPN2. #VTvsBC. Well, this one ought to be fun. Two of the worst offenses in the entire country square off -- No. 110 Virginia Tech vs. No. 108 Boston College. Those offensive struggles cost both teams last week in losses. Logan Thomas threw four interceptions against Duke; Chase Rettig threw for 57 yards against North Carolina -- which has the worst statistical defense in the ACC. If Rettig struggled that badly against the Tar Heels, what will happen against the No. 3 defense in the nation? Nothing has come easily for the Hokies on offense, putting extra stress on the defense to play nearly perfectly to win. AA says bank on the Virginia Tech offense and Thomas to play better. Not like an offensive juggernaut, but efficient enough to win. AA picks: Virginia Tech 21, Boston College 13.
HD picks: Boston College 24, Virginia Tech 21: The Eagles have home-field advantage -- and the edge on the ground. In a game that will feature two embattled quarterbacks, the difference will be the Eagles’ ability to run the ball consistently. BC is averaging 176.6 rushing yards per game; the Hokies are No. 105 in the country in rushing offense at 124.5 yards. Andre Williams leads the ACC and is fifth in the nation in rushing. He’s not going to have a career day, but he’ll have a good enough performance -- and Virginia Tech will make enough mistakes -- for the Eagles to win.
North Carolina (2-5, 1-3) at NC State (3-4, 0-4), 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3. #UNCvsNCST. The Wolfpack have taken a bit of a nosedive in the month of October, losing three straight in some pretty disappointing performances. Their previous win? Sept. 28 against Central Michigan. Meanwhile, North Carolina seems reinvigorated after nearly upsetting Miami, then beating Boston College. The Tar Heels pulled out the win over NC State in one of the best ACC games last season. But AA is going with NC State in this one. The Wolfpack are going to be able to gain yards with their running game, and the NC State defensive front will do enough to keep Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams out of rhythm. North Carolina has not won in Raleigh since 2005. AA picks: NC State 30, North Carolina 27.
HD picks: North Carolina 35, NC State 21: The Tar Heels are simply the more talented of the two teams right now, they’ve got an NFL-caliber tight end in Eric Ebron, and they’ve got the edge at quarterback. UNC has started to play better on defense and has made fewer mistakes in each of the past two games. The 10 points allowed against Boston College on Saturday was its fewest allowed against an ACC opponent since a 44-10 win at Virginia on Oct. 16, 2010. North Carolina’s defense allowed just 59 passing yards, the fewest by an opponent since Clemson threw for 37 yards in a UNC win in Death Valley on Nov. 15, 1997. UNC will continue that progress against a Pack offense that is averaging just 23.6 points per game.
Wake Forest (4-4, 2-3) at Syracuse (3-4, 1-2), 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3. #WAKEvsCUSE. The Deacs might have lost last week but they sure did put a scare into the No. 7 Hurricanes, leading for all but a few minutes. Wake is playing much better at this point compared to the beginning of the season, and all eyes once again are going to be on Michael Campanaro, who has double-digit receptions in three straight games. He needs six receptions to move into second place on the ACC's career list. Syracuse has been depleted in the secondary, so Wake Forest gets the edge there. The Orange looked miserable offensively the last time out against Georgia Tech. We don't anticipate a similar performance, but Nikita Whitlock and his teammates up front will do enough to disrupt the run game to get the Deacs closer to bowl eligibility. AA picks: Wake Forest 24, Syracuse 23.
HD picks: Wake Forest 21, Syracuse 17
No. 8 Clemson (7-1, 5-1) at Virginia (2-6, 0-4), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. #CLEMvsUVA. The Tigers have been slow out of the gate in their past three games and have not wowed anybody with their defensive play in the past two. Perhaps that all changes against the worst team in the league. Though Virginia did show signs of life in a loss to Georgia Tech last week, the fact that the Cavaliers scored only once off five Jackets turnovers tells you where this offense -- and this program -- stands. They can make a few plays here and there but for the most part, Virginia has been unable to take advantage of opportunities to win, and killed itself with too many mistakes and penalties. Because of the ACC's unbalanced schedule moving forward, this is the last meeting between the programs until 2020. AA picks: Clemson 38, Virginia 17.
HD picks: Clemson 41, Virginia 27
Pitt (4-3, 2-2) at Georgia Tech (5-3, 4-2), 7 p.m., ESPNU. #PITTvsGT. The Panthers faced a similar offense last week against Navy, so they have some preparation under their belts. But they also lost the game, giving up two scores in the fourth quarter after taking a 21-14 lead. Meanwhile, the offense has struggled since putting up 58 points in a win over Duke in September. In the four games since, the Panthers are averaging 19.8 points a game. In two ACC games, they scored a total of 23 points. Georgia Tech has won two straight, and had three players go over 100 yards rushing last week against Virginia. The Jackets did have some defensive breakdowns and too many turnovers, but the previous time they played at home, they gave a near-flawless effort. AA picks: Georgia Tech 30, Pitt 24.
HD picks: Georgia Tech 31, Pitt 21
No. 7 Miami (7-0, 3-0) at No. 3 Florida State (7-0, 5-0), 8 p.m., ABC. #MIAvsFSU. Nobody is giving Miami a chance to win this game. Indeed, the oddsmakers are treating the Canes as if they are a middle-of-the-pack ACC team, installing them as 22-point underdogs. So does Miami have a shot? Only if the Canes can control the clock, play a power-run game and limit the big plays defensively. Easier said than done. The most concern for Miami has to be on defense, where the Canes lose every single matchup against Florida State. The Seminoles have the stronger offensive line; a talented and deep group of receivers; solid running backs; a Heisman Trophy contender in Jameis Winston; and a terrific tight end in Nick O'Leary. Given how UNC's Eric Ebron torched Miami, slowing down O'Leary has to be a top priority. He has the most red zone touchdown receptions (five) in the ACC. Miami might not be as good as its record indicates, but you can be assured the Canes will be amped for this game and keenly aware that they have been disrespected at every turn. That won't be enough to get them a win, but it will be enough for them to stay closer than everybody believes. AA picks: Florida State 40, Miami 24.
HD’s pick: Florida State 42, Miami 35
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): The back-and-forth scoring decision on a throw to Kelvin Benjamin was finally ruled an interception. That kept Winston from topping three touchdowns and 300 yards for his fifth straight game against an ACC foe. He finished with 292.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (2): Four tackles, a TFL, a pass breakup and a QB hurry. Not bad for 30 minutes of work.
3. WR Rashad Greene (4): Greene has now scored in six of seven games this year and 10 of Florida State’s last 13 overall.
4. LB Telvin Smith (3): Six tackles, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and a QB hurry. Also not bad for 30 minutes of work.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (5): Three tackles, including one for a loss against NC State. Jernigan continues to eat up interior linemen, opening things up for FSU’s linebackers.
6. RB Devonta Freeman (6): 12 carries, 92 yards and two touchdowns, and Freeman is well on his way to snapping that ridiculous 17-year drought without a 1,000-yard rusher.
7. S Terrence Brooks (NR): Brooks is quietly becoming one of FSU’s premier defenders. He racked up the defensive hat trick Saturday, picking off a pass, forcing a fumble and recording a TFL.
8. LB Christian Jones (7): His new role rushing off the edge has made all the difference. Jones had four tackles, a sack and a QB hurry against NC State. He has 3.5 TFLs in the last two games after just one in his first four games.
9. LT Cameron Erving (8): Easy day for Winston means a big day for the O line, and Erving was exceptional once again.
10. WR Kenny Shaw (9): Shaw had just three catches for 44 yards against NC State, both season lows, but he’s still on pace to top 1,000 yards for the year.
Honorable mentions: TE Nick O’Leary, WR Kelvin Benjamin, DT Eddie Goldman, RB Karlos Williams, CB Ronald Darby
Florida State is 6-0 and has played as well as any team in the country.
1. QB Jameis Winston (1): We're running out of adjectives to describe how great he's been, but here's a stat that helps: Winston has accounted for 23 touchdowns in six games so far. E.J. Manuel, the first QB taken in this past April's NFL draft, recorded his 23rd touchdown for FSU last season ... in Game No. 12.
2. CB Lamarcus Joyner (5): It's fair to say the new defensive scheme agrees with Joyner. He recorded eight tackles, a sack and forced three take-aways, including a tempo-setter on Clemson's first offensive play. He's on pace for 77 tackles and seven sacks this season.
3. LB Telvin Smith (6): It's possible there were three or four guys wearing No. 22 jerseys on the field Saturday. That's about the only way to explain how Smith managed to be in on virtually every play. He finished with 11 tackles, including one for a loss.
4. WR Rashad Greene (4): In three career games vs. Clemson, Greene has 20 catches, 280 yards and four touchdowns.
5. DT Timmy Jernigan (3): His sack Saturday was his lone tackle, but Jernigan flat out ate up Clemson's interior line, opening up room for Smith and the other linebackers to have a field day.
6. RB Devonta Freeman (2): Quiet day for the FSU running game, as Freeman finished with 84 yards on 21 carries. The bulk of his production came on a handful of long runs, but there was little room the bulk of the time. That's a slight concern for FSU, which is averaging just 4.1 ypc against ACC teams. Take away Freeman's 17-yarder and Winston's 18-yarder Saturday, and the Noles managed just 3.3 ypc (not counting sacks).
7. LB Christian Jones (NR): This was the breakthrough game Jones was looking for in FSU's new defensive scheme. The 3-5-3 FSU ran much of Saturday is perfectly suited to his skill set, and Jones responded with eight tackles, including two for a loss and one QB hurry.
9. WR Kenny Shaw (7): He was overshadowed by his fellow receivers Saturday, but Shaw's body of work this season is still exceptional.
10. TE Nick O'Leary (NR): Five catches, 161 yards. That's not a line you'll see from tight ends at FSU often. It included a 94-yard reception and one of the biggest hits an FSU offensive player has delivered in a long time.
QB Jameis Winston: It almost seems foolish to be surprised by anything Winston does anymore because he's clearly shown there's no limit to what's he's capable of accomplishing. His latest showcase included 22-of-34 passing, 444 yards, three touchdowns through the air and one more on the ground. In each of Winston's four ACC games this season, he's managed at least 300 yards and three scores.
WR Rashad Greene: In truth, the whole receiving corps deserves kudos for its performance Saturday. Nick O'Leary racked up 161 yards on five catches. Kelvin Benjamin made a trio of acrobatic grabs -- though one was called back by penalty. Kenny Shaw caught five passes, too. But it was Greene who once again dominated the Clemson defense, catching eight passes for 146 yards and two touchdowns. In three career games against the Tigers, Greene has 20 receptions for 280 yards and four scores.
CB Lamarcus Joyner: It was a stellar performance by the defense, which was prepared for everything Clemson tried, and a handful of players stood out. Telvin Smith had 11 tackles, Ronald Darby had an interception, Mario Edwards Jr. returned a fumble for a score. But it was Joyner who was the real star. He set the tempo for the game, forcing a fumble on Clemson's first play from scrimmage, and he added two more takeaways in the first half (one fumble, one INT). For the game, he finished with eight tackles and a sack, and he was crucial in holding Tajh Boyd to perhaps the worst game of his career.
Hat tips to: O'Leary, Smith, Benjamin.
O'Leary scored three times in Florida State's opener against Pitt, matching his career total. Since then, he's showed similar poise, with nine of his 11 grabs going for first downs or touchdowns. His five trips to the end zone are tied for the most by any tight end in the nation, and head coach Jimbo Fisher said most of what O'Leary does best flies under the radar.
"He's blocking well, we move him like a fullback out of the backfield, catching balls down the field," Fisher said. "He's a very productive guy, understands the game, and he's one of those guys [who] does everything. Some of his better games, he doesn't have to catch two or three touchdowns."
Meanwhile, Erving has been a leader on Florida State's veteran offensive line and appears poised for an NFL future. After moving from the defensive line in the spring of 2012, Erving has made significant strides on offense. This season, he's protected quarterback Jameis Winston's blind side and helped FSU's running game to a 6-yard-per-carry average, the ninth-best mark in the nation.
Check out the entirety of ESPN's midseason All-America list here.