Florida State enters the ACC championship game as the most complete team in the nation and will have its eyes on the BCS national championship game.
With all the talk of the potential national championship matchups dominating the media in the days leading up to the conference championship game, the No. 1 Seminoles will have to avoid getting too far ahead of themselves if they hope to play in Pasadena.
Star quarterback Jameis Winston learned Thursday that he would not be charged with a felony for sexual assault from an incident last year involving a former Florida State student. Winston's issues off the field had been hanging over the program for several weeks, but will not prevent him from playing Saturday.
The redshirt freshman has been efficiently explosive for the Seminoles (12-0, 8-0 in the ACC) this season. Through 12 games, the Bessemer, Ala., native has thrown for 35 touchdowns—one short of Sam Bradford’s NCAA freshman record—and has completed 68.8 percent of his passes, tossing just eight interceptions in the process.
Winston’s favorite target this season has been junior Rashad Greene. The first-team All-ACC selection has hauled in 61 receptions for 914 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
“He’s got great talent around him,” Duke linebacker Kelby Brown said. “His receivers are excellent. Running backs, offensive line, great pass protection—so he’s surrounded by a lot of talented guys, and he can sit back there and make really good throws.”
A large part of Winston and Greene’s success stems from the depth of the receiving corps. Wideout Kelvin Benjamin—at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds—has complemented Greene’s play by being a physical threat the Seminoles are confident in sending over the middle and has been a nightmare matchup for opposing teams this year. The redshirt sophomore's 12 touchdowns have him tied for eighth in the nation while his 18.6 yards per catch is good enough for 18th.
Another weapon at Winston’s disposal is junior tight end Nick O’Leary. The second-team All-ACC selection leads tight ends in the ACC in touchdown receptions and trails only North Carolina’s Eric Ebron in receiving yards. With the secondary focused on stopping Greene and Benjamin, Duke’s linebackers will share the responsibility of covering O’Leary Saturday.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him drop a ball,” Brown said. “He’s a guy who just finds a way to get open, and I don’t know how he does it, but he just seems to get open and make plays down the field. A lot of their offense seems to be centered around him and the run game follows him a lot, so we’ve got to really cover him well and not let him pin us on blocks.”
The Seminole offensive line is among one of the best in the nation, with three first-team All-ACC selections in tackle Cameron Irving, guard Tre' Jackson and center Bryan Stork. The experience on the line has resulted in three running backs topping the 500-yard mark for the season, led by junior Devonta Freeman with 852 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“Playing them last year, they’re one of the better offensive lines we played,” defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “Credit to them, they just do a great job at sticking together and playing very well.”
But the Seminole aerial attack has had moments of weakness. During the three-game stretch against Clemson, N.C. State and Miami, Winston threw four interceptions and suddenly seemed to show a chink in his armor. But he stopped any of that talk by throwing for 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions in the final four games of the season.
“If they give you an opportunity for them to make a mistake, you have to capitalize on it because they’re going to make plays,” Sarmiento said. “That’s just the nature of things.”
Duke’s offense will face just as steep a challenge when it goes up against the top defense in the nation, allowing a paltry 11.0 points per game. The experienced front seven, led by senior linebacker Telvin Smith and junior defensive tackle Timmy Jernagin, boasts the 13th-best rushing defense in the NCAA. Thanks to its lockdown secondary, the front seven has been able to wreak havoc in opposing backfields—racking up 25 sacks in the regular season.
The Florida State secondary leads the nation in passing yards allowed per game and is tied with Houston for first in team interceptions with 23. Senior safety Lamarcus Joyner—the only defensive Seminole to earn first-team All-ACC honors— registered a team-high five sacks and three forced fumbles during the regular season as well as grabbing an interception. Freshman safety Nate Andrews leads the team with four interceptions.
But one area the Seminole defense has proved to be weak is in its pass coverage of running backs coming out of the backfield. Of the 16 touchdowns allowed, five were scored on passes to running backs leaking out of the backfield to run drag or wheel routes.
Duke running back Jela Duncan has been the Blue Devils’ biggest threat in terms of catching passes out of the backfield. Both he and Shaquille Powell have registered touchdown receptions this season and will certainly be used to exploit this soft spot in Florida State’s defense.
The Seminoles enter the contest as 30-point favorites and one clear goal on their mind: to play in Pasadena come Jan. 6. If Florida State can forget about the distractions, as it has in the past several weeks, its depth and explosiveness will make it a tough upset to pull off for Duke.