Yes, No. 20 Duke is a substantial underdog facing off against No. 1 Florida State. But it’s still the ACC Championship game, and if Duke’s season to date has told us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
There will still be plenty of fun storylines and people to follow as the game unfolds, and if these go wrong (or right, depending on perspective) for either one of these teams, it will severely impact the outcome.
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1. Jameis Winston
Why not, right? He’s the Heisman candidate, the one everyone has been talking about for the last three weeks and who was recently cleared of a sexual assault allegation. And really, he’s the one everyone has been talking about all season. It just took a significantly different tone the last few weeks.
Somehow, though, his statistics have actually gotten better since the news came out. In the last three games, he’s 52-of-77 for 829 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception. In the three games before the news came out, he was 54-of-83 for 776 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
He’s just been superhumanly focused this season on the task at hand most of this season, and somehow that narrowed into a laserbeam even as the events of the last few weeks got crazier and crazier. Either that, or he’s just a football robot. Both are about equally probable at this point.
“It’s been a remarkable maturity level presented by him to be able to compartmentalize and handle things he can control and not that anything was lightly or he didn’t take it seriously,” FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said. “But like I say, in our life everybody has issues or something going on and function and handle them when they have to. He’s very mature like that.”
Now that his legal issues have been resolved, it would seem that all he has to do is not play poorly against Duke to win the Heisman. (He led the most recent poll.)
But Fisher insists he’s not about the awards, and that he hasn’t even mentioned the Heisman to him. And Fisher says he talks to his redshirt freshman quarterback every day.
Even after an interception at Wake Forest, Fisher was angry at his quarterback but admitted he as probably trying to get the ball to a teammate who didn’t have a catch yet this season. (Winston said as much after the fact.)
“I think this guy is about our football team. He is one of them. He wants to play well so our team does good,” Fisher said. “There’s a difference in wanting to have the individual awards and playing well, or you want to play well so your team has success and I think he truly embraces that and understands the responsibility of the quarterback position.”
2. Special teams
Florida State lacks any real weakness — it’s unfair to say special teams is one, since Florida State’s kicker Roberto Aguayo has missed just one field goal attempt all season and no extra-point tries — but coverage has been a problem, particularly punt coverage.
Florida State is 13th in the ACC in net yards per punt, averaging 34.4 and 5.0 yards per punt return. Only two other teams in the league allow that many yards per punt return, and while the Seminoles have punted nearly half as often as everyone else (sometimes less frequently), one would think at some point, it’s going to be an issue.
Maybe this weekend.
Duke is one of the best return teams in the country, averaging 26.2 yards per kickoff return (with an ACC-high two touchdowns on kickoff returns). Florida State does a pretty good job on kickoff coverage, allowing barely 19 yards a return and ranking second in the league in that category.
But where the Blue Devils really excel is punt returns, with wide receiver Jamison Crowder pulling double duty as a returner and has all but seven of Duke’s 368 punt-return yards (and both touchdowns). Duke averages 13.6 yards per return (Crowder himself averages 15).
Florida State is pretty good on returns too, though. The Seminoles have explosive athletes all over the field, and the return game is no different. FSU averages 10.7 yards per punt return with no touchdowns, but is second in the league behind Duke in kickoff return average (25.6) and has one kickoff return for a score.
The coverage units on both teams are going to need to step up. All it takes is one missed tackle for a big play to potentially change the game.
It’s so hard to predict how many penalties a team will get from week to week, and averages — unless they’re extremely high or extremely low — aren’t always predictive of how many penalties a team could get in a given game.
Florida State, though, is tenth in the ACC in penalties with 49.7 penalty yards per game and has 65 penalties on the year. It’s not an absurd number by any means, but … I mean, we’ve got to find something.
And Florida State had some silly ones last week at Florida in a rivalry game — a few unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and such — and considering how efficient the Seminoles are doing almost everything else, it sticks out as a flaw.
Duke is also a team that doesn’t hurt itself much with silly penalties. The Blue Devils are fifth in the ACC in fewest penalty yards per game (42.2), but they’re also second in opponent penalty yardage (53.8). Teams commit some of the silliest penalties you’ll see against the Blue Devils, and it has to be infuriating when they don’t respond in kind.
There could be a Duke drive or two early where a late hit here or an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty there by the FSU defense gets the Blue Devils in scoring position, at least, if the Seminoles don’t tighten up some of that.
“Duke plays tremendously consistent. They make very few mistakes,” Fisher said. “I don’t think we’ve faced anybody that plays as consistent as Duke does in my opinion and is well-coached and the way they have their players playing.”
4. Bend, but don’t break: Can Duke’s fourth-quarter defense contain the Seminoles in quarters 1-3 as well?
Duke has allowed just 37 points all season in the fourth quarter, and just 13 in the last seven games (all wins) after allowing 24 in the first five games. Duke has shut an opponent out in the fourth quarter five times, including twice in the last three games. And a Duke opponent hasn’t scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on November 9. Duke has won the fourth quarter by a combined score of 110-37 this season.
Here’s a terrifying thought, though — Florida State has won the fourth quarter by almost the same score (113-41). And that’s in spite of Florida State playing mostly backups in that quarter.
That’s also the closest quarter FSU has had all season.
This is why Florida State is just as good as advertised, people.
But Florida State’s starters haven’t seen a ton of meaningful snaps late in games. Duke’s goal is going to be to make it to the fourth quarter with the game in reach. That’s going to be easier said than done, obviously.
If it does get to the fourth quarter with the game in reach, though, will it matter that FSU’s starters haven’t played meaningful fourth-quarter football … most of this season, really. And certainly not since the Boston College game. How will they respond? We know how Duke has responded this year.