Florida State and Miami have each been waiting for their talented, albeit inconsistent quarterbacks to step up. But the Seminoles and Hurricanes got what they were looking for on Saturday, getting significant wins that helped reshape the race for the ACC’s division championships.
Few wins—if any—were as significant as FSU’s 49-37 win over Clemson. The ‘Noles and Tigers are easily the class of this conference and certainly of the Atlantic Division. With the win, Florida State has a game lead in the standings and control of the tiebreaker situation, so they have a loss to give in their final six league games. On the other side of the conference, Miami upset Georgia Tech 42-36 in overtime and with the Coastal Division being the weaker of the two, we have to give a serious look at the ‘Canes as a possibility for Charlotte on December 1 for the ACC Championship Game.
It was Florida State’s E.J. Manuel and Miami’s Stephen Morris that were the key to the wins. Manuel completely outplayed his more heralded counterpart, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd. Manuel hit 27/35 for 380 yards and zero interceptions, in a game that was played at fastbreak pace. Manuel had considerably more support from the rush game than Boyd did—the Tigers’ run game behind Andre Ellington was shut down—but a part of the reason for the discrepancy was Manuel himself. He ran for over 100 yards, as did running back Chris Thompson and the Clemson defense eventually broke, with the ‘Noles racking up five second-half touchdowns.
Miami’s been tough to figure this year. A nice early win at Boston College was followed by a blowout loss at Kansas State and a win over Bethune-Cookman where the Hurricanes didn’t stop the run. Going on the road against Georgia Tech’s triple-option didn’t seem to promise a turnaround. And Miami trailed 36-22 when Morris rallied them with two touchdown passes and then won it in overtime. The quarterback finished the day 31/52 for 436 yards. There are four realistic contenders in this division if you include Miami, as we now must. They beat one of them on Saturday. They still play Virginia, who lost decisively at home to TCU and has yet to really look impressive. And down the road is a showdown battle with Coastal frontrunner Virginia Tech. The Hokies have been beaten decisively by Pitt, so they’re obviously not unstoppable. And while both VT and Miami have overtime wins against Georgia Tech, the Hokie win came at home while the ‘Canes did it on the road.
When Miami joined the ACC for the 2004 season and the league split into divisons a year later, the conference went out of its way to put the Hurricanes and Seminoles into opposite divisons. The thought was the two great rivals of the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s would play virtually every year. It hasn’t worked out that way. Miami’s never even made the conference championship game, and Florida State has only done so twice. If Manuel and Morris keep up the good work, the rivalry that was once the hottest in all of sports—not just college football, but all of sports—could finally get its renewal in the ACC Championship Game.
A few other thoughts on college football Week 4 as we go around the country…
Big Ten: The carnage continues…Illinois is blown out at home by Louisiana Tech—an upset TheSportsNotebook was on watch for, but not at the 52-24 level. Iowa loses to Central Michigan on a field goal at the gun. Michigan State looks shaky against MAC doormat Eastern Michigan. Wisconsin takes 3 ½ quarters to pull away from UTEP at home. But maybe we can sum it up with this—the league’s high point was Minnesota’s 17-10 win over Syracuse. Times are bad when the Gopher football team is what your league is celebrating. Teams like Nebraska, Purdue and Northwestern might not have dazzled, but none have a head-scratching effort either and right now that’s all you need to be a favorite for Pasadena.
SEC: The three big games in the SEC East that were hyped here at TheSportsNotebook last week turned out to be duds and left no doubt that Georgia, South Carolina and Florida are several steps ahead of the division’s other four teams. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray carved up a Vanderbilt secondary that is clearly not what it was a year ago, and I think we have to stop assuming the Commodores have permanently turned a corner as a bowl team (then again, maybe you were smart enough to never have assumed that to begin with).
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw played with a hairline fracture in his collarbone and completed 20/21 passes and relied heavily on Marcus Lattimore both in the running game and catching passes out of the backfield. And Florida hammered Kentucky, another team clearly not ready to return to competitive bowl status, at least for this year. The Gator win was impressive in that they didn’t overwhelm on the ground, as has usually been the case. Jeff Driskell had a nice day in the air and if Florida finds balance, they’ll be even more dangerous.
Big 12: What else is there to do but tip your hat to Kansas State, who simply outhit Oklahoma in Norman on Saturday night. John Hubert rushed for 130 yards. Collin Klein was an efficient 13/21 for 149 yards and no mistakes. Klein also ran 17 times for 79 yards. And the question marks continue to abound for Sooner quarterback Landry Jones. Once again, he wasn’t bad—28/43 for 298 yards is hardly the stuff to be ashamed of, but it wasn’t the kind of big-time performance needed to justify the hype he gets as a Heisman possibility and high NFL draft pick. He looks to be a good college quarterback who, in the right system and against the right opponents, can pile up huge numbers. Kind of like predecessor Jason White, who won the ’03 Heisman and was a bust in the NFL. One other similarity—Bill Snyder and Kansas State beat White too.
Pac-12: I’m done doubting Oregon. I thought they might be down and open up the Pac-12 North to a darkhorse, but after the 49-zip thrashing they put on Arizona, I’m joining the rest of the world in acknowledging the Ducks as a legit national title contender and Marcus Mariota as a rising star at quarterback. In fact, Mariota might be ready to be the best QB in this league. Matt Barkley turned in a very pedestrian outing in a 27-9 win over Cal and the Trojans were saved only because Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal combined for over 270 yards on the ground.
And Oregon State showed us the path to beating UCLA—just stop the run at all costs. The Beavers held Jonathan Franklin to 45 yards and even though Bruin quarterback Brett Hundley played well, it wasn’t enough to stop Mike Riley’s team from getting a big win. If my darkhorse theory in the Pac-12 North was holding true, we’d have to circle Oregon State. As it is, the Beavers look like a team that can win eight or nine games and get an Alamo Bowl bid.
Big East: It was somewhat of a disappointing week as the league went 0-2 against the MAC, with South Florida losing to Ball State thanks to a slew of penalties and UConn being able to force a turnover in a close loss to Western Michigan. But both of those are good MAC teams, so we’ll keep the focus on the positive, and that’s Rutgers’ 35-26 win at Arkansas. Jawan Jamison had a big day on the ground, and while the Razorback program is dysfunctional right now it was still a talented team playing at home they absolutely had to win. That Rutgers has progressed to the point to win a game like this—and that Gary Nova has progressed to have a huge day in the air at any SEC venue, tells you how well the Scarlet Knights are playing right now.
Independents: Notre Dame is now for real as a contender to play in a major bowl game, although I’d hold the national title talk. The Irish have won three straight against Big Ten teams and two of them, including Saturday night against Michigan, were close. See further above and previous posts here about how abominable the Big Ten is. The Irish defense is hitting and swarming to the ball like we haven’t seen since the Lou Holtz days, and the questions I had about the secondary were answered when they picked off Denard Robinson five times. That’s enough to move them past most everyone in the Big Ten, Big East and perhaps the ACC. I’d like to see the offense play more consistently before elevating them up with the best of the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC who are setting the pace in the national title push.
The Best Of The Rest: The WAC is shaping up to be a fun conference race this season. We mentioned Louisiana Tech’s big win over Illinois, and league rival Utah State should have beaten Wisconsin if not for missed field goal at the end. Maybe the pertinent question is whether the Leaders Division in the Big Ten can compete with the WAC right now. Below Louisiana Tech and Utah State, you have a rising program in San Jose State with a good quarterback in David Fales.
Former high-profile head coaches Dennis Franchione and Larry Coker are making their comebacks at UT-San Antonio and Texas State respectively, both new to the FBS level. UTSA in particular is off to a 4-0 start, albeit not against anyone that would make you go “wow.” Still, Franchione and Coker story, the rise of San Jose State and some possibilities with Fresno State, make the WAC a league we’ll be watching all year long here at TheSportsNotebook.