With Winston cleared, Florida State eyes ACC title
Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell is not offended the No. 20 Blue Devils are a 29-point underdog to Jameis Winston and top-ranked Florida State for Saturday night's ACC championship game.
"Florida State has been blowing everybody out," he said.
The Seminoles (12-0, 8-0) have beaten opponents on average 54-11 this season behind Winston, who set ACC freshman records by throwing for 3,490 yards and 35 touchdowns. They have defeated all but one of their opponents by at least 27 points.
Now all that stands in the way of the Seminoles reaching the BCS national championship game is an inexperienced Duke (10-2, 6-2) team appearing in its first ACC title game.
"I've had the good fortune through the years to play some No. 1 teams in this profession, some of them looked like No. 1 teams, some of them didn't," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. "Florida State certainly is."
On Thursday, prosecutors said they would not bring sexual assault charges against Winston, the leading Heisman Trophy candidate. A woman had alleged Winston had sexually assaulted her at an off-campus apartment last December. He will play Saturday night.
Despite the commotion surrounding the team the last several weeks, Fisher said Winston has never wavered on the field.
"When it's time to play football, when it's time to go to school, he compartmentalizes and handles his responsibilities. ... It's a true trademark to him because he did not let his individual situation affect his team, and to me that's what a man does," Fisher said.
Winston expressed relief in a statement released Thursday: "It's been difficult to stay silent through this process, but I never lost faith in the truth and in who I am."
Winston was not made available Friday for interviews.
The Blue Devils (10-2, 6-2) are in many respects the ultimate underdog. They emerged from the weaker side of the ACC conference. They're 0-12 all-time facing No. 1-ranked teams and 0-18 against the Seminoles. And they're facing a Florida State team that annihilated three then-ranked opponents by a combined score of 155-28.
For Fisher, the biggest challenge may be keeping his team focused, not allowing his players to look ahead to a potential national championship showdown with unbeaten Ohio State.
Fisher doesn't seem worried, saying if his team can't get up for a conference championship game then "we have an issue."
"What we're thinking about is running through the finish line," Fisher said. "When you run the 100-meter dash, being No. 1 at the 90-meter mark doesn't mean anything."
Five things to watch in the ACC championship game:
WINSTON'S RESPONSE: How will Winston play in his first game since the scandal ended? It certainly has to be a relief for the ACC player of the year. Fisher said he has no doubt his focus will be there. "His intelligence level and ability to comprehend the things he's in and embrace the situations is really remarkable," Fisher said. "To me that's one of his greatest strengths."
COVERING BENJAMIN: Cutcliffe has gone on record to say the Blue Devils don't have anyone who can match up with Florida State's 6-foot-4, 238-pound wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who has 12 touchdown receptions this season, including seven in the last four games. He had three TDs last week against Florida, seemingly scoring nearly at will.
DOUBLE TROUBLE: Injuries forced Duke to split time at quarterback between Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette. Boone is considered the better passer, Connette the better rusher. Boone has thrown for 1,695 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Connette has thrown for 1,210 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He's also run for 329 yards rushing with 13 touchdowns. Seminoles linebacker Telvin Smith said it's actually easier to prepare for two quarterbacks because "you know when (that player) gets in, this is what they primarily do."
SEMINOLES OPTIMISTIC 'D': Florida State's defense has been dominant. It ranks No. 1 in pass defense and has 23 interceptions this season. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, a three-year position coach at Alabama, inherited the No. 2 defense in the country from Mark Stoops and the Seminoles haven't missed a beat. Expect them to pressure the Blue Devils early in an effort to cause confusion and force turnovers.
EXPERIENCE FACTOR: Florida State, like most top programs in the country, has come to expect winning. This is familiar territory to them. They've won 13 ACC championships and a national championship in 1999. The same can't be for Duke — at least not in football. The Blue Devils haven't had a winning season since 1994 and have had four winless seasons during that span.