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College Football Weekend Preview: Manziel, Mariota, Winston Make for Fantastic QB Play

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College Football Weekend Preview: Manziel, Mariota, Winston Make for Fantastic QB Play

Prior to Week 7 in college football, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was the Heisman Trophy front-runner.

Sure, the toughest games on the Seminoles' schedule are still ahead of them (including tonight), but he had led Florida State to an undefeated record and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press poll up to that point.

But boy, did Winston have a knack for making big plays. It was only six weeks into the season and he already had the highlight-reel résumé necessary to to come away from New York's Downtown Athletic Club able to sway voters in his direction.

It all started during Florida State's season opener at Pitt on Labor Day, the only football game being played that day, college or pro, and the eyes of a nation were upon him.

There are certainly bigger and badder opponents than the Panthers, but what Winston did in his first career start on the road in Pitt's first game as a member of the ACC in front of nationally televised audience on ESPN was simply remarkable.

All Winston did was complete 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His performance was more than just "not bad," it was nearly jaw-dropping stunning.

Florida State then followed that up with expected blowouts of Nevada and Bethune-Cookman before getting back into conference play.

In a road game at Boston College with the game-tied 17-17 just seconds before halftime, Winston uncorked a Hail Mary after avoiding oncoming rushers...

Winston then followed that up with another SportsCenter worthy moment against Maryland, again showing escapability in the pocket...

That is a 5-1 Maryland team Florida State beat 63-0. Winston seemed destined for the Heisman Trophy despite being just a redshirt freshman.

But then Week 7 happened and two more quarterbacks pulled even with Winston in the Heisman race.

The week's most impressive victory went to Oregon with quarterback Marcus Mariota at the helm as they beat No. 16 Washington on the road, site of College GameDay.

Mariota threw for 366 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 88 additional yards on the ground in a score in a 45-24 victory.

On the season, Mariota has 165 pass attempts without an interception and 41 rushing attempts without a fumble. He's one of only two quarterbacks in the nation that have yet to throw an interception.

Then there's Johnny Manziel, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, who already had a scintillating individual performance albeit in a losing effort against Alabama when he threw for 464 yards and five touchdowns.

Last Saturday he led a come-from-behind win at Mississippi, leading fourth-quarter drives first to tie the score from seven points down and then for the go-ahead field goal as time expired. He didn't throw a touchdown pass, but his aerial assault covered 346 yards and he ran for a season-high 113 and two scores.

Between Winston, Mariota and Manziel, each of them is doing a terrific job leading their teams to victory, but the college football observer is the real winner. They all have a legitimate claim to being invited to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in December, although the toughest part of the season is still ahead of them.


Where College GameDay Is At

Jameis Winston will be in the national spotlight as Florida State travels to Clemson for arguably one of the biggest games in ACC history in a meeting between the No. 3 Tigers and the No. 5 Seminoles. Kickoff is at 7:00 p.m. CT on ABC.

ESPN's College GameDay will will make its second appearance in Clemson this season, following the Clemson-Georgia game in the season opener. It's the first time since 2007 that GameDay has been to the same site twice in a season.

The stakes are high as the winner of this game stays in national-title contention while the loser is more than likely out.

Winston's counterpart at Clemson, senior quarterback Tajh Boyd has the edge in experience over the freshman on the opposing sideline, and may give Clemson it's best hope of winning the ball game. Well, that and a Death Valley home crowd that's sure to be its loudest ever.

Clemson's best defensive player is junior defensive end Vic Beasley. Among his 20 tackles this season, 12 have gone for a loss and nine are sacks.

But there's a reason Florida state is a three-point favorite despite being ranked lower than Clemson and playing on the road. In his weekly appearance on the ESPNU podcast Phil Steele gives the Seminoles the talent edge at running back, offensive line, linebacker, secondary and a large edge on special teams.

A good matchup to watch between future high round draft picks will be Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner against Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

Prediction: Perhaps I should have learned my lesson picking against Clemson against Georgia in the season opener, but I'm going to go against them once again. Winston shows he has ice water in his veins by leading the Seminoles to victory, 38-31.


The Wisconsin Connection

Following a convincing 35-6 victory over Northwestern last weekend, Wisconsin is starting to gain believers back.

Observers are recognizing the Badgers probably deserved to win the last-second disaster at Arizona State earlier this season and almost assuredly would have won had it been in the friendly confines of Camp Randall.

There's no shortage of experts expecting a second-half surge from Wisconsin and predicting them to land in a BCS bowl game from Phil Steele to Jerry Palm to Brad Edwards and any number of writers at Sports Illustrated. A spot in the Rose Bowl is unrealistic but a berth in the Sugar Bowl or Fiesta Bowl is not out of the question.

It wasn't surprising to see the Badgers beat the Wildcats last Saturday, but the manner in which they dispatched Northwestern did come as unexpected. Northwestern has a team capable of going undefeated in the Legends division, but they have to stay healthy on the offensive side of the football. Injuries to Venric Mark and Cain Kolter are debilitating.

Wisconsin hasn't fared well in night games on the road this season, dropping contests to both the Sun Devils and the Ohio State Buckeyes, but their fortunes should change this weekend when they visit Illinois in Champaign.

The Fighting Illini has some pop on offense behind the efficient passing of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who's averaging a conference-high 8.8 yards per pass attempt.

The issue for Illinois, however, will be trying to contain a Badgers offense that gets back concussed wide receiver Jared Abbrederis this week. The Illini rank 11th in the Big Ten in total defense, allowing 449.8 yard per game.

There's no reason Melvin Gordon and the rest of the deep Badgers backfield can't find plenty of running room against Illinois with Abbrederis likely to hit at least one home run from long distance.

Prediction: Wisconsin will out-physical Illinois. Badgers win 35-21. Television coverage starts at 7:00 p.m. CT on the Big Ten Network. We won't hold it against you if you only check this game during commercial breaks of the Clemson-Florida State game.


What Happened Before Saturday

It's good to see Louisville get knocked off on Friday evening 38-35 at Papa Johns Stadium by Central Florida. The Cardinals are a good team, but not a national title contending team.

This saves everyone from discussion whether Louisville deserves to be in the championship picture, but there's no way they'd hang with Alabama, Oregon and their ilk.

Cardinals quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was great as usual, completing over three-quarters of his passes for 341 yards, but credit UCF for coming back from a 28-7 deficit to beat a top 10 team on the road.

While Bridgewater was nearly flawless, he wasn't helped by two fumbles by teammates that gave the ball back to UCF and running back Storm Johnson, who looked electrifying in the open field.

Johnson ran for 108 yard and a score on the ground and was complemented nicely by the rest of the Golden Knights backfield. But Johnson also added a team-leading 79 receiving yards and a touchdown, displaying that he is a complete back.

Central Florida now becomes the leader in the American Athletic Conference, which puts them in position for a BCS bowl bid.

Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].

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