By now, Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is as polished as a Marine's boot. The fifth-year senior has a weekly segment on ESPNU and has become the face of the Tigers' program. With only one online class remaining before he earns his degree in sociology, he spends his mornings in coaches meetings. He may have as much of a say about Clemson's game plans as any assistant.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston remains raw. He has a brief media session every Wednesday, but the school's sports information office otherwise denies most requests for interviews with him. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher is wary of anything that might break Winston's routine. Besides, Winston's days are quite packed. The redshirt freshman has a heavier class load than Boyd, so his suggestions for Florida State's game plans typically only come after 8 p.m. on weeknights, when he knocks on Fisher's office door.
Having listened to both Boyd and Winston, it's easy to see how Winston might sound exactly like Boyd in a year or two. Their differences are obvious. Boyd is (listed at) 6-foot-1, which will prejudice many NFL coaches against him. Winston, on the other hand, has genes that commanded his growth plates to open just a little bit more, allowing him to reach the height (6-4) that activates the salivary glands of NFL scouts. Boyd rocks Sperrys, the unofficial shoe of the ACC. Winston favors sneakers.
But their similarities are even more striking. Both are pocket passers occasionally mislabeled as running quarterbacks. Both would prefer to throw on most downs. They're also both so competitive that they would beg coaches to let them take on a 300-pound defensive tackle to convert a fourth-and-one. Both have such a high football IQ that their coaches treat them almost as equals. And both have earned the unflagging respect of their teammates.
That's what makes Saturday's quarterback duel in Death Valley so fascinating. Boyd has rewritten the Tigers' record books, but he hasn't yet made No. 3 Clemson a national title contender. He can do that by beating the fifth-ranked Seminoles. Winston, meanwhile, looks like a souped-up version of a younger Boyd. He's taller, faster and has a stronger arm. If his intangibles are as similar to Boyd's as they seem, he could mature into an all-time great.
But Boyd has played in big games before. We know they don't faze him. His first time came against No. 11 Virginia Tech on Oct. 1, 2011, in Blacksburg. Within seconds of Lane Stadium rocking to Enter Sandman, the Hampton, Va., native heard a chorus of boos that don't appear in Metallica's album version of the song. "Walking out there and being a captain for that game and getting booed when they called your name, I just loved it," Boyd said this week. "I thrived in it. I felt like I was right at home." The 13th-ranked Tigers had lost their last five against the Hokies, but Clemson won 23-3 that day.
What makes the victory even more amazing is that at the time, Boyd didn't have anywhere near the mastery of the offense that he has now. "A lot of times I was out there just winging it," Boyd said this spring. "I understood the offense somewhat. I understood some of the defenses. It was pretty much just a brief understanding of everything."
If Winston has been winging it, he and Fisher so far haven't let it show. Winston seems to be working within the confines of Florida State's offense. Fisher said that Winston is capable of using the entire playbook, just as EJ Manuel, the Seminoles' senior quarterback -- and a future first-round NFL draft pick -- was last year. But how will Winston fare in his first high-stakes game before a truly hostile crowd? On Wednesday, the Hueytown (Ala.) High graduate talked about playing in high school rivalry games that drew 10,000 fans. The atmosphere on Saturday at Death Valley, where a crowd of more than 80,000 is expected, will differ from Winston's high school experiences by several orders of magnitude. "It will be different for him here, but we'll see how he handles it," Boyd said. "I was in a similar situation [in the Virginia Tech game] and I was a year older as a redshirt sophomore. But going to play in different venues is always fun and always exciting. You never really know how it is until you actually step in that arena."
Winston's first five games suggest he'll handle the pressure just fine. Matt Scott, who coached Winston for three years at Hueytown High, has seen the same things from the quarterback on Saturdays that he saw on Fridays. Winston is the same goofy, Phineas and Ferb-watching nerd off the field and the same cutthroat captain on it. Scott has been impressed that Fisher has not tried to rein in Winston's personality on the field. While the prevailing wisdom suggests quarterbacks should never allow themselves to get too high or too low, Scott found that Winston played better when agitated. "People say a quarterback always has to stay even keel," said Scott, who now coaches at Gadsden (Ala.) City High. "He's pretty good when he's in a full rage out there."
Fisher decided early not to tinker with Winston's personality. "You've got to allow them to be who they are," Fisher said. "There's so much pressure on them, anyway. You've got to let them be natural. ... I'd much rather say, 'Whoa,' than, 'Giddyup.'" This allows Fisher to coach Winston harder, and that in turn allows Winston to command the respect of his teammates. "They watch," Fisher said. "You follow people you respect. You respect people who are willing to do the things you do or above. ... They see him doing it. Then they see him getting his butt chewed out. He takes it and says, Yes sir. So when he gets on them, he becomes my voice on the field. And they know that."
This sounds an awful lot like some of the conversations Boyd had with Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris when Boyd decided to return for his senior season. They agreed that Morris would coach Boyd like a Heisman Trophy candidate. No flaw, however minor, would be ignored. "You kind of have to bear down on him at times," Morris said this spring. "He wants that. Now, he may not want it right then." Boyd understands, though. Accepting that coaching has helped him master Morris' offense. This season, Boyd has completed 66.5 percent of his passes and averaged 297.2 yards a game, with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Winston, meanwhile, has completed 73.2 percent of his passes. He averages 288.2 passing yards a game, and he has thrown 17 touchdown passes, with two interceptions. He's already getting Heisman hype, and given the fact that a redshirt freshman won the award last year, the idea of Winston hoisting the trophy isn't far-fetched if Florida State keeps winning. He has downplayed all the attention, particularly the attempt to supplant the nickname he's had since birth. Loretta Winston always called her son Jaboo (pronounced Jay-boo), and that's what Winston's friends call him. People have tried to call him Famous Jameis since his days in youth baseball, and the movement to make the moniker his official nickname intensified when headline writers got involved. But Winston would prefer to just stay Jaboo. "I'm not famous," he said. "We're famous. Our team is famous. That stuff comes with winning."
If Winston seems to have stolen some of Boyd's tricks, it's because he probably has. Winston said he regularly watches video of excellent quarterbacks to try to glean tips that will help his game. Video of Boyd is in Winston's rotation, along with clips of Peyton Manning, Michael Vick, Joe Montana, Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater. "I'm looking for extraordinary things," Winston said.
We'll probably see some extraordinary things from both quarterbacks on Saturday night. The winner will continue chasing the Heisman Trophy, and his team will definitely continue chasing the national title. So when you read the following quote from Boyd, keep in mind that you'll probably hear Winston saying something similar next year. We should count ourselves lucky that we get a chance to see them play on the same field with the stakes so high.
"I love being in those situations where the ball is in your court, it's in your hand," Boyd said. "You have to go out there and make a play when the game is on the line. It's kind of always been me. That's kind of why I love to play the position. Growing up I wanted to be a quarterback because I wanted the ball in my hands. When it comes down to making a play late in the game when you need it, when you have to have it, that's always been my thing, regardless of the outcome. You've got to love being in that position."
• South Carolina at Tennessee: Have the 11th-ranked Gamecocks found another gear? Or is Arkansas just really bad right now? South Carolina can answer the first question against a Volunteers team that hasn't played since an overtime near-miss against Georgia on Oct. 5. That game swung against Tennessee when a freshman receiver (Pig Howard) made a mistake (reaching for the pylon and fumbling out of the end zone) that he probably wouldn't make as a sophomore. Volunteers coach Butch Jones has had two weeks to rally his team, and if Tennessee plays as hard as it did against the Bulldogs, this won't be easy for the Gamecocks.
• Georgia at Vanderbilt: If Bulldogs tailback Todd Gurley can return from an ankle injury, it will be a huge boost for No. 15 Georgia, whose offense is sorely lacking able-bodied skill position players. The Commodores are 0-3 in the SEC and are close to being in desperation mode -- which makes them very dangerous.
• Texas Tech at West Virginia: As Oklahoma State learned a few weeks ago, a trip to Morgantown isn't all monorails and giant biscuits. The Mountaineers' decline last season began with a loss in Lubbock, and they would love to return the favor. But if the 16th-ranked Red Raiders can win this one, they would go to Norman on Oct. 26 with a 7-0 record.
• Purdue at Michigan State: In his past two games, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook has completed 47-of-75 passes for 512 yards and four touchdowns, with two interceptions. Those aren't Marcus Mariota-type numbers, but they represent a big step forward for Michigan State. All this team needed was a little bit of an offense to pair with its outstanding defense. If Cook is really coming into his own, things could get very interesting in East Lansing.
• Florida at Missouri: If Tigers quarterback James Franklin wasn't out for the next three to five weeks, we might be talking about No. 14 Missouri as the favorite in the SEC East. If Franklin's backup, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, can rise to the occasion against the 22nd-ranked Gators' salty defense, it might set up a meeting between the Tigers and South Carolina in Columbia (West) on Oct. 26 that could ultimately decide the division title. Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy found out in Baton Rouge last Saturday that the defenses from Kentucky and Arkansas weren't representative of what he can expect the rest of the way. This week, he'll have to dodge Missouri defensive end Michael Sam while hoping that the Gators' defense can provide the Florida offense with a few short fields.
• Iowa at Ohio State: Will Urban Meyer follow through on his pledge to have the most rested team in America coming out of the bye week? Kirk Ferentz hopes not, but the Hawkeyes coach is signed through 2020, so it's no biggie.
• Auburn at Texas A&M: Just go ahead and set a reminder in your phone to tune into this one. With the No. 7 Aggies' defense still struggling, and with quarterback Johnny Football making fourth-quarter magic, we can safely assume that any Texas A&M game will turn dramatic.
• UCLA at Stanford: If the ninth-ranked Bruins only want to play Stanford once, then they need to win this one. Lose, and these teams may see each other again in the Pac-12 title game if the Cardinal beat Oregon on Nov. 7. With UCLA tailback Jordon James doubtful, backup Paul Perkins will have to find some holes. If the Bruins can't run, the Stanford defense will unleash hell on quarterback Brett Hundley.
• Washington at Arizona State: This looks like the battle for the second level of the Pac-12, just beneath the title contenders. The Sun Devils have a better chance than the 20th-ranked Huskies to compete for the league title because the South Division isn't as rugged as the North, but both of these programs aspire to rise into that top echelon in the next few years.
• Arkansas at Alabama: Nick Saban said this week that the No. 1 Crimson Tide still hasn't played its best game. But Alabama may not want to waste its best game on the reeling Razorbacks. Save it for LSU on Nov. 9 instead.
• LSU at Ole Miss: The Rebels drove the Tigers so crazy last year in Baton Rouge that a delirious (we think) Les Miles encouraged fans to give his players "a big kiss on the mouth" after LSU pulled out a 41-35 win thanks to a Jeremy Hill touchdown with 15 seconds remaining. The sixth-ranked Tigers' offensive line won't have to face heralded freshman defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who will miss at least three games with a hamstring injury. Ole Miss will also likely play without tailback Jeff Scott (thigh bruise). And with that, Miles wishes all of us a happy Columbus Day.
• Iowa State at Baylor: Someone finally slowed down the Bears last week, but they still pulled out a win at Kansas State. Can No. 12 Baylor fire up the buzzsaw again? Or will Big 12 play render the offense merely excellent instead of unstoppable?
• Washington State at Oregon: Mike Leach probably has a lot of thoughts about the use of Eugene as the setting for Animal House, and he'd be happy to share them with you. But Mariota just threw another touchdown pass.
Stats by committee
During a teleconference with the people involved in the College Football Playoff selection committee on Wednesday, executive director Bill Hancock was asked what stats the committee would be given during deliberations. The first words out of his mouth were "total offense." You could almost hear the sad trombone playing over the phone.
Last week, I wrote that the only requirements for the committee should be intelligence and a willingness to watch as much college football as possible. But part of intelligence is understanding which stats are meaningful. Total offense and total defense grow less meaningful as the gulf between up-tempo and down-tempo offenses grows wider.
Hopefully, the members of the committee will be provided with a broad selection of stats -- traditional and advanced -- to help them with their deliberations. For example, if committee members aren't at least occasionally reading Bill Connelly's work at FootballStudyHall.com, then they are not going to make the most informed decision. Stats such as field position percentage, PPP (equivalent points per play) and close success rate shouldn't be the only deciding factors, but they add context to records, traditional stats and the much-maligned Eyeball Test (which happens to be correct most of the time).
Vintage video of the week
Florida State and Clemson will meet 25 years after these programs played a classic in Death Valley. The 1988 game featured a punt return for a touchdown from Deion Sanders, and the classic Puntrooskie that took LeRoy Butler to the one-yard line, setting the Seminoles up for the field goal that clinched a 24-21 win. (For the entire game, click here.)
On the menu
Those headed to Clemson to see the Seminoles face the Tigers should dine at The Smokin' Pig in nearby Pendleton, S.C. Despite the name, the brisket is actually the best meat, but the pork is pretty good. Also load up on Brunswick stew, fried okra and sweet potato crunch. On your way back to Interstate 85, pick up a jar from Palmetto Moonshine. Get the apple pie, and don't drink it until you get back to your hotel. Be careful. It tastes like candy, but a little goes a long way.