Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest presented hardly a challenge for Florida State, its star senior QB EJ Manuel and a talented cast of playmakers. The Seminoles rolled to three easy victories by a combined score of 176-3 before Clemson came to Tallahassee, almost a year to the date since the Tigers upset the Seminoles, bolstering the confidence of the new Dabo Swinney era.
It looked like the creative, outside-the-box-thinking Swinney might be able to repeat last year’s triumph — a 35-30 upset win on Sept. 24, 2011 — early in the second half, when he dipped into his bag of tricks and called for star sophomore WR Sammy Watkins to connect with dynamic RB Andre Ellington for a 52-yard touchdown off a lateral pass, opening a 28-14 lead.
That’s when Manuel took over the game and positioned himself for Heisman Trophy contention and future first-round consideration. Following what was described as a stirring halftime speech, when teammates said Manuel sparked a somber locker room, he set up the Seminoles for a 49-37 victory in front of an overpacked Doak Campbell Stadium crowd and prime-time national TV audience.
The greatest criticisms of Manuel entering the season were that he has been dogged by injuries throughout his career, lacks the pocket awareness and critical decision-making skills to carve defenses and never has been able to produce a signature win.
The season is still young and he must prove he can stay healthy for a full season. However, his 27-35-380-2-0 passing performance, coupled with a 12-102-0 rushing effort, along with new signs of asserting himself as a leader and a clutch victory with his back to the wall, could go a long way toward validating his talents to the NFL scouting community.
Despite the performance, NFL evaluators remain on guard, waiting to see more.
“(FSU head coach) Jimbo Fisher thinks (Manuel) is a son” one NFL evaluator said following the game. “Everyone in the program loves him, and I have always liked his physical tools.
“He’s one of those players who was always flashing when you’re (watching) others, but the more you really study him, the less you like. He makes some bad decisions. He takes a lot of sacks. … He will start in the league, but he’s still very raw. He’s a second-rounder for me. He still has to work his way up.”
• What West Virginia senior WR Tavon Austin lacks in size (5-8 3⁄8, 173) he compensates for with tremendous quickness, short-area explosion and game-breaking speed, as he showed racking up 13-179-3 receiving to key a 31-21 victory over Maryland. He is a Darren Sproles-like clone who’s capable of making an impact as a utility back, slot receiver and returner in the NFL and projects as a second-round pick. Even more impressive in the contest was Terps true freshman WR Stefon Diggs, who scored on two of his three catches, weaving through the Mountaineers’ defense like a man among boys. “He’s a dynamic player," Terps head coach Randy Edsall said. “He’s a guy that makes things happen. He is a game changer. I guess we’ve got to find more ways to get him the ball.”
• Following a tumultuous offseason, Wisconsin senior RB Montee Ball was forced to leave the UTEP game after taking a hard hit to the helmet on a second-quarter TD run and spent the second half of the game in a hooded sweatshirt. Ball sustained a concussion during an August attack on campus that limited his ability to practice in training camp and the new head issues could negatively affect his draft standing.
• Arkansas has fallen mightily since beginning the season ranked in the top 10, and dropped its third contest in a row, 35-26 to Rutgers, despite the return of senior QB Tyler Wilson, who was spotty in his return from a concussion. Wilson’s return helped senior WR Cobi Hamilton set an SEC-single-game receiving record with 303 yards. Three of his career-best 10 receptions went for TDs as he attacked the middle of the Scarlet Knights’ defense with urgency and did a superb job running through the catch, never breaking stride. The 6-1 7⁄8, 197-pound Hamilton has been a rotational performer who was overshadowed in a deep crop of receivers, including three that were drafted in the fourth round a year ago. He has the body length, hand strength and run-after-the-catch tenacity to be a better pro than Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs.
• In the face of a consistently stacked box, Michigan State junior RB Le’Veon Bell produced a career-best 253 yards and a TD on 36 carries against winless Eastern Michigan, hammering his way through jammed traffic. Spartans junior DE William Gholston was held out until the second play of the second half for missing too much practice time.
• Entering the season, Notre Dame MLB Manti Te’o did not have an interception in his career and would often leave the field on third downs. Against Michigan, he picked off two ill-advised Denard Robinson passes in the first half, giving him three on the season and proving that he could be an every-down performer in the pros. He has been a big reason why the Irish have started 4-0.