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Winston emerges as Heisman candidate for FSU

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has thrown for more than 300 yards and four scores in all three conference games, and he also ranks second in all of FBS in passing efficiency and completion percentage. (Reuters)

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has thrown for more than 300 yards and four scores in all three conference games, and he also ranks second in all of FBS in passing efficiency and completion percentage. (Reuters)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Oddsmakers made Florida State a 16-point favorite to beat Maryland before last Saturday’s ACC showdown in Tallahassee.

They could’ve given the Terps 60 — it still wouldn’t have mattered.

The 63-0 demolition of No. 25 Maryland didn’t just open a ton of eyes around the country to just how dangerous this year’s FSU squad — led by freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Jameis Winston — truly is, it jumped Florida State from No. 8 to No. 6 in the country this week, bypassing Georgia and Louisville, which were ranked Nos. 6 and 7, respectively, before the Seminoles’ impressive win.

No one, however, was paying more attention than No. 3 Clemson (5-0 overall, 3-0 in the ACC), which will host the Seminoles (5-0, 3-0) in arguably the biggest game of the college football season next weekend in Death Valley following FSU’s second bye of the season this week.

“I knew about it when I got off the bus at the stadium,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said this week of how he quickly he learned about FSU’s colossal win against fellow ACC power Clemson.

After all, when you register the most lopsided victory in ACC history, word tends to travel fast.

Winston’s five-touchdown, 393-yard performance sped up his Heisman campaign — he’s now the third favorite to win the honor behind Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel and Oregon QB Marcus Mariota — and earned the 19-year-old multiple national player of the week honors, including national freshman of the week for the third time in the first six weeks of the season. In addition to season highs in passing yards and TDs, he led FSU to 614 yards of total offense against a Maryland team that came with the nation’s sixth-ranked total defense.

Winston, however, didn’t plan to use FSU’s down time to do much basking in his latest head-turning performance. After the game, he allowed himself to briefly enjoy the moment, but he also said he couldn’t wait to get to Death Valley, where FSU has a tall order ahead of itself.

The Seminoles haven’t won there since 2001.

“I’m going to enjoy (the win against Maryland) because it felt like a Little League football game out there; 12 o’clock, the sun was out. I don’t think I saw a cloud in the sky. It was a beautiful day, so I’m going to enjoy this day,” the always-jovial freshman said. “I’m really looking forward to play Clemson. They have a great team and we’re going to Death Valley. It’s a great environment. It should be fun.”

Winston now leads the ACC in passing efficiency, completion percentage, yards per attempt, passing touchdowns and points responsible for. He has thrown for more than 300 yards and four scores in all three conference games, and he also ranks second in all of FBS in passing efficiency and completion percentage.

“He’s just an outstanding player,” was how Maryland coach Randy Edsall summed up Winston after watching him shred the Terrapins’ defense for score after score.

One touchdown pass in particular by the former No. 1 prep QB recruit in the nation during that game likely would’ve been all Edsall needed to see to draw that conclusion.

With FSU comfortably ahead, 35-0, in the third quarter, Winston appeared to be sacked by two Maryland defensive linemen, but somehow he squirted out of the pile, spun right, rolled out and found tight end Nick O’Leary for a 12-yard score. The play earned the No. 1 spot on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10, marking the second straight week Winston received the honor after his Hail Mary pass before halftime against Boston College was No. 1 the week before.

Winston’s teammates, meanwhile, continue to find themselves in awe of their young leader.

“I was running a short route that wasn’t in the end zone,” O’Leary said, reliving the play from his vantage point. “All of the sudden I turned around and I didn’t knew where (Jameis) was. Once I saw him spin out of all those people, I just started floating back into the end zone. He kept his eyes up and just threw it down there.

“He’s done that quite a few times this year. I don’t know how he does it.”

Not to be lost in the wake of Winston’s latest breakout game was the play of FSU’s defense, which rebounded in a huge way from what many members of the unit deemed an embarrassing outing a week before against Boston College, which hung 34 points on Florida State and rushed for 200 yards. Those were both big numbers for an offensively-challenged Eagles team that came into the game with the nation’s 106th-ranked scoring offense.

Rather than have a repeat performance against a 4-0 Maryland team that had the ACC’s second-ranked offense and top-rated offensive player in quarterback C.J. Brown, the Seminoles’ defense stood on their heads and pitched the largest shutout of a Top 25 opponent in school history. They also held Maryland to 234 total yards of offense, including a staggering 33 on the ground.

Fisher called the shutout a great sign and gave a nod to first-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who brought over a scheme similar to what helped him win two national titles as the DBs coach with Alabama — but found himself taking the heat a week earlier for the Seminoles’ bad day against BC.

“The defense, I thought, was the story of the day. They really took the show,” Fisher said. “I thought they dominated from start to finish.”

How Winston reacts to his latest test on a national stage, and how that reinvigorated defense plays next week against a Clemson offense that’s putting up absurd numbers of its own and also features a Heisman candidate in quarterback Tajh Boyd — and maybe the most dangerous receiver in the nation, Sammy Watkins — remains to be seen.

All Fisher and the Seminoles are focused on this week is themselves.

“We still have a lot of spots we’ve got to clean up and fix,” said the coach, whose 36th career win at FSU last week tied him for the ACC record for most victories in a coach’s first four seasons. “We’re not thinking about (Clemson). It’s about getting better this week.”