A year ago, Jameis Winston marched his offense onto the field in Death Valley, cracked a few jokes in the huddle to lighten the mood, then proceeded to dismantle the Clemson defense for 60 minutes straight. He threw for 444 yards and three touchdowns, and when the carnage had ended, Florida State was a legitimate contender for the national title and Winston was a national celebrity.
In the 11 months since, that spotlight has unraveled so much of the veneer Winston’s win over Clemson created, and now, just four days before the rematch, the scenario for Florida State and its star-crossed QB feels entirely different.
Sean Maguire will be the man leading Florida State’s offense onto the field this time around, thanks to a half-game suspension levied against Winston for his latest off-field troubles. The Seminoles will remain favorites to win, but Wednesday’s news means Florida State is hardly the safe bet it once seemed.
Really, the questions began long before Winston stood atop a table in (or near) FSU’s student union and shouted obscenities that resonated around the country in a matter of moments, thanks to social media.
Winston’s offseason was a whirlwind of awards ceremonies and off-field scrutiny, and when the season began with a sluggish win over Oklahoma State, fans immediately began to wonder whether he was the same QB who’d looked so unflappable as a freshman.
Seminoles stars departed for the NFL, including Lamarcus Joyner, who forced the fumble that started the FSU avalanche in Death Valley last season, along with offensive stalwarts Kenny Shaw, Kelvin Benjamin and Devonta Freeman. Through the first two games of 2014, those absences were felt by Florida State, and the Seminoles were clearly searching for the right replacements to step up.
But even throughout all the turbulence since Jimbo Fisher hoisted the national championship trophy a year ago, Florida State remained the nation’s safest bet for the College Football Playoff, and Winston was the constant.
Now, for the first 30 minutes of a game that will likely decide the ACC Atlantic Division, nothing seems certain.
Make no mistake, Maguire is capable of handling the role. He’s spent two full seasons learning Fisher’s system. He spent three chaotic weeks in November 2013 as FSU’s top backup during a time when the courts held Winston’s future in limbo. Winston said Wednesday he'd be spending extra time watching film and studying the playbook with Maguire to get him ready for his first career start. Maguire is prepared for this moment, but all the preparation in the world won’t entirely close the gap in talent between the Heisman winner and the anonymous backup.
Clemson’s pass rush is as good as any in the nation, and Maguire’s calm under pressure will be tested. That was always Winston’s strength.
Karlos Williams is a talented runner who could help ease the transition for the backup QB, but look no further than the Week 1 game against Oklahoma State to find serious concerns about Florida State’s ground game. Without Winston, the Tigers will almost certainly stack the box and dare Maguire to beat them downfield.
And while Rashad Greene remains as consistently productive a player as there is in the conference, there were already nagging questions surrounding the receiving corps' supporting cast. Now the burden falls on Maguire to help inexperienced targets like Jesus Wilson, Kermit Whitfield and Ermon Lane develop on the fly.
It’s just 30 minutes of football, and the stage will be set for Winston to return to action in the second half and erase a few more demons on the field. But last year, those first 30 minutes meant everything, with the Seminoles jumping out to a 27-7 lead that never allowed Clemson to get out of the starting blocks.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney grabbed headlines afterward, suggesting the talent on the field was split evenly, but the early momentum of the game tipped the scales Florida State’s way. This time around, there will be no excuse for the Tigers to cede the game within the first few drives. If the talent really is evenly split, Winston’s loss tips the scales back in Swinney’s favor.
But a year ago, there were questions about Winston, too, when Florida State’s bus motored into Death Valley, and he emerged a conquering hero.
Don’t expect the first chapter of the legend of Sean Maguire to be written in Tallahassee on Saturday. But the backup to college football’s biggest star will have a chance to script one heck of a footnote in the story of the Seminoles' 2014 season.