College football may be on the doorstep of another Manziel moment.
Last year, a freshman passer took over the Heisman Trophy race with a thrilling road victory over a national title contender and its tested quarterback.
That was Johnny Manziel, shocking Alabama and the country with poise and precision few first-year players possess. This year, the stage and the opportunity belong to Jameis Winston, whose fifth-ranked Florida State team visits No. 3 Clemson on Saturday.
As was the case in Tuscaloosa last year, an entire nation will be watching the freshman. And as was the case with Manziel, Winston doesn't seem to shrink from the attention one bit.
The Seminoles' two-sport athlete has his Florida State bio listing Bessemer, Ala. as his hometown. That's the same hometown as Bo Jackson. As if that's not enough of a buzz recipe for an outfielder/quarterback who chose the same school as two-sport stars Charlie Ward and Deion Sanders, Winston also has a non-toxic charm that's kept him from any criticism so far. He likes to lead, and teammates like to follow.
Winston already had a must-see highlight before his first football game, in which he chucked a laser from right field to put out a baserunner sliding into third. Seeing that play alone explains the hype around "Famous Jameis": he throws with high velocity and low worry. FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher sent his prior two quarterbacks to the first round of the NFL (Christian Ponder and E.J. Manuel), and yet Winston appears as sure in the pocket as either of those guys did. Perhaps more so.
In his first college football game, in a difficult environment against Pittsburgh, Winston shredded the Panthers for 356 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that looked like the last game of his senior season rather than the first of his Florida State career. He also ran for a touchdown and set the school record for completion percentage, going 25 for 27 in the game. The Seminoles got into trouble against Boston College on the road and Winston rescued them with four scores. And in Florida State's first game against a ranked team, two weeks ago against Maryland, Winston threw for five touchdowns and 393 yards in what can only be described as a gutting of the Terps. No ranked team has ever been beaten by a wider margin (63-0).
Saturday brings one of the most hostile environments in football, against one of the top five toughest teams and one of the top five best quarterbacks.
Winston, naturally, seems unconcerned.
"If we play our game," he said Wednesday, "we don't think we're going to be beat."
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Surely Aaron Murray thought the same, and yet his Georgia Bulldogs were beat by Tajh Boyd and Clemson on opening night back in August. Murray didn't make many mistakes, but he made more than Boyd did, and that game vaulted Clemson into the national title race. Boyd is just as calm as Winston, if not more, and this Saturday's game should be even louder than the Georgia tilt.
Again, Winston doesn't sweat it.
"Noise," he said. "I don't think that has nothing to do with our offense."
He went on to say, "we're not playing against the crowd" and "noise is more for excitement."
Some would say noise is for distracting a first-year quarterback who hasn't played in an environment like Death Valley. Saturday will give us all a sense of whether Winston is really beyond his years (or weeks). A freshman quarterback hasn't won at Clemson since 2007, and this is arguably Clemson's best team in more than 30 years.
"I don't think anything makes me nervous on the field," Winston said flatly. "Being in that huddle and communicating with my teammates, they can't see nervous."
If Winston succeeds in this game, and no one sees nervous, he'll ascend toward the kind of status Manziel enjoyed last season. That may not be a wholly good thing, as Manziel is now the most recognizable and polarizing player in college football. Winston, though, has not been shielded from interviews as a freshman, so the media didn't build up a legend based on someone imagined yet not interviewed. Winston seems just as familiar in a huddle of reporters as he does in his own huddle. Even before the season, he playfully told one member of the press to hit him over the head with a microphone if he ever got something the reporter called "Manziel disease."
The last 12 months have seen extreme swells of hype and scrutiny for Johnny Manziel. Jameis Winston is following a very similar path. This Saturday will show whether he's ready for a new level of clamor.
And a new level of noise.
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