CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) – When Florida State and Miami meet this weekend, their game will feature the current Atlantic Coast Conference leader in touchdown passes, yards per attempt, yards per completion and quarterback rating.
Jameis Winston also will be there.
On one sideline, there’s Winston, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who still hasn’t lost a collegiate game and will be aiming to lead the second-ranked Seminoles (9-0, 6-0 ACC) to their 26th consecutive victory. On the other side, there’s Brad Kaaya, the true Miami freshman who is already turning heads and setting records at the place once called “Quarterback U.”
The quarterback matchup alone might be worth the steep price of admission into the stadium the Hurricanes (6-3, 3-2) call home on Saturday night.
“He always finds a way to win,” Kaaya said of Winston. “And he’s also really good at tuning out all the outside noise, no matter what’s going on. He doesn’t let anything from the outside affect him.”
Without question, Winston is more accomplished than Kaaya so far. Also without question, he’s dealt with more distractions than the Miami quarterback – or perhaps anyone else incollege football, for that matter, with off-field issues dogging both of his Seminole seasons. But when looking at the sheer basics of quarterback play like arm strength and decision-making, it becomes easy to see some parallels.
“Jameis has the edge in arm strength. He’s bigger and stronger,” said Miami offensive coordinator James Coley, who had the same job at Florida State until last season. “He has an elite arm. Brad, he’s got an elite arm as well. And he’s going to get stronger.”
The numbers this season are relatively close in plenty of areas.
Kaaya has 20 touchdowns, averaging 9 yards per attempt and 14.5 yards per completion.
Winston has 17 touchdowns, averaging 8.6 yards per attempt and 13 yards per completion.
“I know he is playing very well and he is a very talented guy,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said of Kaaya. “I know the offense that he is in. James carries a lot of things that we do plus some other things he does. He has to be a very cerebral guy and a very mental guy to be where he is at right and having the success. He obviously has tremendous upside.”
Based on Miami’s listed records, Kaaya is 242 yards away from matching Bernie Kosar’s school record for yards as a freshman, true or redshirt. He’s the first Miami freshman quarterback to throw 20 touchdown passes. He’s also on pace to become just the sixth player in school history to throw for 2,500 yards in his first season as the primary starter.
“We have a franchise quarterback,” Miami coach Al Golden said.
So, too, does Florida State.
Winston’s numbers aren’t as gaudy in 2014 as they were in his 40-touchdown, 10-interception campaign as a freshman who won everything there was to win. He already has 11 interceptions this season, his yards-per-attempt is down and his quarterback rating has dipped nearly 35 points from where he finished a year ago.
That being said, he’s still 22-0 as a starter.
“I’ve got to stop turning the ball over, and we’ve got to start making some noise in the first half,” Winston said. “But the good thing is our defense is playing lights out. They continue to play better and better, but my job as the leader of the team and as the quarterback of this team, I have to put both sides of the ball in good position to win the game.”
That’s what he’s always done.
That’s what Kaaya is learning to do.
That’s why this matchup could be special. Winston was spectacular as a freshman. Kaaya might be on a similar path.
“People can say Brad’s a freshman,” Miami running back Duke Johnson said. “But to us, he’s not a freshman anymore. He’s the quarterback.”
Miami is fully aware of the massive challenge that the Seminoles will provide, but the Hurricanes also know Saturday night’s matchup represents a chance to take a giant step forward.
“It’s an enormous opportunity to prove something to the world,” Kaaya said. “A lot of people doubted us, I’m sure a lot of people still continue to and they have good reason to. We just have to keep progressing as a team.”
Winning this one, yes, that would classify as progressing.
The FSU resume: Defending national champions, reigning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Winston, school-record 25 straight wins, 42-3 in its past 45 games, four straight wins over the Hurricanes, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation and No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
The Seminoles know Miami would love to put a serious dent into all that.
“The mentality probably will be different because we’ve got players from the state of Florida that know about this rivalry and just live and breathe this rivalry,” Winston said.
“It’s definitely going to be a great experience for me to go to Miami and play against those guys because they have a great team, and they’re looking to be the team to beat us.”
Consider that a bit of an understatement.
“You come to Miami,” Hurricanes offensive lineman Shane McDermott said, “to beat Florida State.”
Florida State hasn’t let that happen since 2009, winning the past four meetings by a combined 142-70.
While oddsmakers have expected Seminole romps in recent years, the Hurricanes are merely 2 1/2-point underdogs this time around. Miami has won its past three games overall and 13 of its past 14 at home.
“Everybody involved in it knows it’s a big game,” Golden said. “We’ve just got to focus on what we can control and we’ve been doing a good job of that over the last month.”
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