5 College Football Defenses with the Best Chance to Shut Down Jameis Winston
The title to this piece is slightly misleading, because in the short amount of time we've had the pleasure of watching Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, nobody has been able to truly shut him down.
In the two games this past season where Winston was held to under 200 yards passing, his team won by a combined score of 113-9, over Bethune-Cookman and Wake Forest, respectively. You wouldn't be wrong to say those defenses held him in check, but does it really count if you're losing by half a hundred?
In order to pinpoint teams that have a chance of slowing down the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, we first must look at the things that make him such a special player. For one, Winston is never rattled. His 'Noles breezed through the season with ease, and the only major scare came in the BCS National Championship game against Auburn.
This tells us that building an early lead and putting the pressure on just might cause Winston to sweat a little, even if the redshirt freshman was able to then lead an impressive comeback.
He's also the signal-caller in a balanced but physical offense, which ranked in the Top 30 in both rushing and passing yards in 2013. Defenses that can fly around won't have the upper hand because Florida State's athletes are almost always going to be better. The task of slowing down Winston requires a physical defense that can slow down the run and force the star quarterback to make things happen on his own.
Even then, he's liable to get into a groove and rip your heart out. Which means the final factor is the ability to limit possessions and keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible.
Combine those three things, and you just might have a chance of shutting down Winston. Extra emphasis on "might."
Here are five such teams that boast defenses capable of shutting down Jameis Winston.
All stats via cfbstats.com
5. South Carolina Gamecocks
You might be sick of the SEC, but the fact of the matter is that the conference contains bigger, stronger and faster athletes on defense than anywhere else. That doesn't always equal better teams, but it's hard to match the league's pure, all-around athleticism on defense.
So naturally we'll begin with South Carolina, which gave up just a hair over 20 points per game in 2013. After an early season loss to a healthy Georgia squad in which the Gamecocks allowed 41 points, they found a groove the rest of the way and didn't allow another team to even reach 30.
This includes allowing just 24 points Missouri, 17 to Clemson and 24 to Wisconsin. The Tigers were victorious in all three contests.
The headliner was obviously defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but he'll be playing on Sundays in the fall and it'll be up to guys like freshman linebacker Skai Moore to help carry the load when college football resumes.
Regardless of how Spurrier and the rest of his staff plan to replace Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, you'd be silly not to think they'll find a way, considering the defense has allowed more than 21 points per game just once since 2009.
Perhaps the most important aspect of South Carolina's defense, however, is that it's coupled with an experienced offense that doesn't get flustered and knows how to control the clock. Running back Mike Davis is a burgeoning superstar and quarterback Dylan Thompson has played in critical moments already in his career.
The Gamecocks may not be able to match the wealth of playmakers the Seminoles boast on offense, but we know this to be a physical defense that rarely allows the scoreboard to work its way past the 30-point mark. This is a team that controls the clock and finished eighth in the country in turnover margin.
Spurrier's team might not be the most obvious choice to slow down Jameis Winston, but it's one of the best options out there.
4. Auburn Tigers
You're chuckling as you're reading this, wondering how in the heck a team Florida State just beat could be listed among those capable of shutting down its Heisman-winning quarterback?
It's true that Florida State put up 34 points on the Tigers and bested Gus Malzahn's team to claim a national championship. But it's also true that Jameis Winston had one of his worst games of the season, regardless of how much credit you give for the game-winning drive.
Winston threw for 237 yards and two touchdowns in the game, but a good chunk of those yards came on the final drive and he had his third-lowest completion percentage of the season. The reason is because his team was playing from behind for much of the game, which is critical to slowing down a great player like Winston.
When Auburn jumped out to an early lead, it took away some of Jimbo Fisher's game plan and forced him to take chances, as evidenced by the fake punt that jump-started the comeback. The Tigers' defense found success because its offense held possession and built a lead, and teams that do that can slow down anyone.
Of course, we all know that Florida State came back and eventually won the game. But for much of the evening, Auburn was winning the line of scrimmage and playing more physical than the 'Noles. Studs like defensive end Carl Lawson are only beginning to realize their enormous potential, and with the momentum Malzahn has injected into the program, more Lawson's are on the way.
Had it not been for the fake punt or the kickoff return, the game could have told a completely different story. In the end, Florida State pulled it out in impressive fashion and Winston deservedly held the role of hero.
But those who watched the game know that the superstar signal-caller struggled during most of the contest, and that the formula for shutting him down is something defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had been working on. Because of the mix of elite athletes on defense and an offense that knows how to apply pressure, Auburn is a team that would have a chance of shutting down Jameis Winston.
3. Michigan State Spartans
It's fun to look at defensive statistics and how they might equate to actual gameplay, but with Michigan State, all you need are two eyeballs focused on the television to realize the Spartans can flat-out play on that side of the ball.
The biggest name returning in 2014 is defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who racked up 14 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks in 2013. He's the kind of player capable of having an impact similar to the one Auburn's Dee Ford had throughout the season, and we're willing to bet the 'Noles remember Ford quite well.
But just to prove how well-oiled the Spartans' defensive machine is under coordinator Pat Narduzzi, take the Rose Bowl victory. Senior linebacker Max Bullough had been leading that side of the ball all year long before getting suspended prior to the contest versus Stanford. In stepped former walk-on Kyle Elsworth, who went on to win defensive MVP of the game.
He's the kind of player who typifies the team from East Lansing, and is yet another reason why we have Michigan State on this list.
As mentioned in the opening slide, one of the keys to shutting down Jameis Winston is controlling the clock and keeping the ball away from him and his offense. Running back Jeremy Langford topped the 1,400-yard mark in 2013 and quarterback Connor Cook has turned into an above-average player in a very short time.
Even with some of the losses suffered at all three levels on defense, the offense has begun to pick up the slack, which makes this team even scarier.
Overall, Michigan State finished second in total defense and third in scoring defense in 2013. We see no reason to believe that won't continue, which makes the Spartans one of the few teams with a chance of shutting down Jameis Winston.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Anytime we bring up Alabama between now and the start of the 2014 season, the Sugar Bowl discussion will likely follow. As in, what the heck happened to a defense known for swallowing opponents whole, bones and all?
There's little explanation for why Oklahoma was able to shred the Crimson Tide, but you'd be crazy to think that will somehow become the norm for the future. We're willing to bet that after practically being given a national title by the media halfway through the 2013 season, ending up with two losses didn't sit well with coach Nick Saban.
As for why his team would have a chance to shut down Jameis Winston, start with the talent level on defense. From Rueben Foster to A'Shawn Robinson and Landon Collins, there are playmakers at every level with first-round potential in future NFL drafts.
Alabama allowed just under 14 points per game last season, and it dominated for much of the year. In fact, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 26, a span of six games, the defense allowed just 26 points total. It gave up 17 to LSU and had Auburn stuck at 21 before the last couple minutes of the Iron Bowl.
The point is that the defense, while embarrassed in the Sugar Bowl, is more than capable of shutting down good offenses. The only times it was put on its heels was against quarterbacks who can run and throw, like Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Auburn's Nick Marshall or Oklahoma's Trevor Knight.
In fact, Knight had over 200 yards more than Winston on the ground despite appearing in only eight games. Winston can move, but the most yards he's had in a game is 67, and it took him 14 carries to get there. If Alabama isn't worried about him tucking the ball and taking off as often as the other signal-callers mentioned, it gives them a huge advantage.
Finally, if there's one team in the country that can match Florida State in athleticism, it's the Crimson Tide. That point cannot be understated, and in the likely scenario that the Sugar Bowl loss was an aberration, Alabama is definitely a team with a chance to slow down Jameis Winston.
1. Stanford Cardinal
Stanford may not have the same number of highly touted players as Alabama or Auburn, but the Cardinal boast one of the more proven defensive units in the country.
David Shaw's team played eight ranked teams in 2013 and allowed exactly none of them to top the 30-point barrier. That included offensive powerhouses like Oregon and UCLA. In a league like the Pac-12 where almost everyone poses a threat to light up the scoreboard, that's a simply mind-boggling statistic.
In the past, this is a group that has been labeled as big and physical but slow and stuck in the 1960's. That reputation was shed and burned over the past two seasons, especially in games against the high-flying Ducks, who managed a total of 34 points in both games.
Not only do the Cardinal boast the bulk and strength in the front seven of an SEC team like Alabama, but they now have speed to match it.
Adding to the weekly defensive effort is an offense that can control the clock better than anyone behind an exceptional line.
Stanford must replace a number of guys in 2014, but linebacker A.J. Tarpley and linemen Henry Anderson, two anchors, are returning. Tarpley finished second on the team with 96 tackles and Anderson is a space-eater at 6'6" and 295 pounds.
Because Stanford plays in a league where offense reigns supreme—and the Cardinal have still come out on top the past two seasons while dominating on defense—they would have an excellent chance of shutting down quarterback Jameis Winston.