CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Voters for the Heisman Trophy can breathe a little easier.
Now that Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is off the hook in a sexual assault case that left his candidacy in limbo, they can put his name at the top of their ballots without fear it could come back to haunt them later had he been charged.
All Winston has left to do to validate his status as the nations premier player is prove his case on the field once more Saturday night and guide FSU to a victory over Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game to secure a spot for the Seminoles in the national title game.
FSU (12-0) is a heavy favorite to defeat the surprising Blue Devils, who havent exactly been known for their prowess on the gridiron over the years. But they went 10-2 to finish atop the Coastal Division of the ACC, ahead of more decorated programs such as the University of Miami and Virginia Tech and they arent backing down from Saturdays challenge.
Duke football has been the underdogs ever since Ive gotten here, Duke senior offensive lineman Dave Harding said. We know nobody is going to give us a chance to win.
It will be a stiff challenge for Duke. The Seminoles are more than a four-touchdown favorite. If thats all FSU wins by, the Blue Devils might consider it a moral victory, given the fact that the Seminoles have been crushing opponents since the start of the season. Their average margin of victory is 42.7 points.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, barely squeaked past North Carolina, 27-25, in their final regular-season game to win the Coastal. Still, theyre not the Duke most fans are familiar with, the habitual doormats of the ACC.
Coach David Cutcliffe has managed to successfully turn the program around. When he took over in 2008, Cutcliffe inherited a program that had compiled only three winning records over the previous 25 years. Duke ended an 18-year bowl drought last season when the Blue Devils reached the Belk Bowl, yet they still finished with a 6-7 overall record.
This year, Duke registered its first 10-win season in school history.
Said Harding: Coach Cutcliffe hes just a guy that is committed to the process and loves a challenge, and thats what made him perfect to turn really the worst Division I football program in the country around.
The Seminoles have taken notice.
I dont know what they did, but they got some faster guys than what I remember, and they all play together, FSU center Bryan Stork said. Theyre very disciplined. Theyre very smart. They play intelligent, and teams like that youve got to watch out for. Were not taking them lightly.
The Seminoles are no johnny-come-latelys. They need no introduction.
With Winston and his cast of four exceptional receiving targets paving the way, the Seminoles are poised to win their third national championship and first since 1999 when they finished 12-0 under Bobby Bowden.
Winston is the heavy favorite to give FSU its third Heisman winner, joining Charlie Ward (1993) and Chris Weinke (2000), especially now that his legal issues are behind him.
How could anyone in their right mind not think Jameis Winston is the best player in the country? said Bob Lutz, a Heisman voter and columnist for The Wichita Eagle. I suspect hell be the runaway winner when this is announced.
But Lutz and a lot of other voters fretted that it would have looked bad if Winston had won the Heisman while also facing rape charges. The deadline to submit ballots is Monday, with the Heisman announcement set for Dec. 14. Lutz was prepared to vote for Winston and cross his fingers.
Now he and the rest of the voters can relax, waiting only to see if Winston puts on another display against Duke the way he has throughout the season.
Theres still some legitimate candidates, Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi said. But Winston, because hes unbeaten, because hes sort of led Florida State to this incredible season, he should be the clear-cut favorite.