ACC Football Top 25 Players of 2012: #7, EJ Manuel

EJ Manuel Led Florida State to the Orange Bowl During His Standout Senior Season

EJ Manuel Led Florida State to the Orange Bowl During His Standout Senior Season

As part of our 2012 season review, we’re counting down the top 25 players in the ACC this season, from no. 25 to no. 1. Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus completely bulletproof, obviously — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.

No. 7, EJ Manuel, QB/Florida State (Preseason Rank: 8)

A few weeks into 2012, EJ Manuel was on a short list of Heisman frontrunners and the leader of a national title contender. And then that dreaded NC State game happened. and suddenly all the old criticisms about the FSU senior — inconsistent, unable to close out big games, inaccurate — came rushing back. The Seminoles only lost two games this year, but the Manuel they saw in those games (2 TD passes, 4 INTs) was vastly different than the one they saw in the 12 games they won (21 TD passes, 6 INTs). But it’s the latter version that truly made the difference in 2012 between underwhelming ‘Noles teams of the past and this year’s team that did exactly what they were supposed to: win the Orange Bowl. In spite of any previous issues, Manuel still finished his time at Florida State with a perfect 4-0 bowl record (if you include a long relief effort freshman year), beat rivals Florida and Miami twice apiece, and holds the school’s career record for passing yards (7,736). The jury may still be out on where exactly the quarterback falls in this Spring’s NFL Draft, but his place in FSU history has been firmly assured.

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2012 ACC Football Season Recap: Florida State Seminoles

If 2012 Proved Anything, It's That Florida State is Officially "Back" As an Elite Football Program

If 2012 Proved Anything, It’s That Florida State is Officially “Back” As an Elite Football Program

Team: Florida State Seminoles

W-L: 12-2 (7-1)

Postseason: 31-10 Discover Orange Bowl win over Northern Illinois

Top Offensive Performer: EJ Manuel, QB

Top Defensive Performer: Bjoern Werner, DE

Florida State had a checklist prior to this season. The ‘Noles were determined to win 10 games (check, and then some), the ACC Championship Game (check) and the Orange Bowl (check). So why do most accounts of this season seem to view it as a bit of a failure? It might just be a product of Jimbo Fisher succeeding in bringing FSU back to prominence.

Expectations were high for Florida State’s defense, but it was the offense that really needed to deliver if the Seminoles hoped to climb all the way back to the top. With some help of a manageable schedule (just one opponent ended the year ranked), they’d do just that, to the tune of 39.3 points per game (10th in the FBS). FSU outscored their opponents by an average of over 24 points per game, and managed to rank top-40 in both passing and rushing yards per game. For stretches during the season, it seemed as if the offense — led by senior passer EJ Manuel — was absolutely unstoppable, scoring more than 40 points seven different times. In prior years, what alluded. Manuel was consistency, but that was not the case in 2012. His completions, accuracy, yards, touchdowns and passer rating all went up in comparison to last year, as he showed a newfound poise and leadership whether in the pocket or on the run. Despite his own proficiency running the football (he amassed 310 yards and four scores this year), he was still largely helped by efficient play from his running backs. The Seminoles’ 40 rushing touchdowns ranked ninth in the country, made even more impressive by the distribution of the seven scorers, respectively. Devonta Freeman, James Wilder and Lonnie Pryor each scored eight or more times,  while Manuel, leading rusher Chris Thompson and Debrale Smiley each had between three and five. The constant change kept defenses off-balance and provided Manuel with the balanced attack he needed to run this group at optimum efficiency.

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Way-Too-Early 2013 ACC Football Power Rankings

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

An Early Look at 2013 Shows Clemson to Be at the Head of the Class in the ACC

When we last left our teams, there appeared to be hope on the horizon. Though the 2012 season was a difficult one, the bowls showed some real glimmers of great things to come, as the ACC racked up its first winning postseason record in seven years. Beyond some long-awaited hope for greater success, 2013 also brings some change to these rankings. Syracuse and Pittsburgh will now actually be participating in the conference, after two seasons appearing in the power rankings despite not doing so. And Louisville, our newest pals set to join in 2014, will also be joining the party — meaning 15 teams will be listed for the remainder of this calendar year (and slightly beyond into bowl season 2014). Cheer up! It’s less than 230 days ’till kickoff.

1. Clemson Tigers (Last Year: 2): Tajh Boyd‘s back, and the defense is improving steadily. So even without DeAndre Hopkins and Andre Ellington, this team will still be fine in 2013. In year two under defensive coordinator Brent Venables, expect an even more aggressive front-seven as the coach works on improving linebacker play in particular. That secondary will still get burned, but be certain they’ve also learned some lessons from last year, too.

2. Louisville Cardinals (LY: NR): After the show Teddy Bridgewater put on during the Sugar Bowl this year, the Cardinals are an extremely hot commodity, and are likely to start strong in their final season of Big East football. It’ll be interesting to see how coach Charlie Strong and his team respond to having a target on their backs from week one, when they’ll likely be handed a top-10 ranking to start the year.

3. Florida State Seminoles (LY: 1): They’re losing a lot on the defensive side of the football, along with QB and senior leader, EJ Manuel. But like those old, Bobby Bowden-coached teams of teams of the 90s, this ‘Noles squad has already reloaded. The offense may take a few to warm up, but the defense will still be very much their strength heading into next season.

4. Miami (FL) Hurricanes (LY: 5): After sitting out two straight years of postseason berths, the ‘Canes are really hoping they’re given a break from the NCAA in terms of leniency. With a ton of young talent eager to get a shot at a conference title, and arguably the best QB/RB tandem in the ACC in Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson, Miami could very well be out for blood come opening kickoff this fall.

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Final 2012 ACC Football Power Rankings

Clemson's Big Upset Over LSU Was One of Several Wins to Help the ACC Save Face This Postseason

Clemson’s Big Upset Over LSU Was One of Several Wins to Help the ACC Save Face This Postseason

Well that was a pleasant surprise now, wasn’t it? After getting knocked around on and off the field all season, the ACC found itself when it counted — the postseason — and (including Pitt & SU) managed a 5-3 slate, it’s first winning bowl record since 2005. If you want to include Louisville (and I sure do, given their big Sugar Bowl win), that brings the league to 6-3, with wins over the SEC (LSU & Florida), Big 12 (West Virginia) and Pac-12 (pre-season no. 1 USC). But sure, keep laughing at this league. They proved themselves and more during this year’s bowl season, and hopefully it’s a building block for even more excellent football.

1. Florida State Seminoles (12-2) (7-1) (LW: 1): Knock FSU for their schedule, their two losses (why are we criticizing a 12-win team again?) or their lack of a chance at a national title this season. But at the end of the day, they’re exactly where they were slated to be. The ‘Noles will be back in that conversation again this decade. It just takes some time, and this — winning both the ACC and the Orange Bowl — was the first step. Jimbo Fisher’s team will need to get past several big losses going forward, most notably Bjoern Werner and EJ Manuel, but the foundation’s there for a bright future.

2. Clemson Tigers (11-2) (7-1) (LW: 2): Despite not making it to a BCS bowl game, I’d say the Tigers’ consolation prize was still well-worth the trouble, no? On a national stage, Clemson beat mighty SEC’s LSU Tigers, and in the process, ended up being part of the most-watched non-BCS college football game in ESPN’s history. Most stunning in Clemson’s 25-24 victory, however, was the oft-maligned defense. Down 11 points heading into the fourth, the Bayou Bengals could’ve just run the clock out throughout the final stanza. Instead, it was Clemson that stayed strong, shutting out LSU and setting up a defining win for the Dabo Swinney era.

3. North Carolina Tar Heels (8-4) (5-3) (LW: 4): It’s tough to look at UNC’s 2012 season without imagining what could’ve been for a squad that seemed to finally turn the corner here in Larry Fedora’s first year. Knocking on the door of a division title for quite some time, the Heels finally put it all together, only to be ineligible for the postseason. So while it’s a disappointment for North Carolina fans to watch an eight-win season get laid to waste, it’s also built this program some street cred. Despite Giovani Bernard‘s departure to the NFL Draft, QB Bryn Renner will stick around for his senior year, meaning this team returns plenty of firepower; most of which this season only served as a preview for.

4. Syracuse Orange (8-5) (LW: 5): As if it was meant to be, Syracuse closed out their time in the Big East — the conference they built — by putting together its most impressive season in a decade. Up against one of the nation’s toughest non-conference schedules, and a top-heavy league to boot, the Orange still managed to win six of their final seven games. The exclamation point, however (on top of a split conference title), was their resounding victory over rival West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl. As someone who braved the cold to watch in-person, it was amazing to see this squad’s transformation from the season’s opening-week struggles to the machine-like execution against the Mountaineers.

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Discover Orange Bowl Preview: Florida State Seminoles vs. Northern Illinois Huskies

Which EJ Manuel Will Show Up in the Orange Bowl -- the Elite Playmaker, or the Struggling Veteran?

Which EJ Manuel Will Show Up in the Orange Bowl — the Elite Playmaker, or the Struggling Veteran?

While Florida State reached the Orange Bowl, just as many expected, there’s also an air of lost potential about the ‘Noles this season. It’s why, despite never playing in a game of this caliber, many think that Northern Illinois has a shot at an upset. So do they? We take a look at how the matchup shakes out.

Bowl Game: Discover Orange Bowl

Location: Miami Gardens, Fla.

First Year: 1935

2012 Participants: Florida State Seminoles (11-2) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (12-1)

Last Meeting: None

***

Florida State (previous bowl game: 18-14 win vs. Notre Dame in 2011 Champs Sports Bowl)

On paper, Florida State was one of the country’s most dominant teams. Conference champions, 12th in scoring in the country (39.9 points per game) and sixth in scoring defense (15.1 points allowed per game). Yet, what will stand out most is how they struggled in key moments. Up 16-0 against NC State early in the season, the team began showing its deficiencies on offense. Then in the regular season finale, the defense showed its own issues, letting rival Florida rack up 24 points in the fourth quarter of an FSU loss. The common thread when they struggled most? EJ Manuel‘s consistency, or lack thereof. In four of their closest games, Manuel put up just two scores to five picks — not exactly the type of performances a championship-caliber team wants out of its senior quarterback. While all of their games certainly weren’t against “elite” competition, NIU’s defense did manage to force 15 interceptions and allow just 10 scores (seventh-best in the country), so that’s certainly something the ‘Noles should be prepared for. On defense, Florida State showed some holes without star defensive end Tank Carradine during the ACC title game, and it’s unlikely the team’s front-seven will be as aggressive without him in this matchup either. The Huskies allowed just 14 sacks all season — in part due to an elite offensive line, and also due to quarterback Jordan Lynch‘s elusiveness. It’s not impossible, but FSU will have to crack the code on containing Lynch if they hope to pull out a win.

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Top 10 ACC Football Games of 2012

Could Jamison Crowder and the Blue Devils Claim the Top Spot For Duke's Impressive Win Over UNC?

Could Jamison Crowder and the Blue Devils Claim the Top Spot For Duke’s Impressive Win Over UNC?

In a season full of parity, it’s understandable that the ACC had so many memorable contests to choose from when compiling this list. So many last-second scores, one-possession ball games and overtime battles, it was truly difficult to decipher which really were the “best” the league had to offer. Nonetheless, we make an attempt below, nodding to the 10 contests that — more than any others the ACC gave us this season — really gave us a reason to remember them. Agree or disagree with our picks? Share away in the comments.

Top 10 Games of 2012

10. Syracuse 37, USF 36: Down 20 points at the half, this was supposed to be the tombstone in another disappointing Syracuse season. And yet, as they did all year, this Orange squad refused to quit, and battled all the way back in the second half. Down five with just seconds on the clock, Ryan Nassib delivered a gutsy touchdown pass to Alec Lemon on fourth-and-goal, sealing the win and adding to his reputation as a master of the comeback.

9. Syracuse 31, Missouri 27: We promise this is the last you hear about Syracuse on this list. Once again facing a late deficit — this time 27-24 — Nassib and Lemon would complete their furious comeback with a wide-open 17-yard touchdown pass. The strike, with just 20 seconds remaining, would end up being the game-winner, sending ‘Cuse bowling for the second time in three seasons.

8. Florida State 28, Virginia Tech 22: From sloppy, to boring, to inexplicable and then miraculous, this game truly ran the gambit of emotions for players and fans. What should have been a quick win over a lackluster Hokies squad would turn into a struggle for FSU; one they were certainly lucky to come away with. Even now, the final few minutes rush by like a blur: Devonta Freeman‘s idiotic safety, EJ Manuel‘s easy 39-yard TD pass, and then Logan Thomas‘s ultimate hero-turned-goat act. Just another Thursday night ACC showdown.

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Top 10 Individual Performances of the 2012 ACC Football Season

Tajh Boyd Turned In a Slew of Top Performances in 2012, But Did He Have the ACC's Best One?

Tajh Boyd Turned In a Slew of Great Performances, But Did He Have the ACC’s Best One of 2012?

During a season in which the ACC took plenty of lumps on and off the field, there were still plenty of individual performances worth bragging about; so we’ll make sure to do so in this space. Below are our picks for the top 10 individual performances of the 2012 season, highlighting the best players the ACC had to offer.

Agree or disagree with any of these choices? Feel free to add your own commentary below.

Top 10 Individual Performances of 2012

10. Bjoern Werner, DE/Florida State (4 sacks vs. Murray State): One of FSU’s standout seniors on defense set the tone for a big year with his opening effort against Murray State. Of Werner’s five tackles in limited action (the team was pulling starters early in the blowout), four of them were sacks. He also defended a pass during a very productive day that was impressive, regardless of opponent.

9. Tajh Boyd, QB/Clemson (428 yards, 5 TDs vs. Wake Forest): In a Thursday night game many billed as an “upset special,” Boyd had quieted all the critics by halftime. The junior completed 71 percent of his passes, and threw all five touchdowns in the first half (and four of them were in the second quarter).

8. Giovani Bernard, RB/North Carolina (262 yards, 1 TD vs. Virginia Tech): Like many of the stars we’re highlighting in this feature, this is just one of many phenomenal games from Bernard. In his first full game of the season (he was cut short or out during the first five), he put in the fifth-highest rushing total in UNC history and played a central part in one of the Heels’ key victories of the season.

7. EJ Manuel, QB/Florida State (439 yards 4 TDs vs. Boston College): Coming back from the Seminoles’ first loss of the season, Manuel played like a man on fire against the Eagles in a 51-7 victory. The senior completed nearly 80 percent of his 34 throws, and appeared to have his team and his offense right back on track. Regardless of whether or not that was the case, it was a dazzling air display that really showed just how much Manuel could do when given an opportunity.

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