For all of the negative attention that Florida State QB Jameis Winston's off-field behavior has attracted this season, there is no doubt in my mind that he is the top quarterback in the potential 2015 QB class.
While others are more athletic (Oregon's Marcus Mariota) and better personality/character fits (Michigan State's Connor Cook), there isn't another quarterback in college football capable of matching Winston's big-game resume and overall potential. Evaluators might attempt to convince themselves otherwise to avoid a P.R. headache, but the tape suggests that he remains the crown jewel of the class based on his on-field performance.
Overall, I know that Winston's previous transgressions will ultimately decide his fate in several draft rooms, but there will be a number of NFL evaluators who will fall in love with his resiliency, composure and big-game ability after watching the reigning Heisman Trophy winner lead the Seminoles to a dramatic 31-27 win over Notre Dame on Saturday night.
While the circumstances surrounding Winston's immature and sometimes irresponsible acts warrant serious investigation by NFL officials, there is no denying that he is a special player at the position. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt sophomore guided the Seminoles to their 23rd straight win, while exhibiting the kind of physical tools that offensive coordinators covet in franchise quarterbacks. From his outstanding arm strength, touch and accuracy to his impressive pocket awareness and anticipation, Winston possesses all of the traits to thrive in a pro-style offense. Additionally, he has enough athleticism to make plays on the run when the pocket collapses.
Against Notre Dame, Winston showed the football world that he remains the most dangerous quarterback in college when he puts it all together on the field. Following an uneven first-half performance where he appeared flustered by Notre Dame's defensive tactics, Winston brilliantly picked apart the defense with exceptional precision in the second half. He connected on 15 of 16 throws for 181 yards and a score after halftime. Most impressive, he repeatedly displayed the courage to stand in the pocket and deliver accurate throws despite facing constant pressure up the gut. Given the importance of composure, poise and anticipation in a quarterback evaluation, Winston's second-half showing checked off a lot of boxes in key areas and will lead some scouts to appreciate his ability to step up when the game is teetering on the brink.
From a critical standpoint, I still have some concerns about his sloppy footwork and fundamentals that lead to back-foot tosses at times, but I believe Winston's flaws are correctable with detailed coaching at the next level. An astute quarterback coach will help him learn to incorporate his lower body into his throwing mechanics, which will improve his velocity, accuracy and ball placement. (Most quarterbacks with a heavy baseball background are "arm" throwers, so it is not a surprise that he tends to rely extensively on his arm instead of his lower body to generate velocity on his throws.)
Looking at Winston's intangibles, the majority of observers will allow his off-field behavior to cloud the traits that he displays on the field, but I will step out and say that his "football character" is outstanding when he steps onto the field. Winston is a charismatic leader who galvanizes his teammates through his actions and words, and plays with the kind of swagger that leads others to follow his lead. While most prospects would crack under the intense scrutiny and pressure that Winston has endured over the past year (most of which has been self-inflicted through his own actions), he has continued to thrive on the biggest and brightest stages when his team needed him the most. From my vantage point, Winston's resiliency, toughness and composure under those circumstances suggest that he won't wilt under the pressure of the pro game and will find a way to succeed when things inevitably go wrong as a franchise player. With quarterback guru George Whitfield, Jr. on record stating that Winston's football IQ and aptitude are on par with Andrew Luck in the classroom (Whitfield has privately trained Winston and Luck, plus a host of other top quarterbacks in the past few years), I don't have any reservations about his ability to process information on the board and put it into practice on the field.
QB Clint Trickett, West Virginia: Trickett is not a prototypical NFL quarterback, but he might be the most dangerous player in college football as the director of the Mountaineers' fast-paced offense. The 6-2, 186-pound senior lit up Baylor for 322 yards and three scores in West Virginia's 41-27 upset win. Most impressive, Trickett played inspired football while his father (Rick Trickett, Florida State's offensive line coach) was dealing with some health issues. Given his poise, composure and production against a top team with so many distractions around him, Trickett deserves recognition for his efforts.
RB Devontae Booker, Utah: At a time when running backs are seemingly devalued by football observers, Booker is showing how much the presence of a dynamic workhorse in the backfield can reverse the fortunes of a team. The 5-11, 203-pound junior has rushed for at least 155 yards in each of the Utes' last three games, including a 32-carry, 229-yard effort against Oregon State that showcased a unique combination of quickness, balance and body control. With the Utes surging into contention in the Pac-12 South, Booker is quickly jumping into the conversation as one of the top runners in college football.
QB Cody Kessler, USC: The Trojans' star has quietly enjoyed an outstanding season as the director of Steve Sarkisian's offense. Kessler is completing nearly 70 percent of his passes and sports a ridiculous 18:1 touchdown to interception ratio through seven games. Against Colorado, he put on a spectacular showing that included seven touchdowns and a number of pinpoint throws that showcased his superb timing and anticipation as a thrower. Facing an opponent next weekend that will challenge his ability to efficiently distribute the ball to a bevy of playmakers on the perimeter, Kessler will have a chance to show evaluators that he is legitimate prospect with the tools to play at the next level.
RB/KR Marcus Murphy, Missouri: Whenever an offensive player is capable of making an impact in the kicking game, scouts will denote him with a gold star due to his ability to contribute as a two-phase player. That's why I'm confident Murphy will get an opportunity to make a roster as a utility player following his three-score effort against Florida. Murphy notched a pair of return touchdowns (96-yard kick return; 86-yard punt return) and scored on a five-yard run that showcased his ability to find paydirt as a runner. As more NFL scouts dig into film to search for a solid option in the return game, Murphy's impressive career resume (seven total return touchdowns) could make him an enticing option on draft day.
K Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma: No one pays attention to the kicker until he fails to deliver in a key moment. This week, all eyes will be on Hunnicutt after the senior missed a pair of chip-shot field goals and had a PAT blocked in the Sooners' upset loss to Kansas State. Although questionable protection and timing contributed to Hunnicutt's miscues, the fact that he missed a 19-yarder to clinch the victory merits his spot on this list.
QB Kevin Hogan, Stanford: The Cardinal offensive woes don't rest exclusively with the quarterback, but the 6-4, 228-pound passer certainly contributed to the unit's failures against Arizona State. Hogan completed only 48.7 percent of his passes against the Sun Devils. Most important, he failed to help the offense muster a substantial threat when the game was hanging in the balance. Given the amount of talent dotting the Cardinal roster, Hogan has to find a way to push the right buttons to generate more explosive plays and points for Stanford.
QB Kenny Hill, Texas A&M: After jumping into the Heisman Trophy conversation following a few impressive early-season performances, Hill could be fighting to keep his job following three straight disappointing showings for the Aggies. Although Hill has completed 68.1 percent of his passes during that span, he has only compiled a 6:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio and shown signs of confusion in the pocket. Against Alabama, Hill's hesitancy was apparent when he failed to connect with open receivers on the second and third option of the route concept. With the Crimson Tide throwing a variety of looks at Hill, the young signal-caller's inexperience and declining confidence led to a spotty performance on Saturday.
College Football Playoff final four
1. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs made their way through three top-10 opponents to claim the top spot in the polls, but Dan Mullen's crew still has a ton of work to do to secure the top seed in the College Football Playoff. Games against Arkansas and Alabama will test the Bulldogs' toughness and physicality, while the season finale against Ole Miss will challenge their focus and concentration with huge implications potentially on the line.
2. Florida State: The Seminoles are certainly not as dominant as their 2013 version, but it's hard to knock a team that continues to win despite facing adversity on and off the field. With the Seminoles riding a 23-game winning streak and facing light competition down the stretch, it is time to pencil in Florida State for one of the berths in the playoff tournament.
3. Ole Miss: The Rebels' defense is championship-caliber, but questions about their quarterback play prevents some observers from fully endorsing Hugh Freeze's squad as a title contender. Although Bo Wallace has played better in recent weeks, his penchant for turnovers could be the deciding factor in a big game against a heavyweight opponent.
4. Oregon: Despite a disappointing loss to Arizona a few weeks ago, the Ducks remain in contention for a berth due to their sensational quarterback. Mariota played like a man among boys on the perimeter; his ability to single-handedly carry the Ducks' offense could make the unit downright scary with young players like Royce Freeman starting to emerge as key contributors.
1. QB Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: The bye week won't stop the buzz building for Prescott's Heisman Trophy campaign. The junior has amassed 22 total touchdowns and helped the Bulldogs surge to near the top of the polls on the strength of three wins over top-10 opponents.
2. QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon: The Ducks' star quarterback has taken his game to a higher level this season. Mariota has scored 24 total touchdowns (19 receiving; 5 rushing) and single-handedly put Oregon back into playoff contention after a disappointing loss to Arizona.
3. RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin: Gordon has topped the 100-yard mark five times in six games while cruising to a 1,000-yard season. With 25-plus carries in each of the last three games, the Badgers' standout is proving that he can be a workhorse runner at the next level.
4. QB Jameis Winston, Florida State: The intense scrutiny on Winston's off-field behavior has detracted from his impressive play on the field, but it is time to appreciate his ability to consistently guide the Seminoles to the winner's circle. Winston was sensational in the second half against the Fighting Irish, completing 15 of his last 16 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. Most impressive, he delivered a number of anticipation throws with defenders in close proximity. Given the Seminoles' easy road to the postseason, Winston will have plenty of chances to compile the gaudy numbers that will force voters to reassess his candidacy.
5. QB Everett Golson, Notre Dame: It is uncommon for a player to gain momentum in a loss, but the buzz will start to build for Golson following his strong showing against Florida State. The diminutive signal-caller put the Fighting Irish offense on his back, exhibiting exceptional poise and playmaking ability under pressure. From his improvisational skills that led to several first downs in critical moments to his ability to calmly guide his team down the field in the game's waning moments, Golson's play certainly puts him in the conversation as one of college football's top playmakers.