TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There's nothing like a good conspiracy theory to get a fan base talking, and while the paranoia among Florida State fans is nothing new -- particularly when it comes to ACC officiating -- the buzz has ramped up a bit in recent weeks.
The theory is simple, and it's been ongoing for several years: Florida State draws more flags than opponents, ergo, there is a bias among officials against the Seminoles.
The latest evidence is just as empirically obvious, too. Blessed with one of the top defensive lines in the country, including All-America candidates Bjoern Werner and Cornellius Carradine, FSU's pass rush has somehow been stopped in its tracks by the likes of Boston College and NC State, the latter of which started three backups in its win over the Seminoles.
How's that possible?
"If you're a good defensive lineman, you get held," Werner said. "It doesn't get called every time, but it gets ridiculous and you have to say something to the refs."
Fans would argue the ridiculousness has been ongoing for years, but recent history has brought the discussion to the forefront once again.
The concerns were so widespread after last season that the Tallahassee Democrat did a study of all ACC games dating back to 2005 when the conference expanded. It found that FSU had been called for more holding penalties than any other team in the conference -- more than twice as many as NC State, which had the fewest holding flags during that span.
But history is one thing. The current FSU team has a clearly powerful pass rush, and for the past two games, the Seminoles have exactly two sacks -- both coming from defensive tackles rather than Werner or Carradine.
Against Boston College, the frustration nearly boiled over after Carradine believed he'd been tackled by an offensive lineman without drawing a flag.
"I saw Tank getting held a lot," Werner said. "He got tackled from behind. I have to be the guy to calm him down before he destroys somebody."
Werner, meanwhile, hasn't recorded a sack since FSU's third game of the season against Wake Forest. It's a peculiar streak for a player widely considered one of the best pass rushers in the league and a likely first-round selection in next year's NFL draft.
But if Florida State's players are frustrated, coach Jimbo Fisher understands. He's just not interested in pursuing the matter any further.
"There’s no more questions on holding," Fisher said. "If they call it, it’s a hold. If they don’t call it, it’s not a hold. What do you want us to say? It’s over with."
This is something of a new take on the situation for Fisher, who lobbied for more flags routinely last season. During fall camp, defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said his staff has worked with players to help reduce holds and make the holds that do occur more obvious to the officials, and defensive tackle Anthony McCloud said the Seminoles practice without holding calls to force pass rushers to get used to it.
Still, Stoops admitted there was little that could be done to make a dramatic change in the games without altering the way FSU plays.
"We can't teach them bad fundamentals," Stoops said. "We always teach them things where we get in positions to counter out some of those things, but it's hard to teach someone not to hold you."
The numbers would seem to indicate the tricks aren't working.
After racking up 11 sacks in its first three games -- all by defensive ends -- Florida State has just six sacks in its last four contests, only 3.5 of which came from ends. FSU blog Tomahawk Nation recently discussed the problem with screen captures of several holds on the Seminoles pass rushers included.
Of course, Fisher isn't denying the holds take place, but he's also not saying more should be called.
"Maybe we hold some and they don't call it," Fisher said. "It's opinionated. Players play, referees ref, and if they don't call a hold, you fight through it and you move on."
And while logic may indicate more holds should be called against FSU opponents, the numbers don't suggest a particular bias against the Seminoles.
Here's the number of plays run by NC State and Boston College per offensive holding call against all opponents from automatic-qualifier conference.
(*Numbers include all offensive holding penalties by a tight end, lineman or running back, including those declined or offset.)
Certainly there's a good chance FSU was held on more than one out of every 37 plays in those two games, but calls were still more frequent against both NC State and BC than they had been earlier in the season.
Moreover, refs don't appear to be calling FSU for any more holds than its opponents have been flagged for.
Here are the numbers for Florida State against its five FBS opponents this season:
In other words, Florida State's opponents are being flagged for holding at as high a rate this season than the Seminoles have been, but FSU is also allowing more tackles in the backfield.
As with most conspiracy theories, the numbers can be interpreted differently, depending on the perception of the interpreter. The bottom line through all of this, Fisher said, is that none of it really matters.
"We have that argument in pro ball, high school ball, pee-wee ball, at [my son's] games. I get home and hear him saying, 'I got held,' " Fisher said. "We all get upset because there's a passion for it, but you've got to fight through it. That's all you can do."