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Boise State knows all about the Fiesta Bowl but never before have the Broncos had to face a home team in Tempe.
This is Boise State's third trip to the Fiesta Bowl in the last nine seasons and its 13th consecutive bowl berth overall — the postseason debut under first-year head coach Bryan Harsin. The previous two visits netted historic wins over Oklahoma and TCU, capping two undefeated seasons.
Arizona, however, is making its first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl since 1993, as this would have been the Wildcats first "BCS" bowl appearance. It's about 100 miles up I-10 from Tucson to Tempe, so Rich Rodriguez is banking on a homefield advantage in the Cats biggest bowl in more than two decades.
The 44th Fiesta Bowl marks the first-ever meeting between the reigning Mountain West champs and the reigning Pac-12 South champions.
Boise State vs. Arizona
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (Dec. 31)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arizona -3
Three Things to Watch
1. What does Anu Solomon look like?
Solomon had a remarkable first season on a college gridiron. He was one of the most productive freshman quarterbacks in the country, trailing only Ohio State's J.T. Barrett in total offense among all freshmen with 285.9 yards per game. The redshirt freshman led Arizona to the Pac-12 championship game with plenty of late-game heroics. Yet, he slowed as the season wound down due to nagging injuries and partly due to fatigue. Solomon will have time to rest, get healthy and continue to develop a rapport with a deep and talented group of wide receivers. Arizona not only needs him to play well to beat the Broncos but a great showing in the season finale could catapult Solomon into a monster sophomore season.
2. Scooby Wright III vs. Jay Ajayi
Few bowl games will offer an individual matchup like the one the Fiesta Bowl affords when Boise State is on the field. National defensive superstar Scooby Wright III is charged with stopping one of the most productive backs in the nation in Jay Ajayi. The BSU tailback finished ninth in the nation at 129.9 yards per game and was second with 25 touchdowns. During Boise's eight-game winning streak, Ajayi topped 100 yards seven times and scored multiple touchdowns seven times. Both are overachievers who have gotten the most of their ability and the head-to-head battle should be fun to watch.
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3. Can Arizona run the ball?
Boise State was strong against the run this fall, holding opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground seven times. Over the last three games, the Broncos allowed 259 yards on 109 carries for just 2.4 yards per carry. The best way Rodriguez can help his young quarterback is to run the football. But in losses, the Cats have been stymied on the ground. USC (77 yards allowed), UCLA (80) and Oregon (111) were all able to stop the Arizona rushing attack and it led to the Cats only three defeats of the year. If Boise State wins the battle up front on defense, it will fall to the freshman Solomon to make plays.
Despite being ranked the lowest of any of the New Year's Six teams by a wide margin, Boise State brings a great challenge to Tempe for Arizona. Both teams have dynamic quarterbacks who can make plays outside of the pocket and both teams bring balanced offensive attacks. But victory or defeat for both hinges on the defensive fronts. These two teams have lost a total of five times this year and those defeats featured three of Arizona's worst four rushing performances and two of Boise State's three worst rushing performances of the season. This isn't a vintage Broncos team in terms of talent, giving Arizona a slight edge in personnel — and fan support.
Prediction: Arizona 35, Boise State 27
Nashville could not be happier about this year’s matchup. The 17th annual Music City Bowl features one of the best billings in the history of the game with blueblood programs Notre Dame and LSU coming to Lower Broadway.
Both programs began the season ranked in the top 20 but neither ended the season ranked and the two traditional powerhouses combined for nine losses. The Tigers and Fighting Irish are making their Music City Bowl debut and both Les Miles (10 years) and Brian Kelly (5) are perfect in getting their programs to the postseason.
The all-time series between the Tigers and Fighting Irish is tied 5-5, but both bowl meetings (1997, 2006) ended in lopsided LSU wins. Miles crushed the Charlie Weis-led Irish 41-14 in the ’07 Sugar Bowl the last time these two teams met.
LSU vs. Notre Dame
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET (Dec. 30)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -7
LSU’s Key to Victory: Run, run and run some more
The LSU gameplan won’t be complicated or difficult to figure out. After rushing for 384 yards in the regular season finale against Texas A&M, Miles will turn to Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee to power the offense against an injured Notre Dame defense. Fournette rushed for a career-high 146 yards against the Aggies, and he should be able to abuse an Irish defense that has given up 244.2 yards per game rushing over its last five contests. LSU won’t get elite quarterback play but it may not need much support from the passing game as a few play-action passes will likely put the nail in the Irish coffin.
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Notre Dame's Key to Victory: Stable QB play
The defensive issues at Notre Dame are well documented and if that unit can’t stop LSU’s rushing attack, it won’t matter who plays quarterback. But operating under the assumption that the Irish somehow slow the Tigers, it will fall to whoever is under center to lead productive drives and protect the football. Everett Golson has scored 37 touchdowns this season but turned the ball over 22 times. He was benched late in the USC game for Malik Zaire and Kelly has stated that both will get to play in the Music City Bowl. If the Irish want any shot at winning, they will have to get quality quarterback play and hold LSU to under 4.0 yards per carry on offense. LSU is 2-4 this season when rushing for less than 4.0 yards per carry.
The Irish head to Music City as a heavy underdog in a matchup that seems to favor the SEC team in a big way. Notre Dame can’t stop the ground game and has major questions under center — not a great recipe when facing a team as talented as LSU. Downtown Nashville could be dry by the time these two fanbases drink their way through the Honky Tonks, so no matter the outcome, good times will be had by all in Middle Tennessee.
Prediction: LSU 33, Notre Dame 13
The Rose Bowl should be jealous as the 13th edition of the Foster Farms Bowl — formerly the Kraft Fight Hunger, Emerald and San Francisco Bowl — will be one of just two postseason games that features a Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup (Holiday Bowl).
This will be the first-ever meeting between the Cardinal and the Terrapins. Stanford is making its debut in the bowl, while Maryland appeared once before, losing to Oregon State in the 2007 Emerald Bowl.
Stanford has been to six straight bowls but will miss a major “BCS” bowl for the first time since 2009. David Shaw has never missed the postseason as a head coach. After missing the postseason in first two seasons in College Park, Randy Edsall has taken the Terps to back-to-back bowls after winning just two games in his first season.
Maryland vs. Stanford
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Dec. 30)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -14
Maryland’s Key to Victory: Win on special teams
Quarterback C.J. Brown is an exciting player and will have to play outstanding football under center for the Terps to win against the one of the best defenses in the land. But one key advantage for Maryland should come on special teams. Lou Groza Award winner Brad Craddock has been near perfect and needs to score points if drives stall. Return specialist and star defensive back William Likely makes plays all over the field, reaching paydirt three times this year. Finally, Edsall is optimistic do-everything dynamo Stefon Diggs will be available and should be force-fed the ball if possible. The Terps need to be great in all three phases to pull off the big upset and could use a score on special teams to increase their chances of victory.
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Stanford's Key to Victory: Continue to surge on offense
The Cardinal defense is one of the best in the nation, so victory normally depends on Kevin Hogan and the offense. With two games to play in the regular season, Stanford was staring at a losing record. However, Hogan led his offense to 6.5 yards per play in convincing wins over Cal and UCLA on the road. This team ran the ball for more than 200 yards in each game — the only two times it did that all season. If Stanford can continue its surge on offense, particularly on the ground, Maryland’s 97th ranked defense won’t be able to put up much of a fight.
Expectations entering the season were wildly different for these two programs as the Cardinal was picked by some to win the Pac-12 North, and the Terrapins were an afterthought in the Big Ten East. And both will travel a wildly different routes to get to Santa Clara — Stanford will go 14 miles from Palo Alto while Maryland will travel 2,846 miles from College Park. But here they are head-to-head in Stanford’s backyard and that likely explains the massive two-touchdown point-spread. If the Cardinal play their game on defense, the Terps will be hard-pressed to move the ball or score many points.
Prediction: Stanford 24, Maryland 13
The Belk Bowl was one of the big winners in college football’s bowl tie-in shuffle prior to 2014, as the Charlotte, N.C. postseason game now features an annual matchup between the SEC (Georgia) and ACC (Louisville). The Bulldogs and Cardinals both finished the regular season at 9-3, and there’s a little familiarity between the two programs thanks to recent moves in the coaching carousel. Todd Grantham worked from 2010-13 as the Bulldogs’ defensive signal-caller but left to coach under Bobby Petrino prior to 2014. New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was one of the top coaching hires of the offseason, but the Bulldogs now have uncertainty on offense after offensive signal-caller Mike Bobo left to be the head coach at Colorado State.
Georgia was considered by most preseason prognosticators to be the favorite in the East Division. Despite an early loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs were in good shape to play in Atlanta after dismantling Missouri 34-0 in mid-October. However, a 38-20 loss to Florida in November put Georgia behind the Tigers – despite Richt’s team winning in Columbia – in the East pecking order. The story was slightly different at Louisville, as Bobby Petrino returned to his old stomping grounds to replace Charlie Strong, and the program recorded a solid 9-3 record in its first year in the ACC. There’s no shame in any of the Cardinals’ three losses, including a Thursday night defeat at the hands of Florida State and a 23-17 loss at Clemson.
This is the first meeting between Georgia and Louisville. The Bulldogs are just 1-3 in their last four bowl appearances. The Cardinals have experienced better luck in recent bowl games, as Louisville is 4-1 in its last five postseason trips.
Georgia vs. Louisville
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7
Georgia’s Key to Victory: Contain DeVante Parker
Louisville’s quarterback situation is a mystery. Will Gardner entered the year as the No. 1 option, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Boston College. True freshman Reggie Bonnafon saw significant snaps this year and replaced Gardner after his knee injury. However, Bonnafon also suffered a knee injury against Kentucky and it’s uncertain if he will play against Georgia. If Bonnafon doesn’t play, Kyle Bolin will get the start. Bolin completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three scores against Kentucky. Regardless of which quarterback starts, it’s critical Petrino finds ways to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker. The senior was limited to just five games due to injury but caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five scores. Parker averaged 30 yards per catch against Kentucky and topped 100 receiving yards in four out of his five appearances. Georgia’s secondary ranked second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, which was an impressive showing under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs had a couple of offseason personnel departures in the defensive backfield and leaned on a couple of freshmen to play major snaps in the secondary. Georgia recorded only 24 sacks this season, but this unit forced 26 turnovers. Louisville won’t have running back Michael Dyer, which forces Brandon Radcliff and Dominique Brown to shoulder more of the workload on the ground. If Georgia finds a way to limit Parker and keep Bonnafon and Bolin under pressure, Pruitt’s defense has the necessary pieces in the front seven to create havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Louisville’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
Even though Georgia will have a new play-caller for this bowl, don’t expect the formula for success or gameplan to change. The Bulldogs ranked second in the SEC with 255 rushing yards per game, and true freshman Nick Chubb leads the way for the backfield after a suspension and season-ending injury to starter Todd Gurley. Chubb posted 1,281 yards and 12 scores, and the freshman finished the year by recording seven consecutive 100-yard efforts. Georgia’s offense is built around its rushing attack, which helps to open play-action passes for quarterback Hutson Mason. The senior hasn’t posted huge numbers in 2014, but he’s been efficient (67.9 completion percentage) and tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. Louisville’s defense allowed only nine rushing scores and limited opponents to 2.9 yards per carry this season. Additionally, just one team (Florida State) managed to record more than four yards per carry against the Cardinals in 2014. Considering how familiar Grantham is with Georgia’s offense, it should help the Cardinals prepare for this matchup. However, the familiarity won’t matter if Louisville’s front seven is unable to slow down Chubb and backups Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas. Keeping the Bulldogs in long-yardage situations and limiting Chubb on early downs will be the Cardinals’ best formula for a victory. And if Louisville gets Georgia’s offense into obvious passing situations, it should help a pass rush that recorded 39 sacks during the regular season get to the quarterback.
As mentioned above, there’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville, and the question marks grew larger in the build up to the bowl with the announcement that running back Michael Dyer won’t play on Dec. 30. Whether it’s Bolin or Bonnafon under center, the Cardinals have to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker to take advantage of a young Bulldogs’ secondary. Georgia’s offense needs Chubb to lead the way against a solid defensive front for the Cardinals, allowing Mason and his receiving corps to take shots downfield on play-action passes. Both defenses could control the flow of this game and a high-scoring matchup would be a surprise. There’s a little more certainty with Georgia’s offense at quarterback and at running back as Chubb is one of the SEC’s most-explosive playmakers. The guess here is a close game, but the Bulldogs find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Louisville 24
The NFC North is just one of the things that will be decided when the Detroit Lions take on the Green Bay Packers this afternoon on FOX. The Lions and Packers both enter this showdown at 11-4 with playoff berths already secure. However, a win would give Detroit its first division title and first home playoff game since 1993. A Green Bay victory would move the Packers’ home record to 8-0 and deliver a fourth consecutive NFC North crown.
Detroit has won four in a row and has defeated Green Bay the last two meetings. The most recent occurred in Week 3 when the Lions’ defense completely shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense in a 19-7 victory. That loss put Green Bay at 1-2 and led to Rodgers’ now-famous “R-E-L-A-X” comment. Since that point, the Packers have gone 10-2 with their only two losses coming to the Saints and Bills, both on the road. Detroit has gone 9-3 during this same span with a home loss to Buffalo and setbacks on the road to a pair of playoff teams in Arizona and New England.
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -7.5
|Detroit 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs MIA||W 20 - 16||Recap|
|11/16||@ ARI||L 6 - 14||Recap|
|11/23||@ NE||L 9 - 34||Recap|
|11/27||vs CHI||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/7||vs TB||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||vs MIN||W 16 - 14||Recap|
|12/21||@ CHI||W 20 - 14||Recap|
|12/28||@ GB||4:25 pm||Buy Tickets|
Detroit’s Key to Victory: Rattle Rodgers
The Lions’ second-ranked defense was in fine form back in Week 3, holding Aaron Rodgers to just 162 yards passing in a 19-7 victory at home. Rodgers was sacked just twice and didn’t throw an interception, but Detroit consistently sent four pass-rushers, which was enough to throw off Rodgers’ timing (16 of 27, including five underthrows) and disrupt Green Bay’s offensive rhythm. The Packers ran just 51 offensive plays, the fewest in a Rodgers start since the final game of the 2011 season while the 162 yards passing were the fifth-lowest of his career (102 starts). The Lions showed it’s possible to beat Rodgers without a bunch of sacks or turnovers, but they also did this on their own turf. Rodgers has been near-perfect at Lambeau Field this season, so Detroit’s defense will definitely have its work cut out for it. However, it already has the blueprint for success against arguable the leading contender for MVP honors and it may get a break with Rodgers nursing a minor calf injury. The Lions’ defense has been really hard to run on, but the difference between winning and losing this afternoon will come down to how well this unit fares against No. 12.
|Green Bay 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs CHI||W 55 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs PHI||W 53 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||@ MIN||W 24 - 21||Recap|
|11/30||vs NE||W 26 - 21||Recap|
|12/8||vs ATL||W 43 - 37||Recap|
|12/14||@ BUF||L 13 - 21||Recap|
|12/21||@ TB||W 20 - 3||Recap|
|12/28||vs DET||4:25 pm||Buy Tickets|
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Lean on Lambeau
The Packers are 7-0 at home this season, averaging an impressive 41.1 points per game at Lambeau Field. They have scored 53 or more points twice and have defeated opponents by nearly three touchdowns (20.7) per home contest. A big reason for Green Bay’s home success has been the play of Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 23 touchdown passes and not a single interception at home. He has completed more than 66 percent of his attempts for an average of 301.1 yards per game and a mind-boggling 132.6 passer rating. As a team, the Packers are plus-10 in turnover margin at Lambeau and even though the defense has given up some yards and points on occasion, Mike McCarthy’s team has rarely been challenged in front of the home crowd. Detroit got the better of Green Bay the first time around, but that was in the Motor City. This afternoon’s game is on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field where the Packers have beaten the Lions the past 22 times. With a fourth straight NFC North title and a first-round bye on the line, Green Bay certainly doesn’t want to see this streak come to an end this afternoon.
Detroit has a championship-caliber defense, but Green Bay has a MVP quarterback and hasn’t lost to the Lions at Lambeau Field in 22 games. Both teams are in the playoffs and have the necessary pieces to make deep runs, but Aaron Rodgers will make sure his team starts their postseason at home.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Detroit 23
It’s winner takes the NFC South this afternoon in the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons host the Carolina Panthers on CBS. A win for the Panthers (6-8-1) will cap a four-game winning streak to give Ron Rivera’s team an improbable second straight division title On the other side, Mike Smith’s Falcons can punch their ticket to the playoffs by sweeping the reigning division champs.
Atlanta upended Carolina 19-17 back in Week 11 on a 44-yard Matt Bryant field goal with a little more than two minutes to play. At the time, both teams seemed well out of the playoff picture with the Falcons sitting at 4-6 and the Panthers at 3-7-1. However, no team in the NFC South was able to distinguish itself this season, leading to a four-pack of teams with losing records. Regardless of their win-loss record not only will Carolina or Atlanta get into the postseason, whichever team wins also will host a Wild Card game next weekend.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Kickoff: 4:25p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Atlanta -4
|Carolina 2014 Schedule|
|11/10||@ PHI||L 21 - 45||Recap|
|11/16||vs ATL||L 17 - 19||Recap|
|11/30||@ MIN||L 13 - 31||Recap|
|12/7||@ NO||W 41 - 10||Recap|
|12/14||vs TB||W 19 - 17||Recap|
|12/21||vs CLE||W 17 - 13||Recap|
|12/28||@ ATL||4:25 pm||Buy Tickets|
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Let Julio Jones Beat You
The Panthers won the NFC South last season, finishing with the conference’s second-best record at 12-4. Carolina’s strength was its defense, which ranked behind only eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFL in both total and scoring defense. This season, the defense has not enjoyed the same success, which is one of the reasons behind Carolina’s decline in the win column. The Panthers are a respectable 10th in total defense, but 22nd in scoring, giving up 24.7 points per game. They have tightened things up during their three-game winning streak, surrendering a total of 40 points in victories over the Saints, Buccaneers and Browns. Atlanta has averaged 29 points per game over its past four and one of the keys has been wide receiver Julio Jones. The league leader in receiving yards per game (109.6), Jones has been near uncoverable recently, posting 555 yards receiving in his last three outings. Included in this stretch was a franchise-record 259 yards against Green Bay and then 107 in last week’s big win in New Orleans, even though he was questionable entering the game because of an oblique injury. Jones isn’t the only target Matt Ryan has to throw to (Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Levine Toilolo), but he is the key when it comes to stopping the Falcons’ offense. Outside of the Green Bay game, Jones has averaged just 75 yards receiving per game in the seven losses he’s been a part of (missed the Pittsburgh game because of injury). Carolina’s defense appears to be peaking at the right time, but it needs to put together one more strong effort on the road to seal the deal. Focusing its efforts on keeping Jones in check is not only a good first step in that direction, it also could be the difference back-to-back division titles or a tough finish to a disappointing season.
Atlanta’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
The Falcons are known more for being an offensive team, and the statistics certainly back that up, but it doesn’t mean their defense can’t have an impact. Atlanta is ranked last in the NFL in both total and passing defense, but this unit has done a good job creating turnovers. The Falcons are fourth in the league in takeaways with 28, 19 of these coming in their six wins. To put it another way, Atlanta is plus-12 in turnover margin in wins and minus-four in losses. The Falcons used four takeaways, including a fumble returned for a touchdown at the end of the game, to beat the Saints last week. They also created three miscues in a big home win over the Cardinals in Week 13. Carolina is dead even in turnover margin on the season, but Cam Newton threw two interceptions in the Week 11 home loss to Atlanta. If the Falcons can continue to force the other team to make mistakes, it doesn’t matter how many yards the defense gives up. If the turnovers don’t come, however, then it will be up to the offense to not only do its part, but also pick up the slack on the other side of the ball too.
While much has been made of the mediocre NFC South this season, the reality is that whichever team wins this afternoon not only gets into the playoffs, it also will host a Wild Card game next weekend. Carolina is the reigning division champion and appears to be peaking at the right time. Atlanta has a potent offense, but toes a rather thin line on defense. The Panthers have enough difference-makers on both sides of the ball to overcome the Falcons’ home-field advantage and the great Julio Jones. Carolina comes into the Georgia Dome and caps its late-season surge by claiming its second straight division crown.
Prediction: Carolina 27, Atlanta 23
The AFC playoff picture will come into complete focus when the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight on NBC. The final game of the 2014 regular season pits the Bengals (10-4-1) against the Steelers (10-5) with the AFC North division title hanging in the balance.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two of the NFL’s hottest teams since late October, each going 7-2 during that span. The Steelers beat the Bengals 42-21 in Cincinnati three weeks ago, as Pittsburgh exploded for 25 points in the fourth quarter.
Both teams have already secured playoff berths, but seeding is still up in the air. The Bengals clinched their postseason spot on Monday night with an impressive 37-28 win over Denver. With a win or a tie tonight, Cincinnati would claim the AFC North and host a playoff game. The No. 2 seed and a first-round bye are also still in play, but the Bengals need the Broncos to lose to Oakland for that to be a possibility.
The Steelers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and are looking to win their first division title since ’10. Pittsburgh knows it’s playing on Wild Card weekend regardless, but a win would mean at least one more game at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
|Cincinnati 2014 Schedule|
|11/6||vs CLE||L 3 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NO||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||@ HOU||W 22 - 13||Recap|
|11/30||@ TB||W 14 - 13||Recap|
|12/7||vs PIT||L 21 - 42||Recap|
|12/14||@ CLE||W 30 - 0||Recap|
|12/22||vs DEN||W 37 - 28||Recap|
|12/28||@ PIT||8:30 pm||Buy Tickets|
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Take the Air out of the Ball
The Bengals have won five of their past six games. One constant during this stretch has been the running game, specifically rookie Jeremy Hill. With Giovani Bernard battling injuries, Hill has taken over as the main rusher and he has produced. The second-round pick has three games of 140 yards or more on the ground, including a total of 295 in the past two contests – wins over Cleveland and Denver. On the season, Hill is second among running backs at 5.2 yards per carry and he has nine rushing touchdowns. Last week, he gashed the Broncos’ second-ranked rushing defense for 147 yards on 22 carries, the big blow being an 85-yard touchdown gallop in the first quarter that tied the game following a pick-six by Denver’s Aqib Talib. Andy Dalton’s struggles in big games (0-3 in playoff starts) are well documented, which is why it’s critical that Hill makes some noise on the ground. In the first game against Pittsburgh, Hill ran for just 46 yards, but he did that on only eight carries (5.8 ypc), so it was more a lack of opportunity rather than production. The Steelers are sixth in rushing defense (99.3 ypg), but they have allowed at least 140 yards rushing five times. Hill has four such performances by himself, and a fifth tonight could help produce an AFC North championship for the visitors.
|Pittsburgh 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ NYJ||L 13 - 20||Recap|
|11/17||@ TEN||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|11/30||vs NO||L 32 - 35||Recap|
|12/7||@ CIN||W 42 - 21||Recap|
|12/14||@ ATL||W 27 - 20||Recap|
|12/21||vs KC||W 20 - 12||Recap|
|12/28||vs CIN||8:30 pm||Buy Tickets|
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Go Big or Go Home
Historically the Steelers may be known more as a defensive team (think Steel Curtain), but the 2014 edition leans heavily towards the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s defense has done a solid job against the run (ranked sixth), but it’s 20th in total yards allowed and 19th in points. On the other hand, the offense is second in the NFL in total yards and passing yards and seventh in points per game. The Steelers are led by its Pro Bowl QB-RB-WR trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger and Bell are second in passing and rushing yards, respectively, while Brown leads the league in both receptions and receiving yards. Bell also is second in yards from scrimmage and he and Brown have combined for 23 touchdowns. These three definitely had an impact in the first game against Cincinnati three weeks ago. Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards with three touchdowns (and no INTs), Bell had 235 total yards (185 rushing) and three scores, and Brown chipped in 117 yards on nine catches. Pittsburgh’s quick-strike ability was on full display, as the Steelers turned a 21-17 fourth-quarter deficit into a 42-21 rout. The biggest plays from the 25-point outburst were a 53-yard touchdown run by Bell and a 94-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t known for being patient or for grinding out drives, and it has several big-play weapons. With a playoff berth already secure and the benefit of playing at home tonight, why change the game plan now?
Both teams are already in the playoffs, but don’t expect either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh to just mail this one in. Not with a division title, a home playoff game, and (for the Bengals) potentially more on the line. The Steelers, however, are the ones who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2011, so they may be a little extra fired up, especially at home. Motivation aside, Pittsburgh has a three-headed monster on offense that has gotten the job done all season, while Cincinnati is relying on a quarterback whose track record in big games isn’t that impressive, a rookie running back and a banged-up wide receiver. Advantage Steelers, who complete their comeback by reclaiming supremacy in the AFC North with a sweep of the Bengals.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 23
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer recently underwent throat surgery and spent the Military Bowl victory against Cincinnati coaching from the press box. The Hokies used a couple of turnovers by the Cincinnati offense, along with 210 rushing yards to earn the victory and post a winning record (7-6.)
However, Beamer wasn’t limited in his post-game availability, as the 68-year-old coach broke out the dance moves to celebrate the victory.
Check out Beamer’s post-game dance:
Arkansas and Texas renew an old Southwest Conference rivalry in NRG Stadium on Dec. 29 for the ninth Texas Bowl matchup. Low expectations surrounded both teams entering the season, as the Razorbacks were considered by most to be a year away from bowl contention and the Longhorns had to rebuild under first-year coach Charlie Strong. But both teams overcame preseason personnel concerns to reach a bowl and finished the year playing arguably their best ball of the season.
Second-year coach Bret Bielema has Arkansas headed in the right direction, as the Razorbacks won three out of their final five games to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. Bielema came to Arkansas after a successful stint at Wisconsin, and the Illinois native is building the Razorbacks in a similar image to how he shaped the Badgers. Arkansas has established itself as a physical, run-first team, and the defense played well in the second half of the season. Texas won three out of its final four games in 2014 to get bowl eligible in Strong’s first year. As with any coaching change, there was plenty of attrition on the Longhorns’ roster, with Strong trying to reshape the overall image and discipline of the program. Injuries also hurt Texas’ roster, as quarterback David Ash retired from football due to concussions and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson was lost for the year with a knee injury.
Texas owns a 56-21 series edge over Arkansas. The Longhorns have won two in a row over the Razorbacks, but these two teams have not played since 2008. The last win by Arkansas took place in 2003.
Arkansas vs. Texas
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arkansas -6
Arkansas’ Key to Victory: The Offensive Line
The Razorbacks own college football’s biggest offensive line, which has been a key cog in the turnaround for this team in 2014. Dan Skipper is a mammoth left tackle at 6-foot-10 and 326 pounds, and the sophomore is surrounded by three other underclassmen in the trenches, along with standout senior Brey Cook. This unit allowed only 13 sacks during the regular season, while clearing the way for rushers to average 5.2 yards per carry. Two players eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for Bielema, with Jonathan Williams (1,085 yards) slightly ahead of Alex Collins (1,024) on the stat sheet. Texas ranked fifth in the Big 12 (league-only games) by allowing 155.7 rushing yards per game this season, and the defensive line is headlined by standout tackle Malcom Brown. The junior was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports this season. Brown isn’t the only standout on the line, as ends Cedric Reed (5.5 sacks) and Hassan Ridgeway (six sacks) are capable of giving Arkansas’ offensive line all it can handle. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage is critical for Bielema’s team. Quarterback Brandon Allen was efficient (18 TDs, 5 INTs), but the Razorbacks have only nine passing plays of 30 yards or more this season. Allen doesn’t have a deep group of receivers, and this team isn’t built to come from behind. Arkansas needs its offensive line to control the line of scrimmage and keep Brown, Ridgeway and Reed out of the backfield. If the line can clear holes for Collins and Williams, Allen will be able to stay out of obvious passing situations. It’s critical the Razorbacks stay in short-yardage situations, and when Allen has time to throw, the junior needs to continue to play mistake-free ball.
Texas’ Key to Victory: QB Tyrone Swoopes
Due to Ash’s retirement, Swoopes has been pressed into starting action this season. The sophomore has thrown for 2,352 yards and 13 scores but also has 10 interceptions and completed less than 53 percent of his passes in three out of the last five games. Swoopes rushed for 294 yards on 103 attempts this year, and his mobility could be a valuable asset against an Arkansas defense that was playing at a high level at the end of the season. First-year coordinator Robb Smith brought the defense along as the year progressed, and the Razorbacks pitched shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss, limited Missouri to 21 points and held Mississippi State to 17 points in November. The strength of Arkansas’ defense is up front. End Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon are two of the best at their position in the SEC, and linebacker Martrell Spaight emerged as one of the conference’s top linebackers this season. Swoopes should benefit from the extra time to prepare for the bowl game, especially after struggling in the regular season finale against TCU. The sophomore won’t have to win this game just on his right arm. The Texas’ rushing attack averaged 157 yards per game in Big 12 contests, with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray expected to take the pressure off of Swoopes. And when Swoopes has to throw, John Harris and Jaxon Shipley are the primary targets against an Arkansas secondary that allowed only one passing score over the last three games. If Swoopes plays mistake-free ball and uses his mobility to make plays when the pocket breaks down, Texas should have a good shot to knock off Arkansas.
These two teams are similar in terms of style. Arkansas and Texas prefer to lean on the run to setup the pass, and the defenses for both teams are a strength. The Razorbacks and Longhorns have each lost 22 turnovers this year, but Arkansas is +5 in margin, while Texas is -1. In a tight, low-scoring game, turnovers and mistakes will be magnified. There’s not much that separates these two teams. Winning the battle on the line of scrimmage is critical for both squads, as Arkansas hopes to use its massive offensive line to control the clock and establish Collins and Williams on the ground. For Texas, an active defensive front needs to get a good push to slow the Razorbacks’ rushing offense and generate pressure on Allen to force mistakes. Expect Arkansas to have just enough success on the ground to keep Allen out of obvious passing situations, and the junior quarterback outduels Swoopes to give Bielema a bowl victory in his second year.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Texas 20
What a difference a year makes? Clemson and Oklahoma both topped current members (Ohio State and Alabama, respectively) of the College Football Playoff in BCS bowls last year.
Neither team envisioned a trip to Orlando this postseason, but the folks at the Russell Athletic Bowl should be ecstatic to get two historic brands coming to town to play in the newly renovated Citrus Bowl.
The bowl has changed names seven times, originally starting out in 1990 as the Blockbuster Bowl. This will be the third game under the current title. This is the 16th consecutive bowl game for Oklahoma, all of which have come under Bob Stoops’ leadership. This is Clemson’s 10th consecutive bowl game, the last six coming under Dabo Swinney.
These two powerhouse programs have only played three times but will return to the scene of the crime this winter. Oklahoma won both meetings in Norman in 1963 and '72 with Clemson taking a 13-6 victory in the 1989 Citrus Bowl — the same site of the Russell Athletic Bowl.
It will be the third appearance for Clemson and Oklahoma’s first berth in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Oklahoma vs. Clemson
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET (Dec. 29)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oklahoma -3.5
Oklahoma’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage
The Sooners are getting healthier and that means Trevor Knight is back under center. It’s a huge boost to get him back but establishing a ground game, protecting the quarterback and winning the line of scrimmage battles along the O-line is still the key for Oklahoma. Against a nasty Clemson front seven, OU needs to get Samaje Perine and company going on the ground while keeping Knight upright and safe. Knight was so electric with time to prepare against an elite defense last year that it's tough to see Clemson fully stopping Oklahoma.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Predictions podcast:
Clemson's Key to Victory: Create balance on offense
It’s simple and to the point, but Clemson will have to be able to run the ball successfully if it wants to beat the Sooners. Without Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman will be called upon to create balance for a struggling Cole Stoudt. Gallman topped 100 yards in three of his final five games and posted 191 yards on 27 carries against rival South Carolina to end the year. The Tigers’ defense is outstanding and will provide a big challenge to Oklahoma but Clemson can’t win without some semblance of an offense. Stoudt hasn’t shown enough against quality opponents to think the Tigers can win relying on his right arm. Not having offensive whiz Chad Morris drawing up plays is going to hurt in a big way as well.
Clemson has struggled in a big way without Watson under center and Stoudt hasn’t proven the ability to move the ball efficiently and consistently against Power 5 teams. The Tigers' saving grace is one of the best defenses in the land. Oklahoma, meanwhile, is as healthy as it’s been in months on offense and is just as stingy on defense as Clemson. The question of motivation might favor the Tigers but is that enough to overcome what should be an ugly offensive performance?
Prediction: Oklahoma 27, Clemson 17
The scoreboard in Memphis should be active on Dec. 29 when West Virginia and Texas A&M meet in the Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers and Aggies each average over 30 points per game, and there’s plenty of familiarity between the programs due to the coaching staffs. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and both programs run a variation of the Air Raid offense. Current Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital coached under Holgorsen at West Virginia from 2011-12.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 record in 2013. However, the Mountaineers showed marked improvement (and had better luck in the health department) this year, starting in the opener with a 33-23 loss to Alabama and a 41-27 win over Baylor in Morgantown. West Virginia lost three out of its final four games but getting back to the postseason was huge for the program. Texas A&M finished 7-5 in the Year One in the post-Johnny Manziel era. The Aggies started 5-0 but stumbled with five losses over their last seven games. Defense continues to be a problem for Texas A&M under coach Kevin Sumlin. However, the offense continued to thrive, averaging 34.4 points per game in 2014.
This is the first meeting between West Virginia and Texas A&M. The Mountaineers essentially replaced the Aggies in the Big 12 a couple of years ago during college football’s latest realignment period. West Virginia is making its first appearance in the Liberty Bowl since 1964. Texas A&M has not played in the Liberty Bowl since 1975.
West Virginia vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: West Virginia -3.5
West Virginia’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
A big reason for West Virginia’s turnaround in the win column in 2014 was the play of quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White. Trickett led the Big 12 with a 67.1 completion percentage and threw for 300 yards in each of his first seven games. However, Trickett was held in check over the second half of the season and tossed five interceptions over his final three starts. Trickett did not play in the finale against Iowa State due to a concussion, and Skyler Howard completed 21 of 40 passes for 285 yards and three scores in his first career start. Trickett was ruled out for the bowl game on Friday, leaving Howard as the clear No. 1 quarterback. The junior college recruit should have an opportunity for a huge day, as Texas A&M’s secondary ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 16 passing scores this year. The Aggies generated 33 sacks in 2014, so it’s critical West Virginia protects Howard and gives him time to find White and fellow playmaker Mario Alford (10 TDs). But the key to victory for the Mountaineers isn’t the passing offense. Texas A&M’s rush defense allowed 223.5 rushing yards per game this season, and West Virginia has the necessary pieces to take advantage of a struggling front seven. Guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski lead a steady offensive line, with Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood combining for 1,411 rushing yards this season. If the Mountaineers establish the run, it should slow the Texas A&M defensive front and allow West Virginia to control the pace of play.
Texas A&M’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s no secret Texas A&M is going to have success moving the ball on offense. The Mountaineers made improvement on this side of the ball under first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, but this unit allowed 26.2 points per game and gave up 5.3 yards per play. Opportunities will be there for quarterback Kyle Allen and a talented group of skill players. Allen finished the regular season by tossing 12 touchdowns to only six interceptions and completed 61.1 percent of his passes. The true freshman should benefit from the extra practices prior to the bowl. Three Texas A&M receivers caught at least 40 passes, including standout junior college recruit Josh Reynolds (16.2 ypc) and freshman Speedy Noil (44 catches). Trey Williams is the team’s leading rusher (474 yards) and averages a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. West Virginia’s defense allowed 162 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action, so there will be opportunities for Williams to hit big plays on the ground. However, regardless of Texas A&M’s success on offense, it’s critical for this team to win the turnover battle. West Virginia is -15 in turnover margin, while the Aggies are -7. Both teams have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, but the Mountaineers have been more generous in their giveaways. If Texas A&M scores 30 points and wins the turnover battle, it’s a good bet Sumlin’s team wins the Liberty Bowl.
With the familiarity between the two head coaches and ability of both teams to score around 30 points a game, this could be one of the most entertaining bowl matchups from outside of the New Year’s Six arrangement. The turnover battle is critical for both teams, as Texas A&M and West Virginia each recorded a negative margin in 2014. Whichever team wins the turnover battle and makes a few timely stops on defense will win. It’s a tossup, but the guess here is Howard fills in admirably for Howard, White shines in his last collegiate game, while Shell tops 100 yards on the ground for the Mountaineers to close out 2014 with a victory.
Prediction: West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 34
The 39 bowl games on this year’s roster may be too many for some.
That’s fine. For some of us, that’s not enough. Not just because if the insatiable need for December and January college football. Bowl games — especially bad bowl games — offer a wide variety of ridiculous bowl names, wild destinations and “what were you thinking” ideas.
Bowl games have come and gone over the years. Some were successful, including the Bluebonnet Bowl, All-American Bowl and Freedom Bowl. Some were cool ideas like the Bacardi Bowl. And some were doomed from the start — a bowl game in Dayton? Really?
Here are 15 bowl games you won't see in December and January.
Site: Honolulu (Aloha Stadium)
Technically, this is a defunct bowl, though a bowl game returned to Hawaii two years later for the imaginatively named Hawaii Bowl. The Aloha Bowl was played on Christmas Day for the final 14 games of its run and often featured ranked teams from major conferences. The Hawaii Bowl, on the other hand, is traditionally played on Christmas Eve and features Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC teams. Edge: Aloha Bowl.
All-American Bowl/Hall of Fame Classic
Site: Birmingham, Ala. (Legion Field)
A second-tier bowl game for more than a decade, Birmingham eventually abandoned the All-American Bowl to host the SEC Championship Game, which moved to Atlanta two years later. A shame: This Birmingham game ended in 1990 before Pittsburgh ever had a chance to play in it.
Site: Dayton, Ohio (Welcome Stadium)
As the hometown of the Wright brothers and the site of where they designed their flying machine, Dayton considers its the birthplace of aviation (the University of Dayton mascot is the Flyers). The Aviation Bowl, though, never really took flight, and New Mexico’s 28-12 win over Western Michigan in 1961 was the only bowl game in Dayton. Only 3,694 people attended the game.
Site: Havana, Cuba (Tropical Stadium)
The first Bahamas Bowl was played in 2014, but that won’t be the first bowl game played in the tropics. Not by a long shot. Auburn’s first bowl game was in pre-Castro Cuba on New Year’s Day 1937 in a 7-7 tie with Villanova. The Bacardi Bowl is the accepted name, but the game also went by the Rhumba Bowl or Cigar Bowl.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium/Astrodome)
An equivalent to the Holiday or Alamo bowls, the Bluebonnet Bowl had the longest history of a now-defunct bowl, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Bluebonnet usually had a Texas team or a Southwest Conference team on one side. One exception: This Missouri-Georgia Tech meeting in 1962 called by legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray:
Site: Louisville, Ky. (Fairgrounds Stadium)
Fairgrounds Stadium is now an eyesore from the Interstate in Louisville, especially compared to the Cardinals’ new facility. Not only did Louisville play football here, it hosted Oklahoma State’s 1958 bowl win over Florida State. The game was attended by a mere 7,000 people, but it’s more notable for being the first national television appearance for Howard Cosell.
Site: Fresno, Calif. (Bulldog Stadium)
The game gave us one of the great bowl sponsors in the California Raisin Advisory Board. The claymation dancing and singing raisins were more memorable than any of the bowl matchups between the WAC and the MAC. The California Raisin Bowl is not to be confused with simply the Raisin Bowl, also held in Fresno from 1945-49.
Site: Anaheim, Calif. (Anaheim Stadium)
The Freedom Bowl featured a fair amount of star power in its decade of existence, including MVP performances from Chuck Long, Ty Detmer, Marshall Faulk and Tedy Bruschi.
Garden State Bowl
Site: East Rutherford, N.J. (Giants Stadium)
The Garden State Bowl learned what the NFL may figure out in 2014: Postseason games in December and January are to be avoided. Rutgers and Temple played in the first two games here before embarking on lengthy bowl droughts. After four games, Giants Stadium became the site of the popular and much more successful (and warmer) Kickoff Classic, a game that ran in late August from 1983-2002.
Site: New York (Yankee Stadium)
The matchup between Nebraska and Miami in the 1962 game would be much more interesting decades later, but this game preceded Miami’s first national title by 21 years and featured Bob Devaney in only his first season as Nebraska’s coach. Still, the Gotham Bowl is such a great name. Unfortunately, the words “Gotham” and “football” probably shouldn’t go together. Thanks, Christopher Nolan.
Great Lakes Bowl
Site: Cleveland, Ohio
This bowl was probably doomed from the get-go because “bowl destination” and “lake effect snow” don’t go together. The game featured only one matchup between major teams, but at least it was historically notable as the first bowl appearance and bowl win by then-Kentucky coach Bear Bryant in 1947.
Site: Toronto (Rogers Centre)
In addition to being the first bowl game off American soil in 70 years, the International Bowl carries the distinction of being one of the first in an unfortunate trend of placing lower-tier bowl games in between New Year’s Day and BCS championship game. The demise of the Big East, 4-0 in this game against the MAC, and low attendance contributed to the demise of the game.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium)
Florida has oranges and tangerines, and Georgia has peaches. Makes sense for Texas to have the Oil Bowl, right?
Site: Phoenix (Montgomery Stadium)
This game featured North Texas and Arizona State back when they were teachers’ colleges and when Drake, Dayton and Xavier went to bowl games. Not sure how it ended up a New Year’s Day bowl game. Like the Cherry Bowl, the Salad Bowl is virtually un-Google-able on the first try.
Silicon Valley Classic
Site: San Jose, Calif. (Spartan Stadium)
Back in the early 2000s, many games ended up with a dot com sponsor — galleryfurniture.com, EV1.net, Insight.com. Only one claimed all of Silicon Valley. The game went bust after the dot com bubble burst.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 24:
• For your Christmas Eve enjoyment, here's The Rock singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" in a yuletide onesie. Speaking of The Rock, his Christmas card this year is spectacular.
• The 101 most popular Deadspin posts of 2014. I'm sure I've linked to many of these this year.
• Amazing universe we live in: The most beautiful space photos of 2014.
• Continuing our countdown theme: Funniest athlete Tweets of 2014.
• This is disturbing: Jim Harbaugh once smeared a player's blood on his face. Not surprising, but disturbing.
• Vlade Divac sank a halfcourt shot for charity and got a round of applause from Jack Nicholson.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
1. Golden State Warriors (23-3)
The Warriors are 23-3, boasting an insane .885 winning percentage. Until their success rate drops below such historically impressive levels, they’ll hold tight to this top spot. Just imagine if they had a healthy Andrew Bogut in tow.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (22-7)
The knock on last year’s surprising Blazers’ squad is that they never had to endure any injury troubles with their unusually cohesive starting five. But now that center Robin Lopez is out and they’ve still got the second-best record in the league, skeptics are disappearing in droves.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (21-7)
Injuries to Tony Allen and Zach Randolph have seen the Memphis juggernaut slow a bit, but not enough to discredit the spectacular play they’ve put up so far — which includes being one of the only teams to beat Golden State.
4. Chicago Bulls (18-9)
The Bulls are rounding into form offensively as Derrick Rose finds himself again and Jimmy Butler blossoms into a superstar. Their recent 49-point fourth quarter against the Raptors should have the rest of the league in a state of fright.
5. Toronto Raptors (22-7)
Despite losing DeMar DeRozan weeks ago, Toronto’s still got the best record in the Eastern Conference. Canada forcing its way into the primetime of roundball TV looks like something more solid than a blip this Christmas.
6. Houston Rockets (20-7)
The Rockets have cooled down after a crazy, mysterious surge without Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones. Their best basketball is still in front of them, though, provided they can get everyone healthy — and provided they can sign Josh Smith without disrupting their chemistry.
7. Atlanta Hawks (20-7)
The Hawks have been one of the league’s smartest, most efficient teams on both sides of the ball this autumn. The question is whether their hyper-kinetic offense has flaws that can’t be exploited by bigger, tougher teams in the postseason.
8. Dallas Mavericks (20-9)
Rajon Rondo moves the needle in the right direction for Dallas, but not by a whole lot. The arduous process of working his unique skills into their offense is (for now) barely outweighed by the benefits his presence should bring.
9. Washington Wizards (19-7)
John Wall is, somewhat quietly, playing like a top-three NBA point guard. And as he’s buttressed by a scary, deep front court and Paul Pierce’s icy crunch-time veins, the Wiz look like a team no one wants to face.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-10)
LeBron’s Cavaliers, like his Heat before them, have relied heavily upon their on/off switch. But this team hasn’t yet showed enough in their “on” moments to meet the hype about them over the summer. We’re still waiting to see what they’re really made of.
11. Los Angeles Clippers (19-9)
An underwhelming Clippers squad, their fans hope, is simply waiting for the spring to begin their charge into elite play. Chris Paul and Co. must still be salty about their tough loss to the Thunder in last year’s playoffs, waiting not so patiently for their moment of revenge.
12. San Antonio Spurs (18-11)
The Spurs have been sitting their veterans even more than usual, seeming almost disinterested in winning many games before 2015 is upon us. We’ll hold off on judging them properly until they start their push in earnest.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-15)
The Thunder have played well since getting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back, but they still face a steep, perilous climb through the Western Conference, with an extremely small margin for error.
14. Milwaukee Bucks (14-14)
Even without Jabari Parker, the Bucks are a dangerous, competitive team despite being so young. They’re likely not ready for playoff prominence yet, but fans in Wisconsin should be incredibly excited for the future.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (14-13)
Without the super-valuable Anthony Davis, the Pelicans might be ten spots lower on this list — or more. The playoffs are a long shot for this squad in the West, and New Orleans’ front office has a tough task ahead of them in convincing Davis they can put together a more fearsome roster around him.
16. Phoenix Suns (15-14)
The Suns are in NBA purgatory, with many believing they need to do something about their three-point-guard experiment, which appears to be failing as last year’s premier Sun, Goran Dragic, languishes without the ball in his hands often enough.
17. Miami Heat (13-15)
The battered Heat aren’t feeling so hot without LeBron James, and their future is in question with the health of Dwyane Wade looming like a stadium-sized question mark.
18. Sacramento Kings (12-16)
The Kings looked like they were on the up this year. Then, they got ahead of themselves and fired coach Mike Malone, putting their fans back into a state of panic, confusion, and malaise as they exposed their internal dysfunction.
19. Brooklyn Nets (11-15)
The Nets have just about all their players on the trade block, and why wouldn’t they? This collection isn’t inspiring anyone, flailing at the bottom of the weak Eastern Conference playoff picture.
20. Denver Nuggets (12-16)
The Nuggets, as much as any team in the sport, are without direction. And their best-case scenario (fringe playoff spoiler team in the West) hit a wall when they lost Danilo Galinari for the year.
21. Boston Celtics (10-15)
Without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have fully turned the page past their era of Big Three championship contention. But the question still remains: What’s next?
22. Indiana Pacers (9-19)
The Pacers continue to be one of the league’s least watchable teams with a declining David West, no Paul George, no Lance Stephenson, and little prospects at getting any better this winter.
23. Charlotte Hornets (9-19)
The Hornets remain a disappointment as they try to find a trade suitor for Lance Stephenson and struggle to find anyone who can shoot the ball for them outside of the paint.
24. Utah Jazz (9-20)
The young Jazz are still in incubation. Among the NBA’s bottom third, however, they’ve got a lot more than most to be positive about with their exciting nucleus including Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert.
25. Orlando Magic (10-20)
The Magic might be just one season away from making noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs picture. Until then, though, they’ll have to settle for the unique title of “exciting losers” as they build up experience.
26. Detroit Pistons (5-23)
Waiving Josh Smith was the right decision for this team. But they’ve still got a lot more dicey choices to make before they’re impressing anyone.
27. Philadelphia 76ers (3-23)
Despite having the worst record in the league, the tankalicious Sixers are in possession of a rare quality at the NBA’s bottom: some direction.
28. New York Knicks (5-25)
Shutting down Carmelo Anthony is just what the Knicks should do this season. Fixing his body up for a year in which they can actually compete makes more sense than dragging him through this disasterpiece of a season.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-21)
The Wolves might be a more inspiring team, with their bulk of enticing young talent including Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng, if they weren’t coached and managed by the out-of-touch Flip Saunders.
30. Los Angeles Lakers (8-19)
Kobe Bryant is losing his mind as he rages against the dying of his superstar light, and that’s about the only reason to watch this miserable team.
— John Wilmes
Nebraska fans must be asking themselves: Can Mike Riley start now?
The new Cornhuskers coach has many skills that will be welcome in Lincoln, but in the here and now, Riley's hex on the 2014 bowl opponent is of particular interest.
Despite a deficit in talent and resources, Oregon State tended to be a spoiler for USC in its glory days during the last 10 seasons. Three unranked, Riley-led teams upset three ranked USC squads in the last six meetings, including an upset of the No. 1 Trojans in 2007 and the No. 3 Trojans in 2006.
Alas, Riley is simply observing right now, leaving the team to interim coach Barney Cotton. The coaching change assures Nebraska that Bo Pelini won’t preside over a four-loss season, though that landmark is attainable for the seventh consecutive year.
If Cotton can lead Nebraska to a bowl win, the Cornhuskers will finish a season with fewer than four losses for the first time since 2003, another season in which an interim coach led the way in a Nebraska bowl game. That interim coach in a 10-3 season in 2003 was Bo Pelini.
On the other sideline, USC has a coach with plenty of familiarity with the Huskers in recent seasons. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian must feel like Nebraska is following him. While coach at Washington, Sarkisian faced Nebraska three times in a 12-month span, including a home-and-home and the 2010 Holiday Bowl. Nebraska was 2-1 in those matchups.
Nebraska vs. USC
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 8 p.m.
Spread: USC by 6 1/2
Nebraska’s Key to Victory: A return to form for Ameer Abdullah
Perhaps the layoff will help Abdullah because the Nebraska star tailback struggled in the final month of the season. While fighting through a knee sprain, Abdullah averaged 4.8 yards per carry in November and rushed for just one touchdown during the final month of the season. Before that, Abdullah averaged 6.9 yards per carry and tallied 17 touchdowns in the first eight games. The offense will all start with Abdullah — putting quarterback Tommy Armstrong into third-and-long situations against a pass rusher like Leonard Williams could be bad news for the Huskers.
USC’s Key to Victory: Keep Cody Kessler comfortable
Kessler is the nation’s second-most accurate passer, as far as completion percentage goes (70.7 percent). Yet he’s had a few games this season in which he has been under pressure. UCLA sacked him six times in a USC loss. Arizona State sacked him three times in a loss. Boston College sacked him five times in a loss. Given the opportunity, Kessler can pick apart a defense. The onus will be on the Cornhuskers pass rush to set the tone. Nebraska has a star pass rusher in Randy Gregory, who turned in an uneven season due to injury.
Though neither USC’s nor Nebraska’s season will be particularly memorable in the annals of each school’s history, this game will be notable for the first bowl matchup between two storied programs. USC is looking to continue its unbeaten streak against Nebraska, going 3-0-1 in home-and-homes in 1969-70 and 2006-07. The two teams in 2014 are evenly matched. The game may come down to which offensive playmakers are allowed to flourish — will Nebraska be able to feed the ball to Ameer Abdullah or will Cody Kessler be able to feed the ball to receiver Nelson Agholor?
Prediction: USC 35, Nebraska 24
The last Penn State bowl appearance was hardly an experience the Nittany Lions want to remember.
In 2011, Penn State went to Dallas to play in a bowl game televised on ESPNU in a crowded slot with more appealing matchups in the Capital One and Outback bowls. That the bowl was an afterthought was just fine.
Under interim coach Tom Bradley, Penn State lost 30-14 to Houston, ending a season in which the program was reeling from scandal.
This game will be different.
Penn State entered the season with the NCAA-mandated bowl ban still in place. That sanction ended Sept. 10, though the Nittany Lions needed until Nov. 15 to ensure they’d end 2014 in the postseason.
No, this isn’t the kind of bowl destination Penn State normally would be accustomed to visiting a decade ago, but the return should be an appealing matchup.
Penn State draws a Boston College team that finished 7-5, defeated USC and played Florida State and Clemson within less than a touchdown.
The two programs played every year from 1981-92 with Penn State winning all but two meetings during that stretch of the series. With Boston College winning a home-and-home in 2003-04 and the 1992 matchup, the Eagles have a three-game winning streak in the series.
Boston College vs. Penn State
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m.
Spread: Boston College by 2 1/2
Boston College’s Key to Victory: Unleash Tyler Murphy
The Eagles are at their best when quarterback Tyler Murphy is methodically moving them down the field. The Florida transfer rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and did just enough in the passing game to keep teams honest. He was interception-free in six of the final seven games, but the exception was as a doozy with four picks against Louisville. Facing the middle of the Penn State defense led by linebacker Mike Hull and tackle Anthony Zettel, though, will be tough.
Penn State’s Key to Victory: Continue the late-season run game momentum
This is not a great matchup for Penn State’s embattled offensive line. Boston College is eighth in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.1) and fourth in rushing yards per game (95.5). Don Brown’s defense features three down linemen and brings the blitz, so the Nittany Lions’ line will have their hands full in protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Penn State rushed for at least 160 yards in three of the last four games, albeit agains Indiana, Temple and Illinois. Even in that stretch, Penn State still gave up nine sacks. Against five winning teams in 2014, Penn State averaged 1.4 yards per carry and 43.4 rushing yards per game.
Normally a matchup between a 6-6 Big Ten team and a 7-5 ACC team wouldn’t carry a great deal of weight, but this game will be different. Penn State’s return to a bowl is one storyline, but a victory would give the Nittany Lions a winning season each year under NCAA sanctions, no insignificant feat. Boston College, a program that won eight bowl games in eight seasons at one point, is now riding a four-bowl losing streak. A win would give BC its first eight-win season since 2009 and first bowl victory since 2007. That said, finding ways to score will be a challenge. These two teams both rank in the top 12 in total defense and are allowing fewer than 21 points per game.
Prediction: Penn State 17, Boston College 13
Like many teams in the Independence Bowl, Miami and South Carolina don’t arrive in Shreveport with an abundance of enthusiasm.
Reaching this bowl game, more often than not, is the final stop in a season that didn’t go entirely as planned.
The Gamecocks and Hurricanes are in that position as they try to salvage one last bit of good news — not to mention a winning record — out of a lost season.
South Carolina started the season in the preseason top 10, but the Gamecocks would never look any better than that, losing 52-28 to Texas A&M in the opener. For the first time of Steve Spurrier’s tenure in South Carolina, the Gamecocks fell below — well below — expectations. Carolina finished the season with only one Power 5 win after Sept. 20.
Miami limps into Shreveport in similar fashion. The Hurricanes didn’t open the season ranked, but they were expected to make a run at the ACC Coastal Division. Those dreams evaporated as Miami was one of many victims of a second half Florida State comeback on Nov. 15. The Canes lost to Virginia and Pittsburgh to wrap up another middling season under Al Golden.
While this game might not be the top priority for the average college football fan, this will be a key game for momentum into 2015. The winner will be able to move on while the losing team will have a handful of questions.
For South Carolina, a loss brings into question how much energy Steve Spurrier has left before hitting the links for good. For Miami, a loss puts Al Golden onto hot seat lists entering next season.
Miami vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:30 p.m.
Spread: Miami by 3
Miami’s Key to Victory: Get Duke Johnson going
Johnson’s two lowest rushing totals this season occurred in the final two games of the season against Virginia (88 yards) and Pittsburgh (89). Before that, Johnson was on a hot streak, averaging 162.2 yards per game and 7.8 per carry in the six games prior. The Hurricanes went 4-2 during that streak, the only losses to teams that played in the ACC title game. It’s no surprise that when Johnson isn’t breaking off long runs, Miami has trouble sustaining drives. South Carolina will be ripe for the picking in this matchup. The Gamecocks gave up 284.2 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry against their last four SEC opponents and Clemson.
South Carolina’s Key to Victory: Limit Brad Kaaya
South Carolina’s defense has been a season-long problem. The same team that had Jadeveon Clowney last season has made life awfully easy on quarterbacks this year. Throw out gimmes against Furman and South Alabama, and South Carolina had only nine sacks all season and only one in the final five games. The Gamecocks also had only three interceptions against SEC opponents and Clemson. If South Carolina is to have any chance, the Gamecocks will need to make Miami freshman QB Brad Kaaya uncomfortable.
This is a classic example of the unpredictable December bowl game. Both teams flashed potential this season. One team beat Georgia and the other gave Florida State all it can handle. Yet both teams had enough glaring flaws to finish 6-6. And given that South Carolina and Miami are used to more exciting bowl destinations, one team or both could come out flat. Yet plenty of pride is on the line as both teams are looking to seal a winning record to salvage the season.
Prediction: South Carolina 24, Miami 17
Have you ever wondered which athlete or sports figure is tailor-made for the Christmas season? Well, we’ve made our list and checked it twice, although we’re still working on the naughty or nice part.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
Dionte Christmas (former NBA guard, now plays overseas)
Rakeem Christmas (F, Syracuse basketball)
Matt Holliday (OF, St. Louis Cardinals)
Doug Jolley (former NFL tight end 2002-06)
Nerlens Noel (C, Philadelphia 76ers)
Plenty of sports figures have color-coordinated names for the season…
A.J. Green (WR, Cincinnati Bengals)
Shawn Green (former MLB OF/1B 1993-2007)
"Mean Joe" Greene (NFL Hall of Famer)
Red Auerbach (legendary NBA coach)
Red Grange (NFL Hall of Famer)
Michael Redd (former NBA guard 2000-12)
Who’s ready to deck the halls?
Todd Berry (Louisiana-Monroe football head coach)
Jamey Carroll (former MLB infielder, 2002-13)
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks head coach)
Jon Garland (former MLB pitcher 2000-11)
Royal Ivey (former NBA guard, 2004-13)
Holly Rowe (ESPN reporter)
Mike Tannenbaum (former New York Jets general manager)
Walking in a winter wonderland…
David Frost (PGA Champions Tour)
Scott Frost (Oregon offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach)
Frostee Rucker (DE, Arizona Cardinals)
Ron Slay (Tennessee basketball 1999-2003, now plays overseas)
Garth Snow (former NHL goalie 1993-2006, current New York Islanders general manager)
J.T. Snow (former MLB first baseman 1992-2006, '08)
Jay Cutler may hail from Santa Claus, Ind., but all these guys are missing is a white beard and a red suit…
Zac Claus (Nevada basketball assistant coach)
Casey Clausen (Tennessee quarterback 2000-03)
Jimmy Clausen (QB, Chicago Bears)
Ed Kringle (played on the PGA Tour in the 1950s)
Sure they can play football, but can they fly?
Dwight Dasher (Middle Tennessee quarterback 2007-10)
Kyle Rudolph (TE, Minnesota Vikings)
Casting call for the nativity scene…
David DeJesus (OF, Tampa Bay Rays)
Curtis Joseph (former NHL goalie 1988-2009)
Angel Pagan (OF, San Francisco Giants)
Russell Shepard (WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Mark Weisman (RB, Iowa football)
Now we feast…
Mia Hamm (women's soccer legend)
Felix Pie (former MLB OF, 2007-11, '13)
Antrel Rolle (DB, New York Giants)
And who better to wrap up our list...
Metta World Peace (former NBA forward, 1999-2014, now playing in China)
Arizona State missed a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game on the final weekend of the regular season by losing to rival Arizona. Duke missed a shot at the ACC Championship Game by losing two of its final three games after the Blue Devils controlled their own destiny as late as Week 13.
But the 81st edition of the Sun Bowl, the second-oldest bowl game in college football (Rose), offers a chance at 10 wins for two 9-3 programs. It would be just the second 10-win season for Duke in school history after accomplishing the feat for the first time last season, and its first bowl win since 1960.
Todd Graham has taken the Sun Devils to the postseason in all three seasons in Tempe but the school has won just one bowl game since 2005. It would also be a second consecutive season with double-digit wins for ASU for the first time since 1970-73.
This is Duke’s first appearance in the Sun Bowl while Arizona State is third all-time behind Texas Tech (9) and UTEP (8) with five Sun Bowl bids. One of those showings was the record-setting 0-0 tie with Catholic University in the 1940 Sun Bowl.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two different types of Devils.
Arizona State vs. Duke
Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. ET (Dec. 27)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Arizona State -7.5
Arizona State’s Key to Victory: Quarterback stability
Late in the de facto Pac-12 South Division title game with Arizona, Graham startled some by switching from Taylor Kelly to Mike Bercovici. They both threw 22 passes for less than 150 yards and two touchdowns. It was a strange move that came in a critical moment, but following the loss, Graham reaffirmed Kelly would remain the starter for the bowl game. Both players are capable but the time off should allow Kelly to return to full strength after dealing with injuries all season long. He has looked sharp in bowl practice and has a significant edge in experience on Bercovici. But just because it’s Kelly’s final game in an ASU uniform doesn’t mean the big-armed backup won’t get some snaps.
Arizona State is facing the second-best defense, statistically, that it has faced all year behind only Stanford. Duke is 20th in pass efficiency defense and 20th in scoring defense nationally behind the play of a great secondary. How the veteran quarterbacks play will be the biggest key to an Arizona State victory.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Predictions podcast:
Duke's Key to Victory: Get Jamison Crowder the ball
Duke is solid on defense and should matchup well with Arizona State but will need to move the ball on offense to stay in the game. Quarterback Anthony Boone has been a solid leader but ranked near the bottom of the ACC in most passing statistics. Crowder is one of the most productive players in ACC history (276 career receptions, 5,402 all-purpose yards) and David Cutcliffe needs to find multiple ways to get his top playmaker the ball in his final game as a Blue Devil. Be it trick plays, deep shots or special teams, Crowder is the key for Duke’s offense.
The regular season ended with a bit of a whimper for both teams after a fantastic first two months of the season so getting up to play in El Paso could be difficult for both locker rooms. That said, both teams are extremely well coached by two veteran leaders in Cutcliffe and Graham, and Duke is still looking for its first bowl win in more than six decades. Arizona State has the talent edge and is the heavy favorite for a reason but the Blue Devils have a strength-on-strength matchup when the Sun Devils’ offense is on the field. D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong might be too much in this Devilish duel.
Prediction: Arizona State 31, Duke 27
On paper, the battle lines are clearly drawn when it comes to this season's Military Bowl matchup between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., will serve as the backdrop for a game featuring the classic contrast in styles – the Bearcats’ potent offense vs. the Hokies’ stingy defense.
Cincinnati (9-3) claimed its third conference title in four seasons, tying Memphis and UCF for the top spot in the American Athletic Conference at 7-1. Tommy Tuberville has led the Bearcats to back-to-back nine-win seasons, as this season’s team weathered an early three-game losing streak and has since reeled off seven straight victories.
This will be Cincinnati’s sixth straight bowl appearance. The Bearcats have gone 2-3 thus far, including a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl. This also makes it three straight seasons Cincinnati has faced an ACC team in its bowl game. The Bearcats played an ACC foe in each of the past two Belk Bowls – beating Duke in 2012 and losing to North Carolina last season.
Virginia Tech (6-6) meanwhile needed every win it could muster just to keep the nation’s second-longest bowl streak (22 seasons) alive. A perennial contender in the ACC under Frank Beamer, the Hokies picked up one of the biggest non-conference wins of the season when they upset Ohio State 35-21 in the Horseshoe in early September.
Unfortunately that high was followed by many lows, starting with a home loss to East Carolina, as Virginia Tech’s offense struggled to produce consistent points. A three-game losing streak in mid-October ended any thoughts of winning another Coastal Division title, but the cruelest blow of all came in late November in a 6-3 double overtime loss at Wake Forest.
Still, give credit to Beamer’s team for continuing its dominance over in-state rival Virginia, as the Hokies’ 24-20 home win not only secured the Commonwealth Cup for an 11th straight season, it also got them bowl eligible.
The Hokies are just 9-12 in bowl games under Beamer, including last season’s Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.
Including the 2009 Orange Bowl, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech have played each other 10 times. The series is split 5-5 with the Bearcats claiming the most recent victory – 27-24 over the Hokies in September 2012 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cincinnati -3
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Gunner-ing it on Offense
The Bearcats enter this game 26th in the nation in scoring at 35.4 points per game. Most of this damage has come through the air via the right arm of quarterback Gunner Kiel. An elite prospect that started his career at Notre Dame (after committing to Indiana and then LSU), Kiel has blossomed as a sophomore signal-caller. He’s tied for ninth nationally with 30 touchdown passes and has thrown for more than 3,000 yards. He’s done a good job of spreading the wealth, as six different Bearcats have caught 20 or more passes and eight have hauled in a touchdown. This approach could pay off against Virginia Tech’s defense, which has fared well against the pass. The Hokies are 14th in the nation in passing defense, holding opponents to a 47.6 percent completion rate (third). They haven’t picked off a bunch of passes (10 INTs) though and have been somewhat susceptible to the big play. Virginia Tech has allowed 17 passing plays of 30 or more yards and nine of 40-plus. Still, Cincinnati needs Kiel to continue to have success throwing the ball because the Bearcats’ running game has been inconsistent. Also, as good as the Hokies’ defense has been (20.4 ppg, 17th), the offense is averaging less than 24 points per game. The more success Kiel has throwing against the Hokies, the better for a Cincinnati defense that has had plenty of issues of its own.
Virginia Tech’s Key to Victory: Get Offensive
The only reason the Hokies are playing in their 22nd straight bowl game is because their defense was good enough to win six games. Actually, this defense was good enough to win even more games; it’s just that the offense had trouble scoring points. Even though Virginia Tech held opponents to just 20.4 points per game, the Hokies only outscored teams by 35 points, or less than three per game. Injuries took their toll on the running game, a facet that was a strength during Tech’s best seasons, and Texas Tech transfer quarterback Michael Brewer has struggled because of a combination of turnovers (14 INTs), a lack of proven playmakers on the outside and inconsistent pass protection (31 sacks allowed). If Virginia Tech’s defense does its part, which it has all season, then it stands to reason the offense won’t need to score that many points to put the Hokies in a position to win. Hopefully Brewer and the rest of the offense are using the time off and extra practices to iron out the kinks and find some sort of rhythm and cohesion. It’s not like the offense is expected to carry this team in the first place and it sure would be disheartening to see another stellar defensive performance from coordinator Bud Foster’s unit wasted on a stage like this.
Strictly from an offense vs. defense standpoint, Cincinnati’s O doesn’t seem to quite match up against Virginia Tech’s D. However, a big reason why the Hokies are 6-6 is because their offense has offered minimal support. How else can you explain how the same team that beat Ohio State on the road manages just one field goal in a double overtime loss to Wake Forest? Virginia Tech is certainly no stranger to this stage, playing in its 22nd straight bowl game, but postseason success (9-12) has been tough to come by for Frank Beamer’s team. The Hokies’ D is nasty, but their offense is atrocious and I think Tommy Tuberville’s Bearcats have just enough balance to beat a one-dimensional team.
Prediction: Cincinnati 23, Virginia Tech 17
Hosts Braden Gall and Steven Lassan go in-depth to break down both national semifinal games.
Alabama vs. Ohio State: Does Urban Meyer or Nick Saban have the advantage on the sidelines? Can Cardale Jones handle the Bama defense? Can the Buckeyes defensive line disrupt the Bama offense? Which fan base wins the week off-the-field in New Orleans?
Oregon vs. Florida State: Which QB is better in Pasadena? Which defense is more likely to get stops? Can Marcus Mariota carry his team to victory? Does playing close games all year help or hurt FSU?
The guys cover all of this and make National Championship predictions on this special Playoff Predictions edition of the Cover 2 Podcast.
"You know him," Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott said to reporters Monday — and there was no doubt about who he meant by him. "It's real difficult. He's such a competitor. He wants to go out there and play every minute that he can. The mind is willing, but sometimes the body is not.”
Kobe Bryant, according to his coach, is going to be trying out a new concept in the eighteenth year of his storied NBA career: rest. After showing severe signs of fatigue in a 108-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings on December 21 — in which the 36-year-old legend shot 8-for-30 and committed nine turnovers — it’s become clear that Bryant simply can’t play the way he used to.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen Kobe playing less than spectacular ball, though. For fans of Bryant’s well-deserved spot in the gallery of basketball greatness, any sort of closer look at the Black Mamba’s recent performance has revealed the mustache on the Mona Lisa:
Still lots of noise, but the sample size keeps getting bigger: pic.twitter.com/OLMNbcxcRo— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2014
"We'll formulate a plan that suits him so when he is on the court, he can go out and play at full strength instead of trying to will his way through these games," Scott went on. "He's such a competitor that he tries to will his way through it no matter how his body feels. I want him to get to the point where his body feels a lot better than it does right now.
"I'm not going to sacrifice his well being for W’s. I have to look out for Kobe to make sure I make it through this season without killing him and playing him too much. There might be some decisions I make that he won't be real happy with. I'll have to live with that. But for me, it's always going to be my players' best interest.”
With or without Bryant, the Lakers are destined to keep losing big in the stacked Western Conference. And as the losses pile up, the games themselves will rarely be in the spotlight — the sideshow of Kobe accepting the dimming of his star has long been the central hooping event in Tinseltown.
— John Wilmes
In a league overflowing with parity and dominated (mostly) by youth, the NFL tends to be an organization of mood swings. One moment a player is on top of the world, heading toward a Pro Bowl season or a lucrative, multi-year contract.
The next, they find themselves on this list, as one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
It happens to a lot of players: Great ones, and ones with great expectations; Pro Bowl players, or ones who were just headed in that direction. As always, there were a lot of things to be disappointed about this season.
Here are 10 who were as disappointing as any in the league:
QB Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
Three straight trips to the NFC championship game and one trip to the Super Bowl seemingly cemented him as being on the verge of greatness, and the things he could do with his arm and his legs made many believe he signaled the arrival of the next generation of quarterback weapons. Then this season he stopped winning and even seemed to slow down when running (until his big game against San Diego last weekend). Mostly, though, the offense wilted under his direction. His stats are middling with one game to go and he may not even reach 20 touchdown passes – not good for the quarterback on what was supposed to be one of the best teams in the league.
RB Reggie Bush, Lions
He had three straight seasons of 1,000 rushing yards (OK, one was 986, but still …) and a year ago he was such a dual threat he had 1,500 total yards, too. Then this year, as his injuries returned, he has 278 rushing yards and 231 receiving yards and he’s no longer much of a threat in either area. He’s also going to be 30 in March and after a brief career revival it looks once again like he’ll never live up to his promise and hype.
QB Andy Dalton, Bengals
He got a six-year, $96 million contract extension in August, and then looked terrific as Cincinnati got off to a 3-0 start. Since then? Not so good. Passer rating isn’t everything, but in that category he ranks behind the likes of Mark Sanchez, Austin Davis, Zach Mettenberger and Mike Glennon. He has thrown 17 touchdown passes in 15 games and 15 interceptions. He doesn’t look like a franchise quarterback anymore, and if the Bengals had waited just two more months he’d never have gotten a deal that size.
TE Vernon Davis, 49ers
There certainly are a lot of disappointing players in San Francisco, in what surely will end up being Jim Harbaugh’s final season. Davis might be one of the biggest and, quite possibly, one of the biggest mysteries. Over the previous five seasons he had established himself as a dangerous weapon. Last year he had 850 receiving yards, an impressive 16.3 yards per catch and 13 touchdowns. Now? He’s an after thought. His 25 catches for 236 yards and two TDs, not to mention a yards-per-catch average of just 9.4, add up to his worst season since his injury shortened rookie year.
RB Doug Martin, Buccaneers
Another injury-plagued season has ruined the value of this former star who memorably had 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie. This season he’ll be lucky to top the 456 he had last season. Granted, after last year’s disaster maybe this should’ve been expected. But he did play 10 games, just not very well. He starts, but he doesn’t do much and has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, making him a truly awful part of one of the worst teams in the league.
QB Cam Newton, Panthers
Before the accident and the fractured back, Newton had responded since his excellent 2013 season by dipping back to his 2012 levels. His completion percentage is back under 60 and he’s got just 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Yes, he lost his best receiver, Steve Smith, but he replaced him with a superb rookie in Kelvin Benjamin. This was supposed to be Newton’s arrival as an elite quarterback. Instead, he’s led the Panthers to a losing record in the worst division in the NFL.
WR Michael Crabtree, 49ers
He was supposed to be one of the next great receiving super stars when he was drafted 10th overall in 2009. Now, after a couple of good years, he’s clearly not much more than a possession receiver. His 64 catches are OK, especially with a struggling quarterback. But for 657 yards and just a 10.3 yards per catch average? That’s a career low and an indication that he either has no ability to shake a tackler or he’s lost his speed.
WR Rueben Randle, Giants
It was all set up for the former second-round pick, especially after Victor Cruz got hurt. Instead, rookie Odell Beckham breezed past him. Even worse, Randle couldn’t take advantage of defenses leaving him alone and focusing on the Giants’ first-round pick. He has just 65 catches for 780 yards and three touchdowns through 15 games, which are decent numbers, but not for a guy who could’ve been his team’s No. 1. Worse, he’s been benched twice for the first quarter of a game by his coach for unspecified violations of team rules.
DE Jared Allen, Bears
Age has caught up to him at 32 as he’s seen his playing time reduced and he’s on his first single-digit sack season since 2006. He had started to tail off for the Vikings a year ago, but still managed 11.5 sacks. Now he’s down to 5.5 in 14 games.
RB LeSean McCoy, Eagles
It’s not that he’s having a bad season (1,220 rushing yards with a game to go), it’s that he’s not living up to the hype of a star back in what was supposed to be the NFL’s most dangerous offense. And for the first five games of the season he was average, with just 273 yards. He eventually got going, but still had only four 100-yard games and won’t approach the 1,607 yards he had a year earlier. He also will likely be under 200 receiving yards – and he hadn’t finished under 300 once in his entire career.
—by Ralph Vacchiano
Berea, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - Johnny Football's rookie season is over.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel will miss Sunday's finale against Baltimore with what his coach said Monday is a "pretty significant" hamstring injury.
Manziel was hurt on a scramble in the final minutes of the first half Sunday when he was hit by two Carolina players while going out of bounds.
The first-round draft pick was replaced by Brian Hoyer, whose status for this weekend's game is up in the air after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Panthers.
The injuries have left Browns coach Mike Pettine uncertain of who will start at quarterback against the Ravens.
Undrafted rookie Connor Shaw will see more reps in practice this week but Pettine said on a conference call Monday he hasn't ruled out other options, according to the team's official website.
Manziel struggled after replacing Hoyer to make his first NFL start against Cincinnati last week and didn't fare much better in four series against the Panthers on Sunday.
He completed 13 of 26 passes in the two starts for 112 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Browns (7-8) have lost four games in a row but will finish with their best record since going 10-6 in 2007.
Allen Park, MI (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL suspended Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola one game without pay for stomping on Chicago Bears defensive lineman Ego Ferguson's leg in Sunday's game.
Raiola violated Rule 12, Section 2, Article 12 (b) of the NFL Rule Book prohibiting "kicking or kneeing an opponent." The incident took place in the third quarter of Detroit's 20-14 win.
Raiola said after the game he didn't intentionally step on Ferguson's ankle and apologized to him after the game.
"Obviously, I took a good look at it," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday before any suspension had been levied by the league. "I looked at both the coaches copy and also the television copy as well. I believe what Dom told me, that it was inadvertent, but I could also see why it's obviously being reviewed by the league and everybody is taking a real good look at it."
This is Raiola's sixth safety-related rules violation since 2010. He was fined $10,000 earlier this year for striking a New England player in the back of the helmet in the final minute of a Nov. 23 game.
Raiola must stay away from the team during his suspension. He will be reinstated on Dec. 29.
The suspension may be appealed within three business days. Appeals are heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or Ted Cottrell. Raiola is expected to appeal the suspension.
The Lions play at the Packers on Sunday in a winner-take-all game for the NFC North title. Rookie Travis Swanson will likely start in Raiola's place.