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As we enter Week 14 of the NFL season, the playoff picture is slowly starting to come into focus. Dallas has already clinched its spot and Jason Garrett's team can seal up the NFC East with a road win Sunday night over the Giants. New York also just happens to be the only team that has beaten the Cowboys, which happened way back in Week 1.
New England can clinch its eighth straight AFC East title (and 13th out of the last 14 seasons) with a win at home on Monday night over Baltimore and a Miami loss to Arizona. Seattle can get closer to sewing up the NFC West with a win at Lambeau Field, while Detroit (yes the Lions) could potentially open up a three-game lead in the NFC North with a win in Chicago and losses by Minnesota (at Jacksonville) and Green Bay.
But all eyes this week will be on the AFC West, particularly Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday night as Oakland (10-2) takes on Kansas City (9-3) for first place. The Raiders have won six in a row following last week’s second-half blitzing of Buffalo, while the Chiefs won their second game in a row in thrilling fashion. Kansas City pulled off the road upset in Atlanta on Sunday as Eric Berry picked off Matt Ryan’s two-point conversion try after the Falcons had gone ahead 28-27 with less than five minutes remaining.
Denver (8-4) also will have a say in how the AFC West will ultimately be won, but the Broncos first need to take care of business in Nashville against Tennessee (6-6). The Titans come off of their bye in a virtual three-way tie for first in the AFC South with the Texans and Colts, who will face off against each other in Lucas Oil Stadium.
All told there are seven divisional matchups on tap for Week 14, including Tampa Bay hosting New Orleans. The Buccaneers (7-5) have won four games in a row, a streak that includes victories at Kansas City, against Seattle and last week’s win in San Diego, to tie Atlanta for first in the NFC South. A win by the Saints (5-7) would keep them in the divisional race with just four games left in the regular season.
So which teams will come out on top in every NFL game in Week 14? Athlon's own Rob Doster (AthlonDoster), John Gworek (JohnGworek), Steven Lassan (AthlonSteven), and Mark Ross (AthlonMarkR), along with AthlonSports.com contributor Bryan Fischer (BryanDFischer), predict the winners for every game this week:
NFL Week 14 Predictions
New Orleans at
San Diego at
NY Jets at
NY Giants (SNF)
Note: Ties are not included in season record.
Unfamiliarity likely breeds as much contempt as familiarity.
Certainly when it’s win or go home.
This has been a good year for first-time matchups between teams in the FCS playoffs. Including this weekend’s national quarterfinals, 10 of the first 20 games are matching teams that hadn’t played each other previously.
The Sam Houston State-James Madison and Richmond-Eastern Washington quarterfinals are first-time matchups. Wofford-Youngstown State isn’t, but those two teams have played each other only once.
The other quarterfinal – South Dakota State at North Dakota State – is a longtime rivalry. It’s also the most-anticipated game of quarterfinal weekend.
2016 FCS Playoffs — Quarterfinals
(Note: All times ET)
Friday, Dec. 9
No. 5 seed Sam Houston State (12-0) at No. 4 seed James Madison (11-1), 7 p.m. (ESPN2)
These two conference champs have compiled some of the biggest offensive numbers in the FCS. Sam Houston, from the Southland Conference, ranks No. 1 nationally in total offense (570.4 ypg) and scoring offense (53.1 ppg), while James Madison, from CAA Football, is No. 3 in total offense (525.8 ypg) and No. 2 in scoring offense (48.3 ppg). Yet the most important number in their first-ever meeting may be the game-time temperature, possible in the upper 20s, which should then fall as the matchup progresses. It won’t be favorable to the visitors from Huntsville, Texas – just north of Houston. Sam Houston quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe holds the FCS single-season record with 57 touchdown passes and needs one to tie former Hawaii star Colt Brennan for the Division I mark (58 in 2006). Fortunately for the Beakats, they also have a strong running backs with Remus Bulmer and Corey Avery (a combined 1,553 yards and 17 TDs). To combat Briscoe, JMU’s secondary boasts two of the Dukes’ All-CAA first-team picks in cornerback Taylor Reynolds and safety Raven Greene. Plus, their offense has a triple threat of its own in quarterback Bryan Schor, running back Khalid Abdullah and wide receiver Brandon Ravenel, who is coming off his best game of the season. The winner will advance to play No. 8 seed South Dakota State or No. 1 seed North Dakota State in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: James Madison
Saturday, Dec. 10
No. 8 seed South Dakota State (9-3) at No. 1 seed North Dakota State (11-1), noon (ESPN)
The visiting Jackrabbits surely deserved a better scenario considering they handed five-time defending FCS championship North Dakota State its only loss back on Oct. 15 at the Fargodome, but now have to do it again in a place where the Bison have been invincible during their FCS playoff history (17-0). This will be the 106th all-time meeting between the two co-champs from the Missouri Valley Football Conference (NDSU has a 59-41-5 lead in the series). NDSU’s vaunted defense struggled to defend SDSU sophomore quarterback Taryn Christion in the first meeting, as he threw for 303 yards and, more importantly, rushed for 141. Tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver Jake Wieneke have come back to earth in the Jackrabbits’ last three games, but the Bison have to prove they can stop the duo, because they didn’t in the first game. No, Bison sophomore quarterback Easton Stick is not Carson Wentz, but he’s also 19-1 as a starter in his career. He makes good decisions working behind perhaps the best offensive line in the FCS. So head coach Chris Klieman’s team will try to let the defense create good field position and give the ball to the power run game with Lance Dunn and King Frazier. The winner will advance to play No. 5 seed Sam Houston State or No. 4 seed James Madison in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: North Dakota State
Wofford (10-3) at Youngstown State (10-3), 2 p.m. (ESPN3)
Stambaugh Stadium wasn’t expected to be hosting another playoff game after the first round, but in the second round Youngstown State won at No. 3 seed Jacksonville State and Wofford avenged an earlier loss to No. 6 seed The Citadel, providing the pleasant surprise to the Penguins. Back in the 1990s, when they captured four FCS national titles, they won the first meeting against Wofford, 28-0 at Stambaugh in 1996. Wofford is always a tough matchup outside the Southern Conference because it runs the triple-option offense. Starting quarterback Brandon Goodson suffered a high ankle injury against The Citadel and true freshman Joe Newman played much of the second half. Regardless who the trigger man is this week, fullback Lorenzo Long (1,382 yards, 16 TDs) is the Terriers’ most dangerous offensive player. Their defense is stout and cornerback Devin Watson has helped lead the way in the playoffs with three fourth-quarter interceptions, including a pick-six. While Wofford’s 278.3 rushing yards per game rank fifth in the FCS, the Penguins aren’t far behind with a 258.5 average, and they’ll throw the ball as well. Martin Ruiz and Jody Webb have combined for 7,206 rushing yards and 71 touchdowns in their careers, but just as important for head coach Bo Pelini’s offense, junior Hunter Wells has settled the quarterback position recently. Defensive end Derek Rivers, their all-time sacks leader, is an NFL prospect. The winner advances to play Richmond or No. 2 seed Eastern Washington in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: Youngstown State
Richmond (10-3) at No. 2 seed Eastern Washington (11-1), 4 p.m. (ESPN3)
There’s an extra dynamic with this quarterfinal: Richmond head coach Danny Rocco is rumored to be coveted by another CAA Football member, Delaware, and Eastern Washington coach Beau Baldwin interviewed for the open position at Nevada this week. Both teams are battle-tested, with Richmond having beaten five ranked opponents plus Virginia. Eastern Washington also has an FBS win against Washington State and the Eagles pushed North Dakota State to overtime in their only loss. The visiting Spiders are making their second long trip of the playoffs after winning at North Dakota, the other Big Sky Conference co-champion, last Saturday. They’re getting it done in the offensive backfield with sophomore quarterback Kevin Johnson, whose redshirt was lifted at the start of the playoffs, and redshirt freshman running back Deontez Thompson, who was third string to start the season. But their best offensive player is a senior, wide receiver Brian Brown, who actually has more receiving yards this season (1,441) than Eastern Washington’s incomparable Cooper Kupp (1,392). The Spiders’ No. 2 passing defense (156.3 ypg) should stack up pretty well against EWU quarterback Gage Gubrud, who leads the FCS in passing yards (4,520) and total offense (5,501). Gubrud’s receiving corps boasts three 1,000-yard receivers with Kupp, Shaq Hill (1,077) and Kendrick Bourne (1,051). Defense has long been a shortcoming with the Eagles, but their opponents’ six-lowest point totals have come in the last six games. The winner advances to play Wofford or Youngstown State in the FCS semifinals.
The Pick: Eastern Washington
— Written by Craig Haley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Haley has covered the FCS level since 1999 and is the national writer for www.fcs.football. He appears frequently on radio shows and podcasts to discuss everything FCS. Follow him on Twitter @CraigHaley.
(Top photo by South Dakota State Athletics)
Barring a major upset, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is expected to be named the winner of this year’s Heisman Trophy. Even though his Cardinals stumbled a bit towards the end of the regular season, Jackson’s Heisman candidacy was built early on the back of some monster games. And those statistics, combined with his performance in a few marquee games and a slew of highlight-reel plays, are the reasons why many expect his name to be announced on Dec. 10 at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City.
In fact at this point, the only debate may be how big will Jackson’s winning margin be over the other finalists? The front-runner for most of the season, could Jackson post one of the largest landslides (in terms of total points) in the Heisman Trophy's 82-year history? Here’s his competition in that respect.
NOTE: Ohio State running back Archie Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner in 1974 and ’75 is the only player to win the award twice and each time he was clear of the runner-up by more than 1,100 votes.
5. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas, 1998
The finalists that year were Williams and four quarterbacks –Kansas State’s Michael Bishop, UCLA’s Cade McNown, Kentucky’s Tim Couch and Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb. All had excellent seasons, but Williams rushed for 2,124 yards, averaging nearly six yards a carry, and racked up 28 touchdowns. At the time, it was the sixth-best rushing season in college football history. Most importantly, he broke Tony Dorsett’s 22-year-old career rushing record on a 60-yard touchdown run in an upset of Texas A&M on Thanksgiving weekend. Williams received 714 first-place votes and a total of 2,355 points, 1,563 more than runner-up Bishop.
4. Desmond Howard, WR/PR, Michigan, 1991
As his team was spanking Ohio State, Howard returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown and did the Heisman pose in the end zone. He would have looked like a first-rate boob if he had not actually won the stiff-armed trophy, but like a good politician, he knew he had the votes. Howard led the nation in touchdown receptions and finished with 23 total scores (19 receiving, 2 rushing, 1 kickoff return and 1 punt return). He received 640 first-place votes and a total of 2,077 points, which were 1,574 more than Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon, who came in second.
3. Charlie Ward, QB, Florida State, 1993
Ward was ahead of his time in many ways. If he played in the NFL today, the dual-threat quarterback would likely be mentioned in the same breath as Russell Wilson and Cam Newton. In 1993, Ward’s options for pro football were limited and he chose to play point guard for 10 seasons in the NBA instead. However, in college football, he was sensational. Ward powered Florida State’s fast-break offense, which averaged 43 points a game, and led the team to the school’s first national title. He garnered 740 first-place votes for a total of 2,310 points. Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler finished a distant second, with just 10 first-place votes and 1,622 points behind Smith.
2. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State, 2006
Ohio State was ranked No. 1 in the preseason poll and held the top spot through the entire regular season. The Buckeyes won all but two of their regular season games by double digits and their final one was a 42-39 victory over No. 2 Michigan in one of the most hyped contests in college football history. Ohio State had many weapons, but the heart and soul of the team was its quarterback. Smith threw for 30 touchdowns and only six interceptions and led the Big Ten in passing efficiency. Smith dominated the voting, picking up 801 first-place votes and a total of 2,540 points. Arkansas running back Darren McFadden finished second with 45 first-place votes and 878 points. That’s a difference of 1,662 points or nearly double McFadden’s total.
1. O.J. Simpson, RB, USC, 1968
Yes, the top spot on this list belongs to someone who doesn’t even own his trophy anymore. After finishing second to UCLA quarterback Gary Beban in 1967, Simpson had an even better season in 1968. He blistered defenses by rushing for 1,880 yards and 23 touchdowns as USC won the Pac-10 and earned a trip to the Rose Bowl. Simpson received 855 first-place votes and 2,853 total points, 1,750 more than the runner-up, Purdue halfback Leroy Keyes. To put it another way, Keyes and the other eight players that received votes that year had a total of 147 first-place votes combined.
In 1997, a civil court jury ruled ordered Simpson to pay $33.5 million in damages to the families of murder victims Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. His assets, including his Heisman trophy, were seized and auctioned. In 1999, Triad Metals International owner Tom Kreissman purchased the trophy for $230,000 and a 15 percent sales commission. It now sits in a safety deposit box in a Philadelphia bank.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
Without question, the Heisman Trophy race has tightened up as the college football season has come to a close.
At one point, it appeared as though Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson would run away with the award. However, due to some late Cardinals losses and a few electric performances from several other players, there is a little drama going into Saturday night's presentation at the New York Athletic Club.
Jackson will go into the night as the favorite, as he has accounted for 51 total touchdowns, 30 passing and 21 rushing. The sophomore also is responsible for 4,928 total yards passing and rushing, but his team's losses to Houston and Kentucky to close the season don't give him much momentum.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was in this position last year and many thought that after his performance in the College Football Playoff that he deserved the award over eventual winner Derrick Henry, the running back from Alabama. As it stands, Watson could very well take it home this time with 3,914 yards and 37 touchdown passes.
One of the more unique candidates in years comes in the form of Michigan's Jabrill Peppers. Although he is technically listed as a defensive back, Peppers also plays outside linebacker and takes snaps on offense, where he has 170 rushing yards and three touchdowns. On defense, he's made 66 tackles, 13 for a loss, three sacks and an interception.
Then there are two entries from the same team, as Oklahoma will be represented by quarterback Baker Mayfield and wide receiver Dede Westbrook. Mayfield, a junior, has completed 71.2 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards and 38 touchdowns. Westbrook has caught 74 passes for 1,465 yards (19.8 ypr) and 16 touchdowns.
So there's plenty to choose from. Who will the voters go with?
5: Number of times, not including this year, where multiple players from the same team were invited to Heisman ceremony
In 2004 and ‘05, USC's Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush went. The Trojans’ duo was joined by a pair of Oklahoma Sooners in 2004 – Jason White and Adrian Peterson. In 2002, Miami's Willis McGahee and Ken Dorsey made the final cut, as did Ki-Jana Carter and Kerry Collins from Penn State in 1994.
8: Heisman winners between Oklahoma and Michigan
Mayfield and Westbrook will be gunning to be the sixth Heisman Trophy winner in Oklahoma school history, while Peppers would mark the fourth from Michigan.
0: Heisman winners from Clemson and Louisville
Either Watson or Jackson would be the first winner in his program's history.
1991: The last time a wide receiver won the Heisman
Westbrook will be facing long odds, as this is typically not an award that goes to receivers. The last one to win the trophy was Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991.
1997: The last time a defensive player won the award
Peppers would join elite company if he wins, as fellow Michigan legend Charles Woodson won the award as a cornerback for the Wolverines in 1997.
2: Number of Oklahoma quarterbacks who have won since 2003
A Mayfield win would make him the third Oklahoma quarterback to win since 2003, when Jason White won it for the Sooners. Sam Bradford took the honor in 2008.
9: Consecutive times a non-senior has won
Westbrook is the only hope to break this streak of non-seniors to win the award. The last senior to take home the trophy was Ohio State's Troy Smith in 2006.
50 percent: The amount of winners from the SEC over the last 10 years following this season
There will be no representative from the SEC this year, which means five out of the last 10 winners will have come from that conference.
7: Number of winners in the last 10 years whose team has been in the BCS title game or College Football Playoff
This bodes well for Watson, as the voters tend to look kindly upon players whose teams are in the running for big postseason success. Watson's Clemson team, along with Alabama, Ohio State and Washington, is in the final four.
3: Number of sophomores who have won the award
Jackson would make just the fourth sophomore in the history of the award to win, as Florida's Tim Tebow, Bradford and Alabama's Mark Ingram won from 2007-09.
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.
Breakout players or the emergence of new stars is an annual tradition for all 128 college football teams. However, with the focus shifting to the bowl season, it’s never too early to think about players that could use the postseason as a springboard to an even bigger 2017 campaign. Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, Kentucky running back Benny Snell, Stanford quarterback Keller Chryst and Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill are just a few names to watch this postseason, as all four finished the regular season playing at a high level and are poised to take another step forward in their bowl appearance.
Outside of the usual superstars and standouts already known throughout the college football world, which players should you keep an eye on this bowl season? Here are 20 names to remember:
20 Players on the Rise Entering CFB's 2016-17 Bowl Season
Alex Barnes, RB, Kansas State
Barnes missed Kansas State’s season finale due to injury, but the redshirt freshman emerged late in the year as the top running back for coach Bill Snyder. On eight carries against Oklahoma State, Barnes recorded 72 yards and followed up that performance with 129 yards against Baylor and 103 yards against Kansas. Barnes is averaging a healthy 7.9 yards per rush on 56 attempts. He’s also reached paydirt six times, with four of those scores coming against Baylor. The 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman will test a Texas A&M defense ranked eighth in the SEC against the run in the Texas Bowl.
Keller Chryst, QB, Stanford
With Christian McCaffrey expected to move on to the NFL after the Sun Bowl, the focus on Stanford’s offense shifts to running back Bryce Love and quarterback Keller Chryst for 2017. In an attempt to spark the offense, coach David Shaw replaced Ryan Burns with Chryst, who started the final five games of the season and ended the year with 837 passing yards and nine touchdowns. The sophomore did not throw an interception over the final four games and completed at least 56 percent of his passes during that span. With the extra bowl practices to prepare for North Carolina, will Chryst take a step forward in his development?
Bradley Chubb, DE, NC State
With names like DeMarcus Walker, Ejuan Price and Carlos Watkins stealing the spotlight in the trenches among ACC teams, Chubb has been largely overlooked on the national scene. The junior deserves some recognition for a standout 2016 campaign, as he recorded nine sacks, three forced fumbles and 20.5 tackles for a loss in 12 contests. Chubb will be a tough matchup for a Vanderbilt offensive line that allowed 27 sacks in 2016.
Rico Dowdle, RB, South Carolina
Coach Will Muschamp has a promising trio of freshmen to build around on offense over the next couple of years, as quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards all made an impact as freshmen this fall. Dowdle led the Gamecocks with 714 rushing yards and six touchdowns and also chipped in 14 catches for 47 yards. Adding to Dowdle’s impressive season was the fact he did not play in South Carolina’s first four games. The freshman will be critical to the upset hopes of the Gamecocks against USF – a team giving up over 200 rushing yards per game.
Nick Fitzgerald, QB, Mississippi State
Replacing Dak Prescott – the best player in school history – wasn’t going to be easy for coach Dan Mullen. While the Bulldogs had their share of ups and downs on offense, this unit came alive late in the season. Fitzgerald settled into the starting role and Mississippi State scored at least 35 points in five out of the final six games. The sophomore accounted for 367 total yards in the 55-20 win over rival Ole Miss and 391 in the Bulldogs’ 35-28 upset against Texas A&M. Fitzgerald is a rising star to watch this postseason and should begin 2017 as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.
Michael Gallup, WR, Colorado State
Colorado State’s offense ended the regular season on a tear. The Rams scored at least 37 points in each of their last five games, including 63 in a victory over Mountain West champion San Diego State. Gallup’s emergence has been a huge boost for a receiving corps that entered the year with question marks, as the former junior college recruit earned first-team All-Mountain West honors after grabbing 70 receptions for 1,164 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Chase Hansen, DB, Utah
Hansen started his Utah career at quarterback but shifted to safety last season. In his first full year as a starter in 2016, Hansen has been an impact defender for coordinator Morgan Scalley. The sophomore has recorded a team-high 86 tackles (7.5 for a loss), one sack, three interceptions, six pass breakups and three forced fumbles.
Quadree Henderson, WR, Pitt
Pat Narduzzi’s hire of Matt Canada as coordinator has paid big dividends for this offense. The Panthers rank second in the ACC by averaging 42.3 points a game and rank third by recording 6.67 yards per play. Canada didn’t inherit a wealth of proven options at receiver this offseason, but he’s effectively utilized the players in place, with Henderson emerging as a breakout player. The sophomore ranks second in the ACC by averaging 159.8 all-purpose yards per game and has scored 10 total touchdowns in 2016. Counting special teams, Henderson averages 16.1 yards per touch.
Justice Hill, RB, Oklahoma State
The Cowboys had a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2012, as Hill rushed for 1,042 yards and five scores on 187 attempts. The Tulsa native also ranked third among Big 12 players in conference-only games with 953 yards. Oklahoma State takes on a tough Colorado defense in the Alamo Bowl, but the emergence of Hill has provided some much-needed balance for coach Mike Gundy’s offense.
Harold Landry, DL, Boston College
The ACC has its share of talented defensive linemen, but Landry is a player deserving of more national recognition. The junior has wreaked havoc all year around the line of scrimmage, leading the Eagles in sacks (15), tackles for a loss (20.5) and forced fumbles (seven). Keeping Landry in check will be a tough assignment for a Maryland offensive line that’s allowed 41 sacks in 2016.
Gus Ragland, QB, Miami (Ohio)
After an 0-6 start, Miami (Ohio) rebounded to win its final six games and entered the final week of MAC play with a chance to win the East Division. A big reason for the six-game winning streak was the return of Ragland from an offseason ACL tear in April. The sophomore was almost flawless in his return, throwing for 1,274 yards and 15 touchdowns to zero interceptions. Ragland also chipped in two more scores and rushed for 151 yards on the ground. With Ragland at the controls, the RedHawks averaged 29.8 points per game – up from 17 through the first six contests.
Kyle Shurmur, QB, Vanderbilt
Shurmur’s development is a big reason why Vanderbilt reached a bowl for the first time under coach Derek Mason. The sophomore was a different quarterback in November, throwing for at least 200 yards in each of the Commodores’ last four games, including a career-high 416 in the 45-34 upset over Tennessee. Of Shurmur’s nine touchdown passes in 2016, six have come over the last five games.
Benny Snell, RB, Kentucky
For the first time in school history, Kentucky had two players reach 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Boom Williams accumulated 1,135 yards to lead the team, but freshman Benny Snell came on strong at the end of the year to record 1,057 yards and 13 scores. The freshman did not record a carry through the first two games, yet reached the 1,000-yard plateau thanks to 100 or more yards in four out of Kentucky’s final six contests. Snell and Williams should be able to add to that total in the TaxSlayer Bowl, as Georgia Tech’s defense ranks 10th in the ACC against the run.
Auden Tate, WR, Florida State
Florida State’s passing game has a tough matchup in the Orange Bowl against Michigan’s standout secondary. However, the month to prepare should help redshirt freshman quarterback Deondre Francois, especially in his rapport with young receivers Auden Tate and Nyqwan Murray. At 6-foot-5, Tate is a big target for Francois in the red zone, and the sophomore ranked second on the team with six touchdown grabs in 2016. Tate also caught 25 passes for 409 yards, leading all Florida State wide receivers by averaging 16.4 yards per catch.
Josiah Tauaefa, LB, UTSA
New coach Frank Wilson guided the Roadrunners to the first bowl trip in program history with a 6-6 regular season mark. One of the breakout performers for Wilson was redshirt freshman linebacker Josiah Tauaefa. In 12 games, Tauaefa led the defense with 104 tackles (7.5 for a loss), five sacks, one interception, one pass breakup and seven quarterback hurries. The redshirt freshman was all over the field for UTSA’s defense, and he’s going to be a key cog for this unit to slow down a New Mexico offense averaging 360.9 rushing yards per game.
Logan Wilson, LB, Wyoming
Wilson was an impact addition to Wyoming’s defense this season. The Casper native earned Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors after recording 88 tackles (7.5 for a loss), three sacks, three pass breakups and one forced fumble. The Cowboys have a tough matchup ahead in the Poinsettia Bowl against BYU’s standout running back Jamaal Williams, and this unit needs Wilson to be active around the line of scrimmage once again.
Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama
Cam Robinson attracts most of the accolades for Alabama’s offensive line, but Williams – a true freshman from California – is an emerging star and arguably one of the SEC’s top offensive linemen after just one year in Tuscaloosa. Williams started all 13 games for the Crimson Tide and helped this offense average 40.5 points a game. With Alabama taking on a talented Washington defense and either Clemson or Ohio State in a potential national championship matchup, Williams will be matched against some of the nation's top talent in the trenches.
Antoine Winfield Jr., DB, Minnesota
It’s no secret Minnesota’s secondary is going to be under attack in the Holiday Bowl against Washington State. The Cougars have attempted 613 passes this season, ranking third nationally behind Texas Tech and California. Quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks form one of the nation’s top pass-catch combinations, leading the offense to an average of 40.3 points a game. Winfield – the son of former Ohio State star Antoine Winfield – played in all 12 games for the Golden Gophers in 2016, recording 52 tackles (2.5 for a loss), three pass breakups and one interception. Containing Washington State’s pass-first attack isn’t going to be easy. However, Winfield figures to play a key role for coach Tracy Claeys, and the freshman is a name to remember for 2017.
Arion Worthman, QB, Air Force
Worthman replaced an injured Nate Romine in Air Force’s 31-21 victory over Fresno State on Oct. 28 and hasn’t looked back. The Illinois native has rushed for at least 63 yards in each of the last five games and has reached the end zone six times on just 109 carries. Worthman is averaging 5.5 yards per rush and has led the Falcons to 31 points or more in three out of the last four contests. The sophomore is still developing as a passer (16 of 29), but the future of Air Force’s offense is in good hands with Worthman at the controls. Against South Alabama’s run defense (allowing 212.1 ypg), Worthman could have a breakout performance in the Arizona Bowl.
The hype machine was working overtime for the Tennessee Volunteers prior to the 2016 season. This was supposed to be the year that Tennessee football returned to the national stage as a dominant force in college football. The expectations had been set and anything short of an SEC East title would be deemed a failed season.
While it wasn’t always pretty, Tennessee lived up to its lofty expectations early in the year. The Volunteers scored an impressive victory over Virginia Tech in the “Battle at Bristol,” knocked off Florida for the first time in 11 years and beat Georgia in dramatic fashion to get to 5-0. The season had reached a fevered pitch for the Vols.
Then came the injuries that would ultimately doom Tennessee’s chances of ever making it to Atlanta or beyond. Despite some great individual performances, the Vols would go on to lose four of their next seven games, including heartbreaking defeats to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Volunteers finished the regular season 8-4 and just 4-4 in the SEC. It certainly wasn’t the year Vol fans had hoped for, but Tennessee still has an opportunity to wrap up the 2016 season on a positive note in the Music City Bowl against Nebraska.
As we take a look back, it’s only fitting that we honor a few deserving players and celebrate the highlight moments, as well as document some of the low points in a roller-coaster season. Here are the 2016 Tennessee Volunteer Team Awards.
Offensive MVP: Joshua Dobbs, QB
Dobbs was the engine that powered the Tennessee offense in 2016. The Volunteers often lived and died based on his performance alone. More often than not, the dual-threat signal-caller shined, winning multiple player of the week honors in the process. He leads all SEC quarterbacks in touchdown passes (26) and passer rating (152.6).
Defensive MVP: Derek Barnett, DE
Barnett leads the SEC in sacks (12) and tackles for a loss (18). In just three seasons, the elite All-SEC performer has accumulated 32 sacks, tying him with the great Reggie White for the most in Tennessee history. He’s also a 2016 finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award (top defensive end) and projected as a top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Best Freshman: Tyler Byrd, WR/KR
Byrd hasn’t put up monster numbers in his first year on Rocky Top, but he is electric just about every time he touches the football. The speedy playmaker has made highlight-reel plays as a receiver, runner and return man in 2016. Many feel that Byrd’s future might lie at cornerback. Regardless of which side of the football he lines up on in 2017, he is sure to make an impact. Byrd’s talent and versatility ensure a bright future with the Vols.
Best Play of the Season: Hail Mary to Beat Georgia
Jacob Eason’s 47-yard touchdown strike to Riley Ridley with just 10 seconds remaining had all but ensured a Georgia win. Sanford Stadium erupted with cheers of victory. That’s when it happened. Joshua Dobbs launched an improbable 43-yard Hail Mary as time expired, Jauan Jennings emerged from the pile of Bulldog defenders in the end zone to make the catch, and the rest is Tennessee football history. It was the unquestionable highlight of the season, giving the Vols a 34-31 victory and a 5-0 start to the season.
Best Performance by a Player: Alvin Kamara vs. Texas A&M
It’s difficult to look past Joshua Dobbs’ performance against Missouri, but this one has to go to Kamara. His 312 all-purpose yards against the Aggies set a Tennessee record and ranked as the second most by an FBS player in 2016. Kamara also added three touchdowns (two rushing and one receiving). Although Tennessee ultimately lost the game in overtime, Kamara’s performance sparked one of the all-time great comebacks in school history.
Best Game: Tennessee 38, Florida 28
The win over Virginia Tech in the “Battle at Bristol” was great because of the setting and that it came in front of the largest crowd in college football history. The Georgia and Texas A&M games were spectacular in their own right as well. But it didn’t get any better for Vol fans than Tennessee’s second-half rally to erase a 21-point deficit, and end an 11-year losing streak to hated rival Florida at home.
Defining Moment: Joshua Dobbs' fumble vs. Vanderbilt
In a season chockfull of defining moments, none had a bigger effect on the Vols’ season than Dobbs’ fumble to end the third quarter against the Commodores. While Tennessee’s depleted defense was almost entirely to blame for the loss, the Volunteer offense could never regain traction following the untimely fumble. Tennessee never scored again, ultimately blowing a 34-31 lead and losing at Vanderbilt 45-34. In just one quarter, Tennessee went from a potential Sugar Bowl berth to the Music City Bowl.
Biggest Surprise: Jalen Hurd leaving the team
There had been rumblings that Hurd was unhappy with his role in Butch Jones’ system dating back to the 2015 season. But I’m not sure anyone expected Hurd to jump ship with just four games left in the regular season. The talented running back needed 440 yards to become Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher, which made his early departure all the more shocking.
Biggest Disappointment: Defense
It was anticipated that the Tennessee defense would be dominant under new coordinator Bob Shoop in 2016. While the Volunteer defense never really lived up to that billing at any point during the season, devastating injuries put the nail in the coffin down the stretch. The Vols’ “next man up” philosophy never took hold on defense, and Tennessee’s lack of depth was exposed in a big way en route to a historically bad year. The depleted Vols gave up a record 4,288 yards in eight SEC games (536 ypg). It almost made the Sal Sunseri catastrophe of 2012 seem tame in comparison.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Joshua Dobbs, QB
The loss of players like Cameron Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin will sting, just as it did this season following their injuries. The potential early departures of Derek Barnett, Alvin Kamara and Josh Malone would definitely be felt next season as well. But no one will be missed more than Dobbs. His contributions, both on the field and off the field, are irreplaceable. The senior quarterback will be sorely missed in 2017 and beyond. Dobbs will be remembered as one of the all-time greats at Tennessee.
Player to Watch in 2017: John Kelly, RB
The winner of Tennessee’s three-man race for the vacant quarterback position in 2017 will likely have a big impact next season. That being said, Kelly is already a proven commodity and sure to make his presence felt again next season. The hard-running sophomore has 560 rushing yards and four touchdowns entering the bowl game, along with six catches for 51 yards. His 6.7 yards per carry leads all Tennessee backs in 2016.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Defense
The quarterback position could fit in this spot too. Regardless, Butch Jones and Bob Shoop may be more hard-pressed to find an answer for Tennessee’s struggling defense next season. Several key players that missed time this season will return, but standouts such as Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton will be gone. Tennessee can ill afford a repeat of 2016 yet plenty of question marks reside on that side of the football.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
At 4-8, Notre Dame won’t be up for any team awards this season unless it’s of the most disappointing variety. But the Fighting Irish did play 12 games and certain performances will stick out to those faithful fans that endured the ugly 2016 season.
Offensive MVP: DeShone Kizer, QB
It was a season that Kizer would probably like to forget, starting with the quarterback shuffle at Texas and continuing with the criticism from his head coach after the Duke game and his benching for much of second half against Stanford. But the junior was still the offense’s best player, throwing for 2,925 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He is projected to be a high pick in the next spring’s NFL Draft and most wonder if we have seen the end of Kizer at Notre Dame.
Defensive MVP: James Onwualu, LB
The senior from St. Paul, Minn., was hardly the most talented player on the Notre Dame defense this fall. But he was the smartest Irish defender and played with passion despite loss after loss. Onwualu led the team with 11.5 tackles for lost yardage, was third on the team in tackles, and tied for second with three sacks. On a unit with few stars, Onwualu was the most impactful.
Best Freshman: Kevin Stepherson, WR
Defensive backs Devin Studstill, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn also merited consideration, but Stepherson is the choice after becoming a big-play threat in his first season in South Bend. The Florida native averaged 18.2 yards on his 25 receptions and had five touchdown catches. As he gains strength and develops confidence, Stepherson could become a go-to receiver for the Irish.
Best Play of the Season: Kizer to Equanimeous St. Brown on the First Series of the Year
Notre Dame received the opening kickoff of the season opener against Texas and drove right down the field. Tarean Folston set the Irish up with a 54-yard run and the series was finished off when Kizer connected with St. Brown on a back-shoulder fade in the end zone. After that, very little went right for the Irish all year.
Best Performance By a Player in 2016: Jarron Jones vs. Miami
In a year when the defense struggled, the senior defensive tackle’s play against the Hurricanes was the best individual performance of the season. Jones lived in the Miami backfield that day, registering six tackles for lost yardage and one sack. Beyond the numbers, his presence affected everything Miami did on offense.
Best Game (Team Performance): Beating Army 44-6
It speaks volumes that Notre Dame’s high point this season was a win over Army. The best team that Notre Dame beat was Miami, but in that game the Irish made key mistakes that allowed the Hurricanes to come back from a 20-point deficit. The game in San Antonio was Notre Dame’s most complete performance of the season.
Defining Moment: Special Teams Turnover in the Michigan State Game
Notre Dame led 7-0 and was set to get the ball back from Michigan State early in the second quarter. But on the punt, the ball struck Myles Boykin and was recovered by the Spartans, sparking a 36-point run by Michigan State. In a year filled with special teams blunders and mistakes leading to big runs by the opposition, no play epitomized the season more than that turnover.
Biggest Surprise: Freshmen Defensive Backs
Due to injuries, suspensions and poor play, Notre Dame had to rely heavily on three freshmen in the secondary. Devin Studstill, Donte Vaughn and Julian Love have a lot to learn, but their development during the course of the year was a pleasant surprise. There are a ton of issues going forward for Notre Dame, but there is now some hope on the back end of the defense.
Biggest Disappointment: Head Coach Brian Kelly
Just about every aspect of Notre Dame was disappointing this fall. But the decisions made by the head coach have to be the most discouraging. The handling of the quarterback situation, the retention and support of defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder after everyone knew it wasn’t working, the deflection of responsibility at every turn, and his overall demeanor summed up everything that was wrong with this Irish football season. Yes, the players were terrible. But when things go this wrong it starts with the guy in charge.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Jarron Jones, DT
Jones was not the most consistent performer for Notre Dame this season, but when he played his best, he was very good. As noted, he was dominant against Miami and was a challenge for most of the offensive linemen that he faced. Plus, he plays a position where the Irish are very thin. With Daniel Cage a question mark going forward due to concussion issues, the loss of Jones will be a big blow to the interior of the Notre Dame defensive line.
Player to Watch in 2017: Brandon Wimbush, QB
With Kizer probably heading to the NFL and Malik Zaire transferring, the Teaneck, N.J., product will have his shot to be Notre Dame’s quarterback in 2017. A talented athlete that was heavily recruited out of high school, Wimbush will be entering his third season and should be ready to go.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Coaching Staff Decisions
There is a vacancy at defensive coordinator and changes could be made on special teams and in the strength and conditioning program. Brian Kelly will enter 2017 on the hottest of hot seats and putting together the proper staff will be a key component to an Irish bounce-back.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.
What an interesting Week 13 it was in the NFL, with a pair of six-game winning streaks coming to a close and our first playoff spot officially clinched in the form of the Dallas Cowboys. The top of the league has been set for a while now but the middle class has had so much turnover that it’s hard to keep things straight.
With that in mind and factoring in everything from overall roster strength, to quarterback play, to the coaching staff, to injuries, here is the latest edition of NFL power rankings and where every team stacks up from 1 to 32.
Week 14 NFL Power Rankings
Last week: 1
There was no Thanksgiving hangover for the Cowboys, who got the triple shot of good news this week in the form of a win over Minnesota, the rest of the division going 0-3 and the first official playoff spot getting clinched.
2. New England Patriots
Last week: 2
The Patriots clinched their 14th consecutive season with at least 10 wins and show no signs of slowing down. Throttling the Rams had to be extra sweet as the team celebrated the 2001 title team and Tom Brady’s record 201st victory.
3. Oakland Raiders
Last week: 3
Even if Oakland is behind, these Raiders are never really out of a game as they proved against Buffalo. If Khalil Mack continues to improve each week, that once iffy defense won’t be such a big deal come the postseason.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Last week: 4
What a homecoming that was for Eric Berry, who had eight points by himself thanks to a pair of interceptions, the latter of which proved to be the deciding points in the fourth quarter. The AFC race for home-field advantage certainly seems like it will come down to the end thanks in part to Kansas City’s winning ways.
5. Seattle Seahawks
Last week: 5
This team isn’t invincible — by any stretch — given that offensive line but when it’s firing on all cylinders, there are few opponents that can stand in Seattle’s way.
6. Denver Broncos
Last week: 7
A nice romp over Jacksonville was a welcome confidence builder heading into the stretch run but it has to be concerning for Denver fans to see this team look further and further behind its division rivals as we hit December.
7. Detroit Lions
Last week: 9
We’re suddenly approaching the point where the Lions are not just going to make the playoffs but, barring something wild, they’re going to host a playoff game. That romp over New Orleans was far more impressive for what the defense did and may be the most encouraging thing for Lions fans going forward.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
Last week: 12
Yes they’re still on the outside looking in when it comes to making the playoffs but this is a team that is heating up at the right time (just like last season) and one nobody wants to face.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Last week: 11
The Ravens passed their first test in one of the most imposing gauntlets in the NFL during December with a win over Miami. If the team plays like that the rest of the way, the AFC North is going to be so much fun the next few weeks.
10. Atlanta Falcons
Last week: 6
They’re still atop the NFC South thanks to tiebreakers but have some real competition in the final few weeks of the regular season. If the Falcons end up missing the playoffs by some wild circumstance, Matt Ryan is going to kick himself for at least two of those throws against Kansas City.
11. New York Giants
Last week: 8
A six-game winning streak coming to a close on the road at Pittsburgh is nothing to get too excited about in New York but it seems pretty clear that hosting a playoff game is probably the only postseason scenario right now.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Last week: 16
That’s now five wins out of seven games since their bye, including victories over Seattle and Kansas City plus an overtime loss to Oakland. This team is trending upward with at least three winnable games left and a big showdown on Sunday night with Dallas in two weeks.
13. Miami Dolphins
Last week: 10
Losing to the Ravens isn’t a bad thing as Miami saw its long winning streak come to an end but getting boat-raced like that in Baltimore isn’t a good look. Question is, was that a blip on the radar or the team coming back down to earth?
14. Washington Redskins
Last week: 13
There are some bad spots to drop one on the road against struggling teams and Washington was the latest to walk right into one. That puts the Redskins on the outside of the playoff picture thanks to another winnable game they couldn’t come through with.
15. Buffalo Bills
Last week: 14
The team is back to .500 after a disastrous second half against the Raiders and there have to be more questions than answers for the regime at this point.
16. Tennessee Titans
Last week: 18
Talk about a productive bye week (which counts double since it’s a late-season breather), as the Texans’ loss opened the door even further for the Titans to make a move in the AFC South.
17. Green Bay Packers
Last week: 19
The visuals of Lambeau in the middle of snow flurries was a better sight than the two teams playing on the field. Aaron Rodgers said they’re going to have to win out to make the playoffs and that may just be true given where they sit in the postseason picture.
18. New Orleans Saints
Last week: 15
It seems like for every step forward the Saints take, they respond with one step back. Now the team faces the uphill battle of three of its last four away from the Superdome.
19. Philadelphia Eagles
Last week: 17
That early talk of playoffs always did seem a little premature given how this team is constructed. But most concerning from that performance at Cincinnati had to be the defensive lapses suffered in a third straight loss.
20. Arizona Cardinals
Last week: 22
It’s kind of amazing that this team is still in the mix to sneak into the playoffs but that was a quality win over Washington just seven days after an embarrassing trip to Atlanta. The question is can the Cardinals go across the country again and perform better on the road? We’ll see.
21. Houston Texans
Last week: 21
The bad news? That trip to the frozen tundra marked a fifth road loss in six tries. The good news: only two more games away from Houston the rest of the way.
22. Indianapolis Colts
Last week: 23
It’s hard to tell if that performance against the Jets was the start of a late run at the division or simply playing the Jets. Still, it’s hard to stop Andrew Luck when he’s rolling like he was on Monday night and good for him to return with a near-perfect quarterback rating.
23. San Diego Chargers
Last week: 20
If this is indeed a swan song for the Chargers in San Diego, things have certainly been one heck of a roller-coaster ride up and down the standings.
24. Cincinnati Bengals
Last week: 25
Where has that performance against the Eagles been all season? Sadly for Cincy, it won’t matter all that much in a season to otherwise forget.
25. Minnesota Vikings
Last week: 24
6-6 is not where anybody thought this team would be at the start of the season. Still, that was an encouraging effort against Dallas on Thursday night in the face of all those injuries and the fact that their head coach was in the hospital.
26. Carolina Panthers
Last week: 26
On the plus side, everybody in Carolina will be discussing Cam Newton’s non-start/dress code violation against Seattle this week instead of the team’s play on their West Coast road swing.
27. Chicago Bears
Last week: 29
There had to be at least a decent percentage of Bears fans who were not thrilled to sit out in those elements to see their team beat the 49ers — and in the process cost themselves a better position in next year’s draft.
28. Los Angeles Rams
Last week: 27
The NFL’s terrible timing award goes to the Rams, which saw news break of Jeff Fisher’s extension just before there lackluster showing against New England. If there is one bright spot, Jared Goff continued to look better even in the face of yet more drops from his wideouts.
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last week: 30
Blake Bortles called this season the biggest nightmare possible, which would be one thing if the loss to Houston didn’t clinch six straight seasons of double-digit losses.
30. New York Jets
Last week: 28
It goes beyond the quarterback and beyond the holes on defense. This is a terrible team that is more than ready for the draft process to get revved up.
31. San Francisco 49ers
Last week: 31
Sure the conditions on the road at Soldier Field weren’t great but the line between San Francisco and Cleveland continues to shrink by the week. At least the 49ers remained in the running for that No. 1 pick and kind of won by losing on Sunday.
32. Cleveland Browns
Last week: 32
The bye week was a blessing for Cleveland, which got to see decent NFL football on Sunday for one of the few times this season.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
Despite a three-point loss at Penn State on Oct. 22 that denied Ohio State the Big Ten East Division, Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer was able to keep his coaches and players focused on reaching the College Football Playoff. Ranked third heading into a Fiesta Bowl matchup against Clemson on New Year's Eve, the Buckeyes are ready to win their second national championship in three seasons of the playoff era.
Performances by quarterback J.T. Barrett, H-back Curtis Samuel, and many other newcomers are the reason why Ohio State can truly claim that the 2016 season was merely a reloading, and not a rebuild, after losing so many players from its talented '15 squad. While the 2015 team may have had more talent, the 2016 team is ready to achieve something that eluded its predecessor
Offensive MVP: Curtis Samuel, H-Back
Cited repeatedly by Urban Meyer as the most explosive player on the Ohio State roster, Samuel's versatility as a runner/receiver/punt returner is a crucial reason why the Buckeyes are bound for the College Football Playoff.
Defensive MVP: Malik Hooker, Safety
A redshirt sophomore, Hooker has made acrobatic interceptions that have been returned for touchdowns throughout the entire 2016 season.
Best Freshman: Michael Jordan, Offensive Lineman
With a team comprised of primarily freshmen or redshirt freshmen, this is a difficult selection, but Jordan gets the nod, having started on the offensive line from the first snap of the 2016 season.
Best Play Of The Season: Curtis Samuel's Run On 3rd-and-9 vs. Michigan
A screen play from J.T. Barrett to Samuel looked like a doomed play at the onset. Without Samuel's creativity, it is entirely possible Ohio State does not win that game against Michigan, and does not make the playoff.
Best Performance: Malik Hooker vs. Bowling Green
As stated up above, Hooker's flair for the dramatic was demonstrated in the season opener. The first interception showed the first glimpses of Hooker's athleticism, the second pick showcased Hooker's ability to weave through traffic with the ball in his hands.
Best Game: Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 in 2OT
Ohio State rallied from a 17-7 deficit to tie it up and force overtime against "That Team Up North". Back and forth it went, until Curtis Samuel scored on this dramatic touchdown run in the second overtime period.
Defining Moment: Ohio State's Road Win at Oklahoma
Ohio State won its first two games of the season against Bowling Green and Tulsa, but the 45-24 dominating win at Oklahoma in week three was the springboard for the Buckeyes to serve notice to the college football world that this was a young team that was a worthy playoff contender.
Biggest Surprise: Mike Weber, Running Back
Weber redshirted in 2015 due to a knee injury sustained during fall camp. With the departure of Ezekiel Elliott to the NFL, Weber was expected to emerge as the starting tailback, and he delivered with a 2016 campaign that featured 1,072 yards on the ground and nine rushing touchdowns.
Biggest Disappointment: Ohio State's Downfield Passing Game
Ohio State has a roster full of wide receivers who were heavily recruited by just about every major college football program around the country, but the Buckeyes were not able to consistently throw the ball this season.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Pat Elflein, Center
Playing at a critical position, Elflein moved to center from guard for the 2016 season and is a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, which is awarded to the best pivot in college football. No matter which player emerges at center in 2017, Elflein's consistency and leadership will be difficult to replace.
Player To Watch In 2017: Jordan Fuller, Safety
One of the highest-rated recruits in Ohio State's 2016 class, Fuller has played primarily in spot duty and on special teams as a true freshman. He could emerge as a starter in the secondary next season, especially if some of the defensive backs declare early for the 2017 NFL Draft.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Linebacker
The aforementioned secondary may wind up as the position group to keep an eye out for after the season concludes, but Raekwon McMillan and Chris Worley are both projected to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Jerome Baker will return at one of the outside linebacker positions, but the Buckeyes will need two players to emerge at this critical defensive position.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.
It was there for the taking.
Instead, thanks to a 28-27 loss to Duke on the same weekend Virginia Tech fell to Georgia Tech, plus a 28-21 loss to NC State in the final weekend of the regular season, the Tar Heels missed out on that opportunity to win the Coastal Division again.
That does not mean the season was a total loss, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky, in his first year as a starter, had a terrific season to the point where some consider him the top draft-eligible player at the position.
But for a team that returned a ton from 2015, one has to wonder what could have been with just a few different breaks.
Offensive MVP: Mitch Trubisky, QB
The junior stepped in this season and exceeded all expectations by completing 281-of-408 passes (68.9 percent) for 3,468 yards and 28 touchdowns to just four interceptions. Those around the program expected Trubisky to be capable, but it's hard to imagine anyone predicting the type of success he eventually had.
Defensive MVP: Nazair Jones, DT
The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder made his presence felt on the interior of the defensive line as one of the more disruptive forces in the conference. For the season, he made 62 tackles, 7.5 for a loss and recovered a fumble. The junior has yet to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft, but it's possible he won't return.
Best Freshman: Aaron Crawford, DT
After a season-ending injury from a foot fracture in 2015, Crawford returned and paired with Jones to give the Tar Heels a capable duo in the middle of the defensive line. The 6-foot-1, 310-pounder made 38 tackles with a sack and 1.5 tackles for a loss.
Best Play of the Season: Nick Weiler's 54-yard game-winning field goal against Florida State
With the Tar Heels trailing, 35-34, late in its game at Doak Campbell Stadium against Florida State, Weiler drilled a 54-yard field goal as time expired to give the Tar Heels a shocking, 37-35 win. The victory ended a 22-game home winning streak for the Seminoles.
Best Performance (Player): Ryan Switzer vs. Pittsburgh
Switzer proved all year long to be one of the best wide receivers in the ACC, and his showing against Pittsburgh serves as just one example. He caught 16 passes for 208 yards (13.0 average) with 58- and 19-yard touchdowns mixed in.
Best Game (Team): North Carolina 37, Florida State 35
Although Weiler's field goal will be what is most remembered, it should be noted that the Tar Heels, for the most part, dominated much of this game, as they held leads of 21-7 and 28-14. Against a team that finished with a 9-3 record and NFL talent all over the field, it remains easily the team's best accomplishment of the season.
Defining Moment: Losing to Duke on Nov. 10
At the end of the day, North Carolina not being able to win the Coastal Division despite being in position to do so down the stretch will be the main regret for this team. The 28-27 loss at Duke and the 28-21 home loss to NC State, both losses to in-state rivals, will sting for a while.
Biggest Surprise: Cole Holcomb, LB
The former walk-on made just 15 tackles in 2015, but broke out with an excellent sophomore campaign where he finished with 105 tackles, 4.5 for a loss and a sack. At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, the New Smyrna Beach, Fla., native will be counted on to lead the defense in 2017.
Biggest Disappointment: Not winning the ACC Coastal
It's been mentioned before, but bears repeating: This team returned enough to make the splash and return to the ACC title game but failed to do so. The talent, experience and coaching were all sufficient, but the Tar Heels simply didn't make the plays when they needed to in winnable games.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Ryan Switzer, WR
There may not be a more reliable receiver in program history, as he will leave Chapel Hill as the school's all-time leader in receptions. He caught a school-record 91 passes this season for 1,027 yards and five touchdowns this season and finishes his career with 18 touchdown receptions.
Player to Watch in 2017: Malik Carney, DE
Assuming Trubisky goes pro, this 6-foot-3, 230-pounder could be the main player to keep an eye on for 2017. As a redshirt sophomore this season, Carney flashed his potential with 43 tackles, 6.5 tackles for a loss and a team-high 4.5 sacks.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Replacing QB Mitch Trubisky
Although it may seem repetitive, Trubisky had a fantastic season that will be tough to replicate if he leaves early. There are other issues, namely whether or not the defense can show improvement, but filling the hole left by Trubisky's potential departure is the most important.
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.
Skip Bayless is known around the world for his piping hot takes and brash tone, both on TV (formerly of ESPN and now FS1) and on Twitter. However, there is a lot more than meets the eye with the First Take and Undisputed media personality. Here are 10 things that you (probably) didn’t know about Skip Bayless.
1. He was born John Edward Bayless II, but his parents began calling him Skip at an early age. Eventually, he had his name legally changed to Skip.
2. Skip was born in Oklahoma City and grew up there. His parents owned a barbecue restaurant in the city called “Hickory House”.
3. At his high school, Northwest Classen, Bayless was the salutatorian and became a sports columnist for the school paper during his junior and senior years.
4. Upon graduation he was awarded the Grantland Rice scholarship (named after the legendary sportswriter) to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
5. At Vanderbilt, Bayless served as the sports editor for the Vanderbilt Hustler, the school’s publication. He was also a member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity, spending two years as the organization’s sports director.
6. After graduating cum laude from Vanderbilt in 1974, Skip worked for several newspapers in major cities including the Miami Herald, Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times Herald and the Chicago Tribune.
7. Bayless won the Texas Sportswriter of the Year award, voted on by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, three separate times.
8. His first full-time TV gig was alongside Woody Paige in the “1st and 10” segment of the show Cold Pizza on ESPN2. Cold Pizza was later succeeded by First Take.
9. Skip is 65 years old, born Dec. 4, 1951, to be exact.
10. Bayless has a cameo in “Rocky Balboa”, the film released in 2006. In it, he calls Balboa “completely overrated” on a 1st and 10 segment with Woody Paige and Jay Crawford.
Although the 2016 regular season campaign did not end the way many in Husker Nation would have liked it to, the Nebraska Cornhuskers showed significant progress -- both in terms of adapting to head coach Mike Riley's culture and system as well as in the win column.
The progress was driven by the individual performances and overall improvements of several Nebraska players, combined with some memorable moments throughout the season.
Offensive MVP: Tommy Armstrong, QB
This was not about stats -- it was about reality and the eye test. Nebraska was a different team when Armstrong was out of the game or not at 100 percent. His skill set and leadership were on full display against Oregon and Minnesota. He willed his team to victories in those games.
Defensive MVP: Nate Gerry, DB
Gerry evolved into one of the best safeties in college football over the last two years. He became an enforcer and intimidating presence in the secondary as well as a key asset in defending the run. He had some very timely interceptions and was perhaps the surest tackler on the Blackshirt defense.
Best Freshman: Tre Bryant, RB
Bryant rose from the bottom of the depth chart to essentially become the No. 2 option at running back before season's end. He showed flashes of elite playmaking ability both out of the backfield and on special teams.
Best Play of the Season: Armstrong's Game-Winning Run Against Oregon
The senior quarterback put the Nebraska team on his back and carried them 34 yards to victory in a game that felt like it was always going to set the tone for the season.
Best Performance: Armstrong vs. Minnesota
The Huskers quite simply don't win the game without Armstrong. Statistically, he had better games in 2016. That said, his 70 percent completion rate and 6.8 yards per carry were the difference for Nebraska in a one-score game.
Best Game: Nebraska 24, Northwestern 13
The Huskers soundly defeated what eventually proved to be a solid Northwestern squad. It was a total team effort on both sides of the ball, as Nebraska topped 300 yards rushing on offense and were in Northwestern's backfield the entire night on defense.
Defining Moment: Armstrong carried off the field against Minnesota
Having just scrambled for what was essentially the game-winning touchdown, Armstrong came up hobbling. His offensive line quickly came to his aid and carried him to the sideline. If it wasn't clear before, Armstrong had become the face of Nebraska football and his team felt obligated to finally carry him when he needed help -- as opposed to the other way around.
Biggest Surprise: The Play of the Defensive Line
New defensive line coach John Parrella seemed to light a fire under a unit that was feared by many (including myself) to be the team's biggest weakness before the season started. By midseason, it was apparent that the unit was in fact one of the team's strengths.
Biggest Disappointment: Devine Ozigbo, RB
Late last season and early in the 2016 campaign, Ozigbo looked as if he was about to rise up and become Nebraska's next great workhorse at running back. Injuries and some unexplained absences in games prevented that from happening.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Tommy Armstrong, QB
No brainer. The system wasn't designed for his skill set, but his leadership and playmaking ability allowed Nebraska to thrive offensively when he was on the field. Armstrong was the right man at the right time during a significant transition in Husker history.
Player to Watch in 2017: Chris Jones, DB
Jones will return for his senior season and will be the most talented and seasoned players in the Nebraska secondary. His play during the first half of 2016 was a little better than in the second, but that may very well have been part of what motivated him to return. He's a prototypical lockdown corner with the size and speed to match up with any skill position player. His ability to play on an island will give Nebraska's defense much more freedom schematically.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Improving Aggressiveness in the Trenches
Two of Nebraska's three losses were a result of being outmuscled at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Personnel-wise, not much is going to change on either line for Nebraska heading into 2017. Defensively, it's just a matter of changing attitude. On offense, however, Mike Riley must now give serious thought about transitioning away from the current balanced attack that catered to Tommy Armstrong's skills to a more pass-heavy scheme. Constantly having your offensive line in pass-protection mode is not the way to set the tone and control the line of scrimmage -- especially in the Big Ten. Given that, it's tough to tell how Riley is going to adapt his offense to fit his future signal-callers while simultaneously conforming to life in a blue-collar conference.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
In looking ahead to the next three weeks, fantasy owners need to make the best decisions possible when it comes to setting up their lineup. It's always hard because nothing is a sure thing when it comes to fantasy football. However, in looking at history so far this season, we can attempt to predict the outcomes of the games in Weeks 14-16.
In order to be sure your fantasy team can win three more games, here is some analysis of the upcoming schedules for the wide receiver, tight end and defense/special teams (DST) positions.
Good: Washington, Los Angeles, Atlanta, San Diego
No team has a "best" schedule, but four teams have pretty good ones, meaning they have at least two matchups with teams in the top 10 in terms of most fantasy points allowed to opposing wide receivers. The Rams get Seattle in Week 15, but that game is bookended by matchups with Atlanta and San Francisco, both among the top five most generous teams for opposing wide receivers. It's hard to trust any Los Angeles offensive player (including Todd Gurley), but Tavon Austin may have some value in the playoffs, provided he’s healthy.
It's no secret fantasy owners are starting Julio Jones, but any other Falcons WR is too hard to trust. For the Redskins, DeSean Jackson and Jamison Crowder face Carolina and Chicago in Weeks 15 and 16, both of which are good matchups. Both are still available in at least 15 percent of leagues, so if they are available in yours, pick them up.
For the Chargers, Travis Benjamin is available in more than 40 percent of fantasy leagues and Tyrell Williams is available in more than 20 percent. They face Carolina and Oakland in the first two weeks of the fantasy playoffs. Williams has been the top receiver while Benjamin was out with a knee injury, but the former is dealing with a shoulder injury of his own. Both may have WR2 value throughout the fantasy playoffs.
Bad: Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville
The good news for the Colts and Jaguars is that even though they have two tough matchups in the first two weeks of the playoffs, the outlook is more appealing in Week 16. However, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Allen Robinson owners do have to get through those two tough weeks first. Both teams play Houston and Minnesota in the first two weeks, a pair of defenses that have made life very difficult on opposing wide receivers.
DeAndre Hopkins and the Texans face Jacksonville and then Cincinnati in Weeks 15 and 16. Hopkins has struggled all year, and at this point, if fantasy owners got to the playoffs in spite of him, they have a tough road ahead. He has still put up points against tough defenses and is understandably tough to bench, but in non-PPR leagues he has been a disappointment.
Baltimore faces New England and Pittsburgh in Weeks 14 and 16. Fantasy owners may choose to employ Steve Smith Sr. or Mike Wallace as WR3 or flex options, and they should be ok in those games. The Ravens have struggled offensively all year (save for Week 13), but those two matchups aren't terrible. When Wallace last played Pittsburgh in Week 9, he had four receptions for 124 yards and a touchdown. The matchups aren't great, but Smith and Wallace should at least be serviceable.
This may comfort those A.J. Green owners who lost their WR1 to injury, as he’s not expected back for the fantasy playoffs. It’s also bad news of any owners who have or recently added Brandon LaFell or Tyler Boyd to their teams. These two have the worst playoff schedule for wide receivers. They face Pittsburgh and Houston in Weeks 15 and 16, both of which are in the top five in terms of fewest fantasy points allowed to the position. Fantasy owners likely didn't count on either of them to get to the playoffs, and it may be best to simply drop them and add someone with more upside.
Best: Chicago, San Diego
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, Chicago doesn't exactly have a tight end to use with Zach Miller (broken foot) done for the season. However, Antonio Gates – and even Hunter Henry owners – should be happy because the Chargers have games against Carolina, Oakland and Cleveland on tap for Weeks 14-16. These teams are among the top 10 in terms of most fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends. However, neither tight end took advantage of another similar appealing matchup (at Atlanta in Week 7), so that’s something to keep in mind.
Good: Greg Olsen, Carolina; C.J. Fiedorowicz, Houston
In Week 13, Fiedorowicz led the Texans in targets. Although it was Ryan Griffin that caught the touchdown, Fiedorowicz has had at least four receptions in each of the last three games. In the fantasy playoffs, he faces Indianapolis in Week 14 and Cincinnati in Week 16, both of which are in the top 10 for fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends. The last time Fiedorowicz faced Indianapolis (Week 6) he posted six receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. He's available in 60 percent of leagues and should be picked up for owners that need a fill-in tight end.
Olsen owners should be happy to see that he faces Washington and Atlanta. The last time he faced Atlanta (Week 4), he had six receptions for 76 yards and a touchdown. When he faces Atlanta again in Week 16, fantasy owners can hope for a similar stat line to lead them to a championship.
Bad: Jimmy Graham, Seattle; Jared Cook, Green Bay
Cook had one good game, and that's been it. He has a bad playoff schedule, and that should be enough for fantasy owners to either drop him for a better option or leave him on the waiver wire. Graham owners, however, should be a little nervous. The Seahawks face the Packers, Rams and Cardinals in the playoffs. The matchup in Green Bay is a good one, but the Rams are in the bottom 10 teams for fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends, while the Cardinals have given up the fewest to the position. Graham had five receptions for 53 yards against Arizona in Week 7. That is the best game a tight end has had against the Cardinals, as they have yet to surrender a touchdown to a TE this season.
Ugly: Delanie Walker, Tennessee; Martellus Bennett, New England
The Titans face Denver in Week 14 followed by Kansas City. Both of these defenses are among the league’s best overall and have limited the damage done by opposing tight ends. Walker has struggled in tough matchups for his position this year (just two catches for 34 yards against Houston, for example). While this isn't a reason to bench Walker, it may be enough to consider picking up the aforementioned C.J. Fiedorowicz, who has a great playoff schedule (or Vance McDonald for Week 15 vs. Atlanta).
Bennett owners have been disappointed by his performance recently, as Rob Gronkowski is no longer a factor when it comes to targets. The Patriots face Baltimore and Denver in the first two weeks of the playoffs, and this should be enough reason to bench Bennett and find a better option. He's been dealing with an ankle injury, and obviously it is limiting him on the field.
Defense/Special Teams (DSTs)
Best: Atlanta, Seattle
For fantasy owners looking to grab a DST to stick with through the fantasy playoffs, Atlanta is the way to go. Seattle is already widely owned, but faces teams in Weeks 15 and 16 (Los Angeles and Arizona) who are in the top five in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing DSTs. The Falcons have three such matchups – Rams, 49ers and Panthers. Atlanta hasn’t been an amazing or all that productive DST this season, but that could change during the fantasy playoffs.
For fantasy owners that have been sticking with a solid DST but are looking at bad matchups (Kansas City, Week 14 vs. Oakland for example), some options include Miami for Weeks 14 and 15, Cincinnati for Week 14, Buffalo for Week 15, and New England for Week 16.
Worst: New York Giants, Baltimore
Most fantasy owners likely aren't using the Giants DST, but if they are, the schedule is not fantasy-friendly. The G-Men face Dallas, Detroit and Philadelphia in the fantasy playoffs, all three of which are in the top ten for fewest fantasy points allowed to DSTs. Some fantasy owners may own the Ravens, however. They face the Patriots, Eagles and Steelers in Weeks 14-16. Like Philadelphia, New England and Pittsburgh have not been cooperative to allowing DSTs to rack up the fantasy points. Those who have relied on Baltimore to get them to the playoffs may want to look for another option.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
Fantasy owners are either looking at the last week of the regular season or the first week of the playoffs as we enter Week 14 of the NFL season. By this point, the squad that got you to the playoffs should lead you through. However, for some fantasy owners, they are facing tough matchups and are looking to the waiver wire for fill-ins.
The most important pickup is still running back handcuffs. Be sure your star is handcuffed, and if you have an extra roster spot, grab another fallback option. You just never know.
Matt Barkley, QB, Chicago Bears (3 percent owned)
It's a tough sell, but Barkley faces the Detroit Lions, who do allow fantasy points to opposing quarterbacks. Drew Brees’ owners are going to scoff at that notion, but Brees did have 326 passing yards and three interceptions. The Lions have been tougher against opposing quarterbacks recently and it's not like Barkley lit up the 49ers, but he is an option in two-QB leagues for Week 14. Chicago faces Green Bay in Week 15, which is another good matchup, for those who may be interested.
Ameer Abdullah, RB, Detroit Lions (10 percent owned)
This is simply a flyer for those that either have an available IR spot or an empty spot at the end of their roster. The best running back pickups are handcuffs. Abdullah may return at some point this season, but it won't be Week 14. Fantasy owners may not even feel comfortable starting him in their potential fantasy championship, but if you have the roster spot, take a chance on Abdullah.
Malcolm Mitchell, WR, New England Patriots (29 percent owned)
Fantasy owners chasing the two-touchdown performance in Week 12 were rewarded with eight receptions for 82 yards in Week 13. With Rob Gronkowski out, someone had to step up. Martellus Bennett has been struggling, so Mitchell has become Tom Brady’s new target. With Danny Amendola out, Mitchell has a role in a pass-happy, high-scoring offense. He's a solid WR3 for the rest of the season.
Ladarius Green, TE, Pittsburgh Steelers (23 percent owned)
Green has slowly gotten more involved in the Steelers’ offense since returning to the field in Week 10. He had six receptions for 110 yards and a touchdown in Week 13, and he saw 11 targets, the most on the team. Pittsburgh faces Buffalo in Week 14, followed by Cincinnati. The Bengals are among the top five teams in terms of fantasy points allowed to opposing tight ends. Delanie Walker owners should take note, as Walker has a very tough playoff schedule.
Cincinnati Bengals (31 percent owned) DST and Atlanta Falcons (15 percent owned) DST
The Bengals face the Browns in Week 14, and that’s all that needs to be said. It should come as no surprise that Cleveland has been generous to opposing DSTs this season. It is possible Robert Griffin III makes his return in Week 14, although it's not clear if that is a plus or a minus as it relates to a DST’s outlook.
The Falcons have one of the best playoff schedules for a DST. While Atlanta does not have an imposing defense, the Falcons have been putting up points and they face the Rams, 49ers and Panthers in the playoffs. All three of those teams are among the top 10 in most fantasy points allowed to opposing DSTs. Fantasy owners streaming DSTs could do worse than the Falcons for the playoffs.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
(Malcolm Mitchell photo courtesy of Getty Images)
So you've been asked by your buddies to set up or join a Yahoo College Bowl Pick'em game or ESPN's Bowl Mania. But you have no clue what to name your team, group, or what a witty slogan might be. Don't worry, we've got you covered.
Here's a quick rundown of some of our favorite funny, clever, and stupid names that will hopefully inspire you to great college bowl-picking success.
The Glory Bowl
Making Bowls Great Again!
I Came In Like a Wrecking Bowl
Harbaugh's Dad Pants
Bowlin', Bowlin', Bowlin'
Lamar, Mr. Jackson if You're Nasty
I Shaved My Bowls for This?
Championship of Life Bowl
The Bowling Stones
Kicked in the Bowls
We've Got a Nick Chubb-y
Muschamp's Temper Tantrums
Keeping Up with the Cardale Joneses
Kingsbury Skinny Jeans
Toilet Bowl Bound
Smoke a Fat Bowl
Sumlin's Gotta Give
SEC Bowling Team
Any variation of Deez Nutz
Athlon Sports recaps Championship Week and breaks down the final Playoff rankings. Don't forget to subscribe here and rate us if you like (or don't like) what you hear!
- Alabama is boring and Clemson is really good. In fact, the Tigers might be the best team in the nation not named Alabama.
- Does Ohio State belong in the Playoff despite not winning the Big Ten? Did the Committee set a scheduling precedent by rewarding Washington? Is Michigan the fourth-best team in the nation?
- Is there really a "brand" or "TV ratings" bias on the Committee?
- What other bowl matchups are we looking forward to (I can give you one I do want to watch).
- Coaching Turnover: Is there a solution to the timing with which coaches take new jobs? The coaches and the players are blameless, so whose fault is it? And can it be fixed?
Fantasy owners that have made the playoffs are now looking ahead to the main prize –the fantasy championship. At this point, the season consists of three wins. That's it. Teams likely need at least eight wins in order to make the playoffs in their respective league, so what's three more? Everything!
In order to be sure your fantasy team can win three more games, here is some position-by-position analysis of the upcoming Week 14, 15 and 16 schedules. Below you can find the breakdown on quarterbacks and running backs.
Best: Philip Rivers, San Diego
The Chargers will face Carolina, Oakland and Cleveland in Weeks 14-16. All three of those defenses are in the top 10 in terms of most fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks. While two of those games are road games (Carolina and Cleveland) and require a west coast team to travel east, the matchups are great for Rivers. Currently, Rivers is in the top 15 in scoring at his position. He is a great backup option for Tom Brady (who faces Denver in Week 15) or Aaron Rodgers owners (see below). Admittedly, the chances of Rivers being available at this point are probably slim to none.
Good: Matt Barkley, Chicago; Brock Osweiler, Houston; Sam Bradford, Minnesota
Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the quarterbacks that have good fantasy matchups in the playoffs are the ones that no one wants to start. Barkley plays Detroit and Green Bay, both of whom are among the most generous defenses in fantasy points allowed to opposing quarterbacks. Osweiler faces Indianapolis in Week 14, which is a great matchup. Bradford plays Indianapolis in Week 15 and Green Bay in Week 16. It's going to be hard to trust any of them, but if fantasy owners are desperate – or willing to take a gamble, they're out there.
Bad: Ryan Tannehill, Miami; Blake Bortles, Jacksonville
Most fantasy owners didn't get to the playoffs because of Tannehill or Bortles, however, if they did, they should be on the lookout for better options to finish the deal. Tannehill faces Arizona, the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills in Weeks 14-16. The Cardinals are in the top five and the Bills are in the top 10 in terms of fewest fantasy points given up to QBs. In tough matchups in the past, Tannehill has struggled (186 yards, no touchdowns against Seattle; 204 yards, one touchdown against Buffalo earlier this year).
Bortles faces the Vikings, who have shut down quarterbacks, in Week 14, followed by the Texans in Week 15. While Bortles does excel in getting fantasy points in garbage time, he's going to be hard to trust, especially in Week 14. Fantasy owners that have used Bortles to get into the playoffs should be thankful, but look for another quarterback to take over.
Ugly: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
Unfortunately for Rodgers owners, the Packers have the worst playoff schedule. Rodgers draws Seattle in Week 14 and Minnesota in Week 16, two of the stingiest teams in fantasy points allowed to quarterbacks. Both of those games are in Green Bay, which is a plus for Rodgers, but fantasy owners should be a little nervous, especially if the weather becomes a factor and his hamstring injury lingers. The last time he played Minnesota (Week 2), he threw for 213 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Rodgers is second in fantasy points among all players, but his owners should be a little wary heading into the playoffs.
Best: Jeremy Hill, Cincinnati
The Bengals play Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Houston in the fantasy playoffs. All three are in the top ten in terms of most fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs. The Browns and the Steelers are among the top five most generous, depending on league scoring. Hill has been maddeningly inconsistent, but those who have stuck with him and are in the playoffs may have their patience rewarded.
Good: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina; Todd Gurley, Los Angeles; Isaiah Crowell, Cleveland
Good matchups are music to fantasy owners’ ears, especially those who have suffered through Gurley's struggles. The Rams, as well as the Panthers and Browns have good fantasy matchups over the next three weeks.
In Stewart’s case, Carolina will face San Diego and Atlanta in Weeks 14 and 16. Both teams are in the top 10 in terms of fantasy points given up to opposing running backs. Stewart hasn't had a 100-yard rushing game yet, but he’s shown somewhat of a knack for getting into the end zone and should continue to see plenty of opportunities.
A consensus first-round pick, Gurley has been a gigantic disappointment this season. But if his owners were able to get into the fantasy playoffs in spite of him, the investment may finally pay off. Los Angeles has games against Atlanta and San Francisco on top in Weeks 14 and 16. Both of those defenses have struggled against the run and are among the top five in most fantasy points allowed to running backs.
As for Cleveland, it's not clear that Crowell will be the lead back moving forward. Duke Johnson may have a bigger role as the Browns are at the end of a lost season. Those who own Crowell or are looking for some depth at RB may want to consider picking up Johnson. The bottom line is that whoever gets the touches will be in a good position to do some damage, especially in Week 16 when Cleveland faces San Diego. Will a Brown lead your team to a fantasy championship? Probably not, but someone like Crowell or possibly Johnson may be able to contribute to that goal.
Bad: Rob Kelley, Washington; Rashad Jennings, New York Giants
Both of these backs are probably not starting running backs for playoff teams, but if they are, their schedules are tough. Kelley had a three-game stretch of great games, but that is likely probably it for the season. He has struggled since and still has games against Carolina and Chicago on tap for Weeks 15 and 16. While both of those matchups may not appear daunting on paper, both defenses have among the 10 teams that have given up the fewest fantasy points to opposing running backs this season.
Jennings has been disappointing for fantasy owners all year with injuries one of the reasons, and the playoffs should be no exception. The Giants face Dallas in Week 14, which is a tough matchup. They then face Detroit in Week 15, which isn't much better. If Jennings is on a playoff roster, he probably should stay on the bench.
Ugly: Theo Riddick, Detroit; Thomas Rawls, Seattle
Riddick isn’t exactly a top-flight fantasy RB to begin with, although he’s more valuable in PPR leagues, and his production may take a dip over these next few weeks. The Lions will play both Chicago and Dallas, both of which have been among the stingiest defenses for running backs this season. And while Rawls is coming off of a monster game (106 rushing yards, 2 TDs) that his owners have been waiting all season for, the upcoming schedule didn’t do him any favors either. The Seahawks will face NFC West foes Los Angeles and Arizona in Weeks 15 and 16, two brutal matchups. The last time Rawls faced the Rams was in Week 2 when he rushed for negative seven (-7) yards. That’s not the type of production you can afford in the fantasy playoffs if you hope to win a championship.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
Well, that was fun.
We're down to four teams to decide which one will be the champion of the wacky 2016 college football season. It's pretty cut and dry, right?
As always in college football, controversy reigns supreme this time of year – especially when it comes to the four-team College Football Playoff. And as always, the teams that will compete for the sport's national championship have been decided by opinion. That doesn't sit well with me, and it shouldn't sit well with you.
Because of that, I annually author and edit my plan for a 16-team College Football Playoff and demonstrate what it would look like during the current year. My plan gives every FBS team in the nation a clear road to qualify for the playoffs and win a national title while also leaving room for the personal opinions of a dozen or so people in a hotel in Dallas.
As great as the College Football Playoff is, the players, coaches and fans deserve better. My plan is simply better.
First and foremost, I'm tired of hearing about one of the main arguments against a 16-team playoff. It has to do with academics and finals and the worry about how to not let those things fall by the wayside. The problem is, the lower divisions make it work and somehow maintain their academic integrity. To help make my plan work – and in the interest of player safety – you eliminate one non-conference game and play an 11-game regular season. Teams would play nine conference opponents and two non-conference opponents. You could go eight and three as well. That part really doesn't matter.
My plan also allows Notre Dame and anyone else that wishes to do so to remain independent. Rest easy, Irish fans. You still get to act like you're better than us.
The plan for a 16-team playoff is fairly simple. You start by giving all 10 FBS conference champions an automatic bid. You then look to the same College Football Playoff committee rankings you have in place now to determine the six at-large teams. They are simply the top six teams in the rankings that did not win their conference.
You then seed them according to the final rankings. This season, 13 of your 16 participants are in the top 25. Naturally, those teams would get the top 13 seeds. The 14th through 16th seeds would go to the remaining four Group of 5 champions, who would be seeded according to the committee. Too easy. For this exercise, I am the committee.
Once the teams are seeded, the Round of 16 will be played on the home field of the higher-seeded team — just like the lower levels of college football. The quarterfinal games would be played as four of the six New Year's Six Bowls, which leaves two bowls open to the top four teams that did not qualify for the playoff. The semifinal and championship rounds would rotate every year to different neutral sites.
Here is what a 16-team bracket would look like in 2016:
No. 16. Appalachian State (Sun Belt) vs. No. 1 Alabama (SEC)
No. 9 USC (At-large) vs. No. 8 Wisconsin (At-large)
No. 12 Western Michigan (MAC) vs. No. 5 Penn State (Big Ten)
No. 13 Temple (AAC) vs. No. 4 Washington (Pac-12)
No. 14 San Diego State (MW) vs. No. 3 Ohio State (At-large)
No. 11 Florida State (At-large) vs. No. 6 Michigan (At-large)
No. 10 Colorado (At-large) vs. No. 7 Oklahoma (Big 12)
No. 15 Western Kentucky (C-USA) vs. No. 2 Clemson (ACC)
Look at that! A beautiful, 16-team tournament full of every champion in the land and six other quality football teams! And look at some of those matchups, not only in the first round, but potential ones right through the quarterfinals and semis.
Not only that, but you'd still have some potential fantastic matchups in the two New Year's Six Bowls that weren't part of the playoff. Those two bowls would have any combination of these four teams: Oklahoma State, Auburn, Louisville and West Virginia.
It's easy. It works. It would be a success. But right now, it's a pipe dream. Right now, we don't care about much in college football outside of impressing the playoff committee members. Right now, a team that didn't even win its division – much less its conference – is playing for a national title while its conference champion watches from home (or Pasadena).
In the meantime, every other level of college football has a better way of deciding a champion.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The 2016 season was supposed to be one to remember for the LSU Tigers with 18 starters returning after finishing 9-3 a season ago. LSU was not only a preseason national title contender but thought of as perhaps the only team that could take down perennial college football juggernaut Alabama. Once the dust settled on the field, the Tigers ended the year 7-4 ranked No. 19 in the AP poll, a far cry from their preseason No. 5 ranking.
A 2-2 start with losses against Wisconsin (16-14) and Auburn (18-13) signaled the end of an era in Baton Rouge. After the road loss to the SEC West’s other Tigers, Les Miles was dismissed and replaced by interim head coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron rallied the team to a 5-2 finish, holding No. 1 Alabama to 10 points before falling while beating Missouri, then-No. 23 Ole Miss, Arkansas, and No. 22 Texas A&M. The stunner was a 16-10 home loss to No. 21 Florida, a game initially scheduled to be played on Oct. 8 in The Swamp but was postponed and relocated due to Hurricane Matthew.
Through the good and the bad, LSU remained LSU with a top-20 rushing attack and a top-15 defense, and at times looked the part of a team no one wanted to face. Orgeron proved his worth and had the interim label removed despite rumors circulating of the Tigers’ interest in former Houston head coach Tom Herman, who was eventually hired by Texas.
Offensive MVP: Derrius Guice, RB
Before the season began, Leonard Fournette was a shoo-in to make it to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. After a nagging ankle injury limited Fournette, Guice emerged as LSU’s best player. The sophomore led the team and finished second in the SEC with 1,249 rushing and was tied for the conference lead with 14 touchdowns on the ground. Meanwhile, Fournette ran for 843 yards and eight touchdowns in seven games.
Defensive MVP: Kendell Beckwith, LB
Beckwith is an absolute beast. The senior linebacker followed up his 84-tackle 2015 campaign with a team-high 91 stops. He also was among the leaders in tackles for a loss (six), as the Tigers finished 13th in the FBS in total defense (323 ypg).
Best Freshman: Devin White, LB
With a senior-laden team complemented by a talented junior class, playing time for freshmen was hard to come by this season. But that didn’t prevent White from making an impact. White played in all 11 games (LSU lost one when it had to reschedule the Florida game), finishing with 25 tackles, two tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and he also blocked a kick.
Best Newcomer: Danny Etling, QB
Etling, a Purdue transfer, may not have set the world on fire in the pocket but he helped jump start a passing offense that failed to materialize under Miles and 2015 starter Brandon Harris. Etling replaced Harris two games in and finished the season with 1,906 passing yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions. Etling almost was responsible for pulling off a comeback against Auburn, but his potential game-winning touchdown pass was overturned on replay when it was determined the game clock had expired before the ball was snapped.
Best Play of the Season: Derrius Guice’s 96-yard TD run vs. Arkansas
One week after a disappointing 10-0 loss to Alabama, LSU needed to bounce back on the road against the Razorbacks. Guice turned in the second-best single-game performance in school history, rushing for 252 yards on 21 carries (12.0 ypc) in the convincing 38-10 victory. The big blow was his 96-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter, which set a new school record for longest play from scrimmage.
Best Performance: Derrius Guice vs. Texas A&M
Guice topped his outstanding game against Arkansas with a school-record 285 rushing yards against the Aggies in the regular season finale. Guice was a workhorse, toting the ball a school-record 37 times, while scoring four touchdowns (45 yards, 45, 6, 1) in the big 54-39 victory in College Station.
Best Game: 42-7 win against Missouri
Beating Missouri in 2016 was not a difficult task for most teams, but LSU needed this win, badly. Coming off a heartbreaking 18-13 loss to Auburn and with a new head coach on the sidelines, the players, coaches, and fans needed reason to believe everything would be okay. The result was a 42-7 home win against Missouri. The Tigers rushed for a season-high 418 yards with another season-high six rushing touchdowns in the rout.
Defining Moment: 16-14 loss to Wisconsin
It came right out of the gates. The loss to the Badgers at Lambeau Field put the Tigers on the defensive from the get-go as the weight of preseason expectations came crashing down at once. The loss also set the events in motion that eventually led to Les Miles’ dismissal. But the silver lining in all of this is the positive momentum that Ed Orgeron has produced, as he helped re-energize the fan base and clearly won the complete support and loyalty of his players even before he was named the permanent head coach.
Biggest Surprise: 38-10 win over Arkansas
In each of the past two season, following tough losses to Alabama, LSU went on to fall to the Razorbacks as well. While this season’s loss to the Crimson Tide put an end to the Tigers’ SEC title aspirations, they didn’t let the disappointment carry over. Instead, LSU invaded Fayetteville and promptly ran over and through Arkansas on the way to one of its most impressive victories of the season.
Biggest Disappointment: 16-10 loss to Florida
But the one step forward the Tigers took on the road against Arkansas was followed up by three steps backward at home in losing to the Gators. Even though LSU was the beneficiary of the game being rescheduled and relocated, it was Florida who made the necessary plays on offense and came up with the big goal-line stop at the end to steal a win in Death Valley. Not only did the victory clinch the SEC East for the Gators, the stunning loss temporarily put the skids on all the optimism surrounding the Tigers since Ed Orgeron took over as interim head coach.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Kendall Beckwith, LB
Once again, there are a lot of talented LSU players who will hear their names called next spring in the 2017 NFL Draft. And Beckwith will most likely be one of the first. He is as talented as any other linebacker in the nation. LSU recruits as well as any other team, so someone will fill his position, but Beckwith was the heart and soul of the Tigers in 2016.
Player to Watch in 2017: Derrius Guice, RB
Leonard Fournette’s collegiate career is most likely coming to an end. LSU will not lack for talent next year with underclassmen like defensive end Arden Key and offensive linemen Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema in line to become the next standouts. But Guice has already shown what he’s capable of and next year he will be the undisputed No. 1 in the back field. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound sophomore finished 77 yards behind Arkansas’ Rawleigh Williams for the most rushing yards in the SEC and Guice played in one less game. With LSU likely to be among the top 25 teams entering next season, it’s entirely possible that he could also replace Fournette as the Tigers’ next Heisman Trophy candidate.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Quarterback Play
Les Miles built LSU into one of the top programs in the nation off recruiting. Year after year the Tigers excel on defense, special teams, and with their rushing attack. Until LSU brings in an offensive coordinator that can add a consistent passing game while developing a quarterback, this part of LSU’s game will always be in question. Danny Etling returns in 2016, but is he the guy that can take LSU to the College Football Playoff?
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.
The Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway — in which students compete against each other by throwing footballs through giant, inflatable Dr. Pepper cans — has provided some of the greatest moments of championship weekend over the years, such as Ivon “Dr. Pepper is the seriously the best thing to ever happen to me!” Padilla-Rodriguez in 2011.
But recently contestants have realized they can be much more accurate and efficient if they chest-pass footballs into the cans since they stand just five yards apart. At first, I tipped my cap to the ingenuity of the contestants, like how Takeru Kobayashi changed the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest forever by gobbling the meat and buns separately and dunking the latter in water to save room in his stomach.
But there’s a key difference in what Kobayashi did and what has happened to the Dr. Pepper challenge: Kobayashi’s revolutionary competitive eating tactic has enhanced the “sport” because competitors are now able to eat an ungodly amount of hot dogs in the span of 10 minutes.
The Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway, on the other hand, has been bastardized by this gimmick that has turned it into a basketball skills competition. We saw it all weekend at the championship games for the Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC and SEC: Students chest-passing footballs into giant Dr. Pepper cans while those on Twitter lambasted the practice:
Dr. Pepper Challenge. pic.twitter.com/nzdL85RSzW— ⓂarcusD2.0 (@_MarcusD2_) December 4, 2016
Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brock Osweiler took some time out of their busy weeks to compete against each other in this Dr. Pepper challenge pic.twitter.com/oj2wygga86— Jack McGuire (@TailgateHeisman) December 3, 2016
How can @drpepper give away $100,000 in tuition to a student who throws the football with two hands?— Graham DeLaet (@GrahamDeLaet) December 4, 2016
Dr. Pepper really needs to make overhand throws count double— Bobby Big Wheel (@BobbyBigWheel) December 4, 2016
As soon as people started chest passing, they should have cancelled the Dr. Pepper football toss challenge.— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) December 3, 2016
Push pass Dr Pepper halftime toss contestants are the worst.— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) December 3, 2016
As long as they are throwing a football, the chest pass has to be banned from the Dr. Pepper halftime contests.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) December 3, 2016
The “winner” of the ACC Championship Game’s giveaway even had the stones to throw the football underhanded as if he was competing in horseshoes.
Underhand??!?!— Jim Weber (@JimMWeber) December 4, 2016
You may have won the contest but you can't put a price on dignity... pic.twitter.com/R4A9TtOO7B
That’s why I’m calling for an amendment to the Dr. Pepper Tuition Giveaway to limit throws to an overhand motion or — gasp! — move the can 10 yards away from competitors.
And I vow to not drink a single Dr. Pepper until this change is implemented.
[Full disclosure: I don’t drink any soft drinks because of a bad kidney stone problem since high school, which makes this boycott quite convenient.]
Because at a turbulent time in this country when we are desperate to find issues we can all agree on, requiring a football passing competition to involve actually passing the football is a good place to start.
— Written by Jim Weber, a veteran college sports journalist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Weber has written for CBS Sports Network, NBCSports.com, ESPN the Magazine and the college sports website he founded and sold, LostLettermen.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber.
Contrary to all the tweets, all the talking heads on television and all of the columns written, there was no drama in this year’s College Football Playoff selection process. There were zero surprises either.
The New Year’s Six on Monday was exactly as it was the prior Thursday night (aside from a few folks flipping Penn State and Wisconsin’s spots). Nothing changed with the matchups in the playoff either. In a season that lacked relative drama from start to finish, we should not have woken up on Sunday and feigned any disbelief about the outcome when the final rankings were released.
Alabama was an undisputed No. 1 seed and perhaps the most overwhelming favorite for a title in recent memory. Ohio State and Clemson’s resumes stood alone. Washington was the next best team. Whatever movement there was to include the Nittany Lions was heavily influenced by the recency bias of their win in Indianapolis later on Saturday night.
“The committee discussed why each team could be ranked No. 4. Washington had one loss, Penn State has two. Washington is a conference champion. So is Penn State. Washington's one loss is to top-10 Southern California. Penn State's losses are against an 8-4 team (Pitt), and they were non-competitive in their other loss (at Michigan),” committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said. “As you know, we pick the best teams. After considerable conversation about whether Washington or Penn State was better, the committee concluded that Washington is the better team.”
There was no drama. In the end the committee did what it was tasked to do — sort through the Power Five conference champions and other elite squads — and pick the four best teams. It was never about being deserving or head-to-head results or overall résumé. It was about the four best. They followed those guidelines just as they’ve done all season long.
Think back to the first set of rankings back at the start of November. The Crimson Tide went wire-to-wire as No. 1 and Clemson found themselves in the same spot at No. 2. Alabama beat the then-fourth ranked team to clear the path for the fifth-ranked Huskies. Old No. 6 Ohio State flipped places with then-No. 3 Michigan by beating the Wolverines straight up to take their place. Everything simply played itself out.
Penn State fans may be slightly ticked at being left out but they shouldn’t. A month into the season, many wanted to run James Franklin out of State College. Now they’re in the Rose Bowl, wearing the crown of the best league in the country and — maybe most importantly — get to avoid a Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl situation at the hands of Alabama.
And if they were to beat USC on Jan. 2, the Nittany Lions have a very realistic chance to finish in the top four in all of the final polls — if not higher. This is still a young team that is built to defend its league title next season with Ohio State and Michigan likely suffering key personnel losses.
“I would tell you that Penn State significantly elevated themselves in our conversation after their performance last night,” Houcutt added. “Having a chance to watch, with the other members of the Selection Committee, that second half performance, incredibly impressed and significantly elevated them into our conversations.”
Now attention can turn to the task at hand for the final four. Each has a quarterback who can put up points in a hurry — in vastly different ways. Each has a great front seven and these are certainly four of the best secondaries in the country no matter which way you slice things. All four should make for an exciting pair of games that certainly have the potential to be much closer than last season’s semifinals.
All of which makes for a delightful evolution of the College Football Playoff. There don’t need to be any great think-pieces or takeaways from this year’s decisions. The committee picked the four best teams and there’s no drama about any of the four.
That wasn’t the case in 2014, where Ohio State’s surprise inclusion instead of the Big 12’s conundrum of TCU and Baylor proved prescient as the Buckeyes ultimately won the national title. Things improved in 2015, with only minor questions about seeding and much bigger gripes about the dates of the semifinal games.
But there were none of those concerns in 2016. The committee, despite all the handwringing in November, got it right. They picked the four best teams to compete for the national title.
Now all that’s left is to see what unfolds in Atlanta, Glendale and Tampa.
Stat of the Week
Three years in, Nike is 12-for-12 in placing teams in the Playoff.— Zach Barnett (@zach_barnett) December 4, 2016
Tweet of the Week
BREAKING: we can officially confirm that Alabama will not be invited to play in the Belk Bowl this year.— Belk Bowl (@belkbowl) December 4, 2016
Superlatives of the Week
Best player: Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma
Team of the week: Temple
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Jim McElwain, Florida
Quote of the week: Washington coach Chris Petersen on ‘We Want Bama’ signs: “Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. I didn’t hold that sign up.”
Play of the Week
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot heading into the postseason.
3. Ohio State
6. Penn State
12. Florida State
13. Western Michigan
14. Oklahoma State
15. West Virginia
16. Virginia Tech
Best of the rest: LSU, Stanford, Auburn, Temple, Pitt, South Florida, Houston, Miami, Air Force
Alabama vs. Washington (Peach Bowl)
At this point in the year, few give the Huskies a chance to topple the Goliath that is Alabama. The Tide are one of only two undefeated teams left in the country and have superior talent at just about every position on either side of the ball. Still, don’t discount Washington and head coach Chris Petersen from having four weeks to prepare. The secondary is very good and there are questions about whether Nick Saban’s team has been properly tested this year in a weak SEC. We’ll still pick Bama but this one should be much closer than folks expect.
Clemson vs. Ohio State (Fiesta Bowl)
This is a matchup NFL scouts have to be drooling over. Deshaun Watson vs. J.T. Barrett. A terrific Tigers front seven going against a host of Buckeyes skill position players. A loaded OSU secondary against some of the best pass catchers in the country. Plus you have the experience of two teams who have been down this road (in both the semifinals and national title game) before. It’s tempting to go with the ACC champions but we’ll lean toward Urban Meyer’s team until proven otherwise.
Penn State vs. USC (Rose Bowl)
This has to be one of the best non-playoff matchups out there and pits two of the hottest teams in the country against each other. The Trojans have the edge in skill position talent with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ronald Jones II and Adoree’ Jackson all getting an opportunity to showcase what they can do for the rest of the country. The Nittany Lions are no slouches though and Trace McSorley and company could have a big outing. We’ll lean toward the quasi-home team in this one but make no mistake, the winner should begin 2017 in the top three of all the polls next year.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of @CFBPlayoff)
College football’s regular season is over and the matchups for the 2016-17 bowl season are set. The bowl slate features 40 matchups and the national championship game to be played on Jan. 9 in Tampa, Fla. The postseason action starts on Dec. 17 with five matchups, including the New Mexico Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl and New Orleans Bowl. Additionally, there are eight bowl contests before Christmas, with several big games slated for Dec., 29, Dec. 30, Dec. 31, Jan. 1 and Jan. 2. The third College Football Playoff begins in Atlanta with the Peach Bowl between Washington and Alabama on Dec. 31, with Clemson and Ohio State meeting in the Fiesta Bowl later that night.
Watching all 40 bowl games isn’t impossible, but it can be difficult prioritizing which matchups are must-see television around the holidays.
Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid. From No. 40 to No. 1, here’s a look at the bowl matchups in terms of watchability and quality of game.
Ranking All 40 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-Miss
40. Heart of Dallas Bowl - Army (6-5) vs. North Texas (5-7)
Dec. 27 – Noon ET, ESPN
The Heart of Dallas Bowl pairing between Army and North Texas is the only rematch of the bowl season. Helped by seven turnovers from the Black Knights, the Mean Green won 35-18 on Oct. 22. After a 1-11 record last year, North Texas took a big step forward with five wins under new coach Seth Littrell. Running back Jeffery Wilson needs just under 150 yards (145) to reach 1,000 yards and gashed Army’s defense for 160 yards in the first meeting. Similar to North Texas, the Black Knights are a program headed in the right direction. Army is making its first bowl trip since 2010 and won as many games (six) as it did from 2014-15. As expected, the Black Knights lean on the ground game, with Andy Davidson (818 yards) and quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw (646) the top options. If Army holds onto the ball, a North Texas rush defense that surrenders 219.5 yards per game is vulnerable to the option.
Early Prediction: Army
39. Arizona Bowl - Air Force (9-3) vs. South Alabama (6-6)
Dec. 30 – 5:30 p.m. ET, Campus Insiders
Davis-Monthan Air Force base is less than 15 miles away from Arizona Stadium, so the Falcons should have plenty of support on Dec. 30. This is just the second Arizona Bowl, as last year’s matchup featured two Mountain West teams (Nevada and Colorado State). South Alabama is making its second bowl appearance in program history, but the Jaguars will have their hands full on defense. The Falcons rank fourth nationally in rushing offense (322.8 ypg), and four players have eclipsed the 600-yard mark. Quarterback Arion Worthman has provided a spark for Air Force’s offense since taking over late in the season. South Alabama ranks 98th nationally against the run and held only one opponent to less than 150 yards on the ground. When the Jaguars are on offense, keep an eye on running back Xavier Johnson (787 yards) and tight end Gerald Everett (49 catches).
Early Prediction: Air Force
38. Quick Lane Bowl - Boston College (6-6) vs. Maryland (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Former ACC Atlantic foes Boston College and Maryland meet for the first time since 2013 in Detroit. Both teams experienced a three-game improvement in the win column after disappointing 3-9 campaigns last fall. New coach D.J. Durkin was a big reason why Maryland finished 6-6, and the bowl appearance is the first building block in helping the program take a step forward in the rugged Big Ten East. After struggling mightily with turnovers (-18 margin), the Terrapins improved that total to minus-five in 2016. The ground game is the strength of Maryland’s offense, with sophomore Ty Johnson (845 yards) leading the way. Boston College ranks last in the ACC in scoring (19.1 ppg), but coach Steve Addazio’s team is strong on defense once again. The Eagles allow only 5.1 yards per play and 24.6 points per contest. End Harold Landry (15 sacks) is an underrated star for the Eagles.
Early Prediction: Boston College
37. New Orleans Bowl - Southern Miss (6-6) vs. Louisiana (6-6)
Dec. 17 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
After a one-year absence, the Ragin’ Cajuns are back in the New Orleans Bowl. Under coach Mark Hudspeth, Louisiana has made four trips to the Superdome for this postseason matchup and won all four games. The Ragin’ Cajuns rank fourth in the Sun Belt in rushing (180.8 ypg), with running back Elijah McGuire (1,028 yards) and quarterback Anthony Jennings (322) carrying the offense. Southern Miss has been solid against the run, limiting opponents to 149.3 yards per game and ranking fourth in Conference USA in fewest points allowed (30.3) per game. First-year coach Jay Hopson had an up-and-down debut, as the Golden Eagles lost five out of six games after starting 4-1. However, the return of quarterback Nick Mullens from injury sparked Southern Miss to a 39-24 victory over Louisiana Tech in the regular season finale. Running back Ito Smith (1,774 yards) is another standout to watch.
Early Prediction: Southern Miss
36. Military Bowl - Temple (10-3) vs. Wake Forest (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Less than a month after defeating Navy for the American Athletic Conference title, Temple will return to Annapolis to take on Wake Forest in the Military Bowl. Coach Matt Rhule has Temple trending up with 20 wins over the last two years, and both sides of the ball will be a handful for the Demon Deacons. Quarterback Phillip Walker threw for 20 touchdowns in 2016, and the Owls have two running backs – Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead – that reached 918 yards. Despite losing a couple of key defenders from last year’s group, Temple’s defense remains one of the best in the Group of 5 ranks. The Owls limit opponents to just 17.2 points per game and 4.6 yards a play. Wake Forest took a big step forward in coach Dave Clawson’s third year, reaching 6-6 after back-to-back 3-9 campaigns. Clawson is a program builder and had a young roster through his first two seasons. However, the Demon Deacons turned a corner in 2016 and can lean on a defense that limits opponents to 21.8 points a game.
Early Prediction: Temple
35. New Mexico Bowl - UTSA (6-6) vs. New Mexico (8-4)
Dec. 17 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
The first game of the 2016-17 bowl season features two of the nation’s top under-the-radar coaching jobs this year. UTSA is led by first-year coach Frank Wilson, who guided the Roadrunners to six wins and the first bowl appearance in program history. New Mexico is making its second consecutive bowl trip and the eight wins recorded in 2016 are the highest for this program since 2007. Coach Bob Davie has helped this program take a step forward recently, increasing the win total in three consecutive seasons. The Lobos rank No. 1 nationally in rushing offense, but UTSA’s rush defense limits opponents to 4.4 yards per carry. When the Roadrunners are on offense, the one-two combination of Jarveon Williams and Jalen Rhodes at running back figures to test a New Mexico defense ranked third in the Mountain West against the run.
Early Prediction: New Mexico
34. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl - Idaho (8-4) vs. Colorado State (7-5)
Dec. 22 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Thanks to some swapping of tie-ins, Idaho stays close to home for the postseason instead of making a trip to Tucson for the Arizona Bowl. The Vandals are moving to the FCS level in 2018 but that hasn’t slowed the progress of this program under coach Paul Petrino. After winning just two games from 2013-14, Idaho went 4-8 in 2015 and finished 8-4 this year – the program’s highest win total since 2009. Quarterback Matt Linehan has quietly produced a steady 2016 campaign (15 TDs, 2,803 yards), and the Vandals have been opportunistic (+8) to help win four games decided by one score or less. After a 3-4 start, Colorado State finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the Mountain West. The Rams won four out of their last five games, including a 63-31 blowout over San Diego State. Quarterback Nick Stevens returned to the starting lineup after an injury to Collin Hill and finished the year with 14 touchdowns and 1,491 yards. Receiver Michael Gallup emerged as one of the top targets in the Mountain West, catching 70 passes for 1,164 yards and 11 scores this fall.
Early Prediction: Colorado State
33. Hawaii Bowl - Hawaii (6-7) vs. MTSU (8-4)
Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Hawaii Bowl is the only college game on Dec. 24, so this is your best excuse if you need a trip away from the in-laws on Christmas Eve. Under the direction of first-year coach Nick Rolovich, Hawaii is back in the postseason for the first time since 2010. Rolovich – a former Hawaii quarterback – helped the Rainbow Warriors earn a three-game improvement in the win column this season. Hawaii’s offense won’t bring back memories of the June Jones era just yet, but this group improved its per-game average by nearly 10 points. The Rainbow Warriors will have their hands full on defense against MTSU’s high-powered attack. Of course, there’s an asterisk by the Blue Raiders’ offense. Quarterback Brent Stockstill suffered a collarbone injury in early November and missed the rest of the 2016 campaign. Stockstill’s status for this game is uncertain. If Stockstill can’t go, freshman John Urzua will start, with the MTSU offense leaning heavily on running back I’Tavius Mathers (2,093 total yards) and receiver Richie James (160.8 total yards per game). In terms of bowl selections, MTSU has the market cornered on the best destinations over the last two seasons. After playing in the Bahamas Bowl in 2015, the Blue Raiders are headed to Honolulu this year.
Early Prediction: MTSU
32. Cactus Bowl - Baylor (6-6) vs. Boise State (10-2)
Dec. 27 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Boise State is no stranger to postseason trips to Arizona, as the Broncos have played in the Fiesta Bowl three times since 2006. This is Baylor’s seventh consecutive bowl appearance, but the Bears ended the year with six consecutive losses and lost starting quarterback Seth Russell to a season-ending leg injury. Freshman Zach Smith is a promising passer for Baylor and the late-season starts will ease his transition into the full-time role in 2017. Smith has a talented group of skill players at his disposal, including KD Cannon (73 catches) and running backs Terence Williams (945 yards) and Shock Linwood (751 yards). The Broncos have struggled to stop ground attacks (179.8 ypg allowed), so Linwood and Williams could have plenty of room to run. When Boise State has the ball, Baylor is going to have its hands full trying to slow down quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols. Expect plenty of fireworks on offense between these two teams. However, the Broncos should be a heavy favorite after the Bears finished the season with six consecutive losses.
Early Prediction: Boise State
31. Bahamas Bowl - Old Dominion (9-3) vs. Eastern Michigan (7-5)
Dec. 23 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
The two previous matchups in the Bahamas Bowl produced plenty of points and entertaining games. In 2014, WKU held off Central Michigan in a 49-48 shootout, while Western Michigan won 45-31 over MTSU last year. This season’s matchup features an Old Dominion team making its first bowl trip in program history, and an Eastern Michigan program earning its first bowl appearance since 1987. The Monarchs have a dynamic offense, averaging 36 points a game behind quarterback David Washington and running back Ray Lawry. Coach Chris Creighton has brought marked improvement to Eastern Michigan in just three years, taking the Eagles from 1-11 last season to 7-5 in 2016. Quarterback Brogan Roback leads an EMU attack that ranks second in the MAC in passing offense.
Early Prediction: Old Dominion
30. St. Petersburg Bowl - Mississippi State (5-7) vs. Miami Ohio (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
The St. Petersburg Bowl may not rank too high on this list, but there’s some intrigue between the two teams meeting in the home of the Tampa Bay Rays (Tropicana Field). Thanks to a high APR, Mississippi State makes the postseason with a 5-7 record, and Miami (Ohio) started 0-6 and finished the year with six consecutive victories. The Bulldogs feature a rising star in quarterback Nick Fitzgerald, who recorded at least 365 total yards in four out of the team’s final five contests. A similar storyline took place on the RedHawks’ sideline, as Gus Ragland returned from a knee injury to throw for 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions during the six-game winning streak. Ragland and receivers should be able to find room to make plays, as Mississippi State has surrendered 31 passing scores this year. Miami (Ohio) ranks third in the MAC in scoring defense, but this unit’s ability to stop the run will be tested against Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams.
Early Prediction: Mississippi State
29. Dollar General Bowl - Ohio (8-5) vs. Troy (9-3)
Dec. 23 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Troy was quietly one of the nation’s most-improved teams this year. After a 4-8 debut under coach Neal Brown in 2015, the Trojans finished 9-3 and just missed on claiming a share of the Sun Belt title. At 36 years old, Brown is one of the youngest head coaches at the FBS level and is a rising star to watch over the next couple of years. Troy’s offense led the Sun Belt by averaging 34.2 points per game, with quarterback Brandon Silvers (22 TDs) and running back Jordan Chunn (1,232 yards) leading the way. Silvers and Chunn face a tough Ohio defense, a group that ranks second in the MAC by holding opponents to 22.2 points per game. The Bobcats ranked near the bottom of the MAC (eighth) in offense, and there’s some uncertainty at quarterback after Greg Windham replaced Quinton Maxwell against Western Michigan in the conference title game. Ohio must lean on its defense to knock off the Trojans.
Early Prediction: Troy
28. AutoNation Cure Bowl - UCF (6-6) vs. Arkansas State (7-5)
Dec. 17 – 5:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
The second edition of the AutoNation Cure Bowl is a home game for UCF. The Knights were one of the nation’s most-improved teams this fall, as new coach Scott Frost sparked a six-game improvement in the win column after an 0-12 record in 2015. Frost is known for his background on offense, but UCF is still working out some of the kinks on that side of the ball. Freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton (9 TDs) is promising and leads an attack averaging 30.1 points per game. However, the strength of this team is a defense limiting opponents to 24.1 points a contest. Arkansas State started 0-4 but rebounded to win seven out of the last eight games to claim a share of the Sun Belt title. The Red Wolves aren’t as explosive on offense as in recent years, but coach Blake Anderson’s team is led by a solid defense. Arkansas State ranks third in the Sun Belt in scoring defense (22.2 ppg) and holds offenses to 5.2 yards per play. Defensive lineman Ja’Von Rolland-Jones is one of the nation’s most underrated players, recording 18 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks in 2016.
Early Prediction: Arkansas State
27. Foster Farms Bowl - Utah (8-4) vs. Indiana (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 8:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Considering what transpired in early December, Indiana might be one of the most intriguing teams to watch during bowl season. Kevin Wilson resigned as the program’s head coach, and defensive coordinator Tom Allen was promoted to take his spot. Allen made a big difference on Indiana’s defense this year but this is his first opportunity to be a head coach. What tweaks will Allen implement with a month to prepare? In addition to the coaching turnover, the Hoosiers are going to have their hands full with Utah. The Utes have posted three consecutive winning records in Pac-12 play and were in the mix to win the South Division late into November. Running back Joe Williams returned from an early-season retirement to rush for 1,185 yards, and quarterback Troy Williams has provided more of a big-play element for the passing game. Utah is also strong on the line of scrimmage, with left tackle Garett Bolles clearing the way on offense, and end Hunter Dimick and tackle Lowell Lotulelei headlining the defensive front.
Early Prediction: Utah
26. Independence Bowl - Vanderbilt (6-6) vs. NC State (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Vanderbilt and NC State visit Shreveport, La. with momentum on their side. Both programs scored huge victories over their in-state rival in Week 13, which earned the all-important sixth victory and clinched bowl eligibility. The Commodores have showed steady improvement in coach Derek Mason’s three seasons in Nashville. Mason’s decision to take over the play-calling duties on defense in 2015 paid big dividends, and the offense showed signs of life at the end of the 2016 campaign thanks to the emergence of quarterback Kyle Shurmur. The sophomore’s development has helped to ease some of the pressure on running back Ralph Webb (1,172 yards). The junior could find limited running room against a standout Wolfpack line, which ranked first in the ACC against the run. When NC State has the ball, the Wolfpack will have to keep tabs on Vanderbilt linebacker Zach Cunningham. The junior is one of – if not the best – defender in the SEC. Cunningham will be tasked with containing running back Matt Dayes (1,119 yards) and versatile tight end Jaylen Samuels (704 total yards).
Early Prediction: NC State
25. Birmingham Bowl - South Florida (10-2) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 29 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
South Carolina’s hire of Will Muschamp was met with plenty of skepticism, but the former Florida head coach deserves plenty of praise for his coaching job this year. The Gamecocks finished 6-6, showed improvement on defense and developed some promising playmakers for 2017 and beyond for the offense. Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley took over the starting job midway through the season and finished with 1,030 yards and six scores. He should benefit from the extra practices for bowl preparation, as South Carolina will need to score some points to keep up with South Florida’s dynamic offense. Willie Taggart is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks and guided the Bulls to an average of 43.6 points per game. However, Taggart left to take the coaching job at Oregon, leaving T.J. Weist to work as the program's interim coach. Quarterback Quinton Flowers is a dynamic dual-threat option, while running back Marlon Mack has posted three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
Early Prediction: South Florida
24. Liberty Bowl - Georgia (7-5) vs. TCU (6-6)
Dec. 30 – Noon ET, ESPN
Considering the preseason expectations for both teams, it’s a bit of a surprise Georgia and TCU enter this matchup with a combined 13-11 record. New coach Kirby Smart inherited a roster in need of more repair than some may have realized over the offseason and handed the keys to the offense to true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason. The future looks bright for the Bulldogs with Eason’s development, and this team lost three of its five games by three points or less. TCU’s win total (six) is probably the bigger surprise considering the Horned Frogs were pegged by some as a dark horse to win the Big 12. What went wrong this season? The offense struggled to replace quarterback Trevone Boykin, as Foster Sawyer and Kenny Hill combined to throw 16 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. The offense also struggled to produce big plays and surrendered 26 sacks after giving up only 18 in 2015. Additionally, TCU’s defense didn’t take a step forward as most expected with seven returning starters. Neither team will salvage its season with a win in Memphis, but a victory would ease some of the disappointment.
Early Prediction: Georgia
23. Poinsettia Bowl - BYU (8-4) vs. Wyoming (8-5)
Dec. 21 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Two old WAC and Mountain West foes meet for the first time since 2010 in San Diego on Dec. 21. This is also BYU’s 12 consecutive bowl trip, while Wyoming is making its first bowl trip since 2011. The Cougars won’t have quarterback Taysom Hill for this game, as the senior suffered a season-ending arm injury in the finale against Utah State. Although Hill is a big loss, backup Tanner Mangum is a proven option, throwing for 3,377 yards and 23 scores in 2015. Running back Jamaal Williams capped a standout career in Provo with 1,165 rushing yards this season and is a tough matchup for a Wyoming rush defense allowing just over 200 yards per game. After a 6-18 start to his tenure in Laramie, Craig Bohl guided Wyoming to an 8-5 record and a Mountain Division title this fall. Brian Hill is one of the top running backs in the Group of 5 ranks, and quarterback Josh Allen has delivered a breakout year (26 TDs) in his first season as the starter.
Early Prediction: BYU
22. TaxSlayer Bowl - Georgia Tech (8-4) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
Dec. 31 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
Big victories against in-state rivals probably helped Georgia Tech and Kentucky move up in their conference bowl pecking order to land in Jacksonville. The Yellow Jackets knocked off Georgia 28-27 in Athens, while the Wildcats stunned Louisville 41-38 with a last-second field goal. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops appeared to be squarely on the hot seat after a 2-3 start, but the Wildcats finished the year by winning five out of their last seven games. Starting quarterback Drew Barker was lost for the season due to a back injury in September, yet the offense didn’t miss a beat with Stephen Johnson at the controls and a dynamic ground attack leading the way. Freshman Benny Snell was a breakout player for Stoops, rushing for 1,057 yards and 13 scores on just 179 carries. He’s joined by dynamic junior Boom Williams (7.1 ypc) in a backfield that ranked third in the SEC in rushing. Rushing and ground attacks are synonymous with Georgia Tech under coach Paul Johnson. The Yellow Jackets’ option scheme is tough to prepare for, with quarterback Justin Thomas the catalyst for an offense that averaged 257.4 rushing yards per game. Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled to stop the run (10th in the ACC) and will have its hands full against Snell and Williams. This is Kentucky’s first bowl trip since 2010 and the extra time to prepare could be enough to earn a slight advantage over Georgia Tech.
Early Prediction: Georgia Tech
21. Pinstripe Bowl - Pitt (8-4) vs. Northwestern (6-6)
Dec. 28 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
The last two Pinstripe Bowl matchups went into overtime and another close game wouldn’t be a surprise on Dec. 28. Under the watch of new coordinator Matt Canada, Pitt quietly averaged 42.3 points a contest in 2016. Canada did a good job of mixing up the run with James Conner (1,060 yards) and utilizing a passing game with quarterback Nathan Peterman (26 TDs) with few proven weapons at receiver. Northwestern got off to a rough start, opening 1-3 with losses to Illinois State, Western Michigan and Nebraska. The Wildcats showed steady improvement in the second half of the season, largely due to the development of quarterback Clayton Thorson. Running back Justin Jackson has posted three consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns and will test a Pitt run defense ranked third in the ACC. While the Panthers have been stout against the run, stopping the pass has been a huge issue this year. Can Thorson connect with receiver Austin Carr for a couple of big plays?
Early Prediction: Pitt
20. Miami Beach Bowl - Tulsa (9-3) vs. Central Michigan (6-6)
Dec. 19 – 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
If you like offense, there’s a good chance you will enjoy this showdown in Marlins Park on Dec. 19. The first Miami Beach Bowl in 2014 featured a combined 103 points between Memphis and BYU, while WKU and USF went back-and-forth in a 45-35 victory by the Hilltoppers last season. Tulsa features one of the nation’s most-balanced attacks on offense, averaging 260.8 yards per game through the air and 261.8 on the ground. Quarterback Dane Evans has passed for 27 scores, while running backs James Flanders (1,529 yards) and D’Angelo Brewer (1,330) each eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark. Central Michigan is led by senior quarterback Cooper Rush (23 TDs), but the Chippewas have struggled in pass protection and ranked last in the MAC in rushing offense. However, Central Michigan is still averaging nearly 30 points a game (27.7). The Golden Hurricane ranks near the bottom of the American Athletic Conference in scoring defense (31.5), so this one shouldn’t be short on fireworks.
Early Prediction: Tulsa
19. Holiday Bowl - Washington State (8-4) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
Dec. 27 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
An interesting contrast of styles is set to meet in San Diego on Dec. 27. Washington State ranks third in the nation in passing attempts, with quarterback Luke Falk and receiver Gabe Marks connecting as one of the top pass-catch combinations in the nation. The Cougars aren’t just an aerial show, as coach Mike Leach’s team has three capable running backs and a big offensive line to provide protection. Minnesota doesn’t possess the high-powered attack that Washington State will bring to San Diego, but the Golden Gophers can lean on a ball-control offense to keep the Cougars on the sidelines. Rodney Smith (1,084 yards) leads the team in rushing, with Shannon Brooks (599) and quarterback Mitch Leidner (340) chipping in. Which team will dictate its style of play?
Early Prediction: Washington State
18. Armed Forces Bowl - Louisiana Tech (8-5) vs. Navy (9-3)
Dec. 23 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Armed Forces Bowl was originally slated to be Navy versus a Big 12 programs, but the conference fell short of eligible teams, opening the door for an at-large appearance by Louisiana Tech. Both the Midshipmen and Bulldogs lost their conference championship game, but there shouldn’t be much of a hangover effect when these two teams meet on Dec. 23. Despite a stark contrast in styles, these two teams rank among the top 20 in scoring offense. Navy’s option attack averages 39.1 points per game, while Louisiana Tech averages 44 per contest. The Bulldogs feature a prolific passing attack, headlined by quarterback Ryan Higgins (37 TDs) and two standout receivers (Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson). The Midshipmen counter with one of the nation’s top ground attacks (327.5 ypg), but quarterback Will Worth was lost for the season due to an injury suffered against Temple in the American Athletic Conference title game. With Worth out for the year, sophomore Zach Abey will step into the starting role. Expect a lot of points between these two teams on Dec. 23.
Early Prediction: Louisiana Tech
17. Belk Bowl - Virginia Tech (9-4) vs. Arkansas (7-5)
Dec. 29 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is the first time the Hokies and Razorbacks have met on the gridiron, and this matchup in the Belk Bowl could feature plenty of fireworks. Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen was arguably the SEC’s best player on offense through the first half of the season. However, the junior suffered a knee injury suffered against Auburn and tossed six interceptions over his final five games. With a month to get healthy, Allen should be near full strength, which is good news for an Arkansas attack that also features running back Rawleigh Williams and talented tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. The Razorbacks need a big game from Allen and Williams to win this one, especially considering the problems on defense stopping mobile quarterbacks in 2016. Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans passed for 3,309 yards and 27 scores in his first year on campus and also led the team with 759 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Arkansas ranks 10th in the SEC in scoring defense and is giving up just over 200 yards (209.3) on the ground per game. The Hokies - led by first-year coach Justin Fuente - are a tough matchup for the Razorbacks.
Early Prediction: Virginia Tech
16. Camellia Bowl - Appalachian State (9-3) vs. Toledo (9-3)
Dec. 17 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Two of the nation’s rising stars in the Group of 5 head coaching ranks meet in Montgomery, Ala. on the first Saturday of bowl action. Jason Candle was promoted to head coach after Matt Campbell left to take the head-coaching job at Iowa State. The Rockets didn’t miss a beat with Candle at the controls, finishing 9-3 and averaging 38.8 points a game with an explosive offense. Running back Kareem Hunt rushed for 1,355 yards behind a standout line, while quarterback Logan Woodside threw for 43 touchdowns and 3,882 yards in his first full season as the starter. There’s no shortage of targets for Woodside in the passing game, as the Rockets have four receivers with at least 38 catches. On the other sideline, Appalachian State is back in Montgomery for the second consecutive year after finishing 9-3 behind coach Scott Satterfield. The former Appalachian State quarterback has helped this program through a quick transition to the FBS level and claimed 20 wins over the last two years. Junior Taylor Lamb (2,162 yards) is a steady leader at quarterback, while the one-two punch of Jalin Moore and Marcus Cox will test a Toledo defense that has allowed 165.7 rushing yards per game in 2016. Appalachian State has a big edge on defense, ranking first in the Sun Belt in scoring (17 ppg) and yards per play (4.86 ypp).
Early Prediction: Toledo
15. Las Vegas Bowl - Houston (9-3) vs. San Diego State (10-3)
Dec. 17 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
The Las Vegas Bowl doesn’t have its traditional Mountain West vs. Pac-12 matchup, but this year’s game features two of the top Group of 5 teams. Houston suffered three losses in league play but defeated Louisville and Oklahoma in non-conference action. With Tom Herman taking the job at Texas, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was promoted to interim coach for this game. Orlando won’t tweak too much, as the Cougars lean heavily on quarterback Greg Ward (349.6 ypg) and a defense limiting opponents to 22.6 points a game. San Diego State earned its second consecutive Mountain West title with a 27-24 victory over Wyoming. The Aztecs rank No. 7 in the nation in rushing offense, featuring running back Donnel Pumphrey (2,018 yards). Pumphrey needs just over 100 yards (108) to surpass Ron Dayne for the FBS career mark. Houston leads the American Athletic Conference in rush defense (97.9 ypg), so this will be a tough challenge for Pumphrey and the San Diego State offensive line.
Early Prediction: Houston
14. Boca Raton Bowl - WKU (10-3) vs. Memphis (8-4)
Dec. 20 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Like offense? Be sure to check out this matchup in Boca Raton. WKU averages 45.3 points a game, while Memphis isn’t far behind at 39.5 This matchup was slated to feature Jeff Brohm (WKU) and Mike Norvell (Memphis) – two rising stars in the head coaching ranks. However, Brohm accepted the head coaching position at Purdue and defensive coordinator Nick Holt will lead the Hilltoppers in this game. WKU closed the season on a seven-game winning streak and scored at least 44 points in every contest during that run. Quarterback Mike White successfully replaced Brandon Doughty this year, throwing for 4,027 yards and 34 scores. He’s supported by standout running back Anthony Wales and two dynamic receivers (Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris). Quarterback Riley Ferguson (3,326 yards and 28 TDs) frequently targets Anthony Miller (84 catches), and the Tigers have three players with at least 460 rushing yards. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
Early Prediction: WKU
13. Texas Bowl - Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Kansas State (8-4)
Dec. 28 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
This will be the first meeting between these two teams since Texas A&M departed for the SEC after the 2011 season. The matchup between the Wildcats and Aggies should be an intriguing one for the Texas Bowl, which has witnessed back-to-back blowouts by the SEC team (Arkansas and LSU) over a Big 12 opponent (Texas and Texas Tech). Kansas State isn’t flashy on offense, but coach Bill Snyder’s team averages 232.9 rushing yards per game and will test a Texas A&M defense that struggled to stop the run and tackle in the second half of the season. Quarterback Trevor Knight returned from a shoulder injury and played in the Aggies’ Thanksgiving night loss to LSU. Knight should be at full strength for this game, and the time off should also benefit end Myles Garrett, who was also banged up throughout the 2016 season. The Wildcats led the Big 12 in scoring defense but were vulnerable to the pass. Will Texas A&M’s offense control the tempo and jump out to an early lead? Or will K-State dictate the pace of the game by a strong ground attack, which controls the line of scrimmage and keeps the Aggies on the sidelines.
Early Prediction: Texas A&M
12. Outback Bowl - Florida (8-4) vs. Iowa (8-4)
Jan. 2 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
Points could be at a premium in Tampa on Jan. 2. Both teams have experienced their share of issues on offense this season, as Florida ranks 110th in scoring and Iowa checks in at No. 77. However, while both teams are limited on offense, these are two of the top defenses in the nation. The Gators and Hawkeyes are tied for 10th nationally in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just 17.9 points a contest. Florida was hit hard by injuries on defense late in the year and the time off could help this group get closer to full strength. Quarterback play is also under the microscope for coach Jim McElwain. Could freshman Feleipe Franks have his redshirt removed in time for this game? These two teams have played three previous times, including two matchups in the Outback Bowl (2004 and 2006). Expect a low-scoring, defensive affair in the Outback Bowl.
Early Prediction: Florida
11. Music City Bowl - Nebraska (9-3) vs. Tennessee (8-4)
Dec. 30 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
In terms of name value and brands in college football, it doesn’t get much better than this matchup in Nashville. Nebraska and Tennessee meet on Dec. 30 for the first time since the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, and both teams are looking to close the year out on a high note after suffering disappointing losses in November. The Cornhuskers improved their win total by three after a 6-7 record in Mike Riley’s first year in 2015. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong did a better job of minimizing the turnovers this season, which helped Nebraska win three games by seven points or less after struggling to win close games in 2015. Armstrong was suffering from a hamstring injury late in the 2016 campaign and the time off should allow the senior to utilize his legs more in the bowl. Tennessee was a heavy favorite to win the SEC East, but coach Butch Jones’ team fell short. Injuries ravaged the defense, which slumped to ninth in the SEC in points allowed (29.3 ppg). While the defense struggled in 2016, the Volunteers possessed one of the SEC’s top offenses. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Alvin Kamara guided the offense to an average of 36.3 points a contest. Don’t be surprised if this one is a shootout.
Early Prediction: Tennessee
10. Russell Athletic Bowl - West Virginia (10-2) vs. Miami (8-4)
Dec. 28 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
An old Big East rivalry will resume on Dec. 28 with West Virginia and Miami meeting in Orlando. These two teams have not played since 2003, and the Mountaineers have lost six in a row in their all-time series against the Hurricanes. West Virginia heavily recruits the state of Florida, so an appearance in this game against Miami is a good showcase for coach Dana Holgorsen’s program. The Mountaineers are coming off their best win total (10) since joining the Big 12, and Holgorsen was inked to a long-term contract following the regular season finale against Baylor. Quarterback Skyler Howard (26 TDs) took a step forward in his development, but the Mountaineers also have a solid collection of running backs – led by Justin Crawford (1,168 yards) and a standout offensive line. Mark Richt’s return to his alma mater was a much-needed stabilizing force for Miami and better days are ahead for this program. Quarterback Brad Kaaya and running back Mark Walton will test a West Virginia defense that limits opponents to 5.6 yards per play. Keep an eye on the turnover battle. In two losses this year, the Mountaineers were minus-six in margin. Miami was plus-eight for the season and finished the year with positive or even turnover margins in five straight games.
Early Prediction: West Virginia
9. Sun Bowl - North Carolina (8-4) vs. Stanford (9-3)
Dec. 30 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS
The Sun Bowl took an interesting turn in mid-December, as Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey announced he would pursue NFL Draft training instead of participating in this game. And on the other sideline, North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky is rising on draft boards as a potential first-round pick after a standout 2016 season. Trubisky has completed 68.9 percent of his passes for 3,468 yards and 28 scores and added 270 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The junior has plenty of help in the supporting cast, as he’s joined by standout running back Elijah Hood (858 yards) and dynamic receiver Ryan Switzer (91 catches). Stanford’s hopes of earning another Pac-12 title were derailed after three losses in the middle of the season, but coach David Shaw’s team rebounded by winning its last five games. The Cardinal didn’t beat a team with a winning record during that stretch. However, quarterback Keller Chryst played well (837 yards and 9 TDs) in his first extended action, and the defense finished second in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to 20.2 points a game. While Chryst’s progress is worth monitoring, it’s no secret the offense performs at its best with a strong ground game, and sophomore Bryce Love should be a tough matchup for a North Carolina defense surrendering 235.5 rushing yards per contest.
Early Prediction: Stanford
8. Alamo Bowl - Colorado (10-3) vs. Oklahoma State (9-3)
Dec. 29 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Buffaloes and Cowboys are former Big 12 rivals, but due to divisions in the old 12-team format, these two programs have not played since 2009. The Alamo Bowl landed an intriguing matchup with Colorado and Oklahoma State meeting in San Antonio, as both teams were on the doorstep of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl. The Buffaloes are one of the best stories from the 2016 college football season. After winning just 10 games from 2013-15, coach Mike MacIntyre elevated Colorado to a 10-win season and a Pac-12 South title. The Buffaloes are led by a stingy defense, especially in the secondary with underrated cornerback Chidobe Awuzie. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has made plenty of headlines due to his hairstyle choices this year, but the former quarterback is on the verge of his third 10-win season over the last four years. The pass-catch combination of Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington is a good test for Colorado’s secondary, while freshman Justice Hill and senior Chris Carson provide some punch on the ground. Expect a close (and entertaining game) in the Alamodome on Dec. 29.
Early Prediction: Colorado
7. Cotton Bowl - Western Michigan (13-0) vs. Wisconsin (10-3)
Jan. 2 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Behind coach P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan will row the boat from Kalamazoo to the biggest bowl game in program history. The Broncos capped a perfect regular season with a 29-23 victory over Ohio to secure the program’s first conference championship since 1988. A balanced attack leads the way for Western Michigan’s offense, as quarterback Zach Terrell is one of the nation’s most efficient passers (70.8% and 32 TDs) and running backs Jarvion Franklin and Jamauri Bogan combined for 2,165 yards on the ground. Receiver Corey Davis (91 catches) should be an All-American and is on the radar as a high pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. And here’s a stat that has to give Western Michigan some confidence: Group of 5 teams are 2-0 in New Year’s Six bowl games. However, the Broncos’ offense will have their hands full against Wisconsin’s defense, which is holding opponents to 15.5 points a game. The Badgers feature an active front seven around the line of scrimmage and a secondary that has allowed only 12 passing scores in 2016. As usual for a Wisconsin team, coach Paul Chryst’s offense is led by its ground attack. Running back Corey Clement will test a Western Michigan defense allowing 151.2 rushing yards a game.
Early Prediction: Wisconsin
6. Sugar Bowl - Auburn (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)
Jan. 2 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Auburn could be the team that benefits the most from the time off from the regular season finale until Jan. 2. The Tigers offense was hit hard by injuries in November, as quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway were less than 100 percent over the last couple of games. With a month to heal, White and Pettway should be closer to full strength, helping an offense that scored at least 38 points in four consecutive games in October return to form. Assuming Pettway is 100 percent, he’s a nightmare matchup for an Oklahoma defense giving up 160.8 rushing yards per game. Stopping the run is essential for the Sooners, but coach Bob Stoops’ team can also take Auburn out of its element by forcing it to play from behind. Oklahoma’s offense averages 44.7 points per game behind quarterback Baker Mayfield, running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon and receiver Dede Westbrook. Getting ahead and forcing Auburn to throw will help alleviate some of the concerns about the Sooners’ defense.
Early Prediction: Auburn
5. Citrus Bowl - Louisville (9-3) vs. LSU (7-4)
Dec. 31 – 11 a.m. ET, ABC
It doesn’t get much better than Lamar Jackson taking on one of the nation’s best defenses in Orlando. Although Louisville fell out of the playoff picture with losses to Houston and Kentucky, Jackson is still the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy after a prolific 2016 campaign. The sophomore showed marked improvement as a passer, accounted for 410.7 total yards per game and reached the end zone 51 times. Jackson has rarely been contained in 2016, so a LSU defense limiting opponents to just 16.4 points a game will present a tough challenge. Coordinator Dave Aranda coordinates a standout attack, which is headlined by a strong front seven and a secondary that has allowed only nine passing scores. New coach Ed Orgeron promised to spice up the offense when he replaced Les Miles in late September. Interim play-caller Steve Ensminger has guided the offense to at least 38 points in five out of the last seven games. Running back Leonard Fournette (843 yards) won't play due to injury, but LSU's ground attack is in good shape with sophomore Derrius Guice (1,249 yards).
Early Prediction: LSU
4. Capital One Orange Bowl - Michigan (10-2) vs. Florida State (9-3)
Dec. 30 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Florida State running back Dalvin Cook versus Michigan’s defense is one of the top one-on-one matchups of the bowl season. Cook finished 2016 as the school’s all-time leading rusher, recording 1,620 yards and 18 touchdowns (6.04 ypc). However, the junior faces a Wolverines’ defense limiting opponents to just 3.1 yards per carry. In addition to stopping the run, Michigan’s front seven is one of the best in the nation at getting to the quarterback, recording 44 sacks through 12 games. The Wolverines’ front seven should be a huge test for Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois and an offensive line that has surrendered 34 sacks in 2016. On the other side of the ball, the Seminoles could get a key reinforcement if safety Derwin James returns after missing most of the 2016 season due to a knee injury. The month to prepare should help Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, who was dealing with a shoulder injury at the end of the regular season. The Wolverines will also have their hands full in the trenches against a Florida State defense ranked No. 1 in the nation in sacks (47).
Early Prediction: Michigan
3. Rose Bowl - Penn State (11-2) vs. USC (9-3)
Jan. 2 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Penn State and USC were two of the nation’s hottest teams at the end of the regular season, so it’s appropriate they meet in Pasadena on Jan. 2 for the Rose Bowl. The Nittany Lions finished No. 5 in the CFB Playoff selection committee top 25 rankings after winning nine consecutive games to end the season. The biggest reason for Penn State’s improvement? Offense. Quarterback Trace McSorley thrived under new coordinator Joe Moorhead, and running back Saquon Barkley finished second among Big Ten rushers with 1,302 yards. Similar to the Nittany Lions, USC started slow with a 1-3 record through its first four games. However, the Trojans won eight in a row, largely due to the emergence of redshirt freshman Sam Darnold at quarterback. In addition to Darnold’s play, USC’s defense – a concern in the preseason – limited opponents to just 22.2 points a game. These two teams have played just once since 2001, with the only matchup taking place in the 2009 Rose Bowl.
Early Prediction: USC
2. Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (National Semifinal) - Alabama (13-0) vs. Washington (12-1)
Dec. 31 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Peach Bowl kicks off the third College Football Playoff, and there’s an interesting contrast in the two teams traveling to Atlanta. Alabama hopes to win its fifth national title in eight seasons, while Washington is making its first playoff appearance. Under coach Chris Petersen’s direction, the Huskies have experienced a quick rise back into national prominence. The Huskies feature a dynamic offense, headlined by quarterback Jake Browning and receiver John Ross, while running back Myles Gaskin eclipsed 1,000 yards for the second consecutive season. Washington’s defense is also one of the best in the nation and is headlined by a standout secondary. While the Huskies are a team on the rise, Petersen’s team is going to have its hands full. Alabama features the nation’s best collection of talent, No. 1 defense and a dynamic freshman quarterback in Jalen Hurts.
Early Prediction: Alabama
1. Fiesta Bowl (National Semifinal) - Clemson (12-1) vs. Ohio State (11-1)
Dec. 31 – 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
This is by far the most intriguing matchup of the bowl season. There’s no guarantee Alabama beats Washington, but the Crimson Tide are a heavy favorite over the Huskies. So which team – Ohio State or Clemson – gives Alabama the toughest matchup? Clemson fell short in its national title hopes last season, but coach Dabo Swinney’s team is just 60 minutes away from a potential rematch against Alabama in the CFB Playoff title game. The Tigers are once again loaded with firepower on offense, starting with quarterback Deshaun Watson. The junior accounted for 341.8 total yards per game this season and guided the Clemson offense to an average of 40.2 points a contest. Clemson’s defense suffered a handful of key personnel losses in the offseason but quickly reloaded behind coordinator Brent Venables. Ohio State returns to the Fiesta Bowl for the second year in a row. However, the stakes are much higher this season. The Buckeyes returned only six starters in 2016, but as expected under coach Urban Meyer, this team quickly reloaded. The passing offense behind quarterback J.T. Barrett is a work in progress, but playmakers Curtis Samuel (WR) and running back Mike Weber will provide a tough test for a Clemson defense ranked first in the ACC in fewest points allowed (18.4 ppg). The biggest question in this matchup: Which team wins the battle in the trenches? First impression: There’s a slight edge to Clemson in that department.
Early Prediction: Clemson
As football fate would have it, the Green Bay Packers keep on helping the Indianapolis Colts. It was exactly one month ago the Colts crept within a win of .500 with a 31-26 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. On Sunday, Green Bay continued its crusade for its fellow Midwestern football cousins, knocking off the Houston Texans, 21-13, ensuring that if the Colts win on “Monday Night Football” against the New York Jets, there would be three-way tie record-wise for first place in the AFC South with Indianapolis, Houston and Tennessee all sitting at 6-6. (Texans would still lead by virtue of a better divisional record.)
While the Colts are fighting for a playoff spot, the Jets are drowning. Two different three-game losing streaks have all but buried New York’s playoff chances in what has turned out to be a devastating disappointment of a season.
Indianapolis at New York
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 5 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Indianapolis -2
Three Things to Watch
1. The Return of Andrew Luck
Last week, the Colts proved that they’re only as good as their franchise quarterback is. Luck (concussion) didn't play against the Steelers on Thanksgiving night, and the Indianapolis offense was lost without him. With backup Scott Tolzien at the helm making his first start in three years, the Colts totaled 310 yards of offense, averaged less than five yards per play, and managed just seven points in Pittsburgh’s 28-7 victory.
Luck was back to practicing in full by the end of this week and on Saturday he was cleared from the NFL’s concussion protocol, so he will get the start tonight. As previously mentioned, this game against the Jets carries heavy implications for Indy. A win at MetLife Stadium would ensure a showdown for first place in the AFC South on Sunday with the Colts set to host Houston. But first Indianapolis needs to take care of business tonight. At least the Colts will have Luck back, but will he be in top form?
2. Jets’ Defensive Line Wreaking Havoc
On paper, New York may not be the popular pick on Monday night, but one area where the Jets have a clear advantage against the Colts is their defensive line. Indianapolis’ offensive line woes have been a common theme over the past several seasons and it’s no different in 2016. With rookie center Ryan Kelly and guard Denzelle Good battling injuries, the Jets’ front could have a field day.
A season ago, New York was among the league’s best, especially at forcing turnovers (30). But this year, that signature Todd Bowles aggressiveness hasn’t been as fruitful in the turnover department, as the Jets have just eight takeaways on the season. Tonight could be the perfect opportunity for Gang Green to simply pin their ears back and go full bore against a wobbly Colts offensive line.
3. Betting on a Brandon Marshall Breakout
It’s no secret that Indianapolis’ secondary is vulnerable, especially if you tuned in on Thanksgiving night and watched Antonio Brown torch a hobbled Vontae Davis for three touchdowns on five catches. Davis was eventually pulled because of a tweaked groin.
This week, it doesn't get much easier for the Colts’ defensive backs. The back end will be shorthanded once again as starting safety Clayton Geathers and cornerback Patrick Robinson have been ruled out, leaving an ailing Davis to deal with New York’s Brandon Marshall largely on his own.
Marshall leads the Jets in receptions (49) and receiving yards (668) this season, but his production is down to what he did in 2015. He has just three touchdowns, but tonight could result in a breakout performance for New York’s top target.
The Jets aren’t playing for much of anything for the rest of this season, while the Colts have everything to lose on Monday night. So what is the greater force? A team with nothing to lose or a team fighting to stay alive? Indianapolis clearly has more on the line and gets Andrew Luck back. As long as Luck can make it through the game, the Colts should be able to get past the Jets and create a three-way tie in the AFC South with just four games remaining.
Prediction: Colts 28, Jets 24
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.
A commanding, 41-10 rout over Colorado in the Pac-12 Championship Game concluded a 12-1 run and league title for the Washington Huskies. The Dawgs now will play for their first national championship in 25 years.
Qualities of this year's Washington football team are very much reminiscent of the last championship-winning team on Montlake – tenacious and physical defense, competent quarterback play, game-breakers in the backfield and an outstanding head coach overseeing it all.
As Washington readies for its national semifinal, Husky faithful have plenty of reasons to prepare to celebrate like it's 1991.
Playoff Teams: No. 1 Alabama I No. 2 Clemson I No. 3 Ohio State I No. 4 Washington
5 Reasons Why Washington Will Win the 2016 College Football Playoff
1. Turnover-Hungry Huskies
Washington came into Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game against Colorado leading college football in takeaways with 30. The hungry Huskies feasted on another three turnovers in the win over the Buffaloes.
Defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s strategy of tenacious pressure without calling blitzes throws a net over the field. Quarterbacks pass at their own peril against a fully manned, ball-hawking Washington secondary.
Colorado's Sefo Liufau did so. The result was game-changing, with Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Taylor Rapp picking off the senior signal-caller twice – once of which he returned for a touchdown – en route to game MVP honors.
The first-year phenom Rapp is just one of several dynamic playmakers able to generate takeaways on any play for the Huskies. Budda Baker excels in every facet of the game, whether it be run support, bringing a rare blitz, pass coverage and, of course, turnover-creation.
2. A Well-Rounded Passing Attack
Quarterback Jake Browning has garnered the lion’s share of individual attention throughout Washington’s run to a playoff berth, and the 2016 Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year earned every one of his plaudits.
Browning finished with 42 touchdowns against just seven interceptions on the campaign.
But without the dynamic receiving duo of John Ross and Dante Pettis, there are no awards and kudos piling up for Browning.
Ross and Pettis combined for a remarkable 31 touchdown catches. Ross' 17 rank behind only Western Michigan's Corey Davis for the most in college football.
Covering one presents a defense with a real pick-the-poison scenario, as they bring similar qualities that can prove game-changing.
Were that not enough, Darrell Daniels functions as one of the nation's most dangerous pass-catching tight ends in college football – a sturdy short-to-mid-range option to balance the big-play threat Ross and Pettis pose.
3. Double-Trouble in the Backfield
When head coach Chris Petersen seeks a change-of-pace in his running game, the production level doesn’t dip. Myles Gaskin serves as Washington’s primary ball carrier, and does so effectively. His 1,1810 rushing yards led the Pac-12 in the regular season, and he tacked on another 159 against Colorado.
But when Lavon Coleman’s number is called, the Huskies lose nothing, as he is averaging an impressive 7.8 yards per carry.
The duo has combined for 17 touchdowns. That total would be more were the Washington offense not so balanced, but that balance is precisely why the Huskies have the opportunity to play for a national championship.
4. Offensive Line Play
Browning's impressive individual numbers and the one-two combination of Coleman and Gaskin would not be possible without the performance of an outstanding offensive line. And, indeed, Washington's was the best in the Pac-12 this season.
First Team All-Pac-12 honorees Trey Adams and Jake Eldrenkamp, along with Second Team selection Coleman Shelton, establish the tone for Washington's physical brand of football.
The Husky front five blows would-be tacklers off the ball to open holes. Rarely does a Washington run fail to reach the second level. The credit starts with the players up front.
5. Chris Petersen
Petersen's never had the opportunity to coach for a national championship, but he's no stranger to college football's big stages.
He made his name nationally at Boise State with victories over heavyweights and lopsided favorites, going on a run from 2006-11 that included Fiesta Bowl wins over Oklahoma and TCU; a dominating defeat of Chip Kelly's first conference championship team at Oregon; and wins in virtual road games over Virginia Tech and Georgia.
In a season preceded with monumental hype, Petersen's even-tempered approach reflected in the approach of his roster. Gaskin credit Petersen specifically for keeping the Huskies focused on the task at hand – and through a conference championship and playoff berth, that style has paid dividends.
Despite not winning the Big Ten East Division, Ohio State was able to ride a five-game winning streak into the 2016 College Football Playoff. Ohio State last lost at Penn State, 24-21, on Oct. 22 in a raucous night game on a blocked field goal at Beaver Stadium. This loss enabled Penn State to claim the B1G East Division due to the head-to-head tiebreaker, but Ohio State secured a playoff spot, based upon not only the one loss on the Buckeyes' schedule, but also their strength of schedule. Wins at Oklahoma, at Wisconsin and over Michigan gave the Buckeyes three wins against top-10 teams.
Ohio State entered into the 2016 season with the majority of its roster made up of either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. While expected to be competitive, most college football analysts and fans believed the Buckeyes were a year away from being able to compete for a national title, having lost so much talent to the NFL. As the Buckeyes demonstrated throughout the 2016 season, youth was not only served, but also eager to prove itself.
Playoff Teams: No. 1 Alabama I No. 2 Clemson I No. 3 Ohio State I No. 4 Washington
5 Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win the 2016 College Football Playoff
1. Ohio State's Defensive Depth
As stated earlier, the Buckeyes lost a wealth of talent to the NFL in the spring. Losing Joey Bosa, Eli Apple, Darron Lee, Vonn Bell, Adolphus Washington, Joshua Perry, and Tyvis Powell alone from the starting defensive lineup was going to mean the Buckeyes would be weak on that side of the ball, right? Wrong. Yes, those players were outstanding, but the Buckeyes were able to reload with younger guys who are just as fast, if not faster, and probably even more opportunistic. Redshirt sophomore safety Malik Hooker has emerged as one of the best ball-hawking defensive backs in the entire country, as evidenced by his six interceptions, three of which he has returned for touchdowns. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is continually substituting guys up front, keeping everyone fresh. At linebacker, sophomore Jerome Baker also has emerged, coming up with big plays at key moments.
2. Curtis Samuel
When Urban Meyer began coaching the Buckeyes in 2012, Ohio State fans were often told that the coaching staff was always on the lookout for the next Percy Harvin-type player who could make the offense difficult to defend. It is entirely possible that instead of talking about Harvin, college football fans may be talking about being on the lookout for the next Curtis Samuel. A true hybrid offensive threat, Samuel has been used as a running back, wide receiver and punt returner. He has 704 yards rushing, averaging more than seven yards per carry, and eight touchdowns on the ground. He also is the team’s leading receiver with 65 catches while averaging nearly 13 yards per reception and seven more scores. Difficult to defend with a linebacker or a safety, teams often will spy on Samuel with a cornerback, which has opened up opportunities for others such as…
3. Noah Brown
At 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, Browns serves as another physical mismatch for opposing defenses to try and handle. Brown, a redshirt sophomore, is not a burner, but he is a terrific possession-type of receiver who can outmuscle defensive backs, especially in the end zone. Oklahoma found this out the hard way back in September. Brown has just 30 catches thus far, but he’s tied with Samuel for the team lead in touchdown receptions with seven.
4. J.T. Barrett
The redshirt junior quarterback is the heart and soul of the Ohio State team. A threat with his legs, Barrett has already run for more than 800 yards with nine touchdowns. Barrett’s mobility makes it hard for defenses to put the Buckeyes in second- or third-and-long situations. Barrett also has been efficient when he throws the ball, utilizing weapons like Curtis Samuel and Noah Brown. Barrett has 24 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. And when the game becomes tight, it seems as though Barrett is at his best, displaying a poise and command that steadies the entire team.
5. Urban Meyer
A master motivator, Meyer always relishes the underdog mentality whenever the media doubts the capabilities of his teams. Even being in the playoff will not deter Meyer from an "us against the world" mindset, as he will look for any and every possible angle to blister his players' pride and have the Buckeyes ready to seize the moment in the national spotlight.
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.