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The 2014-15 college football season concluded with Ohio State’s 42-20 win over Oregon on Monday night in Arlington, Texas. Although the on-field game action is over until next August, spring practice and offseason workouts will start for some teams in February. And with Signing Day just around the corner, there’s no shortage of college football news to fill the offseason void.
While the 2014-15 season is fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year. The second college football playoff schedule has a few tweaks from this season’s version, as the Cotton and Orange host semifinal games on Dec. 31, with the national title game slated for Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz.
Early College Football Title Favorites for 2015
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 1
Defending a national title is no easy task, but Ohio State is equipped to return to the championship game in 2015. The quarterback battle will dominate the offseason in Columbus, as coach Urban Meyer returns three standouts (Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones) ready to compete for the No. 1 job. Regardless of who starts under center, expect to see plenty of running back Ezekiel Elliott. The defense will miss tackle Michael Bennett and cornerback Doran Grant. However, end Joey Bosa and linebacker Darron Lee are two of the top defenders in the nation.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 2
The Crimson Tide has their share of offseason question marks to answer. Is Jake Coker ready to assume the starting job at quarterback? Who steps up to replace receiver Amari Cooper and safety Landon Collins? Until those questions are answered, Alabama can lean on a ground attack anchored by Derrick Henry (990 yards in 2014) and a tough front seven on defense.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 3
The Horned Frogs were one of the nation’s most improved squads in 2014. After finishing 4-8 in 2013, TCU jumped to 12 victories and dominated Ole Miss 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Most of coach Gary Patterson’s squad returns intact, starting with quarterback Trevone Boykin and a talented group of skill players. Defense is always a strength in Fort Worth, but Patterson will have a few voids to fill, including standout defensive backs Kevin White (CB), Chris Hackett (S) and Sam Carter (S), along with linebacker Paul Dawson and tackle Chucky Hunter.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 4
Until quarterback Marcus Mariota declares for the NFL or announces he is staying in college for another year, the Ducks are the hardest team to rank in early polls for 2015. Even if Mariota leaves, Oregon has a solid foundation for next season. The backfield of Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman can carry the offense until a new quarterback emerges. The defense needs to reload up front - if Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner leave for the NFL - and in the secondary, but the Ducks should remain the favorite in the Pac-12 North.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 5
TCU is the favorite in the Big 12 next season, but the Bears aren’t too far behind. Art Briles continues to elevate the talent level in Waco, and even though quarterback Bryce Petty departs, there’s a track record of developing signal-callers at Baylor (under Briles). The Bears received some good news around the draft deadline, as offensive tackle Spencer Drango and end Shawn Oakman both decided to return for their senior season.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 6
In Mark Dantonio we trust. In four out of the last five seasons, Michigan State has won at least 11 games. Dantonio has to replace defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, and there’s a handful of personnel concerns to address. Receiver Tony Lippett, cornerback Trae Waynes and running back Jeremy Langford won’t return, but the Spartans can ride veteran quarterback Connor Cook until the rest of the pieces fall into place.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 7
Fixing the defense was the top priority for coach Gus Malzahn this offseason, and he addressed the team’s biggest question mark by hiring former Florida coach Will Muschamp to call the defensive signals. Muschamp inherits a defense that returns most of its starting unit, and end Carl Lawson is back from a torn ACL that forced the rising star to miss all of 2014. The transition from Nick Marshall to Jeremy Johnson should be seamless at quarterback.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 8
The Bulldogs have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons. And with the question marks surrounding the rest of the SEC East teams, coach Mark Richt’s squad is the early favorite to win the division in 2015. New offensive play-caller Brian Schottenheimer was an interesting hire, but the formula for Georgia’s offense shouldn’t change much with running back Nick Chubb leading the way. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was one of the top assistant hires from 2014. Pruitt should help the defense take another step forward in 2015.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 9
The Pac-12 South is loaded with good teams next year, but a slight edge as the favorite – for now – goes to USC. The Trojans need to find a way to close out games better, as coach Steve Sarkisian’s team lost three games by a touchdown or less. Receiver Nelson Agholor and running back Buck Allen are off to the NFL, but quarterback Cody Kessler and talented freshmen receivers JuJu Smith and Adoree’ Jackson return. End Leonard Williams is a significant loss on defense.
Early 2015 Ranking: No. 10
Over the last five years, the only team in the nation that has a better recruiting rank average than Florida State is Alabama. While the Seminoles have to replace quarterback Jameis Winston, receiver Rashad Greene, four starters on the offensive line and find a few answers on defense for a unit that allowed 25.6 points per game in 2014, there’s a ton of promising talent in place. Of course, the Seminoles will be a young team next year, but running back Dalvin Cook is a good place to start the rebuilding effort.
Under-the-Radar Teams to Watch for the Top 10 in 2015
The Yellow Jackets should be the favorites in the Coastal Division. Quarterback Justin Thomas returns, but the skill talent must be restocked with running backs Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins and receiver DeAndre Smelter expiring their eligibility.
Talent certainly isn’t an issue in Baton Rouge. However, the Tigers need to develop a passing game to pair with standout sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. How much will LSU miss veteran coordinator John Chavis?
The Rebels need to retool in the secondary, but the front seven should be among the best in the nation. Can Hugh Freeze find a quarterback this spring?
It’s a close call between USC, Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and Utah for the early nod as the favorite in the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils host USC, Oregon and Arizona next year, and Mike Bercovici is ready to step in at quarterback to replace Taylor Kelly.
The Fighting Irish started 6-0 but finished 2-5 over their last seven games. Injuries and turnovers were largely to blame for the second-half struggles, but most of the team’s core is set to return for 2015. Malik Zaire is a promising option at quarterback, and the defense should take a step forward with the return of cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams from suspension.
2015-16 College Football New Year’s Six Bowl Schedule
If the top 10 looks like this at the end of the year, here’s a (very) early projection on the top bowls for 2015:
Chick-fil-A Bowl – Dec. 31
Projection: Georgia vs. Florida State
Fiesta – Jan. 1
Projection: Boise State vs. Arizona State
Rose – Jan. 1
Projection: USC vs. Michigan State
Sugar – Jan. 1
Projection: Baylor vs. Auburn
Cotton – Semifinal – Dec. 31
Projection: Ohio State vs. Oregon
Orange – Semifinal – Dec. 31
Projection: Alabama vs. TCU
National Championship – Jan. 11
Projection: Ohio State vs. Alabama
Ohio State has won the first College Football Playoff national championship, and Athlon Sports college football writers Braden Gall and David Fox are here to break down how it happened and what it all means.
On the championship edition of the Cover 2, we discuss:
• What does Ohio State’s run to the championship as a No. 4 seed say about the new playoff era and what it means for future selection committees.
• Why Ohio State is built to make another run at a championship.
• Where Cardale Jones’ story places among the great storylines in college football and what we’re looking for next out of Ohio State’s embarrassment of riches at quarterback.
• Where Urban Meyer stands among college football coaches. Has he overtaken Nick Saban as the best in the game? We’re not sure, but we say he’s the most transformative coach of the era.
• Where does Marcus Mariota’s legacy stand with the great quarterbacks of the era.
Does he rank with with Vince Young and Tim Tebow?
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 13:
• Sorry, Oregon. At least you still have the best cheerleaders in college football.
• Patrick Reed won the Hyundai TOC with an epic comeback, but it was his hat tan that was truly epic.
• This story says that Urban Meyer has closed the gap on Nick Saban. I think he passed St. Nick last night as the nation's best college football coach, and his Buckeyes look like they have staying power.
• I agree with this: Cardale Jones should turn pro. His stock will never be higher, and he didn't come to Columbus to play school anyway.
• I haven't linked to the Onion in a while. I'll rectify that error now.
• Feel-good video of the day: Leah Still does the Dougie.
• Watch Kevin Garnett head-butt Dwight Howard.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
1. Golden State Warriors (29-5)
The Warriors might be due for a slump, but even without starting center Andrew Bogut they’ve been pillaging through the league — right now, they’re on pace to win exactly 70 games. They’ve been the best team of the 2014-15 season by virtually every measure.
2. Atlanta Hawks (29-8)
Can anyone in the Eastern Conference beat the red-hot Hawks? They’re 23-3 since some small struggles at season’s beginning, establishing a sharp, selfless offensive system with perhaps the best passing and off-ball motion in all of basketball.
3. Portland Trail Blazers (30-8)
Robin Lopez is out, but the Blazers just keep winning. Damian Lillard is due for some MVP attention soon, especially if he keeps doing things like this:
4. Chicago Bulls (26-12)
Despite Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah still not looking like themselves with any consistency this season, the Bulls have been rolling. A lot of that has to do with Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler — two players who, respectively, were seen as done and never capable of playing this well.
5. Houston Rockets (26-11)
James Harden continues to lead the Rockets, bolstering his MVP résume daily as Houston still finds the best role for newcomer Josh Smith. And, outside of everyone’s attention, Dwight Howard has been back to playing elite ball at center.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (26-11)
The Grizzlies trading for Jeff Green gives them some serious scoring depth on the wings, and the return of Zach Randolph from injury should vault them back into the league’s highest echelon.
7. Toronto Raptors (25-11)
DeMar DeRozan’s return came last night against the Detroit Pistons, and it couldn’t have come any sooner. The Raptors have been just 12-8 without him, after starting 13-3 and taking seize of the Eastern Conference to open the season.
8. Dallas Mavericks (26-12)
As Rajon Rondo adjusts to life in coach Rick Carlisle’s offense, one of the league’s new giants begins to take shape. If these Mavs stay healthy, they’re more than capable of coming out of the Western Conference.
9. Washington Wizards (25-12)
The Wizards continue to be an enigma, falling somewhere between playoff fodder and true title contender. John Wall is a breakout superstar, and Paul Pierce’s presence has made for positive change — but something still seems missing in D.C.
10. Los Angeles Clippers (25-13)
The Clippers, more than ever, are facing title-or-bust expectations. Optimists may suggest that’s why they’ve had a rocky 2014-15 season; they’re just waiting until the stakes are raised before they play their best ball. If not’s the case, though, then there’s cause for heightened concern in Lob City.
11. Phoenix Suns (22-18)
The Suns are on the fringe of the loaded Western Conference playoff picture, and they’ve decided to push more chips to the table’s center by trading for big man Brandan Wright. This unusual roster is one of the NBA’s most exciting, for the second year running.
12. San Antonio Spurs (23-15)
The Spurs have seen Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard miss 16 games this season. DNP’s have long been par for the course in San Antonio, but for a 23-year-old? Until Leonard looks right and the Spurs snap out of their championship hangover, we’re hedging on them.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (20-19)
The young Bucks are one of the surprises of the season, forming one of the best defenses in the NBA despite accruing injuries all year. Head coach Jason Kidd is proving himself as an effective culture changer.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (19-19)
The reeling Cavs have more questions than answers, and the questions grow with every day. LeBron James is due to return soon — but even he can’t solve the litany of issues plaguing Cleveland.
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (18-19)
The Thunder have a lot left to prove. Things haven’t been as smooth and easy as the return of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook might have made them, with OKC playing just .500 ball over their last ten contests. If they don’t put their foot on the pedal soon, they could risk missing the playoffs.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (18-18)
Anthony Davis might be the best player in the league, and Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday round out a solid core of talent around him. But the dropoff after those five is too dramatic for the Pelicans to be a real playoff contender in the West. New Orleans is more than one move away.
17. Miami Heat (16-21)
Hassan Whiteside is a breakout, mid-season star in the vein of Jeremy Lin. Considered a bust or a never-was by most scouts, Whiteside is now making tons of teams slap their foreheads after waiving him. The bright spot of the Heat’s sagging season, Whiteside is a story to keep your eyes on.
18. Detroit Pistons (13-24)
Stan Van Gundy’s squad could easily climb much higher in the next installment of these rankings. Winners of eight of their last nine, the Pistons simply need to get to ground level after digging themselves so deep — then, they’ll be playoff contenders in the thin East.
19. Brooklyn Nets (16-21)
The Nets stink. With a collection of overpaid, unhappy players, general manager Billy King is wondering if he can ship off enough of his roster to avoid more harsh luxury tax penalties, and keep owner Mikhail Prokhorov from giving him some nasty parting words.
20. Denver Nuggets (17-20)
Trading Timofey Mozgov to the Cavaliers could mean the beginning of a Nuggets fire sale — alternately, it could not. Denver is deep down low, so Mozgov (despite being arguably their best big man) was somewhat expendable. Time will tell if he was the first domino in a larger trend.
21. Sacramento Kings (16-21)
The firing of head coach Mike Malone isn’t looking any smarter today. Troublesome-but-mega-talented big man DeMarcus Cousins is still destroying his defenders in the paint, but his attitude has taken a visible turn for the worse, and the future in Sacramento is more foggy than ever.
22. Utah Jazz (13-25)
An injury to starting center Enes Kanter has been a silver lining in Salt Lake City — it’s made way for the arrival of Rudy Gobert, a 7’1”, 22-year-old Frenchman who’s quickly building a reputation as one of the best rim-protectors in basketball. The future is bright in Utah.
23. Indiana Pacers (15-24)
Frank Vogel has proved himself as one of the best coaches in the NBA this year. With a terrible roster and even worse injuries, these Pacers have had no business entering double-digits in the win column. Vogel’s intensity and preparation have taken them there.
24. Charlotte Hornets (15-24)
The Hornets have been playing a better, more team-first game without the injured Lance Stephenson in the lineup. Too bad they’re still struggling to make the playoffs in the East, and making it harder to trade Stephenson away in the process.
25. Boston Celtics (12-23)
Let the rebuild begin in earnest. After sending out Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, Boston has made it as clear as can be that they’re sellers, looking to collect more and more draft picks as they glance toward tomorrow.
26. Los Angeles Lakers (12-26)
Kobe Bryant’s tempered his game to fit more into what the Lakers are doing — finally. The question is whether winning some extra games is good for their draft prospects and overall future.
27. Orlando Magic (13-27)
The Magic still aren’t expected to crack the playoffs, but this is a year in which more growth should be visible. It’s definitely time to wonder whether Jacque Vaughn is the man for the job at head coach.
28. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-31)
Andrew Wiggins has started to soar and look like a real No. 1 overall pick, providing the only germ of watchability in an awful, injury-plagued season in Minnesota.
29. Philadelphia 76ers (7-29)
The Sixers’ tank rolls on, and until it stops and takes the course toward competition, we’ll just have to keep enjoying their dance moves more than anything they do between the whistles:
30. New York Knicks (5-35)
Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith are out the door, and one wonders if Carmelo Anthony would be too, if not for his no-trade clause and shaky knees. The Knicks are scorching the earth around ‘Melo and seeing what they can do to rebuild around him. How long will it take?
— John Wilmes
Many consider the modern era of college football to be 1998-present — when the Bowl Championship Series went into effect.
Every team that wins the season’s final game is historically great in its own unique way, but trying to figure out who would win among those champs is a fun exercise.
Here is our best shot at ranking the national champions in the modern era of college football (1998-present):
1. Miami, 2001 (12-0, 7-0)
Head Coach: Larry Coker
This team was loaded and is viewed by many as one of the best ever in college football history. With a roster featuring six first-team All-Americans and 13 first-team All-Big East selections, not to mention 32 future NFL draft picks, these Hurricanes dominated on both sides of the ball and steamrolled their competition from start to finish. They started things off by going to Happy Valley and dominating Penn State 33-7, which tied the record for the Nittany Lions’ worst home loss under Joe Paterno. Later on, the ‘Canes defeated No. 14 Syracuse and No. 12 Washington in consecutive weeks at the Orange Bowl with a combined score of 124-7, which set the NCAA record for largest margin of victory over consecutive ranked opponents. They capped things off by dismantling the No. 4 Nebraska Cornhuskers 37-14 in the Rose Bowl.
Sept. 1: Miami 33, Penn St 7
Sept. 8: Miami 61, Rutgers 0
Sept. 27: Miami 43, Pitt 21
Oct. 6: Miami 38, Troy 7
Oct. 13: Miami 49, (#14) Florida St 27
Oct. 25: Miami 45, W. Virginia 3
Nov. 3: Miami 38, Temple 0
Nov. 10: Miami 18, B. College 7
Nov. 17: Miami 59, (#14) Syracuse 0
Nov. 24: Miami 65, (#12) Wash. 7
Dec. 1: Miami 26, (#14) V. Tech 24
Jan. 3: Miami 37, (#4) Nebraska 14
2. USC, 2004 (13-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Pete Carroll
After a split national title in 2003 with LSU, the Trojans entered 2004 as the No. 1 team in the nation. The Trojans went wire to wire as the No. 1 team in the nation, claimed the Heisman Trophy and put together the most impressive national championship game in the history of the BCS. Quarterback Matt Leinart capped his Heisman campaign with 332 yards and a BCS bowl record five touchdown passes in the destruction of unbeaten No. 2 Oklahoma. The two-headed rushing attack of LenDale White and Reggie Bush made it virtually impossible to stop these Trojans. Eighteen different players from this team were selected in the first or second rounds of the NFL Draft.
Aug. 28: USC 24, V. Tech 13
Sept. 11: USC 49, Colorado St 0
Sept. 18: USC 42, BYU 10
Sept. 25: USC 31, Stanford 28
Oct: 9: USC 23, (#7) Cal 17
Oct. 16: USC 45, (#15) Arizona St 7
Oct. 23: USC 38, Wash. 0
Oct. 30: USC 42, Wazzu 12
Nov. 6: USC 28, Oregon St 20
Nov. 13: USC 49, Arizona 9
Nov. 27: USC 41, Notre Dame 10
Dec. 4: USC 29, UCLA 24
Jan. 4: USC 55, Oklahoma 19
3. Texas, 2005 (13-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Mack Brown
Texas entered the season ranked No. 2 behind defending national champion USC, and that’s where the two found themselves when they met in the Rose Bowl. To get to Pasadena, Texas steamrolled the competition, averaging more than 50 points a game. Texas became the first non-conference opponent in 15 years to defeat Ohio State at home, and followed that win up a month later by dominating Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry. The Longhorns destroyed Colorado in the Big 12 Championship to set up the showdown with USC. The Rose Bowl title tilt lived up to every bit of its billing as Vince Young put on the most impressive performance in BCS title game history to capture the Longhorns’ fourth national championship in thrilling fashion. Young was one of four consensus All-Americans for this Texas team — which produced a total of 24 NFL Draft picks.
Sept. 3: Texas 60, La-Lafayette 3
Sept. 10: Texas 25, (#4) Ohio St 22
Sept. 17: Texas 51, Rice 10
Oct. 1: Texas 51, Missouri 20
Oct. 8: Texas 45, Okla. 12
Oct. 15: Texas 42, (#24) Colo. 17
Oct. 22: Texas 52, (#10) T. Tech 17
Oct. 29: Texas 47, Okla. St 28
Nov. 5: Texas 62, Baylor 0
Nov. 12: Texas 66, Kansas 14
Nov. 25: Texas 40, Texas A&M 29
Dec. 3: Texas 70, Colo. 3
Jan. 4: Texas 41, (#1) USC 38
4. Florida State, 2013 (14-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher
The Noles rolled through its 2013 schedule with surprising ease, beating 13 regular season opponents by more than six touchdowns per game (42.3). Elite defensive players at every level compliment a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback, a veteran offensive line and big-time playmakers at the skill positions. Even the special teams were elite and decorated with the Groza winner kicking field goals. This team is one of only four 14-win, unblemished BCS championship teams — and is the highest scoring team in FSU history (723, 51.6 ppg). The '13 Noles will go down as one of the most dominant, decorated and successful teams in college football history after erasing the biggest deficit in BCS title game history (18).
Sept 2: Florida St 41, Pitt 13
Sept. 14: Florida St 62, Nevada 7
Sept. 21: Florida St 54, Beth-Cookman 6
Sept. 28: Florida St 48, B. College 34
Oct. 5: Florida St 63, (#25) Maryland 0
Oct. 19: Florida St 51, (#3) Clemson 14
Oct. 26: Florida S 49, NC State 17
Nov. 2: Florida St 41, (#7) Miami 14
Nov. 9: Florida St 59, W. Forest 3
Nov. 16: Florida St 59, Syracuse 3
Nov. 23: Florida St 80, Idaho 14
Nov. 30: Florida St 37, Florida 7
Dec. 7: Florida St 45, (#20) Duke 7
Jan. 6: Florida St 34, (#2) Auburn 31
5. Alabama, 2009 (14-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Led by boy genius quarterback Greg McElroy and a host of national award-winning first round NFL Draft picks, the Alabama Crimson Tide won their first national title since 1992. Nick Saban defeated five ranked opponents before taking down No. 2 Texas in the BCS National Championship game 37-21. This was the best defense in the nation, finishing second nationally in three of the four major statistical categories. Heisman winner Mark Ingram rushed 28 times for 113 yards and three scores in the tear-inducing 32-13 win over Florida in SEC title game rematch. This Bama team featured 11 first round NFL Draft picks.
Sept. 5: Alabama 34, (#7) V. Tech 24
Sept. 12: Alabama 40, FIU 14
Sept. 19: Alabama 53, N. Texas 7
Sept. 26: Alabama 35, Arkansas 7
Oct. 3: Alabama 38, Kentucky 20
Oct. 10: Alabama 22, (#20) Ole Miss 3
Oct. 17: Alabama 20, (#22) S. Carolina 6
Oct. 24: Alabama 12, Tennessee 10
Nov. 7: Alabama 24, (#9) LSU 15
Nov. 14: Alabama 31, Miss. St 3
Nov. 21: Alabama 45, Tenn-Chatt. 0
Nov. 27: Alabama 26, Auburn 21
Dec. 5: Alabama 32, (#1) Florida 13
Jan. 7: Alabama 37, (#2) Texas 21
6. Florida, 2008 (13-1, 7-1)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Tim Tebow had his Heisman Trophy (2007) and a national championship ring (2006). But when the Florida Gators lost to the Ole Miss Rebels in The Swamp on a final drive fourth-down stop, Tebow took his legendary legacy to new heights, giving one of the most famous speeches in college football history: “You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season.” The Gators then went on to crush quality opponents Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida State and Alabama by an average of 31.8 points per game. The win over No. 1 and unbeaten Alabama pushed the Gators into the national title game against another No. 1. The Chosen One then delivered on his promise (and halftime speech) by outlasting Oklahoma 24-14. These Gators tied the 1996 national champs as the highest-scoring team in school history (611 points).
Aug. 30: Florida 56, Hawaii 10
Sept. 6: Florida 26, Miami 3
Sept. 20: Florida 30, Tennessee 6
Sept. 27: Ole Miss 31, Florida 30
Oct. 4: Florida 38, Arkansas 7
Oct. 11: Florida 51, (#4) LSU 21
Oct. 25: Florida 63, Kentucky 5
Nov. 1: Florida 49, (#8) Georgia 10
Nov. 8: Florida 42, Vanderbilt 14
Nov. 15: Florida 56, (#24) S. Carolina 6
Nov. 22: Florida 70, Citadel 19
Nov. 29: Florida 45, (#23) Florida St 15
Dec. 6: Florida 31, (#1) Alabama 20
Jan. 8: Florida 24, (#2) Oklahoma 14
7. Tennessee, 1998 (13-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Phillip Fulmer
In Year 1 A.P. (after Peyton), the Vols put together their greatest season in nearly five decades. Tee Martin and a monster backfield that included Travis Henry, Jamal Lewis, Travis Stephens and Shawn Bryson, led the Vols past six ranked opponents for Tennessee’s sixth national championship. The defense held nine of its 13 opponents to 18 points or less. Despite a BCS record 199 yards receiving (242 all-purpose yards) and the game-winning 79-yard touchdown for game MVP Peerless Price, the most important and memorable moment from the 1998 title run came late in the Arkansas game. Tennessee was all but beaten until Billy Ratliff forced guard Brandon Burlsworth into quarterback Clint Stoerner, who gently and inexplicably “placed” the football on the ground. The Vols used a Henry touchdown run in the final seconds to seal the comeback from a 21-3 deficit and the eventual national championship.
Sept. 5: Tennessee 34, (#17) Syracuse 33
Sept. 19: Tennessee 20, (#2) Florida 17
Sept. 26: Tennessee 42, Houston 7
Oct. 3: Tennessee 17, Auburn 9
Oct. 10: Tennessee 22, (#7) Georgia 3
Oct. 24: Tennessee 35, Alabama 18
Oct. 31: Tennessee 49, S. Carolina 14
Nov. 7: Tennessee 37, UAB 13
Nov. 14: Tennessee 28, (#10) Arkansas 24
Nov. 21: Tennessee 59, Kentucky 21
Nov. 28: Tennessee 41, Vanderbilt 0
Dec. 5: Tennessee 24, (#23) Miss. St 14
Jan. 4: Tennessee 23, (#2) Florida St 16
8. Alabama, 2011 (12-1, 7-1)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Alabama rolled through its schedule — which included easy victories over three ranked opponents — until the "Game of the Century" on November 5 against LSU. The Tide outplayed the Tigers on offense and defense in that game, but special teams cost Saban a perfect season. After crushing rival Auburn, the Tide headed to New Orleans for a rematch with LSU. In a performance that would make the Bear weep, the Tide held the Bayou Bengals to five first downs, 92 yards of offense and no points. Alabama led the nation in every major defensive team NCAA statistic and it showed in the title game. This Crimson Tide team is the only BCS National Champion who failed to win its conference championship and the offense did not possess the same level of explosive talent on offense (and it lost a game) to be ranked ahead of the '09 Alabama title squad. This team featured nine first round NFL Draft picks.
Sept. 3: Alabama 48, Kent St 7
Sept. 10: Alabama 27, (#23) Penn St 11
Sept. 17: Alabama 41, N. Texas 0
Sept. 24: Alabama 38, (#14) Arkansas 14
Oct. 1: Alabama 38, (#12) Florida 10
Oct. 8: Alabama 34, Vanderbilt 0
Oct. 15: Alabama 52, Ole Miss 7
Oct. 22: Alabama 37, Tennessee 6
Nov. 5: (#1) LSU 9, Alabama 6
Nov. 12: Alabama 24, Miss. St 7
Nov. 19: Alabama 45, Ga Southern 21
Nov. 26: Alabama 42, Auburn 14
Jan. 9: Alabama 21, (#1) LSU 0
9. Oklahoma, 2000 (13-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Bob Stoops
This Sooners team entered the season ranked No. 19 in the country, but fueled by an impressive three-game stretch in October, it ended the season in the title game. Behind quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up Josh Heupel and a stingy defense, the Sooners would battle with Florida State in the Orange Bowl. The Seminoles’ potent offense, led by quarterback and Heisman winner Chris Weinke, was held in check and scoreless by the Sooners defense in the lowest scoring Orange Bowl in 30 years. Fittingly enough, linebacker Torrance Marshall, who had six tackles and an interception, took home MVP honors as Oklahoma defeated Florida State 13-2 to capture its seventh national championship and first since 1985.
Sept. 2: Oklahoma 55, UTEP 14
Sept. 9: Oklahoma 45, Ark. St 7
Sept. 23: Oklahoma 42, Rice 17
Sept. 30: Oklahoma 34, Kansas 16
Oct. 7: Oklahoma 63, (#11) Texas 14
Oct. 14: Oklahoma 41, (#2) Kansas St 31
Oct. 28: Oklahoma 31, (#3) Nebraska 14
Nov. 4: Oklahoma 56, Baylor 7
Nov. 11: Oklahoma 35, (#23) Texas A&M 31
Nov. 18: Oklahoma 27, T. Tech 13
Nov. 25: Oklahoma 12, Okla. St 7
Dec. 2: Oklahoma 27, (#8) Kansas St 24
Jan. 3: Oklahoma 13, (#3) Florida St 2
10. Florida State, 1999 (12-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Bobby Bowden
This team claimed nine first-team All-ACC performers and six second-team selections. Florida State became the first team in history to go wire-to-wire as No. 1 team in all three polls after beating five ranked opponents. It was the third-highest scoring Noles team in school history at the time (fifth now). Chris Weinke and Peter Warrick outlasted Michael Vick and the Hokies in the memorable 1999 championship game. Warrick, after surviving some off-the-field incidents, claimed MVP honors after catching six passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns and returning a punt for a score. The win gave Bobby Bowden his second national championship.
Aug. 28: Florida St 41, La. Tech 7
Sept. 11: Florida St 41, (#10) Ga. Tech 35
Sept. 18: Florida St 42, (#20) NC State 11
Sept. 25: Florida St 42, N. Carolina 10
Oct. 2: Florida St 51, Duke 23
Oct. 9: Florida St 31, (#19) Miami 21
Oct. 16: Florida St 33, W. Forest 10
Oct. 23: Florida St 17, Clemson 10
Oct. 30: Florida St 35, Virginia 10
Nov. 13: Florida St 49, Maryland 10
Nov. 20: Florida St 30, (#4) Florida 20
Jan. 4: Florida St 46, (#2) Va. Tech 29
11. Alabama, 2012 (13-1, 7-1)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
The 2012 Crimson Tide championship team isn't as strong defensively as the unit that dominated the college football landscape the year before, but defending a title is almost always more difficult than winning the first one. AJ McCarron had spotlight moments all season long, including 264 yards and four touchdowns against Notre Dame in the title game. Had McCarron not thrown the goal-line interception against Texas A&M, this team would have easily landed in the top 10. It rolled up 529 yards of offense and 42 points in one of the more impressive title game performances against one of the best defenses in the nation.
Sept. 1: Alabama 41, (#8) Michigan 14
Sept. 8: Alabama 35, W. Kentucky 0
Sept. 15: Alabama 52, Arkansas 0
Sept. 22: Alabama 40, FAU 7
Sept. 29: Alabama 33, Ole Miss 14
Oct. 13: Alabama 42, Missouri 10
Oct. 20: Alabama 44, Tennessee 13
Oct. 27: Alabama 38, (#13) Miss. St 7
Nov. 3: Alabama 21, LSU 17
Nov. 10: (#15) Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24
Nov. 17: Alabama 49, W. Carolina 0
Nov. 24: Alabama 49, Auburn 0
Dec. 1: Alabama 32, (#3) Georgia 28
Jan. 7: Alabama 42, (#1) N. Dame 14
12. LSU, 2003 (13-1, 7-1)
Head Coach: Nick Saban
Nick Saban restored the LSU name to prominence in only his fourth year at the helm. His team led the nation in total defense (252 ypg) and scoring defense (11.0 ppg) — Arkansas was the only team to score more than 14 points against the Bayou Bengals. Quarterback Matt Mauck steered the ship, Justin Vincent and Joseph Addai powered the offense and one of the deepest receiving corps in history gave LSU tremendous balance. With three one-loss teams sitting atop the standings — and USC ranked No. 1 in both the AP and Coaches’ Poll — the computers controversially placed the Sooners in the National Championship game against the Tigers. After the 21-14 win over an Oklahoma team boasting the Heisman, Thorpe, Lombardi and Bednarik winners, LSU claimed the BCS national title — splitting the votes with USC. It was their first national championship since 1958.
Aug. 30: LSU 49, UL Monroe 7
Sept. 6: LSU 59, Arizona 13
Sept. 13: LSU 35, W. Illinois 7
Sept. 20: LSU 17, (#7) Georgia 10
Sept. 27: LSU 41, Miss. St 6
Oct. 11: Florida 19, LSU 7
Oct. 18: LSU 33, S. Carolina 7
Oct. 25: LSU 31, (#17) Auburn 7
Nov. 1: LSU 49, La. Tech 10
Nov. 15: LSU 27, Alabama 3
Nov. 22: LSU 17, (#15) Ole Miss 14
Nov. 28: LSU 55, Arkansas 24
Dec. 6: LSU 34, (#5) Georgia 13
Jan. 4: LSU 21, (#3) Oklahoma 14
13. Auburn, 2010 (14-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Gene Chizik
The one-year wonders Cam Newton and Nick Fairley gave Auburn arguably its most important recruiting haul in history when they both chose the Loveliest Village on the Plains. The Heisman Trophy winner willed his team to victory against Mississippi State, Clemson, Kentucky, Alabama, Oregon and defined his legacy with an incredible 49-yard touchdown run in the third quarter of a tied game with LSU. Newton finished with 2,854 yards passing, 1,473 yards rushing and an SEC second-best 51 total touchdowns. This is the only 14-win team in school history and was the highest-scoring Tigers team in program history (577 pts).
Sept. 4: Auburn 52, Ark. St 26
Sept. 9: Auburn 17, Miss. St 14
Sept. 18: Auburn 27, Clemson 24
Sept. 25: Auburn 35, (#12) S. Carolina 27
Oct. 2: Auburn 52, UL Monroe 3
Oct. 9: Auburn 37, Kentucky 34
Oct. 16: Auburn 65, (#12) Arkansas 43
Oct. 23: Auburn 24, (#6) LSU 17
Oct. 30: Auburn 51, Ole Miss 31
Nov. 6: Auburn 62, Tenn-Chatt 24
Nov. 13: Auburn 28, (#9) Alabama 27
Dec. 4: Auburn 56, (#18) S. Carolina 17
Jan. 10: Auburn 22, (#2) Oregon 19
14. Ohio State, 2002 (14-0, 8-0)
Head Coach: Jim Tressel
The team that never gave up began the season ranked No. 13 in the nation and slowing grinded their way to the No. 1 spot in the final standings. The Buckeyes beat five ranked teams en route to the 2002 National Championship. Behind gritty play from quarterback Craig Krenzel and a freshman school rushing record from Maurice Clarett (1,237 yards), the Bucks found themselves as heavy underdogs to defending national champs Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Yet, the staunch Buckeye defense and two key touchdowns (and one great forced fumble/recovery) from Clarett gave Ohio State its sixth national championship. The much-debated pass inference penalty also will go down in history as one of the more controversial plays — even if it was the right call. This Ohio State team sent an NFL record 14 players to the league in the 2004 draft (five were selected in 2003 and three in 2005). This is the only Big Ten team to have claimed a BCS National Championship making them the top Big Ten team of the BCS Era.
Aug. 24: Ohio St 45, T. Tech 21
Sept. 7: Ohio St 51, Kent St 17
Sept. 14: Ohio St 25, (#10) Wazzu 7
Sept. 21: Ohio St 23, Cincinnati 19
Sept. 28: Ohio St 45, Indiana 17
Oct. 5: Ohio St 27, N'Western 16
Oct. 12: Ohio St 50, San Jose St 7
Oct. 19: Ohio St 19, Wisconsin 14
Oct. 26: Ohio St 13, (#17) Penn St 7
Nov. 2: Ohio St 34, (#19) Minn. 3
Nov. 9: Ohio St 10, Purdue 6
Nov. 16: Ohio St 23, Illinois 16
Nov. 23: Ohio St 14, (#12) Michigan 9
Jan. 3: Ohio St 31, (#1) Miami 24
15. Ohio State, 2014 (14-1, 8-0)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
Much like the 2002 Buckeyes squad, this Ohio State team was never considered the best team in college football until the final whistle. With a cult-hero third-string quarterback, Urban Meyer won his third national championship and returned not only the Buckeyes to national prominence but the Big Ten conference as well. The Buckeyes won their three final games of the season as underdogs, making this as unlikely a run to a national championship as any in college football history — and one of the most impressive season finale showings in college football history. Cardale Jones was 3-0 as a starter against Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon to cap the magical season. This is the only champion is history to have played 15 games.
Aug. 30: Ohio St 34, Navy 17
Sept. 6: Virginia Tech 35, Ohio St 21
Sept. 13: Ohio St 66, Kent St 0
Sept. 27: Ohio St 50, Cincinnati 28
Oct. 4: Ohio St 52, Maryland 24
Oct. 18: Ohio St 56, Rutgers 17
Oct. 25: Ohio St 31, Penn St 24 (2OT)
Nov. 1: Ohio St 55, Illinois 14
Nov. 8: Ohio St 49, (#7) Mich. St 37
Nov. 15: Ohio St 31, Minnesota 24
Nov. 22: Ohio St 42, Indiana 27
Nov. 29: Ohio St 42, Michigan 28
Dec. 6: Ohio St 59, (#11) Wisconsin 0
Jan. 1: Ohio St 42, (#1) Alabama 35
Jan. 12: Ohio St 42 (#2) Oregon 20
16. Florida, 2006 (13-1, 7-1)
Head Coach: Urban Meyer
After defeating a ranked Tennessee, LSU, Georgia and Arkansas, the Florida Gators entered the 2006 BCS national title game as a big underdog to Ohio State. But an NFL-heavy defense delivered one of the greatest defensive performances in championship game history. Jarvis Moss, Reggie Nelson, Derrick Harvey and company harassed Heisman winner Troy Smith all day. Smith threw for 35 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and was sacked five times. They held the OSU to 82 yards of offense in the 41-14 beatdown. Cult hero Tim Tebow touched the ball 11 times and scored twice to begin his legacy at Florida. Florida sent nine players into the 2007 NFL Draft and their only loss came at No. 11 Auburn.
Sept. 2: Florida 34, S. Miss 7
Sept. 9: Florida 42, UCF 0
Sept. 16: Florida 21, (#13) Tenn. 20
Sept. 23: Florida 26, Kentucky 7
Sept. 30: Florida 28, Alabama 13
Oct. 7: Florida 23, (#9) LSU 10
Oct. 14: (#11) Auburn 27, Florida 17
Oct. 28: Florida 21, (#25) Georgia 14
Nov. 4: Florida 25, Vanderbilt 19
Nov. 11: Florida 17, S. Carolina 16
Nov. 18: Florida 62, W. Carolina 0
Nov. 25: Florida 21, Florida St 14
Dec. 2: Florida 38, (#8) Arkansas 28
Jan. 8: Florida 41, (#1) Ohio St 14
17. LSU Tigers, 2007 (12-2, 6-2)
Head Coach: Les Miles
By definition, this is the “worst” BCS national champion due its two losses. However, wins over ranked Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee (with back-up quarterback Ryan Perrilloux) and Ohio State gave the Bayou Bengals the crystal ball nonetheless. Despite the two losses and the 83 combined points allowed, the LSU Tigers defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes in relatively easy fashion 38-24. Matt Flynn threw four touchdown passes, and the defense, led by an 8-tackle, 1.5-sack, forced fumble performance by Ali Highsmith, kept the Bucks at arm’s length the entire game.
Aug. 30: LSU 45, Miss. St 0
Sept. 8: LSU 48, (#9) Va. Tech 7
Sept. 15: LSU 44, MTSU 0
Sept. 22: LSU 28, (#14) S. Carolina 16
Sept. 29: LSU 34, Tulane 9
Oct. 6: LSU 28, (#7) Florida 24
Oct. 13: (#18) Kentucky 43, LSU 37 (3 OT)
Oct. 20: LSU 30, (#19) Auburn 24
Nov. 3: LSU 41, (#18) Alabama 34
Nov. 10: LSU 58, La. Tech 10
Nov. 17: LSU 41, Ole Miss 24
Nov. 23: Arkansas 50, LSU 48 (3 OT)
Dec. 1: LSU 21, (#15) Tennessee 14
Jan. 7: LSU 38, (#1) Ohio St 24
Regular season college basketball is going to have a tough time pulling eyes away from the NFL and college football playoffs.
Credit the sport for making a good effort during the weekend.
Two undefeated teams, Kentucky and Virginia, played games down to the wire, including one in double overtime.
The hammer finally fell on an undefeated team when NC State upset Duke with surprising ease. The surprises continued into Sunday evening when Oregon State defeated Arizona for the Beavers’ first win over a top 10 team since 2000.
With shorthanded Wisconsin’s loss to Rutgers, four of the AP top seven lost this week and two of the winners had to battle tooth and nail to stay undefeated.
Indeed, the second full weekend of conference play rewarded both the hardcore basketball fans and the channel-flippers.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Kentucky survives in overtime … twice
The Wildcats are 15–0 and will be favored in every game the rest of the way. Last week, though, proved that Kentucky will have a difficult time making it through the regular season without a loss. Days after an overtime home win over Ole Miss, Kentucky needed two OTs to beat Texas A&M, 70–64 — and the Aggies were playing without leading scorer Jalen Jones. Conventional wisdom suggests that Kentucky is only beatable if it’s not hitting shots from the 3-point line. We might need to change our thinking; against Ole Miss, the Wildcats connected on 11-of-20 from the arc yet still almost lost at home, and they went a respectable 9-of-28 from 3 in the win in College Station. Kentucky is still the best team in the nation and the favorite to win the national championship, but the first week of conference play was far more challenging than anyone could have imagined.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy probably had the best summation of where Kentucky is right now: “They're young," he told reporters. "They're going to have moments like that. They're going to be challenged. They're going to second-guess things. They're going to throw the ball away. ... They're going to get upset when the coach gets on them.”
2. Duke is vulnerable on the road
Most would agree that Duke boasts the second-best roster in the nation, but we must remind ourselves that the Blue Devils still start three freshmen. And like most teams that rely heavily on freshmen, this team will struggle to play well consistently on the road. Duke passed its first true road test of the season, beating an outstanding Wisconsin team in Madison in early December, but struggled to win at Wake Forest last Wednesday and then lost by 12 points at NC State on Sunday. After a home date with Miami on Tuesday, the Devils play four of their next five games on the road, including grueling trips to Louisville, Notre Dame and Virginia.
3. Virginia has the killer instinct
Playing with an identity is great. Virginia certainly has built one under Tony Bennett with a stifling defense and an efficient — if not overly exciting — offense. What shouldn’t be ignored is that the no-name Cavaliers are going to be tough to beat anytime, anywhere. Virginia had the most impressive win of the week, a 62–56 victory over Notre Dame in South Bend to stay undefeated. Notre Dame standout Pat Connaughton got his shots, but the Cavs limited Jerian Grant to six points, his lowest total since Dec. 17, 2012. Notre Dame led by as many as eight in the second half, but Virginia took over late. In the final five minutes, Notre Dame was 3-of-10 from the field with a turnover. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went 3-of-5 from the field and 4-of-4 from the free throw line. That’s how you win games on the road.
4. Marcus Paige is a battler...
Marcus Paige, a preseason All-American, has struggled as a junior. His scoring is down by more than four points per game, and his shooting percentage has plummeted from .440 to .366. Paige’s team, North Carolina, has also underachieved, carrying an 11–4 record into Saturday’s home game against Louisville. The Heels were on their way to a fifth loss — and a second straight defeat at home — before rallying from 13 down in the second half to edge Louisville in dramatic fashion. Paige, nursing a foot injury, delivered the decisive play, hitting a driving layup with 8.5 seconds remaining to give North Carolina the lead for good.
5. ...And so is Marcus Foster
A return to the NCAA Tournament is in doubt for disappointing Kansas State, but the Wildcats do have a bit of life left thanks to guard Marcus Foster. Against Oklahoma, the sophomore returned to the starting lineup after being banished to the bench in the previous two games. Starter or not, Foster certainly was the finisher. He hit the game-tying basket to force overtime and then hit the game-winning 3 with a man in his face to give the Wildcats a 66–63 victory. The win might be too little, too late for a team that has already lost seven games, but a road win over a good OU team could serve as a nice springboard for K-State.
6. Tinkle is the man in Corvallis
For the past half-dozen years, Oregon State basketball was relevant for one reason: Its coach, Craig Robinson, was the brother-in-law of President Barack Obama. Now, however, the Beavers are making headlines for their actual play on the court. First-year coach Wayne Tinkle inherited a program that lost its top five scorers from a team that went 16–16 in 2013-14. Tinkle coaxed a 9–3 record from this group in non-conference action and has followed up with a 2–1 start in league play. Sunday night, Oregon State recorded its biggest win in years, knocking off Pac-12 favorite Arizona 58–56 in Corvallis. The Beavers’ leading scorer is Gary Payton II, the son of the former OSU star and NBA Hall of Famer.
7. Texas needs Isaiah Taylor at full strength
Point guard Isaiah Taylor is back in the Texas lineup, but the Longhorns need him to return to form. Taylor, who missed 10 games with a wrist injury, returned in time for the Big 12 season. Having him on the floor clearly wasn’t a cure-all for Texas, which dropped games to Oklahoma (70–49) and Oklahoma State (69–58) last week. Taylor was a combined 7-of-25 from the field with eight assists and four turnovers in the two losses. The Big 12 offers few breaks, so Taylor’s progress will need to be quick. The good news, though, is that Texas doesn’t play again until Jan. 17 at home against West Virginia.
8. Iowa State escaped a dramatic week
The Cyclones’ 2–0 start in the Big 12 hasn’t been easy, but after a 64–60 loss to South Carolina in the final non-conference game of the year, Fred Hoiberg will take it. Iowa State’s first two conference games, wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia, both came down to the final possession. Admire Iowa State’s gumption to win late, but Hoiberg has to be concerned about his team’s inability to put teams away. The Cyclones led Oklahoma State by as many as 11 in the second half and twice led West Virginia by eight in the second half.
9. Michigan is figuring it out
Michigan limped into Big Ten play with a 7–5 record that included losses at home to NJIT and Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines, a combined 26 games over .500 in league play the previous three seasons, didn’t figure to be much of a threat in conference play. Well, it’s never a good idea to count out a John Beilein-coached team. The opening schedule hasn’t been overly taxing, but Michigan is 3–1 in the Big Ten after beating Minnesota on Saturday. We’re not quite ready to label this team a contender — the other wins are against Illinois and Penn State, and the loss came against Purdue — but Beilein has to be encouraged that his inexperienced team is finding ways to win games.
10. Indiana can play a little defense after all
It’s safe to say Indiana is not Kentucky or Virginia in the defensive end. The Hoosiers rank 175th nationally in defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. That’s why Indiana’s result Saturday came as a bit of a surprise. The Hoosiers held on to beat Ohio State 69-66 to inch IU closer to being an NCAA Tournament team. Sophomore forward Troy Williams (15 points, 12 rebounds) and freshman James Blackmon (18 points) were fantastic, but don’t ignore the defensive adjustment. Ohio State started 4-of-9 from the field and shot 32.7 percent the rest of the way. Buckeyes star freshman D’Angelo Russell was off his game, shooting 3-of-15 from the field with 13 points.
• Rutgers is not a great basketball team. Wisconsin, when healthy, is a Final Four contender. How much should we read into even a shorthanded Wisconsin team losing at Rutgers? Frank Kaminsky missed the game with a concussion, and point guard Traveon Jackson missed most of the second half with a knee injury. If both are healthy, Wisconsin is fine, and benches should be short enough in the NCAA Tournament to ignore the Badgers’ nine bench points against Rutgers.
• What a rude awakening for Washington. The Huskies started 11-0 with wins over Oklahoma and San Diego State. The Huskies are 0-4 since, including three losses to teams outside of the KenPom top 100 (Stony Brook, Cal and Washington State).
• Maybe we should have remembered that Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte have played a ton of college basketball. Both of them scored 20 points in Oklahoma State’s win over Texas. They combined for another 40 points in the 63-61 loss to Iowa State on Tuesday. If Travis Ford can get the rest of the roster going, Oklahoma State could start to look awfully dangerous.
Athlon Sports executive editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.
Just like that, the 2014 college football season is over.
Weekends are about to feel pretty empty as the national champion has been crowned in Arlington to cap the first College Football Playoff.
Thirty-nine bowl games in 23 days has produced its share of highlights, disappointments and conversation starters for the 2015 season.
Even if the crowds turned out to be scant in some places, we all tuned in for the our regular holiday programming.
Sure, there are 39 winners and 39 losers (or technically 38 winners since the national champion won twice), but bowl season told a much more interesting story from temper tantrums to a brawl to fat guy touchdowns.
The SEC was turned on its head without a team playing for a title and most of the powerful West division licking its wounds. Oregon and Ohio State’s appearance in the national title game will redefine the discussion heading into 2015.
WINNER: The Playoff bonanza
This should come as no surprise, but people love the playoff. They really love the playoff. The Rose Bowl between Oregon and Florida State on ESPN grabbed the biggest audience in cable TV history at 28.2 million viewers ... until the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State’s win over Alabama drew 28.3 million viewers. These are numbers that beat an NFL Wild Card playoff the same weekend. A novel concept: More games that matter draws more viewers even as college football’s championship moves onto basic cable.
LOSER: The rest of the “New Year’s Six”
In the BCS era, the New Year’s Bowls had the holiday to themselves with the two teams in the championship game playing at least a week later. Having the playoff overlap with the traditional bowl games seemed to diminish the attention on the other major bowl games, especially the rest of the bowls attached to the playoff (the Peach, Fiesta, Orange and Cotton). Maybe it was the newness of the playoff that took eyes off the rest of the top games. Maybe it was three of them being played on New Year’s Eve instead of Jan. 1. Maybe it was TCU’s 42-3 rout of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl in the first game that took the energy out of the rest of the day. At least competitive Cotton and Outback bowls — the latter is not part of the playoff — helped add some energy to the non-playoff bowls.
WINNER: A new offseason conference storyline
Florida State ended the SEC’s seven-year championship game run a year ago, and Ohio State ended the SEC’s run in the final two. When the conversation turns to the 2015 season, we’ll be talking about the return of Ohio State as one of the predominant national powers. The SEC’s not going to be out of the title game for long, but it’s nice to go into the offseason talking about something other than SEC predominance.
LOSER: Jan. 2
For several years, college football had bowl games after New Year’s Day, and not all of them were great matchups. The schedule, though, was especially jarring in the playoff era. Think about it: Fans went to bed one night watching a Sugar Bowl thriller and woke up to interim coaches at Houston and Pittsburgh playing in the Armed Forces Bowl, followed by a Tennessee rout of Iowa in the Taxslayer Bowl.
WINNER: The SEC East
Three SEC East teams entered bowl season with six wins (Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina), and three entered the postseason after a loss to in-state rivals (Georgia, Florida and South Carolina). In other words, the division needed bowl season to save face even if they were playing in some of the SEC’s lesser bowl games. The division swept bowl season at 5-0. Granted, only two of those teams were ranked in the final College Football Playoff rankings and neither in the top 20 (No. 21 Louisville and No. 25 Minnesota), but after a year in which the East’s champion lost at home to Indiana, any progress is a good sign.
LOSER: The SEC West
For most of the first two months of the season, the SEC West looked impenetrable. Which two SEC West teams would reach the playoff was a real question in October. First, this was not a mirage: The division sent all seven members to the postseason and went undefeated against non-conference opponents during the regular season, including wins over Wisconsin, West Virginia and Boise State. Yet by the end of New Year’s Day the only West teams left standing were the last two teams in the league (Arkansas and Texas A&M). Alabama, Auburn and LSU lost competitive games, but the Mississippi schools, both of which spent time in the top three this season, lost by a combined score of 91-37.
WINNER: The Pac-12
The most impressive conference from the first day of the season through the bowls may have been the Pac-12, at least as far as non-conference records go. The Pac-12 went 6-2 in bowl season, including 5-2 against the Power 5 conferences. That wrapped up a season in which the Pac-12 went 13-5 against the Power 5 and Notre Dame.
LOSER: Big Ten West teams not named Wisconsin
Good thing Wisconsin beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It was the only thing that prevented the postseason from being a total loss for the Big Ten’s weaker division. The tally for the West included an Illinois loss to Louisiana Tech, a defensive no-show and puzzling play calls from Nebraska against USC, and Minnesota’s 16-point loss to Missouri. They were all outdone by Iowa’s performance against Tennessee in which the Hawkeyes trailed 42-7 in the third quarter.
WINNER: TCU’s 2015 playoff hopes
The Horned Frogs had the biggest gripe about the postseason after dropping from No. 3 to No. 6 in the final week, but TCU didn’t show it in a 42-3 rout of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl. In the long run, this might not be a bad thing. TCU outgained Ole Miss by 294 yards despite turning the ball over four times. That’s not a bad way to build legitimacy for a program that may be viewed in some circles as an outsider. Better yet, quarterback Trevone Boykin returns in 2015 as a senior.
LOSER: Texas’ offense
Whatever modest gains Texas made during the season on offense bottomed out in the Holiday Bowl against Arkansas. The Longhorns’ 59 total yards on 43 plays was one of the worst outputs in program history. Tyrone Swoopes managed only 25 yards of total offense, and in his last game of the regular season, he threw four interceptions against TCU. Charlie Strong’s program will enter 2015 with few answers.
WINNER: Arkansas’ bright future
The other side of Texas’ flop in the bowl was the overwhelming performance of Arkansas, which won as many games in Bret Bielema’s second season (seven) as it did in the previous two seasons under Bielema and John L. Smith. Arkansas returns quarterback Brandon Allen and running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined rushing yards) and a defense that started more freshmen and sophomores at the end of the season than juniors and seniors.
LOSER: Bob Stoops’ summer
The remake of Oklahoma’s offense has already begun as the Sooners hired Lincoln Riley from East Carolina to replace Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell. Replacing Heupel, Stoops’ championship quarterback, is of particular note as Stoops tries to get his program back on track after a 40-6 embarrassment against Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Oklahoma went 4-5 and didn’t beat a bowl team after Oct. 1 — and this was a team pegged as a playoff contender.
WINNER: Fat guys
Fat guy touchdowns are great. Fat guy touchdowns in big bowl games? Even better. LaQuan McGowan, whose Baylor profile begins with the word “enormous,” caught an 18-yard touchdown pass to put Baylor up 41-21 against Michigan State (Baylor wouldn’t score again in a loss to Michigan State). A day later, Oklahoma State’s 300-pound lineman James Castleman scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, but the real highlight was his 48-yard catch on third down.
LOSER: Jim L. Mora’s ‘tude
Who doesn’t like Kansas State coach Bill Snyder? Apparently not UCLA coach Jim L. Mora in the moments after an Alamo Bowl win over the Wildcats. Mora was huffy with Snyder in the postgame handshake after Kansas State jumped over the offensive line while UCLA was trying to take a knee in a 40-35 win.
WINNER: Quarterbacks getting head starts on 2015
Bowl season tends to be a good time for quarterbacks to build momentum into the next season, particularly those who didn’t start until late in their year. Malik Zaire traded snaps with Everett Golson in Notre Dame’s 31-28 win over LSU, but he finished 12-of-15 for 96 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 96 yards. West Virginia’s Skyler Howard completed 20-of-45 passes for 346 yards and three touchdown in a shootout loss to Texas A&M. Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen, two freshmen who claimed starting jobs late in the year, further solidified their positions with bowl wins.
LOSER: Kirk Ferentz’s offseason
Ferentz is the ninth-highest paid coach in college football. Ferentz is not producing top-10 results. Not even close. Iowa was outclassed by a 6-6 Tennessee team down in Jacksonville for a third consecutive bowl loss for the Hawkeyes. Iowa’s record since 2010? 34-30 overall and 19-21 in the Big Ten.
WINNER: Bryan Harsin’s first season at Boise State
Maybe the departure of Chris Petersen isn’t the blow to Boise State’s program we once thought it was. Like his predecessor, Harsin started his tenure at Boise State with a win in the Fiesta Bowl marked by a little trickery. All Harsin did in his first season was win 12 games, win the Mountain West and knock off the Pac-12 South champion in a bowl game.
LOSER: Chris Petersen’s first season at Washington
Meanwhile, Petersen is off to a forgettable start in Seattle. His season began with a suspended quarterback and close calls with Hawaii and Eastern Washington and ended with a 30-22 loss to Oklahoma State. Washington, a team expected to contend in the Pac-12 North, finished 8-6. According to the Sagarin ratings, the best win was over No. 81 Oregon State.
WINNER: Frank Beamer’s winning record streak
The season didn’t go as planned for Virginia Tech, and Frank Beamer ended up watching the Military Bowl from the press box while recovering from throat surgery. The Hokies, though, sealed a 22nd consecutive winning season in with a 33-17 win over Cincinnati. Two of those last three seasons have just made it at 7-6.
LOSER: Prolific passers
The bowls produced six 400-yard passers. They went a combined 1-5. The only winner, Western Kentucky’s Brandon Doughty, beat another 400-yard passer in Central Michigan’s Cooper Rush.
WINNER: Prolific runners
The top 10 runners in the bowls went a combined 10-0. Moreover, they gave us an idea of what we need to watch next season and probably a few names that will be in the Heisman race. Freshman Nick Chubb rushed for 266 yards against Louisville, giving him the fifth-best rushing season in Georgia history despite playing behind Todd Gurley for parts of the season. Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott finished his season with a flurry, highlighted by 230 yards against Alabama. And Paul Perkins showed there’s life at UCLA after Brett Hundley with 194 yards against Kansas State.
LOSER: Fresno State
The last time Fresno State won a bowl game, the WAC was still a viable conference and Ryan Mathews was in the Bulldogs' backfield. In 2014, Fresno State lost 30-6 to Rice for Fresno State’s sixth consecutive bowl loss. Only one of those, the 45-20 loss to USC in last season’s Las Vegas Bowl, was to a Power 5 team. The last four losses have come by an average of 26.3 points.
WINNER: Conference USA
Realignment has picked apart Conference USA over the years, but the league responded with a 4-1 bowl record, including a win over the MAC champion (Marshall over Northern Illinois) and a Big Ten team (Louisiana Tech over Illinois). The lone loss was by 7-6 UTEP to a 10-4 Utah State in the New Mexico Bowl.
Ohio State used a heavy dose of running back Ezekiel Elliott and timely stops on defense to claim its first national championship since the 2002 season with a 42-20 victory over Oregon. The Buckeyes entered the college football playoff with long odds to win the title, as coach Urban Meyer’s team was on its third quarterback and suffered a puzzling, early-season loss to Virginia Tech. However, Ohio State regrouped after the defeat, and third-string quarterback Cardale Jones successfully replaced J.T. Barrett after a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Behind Jones and Elliott, the Buckeyes finished the season with wins over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and hoisted the first college football playoff championship trophy after the victory on Monday night.
The run to the 2014-15 national championship was an unlikely one for Ohio State, as losing two potential Heisman candidates at quarterback is tough to overcome. However, Meyer is one of the nation’s top coaches, the talent level in Columbus is among the best in the nation, and the Buckeyes delivered with clutch performances at the right time.
Four Things That Determined Ohio State’s National Title
1. Line of Scrimmage
The secret to Ohio State’s success in Monday night’s win over Oregon was no surprise. The Buckeyes simply won the battle at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Ohio State recorded 296 rushing yards (4.9 ypc) and quarterback Cardale Jones was sacked only one time. Running back Ezekiel Elliott had his way against the Oregon front seven by recording 246 yards on 36 attempts, and the sophomore’s performance was critical to controlling the pace of the game to keep the high-powered Ducks’ offense on the sideline. On the defensive side, the Buckeyes limited Oregon to 132 rushing yards, recorded two sacks and five tackles for a loss. The Ducks’ inability to get a push up front limited put all of the offensive pressure on quarterback Marcus Mariota, and with a defense unable to get stops (other than turnovers), the offense had to score on every drive to have a shot at the win.
2. The Turnover Battle/Red Zone
Teams that record a -3 turnover margin in championship games aren’t usually successful in the win column. However, much like Ohio State managed to do all season, the Buckeyes found a way to overcome a major obstacle in their path. Oregon forced four Ohio State turnovers and converted those mistakes into only 10 points. In the Rose Bowl, the Ducks used five Florida State second-half turnovers to score 41 points. The Buckeyes’ ability to limit the damage on defense from the Oregon offense on turnovers was one of the deciding factors in the game. Another area where the Ohio State defense stepped up was in the red zone. The Ducks kicked two field goals and were stuffed on downs inside the red zone. Small things add up in national championship games. Oregon simply didn’t convert the opportunities on turnovers and wasn’t opportunistic enough in the red zone to overcome the defensive issues.
3. Cardale Jones
Third-string quarterbacks usually aren't this talented. However, Jones has made a strong case to be Ohio State’s starting signal-caller in 2015, capping a solid three-game stretch behind center with a win over Oregon in the national title. The sophomore played under control all night, completing 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards and one score. Jones also added 38 yards and a score on the ground. At 250 pounds, Jones is a load to bring down in the rushing game, and the sophomore has a cannon for an arm capable of stretching opposing defenses with big plays. The quarterback battle between Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller (if he stays in Columbus) will be very interesting.
4. Oregon’s Receiving Corps
Injuries and suspensions hit Oregon’s receiving corps hard in 2014. Receiver Bralon Addison suffered a torn ACL in the spring, tight end Pharaoh Brown was lost for the year in early November with a serious leg injury, and the Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State. Add in the suspension of receiver Darren Carrington and Oregon was looking for a few new faces to step up in the national championship. Quarterback Marcus Mariota was the least of the Ducks’ problems on Monday night, but his receivers dropped a couple of key passes. The injuries and personnel moves finally caught up to Oregon.
CFB National Championship Awards:
Offensive MVP: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Ohio State
Even though quarterback Cardale Jones played well against Alabama and Wisconsin, Ohio State wisely put the game in the hands of their best offensive weapon. Elliott earned his third consecutive 200-yard effort by gashing the Oregon defense for 246 yards and four touchdowns on 36 attempts. The sophomore averaged 6.8 yards per carry and scored three times from 10 yards or less to give Ohio State a 42-20 edge after the Ducks cut the deficit to 21-20 in the third quarter. While Elliott gets our nod as the most valuable player from the Ohio State offense, let’s also give a tip of the cap to the line. After struggling in the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes showed steady improvement up front. And in the win over Oregon, the Ohio State offensive line won the battle at the point of attack and allowed its offense to dominate the time of possession (37:29 to 22:31).
Defensive MVP: Darron Lee, LB
The Buckeyes didn’t have an overly dominant individual performance by a defender, as it was more of a team effort in slowing Oregon’s offense to just 20 points. However, Lee gets the nod as our defensive player of the game after recording eight stops (four solo) and a pass breakup. The freshman’s development was critical for Ohio State’s defense in replacing standout Ryan Shazier, and Lee emerged as one of the nation’s top linebackers over the last few games of 2014. Expect to see plenty from Lee in 2015.
Here are a few of the best tweets from the scene in Arlington, Texas:
THIS WINS BEST SIGN OF THE NIGHT. pic.twitter.com/wHNmaVEMgw— Taylor Rooks (@TaylorRooks) January 13, 2015
football fans are so weird pic.twitter.com/xrzLsbzEDD— martin rickman (@martinrickman) January 13, 2015
"THROW THE FLAG!" https://t.co/Ai2MBFwOqu— SB✯Nation CFB (@SBNationCFB) January 13, 2015
Bryon Marshall was THIS CLOSE to making an incredible mistake. GIF: pic.twitter.com/uRC4pl8mFM— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) January 13, 2015
Here's how close Byron Marshall was to dropping the ball early before crossing goal line. pic.twitter.com/q2cBIIQuDg— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2015
Cardale Jones has a Jameis Winston moment. https://t.co/tBslThW0Ay— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) January 13, 2015
Incredible career, sad ending pic.twitter.com/jt8F9YnexY— Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB) January 13, 2015
Ohio State has forced Oregon to punt 3 times in the first quarter; Oregon hadn't done that since 2009— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 13, 2015
Big Ohio State fan LeBron James is keeping a close eye on his Buckeyes from Dallas. pic.twitter.com/sUp3ZOzSZ4— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2015
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 12:
• Big off-the-field NFL news today: Rex Ryan is the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills.
• Sign of the times in college football: This year's national champion will have a surprisingly weak run defense.
• This could get ugly: The Chargers are strongly hinting that they'll litigate to keep the Rams out of Los Angeles.
• The Washington Post asked the Peyton Manning question we're all asking today. One of Manning's own teammates thinks he has a dead arm.
• DeAngelo Williams went longform recently on the subject of social media. Dude can write.
• In his rush to help, an eager Brazilian soccer trainer faceplanted on the pitch.
• Hannah Storm went Dikembe Mutombo on her makeup person, minus the finger wag.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The trade market continues to bustle in the NBA. The Memphis Grizzlies, Boston Celtics and New Orleans Pelicans worked on a three-team deal over the weekend, with Celtics leading scorer Jeff Green headed to the Grizzlies in the swap.
Boston, in exchange, will end up with the Pelicans’ Austin Rivers, veteran wingman Tayshaun Prince, and a future first-round pick from Memphis, as reported by ESPN’s Marc Stein.
For shipping Rivers to Massachusetts, the Pelicans get reserve guard Quincy Pondexter from the Grizzlies.
Rivers might not want to get too comfortable with his father’s former team, though. Doc Rivers has expressed an interest in getting involved in the expanding deal to make a trade for his son.
"I would," the Los Angeles Clippers coach and executive said of acquiring the younger Rivers, per ESPN. "I think a year ago I probably wouldn't. I think I would for sure. I think this team could handle that. He's a downhill guard, which is something we need, so I certainly would [be open to coaching him].”
For skeptical Clippers fans, Rivers’ willingness to trade for kin is a bit alarming. Since joining Lob City, the general manger half of Doc hasn’t done a whole lot of good for the Clippers’ roster. Boasting one of the worst benches in the Western Conference, they’re giving serious minutes to the likes of Hedo Turkoglu and Glen “Big Baby” Davis this year—players well past their time, who rarely turn a positive in the box score.
Austin Rivers has shown growth in 2014-15, but he’s still a below-average talent with a lot to prove—is Rivers constructing his roster with more sentiment than good basketball sense?
For the Grizzlies, this is a deeper investment on a team that has a chance to win it all this year. Green will give defenses even more scoring to deal with, coming off the Memphis bench along with Vince Carter and Kosta Koufos. A great team just got better.
Boston, meanwhile, continues to jettison assets, clearly looking to double down on their rebuilding efforts as they clear the deck and accumulate a wealth of draft picks. First Rajon Rondo, now Green … if you like anything you see left on the Celtics’ roster, you might as well give GM Danny Ainge a call about it.
— John Wilmes
Perhaps no team needed a coach or quarterback who can roll with the punches quite like Oregon.
While Ohio State has coped with injuries at the most visible position, Oregon has spent all season dealing with absences chipping away at its roster. The Ducks’ roster lost its first pieces in the preseason, and the trend continued into the week before the national championship game.
The failed drug test from wide receiver Darren Carrington means Oregon will be without four receivers and tight ends from its post-spring depth chart, not to mention 2013 starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone.
If Oregon looks like a team that doesn’t seem to be rattled by these key absences, pay attention to the demeanor of the two men at the Ducks’ key leadership positions at head coach and quarterback.
For sure, Ohio State has the same steady hand. So did Alabama, Florida State and any other team in contention for the semifinals at the end of the season.
As it does nearly everywhere else in its program, Oregon does this a little differently.
Mark Helfrich is unlike most coaches at power programs. He’s not a control freak like Nick Saban. He’s not someone who seems like he’ll burn out like Urban Meyer once did. Though he’s been repeatedly questioned about the fortitude of his team, he’s not as defensive as Jimbo Fisher has been at times this season.
And most important, he doesn’t share the kind of acerbic tone that marked his predecessor Chip Kelly.
He doesn’t have the tightly wound demeanor that seems to be a prerequisite to lead a national championship contender in 2015.
When a reporter asked Ohio State coach Urban Meyer how the Buckeyes’ would stop Oregon’s tempo offense, Helfrich interjected: “Be specific, please.” Earlier this season — in the controlled environment of a postgame press conference — a middle school student reporter explained that at his Catholic school there are three important things: “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota.” Helfrich, of course, rolled with it.
Imagine Saban in such an exchange.
Helfrich is a normal guy in an abnormal profession. You wonder what it might take to tick this guy off.
But this can be deceiving.
"His personality has a tendency to hide how fierce a competitor he is,” said Jim Palazzolo, Helfrich’s college coach at NAIA Southern Oregon. “He just seems to be able to internalize that and maintain his sense of humor, his glibness. He’s very, very consistent.”
Consistency is the same hallmark of Helfrich’s quarterback and not just because Marcus Mariota completes nearly 70 percent of his passes and rarely throws an interception.
Mariota is nearly as prolific as his Heisman predecessors. His image, though, isn’t as easy to define. Whether by their sideline demeanors or outward leadership (or flirtations with controversy), the last four Heisman winners — Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton — all had a distinct personas.
They enjoyed being superstars. For Mariota, it seems like a bother. Before the Rose Bowl — to say nothing of Saturday’s championship media day — he seemed exhausted from the media circuit. After the season, he went from the awards ceremony in Orlando, to the Heisman ceremony and the Late Show with David Letterman in New York. After a break for Christmas in his home state of Hawaii, he went to three straight days in front of cameras for Rose Bowl prep.
He looked miserable.
“I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I was looking forward to this being done,” Mariota said in his final media session before the semifinal win over Florida State.
On the field, Mariota was the same steady had he’d been all year, even though he lost his fastest receiver, Devon Allen, on the opening kickoff.
The stoicism is by design.
When he was the quarterback at the Saint Louis School in Honolulu, Mariota was the type who’d drop his head and unhook his chin strap after a bad play. Playing high school games under a Jumbotron, though, will give a young quarterback a quick lesson in body language.
“We played Aloha Stadium, so we had all the cameras,” said Darnell Arceneaux, Mariota’s high school coach who is now quarterbacks coach at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “We said, if you make a bad play or we have a three and out or the receiver drops it, the camera goes on two people, the head coach and the quarterback. When your teammates see you on that Jumbotron, that’s contagious.”
Arceneaux watched Mariota throw an interception against Florida State, not long after another would-be pick bounced off the hands of Seminoles safety Jalen Ramsey. Mariota never lost his cool.
“In that Rose Bowl, he throws that pick and you didn’t see that chin strap or that head go down,” Arceneaux said. “You saw a kid who let one get away and he worked through it.”
Indeed, Oregon has a coach-quarterback combination that’s not the norm for top contenders, not that it was ever unquestioned
Though he left Southern Oregon in 1995, Palazzolo never left the region. He’s a loan officer in Medford, Ore., and he heard the doubts about Helfric taking over Kelly’s program. Oregon had been on an upward trajectory ever since Rich Brooks led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in 1994. Kelly took Oregon to its first national title game and made the Ducks a perennial contender.
Helfrich, an internal hire who might not have been a top candidate for any other top program in the country, was not viewed as the guy who would be able to lead the Ducks to the next step, a national championship.
“Chip was larger than life,” Palazzolo said. “He was progressive and new wave and his personality was distinct. That would be the nicest way to put it. There was a lot of speculation on who would replace Chip.”
The doubts persisted as Oregon finished 7-2 in the Pac-12 last season, losing a shot at the Pac-12 title with a 26-20 loss to Stanford and a rare loss to a major underdog in Arizona.
Did 2014 mark major growth for Helfrich as a coach? The results say that might be the case, but having Mariota healthy for an entire season doesn’t hurt. Still, players say Helfrich is a little more comfortable in his own shoes.
For all of his offensive wizardry, Kelly was distant. Helfrich’s softer hand is a welcome change.
“Not saying Coach Kelly didn't love his players, but Coach Helfrich’s door is always open," Mariota said. "He's always the guy that's asking how your family is doing, how you're doing.”
Oregon is a program without yelling, offensive coordinator Scott Frost says. He says players have more fun in the Oregon program
And maybe that’s the way it’s going to need to be done for some programs.
Coaches and players are pulled in more directions than ever before. With every misstep on and off the field documented, scrutiny is at an all-time high. Not every key player will be as — and this is not a bad thing — dull as Mariota.
The coach and quarterback who remains steady and rolls with the punches may be at an advantage.
“His personality lent itself to making that transition,” Palazzolo said. “The pressure was there, it was transparent. Somehow he was able to internalize all that stuff. I don’t think he felt like he was overcoming anything. He just had to put his own blueprint on this thing.”
Dion Waiters ending up with the Oklahoma City Thunder was tough to see coming. But the Cleveland Cavaliers finally found a way to ship off their oft-troubled reserve guard this week, in a three-team trade involving the New York Knicks.
With the Thunder, Waiters has a new chance. His relations with his old squad had clearly cratered more than a year ago, as new teammate Kevin Durant noted:
Kevin Durant on Dion Waiters: "We're going to make him feel wanted. I don't think he's felt that the last few years."— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 6, 2015
OKC wants Waiters to move past what happened with the Cavs, even making sure he put his first foot forward in the attempt to form a new identity… in an unusual fashion:
You don’t hear a ton about professional athletes and their jersey number selections. Fans are typically left to speculate about the superstition behind these things, and just how seriously teams take them. But this instance from the Thunder shows that the symbolism of your number is often no small matter.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti took a calculated gamble by bringing in Waiters, a talented scorer who can be a huge asset if he’s dialed in, but a terrible distraction if he’s not. Whether or not things work out between Dion and his new team will be largely a matter of personality fit — there’s no question the Thunder can use Waiters’ skill set, though.
They’re four games out of the playoff picture in the staggering Western Conference, struggling to keep up the world-killing pace they need to climb aggressively up the standings. Critics of the team have more fuel than ever regarding the infamous Harden trade, as the Thunder’s former third banana is now an MVP candidate with the rival Houston Rockets.
Waiters probably can’t live up to the standards set by his predecessor, so the Thunder might be right to deny him Harden’s number, and push him down his own unique, beardless path.
— John Wilmes
This has been the week of close calls.
Since Jan. 3, Kentucky and Virginia have both needed an overtime game to preserve undefeated records. Duke needed a late rally against Wake Forest to preserve its unblemished record. And those are just the three remaining undefeated teams.
Ohio State, Iowa State and Kansas both needed some late heroics this week to pick up key conference wins.
That should be a clear sign that all the unpredictable results that come with conference play should be on the way in the coming weeks.
Kentucky, Virginia and Duke survived, but will be they be so lucky this weekend or next?
Jan. 10-11 Weekend Preview and Predictions
All times Eastern
Cincinnati at Connecticut
Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN2
The Bearcats remain an American Athletic Conference contender despite the absence of coach Mick Cronin, who is out for the remainder of the season due to health issues. Cincinnati are 4-1 without him, including a key win over presumptive AAC favorite SMU last week. Don’t expect anything pretty between two teams ranked in the top 25 of defensive efficiency and 86th and 96th in offensive efficiency on KenPom.
Prediction: UConn 52-47
Ohio State at Indiana
Saturday, noon, ESPN
If don’t already know D’Angelo Russell, maybe it’s time to fix that. The Ohio State guard is the best freshman north of Lexington and he’s quickly rounding into form. He’s shooting 21-of-46 and averaging 20.7 points per game in three Big Ten games so far. He could feast upon a bad defensive Indiana team. The Hoosiers could have the offense to keep up, but they’re a game removed from a a 50-point, 0.82 point-per-possession effort against Michigan State.
Prediction: Ohio State 78-66
Kentucky at Texas A&M
Saturday, 1 p.m. CBS
The Wildcats got their first real test of the season in an 89-86 win over Ole Miss in overtime at home. The impenetrable Kentucky defense allowed the Rebels to average 1.15 points per possession and shoot 47.6 percent from two-point range. On paper, the Wildcats shouldn’t have much trouble with an offensively- challenged Texas A&M team, but how Kentucky responds to a road trip after a home scare should be telling.
Prediction: Kentucky 67-52
Louisville at North Carolina
Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN
The Tar Heels’ momentum was halted with a 71-70 home loss to Notre Dame on Monday, and now North Carolina is in need of a signature moment this season. The Heels’ best wins are over UCLA and Florida in the Bahamas — that’s not going to cut it for an ACC contender. The Heels have been a surprisingly good defensive team this season, particularly defending the 3-point line (26.1 percent). Meanwhile, Louisville can’t find any consistency from long range.
Prediction: North Carolina 63-58
Baylor at TCU
Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2
Maybe that football rivalry and the end-of-year playoff debate will add a little juice to the first basketball meeting of 2015. Putting that aside, this is a key game for surprising Baylor. The Bears started the season 11-1 but have since dropped their first two Big 12 games. That should be an uneasy feeling for a Baylor team that started hot last season before dropping eight of its first 10 conference games. At 13-2, TCU isn’t the easy out it once was in Big 12 play, but the Horned Frogs are having trouble staying competitive in the second half of two Big 12 games so far.
Prediction: Baylor 64-57
DePaul at Villanova
Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Well, hello there, DePaul. The long-suffering Blue Demons should take a screen grab of those Big East standings as DePaul sits at 3-0 in the league. The Blue Devils’ next conference win, whenever it happens, will clinch their best Big East season since 2007-08. DePaul aren’t likely to beat Villanova, and it’s probable Oliver Purnell’s team is playing a bit over its head so far in conference play — DePaul lost six in a row just before league play began. Still, let’s take a moment to appreciate that DePaul is going to play meaningful basketball this season.
Prediction: Villanova 76-63
Texas at Oklahoma State
Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPNU
A critical momentum game for both teams. Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor has been back for two games, but the Longhorns were embarrassed at home by Oklahoma on Monday. The Sooners beat Texas 70-49 and led by as much as 28 points in the second half. Oklahoma State’s rally at Iowa State on Tuesday fell short, and now the Cowboys will try to get a good showing at home before a two-game road trip against Kansas and Oklahoma.
Prediction: Texas 63-61
Virginia at Notre Dame
Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Bet you didn’t expect this to be the game of the week or one of the most intriguing ACC games of the season. Undefeated Virginia visits South Bend for a showdown between high-scoring Notre Dame and the Cavaliers’ stifling defense. The Irish are coming off a game in which they scored a season-low 71 points — and won on the road at North Carolina. The Cavaliers have allowed more than 70 points in regulation once all season (Dec. 30 to Davidson).
Prediction: Virginia 68-65
Iowa State at West Virginia
Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
After a loss to South Carolina and a close call at home with Oklahoma State, Iowa State is entering a key stretch against three consecutive KenPom top 20 teams, two of which on the road (at West Virginia, at Baylor, Kansas). In theory, Iowa State should be getting stronger with 6-9 Marquette transfer Jameel McKay joining the team in the last four games. Meanwhile, West Virginia is one bizarre finish — a 74-73 loss to LSU — from being undefeated. The Mountaineers’ full-court press will be a test for an Iowa State team that traditionally had one of the best offenses in the country under Fred Hoiberg.
Prediction: West Virginia 65-61
Duke at NC State
Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS
Maybe Wake Forest had a good game plan. Maybe Duke’s getting a little bored. Either way, the Blue Devils needed a late flurry from Quinn Cook to put away the Demon Deacons 73-65 on Wednesday. Freshman star Jahlil Okafor struggled with only 12 points and five turnovers in Duke’s third consecutive game against a sub-top-100 team. That trend is about to change against NC State and then Miami, Louisville and Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Duke 75-65
The NFL’s best road team will face the best home team when the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers get together Sunday afternoon in the NFC Divisional Round on FOX. NFC East champion Dallas was the only team in the league to 8-0 on the road during the regular season, while NFC North champion Green Bay was the only team to go undefeated at home. Jason Garrett’s Cowboys needed a second-half comeback last week at home against Detroit in the Wild Card game to set up this matchup between the No. 2 and 3 seeds.
This will be the first postseason meeting at Lambeau Field between these two storied franchises since the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.” One of the most memorable games in pro football history, Bart Starr rallied his Packers to a 21-17 victory over the Cowboys in a game that was played in minus-13 degrees weather (minus-46 wind chill). Green Bay then went on to defeat AFL champion Oakland 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
It won’t be near that cold Sunday afternoon, as Dallas looks to extend its postseason winning streak over Green Bay to five. The last time these teams played each other in the playoffs was the NFC Championship Game in Dallas back on Jan. 14, 1996. The Cowboys won 38-27 and then beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX to claim their fifth world championship. That’s also the last time Dallas played in the Super Bowl.
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 11 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -5.5
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
It’s no secret that one of the keys to the Cowboys’ success this season has been the running game. Dallas finished second in the NFL in the regular season in rushing offense, thanks in large part to the efforts of DeMarco Murray. The No. 1 rusher by nearly 500 yards, Murray tapered off some in the second half, but still racked up 1,845 yards on the ground and a league-best (tied with Marshawn Lynch) 13 rushing touchdowns. Murray also led the league in carries (392) by a wide margin, as the Cowboys were content to wear down opposing defenses by running the football. This run-heavy approach paid off in another way, as Dallas led the league in time of possession (32:51). Controlling the clock not only helps the offense in that it’s usually an indicator that a team is able to move the ball, it also assists a defense by limiting the number of possessions they are on the field. This is especially important for the Cowboys considering their defense is ranked the worst (19th) in total yards allowed among the remaining playoff teams, and even lower (26th) against the pass. Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, but it remains to seen how it will impact an offense that averaged a league-high 39.8 points per game while going 8-0 at home. Rodgers has been near perfect (25 TDs, 0 INTs, 133.2 passer rating) at Lambeau, so hobbled or not, Dallas’ defense will have its work cut out for it Sunday afternoon. One way to make this task a little easier would be for the Cowboys’ offense to chew up as much clock as possible. After all, the best defense when it comes to slowing down Rodgers and company is to keep them off of the field.
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Allow Rodgers to R-E-L-A-X
Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, so it will be interesting to see how it impacts him Sunday afternoon. Everyone knows that the Packers will only go as far in the playoffs as Rodgers can carry them, but that doesn’t mean he has to do all of the work. If anything, Rodgers’ mobility figures to be limited somewhat, so Dallas will certainly look for ways to get to him in the pocket, even if that means blitzing more than it usually does. To counter this approach, Green Bay’s offensive game plan could focus on short throws and intermediate routes, which would get the ball into the hands of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams as quickly as possible to see if they can’t do some damage in the YAC (yards after catch) department. Another way to take some of the burden off of Rodgers is to let Eddie Lacy and James Starks have their share of touches. Since the Week 9 bye, the ground game has averaged 142 yards per contest. The Cowboys have been more susceptible to the pass (26th in NFL) than the run (8th) this season, but that doesn’t mean the Packers shouldn’t try and give Dallas a taste of its own medicine. If anything, Lacy and Starks figure to be much fresher and healthier than Rodgers, so perhaps it’s time for them to do the heavy lifting. After all, the Packers will definitely need their MVP candidate quarterback at his best next weekend should they get by the Cowboys.
Is this “Ice Bowl II”? Well, it won’t be nearly as cold at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon as it was more than 47 years ago, but this postseason matchup between Dallas and Green Bay is historic for another reason. It’s the first time in NFL playoff history that a team that went 8-0 at home hosts one that was 8-0 on the road. The Packers have been unstoppable at home, averaging nearly 40 points per game, while the Cowboys put up 34.4 points per game on the road. Something has to give and Packer Nation certainly hopes it’s not Aaron Rodgers’ calf muscle. The leading MVP contender may not be at 100 percent, but I still think Green Bay will be able to score enough points on a suspect Dallas defense to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Dallas 23
Sunday afternoon’s Indianapolis vs. Denver AFC Divisional Round game will be the first postseason meeting between Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the man he replaced in Indy, Peyton Manning — who is now the first quarterback to play at least 200 games with a team and then face that team in the playoffs. According to Football Perspective, the Broncos have the edge in yards per attempts, yards allowed per attempt, yards per carry and yards allowed per carry. Since 1990, there have been 16 games where a home team had the advantage in those four metrics, and the home team is 15–1 in those matchups.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 11 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Denver -7
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Andrew Luck
The spotlight shines on the respective quarterbacks in this one. When the two face off Sunday afternoon it will be the third meeting between the two signal-callers and the first rubber match. In 2013, Luck led the Colts to a 39–33 victory in Manning’s first game back in Indianapolis. Both quarterbacks threw for three scores in that game, while Luck was turnover-free and Manning had an interception. Luck has had better postseason success early on in his career than Manning, arriving in Denver this week with a 2–2 playoff record in his first three seasons. It took Manning until his sixth season to win a playoff game, and it was his fourth postseason contest that he finally got his first W. If Luck protects the football, and the Colts defense can force some miscues, then the road upset becomes very realistic.
Denver’s Key to Victory: Peyton Manning
For whatever reason, Manning is not the same quarterback in the postseason that he is during the regular season. In 23 playoff games, Manning is 11–12 and has a passer rating of 89.2. Compare that to his regular season record (179–77) and passer rating (97.5). Granted, the opponents get tougher in the postseason, but Manning hasn’t exactly risen to the occasion with any regularity under the brightest lights. It’s important that the Broncos get at least a reasonable facsimile of October Manning (102.2 career passer rating) and not January Manning (83.5). “I think Peyton’s been doing fine. I don’t know if it’s about hype; I know it’s just another playoff game. I can’t answer that question for him but I think he’ll be fine,” Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “We had them the first game of the season and he was fine. It’s a playoff game so it’s a little bit different because if you lose, you’re done and if you win, you keep going. I can’t really talk for Peyton but I think he’s fine.” Okay, fine.
Peyton Manning has been one-and-done in the playoffs eight times in his career, by far the most for any quarterback in the Super Bowl era, and he’s also the record-holder with 12 postseason losses. Those numbers have to be weighing on this proud warrior, who will be looking for vindication in this postseason. This week, at least, he’ll get it.
Prediction: Denver 31, Indianapolis 24
Two of the NFL’s hottest teams look to get one step closer to the Super Bowl when the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks meet in the NFC Divisional Round on Saturday night on FOX. The Panthers have won five in a row, including last week’s Wild Card victory at home over Arizona, while the Seahawks have rattled off six wins in a row.
Carolina repeated as NFC South champions despite a 7-8-1 regular season record, which included a 13-9 home loss to Seattle back in Week 8. The Seahawks are hoping home-field advantage will help them in their quest to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions in a decade.
These were the top two defenses in 2013 and both units enter this game playing their best football of the season. Points may be hard to come by, as the last three meetings between Carolina and Seattle featured a grand total of 69 or 23 per game. The Seahawks won all three games by an average of just 4.3 points per contest.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Seattle -11
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Accept Last Week’s Results
All the Panthers did last week was set an NFL record by holding the Cardinals to just 78 total yards in their 27-16 Wild Card win at home. As impressive as a defensive performance as that was, Carolina was far from perfect as a team. Cam Newton completed just 18 of 32 passes with two touchdowns and an interception, the Panthers turned the ball over a total of three times, were just 5-for-15 on third down conversions, and committed eight penalties for 80 yards. There were plenty of good things to take away from the game besides the stellar defense – namely 188 yards rushing and dominating time of possession (37:06) – but Carolina cannot expect a similar team performance to get the job done Saturday night. Not against the defending Super Bowl champions who are at home and playing their best football of the season. Survive and advance is the name of the game in the playoffs, and the Panthers will need to bring their A game if they want to do just that.
Seattle’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
The Seahawks are rolling, winners of six in a row, and one of the big reasons why is the resurgence of the Legion of Boom. Seattle’s defense has really put the clamps down, holding opponents to just 39 points (6.5 ppg) during this winning streak. Pete Carroll’s team has surrendered just three touchdowns and not a single point in the fourth quarter over their last six games. The Seahawks also have limited opponents to just 66 yards rushing per game, which is the key when it comes to Carolina’s offense. The Panthers have a run-first mentality and a quarterback in Cam Newton who is just as dangerous making plays with his legs than his arm. During their five-game winning streak, the Panthers have averaged nearly 200 yards rushing per game with Jonathan Stewart (524 yds., 5.1 ypc) and Newton (6.3 ypc, 3 TDs) doing the bulk of the damage. If Seattle can stifle Carolina’s ground game, it will force Newton to try and make more plays from the pocket. And even though Newton has playmakers in tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Seahawks counter with the league’s top secondary, headlined by a trio of All-Pros in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas (first team) and Kam Chancellor (second team). Simply put, if the Panthers can’t gain any ground, this offense may be hard-pressed to get much of anything done Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.
Carolina’s defense grabbed all the headlines and set an NFL record last week, but no unit is playing better than Seattle’s right now. The defending Super Bowl champions are rounding into form at just the right time and will be playing at home backed by the support of “The 12th Man,” the loudest fan base in the league. The Panthers earned the right to be in the playoffs with a strong late-season push and validated their entry with last week’s impressive Wild Card win over the Cardinals, but the best the NFC West has to offer simply has too much talent for Ron Rivera’s team to overcome. Pete Carroll and company get a step closer to a repeat Super Bowl berth with a championship-caliber performance at home.
Prediction: Seattle 24, Carolina 10
Two of the AFC’s most successful franchises since 2000 are set to meet in the playoffs once again, as the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots square off in a Divisional Round matchup Saturday afternoon on NBC. The Ravens are looking to build off of the momentum stemming from last week’s 30-17 Wild Card win in Pittsburgh, while the AFC East champion Patriots hope home-field advantage will result in a return to the Super Bowl.
This represents the fourth postseason meeting between New England and Baltimore in the last six years, as these teams have developed their own playoff rivalry. The Patriots lead all teams with an 18-8 postseason record since 2000, while Baltimore is second at 15-7. During this span, these two franchises have combined to win five Super Bowls in seven appearances (Patriots 3-2, Ravens 2--0).
The Ravens are no strangers to playing in Foxboro, Mass., in January, as all their playoff games against the Patriots have taken place in Gillette Stadium. Baltimore is 2-1 against one of the NFL’s winningest home teams, including a 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago. The only other team to beat New England at home in the postseason since 2000 is the Jets, who beat the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the 2010 playoffs.
While Tom Brady has been under center for every one of those 18 playoff wins (most all-time), Joe Flacco has put together his own impressive postseason resume. Flacco is 10-4 in his career, which ties him for ninth all-time, and has a higher winning percentage (.714) than Brady (.692).
What’s more, 11 of Flacco’s 14 career playoff games have come on the road. The Ravens have won seven of the 11, giving Flacco the most road playoff victories all-time, including their last three in a row. Baltimore’s last road playoff loss was three years ago, a 23-20 AFC title game setback to, you guessed it, New England.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: New England -7
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Dominate Up Front
Having faced Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the postseason three times in the past five seasons, the Ravens already know what they need to do to beat the AFC’s top seed. One of the keys to beating New England is to get to Brady and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. As Baltimore showed last week in the Wild Card win over Pittsburgh, its defensive line is one of the most disruptive and effective units in the NFL. The Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice and held the Steelers to just 68 yards rushing on 3.6 yards per carry. Yes, Pittsburgh was without leading rusher Le’Veon Bell, but Baltimore held him to an identical 3.6 yards per carry (79 yds. on 22 att.) in the two regular season matchups. Two years ago, the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game, as Brady completed 29 of 54 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown. Baltimore didn’t sack him, but it did pick Brady off twice, gave up just 3.9 yards per carry on the ground, and limited New England to a touchdown and two field goals. The Ravens will look for similar results, as they hope their pass rush (49 sacks, tied for 2nd during regular season) can be productive against a Patriots offensive line that has had protection issues from time to time. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore also needs to establish its own running game, especially after averaging a meager 2.1 yards per carry last week against Pittsburgh. New England’s defense has given up some sizeable chunks on the ground this season and the outcome didn’t go the Patriots’ way in most of those instances. The Ravens would like nothing more than for this trend to continue Saturday afternoon, especially if it results in another victory against the most successful head coach-quarterback duo in NFL history.
New England’s Key to Victory: Attack Baltimore Secondary
Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offensive line figures to have their hands full against the Ravens’ front seven. Not only is the defensive line whole again with nose tackle Haloti Ngata back from a four-game suspension, but the linebacker corps is equally solid with veterans Terrell Suggs and Daryl Smith flanking standout rookie C.J. Mosley with either Courtney Upshaw or pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil rounding out the quartet. New England may be hard-pressed to get its ground game going, but if the pass protection holds up, there should be opportunities for plays down field. As good as the front end of Baltimore’s defense has played, there are plenty of questions when it comes to the back end. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness have produced a revolving door when it comes to the Ravens’ secondary with free safety Darian Stewart the only defensive back to make more than 11 starts during the regular season. The result is a Baltimore pass defense that is ranked the worst among the remaining playoff teams in terms of passer rating (90.6) and completion percentage (64.2) allowed during the regular season. The Ravens yielded 22 touchdown passes compared to 11 interceptions prior to picking Ben Roethlisberger off twice (vs. 1 TD pass) in last week’s Wild Card win. That does not necessarily bode well against Brady, who posted an impressive 33:9 TD-to-INT ratio during the regular season. Brady’s top three targets have been tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, three options he didn’t have the last time he faced Baltimore in the playoffs. When the Ravens beat the Patriots at home in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago, Gronk (arm) and Edelman (foot) were both out with injuries, while LaFell was a Carolina Panther. Edelman (concussion) and LaFell (toe) are dealing with some injury issues entering this game, but this trio is fully expected to be out there and need to make their presence felt to help Brady exact some payback on one of the few teams that have given him any trouble in the postseason.
It may not have the sizzle of Ravens vs. Steelers or Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but don’t underestimate the budding rivalry between these two teams. The last two times Baltimore and New England met in the playoffs it decided which team would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. That’s not the case this time around, but it doesn’t change the fact that John Harbaugh and the Ravens would like nothing more than to keep Bill Belichick and Tom Brady from reaching their goal, while the Patriots are looking for some payback against the last team to beat them at home in the postseason. Joe Flacco doesn’t have the same number of playoff wins or rings as Brady, but he’s proven himself just as capable on this stage, especially on the road. New England may have more offensive firepower, but Baltimore has more than enough on defense, as well as the experience and veteran leadership that’s needed to beat a No. 1 seed at home. Flacco’s numbers won’t overwhelm, but he makes the plays he needs to and the Ravens’ defense does the rest. Belichick and Brady are left to ponder “what if” yet again following another painful home playoff loss to Harbaugh and Flacco.
Prediction: Baltimore 27, New England 24
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 9:
• Tiger Woods is starting his 2015 season at the zoo that is Phoenix, on Super Bowl Sunday. Prepare for the crazy.
• Knicks fans are reaching for the paper bags. It's the players who should be wearing them.
• Simmons goes longform on Flacco. But is he elite?
• The Titans decided to "live-tweet" the Music City Miracle on its 15th anniversary. The St. Louis Rams had the perfect response.
• Marv Albert shared his all-time Albert Achievement Awards on Letterman.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
One of the biggest surprises of the NBA season is the outstanding play we’ve seen from the 27-8 Atlanta Hawks. Georgia’s basketball birds are enjoying a renaissance, swiftly establishing an identity as a pass-first, system-oriented squad that selflessly swings the ball around to their deep array of shooters and always plays with defensive discipline.
Under second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, the Hawks have earned comparisons to this century’s most prolific franchise, the San Antonio Spurs.
All this, after the team looked left for dead months ago, smeared in the media as their owner Bruce Levenson, and general manager Danny Ferry, confessed to using racially insensitive language in company correspondences. Levenson is now selling the team, and Ferry is on indefinite leave — even as his roster moves all come to brilliant fruition on the floor.
It’s a complicated spot between bad marks of the past and a bright view for the future, with these Hawks. But they’ve played well enough to largely obscure that storyline, keeping the league increasingly focused on just how sharply they do this basketball thing as they roll through the cream of the NBA’s playoff crop.
But you still don’t have to peel the onion too far back to find its murky center: The Hawks and Atlanta haven’t historically been much of a fit. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz pondered the odd pairing in a recent piece:
“As has long been tradition in this transient city, it's an uphill climb to fill Philips Arena night in and night out and, consequently, attract the kind of name superstars who could put the Hawks on the map. LeBron James never considered Atlanta. Pau Gasol turned down a heftier offer than he received in Chicago. And that was before owner Levenson's email buried the franchise even deeper in the consciousness of the league.”
The Hawks, as consequence of their dim legacy, have had trouble bringing in the big talent typically associated with title contention. But if their charge to the NBA Finals continues at this furious pace for much longer, maybe they can be one of those starless outliers, who win big by playing the right way.
— John Wilmes
College football’s four-team playoff concludes on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas when Ohio State and Oregon meet to decide the national championship. The Ducks are looking for their first title, while the Buckeyes are after their first national championship since 2002.
Oregon is around a seven-point favorite by the Vegas experts for Monday night’s game, but there’s not much separating the Ducks and Buckeyes in the depth chart breakdown.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best player on the field, but Ohio State owns an edge on defense, and running back Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed over 200 yards in back-to-back games.
National Championship Position-by-Position Breakdown
So far, so good for Cardale Jones. Since replacing J.T. Barrett after a season-ending injury against Michigan, Jones is 32 of 55 for 500 yards and four touchdowns. The sophomore also has 52 rushing yards over the last two contests. The coaching staff would probably like Jones to raise his completion percentage (58 percent), but the sophomore has thrived under pressure by hitting on 7 of 10 passes on third down with seven yards or more to go in 2014.
|Marcus Mariota is without a doubt the best player on the field in Arlington. And stopping the junior and Oregon’s up-tempo offense is the biggest challenge for Ohio State’s defense, especially with just one week to prepare. Heading into Monday night’s showdown, Mariota's season stat line is simply ridiculous: 280 completions on 408 passes for 4,121 yards and 40 scores. Efficiency is an underrated aspect of Mariota’s game, as the junior enters the championship with just three picks and averages 10.1 yards per attempt. Mariota also ranks second on the team with 731 rushing yards and 15 scores.|
Jones has played well. But Mariota is the best in CFB this year.
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott was overlooked in the hierarchy of Big Ten running backs this season, but the sophomore has made plenty of noise in his last two games. Elliott gashed Wisconsin for 220 yards and recorded 230 yards on 20 attempts in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Expect Elliott to see a heavy workload on Monday night. For the season, Elliott has 1,632 yards (6.9 ypc) and 14 scores. When Elliott needs a break, the Buckeyes can work in Curtis Samuel or H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson.|
True freshman Royce Freeman helped the Ducks eliminate question marks about their physicality on the ground. Freeman enters the championship matchup versus Ohio State with 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns (No. 1 in Pac-12), averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (511 yards, 5 TDs) returned from injury to record 124 yards on 13 attempts against Florida State and should see 10-15 carries to keep Freeman fresh for the fourth quarter. Byron Marshall (383 rushing yards, 1 TD this season) was the team’s leading rusher last year, but he’s switched to an all-purpose/receiver role in 2014.
Even - Oregon has an edge in depth. But Elliott is on fire.
The Buckeyes may not have Oregon’s depth of options at receiver, but this unit has made progress under coach Urban Meyer. Devin Smith leads the nation with a robust 27.7 yards per catch average on 32 receptions and has scored four touchdowns in the last two games. Michael Thomas caught seven passes for 66 yards in the Sugar Bowl, placing the sophomore at 50 receptions in 2014. Corey Smith, Evan Spencer and tight ends Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are also major contributors. The Buckeyes also get partial credit here for H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall (13.5 ypc).
The loss of Devon Allen to a knee injury from the Rose Bowl is a significant blow to Oregon’s receiving corps. Allen was one of the Pac-12’s top freshmen in 2014, recording 41 catches for 684 yards and seven scores. The Ducks also received more bad news at receiver this week, as Darren Carrington failed a drug test and is out for Monday night's game. While Allen and Carrington will be missed, this unit was also able to overcome the loss of Bralon Addison in the preseason and perform at a high level in 2014. Without Allen, leading receiver Byron Marshall (66 catches) and Dwayne Stanford will see more passes in their direction. Freshman Charles Nelson (4 catches for 40 yards in Rose Bowl) is a gamebreaker that could see more time, and tight end Evan Baylis emerged as another threat by catching six passes against Florida State.
Even - Allen's absence is a setback for Oregon. OSU's group continues to trend up.
This unit needed to be revamped with the departure of four starters in the offseason. Left tackle Taylor Decker was the only returning starter for 2014, and this group struggled early. In the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes allowed seven sacks. However, the offensive line progressed throughout the year and limited opponents to just 15 sacks in nine Big Ten games. Decker and guard Pat Elflein are the standout performers, but freshman guard Billy Price, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Darryl Baldwin have each started all 14 games this season. The Buckeyes have averaged at least five yards per carry in seven straight games.
A healthy Jake Fisher (LT) and center Hroniss Grasu (C) (both first-team All-Pac-12 in 2014) made a huge difference in the performance of Oregon’s offensive line. The Ducks had to mix and match personnel up front all year due to injuries and has not allowed a sack in their last two games. Fisher and Grasu are two of the best in the nation at their position and helped pave the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry. Freshman Tyrell Crosby (RT - 8 starts in 2014), sophomore Cameron Hunt (RG - 13 starts) and senior Hamani Stevens (LG) round out the starting five. The Ducks' 5.5 yards per carry average ranks No. 12 nationally. In the Rose Bowl win over FSU, Oregon gashed the ' Noles for 301 yards. Winning the battle up front is a must for UO on Monday.
Even - Another close call. Fisher and Grasu's health is a huge plus for OSU. However, Ohio State has improved all year.
The Buckeyes have one of – if not the No. 1 – defensive line in college football. This unit limited opposing rushers to 3.9 yards per carry through 14 games and held Wisconsin to just 71 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship. End Joey Bosa was quiet in the Sugar Bowl, but the sophomore is one of the top defensive players in the nation. Bosa recorded 53 tackles (20 for a loss), 13.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in 2014. Tackle Michael Bennett is another All-American up front, as the senior came on strong at the end of the year to finish with 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. End Steve Miller returned an interception for a touchdown against Alabama, while junior Adolphus Washington joins Bennett on the interior.
The Ducks ranked eighth in the Pac-12 (4.2 ypc allowed) in rush defense and was susceptible to plays on the ground against Florida State in the Rose Bowl (180 yards, 4.6 ypc). While Oregon will give up yards, this unit was disruptive at times against the Seminoles. And Don Pellum's line has generated at least two sacks in four consecutive games. Ends Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) present a challenge with their length and athleticism, and this duo combined for 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. Oregon uses a lot of odd-man fronts, but Armstead and Buckner can create havoc against the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Junior Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp are the main contributors at nose guard. Oregon's defensive line will play a critical role on Monday night. Can this unit stop the run? UO has played better up front in recent weeks.
Ducks have talent up front, but the Buckeyes might have the best DL in the nation.
Similar to the offensive line, the Buckeyes went into fall practice with some concern in this group. Standout Ryan Shazier left for the NFL, and while there wasn’t an issue about talent, this unit needed to find its next playmaker. Mission accomplished. Junior Joshua Perry led the team with 118 tackles, but freshman Darron Lee recorded 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced turnovers. Lee’s emergence helped ease the loss of Shazier, while senior Curtis Grant (58 tackles, 5 INTs) provides steady play at middle linebacker. Talented true freshman Raekwon McMillan (49 tackles, 6 TFL) is the team’s top reserve.
This unit delivered a solid performance against Florida State and needs to have another big game on Monday for the Ducks to win the national title. Tony Washington returned a fumble 58 yards for a score and recorded a sack, Rodney Hardrick forced a fumble, and Derrick Malone made four stops. Outside linebacker Tyson Coleman recovered a fumble and made three stops against FSU. All four players will be tasked with slowing Ohio State’s rushing attack, as well as limiting the plays by Cardale Jones outside of the pocket. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot also recorded a sack against Florida State and joins Washington and Christian French (6.5 sacks in 2014) as key pass-rush threats for coordinator Don Pellum.
Even - Oregon's group is coming off a good performance. Lee is a rising star for OSU.
Fixing the pass defense was a priority for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash this offseason. Ohio State allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more and gave up 31 touchdown passes last season. Even without first-round pick Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes have made progress against the pass. Ohio State limited opponents to 15 passing scores – tied for third in the Big Ten – and opposing quarterbacks were held to a 55.1 completion percentage. Cornerback Doran Grant had a standout year (58 tackles, 5 INTs, 9 PBU), while the young safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell combined for 10 interceptions. While Ohio State has made progress against the pass, the matchup against Oregon will be its toughest of the season.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was a big loss for the Ducks, but Chris Seisay held his own in the Rose Bowl. The redshirt freshman made six stops in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State and will be under the spotlight once again on Monday night. On the other side, Oregon senior Troy Hill was one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks in 2014 and needs to follow up his Rose Bowl effort (9 tackles, 2 PBU) against a dangerous receiving corps. Safeties Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels combined for 17 stops in the Rose Bowl. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson (35 tackles in 2014) is a future star but also a key contributor in a backup role. Dargan was the team’s top ball hawk in the secondary, picking off seven passes in 2014. Similar to the run defense, Oregon will give up some yards through the air. However, the Ducks limited the big plays (eight of 40 yards or more) by opposing offenses.
Ducks played well versus FSU last week. However, Ekpre-Olomu's absence could be felt this week. Close call here.
Winning the field position battle is an underrated part of any game, and punter Cameron Johnston (45.3) is a key weapon on special teams for the Buckeyes. Kicker Sean Nuernberger is 13 of 20 on field goals this year and has missed 5 of 10 attempts from 40 yards or more. Returns are in good shape with Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall on special teams. Marshall averages 12 yards per punt return, while Wilson averaged 24 yards per kickoff return this year.
The impact of Allen’s knee injury isn’t just limited to offense, as the redshirt freshman averages 26.1 yards per kickoff return. In his absence, freshman Charles Nelson (20.3 yards per kickoff return) will see additional time on special teams. Nelson is one of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners (15.5 ypr, 2 TDs). Kicker Aidan Schneider passed Matt Wogan as the No. 1 kicker this year and connected on 9 of 10 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler (39 yards per punt) isn’t used much (41 attempts) thanks to an explosive offense.
Johnston is a weapon on punts. Returns are almost even. Field goals are a wash.
Urban Meyer is one of the nation’s best coaches and has been an instant winner at each of his four FBS coaching opportunities. The Buckeyes are 37-3 under Meyer’s direction and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular season game. Prior to Ohio State, Meyer won two national titles at Florida, went 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and was hired as Houston’s new head coach. The additions of assistants Chris Ash (safeties, co-defensive coordinator) and Larry Johnson (defensive line) made a huge impact on Ohio State’s defense.
Mark Helfrich inherited a national championship contender from Chip Kelly, and the second-year coach is 24-3 in his first two years at Oregon. Helfrich and this staff did a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season and the Ducks have a nine-game winning streak entering the national championship. Coordinator Don Pellum has stabilized the defense after a slow start, holding the last four opponents to 20 points or less. Pellum's defense has been opportunistic with 30 forced turnovers and held Florida State to field goals - not touchdowns - in the red zone last week. Offensive play-caller Scott Frost guided the Ducks to an average of 40 points per game for the fifth consecutive season.
Credit to Helfrich for getting the Ducks here. However, Meyer is arguably one of the top 3 coaches in CFB.
Gambling is sports. It makes meaningless games infinitely more important to fans.
However, Monday night's national championship game doesn’t need any added juice to lure in viewers from other fan bases. All of college football will watch Oregon and Ohio State do battle.
I don’t need to place a bet on the game to enjoy it. But for national title games, like the Super Bowl, prop bets can be an added dimension compared to the traditional point spreads or over/under.
Here are some of the most intriguing Ducks-Buckeyes prop bets and final picks for the more traditional gamblers.
Ohio State (+7) vs. Oregon
The Ducks have the experience edge and Marcus Mariota. Ohio State has the coaching and talent edge and will be playing the disrespect card once again. These two teams are evenly matched and the game could go either way. However, Urban Meyer is 5-0 straight up as an underdog since getting to Columbus. I’ll take Oregon to win, but OSU to cover. Prediction: Ohio State +7
Ohio State vs. Oregon: Over/Under 75
Only one BCS title game out of 16 went over 75 points and that was the 79-point Texas-USC showdown in 2005. Two other times — in 2004 (74) and 1999 (75) — has the title game gone over the 70-point mark. But it hasn’t happened since ’05, and the average total for the championship game since is 49.5. These are two of the highest-scoring teams in the nation with a combined per game average of 92.2, but title games are traditionally played tighter than usual. I’d take the under as both could score in the 30s and the bet would still win. Predictions: Under
Oregon total points: O/U 41
I’d take the under because of Ohio State’s defensive line and developing linebackers. Oregon may still win the game but may have to battle all game long against this nasty front seven. Prediction: Under
Ohio State total points: O/U 34
I’d take the over here. Ohio State can score, as it just posted 59 against Wisconsin and 42 against Alabama. The Ducks' defense has given up tons of yards this season and the Buckeyes should be able to move the ball. Prediction: Over
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Marcus Mariota rushing yards: O/U 51.5
Seven times in 14 games has Mariota gone over 50 yards rushing this season with four of those coming in the last six games. When pressured (which will happen) and when in big games, go with the best player on the field doing whatever it takes to move the sticks. Predictions: Over
First downs: Ohio State (+4) vs. Oregon
Take the Buckeyes and the “points” here. Even if Oregon wins, the odds are the Ducks will be ripping off large chunks of yards. Ohio State, meanwhile, will look to control the clock more from the start. Take OSU and the four first downs. Prediction: OSU +4
Team to get first penalty: Ohio St (even) or Oregon (-130)
If there is one area Ohio State has a significant advantage in it is the yellow flags. The Ducks are 119th in the nation in penalties per game (8.1) — well ahead of Ohio State (5.6). Hence, the $130 bet to win $100. I’d still take the Ducks here. Prediction: Oregon
Cardale Jones longest completion: O/U 45.5
The Ducks are 50th nationally in allowing pass plays of more than 40 yards and Jones’ best skill seems to be the deep ball. He’s had a 47-yard completion against Bama and a 44-yarder against UW in just two career starts. I’d say OSU will hit at least one big one. Prediction: Over
Cardale Jones TDs + INTs: O/U 2.5
Definitely take the over here. There is a good chance he'll record at least one of each. And in what many believe will be a higher scoring game, a good chance he’ll get two of each. I’d take the over and feel great about it from a guy with tons of ability, lots of weapons and little experience. Prediction: Over
Longest TD scored (both): O/U 63.5
Oregon and Ohio State both rank in the top 10 nationally this fall in plays of 60 yards or more. Each team posted eight plays of 60-plus yards, giving this game a good chance of seeing multiple big plays. Prediction: Over
Team to score longest TD of the game: Ohio St (+140) or Oregon (-170)
Take the Buckeyes all day here. As I just pointed out, Ohio State is just as prone to big plays as Oregon and the Ducks' defense has given up more yards and big plays than OSU by a wide margin. Take the odds and run. Prediction: Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott rushing yards: O/U 120.5
This is the biggest prop bet in terms of production on the board for a reason. Ohio State will run the ball like crazy and Oregon hasn’t shown it can stop a power-rushing attack all year. Elliott has been over 120 yards in three straight games and the Ducks are 51st in the nation in rushing defense. Prediction: Over
The first score will be (for fun):
- all odds provided by @ToddFuhrman @BovadaLV and Westgate Las Vegas Sports Book.
From three yards and a cloud of dust, as Woody Hayes might say, to three plays per minute.
Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but when Ohio State is in the conversation to be one of the fastest national champions in college football history, the message is clear: The hurry-up, no-huddle is as mainstream as can be.
If Oregon wins the national championship, the Ducks will be the most up-tempo team to win the national title since at least the BCS era.
That’s not a surprise to anyone who follows college football closely.
This, though, is the revelation: If Ohio State wins the national title, the Buckeyes might end up one of the fastest champions since the start of the BCS era, too.
Ohio State still has a way to go to catch up to Oregon in tempo, but the Ducks and Buckeyes are running track meets compared to national champions since 1998.
“(Tempo is) an advantage for the offense,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters in Columbus earlier this week. “And if you don't take it, then that's fine. But even Alabama is moving in that direction, and is it full speed all the time? We're not, but certainly that gives us an advantage at times.”
Ohio State might not be the full-time tempo team like Oregon is, but either way, the Buckeyes or Ducks will be the first national champion since the BCS era to run 1,000 plays in a season. And that doesn’t have anything to do with playing a 15th game. Both easily crossed that threshold in the semifinals, their 14th game of the season.
Both teams average more than 72 plays per game — Oregon at 74.8 and Ohio State at 72.5. Only five BCS/AP champions in 16 years averaged more than 70 plays per game — 1999 Florida State (74.5), 2000 Oklahoma (71.9), 2004 USC, 2005 Texas (72.4) and 2007 LSU (71).*
*if that LSU team looks out of place, there’s a good reason for it. The “undefeated in regulation Tigers” played a total of six overtime periods in two games that season.
The plays per minute metric may be even more telling. Oregon averages nearly 2.8 plays per minute, which would be a BCS record by a wide margin.
Ohio State averages over 2.3 plays per minute. As it stands, the Buckeyes would be the fourth-fastest team to win a title since 1998.
|Pace of Play and National Championships|
|Year||Team||Games||Plays||Plays per Game||Plays per Minute|
*complete data unavailable
What’s that you say? Auburn-Oregon in 2010 was already the signal that tempo offense had arrived?
Maybe for Oregon. Even with Gus Malzahn running the offense, Auburn ran at a pace not that different from what came earlier in BCS championship history.
Under Chip Kelly, the Ducks averaged 78.8 plays per game and 2.9 plays per minute. Had the Ducks won that game, they would have been the most up-tempo champion by a mile.
Instead, Auburn won. And while Malzahn’s scheme and tempo set the tone for a new era in the SEC, that Tigers team was not as fast as either team in Dallas.
That Cam Newton-led Auburn team ran 67.7 plays per game, well below the 70-play threshold. The Tigers that season averaged 2.31 plays per minute, well behind Oregon’s pace this season and a smidgen behind Ohio State.
Perhaps that’s not the most startling of storylines until you examine where Ohio State and Urban Meyer started.
Meyer’s 2006 and 2008 championship teams at Florida were two of the four slowest champions of the BCS era in terms of plays per game. Ohio State’s 2002 title team ranks 11th of 17 champions in plays per game during that span.
“At Florida, there's a misunderstanding that we were a big tempo team,” Meyer said. “We weren't.”
All things change, and the tempo at Ohio State is among them. Meyer’s last two Buckeyes teams have averaged more than 71 plays per game and 2.28 plays per minute. As recently as 2008, Ohio State averaged 62.1 plays per game and fewer than two plays per minute.
In other words, the Buckeyes have gone from old school to new school in six seasons.
The irony is that Oregon isn’t running at its breakneck pace on every snap. The Ducks’ 2.76 plays per minute this season is their lowest since 2009.
Will this be the wave of the future? Oregon coach Mark Helfrich isn’t quite sure, though the change won’t come from the Ducks.
6. The dominant Atlanta Hawks
It’s not that nobody saw the Hawks coming. They were a tough out last year, pushing the then-heavyweight Indiana Pacers to seven games in an arduous first-round playoff battle — and they did this despite losing arguably their best player, Al Horford, for the season.
But who can say they saw Atlanta coming this fast, and this hard? The Hawks have gone 19-2 after a bumpy start, and are now tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the league’s second-best record. A rejuvenated Horford is an All-Star candidate, as is frontcourt partner Paul Millsap.
Don’t sleep on their guards, either, though. Jeff Teague is demonically quick at the point, shrewdly beginning their Spurs-like sets as he knifes into the lane. The best possible result of their dynamite passing sequences? A three-pointer from Kyle Korver, who’s shooting an otherworldly 51 percent from beyond the arc.
5. The Detroit Pistons’ turnaround
Dropping Josh Smith has clearly done more than just free up the Pistons’ clogged-up big man rotation. When coach and team president Stan Van Gundy made an example of the sagging star by sending him out the door, it seemed to awaken the fight and focus in his whole roster. After a pitiful 5-23 kickoff to the year, Detroit is now undefeated since exiling Smith seven games ago.
And they’re not just beating patsies, either. The Pistons’ most recent action saw them sweep a dreaded Texas two-step, taking down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in thrilling fashion, then beating Rajon Rondo and the rolling Dallas Mavericks the very next night. Keep your eyes turned to the ongoing basketball renaissance in Motor City.
4. Increased player movement
Newfound parity in the NBA is about a lot of things, but the largest factor of all is a set of financial rules that makes it hard for teams to keep rosters together, and encourages them to treat contracts and assets fluidly.
In other words: this season’s winter trading market has been piping hot. Dion Waiters, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, Rajon Rondo, Brandan Wright, Andrei Kirilenko and Jae Crowder have all switched teams, with more than a month to go before the deadline, and with plenty more rumblings out there. Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson, for starters, are both said to be on the block.
3. Cleveland’s shaky beginnings
Just as we didn’t see the Hawks getting so good, so quickly, it’s hard for anyone to convince the world they saw the Cleveland Cavaliers’ monstrous struggles in their crystal ball. LeBron James’ squad was, we knew, full of young talent and led by a rookie NBA head coach in David Blatt. It was never going to be easy.
The level of acrimony and upheaval in Cleveland has been astounding, though. Two mid-season trades (for Shumpert and Mozgov) point to a heightened level of urgency as the organization fights to retain James and Kevin Love this summer, both of whom can walk away. Considered title contenders before the season, the 19-17 Cavs are now working overtime just to get decent playoff positioning, and to make sure they don’t have to break the band up anytime soon.
2. Jimmy Butler’s surge into MVP territory
The Chicago Bulls have been kicking tail. If it weren’t for the Hawks’ unstoppable play, they’d have found their way to Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed by now. And the top source of their success is coming from an unlikely figure: shooting guard Jimmy Butler has become the Bulls’ best player.
Butler has long been a defensive menace, wearing his opponents’ thin with his brash, ceaseless hustle. But his sudden scoring touch has pushed him into the land of superstars. Most remaining doubters of Butler’s brilliance shut their lips when they saw him corner MVP front-runner James Harden into zero second-half field goals in a Bulls win over the Houston Rockets. Butler straight up made Harden look bad:
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1. The Sacramento Kings firing Mike Malone
Just when you thought the Western Conference was getting that much harder… it got a little bit easier.
The Sacramento Kings had been lost, directionless for years amid questions of ownership and a poor track record in the draft and free agency. Then, they did the unthinkable, and looked like a contender with a 9-5 start, behind the amazing work of big man DeMarcus Cousins and the best version yet of written-off forward Rudy Gay.
But when Cousins missed a string of games with viral meningitis and the Kings dropped eight out of 10 contests, their overzealous owner Vivek Ranadive lost his cool. He fired one of the leaders of his team’s turnaround, head coach Mike Malone. Malone wasn’t the best in the league by any means, but he was doing a damn good job, and had the difficult Cousins on his side.
Under the direction of Ty Corbin, the Kings have been a mediocre 4-6, even with DeMarcus healthy back in the rotation. Basketball optimism will probably have to keep waiting for another day, in California’s capital.
— John Wilmes
There are still eight teams battling for the ultimate prize, and the chance to hold the Lombardi Trophy over their heads at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. It’s what everyone in the NFL is after every season, far more important than any individual awards.
But the individual awards are important too, and while those haven’t been awarded yet, they’ve surely already been decided. Here’s a look at how some of those votes should go.
Nominees: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers; QB Tom Brady, Patriots; DE J.J. Watt, Texans; QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers; QB Tony Romo, Cowboys; RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Winner: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
There’s a lot of buzz for Watt to become the first defensive player to win the MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. And the buzz is deserved coming off a brilliant season that included 20.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown and a few TDs on offense, too. But in this era nobody affects a game like a quarterback does. And Aaron Rodgers was simply brilliant, throwing for 4,381 yards and 38 TDs with only five interceptions. He also r-e-l-a-xed the Packers and their fan base after some early issues. A good case can be made for Brady and Roethlisberger for the same reason, but Rodgers was simply better. As for Romo and Murray, they turned the Cowboys into a true contender, finally, but it’s hard to figure which one of them was the MVP for their own team.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Nominees: Jason Garrett, Cowboys; Bruce Arians, Cardinals; Bill Belichick, Patriots; Bill O’Brien, Texans; Doug Marrone, Bills
Winner: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
In almost any other year, Garrett would be the runaway winner for completely transforming the Cowboys into a power team – both physically and in the standings. He also would win points for enduring all these years and surviving Jerry Jones. But what Arians did in Arizona was remarkable considering the string of injuries his team faced – including early and late injuries to quarterback Carson Palmer. He was unfazed by the adversity and still guided the Cards to a 12-win season and the playoffs (though it ended badly behind his third-string quarterback). Belichick deserves consideration, as always, considering many predicted the demise of the Patriots. And O’Brien and Marrone helped revive struggling franchises despite problems at quarterback. But what Arians did, especially with his quarterback issues, was the best job in the NFL this year.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nominees: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers; QB Tom Brady, Patriots; QB Andrew Luck, Colts; WR Antonio Brown, Steelers; RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Winner: RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Assuming Rodgers doesn’t win this too – personally I like to have this go to someone other than the MVP – this becomes more of a stat-based award. Murray was brilliant from the get-go, opening the season with eight straight 100-yard rushing games (and 10 of the first 11). In this pass-happy era, that’s remarkable. So were his 1,845 yards, which were about 500 more than any other RB in the field.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nominees: DE J.J. Watt, Texans, LB Justin Houston, Chiefs; CB Richard Sherman, Seahawks; DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions; LB Von Miller, Broncos; LB DeAndre Levy, Lions
Winner: DE J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt will win this in a runaway – probably unanimously – and he should. No defensive player was as spectacularly good or as consistent throughout the year, and none had anything close to the impact on games that he did. He has earned MVP consideration, though he likely won’t – and shouldn’t – win that. So this is his consolation prize. Everyone else is a distant runner up, but the only other defender who has a shot to get a vote or two is Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, who came within a fraction of Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record by finishing with 22 sacks. Still, that’s only 1.5 more than Watt and he doesn’t come to the table with everything else Watt brings. In the NFL, at least on defense, neither does anyone else.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nominees: WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants; G Zack Martin, Cowboys; WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers; RB Jeremy Hill, Bengals; QB Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings
Winner: WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
As good as this rookie class has been – and its been one of the best in years – this really should be unanimous. Beckham had 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, which is better than all the other rookie receivers. And he did it in only 12 games and in spectacular fashion, with the highlight-reel catch of the year. Hill and Evans were good, but his numbers don’t compare, and Bridgewater wasn’t able to do what a quarterback is supposed to – lead his team to the playoffs.
The best case for “other” would be Martin, who was brilliant on the Cowboys’ revived offensive line and by at least one measure didn’t allow a sack all season. It’s hard to single out one player on an O-line, though. Also it’s hard to imagine a guard will garner much support considering Beckham’s other-worldly numbers.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nominees: DT Aaron Donald, Rams; LB C.J. Mosley, Ravens; LB Khalil Mack, Raiders; LB Anthony Barr, Vikings; S Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, Packers
Winner: DT Aaron Donald, Rams
This is a hard award to give out, because it will have to be based more on eyes than on stats. None of these rookies put up any kind of spectacular defensive numbers. What they mostly did was become solid players at unheralded positions who improved their team’s defenses. The only exception is Donald, which is why he may run away with this award. His nine sacks stand out among all defensive tackles, especially since most sacks usually come from ends. He provided excellent run-stopping for a good Rams front, while adding a much-needed pass-rushing push.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for January 8:
• This is somehow perfect: The Browns might be interested in Charlie Weis.
• Former NBA great Adrian Dantley has added JV reffing to his resume, along with his crossing guard duties.
• Not sports, but interesting nonetheless: Time's list of the 100 best children's books of all time.
• Today in Steve Ballmer insanity: The Clippers owner flails around to Fergie.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]