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NEW ORLEANS — Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have squared off with a right to play for the national championship before, but no one could have forecast what took place in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.
In the first instant classic of the playoff era, Ohio State defeated the favored Crimson Tide 42-35 to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 12 against Oregon.
The action-packed semifinal was a game of runs, big plays, dramatic swings, elite coaching and two rabid fan bases in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
And it proved why college football has been salivating for a playoff for decades.
With just over three minutes to play in the first half, Alabama had a 21-6 lead. Ohio State made crucial mistakes. Quarterback Cardale Jones looked flustered and shaky and the offense had missed opportunities to put points on the board.
But offensive coordinator Tom Herman shook up his gameplan and allowed Jones to attack the Crimson Tide secondary. The 250-pound gunslinger found a rhythm at the end of the first half, and with the help of a trick play, rallied the Buckeyes with big throws and emphatic runs.
"I never would have thought we would have been in this position," Jones said. "We weren't supposed to be in this position. We just beat the No. 1 team in the world."
Ohio State rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a 34-21 lead late in the third quarter. As expected, Alabama never went away, cutting the lead to six with 1:01 left in the third and then against to seven points with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter.
When Blake Sims' Hail Mary attempt landed into the waiting arms of Tyvis Powerll as time expired, the Scarlet and Gray half of the Superdome erupted into a celebration befitting of the Big Easy on New Year's Day.
Regardless of who won, college football was the real winner Thursday. The performance from both teams validated the College Football Playoff in just its first year of action.
Earlier in the day on the other side of the country, the other semifinal was less dramatic with Oregon defeating Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl but no less significant. The Ducks' win ended Florida State's 29-game win streak and bid to win a second national title.
And the best part? One more game to determine a national champion.
"It's awesome. It's perfect," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the game. "This is the first year and everyone is already talking about eight. The reality is you will always have someone left out. But this works. Today we had phenomenal football games. I think it's worked."
The former BCS system likely would have placed the undefeated, defending champions (Florida State) against the one-loss No. 1-rated SEC champs (Alabama) into a one-game playoff. Now both teams are eliminated.
Instead of Florida State-Alabama, Arlington will play host to two teams left for dead in the first month of the season.
The experts certainly weren't predicting an Oregon-Ohio State battle. In the system's first year, the sport has already witnessed two of the sport's most historic games. In a battle of two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in the most gorgeous of settings, Oregon ended Florida State's dominance. Meanwhile, Ohio State did something few believed possible.
College football gets to do it all again next week in Texas.
To no one's surprise, Oregon is a touchdown favorite over Ohio State to win the season's final game in Arlington. So let the drama and prognostication begin again.
"Underdogs again?" freshman linebacker and Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP Darron Lee said. "When will they ever learn?"
PASADENA, Calif. — Credit to Jameis Winston for being a true believer.
The Florida State quarterback kept talking about trying to mount a comeback in a game that finished 59-20, a game that featured a 34-0 run thanks to four turnovers in four possessions.
He described the game as “unfortunate.”
“We were never stopped at all,” Winston said. He talked about Florida State beating itself.
Sure, that’s confidence. And what else should Winston be expected to say after a loss like that?
It’s also lunacy.
Oregon is good. Oregon is national championship good. Oregon is championship good down to every last man, it seems.
A message for the Ducks' championship foe Ohio State: Don’t believe Winston. Nothing about a 59-20 rout was a fluke or some series of lucky bounces or even one player getting a lucky on broken coverage.
Oregon set Rose Bowl records for total yards (639) and scoring. The Ducks scored the most points against a Florida State team since 1985 when Auburn’s Bo Jackson was the one doing the damage.
And put in greater context, what the Ducks did to Florida State was more staggering.
This was a game in which Marcus Mariota threw an interception, something that happened only twice all season. He nearly threw two picks with one pass bouncing out of the hands of Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey.
Mariota wasn’t sharp early, but giving him a short field five times is begging for embarrassment. Oregon obliged Florida State's request.
Mariota completed 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns all of it after his top deep threat left the game with a knee injury sustained on the opening kickoff.
Oregon's offense didn't sustain even a hiccup without Devon Allen.
A running back who didn’t play the last three games rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
A receiver who didn’t have a catch in four games this year caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
A tight end who caught four passes all year ended up catching six for 73 yards.
These sorts of things don’t happen by chance. They happen because Oregon has built a program with enough depth so that Thomas Tyner, Darren Carrington and Evan Baylis can contribute on the biggest stage on a moment's notice.
“Those guys did vital stuff without the ball, which was vital for our success,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We had to win on the perimeter both in the run game and bubble game and all that stuff goes into it.”
And then there were the turnovers. Two fumbles were clawed out of the hands of Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Others came on pressure of Winston.
And again, Oregon had an built-in excuse if the Ducks had major lapses defensively. Starting cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was lost to a torn ACL during practice back in Eugene. No doubt, it was a blow from a personnel perspective and leadership perspective.
Without their best defensive player, the Ducks gained five turnovers, scoring 34 total points off takeaways. Oregon’s lone squandered opportunity off a turnover was a blocked extra point.
That’s dominance. Winning a game under less than ideal circumstances is the sort of thing national champions do. Oregon did it by 39 points.
“We were just ready for the fight,” linebacker Tony Washington said. “And we came out on top.”
PASADENA, Calif. — Jimbo Fisher likes to say the first 39 games were the key to the next 29.
That may be true, with the first three seasons setting the stage for an astounding 29-game run in which the Seminoles didn’t lose a game.
If Fisher’s first 39 was the key to this era of Seminoles football, the next 12 games will be the key to Fisher’s program.
The Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl in spectacular fashion, ending their bid to win another national championship. Florida State will soon learn of its place atop the college football world slipped away in the same way Jameis Winston slipped at the Oregon 28 yard line and spit the ball up into the hands of Tony Washington. The linebacker ran it back 58 yards for a backbreaking touchdown.
In that moment, Florida State’s chances of pulling the wild second-half comeback, as the Seminoles had done all season, were over.
“It was a great run,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It was an extremely great run. Hopefully, we can put together another one.”
Florida State heads back to Tallahassee not planning for a national championship game. The Seminoles instead begin the process of looking to a 2015 season in which they stand to lose key personnel, both seniors and draft-eligible sophomore and juniors.
In the next 12 games, Florida State will learn if this was simply the Jameis Winston era or the re-start of an era of Seminoles’ dominance.
Can Florida State do what programs like Alabama do, in replacing first-round talent on a year-to-year basis? Or even Oregon, which perennially has replaced offensive personnel and head coaches and remained the West’s top program.
In Fisher’s first 39 games as head coach, Florida State was 29-10 overall and 18-6 in the ACC. That’s great for most programs, but for FSU, it was enough to label the Noles as something of an underachiever.
The 29-game win streak began with a 21-15 against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game on Dec. 1, 2012, but the era will be remembered for Winston.
“He’s one of the great players in not only college football (today), but in college football history to me,” Fisher said.
For all the baggage that comes with Winston, this one fact is staggering: Thursday was the first time he left a college football field after a loss.
It may be the only time.
Winston said he’s looking forward to next season, pausing ever so briefly before amending his comment with “playing baseball.” Is that indication he may stay in college football? It's foolish to take anyone's draft statements on the last day of the season at face value.
He’s probably a first-round draft pick, and despite the team-wide collapse in the Rose Bowl, Winston showed why he’ll be considered for the No. 1 overall pick — for starters, converting a third-and-21 with a 23-yard pass.
Even if for some unexpected reason Winston stays at Florida State, the Seminoles will incur significant losses.
Four offensive line starters are seniors. So is Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary and prolific and underrated receiver Rashad Greene. Defensive linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could leave early.
The momentum was going to change in 2015 if Florida State lost by 39 in the semifinal or if the Seminoles won the national championship.
The question now is if Fisher has the pieces to sustain the program that’s become accustomed to being on top again.
Teams that stay on top stack elite recruiting class on top of elite recruiting class. In that way, Florida State is there with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world.
The Seminoles have the No. 5 class in the 2015 247Sports Composite. If that holds, FSU will have four top-five classes in the last five recruiting cycles. The exception was a class ranked 10th.
Recruiting rankings can lie, though. Florida State would be better served looking at the current roster.
Safety Jalen Ramsey was arguably the best player on the defense, a disruptor at Florida State’s critical “star” position. He’ll be a junior next season.
Left tackle Roderick Johnson is a 6-foot-7, 330-pound future All-American. He’s a freshman.
And finally there’s Dalvin Cook, perhaps the best sign for the program, though it didn’t always seem that way in the Rose Bowl.
He fumbled twice, stripped by Oregon defenders. The Ducks scored twice off his fumbles, the catalyst for 34 unanswered points.
So many times this season, Cook was Florida State’s most clutch runner. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the first Seminoles freshman to do so.
But he’s a freshman and he made two critical gaffes that played a part in ending Florida State’s season. FSU could have protected him. Cook could have protected himself and snuck out of the locker room without comment.
Cook remained in the locker room talking to reporters after the game. He answered each question and left.
Next stop: 2015, ready or not.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the Rose Bowl lacked for drama, but there was hardly time to spend time pondering a lopsided final score in the first College Football Playoff semifinal.
Oregon’s unraveling of Florida State was so quick and sudden, there wasn’t much time to think about it.
A five-point third quarter lead ballooned to a 39-point rout in 11 minutes and 31 seconds of game time.
Oregon defeated Florida State 59-20 to advance to the national championship game in Dallas on Jan. 12. The Ducks will face the winner of the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State.
Florida State, meanwhile, saw the end of its 29-game winning streak in spectacular fashion in what may be the final game for Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Oregon 59, Florida State 20
Player of the game: Marcus Mariota
Fumbles were the determining factor of Florida State’s loss, but Mariota was the one who capitalized on turnovers. He had an uneven first half, throwing an interception and nearly throwing another that was dropped by Jalen Ramsey. Mariota took over with short field and led 34 unanswered points until he was lifted in the fourth quarter. The Heisman winner completed 26-of-36 passes for 337 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Turning point: Winston’s fumble with 1:36 left in the third quarter
The fumble was bizarre as Winston scrambled around trying to make a play after his team gave up two quick scores. Winston slipped on the turf and gave up an unforced fumble. Linebacker Tony Washington took it back 91 yards for a touchdown to give Oregon a 45-20 lead. There would be no more Florida State comebacks after that.
Unsung hero: Evan Baylis
Oregon’s senior tight end caught four passes all season. With wide receiver Devon Allen sidelined just before the game, Baylis helped fill the void as the Ducks’ second-leading receiver. He finished with six catches for 73 yards.
Needed more from: Dalvin Cook
That’s a tough thing to say about a player who rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries, but even before Cook fumbled twice in the second half, Florida State needed him more. Now, part of that is on Jimbo Fisher. Cook was slicing through the Oregon defense but Fisher twice pulled him in the red zone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence Florida State twice settled for field goals.
Critical call: Darren Carrington’s 57-yard touchdown catch
Oregon’s freshman receiver got a break when Tyler Hunter slipped on the turf helping him to a 57-yard touchdown in the third quarter to take a 32-20 lead. The play call, though, was perfect. Cornerback P.J. Williams crept up to the line to defend a receiver who caught a short pass seven yards a play earlier. Mariota instead went to the next level to catch Carrington in one-on-one coverage.
Stat that matters: 34
Oregon outscored Florida State 34-0 on turnovers as the Seminoles collapsed in the second half with three fumbles and an interception on four consecutive possessions.
NEW ORLEANS — The 2015 Sugar Bowl was a game of runs.
Huge momentum swings and big plays on both sides of the ball allowed Ohio State to overcome a 21-6 deficit with 28 unanswered points of its own.
Then, like the Buckeyes have done all season long, they persevered and overcame adversity to outlast the No. 1 team in the nation in impressive fashion.
Even after taking a two-touchdown lead with just 3:24 left in the game on an 85-yard Ezekiel Elliott run — the longest run allowed by Alabama all season — Ohio State still allowed the Crimson Tide a chance at a game-tying Hail Mary on the final play of the game.
When the final gun sounded, the undisputed king of the North had come into the heart of SEC country and toppled the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide to advance to the national championship game in Arlington on Jan. 12.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Ohio State 42, Alabama 35
Player of the game: Cardale Jones
He didn't win the Offensive MVP — that went to Ezekiel Elliott — but there is little doubt that the most important player on the field was Ohio State's 250-pound quarterback. The sophomore making just his second career start had his share of jitters, but Jones eventually settled down and torched the vaunted Alabama defense. Jones finished with 243 yards passing, 43 yards rushing on 17 carries and one touchdown. More importantly, Jones was electric on third downs, completing big passes and scrambling for first downs all game long.
Turning point: Steve Miller's 41-yard INT return for a TD
Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller wouldn't normally be dropping into pass coverage, but Buckeyes defensive coordinator Luke Fickell called the perfect play at the perfect time. The result was a Blake Sims interception returned 41 yards by Steve Miller for a touchdown that capped a 28-point OSU run with just 3:21 left in the fourth quarter. The two-touchdown lead would hold up.
Unsung hero: Jacoby Boren, Billy Price, Pat Elflein
The interior offensive line for Ohio State was outstanding. Facing off against the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, most believed the Buckeyes would struggle to run the football. But the trio of interior blockers powered the OSU rushing attack. The Buckeyes rushed for 281 yards — 107 more yards than Bama had allowed in any game this season (Auburn, 174).
Needed more from: Blake Sims
Sims entered the game as the unquestioned leader of the offense. He was calm, cool and collected in the face of pressure all season long. But he stared down receivers and made critical mistakes in critical situations. His three interceptions eventually cost Alabama a chance to get back into the game late in the fourth quarter.
Critical call: Evan Spencer-to-Michael Thomas reverse pass
Tom Herman and Urban Meyer emptied the playbook late in the first half when they called a reverse pass from the Ohio State 13-yard line. With 12 seconds left in the first half and trailing by eight points, Evan Spencer took the reverse and heaved a bullet to the front corner of the endzone where Michael Thomas made one of the most spectacular catches of the season just over the outstretched fingertips of the Crimson Tide defender. The play cut the halftime lead to one point.
Stat that matters: 10-of-18
Cardale Jones had his moments where he struggled but third down wasn't one of them. Ohio State was outstanding on the game's most critical down, especially in long situations. The Buckeyes converted on 10-of-18 third downs while Alabama went just 2-of-13 on the all-important down.
PASADENA — For college football fans of a certain age or fans from a certain part of the country, the Rose Bowl holds special significance.
It was college football’s first postseason game. Back when bowl games could be counted on two hands, the Rose Bowl was the greatest prize.
For fans in the Midwest or the North, the Rose Bowl was a brief escape from winter, even if they were watching on television.
The next generation, though, probably views the Rose Bowl with more cynicism. It’s now one of 39 bowl games. Tradition is tossed out a little more readily than it once was, even the Big Ten and Pac-12’s grip on the Granddaddy of them All.
You can't even watch the game with a TV antenna. It's on basic cable now.
As the bowl system gave way to the BCS and now the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl is having an identity crisis the other bowls have not.
During the BCS era, the game hosted a Big Ten and Pac-12 team 10 times in 16 years and not necessarily champions of the respective leagues.
At one point, the game and conferences were so gripped by the tradition, the Rose Bowl invited a 13th-ranked, three-loss Illinois team simply because it could. That team lost 49-17 to USC.
The game invited TCU for the 2011 game only because the BCS contract required it to. The Frogs defeated the Big Ten champion Wisconsin 21-19.
And now in the first year of the playoff, the Rose Bowl is encountering the unthinkable. Florida State is returning tickets. The Rose Bowl wasn’t a sellout in the days before the game.
Chris Fowler, ESPN’s venerable play-by-play broadcaster, isn’t quite sure what kind of game he’s calling on Jan. 1
“This is a different-feeling game, and we’re wrestling with that as a production,” Fowler told Athlon Sports. “Do you present it as ‘the Rose Bowl’ and how much do you focus on that fact that is the first semifinal game staged at the Rose Bowl.
“It’s going to feel unlike any other Rose Bowl that’s ever been played. When it’s over, there’s confetti and a trophy, but very quickly the winning team will begin to look forward to an even bigger game in 11 days.”
The Rose Bowl isn’t what it once was. This is good.
As a child in Cookeville, Tenn., Mack Brown watched the Rose Bowl with his family. As a coach at Tulane, North Carolina and Texas, he thought he’d never have a chance to coach there.
No matter, he thought, the Rose Bowl was all hype.
Then Texas went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 2005 as the Longhorns replaced the Pac-10 champion USC who were playing for a BCS title in the Orange Bowl.
Before the game, Brown called former USC coach John Robinson to ask about the game.
“He said it’s the coolest thing in the world,” Brown said. “Not many coaches get to do it. Not many players get to play in the Rose Bowl. (He said) ‘I want you to walk out there pregame and look out there in those rolling hills and the sun’s going down and I want you to say ‘this is really cool.’ Then go coach to win the game.’ He was right.”
If a Tennessee-born coach at Texas can go to the Rose Bowl and marvel in it, then the Rose Bowl will survive, even if the game isn’t a sellout in 2015.
The idea of a Big Ten champion facing a Pac-12 champion in the Rose Bowl is all but gone. Moments like last seasons, when Michigan State reached its first Rose Bowl since 1987 and won its first game in Pasadena since then, will be exceedingly rare in the new system.
Big Ten and Pac-12 teams stating season goals of reaching the Rose Bowl won’t have the same ring. In two out of three years, the game will be a consolation prize.
In the playoff, the Rose Bowl will host a national semifinal once every three years. In the other two years, the Rose Bowl will have a Big Ten and Pac-12 team by contract, but one or both of the conference champions from those leagues likely will be in the Playoff.
“If you grew up with it you miss seeing that Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup,” said Kirk Herbstreit, who will be Fowler’s broadcast partner for the Rose Bowl. “If you’re a traditionalist, to get to that playoff, you had to give up a little bit. You lose some of the tradition but you open up the doors for others to appreciate what the bowl game is.”
The idea of a team returning tickets to the Rose Bowl is surprising, but not every team is Florida State or Oregon.
The Seminoles were in Pasadena just last season for the final BCS title game. It’s tough to blame fans who aren’t interested or able to make back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl. Or if they’d rather hold out for the national championship game in Dallas.
The Ducks have been here three times since the 2009 season.
SEC fans might react to a Rose Bowl semifinal with more enthusiasm. Or Notre Dame fans. Or Baylor fans. Or Boise State fans.
Conference contracts can change. Sunsets can’t.
Four of the New Year’s Six bowl games — the Fiesta, Sugar, Peach and Cotton — are played in domes. One of the exceptions, the Orange Bowl, is played in a sterile, enclosed NFL stadium.
That leaves the Rose Bowl as the only major college football bowl game that stands as a tourist destination unto itself.
“I’ve always said the setting is like a Hollywood set,” Fowler said. “The field is immaculate, something about the quality of the light, the way the stadium sits below the San Gabriel Mountains. It lends itself to great drama.”
Rick Neuheisel calls himself a Rose Bowl enthusiast. He played in the game twice for UCLA. He went once as an assistant with Bruins. He went a fourth time as a head coach for Washington.
Perhaps inadvertently, he gets to the crux of why the end of one tradition for the Rose Bowl may ultimately a positive for college football.
The game is no longer the exclusive destination of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams and hasn't been for nearly 20 years. It’s open to everyone. The pool of teams that can play in the Rose Bowl is wider, and therefore more the experience is more unique.
And every three years, the drama, by virtue of being a playoff game, will be magnified.
“I think it’s cool when one of those (nontraditional) teams gets to come, they finally get it and why the Big Ten and Pac-12 have held such a tight grip on it,” Neuheisel said. “You don’t want to give that experience up for anything.”
PASADENA, Calif. — If all goes well, the honeymoon could be in Dallas. After all, the wedding reception will be the Rose Bowl.
Steve Twomey and Lisa DeFluri didn’t plan for a big wedding when they packed up their Honda Pilot and drove from Eugene, Ore., to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
Just a little ceremony with Steve’s mother and stepfather in the parking lot at the Rose Bowl. Lisa’s mom watched via FaceTime on an iPhone perched on the rear windshield wiper.
Steve’s stepfather, Randy, officiated — he’s a retired firefighter who “did the online credentials.”
The 25-year-old Oregon fans, though, drew a crowd as they exchanged vows under a green and yellow altar at a tailgate in the Rose Bowl, just hours before their beloved Ducks faced Florida State in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
The seventh-grade sweethearts, school teachers both, started to plan on a football-themed wedding, first at the San Francisco 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Those plans were scrapped, and they started talking about a beach wedding in Santa Cruz, Calif.
After selection Sunday on Dec. 7, the subject of the Rose Bowl came up and the couple thought, why not? Steve grew up an Oregon fan in Washington (his mom also was a fan) and fondly remembers "the Joey Harrington days." Lisa liked the helmets and quickly converted when they watched games on the couch together.
Since there wasn’t an official wedding photographer, we took a few shots for the bride and groom:
Just watched a couple get married at a Rose Bowl tailgate. really. pic.twitter.com/vG4RhEvHp3— David Fox (@DavidFox615) January 1, 2015
Reading vows. He mentioned their cat. -df pic.twitter.com/KmwNdGDZ13— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
Marking the occasion... pic.twitter.com/DPn4QxVfKZ— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
And the wedding cake. pic.twitter.com/K6MOSmhka0— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
LOS ANGELES — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher probably didn’t mean anything derisive in the way he described Oregon and how it's become an attractive destination.
The reasons are clear why it’s cooler to be a Duck in 2014 than it was in 1994 — it’s the offense, it’s the uniforms, it’s the Nike-fueled facilities. It’s not necessarily because kids from Texas and California can’t wait to live in a dorm in Eugene, Ore.
But Fisher probably wouldn’t use the word “niche” to describe Nebraska, Tennessee or Notre Dame — other programs that have to recruit nationally.
“What you have to create is a niche,” Fisher said. “For people who want to come from long distances to come to a university, why are they coming there? There's something that you have that someone else, if you're bypassing all these places, could it be facilities? Could it be uniforms? They also win a lot of football games.”
But Oregon hasn’t won the game.
The Ducks have been on a steady rise since Rich Brooks took Oregon to the Rose Bowl two decades ago but a national championship is still unchecked on the to-do list.
Oregon doesn’t have the most wins in college football history without a national title to show for it (that would be West Virginia at 719 wins).
But in the last 20 years, they’ve reached major bowl games with four different coaches. They’ve won Rose Bowls. They’ve won the Pac-12. They added the school’s first Heisman Trophy when Marcus Mariota did it less than a month ago.
They’ve even been involved in a recruiting scandal.
In other words, Oregon has done all the things the nation’s powerhouse programs do except win a national title.
The Ducks enter the College Football Playoff as the only team without a national championship. During the BCS era, the other three teams in this year's playoff combined for five.
It’s strange to say Oregon’s program needs validation. The Ducks are indeed one of the powers of college football, the top program right now in the West.
But even second-year coach Mark Helfrich acknowledges perception might change if Oregon can win two more games this season.
“It would validate things externally a lot more than I think internally,” Helfrich said.
Anyone who remembers the pre-Brooks era in Eugene would probably agree that the program is plenty validated. Oregon has done something remarkable in the last 20 years. Think about the powerhouses in college football — programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and a handful of others.
All of those programs have a history that stretches back to the eras of leather helmets and single wing football.
Oregon didn’t start trying in earnest to field a perennial contender until the 1990s.
The Rose Bowl will feature a team trying to repeat as national champions and a team seeking its first national title. Recent history suggests that Florida State has the easier task.
Since the last time a program won its first national championship in school history (Florida, 1996), a team won back-to-back championships twice (Alabama, USC).
It's funny, then, that Florida State was once in Oregon’s shoes.
Before the Seminoles won their first national title in 1993, the Seminoles were close to a national title but couldn’t quite reach the summit. Bobby Bowden led six consecutive teams to the top four in the AP poll before finishing No. 1 in ’93.
“There’s pressure,” said quarterback Danny Kanell, who was a sophomore on the ’93 title team. “I remember being there with Bobby Bowden, and he got knocked for not being able to win the big game or being able to win the championship. There was a big sigh of relief for him and the program.”
Kanell is hearing the same things about Oregon that he heard about FSU.
“Right now people are saying they can win the Pac-12, they can run around, they can look good in their uniforms, they can put up a lot of points, but they can’t hang with the big boys, big physical teams like Florida State has,” he said.
That perception changes with a trophy.
If Oregon wins a national championship, the Ducks won’t have to answer for being a finesse team (yes, that still happens). Instead, they’ll be a true power player.
“It separates you from everyone who hasn’t,” former Texas coach Mack Brown said. “The day after we won the national championship, I asked Coach (Darrell) Royal what does this mean. It means you’ve done something that very few people do. It means when you speak, people will listen to you differently than they did before. They will look at you differently than they did before. And for the fans, the expectations will be higher.”
The Ducks are already one of the nation’s most unique powerhouses. They rarely change leadership or philosophies on a whim. Ever coach since Brooks has been an internal hire. Assistants tend to stay for decades rather than jumping from job to jobs.
Helfrich hardly carries himself like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Fisher. The job doesn't seem to consume him. He's almost a normal guy, for a college football coach.
So what will change for Oregon if they win a national championship, whether this year or in another season?
"I'm sure a lot, and I'm sure not much,” Helfrich said. “I think nationally, hopefully, the perspective of not only our team but our conference would elevate, and the SEC has had that right to puff out their chest and with very good reason for the past several years, but we think we're doing a lot of the right things on this side of the country.”
LOS ANGELES — The coaches in the College Football Playoff will say over and over again that they’re not looking ahead to the national championship game.
At least one part of the operation has to look ahead if they expect to win a championship.
The winners of the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl likely will start planning for the national championship game on Jan. 2 on the way back to campus.
The only way they can do that is thanks to undergraduate assistants and unpaid interns who will load their iPads and laptops with broken-down game film.
“We already have Ohio State and Alabama broken down because when you get back you've got to hit the ground running,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We have to prepare for that. If it doesn't, it doesn't and we'll have great film to study in the offseason.”
If being an intern on a college football coaching staff feels like a thankless job, think of the staffers who will break down film of a team that loses Thursday. Or worse, breaking down film for a coach who gives his concession speech at the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl.
The film that does make it to the team planes on Friday, though, will be a welcome sight.
“The interns have to look ahead a little bit,” said Oregon graduate assistant Nate Costa, a former Ducks quarterback who now manages the scout team. “The only thing we’ll do for potential opponents is have interns break down the film, you’ve got to insert gains, yardages, blitzes, formations. That has to be assembled by the interns.”
This is new ground for the College Football Playoff era. Certainly, teams in conference championship game situation have to break down and evaluate game film of a team on shorter notice, but those are teams that may have played earlier in the season or at least in recent years.
In the college basketball tournament, for example, staffers begin scouting second round opponents before the first round even begins. But that’s a situation with one full day between elimination games. There will be 11 days between the Rose and Sugar bowls and the national championship game.
But college coaches are nothing if not paranoid about preparation. All 11 of those days have to be spent on preparation.
And in terms of scouting for the full-time coaching staff, not a second more.
“I remember just thinking how would this work,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Now that we’re here, there’s no conversation whatsoever about the next one. You can’t. It’s not fair to our players and certainly when you’re playing a team like Alabama, that’s all hands on deck, to find a way to get this one done.”
LOS ANGELES — Jameis Winston is right.
The Florida State quarterback is saying all the right things about his matchup with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The game will feature the last two Heisman winners on opposite sidelines, only the third time Heisman winners have faced each other in a bowl game.
As expected, neither Winston nor Mariota are talking it up as the superstar showdown the rest of us know it is.
“I'm not facing him; I'm facing his defense,” Winston said. “It's going to be a Florida State team versus Oregon team not Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota.”
Let’s entertain that notion a bit more seriously and not as a cliche.
Winston and Mariota will be facing two defenses led by coordinators who were position coaches this time last year.
That’s the reason we should be excited. Not simply because Winston and Mariota will put two Heisman winners on the field for the first time since 2009.
The Rose Bowl will be a national semifinal matching up two Heisman winners against two first-year coordinators. Neither defense is ranked in the top 50 nationally in yards per game. Oregon is down a star cornerback. Florida State is a shadow of the defense that ranked third nationally last season.
In other words, all the conditions are ripe for Mariota and Winston to put on a show, the nation's most efficent quarterback against the nation's most clutch.
Fans should be grateful. Where the Sugar Bowl semifinal seems to be a game driven by coaches and conferences, the Rose Bowl will be driven by quarterbacks.
One has never lost a collegiate game. One has thrown two interceptions all year and four last year, ludicrous numbers for 2015.
For a few hours on New Year's Day, both programs hope to strip away some of the narratives about the two. The arguments about these two quarterbacks are either lazy (the narrative of Mariota’s squeaky clean image vs. Winston’s troublesome off-field track record) or soon will become tiresome by the NFL Combine (should Winston fall in the draft? Is Mariota a system quarterback?).
In some ways, even the coaches are just sending in a play and watching what happens.
“I've quit questioning what he does on the field and why he does it,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even when he does it wrong, he can come off and tell you exactly what he saw, what happened, and why it happened. I'll bet it's (right) a 98 percent rate, when he comes off, he can process so much information. His intelligence level is off the charts.”
The future, beyond Jan. 1 and potentially a national championship game, isn’t a topic either are ready to entertain.
Will Mariota and Winston be great NFL quarterbacks? Maybe. Maybe not. Is Mariota too nice? Is he the dreaded system quarterback who will struggle to translate his game to the pro level?
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is resigned, for now, to say that it will either happen or it won’t.
“I know with both the quarterbacks in this game, they can play at any level,” Helfrich said. “Both those guys, they're completely different, totally different guys from a style standpoint, but both will have tremendous NFL careers if they end up in the right spot. If they don't, things can go different ways.”
In the present, it’s going to be a good show, one that even Winston is going to try to stop and enjoy.
“I think it's going to be a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity to see us play and me personally I'm going to be on the sideline watching Marcus myself,” he said. “I think it's going to be a fun game.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Cornerback Troy Hill on Jameis Winston leading second-half comebacks:
“I don't know what it is about that man, but he cleans it up in the second half and something about him that makes him a winner. They all come together whenever they down, they never get down on themselves, a lot of teams when they lose they put their heads down or when they are losing they put their heads up and give up, but that's different with that team, I feel like they fight harder when they're down.”
Safety Erick Dargan on Jameis Winston:
“He can throw anywhere on the field, you know, whether it's deep, short, middle, side, the ball is going all over. You can't just say, he only likes to throw to the right; no, he's throwing all over. And another thing, he's running, he's moving the pocket. He's not an easy guy to tackle. He's big and he's physical.
“A lot of quarterbacks throw interceptions too and they don't want to throw the ball, and you can tell they don't want to throw the ball. With Jameis he's like, ‘I don't care. I'm still going to throw the ball. My team needs me.’ As a football player you have to respect that and honor that.”
Linebacker Tony Washington on Florida State’s offensive scheme:
“These guys are more traditional NFL pro style offense. It's a little bit different. But I think with the amount we've been practicing, we can get acclimated to it, used to it. ... Similar to stuff like Michigan State. But I think they run it differently. Stanford has a lot of power downhill runs, three tight end, seven offensive linemen type deals. And I don't think Florida State runs that as much. A little different formations and stuff like that. But just keep working we'll be in good shape.”
Linebacker Derrick Malone on Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary:
“He understands coverages in the sense of where he needs to go and the separations and the positions and he has sharp hands so he goes up and gets the ball and he's a dominant tight end so we got to make sure we lock him up.”
Cornerback Troy Hill on Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene:
“They put him all over the place, X, Y, and then slot and at the third receiver in that slot, motion him around a lot. They do a lot with them and they try to get him the ball because he's a playmaker so I feel like that's how we have to key in on him, and O'Leary, I feel that's what we really need to work on.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost on Florida State’s secondary:
“They are not extremely complicated. They just do what they do well with really good players. They are fast. I really think (safety) Jalen Ramse is a special player. He's disruptive in a lot of ways. (P.J.) Williams is a fast scrubber corner. And the other three guys in the secondary, you can't overlook them because they are really talented, too. Across the board, it's as athletic a group as we've played.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Marcus Mariota’s vision:
“He has great vision. He sees the field. He does a good job of buying time in the pocket and that doesn't mean just scrambling. It just means buying time where he can see downfield, where a guy gets open. He's a very intelligent football player.”
Linebacker Terrance Smith on containing Marcus Mariota:
“One of the biggest keys to the game is containing Mariota, keeping him in the pocket. It starts up front with the D‑line. The D‑line has to keep their rush lanes and just kind of collapse the pocket and not allow him to break outside of the tackles and pull the ball down and run which is what he's good at doing. Just keeping him inside the tackle box and just collapsing the pocket on him, that where it really starts and having somebody at the second level who can come up and make a play, that's really the key.”
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Oregon’s receivers:
“They are explosive and they make plays, but when they are asked to do things in the perimeter, I mean, they get after you. They block you. Sometimes you see guys that make a lot of big plays that necessarily don't block the perimeter as well.”
Defensive end Mario Williams on Oregon’s offensive line:
“Some of the guys are better than others, but as a unit they work great with each other. They're probably the most athletic and conditioned O-line we will be going against this year because they do the hurry up so much, so definitely as a unit they work great with each other.”
Running back Karlos Williams on Oregon’s ability to contain the run:
“They're tough, long, athletic, outside, they can train a lot. They do a very good job defending the run, and that's something that we haven't seen a lot this year. We have been able to get around the edge, quite a bit this year with Dalvin (Cook) and (Mario) Pender. Also with Jameis here we get around the edge, Rashad, stuff like that. We have been able to be a dominant edge team, containment team, but these guys are very good on the edge. Their backers play well, and (Derrick Malone) and (Joe Walker) play downhill, very tough downhill guys, make a lot of plays, very fast, tough, physical guys.
Quarterback coach Randy Sanders on the absence of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu:
“Him not being there, no question will diminish a little bit of their defense, but it's not like the player they're putting in behind him is not good. You don't get to a position to play in a game like this without having good players, and they've got more than one. So we know whoever comes in will be a good player.”
6. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are enjoying their best season ever through the holidays, and a lot of their thriving is owed to Marc Gasol’s increased offensive role. Averaging a career-high 14.7 shots per game, Gasol is making mincemeat of other centers with his 23.68 player efficiency rating, and he’s doing it without dropping off on the defensive end. Tennessee’s team is closer to NBA gold than they’ve ever been after Gasol — who slimmed down considerably in the offseason — rededicated himself after a stinging loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s playoffs.
5. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Move over, Derrick Rose. The famous Chicago-born point guard is back and healthy this season — but he’s no longer the best player on his team. That honor belongs to Butler, whose shockingly strong production has been the delight of the Windy City. Previously known as a one-way player (Butler gained Second All-Team Defensive honors last season), Jimmy Buckets is now a deadly scorer, averaging a team-high 22.2 points per game while leading the league with 40.1 minutes played per game. Many have mentioned Butler as a candidate for the Most Improved Player platform, but his play thus far suggests a greater goal.
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
If the Unibrow was on a playoff team, we might cite him as the runaway favorite for this trophy. The fact is, however, that the Pelicans are of a middling sort, on the outside looking into the staggering Western Conference playoff picture. The 21-year-old still has an outside shot at becoming a wunderkind MVP — especially if he keeps putting up numbers that evoke Hakeem Olajuwon — but your money is more safely put in the hands of contender. If you were starting a team from scratch, though? A.D. is the clear No. 1 cornerstone in the game.
3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If Kyle Lowry keeps this up, he’s going to steal Chris Paul’s mantle as the sport’s most fearsome little man. Lowry’s Toronto Raptors are the surprise top seed in the Eastern Conference, following his ferocious lead to the top. A statement was made — and heard quite clearly — when Kyle took down CP3 this past weekend, tallying 25 points, seven assists and three steals as the Raptors smashed Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers, 110-98, in L.A. Give this 6’0” guy a bit more national TV exposure, and he might become the NBA’s new go-to folk hero.
2. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors’ best start in franchise history is about more than just their terrific new coach, Steve Kerr. Freed up and freewheeling in Kerr’s offense is the best shooter in basketball, Steph Curry. Curry is a threat to destroy your defense from deep at the moment he crosses the half-court barrier, demanding constant attention from the opposition and always making you pay for the double team with a sharp, uncanny passing eye. Anyone who can figure out how to guard this guy should probably be drawing up strategies for the military.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The biggest, boldest chip in basketball lies firmly on James Harden’s shoulder. The former Sixth Man of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder has taken on more responsibility every year of his career, finally crescendoing into the MVP-worthy present. After improving on his defense this season and consistently taking over games in crunch time (leading the Rockets to an almost unbelievable 21-9 record, despite a litany of costly injuries), there’s really not much left for Harden to add to his game. He’s stronger, smarter, and has more touch than anyone who’s got the foot speed to stay in front of him, and he gets to the charity strike as often as he pleases. He’s the NBA’s leading scorer, and he’s had more impact, on more games, than anyone this season. If you opened the polls today, the Beard would become the Statue.
— John Wilmes
The Athlon Sports team has been dispatched to the New Orleans and Pasadena to cover the first college football semifinal. We'll survey the scene and storylines and then delve into our picks for New Year's Day.
David Fox is at the Rose Bowl trying to determine which star quarterback will have the big day and which team can more successfully play the underdog role. Braden Gall is at the Sugar Bowl where Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Ohio State defensive line may be able to upstage the powerhouse coaches.
NEW ORLEANS — Alabama players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Ohio State. What have they been saying?
Scouting Ohio State
Nick Saban, HC
"They're very well coached, which is nothing different from any other team that we've faced that Urban Meyer has coached, because he does a fantastic job with his players and coaches to put an outstanding product on the field. There are some similarities with what they do, especially offensively in terms of what they did when they were at the University of Florida, what he did."
Scouting Cardale Jones
Landon Collins, S
"Basically with the offensive, we've got a new quarterback and basically we're going to try to confuse him and do our best ability to do that and just break him down, break him down with what they like to do from the last game because it's a different quarterback. He's a more passing type quarterback that we see and has a tremendous arm. So once he tries to get the ball out there, try to get it to receivers they're going to try to do something spectacular."
"I watch the film, his tendencies, what his motions is, and stuff like that. It's a disadvantage to only have one film. But we've got a lot of plays on him. And that's the best thing, because I mean we only had like 30 plays, you can't really pick up stuff on, and the teams come out, they get a lot of reps and easy to get ready for oncoming games. We picked up on a few things. And they haven't changed the offense, the way how we looked at it."
Scouting Ohio State's defense
Blake Sims, QB
"Their defensive line reminds me of Missouri. They've got great defensive linemen that they're good at all spots. And I think that that was a good team to compare them to. They're a great team. They play with a lot of passion. And they want to win games. They play together. Very fundamental, sound. And they do what their coach tells them to do."
Jalston Fowler, FB
"They like to move these guys around a lot. I mean, they like to stand them up, give them different looks. It's crazy how they work their defense around that guy. But you gotta always know where he's at because he's one of the main priorities, one of the top guys on the defensive line."
Nick Saban, HC
"Up front on defense, they're very physical and what makes defensive players good is they're hard to block. And they certainly have some guys up front that are hard to block and they played very well and have been difficult to score against. Create a lot of negative plays for people, and it's going to be very challenging for us up front with our offensive line to do a good job of executing against what they do."
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think the two inside players, the two defensive tackles, are issues because they play so hard and they get off your centers and guards. And their two inside linebackers are very physical and their field linebacker can really run. And they leave him in there against three wides a lot and because they have the confidence that he can cover. So this is a very, very good defense. One that really if you look out, if you look all year, outside of Michigan State, which a lot of those yards are at the end of the game, people aren't really moving the ball against these guys very much at all."
Scouting Joey Bosa
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think first off Bosa is an issue. Very long, strong player, relentless. Effort player. So we have to know where he is. They do a really good job of moving him around. I think that's missed. People talk about his numbers and what a good player he is. He's a great player but they do a great job of moving him so it's difficult. He's inside. He's right. He's left. He's off the ball. He's on the ball. So I feel like what they've done with him on defense is kind of what people do on offensive guys, skilled guy. They move him around, make it hard to find and they've done a great job with that. I think they play very physical."
Scouting Ohio State's secondary
Amari Cooper, WR
"Their cornerbacks are both really fast. 12 is extremely fast. Probably like a legit 4.3 guy. They never let the receivers they play against get too much separation from them. So they're both really solid corners. I think their secondaries are pretty fast, the corners are pretty fast. And their safeties are really good tacklers, their safeties are 2 and 3 on the team in tackles. So, they're really solid defensive backs."
"Overall we feel they're a really sound defense. We feel like the players on their defense are really confident in their scheme. We feel like they're comfortable in that scheme. They don't really change around their defense at all. They do the same things, because that's what they're comfortable doing. And they're really what word can I use? They're just used to running that defense and they do it really well."
NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Alabama. What have they been saying?
Scouting Alabama's offense
Urban Meyer, HC
"You always try to, as part of the game plan and preparation, expose a weakness. And that's difficult with Alabama whether it be punt rush, whether it be kickoff coverage, and then obviously offense/defense. you're trying to find that player or part of that defense or offense that's not very good and you go after it. Alabama is the kind of team it's hard to find that."
Curtis Grant, LB
“They’re a dynamic offense. They’ve got two great backs and obviously they have a great receiver. We’re going to try our best to make them one-dimensional.”
Joey Bosa, DE
"Big talented guys. Athletic. Big, big dudes. And we haven't really matched up with someone like this before, this athletic, this big, but like I said yesterday, I don't think they've seen someone - a D line as consistent as us and as physical as we're going to be. It's going to be interesting to see."
Michael Bennett, DT
"They have a fantastic O line that is very big and actually very athletic. And that's a hard combination to achieve at O line. They prefer the zone offense. They have the guys to run a power offense when they feel like it and they try to every now and then but they like to zone because they have those big athletic bodies up front that can displace people and be on the runs so their running backs can find holes.
Joshua Perry, LB
“I think the key is that you can’t focus too much on stopping [Amari ] Cooper and doing the things that they do in their passing game, because you’ll lose focus on the run and they can get you on that."
Doran Grant, CB
“They are different offensively. They are more balanced and like to run the ball a lot, obviously, but they can spread the ball around more than they have in the past.”
Luke Fickell, DC
"They've got weapons all over the place. That's the thing, that's the thing that gets overlooked sometimes is the offensive line. That's where the games start and that's where they've been so successful over obviously the last seven, eight years."
Scouting Amari Cooper and Blake Sims
Luke Fickell, DC
"Obviously Amari Cooper gets most of the attention. The reality is we haven't seen a guy especially in our league that would warrant as much attention as he does. It's not just the catch to me; it's the runs after the catch. For a guy that cannot only have the deep ball, home run shots, but he can take an out screen and turn it into a touchdown long distance. He does the intangible things. He's going to block and do some things that sometimes you don't see the first rounders or the truly top, top dogs do.
Doran Grant, CB
“He’s a great player. We’ve seen a lot of film on him. He’s a good route runner and has good speed. He’s a very, very good ball-catcher.”
Curtis Grant, LB
“He’s one of those quarterbacks that can keep plays alive. He can beat you with his arm when you’re not paying attention. If you give him a little bit of space, he can make you miss and run the ball to keep the play alive. You’ve got to be able to contain him.”
Scouting Alabama's defense
Taylor Decker, OT
“It is without a doubt the best defensive line we will face all season. It will probably be the best defense we will face. Incredible depth, they rotate all kinds of guys in there. On film, there are four defensive ends I will play against personally. They are really good athletes, big, strong guys that can move. They aren’t just space fillers. That is going to be a challenge as far as the offensive line is concerned, because it is the best we have faced so far."
Cardale Jones, QB
“By far, this will be the best defense we’ve played against all year, the most physical defense we’ve played all year, and the fastest defense we’ve played all year. They’ve got some unbelievable guys on defense that we do our best to simulate and get that look. That’s going to be a challenge for not just me, but the offense. Speed, size, the strength, the physicality. This is going to be the most physical defense we've ever played against. We've got to be ready for that."
Ezekial Elliott, RB
"They’re a great team. They have a big front seven. You don’t really get much movement off the line of scrimmage. The key to our offense is getting the running game going so we can take shots down field, so establishing the running game is going to be very important.”
“They are a very big, physical team. Their d-line, their line backers are just big guys and so they are a lot bigger than the guys we play. Their line backers are all 250, interior d-linemen all 300 pounds, so getting some momentum early in the game, getting movement off the line of scrimmage is going to be important.”
Jeff Heuerman, TE
“They are a very good defense. They know what they want to do and they do it very well. They have a very good secondary. They don’t do a whole lot of crazy things schematically. They know what they want to do and they do it well and execute. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
The college football playoff kicks off on Jan. 1 with Florida State and Oregon meeting in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama and Ohio State squaring off in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. There’s no shortage of talent among the four teams in the playoff, but some players are more valuable than others.
To help prepare for the first four-team playoff, Athlon projects the 25 most important players for Thursday’s games. This top 25 player list isn't necessarily a ranking of the best or projected by talent but a compilation of how important players will be in the playoff matchups. There’s little surprise among the top four, as quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Cardale Jones and Blake Sims take the first spots. But after the quarterbacks, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, Oregon tackle Jake Fisher, Florida State receiver Rashad Greene and Oregon cornerback Troy Hill rank as the most important players for the playoff matchups.
25 Most Important Players for College Football Playoff
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Jr.
It’s rare now for the preseason pick for the Heisman to follow through and win the award. Mariota might not have been the leader every week, but he was darn close. Oregon’s first Heisman winner is exceedingly efficient, throwing a ridiculously low two interceptions this season and four last year. He completed 80 percent of his passes twice this season and fewer than 60 percent just once.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, So.
Winston couldn’t contend for a second Heisman trophy thanks to 17 interceptions and the off-field issues that followed him through the season. He was unstoppable in the second half, though. He completed 71.2 percent of his passes in the third quarter and only one of his picks this season came in the fourth quarter.
3. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State, So.
The 250-pound backup was efficient and productive against Wisconsin but will have to be nearly perfect against Alabama for Ohio State to have a shot at the upset.
4. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama, Sr.
Lane Kiffin has turned this fifth-year senior into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation. Expect a unique and creative gameplan from the Bama play-caller and it’s up to Sims to execute against an elite defensive front.
5. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State, So.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year must play the game of his life against an Alabama offense that can run it as well as it throws it. He is the leader of the D-Line.
6. Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Sr.
His value was underscored when the Ducks’ only loss of the season (Arizona) and close call against Washington State occurred with Fisher out of the lineup. The Ducks are undefeated when the senior from Traverse City, Mich., starts, thanks in part to his mean streak.
7. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State, Sr.
The expert route runner is Winston’s favorite target with 76 catches in 2013 and 93 receptions this season and a total of 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. With two more scores, he can tie Peter Warrick’s school record of 29 career TD catches.
8. Troy Hill, CB, Oregon, Sr.
Hill’s position will be magnified with standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu out for the playoff due to a torn ACL. Offenses tested him with Ekpre-Olomu in the lineup, as Hill finished the season with 16 pass breakups. That won’t change now that he is the de facto No. 1 corner.
9. Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State, Jr.
After suffering an ankle injury against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, Goldman is expected to be ready for Oregon. That’s no small matter, either, as the standout defensive tackle may matchup with center Hroniss Grasu. The All-America selection has four sacks and eight tackles for a loss this season.
10. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State, So.
One of the most disruptive players in Florida State’s defense, Ramsey finished the season with two interceptions, 9.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks ... as a safety. His game-clinching performance against Miami was one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season.
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Fr.
Arguably Florida State’s most clutch performer in the final two months of the season, Cook notched long touchdown runs that sealed games against Louisville and Miami. In the final weeks of the season, Cook has become a workhorse back.
12. Cam Robinson, LT, Alabama, Fr.
After 13 games, Robinson really isn't a freshman. However, the Tide's starting left tackle will face arguably his toughest test of the year against Ohio State. He'll be charged with slowing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa for most of the evening.
13. A'Shawn Robinson, NG, Alabama, So.
Robinson is the most disruptive defensive lineman Nick Saban has had since Marcell Dareus or Terrence Cody. The sophomore is a load to stop up the middle and could single-handedly destroy OSU's offensive front.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It might be shocking that the best wideout in the nation isn't higher on this list but there is a good chance Cooper plays more of a decoy role than anything else. He's impossible to stop and could torch the Buckeyes, so he should expect plenty of safety help and double coverage.
15. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, Fr.
Another star freshman running back in a class full of them, Freeman gave Oregon a physical edge in the run game in the second half of the season. Freeman rushed for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns in Oregon’s eight-game winning streak to end the season.
16. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State, Jr.
Oregon has been susceptible to the pass rush this season, and Edwards is the best edge defender for the Seminoles with 20.5 tackles the last two seasons. Edwards already has been a stud at the Rose Bowl with three tackles for a loss in last year’s BCS title game.
17. Cameron Erving, C, Florida State, Sr.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who has coached two Rimington Award winners for the nation’s best center, raves about Erving at the position. His move from left tackle, where he was an All-ACC performer, enabled FSU to have its best OL group of the year with freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle.
18. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon, Sr.
It wouldn’t be Oregon if the Ducks didn’t have a lingering offensive line concern entering the playoff. Grasu is one of the best centers in the country when healthy, but he missed the final three games of the regular season with a leg injury.
19. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon, Jr.
Buckner is the bulk for a team that is unfairly labeled as a finesse squad. The 6-7, 290-pound Hawaiian leads the Ducks’ defensive line with 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
20. Tre Jackson, OG, Florida State, Sr.
Jackson earned unanimous All-America honors in 2014. He has led a revival of the Florida State run game, highlighted by a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, FSU’s first since 1996, and potentially a second in 2014.
21. Jalin Marshall, AP, Ohio State, Fr.
Ohio State will need to make big plays out in space and possibly on special teams. Marshall can make things happen from anywhere on the field and must be a big-play threat for OSU. He surged over the final month and needs to continue his excellent play.
22. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State, So.
The talented big-play defensive back will have his eye on Amari Cooper the entire game. He won't be in many man-to-man situations with No. 9 but Bell will be asked to help early and often.
23. Landon Collins, S, Alabama, Jr.
Collins is likely to be the most explosive defensive player on the field for either team and maybe the best tackler of the bunch. He must intimidate in the passing game and fill holes against the run.
24. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State, Jr.
Williams returns to Pasadena as the Rose Bowl MVP. The three-year starter at cornerback had the game-sealing interception in last year’s national championship game against Auburn.
25. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State, Sr.
The Mackey Award winner is more than a safety valve. He’s a go-to receiver. O’Leary caught four touchdown passes in the final three games of the season. In an era when the tight end is vanishing, O’Leary’s consistency, his 47 receptions and 13 yards per catch is notable.
Technically, this is the 26th annual TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Formerly known as the Copper Bowl (1989-96), the Insight Bowl (1997-2011) and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (2012-13)
Washington will represent the Pac-12, which has the highest winning percentage in bowl history with seven wins in eight tries (87.5%). Oklahoma State will represent the Big 12, which has the most wins (10) and appearances in the Cactus Bowl (15).
The Huskies and Cowboys have played twice in history, splitting a home-and-home in 1980 (Stillwater) and 1985 (Seattle) with, strangely enough, the home team losing both times.
The Cowboys won their only appearance in the game in 2007 over Indiana, while Washington has never been to Tempe for this game.
After seven years of missing the postseason, Chris Petersen has kept alive a now five-game bowl streak in his first year at Washington. This season marks the ninth consecutive bowl game for Mike Gundy in 10 years at the helm in Stillwater.
Washington vs. Oklahoma State
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -5.5
Washington’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage
On defense, a dominant Washington frontline must protect a young secondary, while an elite set of linebackers wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage. On offense, the Huskies must continue their second-half surge on the ground. Washington topped 200 yards rushing in four of their last five games and posted 188 in the easy win over Washington State. Dwayne Washington has been the spearhead for the improvement, topping 100 yards in three straight and reaching paydirt in four straight. If Washington can win the battle up front on both sides of the ball, it could be a long day for the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State's Key to Victory: Keep Mason Rudolph upright and efficient
Oklahoma State's freshman signal-caller Mason Rudolph is one of the big reasons the Pokes ended 2014 with a flurry instead of disappointment. Rudolph had his issues getting acclimated to big-time college football — 53.3% completion rate, three INTs in two starts — but has been productive as well. On the road against two of the Big 12's best (Baylor and Oklahoma), he threw for 554 yards and four touchdowns. Against a Huskies defense that led the Pac-12 in takeaways (27) and is third nationally in sacks (49), keeping Rudolph upright and protected is the only way Oklahoma State can get the win. That's a tall order considering OSU allowed the most sacks of any team in the Big 12.
Both teams capped a bumpy season with a critical victory in their respective rivalry games, adding some energy to the postseason meeting. But the Cowboys are genuinely lucky to still be playing, as this is one of the weaker OSU teams Gundy has coached since arriving in Stillwater. There is hope in the form of Rudolph, but the Cowboys are overmatched from a talent perspective and will be without its top offensive weapon after Tyreek Hill was dismissed from the team. The UW defense could dominate the line of scrimmage, so if the offense can produce just an average performance, the Huskies should get a ninth win this year.
Prediction: Washington 27, Oklahoma State 17
UCLA and Kansas State were on the cusp of playing in a bigger postseason game, but the Bruins and Wildcats should have plenty of motivation when they meet on Friday night in the Alamo Bowl. Both teams recorded a 9-3 record in the regular season and went into the final weekend of action with conference title aspirations. UCLA lost to Stanford to end its hopes of playing in the Pac-12 Championship, while Kansas State’s Big 12 title aspirations ended after TCU defeated Iowa State on Dec. 6.
Kansas State is always a threat to win the Big 12 with coach Bill Snyder on the sidelines, and the Wildcats won at least eight games for the fourth consecutive season. There’s no shame in the three losses by Kansas State in 2014, as Snyder’s team dropped games against Auburn, TCU and Baylor – three of arguably the top 10-15 teams in the nation. UCLA was pegged by some as the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, but coach Jim Mora’s team dropped back-to-back games against Utah and Oregon in early October to end its playoff hopes. The Bruins’ 31-10 loss to Stanford in the regular season finale allowed Arizona to win the Pac-12 South. Perhaps UCLA was overranked to start the season, but under Mora’s direction, the Bruins have won at least nine games in every season. This program is on the right track under Mora, and with a win over Kansas State, UCLA will have double-digit victories in back-to-back years for the first time since 1997-98.
UCLA and Kansas State have met only two previous times. The series is tied at one victory apiece, with the last meeting occurring in 2010. These two teams have never played each other in a bowl game.
UCLA vs. Kansas State
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UCLA -1
UCLA’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s a simple goal, but Kansas State won’t beat itself. The Wildcats lost only 11 turnovers – No. 3 nationally – and committed just four penalties per game. UCLA struggled with its discipline at times in 2014, as Mora’s team committed seven penalties per game and registered a -1 in turnover margin. The Alamo Bowl will be quarterback Brett Hundley’s last game in a UCLA uniform, as Mora already indicated his quarterback is set to go to the NFL. Hundley has been efficient this season, throwing for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns to only five picks. The junior is facing a K-State secondary that ranked fifth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.9 percent of their throws. In addition to Hundley, the Wildcats have to find a way to slow down running back Paul Perkins (1,381 yards, 7 TDs). Protecting Hundley has been a challenge at times this year, but UCLA’s line has played better since the addition of Conor McDermott at left tackle. Kansas State allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more (fewest allowed in the Big 12) this season. Hundley and the Bruins offense have plenty of firepower, but patience is required against a defense that doesn’t allow many big plays and has forced 20 turnovers this year. If UCLA limits its mistakes, opportunities should be there for Hundley and this offense to match its 32.9 points per game scoring average.
Kansas State’s Key to Victory: Waters to Lockett
Kansas State doesn’t have the most prolific rushing offense, as the Wildcats rank sixth in the Big 12 by averaging just 142.8 yards per game. What Kansas State doesn’t have in terms of a dominant rushing attack, it certainly makes up for it through the air. Quarterback Jake Waters completed 66.2 percent of his passes this year for 3,163 yards and 20 scores to only six interceptions. The senior’s favorite target is senior Tyler Lockett, who grabbed 93 receptions for 1,351 yards and nine scores in 2014. Lockett averaged 14.5 yards per reception and was a weapon on special teams with two punt returns for scores. UCLA’s secondary allowed only three plays of 40 yards or more during the regular season and it needs to keep Lockett under wraps on Friday night. The Bruins have struggled to generate a pass rush this year, so if the front seven can’t get to Waters, the opportunities should be there for Lockett to make plays downfield. If UCLA can limit the damage by Lockett and Waters, the Bruins should be in good position to earn the Alamo Bowl victory.
On paper, this is an even matchup. Perhaps one of the best of the bowl season. UCLA clearly has more talent on its roster, but Kansas State simply doesn’t beat itself and has one of the nation’s top coaches in Bill Snyder. In a tight game, turnovers could be critical. The Wildcats have been better in that department this season, which could be enough to swing this game in favor of K-State. Also, which team should have more motivation? Both teams had hopes of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl but losses on the final weekend knocked UCLA and Kansas State out of contention for a premier postseason destination. The Bruins have been up-and-down this season, while the Wildcats’ senior class is looking to close out their career with one more win. This one in San Antonio is a coin flip, but let’s a give a small edge to Kansas State.
Prediction: Kansas State 34, UCLA 31
As Oregon prepares to take on Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, we got a chance to throw some questions at one of the Ducks' biggest fans, Modern Family actor Ty Burrell. He did not disappoint.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
Yes, traditionally I like to get really nervous, even if we’re favored by 35. Then we like to sit down and watch it as a family and scream at the television. My mom is a lovely woman, but in front of a game she has the mouth of a sailor that other sailors find offensive. Then we all enjoy passing out from the exhaustion of the aforementioned nerves and screaming and such.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I'm going to…
Have a joy seizure.
4. Where will you be watching the playoff?
Hopefully from the sidelines, but if I’m not able to make it, then I’ll be repeating the procedure in answer number 2.
5. Who's your favorite player on the team?
Hard not to say (Marcus) Mariota here. He checks all the boxes, both as a player and a person. That said, Tyler Johnstone is a great kid who’s been fighting through a lot with a great attitude. So, Tyler Johnstone. Oh wait, Pharaoh Brown is a great young man too. Sorry, there’s too many.
After three years without a trip to a bowl game and four straight seasons with seven losses, Tennessee finally returns to the postseason with a marquee Big Ten-SEC showdown. Butch Jones will try to avoid a fifth straight seven-loss season in his first bowl as the Vols headman.
Despite plenty of up-and-down seasons under Kirk Ferentz, this is Iowa's 12th bowl trip in its last 14 seasons. Ferentz won three straight bowls from 2008-10 but hasn't won a season finale since.
The Gator Bowl is one of the longest-running college football events in the sport, dating back to the first edition in 1946. The Vols are 3-2 in five trips to the Gator Bowl, now known as simply the TaxSlayer Bowl, and the Hawkeyes are 0-1, losing to Florida in the 1983 edition.
The Vols and Hawkeyes have split two previous meetings. Iowa topped Tennessee 28-22 in the 1982 Peach Bowl, while the Big Orange knocked off the Hawkeyes 23-22 in the 1987 Kickoff Classic in New Jersey.
Iowa vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: 3:20 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -3.5
Iowa’s Key to Victory: Control the trenches
The Hawkeyes should have an advantage up front on both sides of the ball. Tennessee ranks No. 122 in the nation in sacks allowed (42.0) and No. 103 in rushing (135 ypg), so Iowa's veteran defensive line should be in for a good game. On the flip side, in what should be a slightly more even matchup, Iowa's O-Line is led by All-American Brandon Scherff but has struggled against quality competition of late. Over the final four games, Iowa rushed for 304 yards in the win over Illinois but couldn't get going on the ground in three losses to Minnesota (84 yards), Wisconsin (101) and Nebraska (142). Victory for Iowa will be determined in the trenches.
Tennessee's Key to Victory: Turn loose Astro Dobbs
When Tennessee was at its best on offense this year, it featured a dynamic dual-threat quarterback igniting every aspect of the playbook. Joshua Dobbs has the ability to negate a pass rush with his legs and open up the playbook with his knack for playing outside of the pocket. He finished with 393 yards rushing, 1,077 yards passing and 14 total touchdowns in just four starts to end the year. A rested Jalen Hurd should help ease the pressure on Dobbs, but the onus of offensive production falls on Dobbs with a depleted receiving corps and an inexperienced O-Line around him.
Both defenses should fare well in this matchup but it may be due more to ineffective offense than anything else. Special teams will eventually determine the outcome of what appears to be an evenly matched and potentially sloppy bowl contest. The difference could be motivation, which is always extremely difficult to pinpoint in bowl games. The Vols have been hungry for a postseason trip and haven't won a bowl game since 2007. The Hawkeyes have a clear experience edge, while the Vols have a slight talent edge. The motivational edge should fall to the SEC squad.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Iowa 23
Teams in similar positions will cross paths when Houston and Pittsburgh meet up in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. Both the Cougars (7-5) and Panthers (6-6) are wrapping up their seasons with interim head coaches, as Houston’s Tony Levine was fired on Dec. 8 and Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst left two weeks ago for Wisconsin, his alma mater.
Instead, defensive coordinator David Gibbs will lead the Cougars, while Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will be calling the shots on the other sideline. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has already been hired as Pitt’s next head coach, while Houston has tabbed Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
Even though Levine went 21-17 in three seasons and led Houston to back-to-back bowl games, it wasn’t enough to keep his job. The Cougars have one of the stingier defenses in the nation, but consecutive 5-3 showings in the American Athletic Conference apparently didn’t impress the powers that be.
It’s up to Gibbs to try and match last’s season eight wins with a victory over Pittsburgh. Houston is making its 22nd bowl appearance overall and fourth in the Armed Forces Bowl (formerly the Fort Worth Bowl). The Cougars are 1-2 in this game, which is played at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, about four hours away from Houston. They last appeared in this bowl game in 2009, when they lost 47-20 to Air Force. The Cougars also lost their most recent postseason game – 41-24 to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl a year ago.
Chryst departed Pittsburgh after going 19-19 in three seasons, including a 7-9 conference record in the Panthers’ first two seasons in the ACC. Pittsburgh is playing in its seventh straight bowl game. The Panthers have gone 3-3 during this span, including last season’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
These two schools have only played each other twice previously, with the last meeting occurring nearly two decades ago. Each has won on the other’s home field – Houston in 1996 and Pittsburgh in ’97.
Houston vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
Houston’s Key to Victory: Force the Issue
More known for producing prolific quarterbacks like 1989 Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, David Klingler, Case Keenum and others, this Cougars team has gotten the job done on defense. Houston enters this game ranked 19th in total defense (334.6 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg). It figures to be tested on the ground by ACC Player of the Year James Conner and the nation’s 15th-ranked rushing attack, but the Cougars have fared well in that department (136.3 ypg allowed, 32nd) too. The key for Houston’s defense could be forcing Pittsburgh to make mistakes. The Cougars are tied for seventh in takeaways with 30, including 19 interceptions. If Conner has any weakness, it’s a tendency to lose his grip on the football, so you can bet that Houston defenders will be looking to exploit that when they get their hands on him. The Cougars have turned three of these takeaways into touchdowns, but sometimes the change in possession is effective in that it gives the ball back to the offense. The Panthers’ defense has given up its share of yards and points, so mistakes forced and then capitalized on by Houston could go a long ways towards making interim head coach David Gibbs’ debut a successful one.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Conner-Boyd Combo
The Panthers have one of the nation’s most dangerous duos in running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd, both sophomores. Conner was named the ACC’s Player of the Year after rushing for 1,675 yards (fifth nationally) and a school-record 24 touchdowns (tied for third). Boyd went over 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight season (1,149, second in ACC), and chipped in eight touchdowns. Together this duo has been responsible for 57 percent of Pittsburgh’s total offense (2,957 of 5,211 yards) and two-thirds of its total touchdowns (32 of 48). They are clearly the two biggest weapons on the Panthers’ roster and will be hard to stop even with all of the attention they will draw from Houston’s stout defense. Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, the interim head coach is offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. If there’s anyone who knows how important it is to get the ball to Conner and Boyd, it’s him.
Both Houston and Pittsburgh are facing similar circumstances with interim head coaches calling the shots. It just so happens that the two fill-ins have plenty of familiarity with their team’s strongest side of the ball. So in this classic matchup of Houston’s defense vs. Pittsburgh’s offense, which team has the advantage? The Panthers boast two of the nation’s best young playmakers in ACC Player of the Year James Conner and electric wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Even if the Cougars can slow down Conner, which is easier said than done, I think the combination of him and Boyd will be tough for Houston’s offense to overcome. Look for Pittsburgh to end the Paul Chryst era and usher in Pat Narduzzi on a winning note.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Houston 23
NEW ORLEANS — Blake Sims is a living, breathing American fairy tale and the storybook ending is just four quarters from its final chapter.
In modern college football, Alabama's starting quarterback is the exception, not the rule. Sims is more seasoned philosophy professor than student athlete finishing his first season in the starting lineup.
He's someone America should root for and look up to.
Sims came to Alabama as a highly-recruited "athlete" in the Class of 2010, lured to Tuscaloosa from Gainesville (Ga.) High School by then offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and Nick Saban. Since arriving on campus, Sims has changed positions three times and is working under his third offensive coordinator.
He played running back and wide receiver on the Crimson Tide scout team before settling in as the scout-team quarterback. He sat quietly behind two-time champion and Heisman finalist AJ McCarron. He deftly handled the arrival of highly-coveted and publicized transfer quarterback Jacob Coker from Florida State — the supposed savior of Life After McCarron.
Through it all, Sims has been nothing but a team player, quietly confident that if given the chance, he'd be ready to perform.
"I have plenty of guys ask me how did I do it," Sims said. "I tell them you have to have a positive mindset, you have to be patient, never take a day off and when you get your opportunity, you have to take full advantage."
It's an impressive attitude in an age where transferring is the name of the game at the quarterback position. When Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin and signed Coker, Sims was an afterthought. Yet, here he is in New Orleans after leading his team to an SEC championship, a No. 1 ranking and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
"I'm extremely excited for all of the offensive players but especially for Blake Sims," Kiffin said. "He's had so many opportunities to quit or transfer every year of not playing, but he's an example of fighting through adversity.
"When we brought in Coker, he told me, 'Don't worry about me, I'll do whatever you want.' To see that attitude pay off, which is so unusual these days, has been great to see," Kiffin continued. "I think it should be a really good lesson. You don't just leave because its not going your way."
Sims didn't leave and his hard work and humble attitude has paid off in spades.
He was the most efficient passer in the SEC with a rating of 161.92, good for seventh nationally — well ahead of future pros like Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty and Jameis Winston. He set the Alabama single-season passing record with 3,250 yards. He added 321 yards rushing, setting the Bama total offense record (3,571). He accounted for 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Sims is two average games away from becoming just the sixth player in SEC history to post 4,000 total yards of offense in a season.
"He's one of the most humble players on the team," Alabama offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "Calm, cool and collected. I don't think I've seen him nervous in the huddle yet."
The current news cycle is dominated by negative headlines. Domestic violence or postgame brawls or high-level cover-ups. But under center for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl will be the personification of a humble American success story.
Win or lose, Blake Sims is the type of role model everyone can support.
Even Ohio State fans.
LOS ANGELES — The 2014 season was the year of the freshman running back.
The Rose Bowl features two of the best rookie backs in Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who both emerged during the second half of the season to help their teams to the national semifinal.
The flip side is the upperclassman running backs asked to shelve their egos and do something else so Freeman and Cook can thrive.
Oregon’s Byron Marshall and Florida State’s Karlos Williams entered the season with some fanfare — not as much as their quarterback teammates, but fanfare nonetheless.
On Thursday, they’ll play in the Rose Bowl as not even the most feared running backs on their own teams.
Marshall started 2014 as the only returning 1,000-yard rusher in the Pac-12, but by the end of fall camp, running backs coach Gary Campbell called him into his office to pull him off the running back position.
The season-ending injury to Bralon Addison left Oregon without its top three receivers from a year ago. With incoming freshman Royce Freeman joining the team, Marshall’s carries would be limited.
Oregon needed him to learn the slot receiver position. Starting from square one. And he needed to do it fast.
“I couldn't read the defense for the life of me,” Marshall said.
By the end of September, Marshall learned how to read coverages enough to say he felt like a natural at the position. Now, he calls his position an “athlete,” a position that’s common for recruits who could play a number of spots for a number of teams.
He says it not to be arrogant, but it’s the truth: How many players can say they led a team in rushing one year and in receiving the next?
After rushing for 1,038 yards last season, Marshall caught 61 passes for 814 yards with five touchdowns and still managed to rush for 383 yards and 7.7 yards per carry in 2014.
“I don't have to stare at the defense before the play to know what they are,” Marshall said. “I can give a quick look and say they're in cover one, I should run my route this one, or they're in cover way, I should run my route this way. It just came natural after a couple games.”
At 5-10, 205 pounds, Marshall won’t be a burner at the position. Nor does he need to be. His counterpart at receiver, freshman Devon Allen, is on the Oregon track team and can fill that role. Marshall just needs to be a steady target in the slot and an occassional tailback.
“(Marshall’s) ability as a runner is what makes him so effective as a receiver,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's such a dynamic playmaker that he has a chance to score every time he touches it.”
On the Florida State sideline, Williams wasn’t quite so fortunate to have a role waiting for him to fill after Cook started to emerge during the second half of the season.
Williams entered the season as a fringe Heisman contender after rushing for 730 yards and eight yards per carry behind 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman.
The dreams of any awards faded as the season went along. Williams lost out in the numbers game and missed two games due to injury. He’s become something of a short-yardage back to complement Cook’s home run ability. Williams finished the season with 10 touchdowns but only 4.4 yards per carry.
“I always expected to be one of the best in the country,” Williams said. “It's kind of surprising because we didn't really know. Nobody knew what kind of season each one of us was going to have.”
Instead, he and Marshall arrived at the Rose Bowl expected to contribute in their new roles and take a backseat in some ways to younger, more dynamic talent.
And along the way, they had to show they embraced their altered roles, not just on the field, but as mentors and cheerleaders for freshmen.
“It's amazing to be able to watch young guys explode, and I remember when I was a freshman I was a big‑time kick returner,” Williams said. “I (was) able to take control of the game, be able to change the game and make plays. It makes me really, really proud.”
Orchard Park, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday.
Orton, 32, started the final 12 games for the Buffalo Bills this season after 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel was benched. He completed 287-of-447 passes for 3,018 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Orton had contemplated retirement last offseason, but signed with the Bills and helped them finish 9-7, their first winning season since 2004.
Selected by Chicago in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Purdue, Orton threw for 18,037 yards with 101 touchdowns and 69 interceptions in 87 career games for the Bears, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Bills.