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The adjusted golf calendar means that the 2014 PGA Tour season is already underway. So for fantasy die-hards, that means another draft. So it's time to dust off the dumb, dirty and/or tasteless puns and come up with a team name. Here’s our list for 2014, in no particular order of awesomeness.
Weapons of Grass Destruction
This reference worked a little better in 2002.
Sure to induce a few giggles at the draft table.
This one’s almost too obvious.
Now we’re talking. That’s pretty creative.
The Fore Horsemen
The “fore” genre provides a deep well of name choices. Some of them are pretty crude. Use your imagination.
The ball genre is fertile ground for your golf fantasy team name. And for cheap laughs.
No. 1 Balls in Golf
Maybe your team could get a Titleist sponsorship.
Dude, Where’s My Par?
Nice. Golf clap for that one.
Sultans of Swing
Nothing says golf like a late 1970s Dire Straits reference.
Fairway to Heaven
Going even further into the music archives. Can’t go wrong with classic Zep.
Sure, it’s stolen from that talking baby commercial. But it’s still solid.
Grip It and Sip It
Could be a good slogan for John Daly's new cocktail, which actually exists.
The Swinging Johnsons
What? We’re just talking about Dustin and Zach.
A Shingo Ate My Baby
Sure, Shingo Katayama's an obscure player, but his name's worth its weight in fantasy golf gold.
Caddyshack references always work.
Ditto for Happy Gilmore references.
Working on my Putz
Brandt Awareness or The Grateful Sned
Brandt Snedeker's name brings fantasy possibilities.
May the Schwartzel Be With You
A Spaceballs reference combined with a Masters champ equals fantasy gem.
Fists of Furyk
Back to the Kuchar
Don't Rory Be Happy
I Like Big Putts and I Cannot Lie
Dufnering Miss Daisy
Bring in Da Fred Funk
Party of Fore
Dr. Vijay's Antler Spray
Jonas Blixt Brothers
The Bogey Men
The DrawShank Redemptions
Who's Your Caddy
Droppin' A Deuce
The Ball Washers
The Long Balls
The Happy Hookers
RELATED: 50 Funny Fantasy Football Team Names
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 2.
• Everything's coming up Bortles this morning. Blake Bortles led his UCF Knights to a big BCS bowl win, and according to his coach, George O'Leary, his girlfriend deserves "6 million Googles." See if you don't agree. That's her in the photo.
• The NHL has taken over New Year's Day with the Winter Classic. Here's a cool time-lapse video of the Big House's transformation into hockey heaven.
• Steve Spurrier: master troller. The guy's a genius. Really.
• My question following the recent round of bowls: What is going on with Kevin Sumlin's deformed knuckle?
• Mark Dantonio's footwork in avoiding a Gatorade bath was truly impressive. He even threw in a taunt at the end.
• Headline of the day: Red Wings Fan Videobombs Reporter, Wipes Out, Falls Down On Live TV.
• Jets QB Geno Smith has a not-safe-for-work scandal. Just what he needed.
• The New Year's Day bowls have become a Big Ten-SEC grudge match breeding ground. Edge again to the SEC.
• Cody Zeller attempted a dunk. The rim had other ideas.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
If you like offense, Friday night’s Orange Bowl matchup between Clemson and Ohio State will be must-see television. The Tigers and Buckeyes combined to average 86.5 points a game during the regular season, and there’s little to suggest a defensive struggle is in store at Sun Life Stadium.
Outside of the National Championship, the Orange Bowl matchup between the Buckeyes and Tigers might be the most intriguing bowl from the 2013-14 postseason.
Ohio State was a win away from playing for the BCS title, while Clemson capped off its best three-year stretch in program history with a 10-2 mark during regular season. The Buckeyes only defeat came in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State, while the Tigers lost 51-14 to No. 1 Florida State and 31-17 to rival South Carolina.
Clemson and Ohio State have played only once – and what a meeting it was. These two teams played in the 1978 Gator Bowl, with the Tigers winning 17-15. But a Clemson victory wasn’t the biggest storyline from that game. Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass with less than two minutes to go, which sealed the victory for the Tigers. However, after he was tackled along the Ohio State sideline, Bauman was punched by Buckeyes’ coach Woody Hayes. The incident resulted in the end of Hayes’ coaching career at Ohio State.
Clemson vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 3. at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
Ohio State's secondary vs. Clemson's receivers
The biggest weakness on Ohio State’s defense is the secondary. The Buckeyes ranked 11th in the Big Ten against the pass, allowing 259.5 yards per game and 26 passing scores. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60.5 percent of their throws against Ohio State’s defense this year. The Buckeyes are strong in the trenches with an outstanding defensive line, but the secondary has not played at an elite level. In the last four games of 2013, Ohio State allowed at least 288 passing yards and gave up seven passing scores in its last two contests. Making matters worse for coach Urban Meyer is the status of top cornerback Bradley Roby. The junior suffered a knee injury in the Big Ten Championship and is not expected to play. With Roby sidelined, sophomore Armani Reeves is listed as the backup and would slide into the starting lineup. But without Roby, the pressure also increases on the rest of the secondary, including the other starter at cornerback (Doran Grant) and senior safeties Corey Brown and C.J. Barnett. Even if Roby was able to play, Ohio State’s secondary would have its hands full against Clemson’s passing game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has thrown for 11,526 yards and 102 touchdowns in his career and has completed 67 percent of his throws in back-to-back years. Boyd also has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including the explosive Sammy Watkins (14.6 ypc, 10 TDs), Adam Humphries (41 receptions), and Martavis Bryant (20.5 ypc). If Ohio State can generate a consistent pass rush, it would help take the pressure off a questionable secondary. However, if Boyd has all day to throw, the senior will torch the Buckeyes’ secondary.
Despite a three-game suspension to start the season, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde led the Big Ten by averaging 140.8 yards per game and finished only 160 yards behind Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah for the conference rushing title. The senior averaged at least six yards per carry in each of his last eight games, including a ridiculous 10.3 average against Illinois. Clemson’s rush defense finished ninth in the ACC, allowing 152.6 yards per game. At first glance, those numbers would appear to be a huge problem for the Tigers. However, a deeper look at the statistics shows Clemson hasn’t been awful against the run, as giving up 248 to Georgia Tech and 323 to Syracuse skewed the numbers. Winning the battle in the trenches will be critical for the Tigers, especially against an Ohio State offensive line that features four senior starters. The Tigers can counter in the trenches with an underrated defensive front. End Vic Beasley was an All-American in 2013, and there's depth at end with Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Shaq Lawson. The tackle spots are in good shape with Grady Jarrett, D.J. Reader, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams. There’s no question the Buckeyes want quarterback Braxton Miller to throw downfield. However, the run game helps to set the table for the offense. While Clemson can’t solely focus on stopping Hyde, keeping Ohio State in long yardage situations is critical to its Orange Bowl title hopes.
Clemson's secondary vs. Braxton Miller
As we mentioned above, the defensive backfields will be under fire on Friday night. Ohio State’s secondary struggled during the regular season and could be shorthanded in the Orange Bowl. Clemson’s secondary finished third in the ACC in pass defense and 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense. However, the Tigers are thin on depth in the secondary, as three freshmen are listed on the depth chart. Safety Jayron Kearse finished tied for second on the team with three interceptions, but fellow freshman Jadar Johnson played in less than 100 snaps this year. Needless to say, Clemson cannot afford an injury in this unit on Friday night. While depth may be an issue, there is talent for coordinator Brent Venables. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland had an All-ACC caliber season, and senior Darius Robinson picked off three passes on the other side. Ohio State doesn’t have a No. 1 option like Sammy Watkins, but the Buckeyes aren’t short on talent at receiver. Corey Brown led the team with 55 catches, while Devin Smith averaged 15.6 yards per catch, and tight end Jeff Heuerman quietly recorded 25 receptions. Evan Spencer, Chris Fields and freshman standout Dontre Wilson are also options to watch. And the triggerman for Ohio State’s offense is junior quarterback Braxton Miller, who threw for 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. Miller missed two games due to injury but also rushed for 1,033 yards in 2013. When healthy, the junior is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and makes the Ohio State offense go. Clemson didn’t play a plethora of elite quarterbacks this year but allowed 444 passing yards to Florida State and Jameis Winston. If Clemson struggles to stop Carlos Hyde on the ground, Miller and his receivers should have no trouble carving up this secondary.
Key Player: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
With cornerback Bradley Roby expected to sit due to a knee injury, and the suspension of defensive end Noah Spence, there’s even more pressure on Shazier to set the tone for Ohio State's defense. Shazier led the team with 134 tackles (22.5 for a loss) and recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles in 2013. The junior will be tasked with keeping Clemson running back Roderick McDowell from breaking any big plays, while also cleaning up any missed tackles all over the field. The Tigers are always capable of throwing a trick play or two at opposing defenses, which makes having a veteran leader in the linebacking corps even more valuable. And most importantly, Shazier is the heart and soul (and leader) for this defense. With a dangerous offense on the other sideline, Shazier will need to play one of his best games in an Ohio State uniform for the Buckeyes to earn the victory.
Get ready for an offensive showcase. Ohio State and Clemson are loaded with talent on offense, including two of the best quarterbacks in the nation (Tajh Boyd and Braxton Miller). While Boyd and Miller should put on a show, the outcome of this game will be determined by which defense can get the most stops or create a turnover at an opportune time. The Buckeyes’ secondary is a huge concern, but the front seven should get pressure on Boyd to disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. With Hyde and four senior starters on the offensive line, Ohio State will grind the clock in the fourth quarter, with Miller tossing a late score that gives the Buckeyes their first victory in the Orange Bowl since 1977.
Prediction: Ohio State 38, Clemson 34
Alabama arrives at the Sugar Bowl eager to prove that its one loss — on one of the most amazing plays in the history of college football — was a fluke. The Crimson Tide ranked No. 1 in the nation until that defeat at Auburn, would like to show the college football world that they truly are the best team in the land. They have no hope of earning the No. 1 ranking — in any poll — but a win over Oklahoma will allow this senior class to go out on a high note. One of those seniors, quarterback AJ McCarron, has an opportunity to add to one of the most impressive résumés we have seen in decades — he’s 36–3 as a starter with two national titles and three bowl wins.
Oklahoma under Bob Stoops has become one of the steadiest programs in the country. Like clockwork, OU is good for at least 10 wins and a major bowl game every year. The 2013 season, though, might be one of the better achievements of Stoops’ tenure. Oklahoma began the year ranked outside of the Associated Press top 15 for the first time since 2000, the year OU won the national championship.
Despite uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Sooners went 10–2 and beat rival Oklahoma State on the road in a thrilling season-finale. Sure, there were some rough patches — most notably in lopsided losses to Texas (36–20) and Baylor (41–12) — but the Sooners managed to reach a BCS bowl for the ninth time in the Stoops era.
Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 2. at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -15
Three Things to Watch
The quarterback position at Oklahoma
Stoops has yet to determine whether Trevor Knight or Blake Bell will get the starting assignment at quarterback against one of the elite defenses in the nation. Knight, a dynamic runner, started the final two games of the season but left the Oklahoma State game with an injury. Bell, regarded as the better passer, guided the Sooners on the game-winning drive in Stillwater that ultimately led to the Sugar Bowl invite. Very few quarterbacks have had success against Alabama, but the numbers suggest that going with the better runner might be the prudent decision for Stoops. Only two teams scored more than 17 points against Alabama this season, and both teams received solid production from their quarterback in the running game. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries in the Aggies’ 49–42 loss to Bama in September, and Auburn’s Nick Marshall ran for 99 yards on 17 carries in the Tigers’ 34–28 victory. Obviously, having a running quarterback doesn’t guarantee success against Alabama, but it appears you at least need to the threat of the run from the quarterback position to test this defense. Even if Knight does get the start, it would be a surprise if both quarterbacks don’t play in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama’s running attack
AJ McCarron will go down as one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the collegiate game, but Alabama is at its best when the running game gets going. The Crimson Tide boast arguably the deepest collection of quality tailbacks in the nation, but only two — T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — have received significant carries. Yeldon leads the way with 1,163 yards (on a 6.1-yard average) and 13 touchdowns. Drake, whose workload diminished late in the season as the Tide relied more on Yeldon, has 694 yards on 92 attempts for an impressive 7.5-yard average. If either one is injured, Alabama can turn to true freshman Derrick Henry (10.1-yard average), Jalston Fowler (6.6-yard career average), Altee Tenpenny or Dee Hart. This group of tailbacks will look to attack an Oklahoma defense that struggled against the run — due in part to some key injuries on the front seven — for much of the 2013 season. The Sooners ranked fourth in the Big 12 in rushing defense (fifth on a yards-per-attempt basis) and allowed at least 200 rushing yards in four games — Notre Dame (220), Texas (255), Baylor (255) and Oklahoma State (200). Look for Alabama to be the fifth OU opponent to top the 200-yard mark.
Oklahoma’s return game
The Sooners, more than a two-touchdown underdog, will have to win the battle of special teams to make this game competitive. Fortunately for OU, it has one of the elite punt returners in college football. Jalen Saunders, also a top-flight wide receiver, ranks sixth in the nation with a 16.8-yard average on his 18 punt returns, and he scored on returns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Alabama, which has allowed only 52 total punt return yards all season, will do its best to kick the ball away from Saunders.
Key Player: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Mosley will be the best player on a field that will be loaded with 4- and 5-star recruits at every position. He leads Alabama in tackles by a wide margin — his 88 stops are 37 more than anyone else on the team — and did some his best work on the other side of the line of scrimmage with nine tackles for a loss and eight quarterback hurries. It will be important for Mosley and the rest of the Alabama linebacking corps to slow down Oklahoma’s running game and make the Sooners beat them with the forward pass. Oklahoma ranks ninth in the Big 12 in passing offense and has only topped 250 yards in a game once — against Tulsa in September.
There’s a reason Alabama is the big favorite. This is an elite Alabama team that was on the verge of playing for its third straight national title before losing late at Auburn on the final weekend of the regular season. Alabama’s secondary might not be up to its usual high standard and the kicking game can be an issue — remember the Auburn game? — but Nick Saban’s team has few weaknesses.
Oklahoma won 10 games — hitting double digits for the 12th time in 14 seasons — but this is not a great OU team. They were blown out twice — vs. Texas (36–20) and at Baylor (41–12) — and won five games by 10 points or less. The offense is mediocre (and a bit too one-dimensional), and the defense has had difficulty stopping the run. Too many things will have to go well — at least one special teams score, force multiple turnovers, etc. — for Oklahoma to win this game.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Oklahoma 14
The seventh annual Under Armour All-American game will take place Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Names like A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Manti Te’o, Matt Barkley, Trent Richardson, Jameis Winston, Jadeveon Clowney, Andrus Peat and Christian Hackenberg have made their first big college splash at the Under Armour All-American game.
The All-Star event is a showcase for college football’s next generation of gridiron stars. Frankly, who wins or loses the game means very little to anyone — the players, fans, coaches or family members in the crowd. But the week of practice is a great chance for scouts and evaluators to see the best face the best. And the recruiting announcements carry monumental importance for the future of the sport as a whole, shaping future depth charts for years to come.
The 2014 version of the Under Armour All-American game won’t be any different.
Who has the most players to watch?
Alabama and Nick Saban lead all teams with 11 committed players playing in The Trop on Thursday. Notre Dame and Michigan are second with seven prospects apiece participating. Miami and Auburn each have six prospects involved while Penn State, Florida State and Florida boast four recruits to watch on Thursday. In all, 30 different college teams — including Virginia, Mississippi State, Kansas, Arkansas, Maryland — will have someone to watch in the seventh edition of the all-star game. There are over 100 talented recruits involved in this game and 22 of them are still undecided. Bringing us too…
Who is under center?
Quarterback is the most important position on the field and this game has featured some big-time names of late. Landry Jones starred in 2008, Matt Barkley in '09 and Blake Bell and Devin Gardner played in the '10 event. Braxton Miller and Brett Hundley gave the world a taste of what was to come in 2011, while Jameis Winston starred in the '12 game. Chrisitian Hackenberg was the big name to watch in last year’s showcase.
Ten future college quarterbacks will be on display this Thursday with all 10 already committed to 10 different teams. SEC schools LSU, Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama will have their future signal-caller playing in Brandon Harris, Rafe Peavey, Sean White and David Cornwell. There are many who believe Cornwell, the No. 4-rated pro-style passer by 247Sports, could be the starter for Nick Saban as early as next fall.
Penn State’s Michael O’Connor, Stanford’s Keller Chryst, Oklahoma’s Justice Hansen, Oregon’s Morgan Mahalak, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Michigan’s Wilton Speight will all be featured as well. Chryst is the No. 3-rated QB prospect in the nation while Watson is the No. 1-rated dual-threat prospect and No. 4-rated overall QB in the nation.
Who will be announcing?
According to 247Sports, eight different players are set to announce during the game. The group features the No. 1 player in the nation, six of the top 25 players in the nation and two more ranked in the top 70. Here are those players who could be revealing their choice, where they rank and the list of schools they are believed to be choosing from:
Leonard Fournette, RB (6-1, 226)
New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine
Rank: No. 1 overall, No. 1 RB
Schools: Alabama, LSU, Florida
Tony Brown, CB (6-0, 188)
Beaumont (Texas) Ozen
Rank: No. 9, No. 3 CB
Schools: Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC
Speedy Noil, WR (5-10, 175)
New Orleans (La.) Edna Karr
Rank: No. 11, No. 1 WR
Schools: LSU, Texas A&M
Dalvin Cook, RB (5-11, 190)
Miami (Fla.) Central
Rank: No. 12, No. 2 RB
Schools: Florida, Florida State (switched commitment from Florida to FSU on Tuesday)
Gerald Willis, DT (6-3, 275)
New Orleans (La.) Edna Carr
Rank: No. 21, No. 2 DT
Schools: LSU, Florida
Jalen Tabor, CB (6-1, 182)
Washington (D.C.) Friendship Academy
Rank: No. 24, No. 4 CB
Schools: Alabama, Arizona
Jamal Adams, S (6-0, 199)
Carrollton (Texas) Hebron
Rank: No. 27. No. 2 S
Schools: Florida, LSU, Ole Miss
Travis Rudolph, WR (6-1, 185)
West Palm Beach (Fla.) Cardinal Newman
Rank: No. 69, No. 7 WR
Schools: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami
Other names to watch:
The No. 1-rated defensive tackle in the nation, Andrew Brown, is committed to Virginia and has played well in practice. Could he save Mike London’s job? Keep an eye on the big fella from famed Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va.
Michigan has a future star in do-everything athlete Jabrill Peppers out of Paramus (N.J.) Catholic. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is as talented a defensive prospect as scouts have seen in years so his No. 2 overall ranking in the nation should be warranted. Be sure to find Peppers on Thursday afternoon.
The No. 100-rated player in the nation is future Alabama wide receiver Cameron Sims. The Mike Evans-clone has been excellent in practice and could be a productive target for whomever is under center in Tuscaloosa. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder simply makes plays and the Under Armour game should be no different.
Dillon Bates is the son of NFL All-Pro tackler Bill Bates and his football IQ and development is befitting an NFL offspring. He needs to gain some poundage to play quickly for Tennessee but his ability to make plays and be in the right position is uncanny for a player of his age. Watch for Bates to be all over the field on Thursday.
Jacory Washington may get lost among a long list of elite wide receivers in attendance this year. But the No. 6-rated tight end prospect in the nation from Westlake (La.) High has been a bright spot in practice and could find himself moving up rankings following the All-American game.
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some like to keep it simple and use the ol' eyeball test, while others fall on the sabermetric side of things. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from another stellar season of Pac-12 college football:
353: Marcus Mariota's Pac-12 record consecutive attempts without an INT
Oregon star quarterback Marcus Mariota set a Pac-12 record by not throwing an interception for over a year. From Nov. 17, 2012 to Nov. 23, 2013, Mariota threw 353 passes without an interception. However, in the season’s most critical game with the Pac-12 North crown hanging in the balance, Mariota tossed two interceptions on the road in an ugly 42-16 loss to Arizona. The loss ended the Ducks' shot at a Pac-12 title and snapped the four-year BCS bowl streak.
2006: The last time Oregon didn’t lead the Pac-12 in scoring
The Oregon Ducks finished fourth nationally and led the Pac-12 in scoring at 45.5 points per game this season. It marks the seventh consecutive season that the Ducks have led the league in scoring offense. Oregon has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in scoring only once over that span, a 12th-place finish in 2007. The Cal Bears led the league in scoring in 2006 at 32.9 points per game while the Ducks finished third at 29.5 points per game.
89: Connor Halliday's NCAA single-game record for pass attempts
Purdue's Drew Brees threw the ball an NCAA-record 83 times against Wisconsin in 1998. Against an Oregon team with a big lead for most of the night, Washington State's Connor Halliday threw the ball 89 times in Week 8. Halliday also tied the NCAA mark for completions with 58 (Andy Schmitt, Eastern Michigan) and set the Pac-12 single-game passing benchmark with 557 yards (Andrew Walter, 536). And much like Brees that night back in '98, Wazzu lost in part because of multiple interceptions. Halliday threw four interceptions to go with his four touchdowns in the 62-38 loss to the Ducks.
16: Consecutive 100-yard games for Ka’Deem Carey
Carey led the nation in rushing and set all types of records as a sophomore in 2012. All he did as an encore this fall was build upon his incredible Pac-12 resume. He rushed for at least 119 yards in every game he played, finishing No. 2 in the nation in rushing at 157.1 yards per game. In the last two seasons, the Zona star tailback has carried 652 times for 3,814 yards and 42 rushing touchdowns. He was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year this year by the coaches.
2: Number of players to win two Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Awards
Only two players in conference history have ever won a second league Defensive Player of the Year award and Arizona State’s Will Sutton is one of them. The senior defensive lineman won back-to-back D.P.O.Y. awards this season after helping lead Arizona State to a Pac-12 South title. He finished with 48 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and 4.0 sacks for the season. Washington’s Steve Emtman split the award in 1990 with Arizona’s Darryl Lewis and won the award outright in '91. Sutton is technically the only two-time outright Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winner.
133.1: Brandin Cooks' nation-leading yards receiving per game
Oregon State is one of two teams in the nation to ever boast two different Biletnikoff Award winners for the nation’s top receiver. Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks joined Mike Hass (2005) to make the Beavers one of just two teams to claim more than one such winner. Pittsburgh (Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald) is the only other team with two different winners. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have won two Biletnikoff Awards but both were won by the same player — Justin Blackmon and Michael Crabtree respectively. Cooks led the nation with 1,730 yards, was second with 128 catches and second with 16 touchdowns. He broke the Pac-12 single-season record for receptions and yards this fall.
57-14: Stanford's combined first-half score over Arizona State
Back in September, Stanford jumped out to a 29-0 halftime lead over the Sun Devils in Palo Alto. The Cardinal eventually pushed the lead to 39-7 before letting off the pedal and winning 42-28. Two months later, nothing changed as Stanford blitzed ASU in the first half of the Pac-12 Championship Game. Kevin Hogan and Tyler Gaffney posted a 28-7 second-quarter lead and a 28-14 halftime margin. David Shaw's bunch never looked back, crushing the Sun Devils 38-14 for its second consecutive Pac-12 championship — the first time the school has done that since 1970-71.
529.6: Cal’s total yards allowed per game
Sonny Dykes is a well-respected coach but probably didn’t realize what he was getting himself into when he took the Cal job this season. In his first year, his defense was historically bad. Cal allowed a Pac-12 worst 529.6 yards per game, ranking 124th nationally — out of 125 teams. The Bears had the worst defense of any of the “Big 6” conferences and was better than only New Mexico State’s 549.5 yards per game allowed. Cal’s 45.9 points allowed per game were also dead last in the Pac-12 and among all “Big 6” teams, finishing 124th ahead of only Idaho and their pathetic 46.8 points allowed per game.
7-2: USC’s record without Lane Kiffin
Lane Kiffin was fired on the LAX tarmac in the wee morning hours of the final Sunday in September. USC had been pounded 62-41 in Tempe by Arizona State, dropping their record to 3-2 — and 10-8 since the beginning of the 2012 season. Ed Orgeron, and later Clay Helton for the bowl game, was elevated to an interim position and he proceeded to lead USC to six straight Pac-12 wins. Coach O and Helton combined to finish 7-2 on the year, giving USC 10 wins in the process and clinching its first bowl win since the 2009 Emerald Bowl. Only 18 “Big 6” teams won at least 10 games this year and the USC Trojans were one of them.
The teams in the Cotton Bowl will hope their final games of the 2013 regular season weren’t as bad as they looked.
Missouri matched Auburn for three quarters in the SEC Championship Game, a matchup that would have sent Mizzou to the national title bout. On the other hand, Missouri’s defense, the hallmark of the surprising season in Columbia, was non-existent that day, running out of steam in the fourth quarter. Missouri surrendered 677 yards, including 545 rushing, to Auburn in the Georgia Dome.
Earlier in the day, Oklahoma State looked out of sorts with the Big 12 title and a BCS bid on the line against Oklahoma. The Cowboys outgained Oklahoma by 42 yards, but allowed de facto third-string quarterback Blake Bell to put together a game winning drive in the final 19 seconds.
The letdown factor could be at play in Dallas, but it shouldn’t be.
For Missouri, this is another opportunity to prove the Tigers will thrive as an SEC program, if there was any lingering doubt after Mizzou won the East this season. Texas A&M thrashed its former conference foe Oklahoma in last year’s Cotton Bowl, and Missouri can do the same against a program it defeated only once in the final five meetings in the Big 12.
For Oklahoma State, the Cowboys lost two winnable games this season — the sloppy effort against OU in the Bedlam Game and a baffling loss to bowl no-show West Virginia.
Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
Kickoff: Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
TV Channel: Fox
Spread: Missouri by 1
Three Things to Watch
Missouri’s huge receivers vs. Oklahoma State’s secondary
Unlike other teams in the SEC East, Missouri was able to overcome injuries at quarterback in part because of the top receiving corps in the confererence. Dorial Green-Beckham (6-foot-6, 225), L’Damian Washington (6-4, 205) and Marcus Lucas (6-5, 220) are all big bodies who combined to catch 24 of Missouri’s 30 touchdown catches this season. Oklahoma State finished ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense and fourth in interceptions, but the Cowboys’ also linebackers played a key role in defending the pass as eight of Oklahoma State’s 20 picks this season came from linebackers. Cowboys cornerback Justin Gilbert (six interceptions, two touchdowns) will be in the spotlight to make a game-turning turnover, but James Franklin, who will start the bowl, and Maty Mauk combined to throw only seven picks all year.
Clint Chelf vs. Missouri’s pass rush
Clint Chelf capped the 2013 regular season with his best two games of the season against Texas and Baylor and then one of his most lackluster since regaining the job against Oklahoma. Chelf went 19 of 35 for 200 yards wiht a touchdown and an interception and was a non-factor in the run game against the Sooners. Missouri’s bread and butter on defense was a pass rush that led the SEC at 2.9 sacks per game. The defensive front of Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Kony Ealy combined for 23 sacks this season. Chelf will seek a replay of the win over Texas in which the Oklahoma State quarterback used designed runs to evade the Longhorns’ elite pass rushers.
Big plays from Henry Josey
This is another meeting of strength vs. strength. Missouri running back Henry Josey averaged 8.9 yards on 48 carries in the final four games of the season, including a 65-yard run against Auburn, a 57-yard run against Texas A&M and an 86-yard run against Kentucky. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State allowed only three 30-yard runs all season, the fewest in the Big 12.
Key Player: Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
The lasting image from the SEC championship game will be Tre Mason scampering for 304 yards and four touchdowns against the Missouri defense. Oklahoma State doesn’t have Auburn’s run game, but Desmond Roland is capable of putting up a big performance. He rushed for 219 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa State, 96 yards and three touchdowns against Texas Tech and 144 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma. The Cowboys may need something like that to beat Missouri.
In many ways, Missouri and Oklahoma State is an ideal bowl matchup. Both teams have their share of strengths that will be up against a strength for the other team — Missouri’s receivers against Oklahoma State’s pass defense, Clint Chelf’s mobility vs. Michael Sam, for starters. The game has all the signs of a tight bowl matchup, especially compared to some of the other January bowl matchups. One thing worth remembering: Even through realignment, the SEC has won nine of the last 10 Cotton Bowl games — the exception being Missouri’s 38-7 win over Arkansas in the 2008 game.
Prediction: Missouri 28, Oklahoma State 24
The change in the calendar isn’t really college basketball’s midpoint, but it is the most logical time for teams to take stock of what they have and turn the page as conference play begins.
Meanwhile, late December is the time of year where a handful of midseason transfers and freshmen become eligible (or ineligible. More on that tomorrow).
While many teams are undoubtedly improving as the season goes a long, a handful can take major steps forward in the coming weeks. Some are because a key freshman is about to enter the lineup or a midseason transfer is able to join the team. Some are younger teams starting to figure out rotations and starting lineups.
We’ve selected nine teams that look like they’re ready to take the next step into the new year.
Teams on the Rise in the New Year
Why: Freshman Chris Walker is eligible
Florida started the season as shorthanded as any team in the country, but that has changed in recent weeks. The Gators enter conference play with point guard Scottie Wilbekin back from suspension for the last seven games. The same goes for Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed only two games. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill has returned from injury. But the last piece is freshman Chris Walker. Coach Billy Donovan has tried to diminish expectations for a player who was just cleared to practice in December, but Florida is still slated to add an athletic 6-10 McDonald’s All-American sometime early in conference play.
Why: Veterans emerging
The Big 12 is going to be more of a grind than most thought at the start of the season — Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor also have hopes of winning the league, and Texas and Kansas State have surprised in the non-conference schedule. Maybe it’s a good thing Bill Self’s young team has gone through a gauntlet in the non-conference slate. Point guard Naadir Tharpe responded from his brief benching earlier this season to put up 20 points with eight assists against previously undefeated Toledo and 10 points against Georgetown. Memphis transfer Tarik Black emerged to score 17 points in 20 minutes against Georgetown on Dec. 21. Both are great signs for the Big 12 season. And this is still a team with two of the best freshmen in the country in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
Why: Jevon Thomas is eligible
Kansas State has already improved through its non-conference schedule, losing early to Northern Colorado and Charlotte before defeating Ole Miss and Gonzaga in December. Thomas is still working his way into the lineup after returning to practice last week when he became eligible as a midseason transfer. Thomas may become Kansas State’s top point guard by season’s end.
Why: Improvement in the backcourt
Saturday was the day Kentucky fans have been waiting for since the top signing class in college basketball history came together. The Wildcats beat Louisville 73-66 for their signature win of the season, but more important, they started to show what they can do when all the parts are playing together. Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and James Young combined to score 29 of Kentucky’s 32 points in the second half against the Cardinals.
Why: Seth Allen’s return
Maryland might not be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Terrapins at least have hope with the return of point guard Seth Allen from a foot injury on Sunday. Allen gave the Maryland offense an added dimension with three 3-point shots on six attempts in an 85-77 win over Tulsa and had only one turnover to three assists in 21 minutes.
Why: The return of Leslie McDonald
Befitting North Carolina’s up-and-down season, the Tar Heels may well end up on a list of teams on pace to improve and take a step back. The good news: The Tar Heels returned shooting guard Leslie McDonald after he missed nine games with an NCAA-mandated suspension. He’s 10 of 23 from the field and 8 of 17 from 3-point range in his first three games back, but he’s not even the top player Carolina hoped to get back from a suspension. P.J. Hairston’s career appears to be done after the Tar Heels abandoned hope of getting him back this season. Roy Williams will have to hope the finality of the Hairston decision will help his team move on.
Why: Cullen Neal and Deshawn Delaney in the starting lineup
First-year coach Craig Neal drew criticism earlier this season for giving too many minutes to a struggling freshman point guard. The point guard happened to be his son. Cullen Neal, though, has adjusted. He’s started the last three games, including a 24-point outburst in a win over Marquette. Junior college transfer guard Deshawn Delaney entered the starting lineup in the last two games and contributed 10 points and 10 rebounds against Marquette.
Why: Dominic Artis and Ben Carter back from suspension
Oregon has started 12-0 despite missing Artis and Carter for the first nine games during an NCAA-mandated suspension. The Ducks are still working both into the rotation. Artis, the bigger impact player of the two, played only 11 minutes in an overtime win over BYU. Fellow point guard Johnathan Loyd has handled the point guard job just fine. Carter adds a little bit of depth to the forward position, but the Ducks already rank in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage on KenPom.com.
Why: John Johnson eligible
Penn State probably won’t threaten for an NCAA Tournament slot, but the Nittany Lions have the players to be a spoiler in the Big Ten race. Penn State already has high-scoring guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill and now adds Pittsburgh transfer John Johnson to the mix. The 6-1 guard from Philadelphia went 8 of 11 from the field for 20 points in his season debut against Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 22.
One of the defining moments of college football since the turn of the century was Vince Young leading Texas to a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship over USC following the 2005 season.
In 2014, both teams involved in that legendary game will have new coaches.
USC is already on its second full-time coach since then. After a dramatic back-and-forth with reports indicating Mack Brown had resigned and had not resigned, Brown eventually retired Dec. 14.
Brown’s departure means two of the top jobs in college football will have opened following the 2013 season. The coaching carousel causes us to reevaluate the most desirable jobs in college football.
This year, there’s not much of a reason to recalibrate. Texas remains the top job in college football, not just the top job to open this season. USC is not far off.
We’ve given every job in the coaching carousel a grade, all the way from Texas to Eastern Michigan. The only question is where the Texas and USC dominoes will settle.
The 2013-14 Football Coaching Carousel: Ranking Every Job
Out: Mack Brown, retired (158-47 in 16 seasons)
In: Charlie Strong, Louisville coach
Mack Brown rebuilt the Texas program into a national contender after the failed tenures of David McWilliams and John Mackovic. The Longhorns won at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons at one point under Brown, but that run yielded one national championship and only two Big 12 titles. The new coach will be under pressure to bring — in Brown’s words — “some new energy” to the program. This is perhaps the best job in college football in every sense. Texas has the best recruiting base in college football thanks to the state’s rich high school football tradition. This season, as many as 11 starting quarterbacks in the NFL went to Texas high schools. The problem for Texas was that none of them played in Austin. The Longhorns are flush with big-money donors, and despite strides by Texas A&M and others, Texas has the largest fanbase in the state. Even though the Longhorn Network is difficult to find, no other college program can claim its own ESPN-backed television network (BYU is the only other school with a TV network). How good is this job? Nick Saban’s name was speculated for the job, and it wasn’t crazy to think the Alabama coach would leave.
How good is the Texas job? A-plus
Out: Lane Kiffin, fired (28-15 in three-plus seasons)
In: Steve Sarkisian, Washington coach
USC is only five seasons removed from Pete Carroll’s last top-three finish and Rose Bowl victory and three seasons removed from going 10-2 in 2011. Many programs can claim tradition, but recruits can still remember when USC was college football royalty. The Trojans are also slated to unveil a renovation of Heritage Hall early in 2014. New coach Steve Sarkisian must navigate one more season of scholarship limitations while facing a tougher Pac-12 with Oregon and Stanford at national powerhouse status and UCLA, Arizona State and Washington on the rise. Still, there’s no reason USC can’t be back in national title contention each year.
How good is the USC job? A-plus
Out: Steve Sarkisian, hired at USC (34-29 in five seasons)
In: Chris Petersen, Boise State coach
Washington was in ruins when Sarkisian took over in 2009. A year earlier, the Huskies had gone 0-12 and were eight years removed from their last conference title. Washington still hasn’t reached the Rose Bowl since the 2000 season, but this is a program in position to reclaim former glory. Sarkisian improved the talent base by leaps and bounds in five seasons, and Washingotn recently completed a $280 million renovation of Husky Stadium. The state of Washington isn’t the best for prospects in Pac-12 territory, but it has produced Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Bishop Sankey, Jake Locker and — this is relevant to the ex-Boise coach — Kellen Moore.
How good is the Washington job? A-minus
4. Penn State
Out: Bill O’Brien, hired by the Houston Texans (15-9 in two seasons)
In: James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach
In the long run, Penn State is one of the top jobs in college football. Lengthy tradition, a massive stadium with a rabid fan base and a state with good, but dwindling, talent plus access to Ohio and Maryland/D.C. prospects all make this one of the premier jobs in the Big Ten. It’s just going to take at least five years to get back to that spot due to the deep NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA has loosened some of the recruiting restrictions, but Penn State won’t have a full complement of 85 scholarships until 2016, the same year the Nittany Lions will be eligible for a bowl. Between a wave of transfers in 2012 and limited signing classes, the new coach will have a depleted roster for his first two seasons, if not more. Bill O’Brien also ran into the old adage that it’s tough to follow a coaching legend, and no shadow looms larger than that of Joe Paterno, in spite of the scandal that tarnished his legacy. The new coach, however, will inherit budding star quarterback Christian Hackenberg for at least two seasons. That alone may help Penn State weather some of the leanest years under sanctions.
How good is the Penn State job? B-plus
Out: Charlie Strong, hired by Texas (37-15 in four seasons)
In: Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky coach
The new Louisville coach won’t inherit a cushy position, despite the Cardinals’ 23-3 record the last two seasons. Louisville moves into the ACC — into a division with Florida State and Clemson, no less — without star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Otherwise, an experienced team returns. Louisville has proven it can built teams that are a factor in the national conversation while playing a Conference USA, Big East and American schedule. How Louisville holds up against the ACC, which will include regular games against Notre Dame, will be in question. To compete in the ACC, the Louisville coach must have an aggressive recruiting strategy to supplement in-state prospects. Both Bobby Petrino and Strong flourished due to a substantial presence in the state of Florida. Tom Jurich is regarded as one if the best athletic directors in the country, and he’s given his coaches the infrastructure they need to thrive, including stadium and facility upgrades.
How good is the Louisville job? B-minus
Out: James Franklin, hired at Penn State (24-15 in three seasons)
In: Derek Mason, Stanford defensive coordinator
Franklin left Vanderbilt as the school’s best coach since Dan McGugin, who coached all but one season from 1904-34. Franklin’s run, which included a pair of nine-win seasons, will be tough to replicate, but Vanderbilt also has committed to competing in the SEC in recent years. An indoor practice facility, locker room upgrades and — most important — a financial commitment to a coaching staff all have lifted the Commodores job from the depths of the SEC. Don’t mistake this for a top-half job in the SEC or the next Stanford: Academic hurdles, a shallow recruiting base in Tennessee and limited fan support still make this one of the tougher jobs in the league. However, now Vanderbilt will expect regular bowl appearances.
How good is the Vanderbilt job? C-plus
7. Boise State
Out: Chris Petersen, hired at Washington (92-12 in eight seasons)
In: Bryan Harsin, Arkansas State coach
Petersen turned Boise State from a nice story out West to a bona fide national championship contender. Boise State twice went undefeated and finished in the top 10 four times under Petersen. The Broncos have a clear identity as innovators on offense and unearthing gems in recruiting, in California and as far away as the Netherlands. The Mountain West may cut into Boise State’s ability to put up gaudy records on a yearly basis, but there’s no reason the Broncos can’t be the flagship program in the league.
How good is the Boise State job? C-plus
8. Wake Forest
Out: Jim Grobe, retired (77-82 in 13 seasons)
In: Dave Clawson, Bowling Green coach
Wake Forest is a tough enough job as it is, a private school competing in a division with Florida State, Clemson and, starting in 2014, Louisville. Clawson will have to follow the beloved Jim Grobe, who won the ACC in 2006 and tied D.C. Walker for the most wins in school history. Grobe proved what it takes be competitive at Wake — an unconventional offense and unconventional thinking (i.e. near-universal redshirting).
How good is the Wake Forest job? C-minus
Out: Paul Pasqualoni, fired (10-18 in two-plus seasons)
In: Bob Diaco, Notre Dame defensive coordinator
The talent base in the Northeast is scant, especially after Penn State, Syracuse, Rutgers and Boston College take the top players in the area. The American Athletic Conference may be the seventh-best league in the country. The stadium is 25 miles from campus. That’s enough to make Maryland look like a dream job.
How good is the Connecticut job? C-minus
10. Arkansas State
Out: Bryan Harsin, hired at Boise State (7-5 in one season)
In: Blake Anderson, North Carolina offensive coordinator
Welcome to the nation’s best stepping stone job as the last three coaches have gone on to Ole Miss, Auburn and Boise State all after one year apiece on the job. The three one-and-done coaches have turned Arkansas State into a consistent factor in the Sun Belt, but one has to wonder the toll so much turnover has caused for the program.
How good is the Arkansas State job? C-minus
11. Bowling Green
Out: Dave Clawson, hired at Wake Forest (32-31 in five seasons)
In: Dino Babers, Eastern Illinois coach
Like most schools in the MAC, Bowling Green is only as good its head coach. Bowling Green isn’t quite Northern Illinois or Toledo in the MAC, but it’s not Eastern Michigan. All but one coach since the 1964, and each of the last four coaches, left Bowling Green with a winning record.
How good is the Bowling Green job? C-minus
12. Western Kentucky
Out: Bobby Petrino, hired at Louisville (8-4 in one season)
In: Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky offensive coordinator
A former Division I-AA power, Western Kentucky needed a few seasons to become a competitive program in the Sun Belt. An astute hire of Willie Taggart and taking advantage of Petrino’s baggage has given the Hilltoppers three consecutive winning season. Western Kentucky reached only one bowl game in that span, due to the Sun Belt’s lack of bowl arrangement. That changes as the Hilltoppers join Conference USA in 2014.
How good is the Western Kentucky job? D
Out: Dave Christensen, fired (27-35 in five seasons)
In: Craig Bohl, North Dakota State coach
Wyoming isn’t going to compete with Fresno State or Boise State in the Mountain West, but the Cowboys aren’t in need of a rebuild like Utah State did when Gary Andersen took over. Laramie has a small but passionate fan base, if not a lot of major college football prospects.
How good is the Wyoming job? D
Out: Carl Pelini, fired (9-15 in one-plus season)
In: Charlie Partridge, Arkansas defensive line coach
FAU has a brand new stadium near the beach and the closest college football program to the talent-rich area in West Palm Beach, Belle Glade and Pahokee. And its nearest rival, FIU, can’t seem to get its act together. The right coach can make this a Conference USA contender.
How good is the FAU job? D
15. Miami (Ohio)
Out: Don Treadwell, fired (8-12 in two-plus seasons)
In: Chuck Martin, Notre Dame offensive coordinator
Miami has arguably the greatest tradition of any MAC program as the cradle of coaches (Bo Schembechler, John Pont, Dick Crum, Randy Walker and Terry Hoeppner all coached here). Throw out the 2010 MAC championship season, and Miami is 19-65 since 2006. The struggles are baffling.
How good is the Miami (Ohio) job? D
Out: Rich Ellerson, fired (20-41 in five seasons)
In: Jeff Monken, Georgia Southern coach
Ellerson appeared to be a slam dunk hire for Army. He was successful at Cal Poly running the triple option. He was successful early, leading Army to a 7-6 season and a bowl game in the second year. Army, though, is lagging behind the other service academies. Ellerson went 1-9 against Navy and Air Force. Like the Navy and Air Force, the Army coach needs schemes that can even the odds against more talented teams. All three service academies have restrictions, but Army has the toughest road of the three to get players.
How good is the Army job? D
17. Georgia Southern
Out: Jeff Monken, hired at Army (38-16 in four seasons)
In: Willie Fritz, Sam Houston State coach
Paul Johnson led Georgia Southern to two FCS/Division I-AA national championships, and Monken returned the Eagles to contender status. Georgia Southern will be in the FBS in 2014 and will be eligible for a Sun Belt title in 2015 along with Appalachian State. With a long history in the lower division, Georgia Southern could have similar success to another former FCS champion, Western Kentucky, in transitioning to the Sun Belt.
How good is the Georgia Southern job: D
Out: Garrick McGee, hired as Louisville offensive coordinator (5-19 in two seasons)
In: Bill Clark, Jacksonville State coach
UAB has not had a winning season since reaching the only bowl game in school history in 2004. In theory, team in the heart of Birmingham in football-crazy Alabama should put together a respectable program, but fan support is lacking and facilities aren’t up to par even for Conference USA. A move to build an on-campus stadium has been a non-starter.
How good is the UAB job? F
19. Eastern Michigan
Out: Ron English, fired (12-48 in five seasons)
In: Chris Creighton, Drake coach
Athlon rated Eastern Michigan as the toughest job in college football in a 2010 feature. Little has changed. UMass, Idaho and New Mexico State may be the only FBS jobs less desirable, and that’s a big if.
How good is the Eastern Michigan job? F
Out: Charley Molnar, fired (2-22 in two seasons)
In: Mark Whipple, Cleveland Browns quarterback coach
UMass is on the short list of the worst jobs in major college football. After one season at the FBS level, the UMass faculty senate voiced misgivings about the move up from the FCS. That’s not without valid reasons: UMass won only one MAC game in each of its first two seasons, and attendance was sparse. Building a competitive program with a limited recruiting footprint and fan and booster support will be extremely difficult.
How good is the UMass job? F
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien has accepted the head coaching job with the Houston Texans. O’Brien went 15-9 in two years with the Nittany Lions.
O’Brien inherited a challenging situation at Penn State, as the program was hit by NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal prior to his first season in Happy Valley.
Penn State is one of the Big Ten’s top jobs, but it isn’t without challenges. The school has uncertainty surrounding its athletic director position and is ineligible for a bowl game for the next two years.
Here are 10 replacements for Bill O'Brien at Penn State.
Texans are expected to introduce Bill O'Brien as their new head coach by Saturday, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 1, 2014
After a two-year stint at Penn State, Bill O’Brien has decided to leave for the NFL and the Houston Texans. O’Brien guided Penn State through a difficult period, which included scholarship sanctions and a bowl ban due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
O’Brien went 15-9 at Penn State, with 10 of those victories coming in Big Ten play. Despite winning records in both seasons, NCAA sanctions prevented the Nittany Lions from participating in a bowl over the last two years.
There’s no question O’Brien is a NFL guy, as he interviewed for openings last season and spent from 2007-11 with the Patriots.
O’Brien brought stability to Happy Valley after the NCAA sanctions were announced and recruited solid talent, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Even with two more years of a postseason ban, Penn State is still one of the top jobs in the Big Ten. However, there’s some uncertainty about who will serve as the school’s athletic director in the coming years. Will that deter a big-name coach from Penn State?
Candidates to Replace Bill O’Brien at Penn State
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt
Franklin is one of the hottest names in coaching circles for open vacancies. The Pennsylvania native’s name has popped up for the jobs at Texas, Penn State and in the NFL. In three years at Vanderbilt, Franklin is 23-15 and has guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl games. Vanderbilt’s three straight bowl games are a school record and 23 wins over a three-year period is one of the best stretches in the program’s history. As a Pennsylvania native, this is a chance for Franklin to return home. However, he could have his pick of offers – including college football’s No. 1 job in Texas.
Al Golden, head coach, Miami
Much like Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Penn State represents an opportunity for Golden to return to a familiar setting. Golden grew up in Colts Neck, N.J. and played at Penn State from 1987-91 under Joe Paterno. Golden also coached linebackers with the Nittany Lions in 2000. In addition to his one-year stint at Penn State as an assistant, Golden worked at Virginia and Boston College before taking over at Temple in 2006. Under his direction, the Owls went from being one of the worst teams in the nation to a bowl team. Temple went 27-34 during Golden’s five seasons, but the Owls went 17-8 in his last two years. Golden inherited a mess at Miami due to an off-the-field scandal and has brought improvement to the Hurricanes. In three years under Golden, Miami is 22-15 and is 10-6 in the ACC over the last two seasons. After cleaning up from one NCAA scandal at Miami, would Golden want to finish another at Penn State?
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman is a rising star in the assistant coach ranks. The Cincinnati native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Texas in 1999. After two years with the Longhorns, he stayed in the Lone Star State with stops at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. After four stops in Texas, Herman was the offensive coordinator at Iowa State from 2009-11. And after three years with the Cyclones, Herman was hired by Urban Meyer to coordinate the Ohio State offense. Under Herman’s direction, the Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points a game in 2012 and 46.3 points a contest in 2013. Much like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Herman is due for a chance to run his own program. However, is Penn State willing to gamble on an assistant with no head coaching experience? If the Nittany Lions are, Herman would be an outstanding hire.
Larry Johnson Sr., assistant coach, Penn State
Johnson is a bit of a longshot, but if Penn State wants to move quickly in replacing O’Brien, he should be near the top of the list. The North Carolina native has worked at Penn State since 1996, serving as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien. Johnson is regarded as an excellent defensive line coach and recruiter, and his presence will be key in keeping the 2014 signing class together. Johnson’s only head coaching experience occurred in high school at two different locations.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State
Lembo wouldn’t be a big-name hire like James Franklin or Al Golden, but the New York native is a coach that is due for a promotion to run a BCS program. Lembo has been a successful head coach at three different stops, starting with a 44-14 stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. From 2006-10, Lembo guided Elon to a 35-22 mark and one playoff appearance. In three years at Ball State, the Cardinals are 25-12 under his watch. Lembo has also led Ball State to back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in school history.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Morris is the highest-paid assistant in college football and should be ready to run his own program after spending the last four years as an offensive coordinator in the FBS ranks. Under Morris’ direction, Clemson has averaged at least 440 yards per game in each of the last three seasons. The Tigers also averaged 40.2 points a game in 2013. There’s no question Morris is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. But his only head coaching experience took place at the high school level. Would Penn State take a chance on Morris? Or does he need to take another head coaching job at a smaller program before having a chance to run a program like Penn State?
Mike Munchak, head coach, Tennessee Titans
Munchak’s status with the Titans is up in the air for 2014. However, his future in Tennessee may not matter now that Penn State is open. Munchak played at Penn State from 1979-81 and was drafted by the Oilers in 1982. After a 12-year career in the NFL, Munchak retired and joined Houston’s coaching staff in 1994. He worked with the Oilers and Titans in an assistant capacity until 2011, as he was promoted to head coach after the team parted ways with Jeff Fisher. In three seasons as the Titans’ head coach, Munchak is 22-26. Munchak has no experience coaching on the college level, but he is a Pennsylvania native and a former Penn State player. With strong ties to Happy Valley, Munchak figures to be a strong candidate for athletic director Dave Joyner.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi turned down Connecticut, but a job with the profile of Penn State would certainly provide intrigue for the 47-year-old coach. Narduzzi’s coaching career started at Miami (Ohio) in 1990 and continued there until 1992. From 1993-99, Narduzzi worked at Rhode Island and spent the following three years (2000-02) at Northern Illinois. Narduzzi’s first chance to coordinate a defense on the FBS level was in 2003 at Miami (Ohio), and he joined forces with Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004. Since 2004, Narduzzi has worked under Dantonio and has coordinated some of the nation’s top defenses at Michigan State. Narduzzi won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach in 2013. The Spartans led the nation in total defense this year and allowed just 3.9 yards per play. The only downside to Narduzzi’s resume is no head coaching experience.
Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
Roman was in the mix the last time the Penn State job was open and should be a candidate to replace O’Brien this year. Most of Roman’s experience has been in the NFL, starting with the Panthers in 1995, continuing with the Texans in 2002, the Ravens in 2006 and the 49ers in 2011. Roman worked with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2009-10. Although he has no head coaching experience, Roman has worked under one of the best coaches in the NFL (Harbaugh) and is an excellent offensive mind. How quickly Roman would be available depends on how far San Francisco goes in the NFL playoffs.
Greg Schiano, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
Schiano recently joined the ranks of the unemployed, as he was fired after Tampa Bay’s Week 17 loss to New Orleans. While Schiano was just 11-21 in two years with the Buccaneers, he had a much better stint in college at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights struggled mightily prior to Schiano’s arrival, but he led Rutgers to six bowl appearances in his final seven years. The Scarlet Knights also won at least eight games in five out of the last six seasons. Schiano is also regarded as an excellent recruiter in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. Considering his losing record at Tampa Bay, Schiano could be a tough sell to Penn State’s fan base.
Here's a quick preview and prediction for every game on the NFL schedule for Wild Card Weekend.
Chiefs (11-5) at Colts (11-5)
This is a rematch of two weeks ago, when Indy stampeded Kansas City, 23–7, at Arrowhead. The Colts forced four turnovers to clinch their fifth win in their last six meetings with the Chiefs. Kansas City sat its notable starters in the season finale at San Diego, meaning the loss to Indianapolis was the last on-field action seen by the faces of K.C.’s franchise. Alex Smith, in particular, struggled with a season-worst three turnovers, second-lowest passer rating (57.6), second-most sacks (five) and third-fewest passing yards (153) of the year. Expect a heavy dose of Jamaal Charles — who had 1,980 yards from scrimmage and 19 total TDs this season — against Indy’s 26th-ranked rushing defense. Chiefs by 1
Saints (11-5) at Eagles (10-6)
New Orleans has lost five of its last six games on the road and has a 3–5 record away from home this season, with wins at Tampa Bay, Chicago and Atlanta — teams with a combined record of 16–32. Drew Brees has thrown 12 TDs and nine INTs away from the Superdome, compared to 27 TDs and three INTs in the Big Easy. But Brees does carry a 5–4 playoff record and a Super Bowl MVP into this matchup with Philly’s first-time playoff starter Nick Foles, whose split stats are impressive from any vantage point. Foles led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating, thanks to 27 TDs and just two INTs in place of the injured Mike Vick. The league’s leading rusher also lines up in first-year coach Chip Kelly’s potent offense, as LeSean McCoy rushed for 1,607 yards and nine TDs this season. Eagles by 1
Chargers (9-7) at Bengals (11-5)
Cincinnati has made the playoffs in three straight seasons for the first time in franchise history. Now the Bengals will attempt to win a playoff game for the first time since 1990. Cincy’s previous two postseason defeats have come on the road in Houston. This time around, Marvin Lewis, Andy Dalton and Co. will kick off at Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals have a perfect 8–0 record this season. Cincinnati has successfully defended the Jungle against playoff teams New England (13–6), Indianapolis (42–28) and Green Bay (34–30). San Diego will be no easy out, however. The Chargers won five of their last six games to rally from a 4–6 playoff pretender to a 9–7 AFC Wild Card contender. Bengals by 5
49ers (12-4) at Packers (8-7-1)
San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick has been nearly unstoppable in two career starts against Green Bay. The dual-threat playmaker has passed for a combined 675 yards, five TDs and one INT, while tucking the ball to scramble for 203 yards and two TDs in a 45–31 Divisional Round playoff win last year and 34–28 Week 1 victory to start this season. Neither of those games was played at Lambeau Field, however. But the conference’s defending champions have been solid gold, regardless of the venue this year. The 49ers are currently riding a six-game winning streak and their only losses all season have all been against playoff-bound squads — at Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and at New Orleans. But Title Town has its mojo back following the hero’s return of Aaron Rodgers, a Super Bowl MVP winner in his own right. 49ers by 3
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, from the NFC and AFC No. 1 seeds, Seattle and Denver, to the No. 1 overall pick, Houston.
1. Seahawks (13-3) Clinch NFC’s top seed, NFL’s toughest division.
2. Broncos (13-3) Peyton Manning ends year with 5,477 yards, 55 TDs.
3. Patriots (12-4) Gaining ground on the ground as playoffs approach.
4. Panthers (12-4) Carolina headed to playoffs for first time since 2008.
5. 49ers (12-4) Phil Dawson matches career long with 56-yard FG.
6. Saints (11-5) Drew Brees tops 5,000 yards for record fourth time.
7. Bengals (11-5) Have not won a game in postseason since 1990.
8. Colts (11-5) Andrew Luck first with 8,000 yards in first two years.
9. Chiefs (11-5) Rest starters, lose five of last seven after 9–0 start.
10. Eagles (10-6) Soar from 1–3 to hosting a Wild Card playoff game.
11. Chargers (9-7) Seven men on one side of center penalty uncalled.
12. Packers (8-7-1) Aaron Rodgers returns to lead Pack to postseason.
13. Cardinals (10-6) “Ten wins and you’re in,” not the case for Arizona.
14. Bears (8-8) Was Jay Cutler’s final INT his final pass in Chicago?
15. Cowboys (8-8) No Romo, no problem; Orton tosses late INT in loss.
16. Ravens (8-8) 15th reigning champ to miss playoffs following year.
17. Jets (8-8) Rally around Rex Ryan, save coach’s job with win.
18. Dolphins (8-8) Fate sealed by INT from Ed Reed in loss to Jets.
19. Steelers (8-8) Blown K.C. call has Pittsburgh on outside looking in.
20. Rams (7-9) Sitting pretty with Nos. 2 and 13 picks in first round.
21. Giants (7-9) Bounce back to go 7–3 after 0–6 start to season.
22. Titans (7-9) CJ surpasses 1K-yard mark for sixth straight year.
23. Lions (7-9) Matthew Stafford would like input in next coach hire.
24. Bills (6-10) Miss playoffs for league-worst 14th straight year.
25. Vikings (5-10-1) Metrodome goes out with victory after 32 seasons.
26. Buccaneers (4-12) Greg Schiano shown the door after two ugly years.
27. Falcons (4-12) Tony Gonzalez career over after 111 TD catches.
28. Raiders (4-12) Terrelle Pryor sets new team QB rushing record.
29. Browns (4-12) Rob Chudzinski “shocked,” “disappointed” by firing.
30. Jaguars (4-12) Maurice Jones-Drew contract talks in spotlight.
31. Redskins (3-13) First-round pick goes to Rams as part of RG3 trade.
32. Texans (2-14) End season on unbelievable 14-game losing streak.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Packers
In Week 9, Mr. Discount Doublecheck suffered a collarbone injury in a 27–20 loss to the rival Bears. Title Town was 5–2 when Rodgers went down before staggering to a 2–5–1 record without their Super Bowl MVP signal-caller. So it was only fitting that Rodgers made his comeback at Chicago in Week 17 during a winner-take-all heavyweight fight for the NFC North crown and a trip to the playoffs. Rodgers completed 25-of-39 passes for 318 yards, two TDs and two INTs in a 33–28 victory. Even his mistakes worked out in Green Bay’s favor, as a second-quarter forward fumble was recovered by Jarrett Boykin for a surreal 15-yard TD.
LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots
New England’s newfound workhorse runner had 24 carries for 189 yards (7.9 ypc) and two trips to the end zone during a 34–20 victory over the Bills. Prior to the Week 17 outburst, Blount had recorded just three games with 60-plus rushing yards and only one contest with at least 15 carries. The 6'0", 250-pounder has been consistent for the Pats, with 11 games of 40 or more yards on the ground, along with 772 yards (5.0 ypc) and seven TDs this year.
Greg Hardy, DE, Panthers
One week after recording a hat-trick in a win over the Saints, Hardy set a new team record with four sacks during a 21–20 victory on the road against the Falcons. But Hardy wasn’t the only Panther getting in on the action. Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, Frank Alexander and Mike Mitchell joined Hardy to notch a Carolina team-record nine sacks. Hardy ends the year with 15 sacks, which couldn’t have come at a better time for the soon-to-be free agent.
Chris Johnson, RB, Titans
CJ1K joined LaDainian Tomlinson, Corey Dillon, Curtis Martin, Barry Sanders and Eric Dickerson as only the sixth running back in NFL history to top the 1,000-yard mark in each of his first six seasons. Johnson had 27 carries for 127 yards and one TD in a 16–10 win over the Texans. Due $8 million next season, Johnson may have played his last game in Tennessee following his second-worst rushing season (1,077 yards).
While playoff tickets are being punched on the final Sunday of the NFL regular season, just as many pink slips are being prepared for the following day — known as “Black Monday” in head coaching circles.
This season was no different, as five coaches were fired by their respective teams. Here’s a look at the coaches who comprise this year’s “Black Monday” class. They likely will not be the only coaches fired, but they are the first.
Rob Chudzinski, 45
The biggest surprise of this year’s axed coaches, “Chud” was a lifelong Browns fan from Toledo, Ohio, who had worked with the organization twice — as tight ends coach in 2004 and offensive coordinator in ’07-08 — before taking over the top spot this offseason. The Browns are on the verge of hiring their seventh coach since returning to the NFL as an expansion team in 1999. The next Cleveland coach will follow the distinguished headsets of Chris Palmer (5–27 record with Browns), Butch Davis (24–34), Romeo Crennel (24–40), Eric Mangini (10–22), Pat Shurmur (9–23) and Chudzinski.
Leslie Frazier, 54
Record: 21–32–1 (0–1 playoffs)
Frazier went out in style, winning the finale at the Metrodome and then shaking the hand and/or hugging each of his players as they entered the locker room. After going 10–6 and losing in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs last season, Frazier’s Vikings struggled to a 5–10–1 record this year and finished last in the NFC North division standings for the second time in three full seasons.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Greg Schiano, 47
After posting a 68–67 record at Rutgers, Schiano gave it the ol’ college try in the NFL. But his rah-rah style resulted in two last-place NFC South finishes and a pair of mini-scandals. Schiano was scrutinized for rushing the Giants while in “Victory Formation” and for playing Darrelle Revis in zone coverage.
Jim Schwartz, 47
Record: 29–51 (0–1 playoffs)
Speaking of mini-scandals, Schwartz is most known for his postgame handshake hysterics with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh. Schwartz inherited an 0–16 Lions team and had them in the playoffs three years later. But it was all down hill in the Motor City after that.
Mike Shanahan, 61
Record: 24–40 (0–1 playoffs)
Shanahan was a flashy hire for owner Dan Snyder back in 2010. A two-time Super Bowl winner with the Broncos, Shanahan had a 138–86 record with John Elway as his quarterback. In Washington, Shanahan’s legacy will be forever tied to Robert Griffin III.
The Redskins traded their first-round picks in 2012 (No. 6 overall), 2013 (No. 2) and 2014, along with their 2012 second-rounder (No. 39) to select RG3. The deal looked to be a brilliant move, as the Skins went 10–6 and earned a playoff berth in RG3’s rookie year. But an RG3 knee injury — that many blamed on Shanahan — suffered in a Wild Card loss to Seattle was followed by an ugly 3–13 year in which Snyder, Shanahan and RG3 had a public power struggle.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher agreed to a contract extension with the school prior to the ACC Championship and now the agreement is official. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, Fisher has signed a new contract with Florida State, increasing his salary to around $4 million a season.
Fisher’s contract will reportedly include incentives and upgrades in pay for his assistants.
In four years at Florida State, Fisher is 44-10 and is 3-0 in bowl games. The Seminoles will play for the national championship on Jan. 6 against Auburn.
Jimbo Fisher signs new contract 4 about than $4.1 million/year, per Tall. Democrat. Agreement first reported by PB Post 1 month ago.#FSU— Tom D'Angelo (@tomdangelo44) December 31, 2013
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 31.
• As we bid farewell to 2013, here are 30 women poised to take over the world in 2014, including Spanish model Nerea Arce.
• Southern University of the SWAC squeaked out a 104-point win over Champion Baptist last night. As someone said on Twitter, I'd hate to see how bad Runner-Up Baptist is.
• The curtain came down on the Mack Brown era, but not before a nice tribute from the Texas band.
• Here's a list of 50 changes that would make the sports world better in 2014. I can get behind most of these, especially the elimination of the sideline interview.
• Those of you thinking of applying for an NFL head coaching job: The Lions gig is the best one available.
• The Price Is Right gave away a pretty sweet car, and the winner freaked right the eff out.
• Speaking of freaking out: I missed this yesterday, but this fat Eagles fan had a glorious on-camera celebration.
• Ronda Rousey had a pretty normal reaction to Anderson Silva's gruesome broken leg. Will she react that way when she breaks some poor chick's arm?
• Some scientists made some glow-in-the-dark pigs. Now we'll finally be able to find our bacon in the dark.
• Here's Nick Saban patiently getting a manicure from a young cancer patient. In other news, Nick Saban is human.
• Here's a level of true professionalism to which I'll aspire in 2014: A reporter passes out during an interview, but wakes up and finishes the thing.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
North Texas and UNLV cap off surprising 2013 seasons with a matchup in the Heart of the Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1. Dallas has seen plenty of good bowl games on Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl, but the North Texas-UNLV matchup could be lost in the New Year’s Day shuffle, as the Heart of the Dallas bowl kicks off at the same time as the Gator, Capital One and Outback Bowls.
If you think there are too many bowl games – you haven’t studied this matchup. North Texas and UNLV were picked by many to finish near the bottom of their respective conferences. However, both teams were two of college football’s biggest surprises, combining for a 15-9 mark.
These two teams have met four times, with UNLV winning all four matchups. The last meeting between the Rebels and Mean Green was in 2000. In the last two games between these two teams, UNLV has outscored North Texas 64-3.
This is UNLV’s first appearance in a bowl since the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl. The Rebels are 3-0 in previous bowl matchups.
North Texas is 1-5 in six bowl appearances. The Mean Green has lost two in a row, with the only victory coming in the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
North Texas vs. UNLV
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: North Texas -6.5
North Texas’ Key to Victory: Stop UNLV RB Tim Cornett
Running back Tim Cornett had an underrated and very productive career at UNLV. Cornett finished the 2013 regular season with 1,251 yards and 15 touchdowns and is only the second player in school history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Cornett is also UNLV’s career leading rusher. North Texas has been solid against the run this year, limiting opponents to only 125.1 rushing yards per game. The Mean Green allowed only six rushing scores in eight Conference USA contests and limited both Rice and MTSU – the top two teams in conference-only games in rushing offense – to less than 140 yards on the ground. The strength of North Texas’ defense is in the front seven, with linebacker Zach Orr as the headliner (114 tackles). UNLV’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Brett Boyko (second-team All-Mountain West), and this unit gave up just 21 sacks and helped to pave the way for the Rebels to average 4.5 yards per carry. This is a strength versus strength scenario. If UNLV wins the battle in the trenches, Cornett should easily top the 100-yard mark. But if North Texas is able to establish its edge in the trenches, Cornett will struggle, forcing the Rebels to lean more on quarterback Caleb Herring.
UNLV’s Key to Victory: Make North Texas win the game with the pass
Much like UNLV, North Texas prefers to lean on its ground game to win. Leading the way for the Mean Green’s rushing attack is Brandin Byrd (1,023 yards, 5.6 ypc) and Antoinne Jimmerson (428 yards, 4.3 ypc). The running backs get the attention in Denton, but the offensive line is a veteran unit, led by guards Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo. This line will be critical to North Texas’ hopes at victory, especially with a struggling UNLV defense. The Rebels ranked ninth in the Mountain West against the run, allowing a whopping 222.6 yards per game on the ground. No UNLV defender garnered all-conference honors this season, so this is a unit looking for answers in the bowl practices. While North Texas has proven it can run the ball, the passing attack has left a little to be desired. Of course, with a strong defense and rushing attack, quarterback Derek Thompson doesn’t need a huge performance each week. In eight Conference USA games, the Mean Green ranked eighth in the conference in passing offense, throwing eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. How important is it to force the Mean Green out of their comfort zone? In eight wins, the offense is averaging 25.9 pass attempts. In four losses, North Texas averaged 38.3 attempts. Stopping the run has been an issue for UNLV, but it’s essential the Rebels slow Byrd and Jimmerson on Jan. 1.
Key Player: Caleb Herring, QB, UNLV
Herring finished the fall as the team’s No. 2 quarterback behind Nick Sherry. But after a slow start by Sherry, Herring took over the No. 1 job and was a key cog in UNLV’s turnaround. The senior threw for 2,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, but most importantly, he completed 64.3 percent of his throws and tossed only four interceptions. Herring’s emergence gave the Rebels’ offense balance and allowed the team to take advantage of a solid group of weapons at receiver, including Devante Davis (77 catches, 1,194 yards). Herring will need another efficient effort on Jan. 1, as North Texas’ secondary allowed just five passing scores in conference games. The Mean Green also picked off 12 passes. With North Texas likely to stuff the box to stop Cornett, UNLV’s offense needs Herring to have success early in the game.
Both programs should be excited to be in this bowl. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck began the year on the hot seat but earned a contract extension with a 7-5 season. After a 9-15 start under Dan McCarney, North Texas nearly won Conference USA’s West Division with an 8-4 record. Both programs are pointed in the right direction, and this game is a reward for a breakout year. Quarterback play will be critical for both teams on Jan. 1. If Herring has success early, UNLV should be able to establish its running game. And the same can be said for North Texas, but Herring was more efficient than Derek Thompson in 2013. The Rebels have an edge in offensive talent with Herring and Cornett, but the Mean Green has the better defense and a home-field advantage. Those two factors should be the difference in this game.
Prediction: North Texas 31, UNLV 24
The game of football is won and lost with a complete team effort. Are quarterbacks more important than backup guards? Of course. But the outcome is celebrated and opined by an entire roster of players big and small.
That doesn't mean that games within the game don't take place each and every time the ball is kicked off. This year's BCS National Championship showdown between Auburn and Florida State is no exception, as two excellent coaches lead two quality rosters into battle in Pasadena for the final crystal football of the BCS era.
Can Florida State stop the Auburn running game? Can Auburn cover Florida State's receivers? How will Jameis Winston handle a month of Heisman pressure? These are all important big picture questions that will be answered on Jan. 6.
But a narrow look at individual player matchups might be able to help predict what may happen in the Rose Bowl. The unit that wins the most individual matchups will likely be the squad to win the BCS' final national championship game.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR vs. Chris Davis, CB
Benjamin is a monster matchup nightmare for pretty much every defensive back in the nation. His 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame is impossible to stop — even for the most famous defensive back in Auburn history. Davis, who ran the Kick Six back to beat Alabama, may be the one charged with stopping Benjamin. He led the Seminoles with 14 touchdown catches and 19.1 yards per catch. And if it's not Benjamin that is the matchup problem for Davis and the Tigers' secondary, it will be Rashad Greene and his team-high 67 receptions and 981 yards who will be tough to stop.
Cam Erving, OT vs. Dee Ford, DE
Florida State was 87th nationally in sacks allowed at 29.0 while Auburn finished third in the SEC in getting after the quarterback with 28.0 takedowns. Both Erving and Ford have high NFL potential and they could be matched up on a number of occasions in the national title game. If the Seminoles can protect Jameis Winston, the odds Auburn's 103rd-rated pass defense will get smoked by the FSU passing attack is pretty high. If Ford and company can get after the QB, the Tigers may have a significant advantage.
Tre Mason, RB vs. Telvin Smith, LB
Christian Jones came into the season with all of the hype and preseason pomp for Florida State but Smith has been the star of the show. The weakside tackler is asked to flow sideline to sideline to make plays and he will be faced with his tallest order of the season thus far. Smith led the team in tackles with 75 stops but tackling Mason is easier said than done. The Auburn workhorse led the SEC in carries (283), yards (1,621) and touchdowns (22). If Mason hits his season average of 5.7 yards per carry, Auburn will be tough to beat.
Reese Dismukes, C vs. Timmy Jernigan, DT
A junior, Dismukes is the longtime starter at center for Auburn. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Alabama native is charged with stopping as nasty a duo at defensive tackle as there is in the nation. Jernigan is a future NFL star and is the team's No. 4 tackler and is second on the team in sacks (4.5). Dismukes is charged with keeping the middle of the line clean, so handling Jernigan and his counterparts Nile Lawrence-Stample and Jacobbi McDaniel will be critical for Auburn's success.
Nick Marshall, QB vs. Jalen Ramsey, S
Everyone on the Noles defense has to be concerned with Marshall's dual-threat ability. But the guy Auburn may target could be FSU's true freshman safety. The five-star prospect from Nashville, Ramsey stepped right in and started every game for the No. 1 team in the nation. But reading run-pass against Gus Malzahn is downright impossible, so if Ramsey is out of place at all, Marshall will capitalize.
Jameis Winston, QB vs. Ryan Smith, S
Winston is virtually impossible to stop — the bronze Heisman Trophy on his mantle is proof enough of that. So the challenge is even greater for a defensive backfield that has been abused at times this season. Smith and fellow safety Jermaine Whitehead will be in charge of reading the play and aligning the secondary against what is arguably the best passing attack in the nation. If either safety is out of place by even just a few steps, Winston will make them pay with deadly accuracy.
Devonta Freeman and James Widler, LB vs. Cassanova McKinzy, LB
Freeman and Wilder form a tremendous speed-power combination that few teams in the nation can boast. Freeman is explosive and dangerous in space with the ability to score from anywhere on the field. Wilder is a beast between the tackles. This means star sophomore tackler McKinzy will have to be disciplined and tough all game long. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker will be a focus of the Seminoles' front line for much of the game.
Greg Robinson, OT vs. Mario Edwards, DE
Whoever lines up against Robinson will have his hands full and that could be Edwards, the former No. 1 recruit in the nation. Robinson has elite athletic ability and will work to the second level and out in space with amazing ease. So the goal for FSU's ends isn't necessarily to get pressure on quarterback Nick Marshall but rather to occupy Greg Robinson and other blockers. If the Noles can create space for their athletic back seven to move in space and make tackles, Jeremy Pruitt's bunch could have a significant edge most teams don't get against Auburn.
The Mike Shanahan Era ended weeks ago in Washington when the first reports surfaced of a rift between him and owner Dan Snyder. The rift was apparently over Robert Griffin III, the franchise quarterback, and there was no way that the coach could survive being on opposite sides of the owner over that.
Maybe it was never meant to last anyway. They are two high-profile NFL people with major personalities and an apparent need for control. Things sure looked rosy in 2012 when they won a division championship, though we later learned that the seams were popping, even then.
So now Shanahan leaves with a 24-40 record in four seasons, including 3-13 in 2013 — the Redskins’ worst record since 1961. Still, it’s a good job with an owner that is willing to spend, presumably a franchise quarterback in place, and the talent left over from a division title just one year earlier. Maybe not everyone will want to work for Snyder. But with his money and the prestige of the job, it’s possible he’ll be able to lure anyone he wants.
Who will that be? Here are five who will likely be at the top of Snyder’s list:
Lovie Smith, former Bears head coach – Quite possibly the most respected name on the market, given the good work and rave reviews he got in his years with the Bears. He’s known for his organization, his professionalism and having the respect of his players — and those are three things the Redskins absolutely need. The Bears, by the way, went 81-63 in his nine years as head coach and 10-6 in his final season. The only downside is the Redskins could have competition if they tried to hire him now.
Ken Whisenhunt, offensive coordinator San Diego – Not only is he having a very good year getting the most out of quarterback Philip Rivers with the Chargers, but he also had a pretty good run as head coach in Arizona where he – with the help of Kurt Warner – very nearly won a Super Bowl with one of the worst organizations in the NFL. He’s an offensive whiz, too, which will help the development of RGIII, which stalled in 2013.
Jay Gruden, offensive coordinator Cincinnati – I know, everyone would prefer his brother, but the NFL has taken notice of what the “other” Gruden has done with the Bengals offense and specifically quarterback Andy Dalton. Again, he’d be a great choice if Snyder’s primary focus was finding someone who could turn RGIII into what he’s supposed to be.
Art Briles, Baylor head coach – Of course, maybe nobody knows RGIII better than his college coach, who not only helped turn the quarterback into a star, but turned Baylor into a power. A perennial conference doormat, the Bears won the Big 12 this season and are on track to their fourth straight bowl game. He’s a risky hire, but Snyder isn’t risk averse and he won’t be afraid of hiring a college coach. The downside here is he would be seen clearly as a choice to benefit RGIII, and it might be hard to ever separate the two in the future.
Russ Grimm, former Steelers and Cardinals offensive line coach – A very interesting name floated by the Washington Post. He’s a beloved former Redskin and a Hall of Famer and a very well-respected offensive line coach who spent 2013 out of football. He was once a candidate to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers (and may or may not have been offered the job, depending on who you believe). He has no coaching experience above the offensive line, but many think he’s qualified and he’d electrify the fan base. A risky choice, but one that would be very popular.
Bill Cowher, former Steelers coach – Most people swear he’s done with coaching, but even if he does return he’d likely be looking for an organization with stability. The Redskins most definitely don’t have that.
Jon Gruden, former Bucs and Raiders coach – He may be the biggest, most electric available name and the feeling is that for the right price he could be lured out of the ESPN booth. He’s been away from the game for a little while, though, and there are better candidates.
Bill O’Brien, Penn State coach – It sounds as if he’ll have his pick of jobs, and there may be no more attractive one than the Houston Texans. Plus, he comes off the New England coaching tree and there might be a little too much chaos in Washington for his liking.
Josh McDaniels, offensive coordinator New England – A former head coach in Denver, he’s got the credentials and the offensive background that most people think Snyder will favor. But there appear to be others higher on the list, and as another Patriot prodigy it’s hard to see him jumping at the Redskins mess.
— By Ralph Vacchiano, @RVacchianoNYDN
In the first season of the BCS in 1998, the Fiesta Bowl was just a glimmer in the eyes of Baylor and UCF.
In 1998, Baylor was just starting its Big 12 doormat phase, going 2-9. UCF fared much better that year, going 9-2 with quarterback Daunte Culpepper. But the Knights — still the Golden Knights back then — were new to college football’s upper division and hadn’t even joined a conference.
Now, in the final year of the BCS, Baylor and UCF will meet in the Fiesta Bowl, the highlights (so far) for the programs Art Briles and George O’Leary, respectively, have built.
Led by first-year quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor led the nation in total offense at 623.8 yards per game, but the Bears rarely marched down the field in the classic sense. Baylor led the nation in plays longer than 30 yards and regularly scored in a minute or less.
UCF may have a quarterback who can keep up. Blake Bortles averaged 273.3 passing yards per game with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, regularly showing the ability to make the key play under pressure.
While the Fiesta Bowl won’t be the most watched game, both teams hope to use this as a springboard to building regular contenders for major prizes.
“We don't feel like we're at the mountaintop, though,” Briles said. “We're still striving to be a respectable program year in and year out, to be a formidable opponent every time someone steps on the field against us, and that'll never change.”
Baylor vs. UCF
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Baylor by 16.5
Three Things to Watch
Baylor’s healthy returns
Baylor finished the season with a handful of key injuries, particularly on offense. Running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin returned in time for the final two games against TCU and Texas after missing the loss to Oklahoma State. Tevin Reese, Baylor’s top wide receiver before missing nearly the entirety of the final five games, is expected to be back. The Bears’ top linebacker, Bryce Hager, is questionable. Left tackle Spencer Drango doesn’t have as clean a bill of health as his teammates after undergoing back surgery, but this game will still the be the healthiest Baylor has been since Oct. 26.
UCF’s change of leadership on defense
UCF had a steady defense for most of the season, ranking ninth in red zone defense, 13th in rush defense and 17th in pass efficiency defense. All of that is the good news. The bad news is the departure of the leader of that defense. Rhode Island hired UCF defensive coordinator Jim Fleming has head coach. That’s not an ideal situation ahead of facing the nation’s top offense.
Baylor’s run game
Not coincidentally, Baylor’s only loss this season was the only game when the Bears failed to get a steady rushing attack. Throw out the Oklahoma State loss and Baylor averages 280 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. With Seastrunk and Martin healthy again, Baylor’s offense doesn’t need to rely quite as heavily on Bryce Petty, tough that’s not an awful strategy. UCF ranked 13th in the country in fewest rushing yards per game (116.5) but 36th in yards per carry (3.9).
Key Player: Blake Bortles, UCF
Bortles has become something of a folk hero for his ability to make the impossible play or unlikely comeback — for starters, UCF trailed by three touchdowns in the third quarter at Louisville before winning 38-35. Bortles has been at his best this season under pressure, either on the scoreboard or facing a pass rush. Baylor will counter with playmaking defensive backs Ahmad Dixon and K.J. Morton. It’s not a stretch to say if UCF is going to overcome its underdog status, Bortles will need to be the key player early and often.
The Fiesta Bowl features the least amount of recognition for the casual fan who is used to tuning into Jan. 1 bowl games featuring national powers. What the name lacks in traditional programs, it should make up for it in enthusiasm. Where teams like Alabama and Ohio State might be disappointed to be in a BCS game rather than the title game, both Baylor and UCF ought to be thrilled to be making their first BCS appearances. Baylor is the big-time favorite here with its imposing offense and wins over Texas and Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. UCF won nail-biters against lesser teams like Memphis, Temple, USF and SMU, but the Knights beat Penn State and Louisville on the road and gave South Carolina fits in the Gamecocks’ visit to Orlando. UCF may have the advantage in a close game after the Knights went 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but Baylor has a way of making sure games don’t stay close for long.
Prediction: Baylor 48, UCF 28
For the first time in four years, Wisconsin won’t be playing in the Rose Bowl. After three straight losses in the Granddaddy of Them All, the Badgers will have to face a 10-win SEC powerhouse coached by a Hall of Famer.
In his first season at the helm in Madison, Gary Andersen led his squad to a respectable 9-3 record that many fans likely feel should have been better. A controversial loss to Arizona State early in the year and inexplicable defeat at the hands of Penn State at home in the season finale relegated UW to the Capital One Bowl.
South Carolina, too, had higher expectations this fall. Wins over Missouri, Clemson and others validate this team as one of the nation’s best, but a critical loss to 5-7 Tennessee cost the Gamecocks a trip to the SEC Championship game.
Neither ended the season where they expected to finish so both teams are better than their record indicates, making this one of the most intriguing matchups of the bowl season. The Badgers and Gamecocks have never faced one another and it should provide an entertaining matching of strengths — Wisconsin’s power rushing game against South Carolina’s NFL defensive line.
Wisconsin vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1. at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Pick 'em
Three Things to Watch
Chris Borland vs. Connor Shaw
Chris Borland was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year for a unit that was surprisingly stingy all season long. He is a tackling machine and has showed a major knack for making big plays — i.e., forcing fumbles, blocking kicks and playing in the opponent’s backfield. Connor Shaw, on the other hand, matches his toughness, grit and leadership for South Carolina. The mobile quarterback is the winningest in school history and is one of the top, if not the No. 1, most underrated quarterback in SEC history. Both are winners and both love to compete. Watching the chess match between these two star athletes when South Carolina’s offense is on the field should be a joy for any football fan.
South Carolina's defensive line
Wisconsin likes to run the ball. This isn’t a shock to anyone. But the Gamecocks defensive line will likely be the toughest the Badgers have faced all season. The Big Red finished eighth nationally at 283 yards on the ground per game this season with a trio of dynamic backs. Jadeveon Clowney made himself quite a name with his play in the bowl game last season, and packaged with Kelcy Quarles, create the most formidable defensive wall for the Badgers O-Line to face. Clowney’s effort and commitment has been questioned at times, but he has one game left in college to prove himself, and there is no better task than facing this type of running game. Melvin Gordon and James White better have their chinstraps buttoned up tight in this one.
The 'Ol Ball Coach
Steve Spurrier has been on an absolute roll this season. The original troll is the most entertaining and witty coaches in all of college football and he has been at his best lately. Quips towards the Florida Gators, Jadeveon Clowney’s car and the Redskins soap opera have been vintage Ball Coach in the last few weeks. But what does he know about the Wisconsin Badgers? What will his game week, pregame, halftime and postgame interviews be like against an opponent he has no deep ties or experiences to cull for material? Big, fat offensive lineman? Cows and cheese curds? Slow Big Ten football? His counterpart Gary Andersen couldn’t be a nicer guy, so Spurrier’s opponent offers little in the way of bulletin board copy. And this is a bowl game, after all, so fans should expect some trick plays, bizarre play calls and more than a few dramatic fourth downs to go along with what should be the most entertaining interviews of the bowl season.
Key Player: James White, RB, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon is the most talented running back for Wisconsin — maybe the most talented to ever play in Madison (which is saying a lot). He has elite breakaway speed and power. However, senior James White has quietly completed one of the best careers for a Big Ten running back in history, predominately as a backup. This is his final game in college and he is playing his best football right now. He finished the season with 1,629 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns and brings a versatile skill set. He is an excellent receiver, and more importantly in this game, will be asked to pick up the blitz against a brutally tough Carolina defensive front. If not one, but two Wisconsin running backs can find success, it means Wisconsin could walk away from a bowl game victorious for the first time since beating Miami in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl.
The unstoppable force versus the immovable option. Wisconsin has one of the best backfields and offensive lines in the nation while South Carolina boasts arguably the most talented defensive line in the country. Both would rather be playing in a BCS bowl but will have to settle for what should be one of the more physical games of the bowl season. On the other side of the ball, Connor Shaw and Mike Davis are a formidable duo in their own right, while Wisconsin boasts one of the most underrated defensive units in the nation at 4.5 yards per play allowed. Shaw is the difference maker and will likely make more plays than Wisconsin’s Joel Stave. Expect a close, physical battle against two teams that are better than their five combined losses indicates.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Wisconsin 21
This Rose Bowl should be played without facemasks or the forward pass. And it would make Bear Bryant proud.
Michigan State and Stanford are two of the most physical, old school teams in the nation and they will square off in the greatest bowl there has ever been. The Granddaddy of Them All will remind old football fans of the days of yore when the four horsemen and student body right ruled the field.
The Spartans are making their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1987 upset of Rodney Peete and USC, while Stanford is returning to Pasadena to defend its crown as Rose Bowl champions after toppling Wisconsin in last year’s edition.
Both teams play disciplined physical defense and love to run the football. And both teams were one brutally close loss away from playing for the national championship. This game has history, tradition, pageantry, talent, physicality and the I-formation. It will be a throwback for the ages and could be the most physical game fans have seen all season.
These two programs have met five times with Michigan State holding a narrow 3-2 edge. They played four times between 1955 and 1962 but only once since then — a 38-0 Stanford win in the 1996 Sun Bowl.
Michigan State vs. Stanford
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1. at 5:10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -5.5
Three Things to Watch
Michigan State's senior defenders
Mark Dantonio’s defense is headlined by a senior class that is one of the best assembled in Big Ten history. But they will be down one critical performer as senior captain middle linebacker Max Bullough has been suspended for the game. Denicos Allen, Isaiah Lewis, Darqueze Dennard, Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover have worked their entire college careers to reach this game, and the emotion of the moment could play a huge role for the Spartans even without their leader in the middle. This group is disciplined and physical and could be the first Rose Bowl champs in East Lansing in over 25 years, making the Bullough suspension that much more difficult to swallow. To a player like Bullough, whose family is entrenched in MSU lore, this situation is as painful — and pivotal — as any suspension in any bowl game. Dantonio said senior Kyler Elsworth and sophomore Darien Harris are splitting first-team reps at middle linebacker in practice and there is still no word as to why Bullough won't play. This game is business as usual for Stanford while the gravity of the situation may help the Spartans — if they can overcome the loss of their captain and calm the early game jitters that are likely to abound on the Michigan State sideline.
Stanford's balance on offense
Tyler Gaffney was a Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year candidate after carrying his team to huge wins over Oregon, Arizona State (twice), Notre Dame, Washington and UCLA. But Kevin Hogan and the passing game will have to be effective and productive, especially on key third downs in the second half. Ty Montgomery can make big plays and Devon Cajuste is a gritty pass catcher, and both will be called upon to help create offensive balance against a defense geared up to stop the run. As Ohio State learned in the Big Ten title game, Michigan State will force your quarterback to make plays down the field so Kevin Hogan will have to be good for Stanford to win.
Big plays on special teams
Special teams will play a huge role in what could be a low-scoring tightly played affair. Mark Dantonio isn’t opposed to some fake punts and trick plays on special teams and won’t be afraid to take risks to win MSU’s first Rose Bowl since ’87. He also has a freshman kicker who has only missed once in his career (15-of-16). David Shaw has a senior place kicker in Jordan Williamson but he’s only attempted three kicks in the final four games. This is where Ty Montgomery could become a game-changer. The speedy wide receiver makes big plays on offense but can also flip a game’s momentum on special teams as well. The oft-forgotten third phase of the game is likely to be a deciding factor.
Key Player: Connor Cook, QB, Michigan State
Many view Dantonio’s team as a ground and pound type of offense. And to some extent that is true, as Jeremy Langford was one of the most critical running backs in the Big Ten this fall. However, when games where on the line, quarterback Connor Cook proved he was no game-manager. With deft touch and underrated athletic ability, Cook delivered the best game of his career against Ohio State as the MVP of the Big Ten title game. He threw for 304 yards and three critical touchdowns in the win. Cook finished the year with 2,423 yards and 20 touchdowns with just five interceptions in 344 attempts. He could be the difference maker in a historic season for Michigan State, and he didn’t even begin the season as the starter in East Lansing.
This is a throwback game that old school fans dream about getting to see on a stage like this. These teams are identical with elite senior leaders on defense, a fantastic physical running back on offense, the potential for big plays on special teams, two hard-nosed discipline coaches and a conference championship under their belts for 2013. Get the ice baths and saunas ready in Pasadena because both teams will need them after this battle. Stanford has the experience edge while Michigan State carries the motivation/hunger edge. One fake punt for Michigan State or big return for Stanford will be the difference.
Prediction: Stanford 24, Michigan State 23
The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the final college game in the 2013 calendar year, and this season’s version features two teams making their first appearance in this postseason classic. Duke and Texas A&M meet in Atlanta on Dec. 31, in what is one of the more intriguing pre-Jan. 1 bowl matchups.
David Cutcliffe has transformed Duke from an afterthought on the gridiron to Coastal Division champion. The Blue Devils went 10-82 from 2000-07, but Cutcliffe has brought steady improvement to Durham, guiding the Blue Devils to back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history. A 45-7 loss to Florida State in the ACC Championship didn’t diminish the 2013 season for Duke, as the program has a chance to win 11 games for the first time in school history and earn its first bowl victory since 1961 on Dec. 31.
While Duke enters this game coming off arguably the best season in school history, there’s a slight sense of disappointment on the Texas A&M side. Of course, spending the New Year in Atlanta is never a bad outcome, but the Aggies had hopes of contending for a SEC Championship. Texas A&M lost by seven points to Alabama and by four to Auburn and finished the season with back-to-back losses to LSU and Missouri. 8-4 certainly isn’t a bad season, but most preseason predictions placed the Aggies around the top 10-15 teams in the nation. With Kevin Sumlin inking an extension after the season and a renovated stadium on the way, Texas A&M is poised to continue its climb up the SEC ladder.
This will be the first meeting between Duke and Texas A&M on the gridiron. The Blue Devils are 3-6 in nine previous bowl appearances and have lost three in a row in the postseason. The Aggies have won back-to-back bowl games, including a 41-13 victory over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl last season.
Duke vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Texas A&M -12.5
Three Things to Watch
Can Duke’s defense stop Johnny Manziel?
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was unable to match the hardware in 2013 he accumulated from his standout freshman season. However, the sophomore was a better all-around quarterback in 2013, throwing for 3,732 yards and 33 touchdowns. Under Manziel’s guidance, Texas A&M scored the most touchdowns in the SEC (71) and averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per play. Kevin Sumlin decided to shake up his coaching staff before the bowl, as Jake Spavital takes over as play-caller, with Clarence McKinney staying on staff as a running backs coach. Manziel makes the Texas A&M offense go, but he’s certainly not the only piece for this team. Receiver Mike Evans is a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs, and the Aggies have one of the best offensive lines in the nation. Duke didn’t face many elite offenses this season and allowed 5.5 yards per play. But the Blue Devils had a knack for making timely plays. Duke forced 26 turnovers in 2013 and held six out of its last eight opponents under 30 points. There’s no easy formula or answer to stop Manziel. Can the Blue Devils find any answers over the next few weeks? Duke’s secondary does have talent, starting with cornerback Ross Cockrell and continuing with safeties Deondre Singleton, DeVon Edwards and Jeremy Cash. The depth is here for the Blue Devils to defend Texas A&M’s receiving corps. Can Duke force Manziel and this offense to earn their yardage? Or will the Aggies be able to dictate the tempo and easily gash the Blue Devils’ defense?
Texas A&M’s run defense
It’s no secret how much Texas A&M has struggled on the ground this year. The Aggies rank last in the SEC in rush yards allowed per game, giving up 221.3 in each contest. The problem for Texas A&M isn’t necessarily talent, but this unit is inexperienced and had to replace four starters in the front seven this preseason. And complicating the run defense’s problems even more was a suspension for the bowl to linebacker Darian Claiborne. The true freshman tied for the team lead with 89 stops. Duke averages 31.6 points a game, but Cutcliffe and the offensive staff would like to avoid a shootout. With a veteran offensive line, the Blue Devils should be able to move the ball on the ground against the Aggies. Leading rusher Jela Duncan was suspended for a year, but Josh Snead (6.1 ypc), Shaquille Powell and Juwan Thompson are capable options. Backup quarterback Brandon Connette leads the team with 13 rushing touchdowns and will factor prominently into the gameplan. The bowl practices should help Texas A&M’s younger players, but Duke’s rushing attack will be able to find running lanes. If the Aggies can keep the Blue Devils in long-yardage situations and minimize the damage on the ground, Duke will be facing an uphill battle on offense.
The Turnover Battle
With Texas A&M entrenched as a heavy favorite, Duke has to have a couple of breaks in order to spring the upset. Outside of playing keep away with their ground attack, the Blue Devils can keep within striking distance of the Aggies if they can force a couple of turnovers. Texas A&M wasn’t overly generous with turnovers, but Sumlin’s team did lose 21 this season. The Aggies were -1 in turnover margin for the season. Winning the turnover battle was a key element to Duke’s Coastal Division title. The Blue Devils forced a few timely turnovers, which played a key role in wins against NC State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Duke finished +3 in turnover margin and forced 26 takeaways this year. Can the Blue Devils replicate that formula in the Chick-fil-A Bowl? In addition to forcing turnovers, Duke cannot afford to give Texas A&M’s offense any help. With the firepower on the Aggies’ sideline, a turnover by the Blue Devils would put this team in a significant hole that could be too tough to dig out of.
Key Player: Anthony Boone, QB, Duke
With Manziel on the other sideline, Boone is the forgotten quarterback in this game. The junior had his share of ups and downs in 2013, finishing with 1,833 yards and 10 touchdown tosses to 11 interceptions. Boone completed 63.9 percent of his throws and did not toss a pick in three out of his final four games. When Boone makes mistakes, they seem to come in bunches. In wins against Virginia Tech and NC State, the junior tossed seven picks. Against Florida State, Boone threw two picks on 40 attempts. There’s no doubt Duke has to have production from its passing game, and there’s plenty of playmakers available with receivers Jamison Crowder and Brandon Braxton and tight end Braxton Deaver. Boone doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards, but he can’t afford any mistakes and has to convert on third downs to keep drives alive. The junior has mobility (3.1 ypc), which will be needed if the pocket collapses. Expect Duke to establish the run and keep Texas A&M’s offense on the sideline. However, Boone will have to make a handful of plays just to keep the Blue Devils within striking distance.
Duke has been a Cinderella story this year. Do the Blue Devils have one more upset in them or has the clock hit midnight for this team? Texas A&M’s offense is one of the most-explosive units in the nation but managed just 31 points over its final two games. Manziel didn’t appear to be 100 percent late in the year, and the month to prepare should help the sophomore quarterback. Manziel should be sharp, and receiver Mike Evans will be a tough matchup for the Duke defensive backs. If Duke’s offense has success running the ball, then Cutcliffe’s team is going to give the Aggies all they can handle. Texas A&M’s offense is simply too explosive for the Blue Devils, but the Aggies’ struggling defense keeps Duke within striking distance until the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Texas A&M 45, Duke 31
Throw another shrimp on the barbie and pour another ice-cold big bloke when Iowa (8–4, 5–3 Big Ten) and LSU (9–3, 5–3 SEC) kick off in this year’s Outback Bowl in Tampa. Oh, and don’t forget to strap on your helmet — extra tight. This time last year, helmets were famously flying at the Outback Bowl, when South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney destroyed Michigan’s Vincent Smith with the hit heard ‘round the world and undoubtedly the best highlight of the 2012 bowl season.
The Hawkeyes are making their fourth appearance in the Outback Bowl, carrying a 2–1 mark in the game — with a 37–17 win over Florida in 2004, 31–10 victory over South Carolina in 2009 and a 31–24 loss to Florida in 2006. The Tigers lost their only appearance in what was then known as the Hall of Fame Bowl, losing 23–10 to Syracuse in 1989.
This is only the second meeting between Iowa and LSU. And if the first contest is any indication, this should be a good one. At the 2005 Capital One Bowl, the Hawkeyes escaped with a thrilling 30–25 come-from-behind win over the Tigers on a 56-yard TD pass from Drew Tate to Warren Holloway as time expired.
Iowa’s season got off to a rocky start with a 30–27 season-opening loss to Northern Illinois. But the Hawkeyes righted the ship and ended the season on a high note with back-to-back wins against Michigan (24–21) and at Nebraska (38–17). LSU may not have known it at the time, but its 35–21 win over Auburn — the “other” Tigers’ only loss of the season — was the highlight of the year. Heartbreaking losses at Georgia (44–41) and at Ole Miss (27–24), along with a beating at Alabama (38–17), made this a disappointing season in Baton Rouge, where there were legitimate BCS expectations.
Iowa vs. LSU
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -7.5
Three Things to Watch
Iowa’s O-line vs. LSU’s D-line
Historically, this would be a strength vs. strength matchup of Hawkeyes and Tigers. When you think Iowa football, you think of big nasties like Robert Gallery and Bryan Bulaga dominating the trenches and controlling the line of scrimmage along the offensive line. When you think LSU football, fire-breathing run-stuffers and pass-rushers like Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson.
This season the names have changed but the team identities remain the same. Iowa once again has a pair of All-Big Ten O-tackles in Brandon Scherff (6’5”, 315) and Brett Van Sloten (6’7”, 300) as well as a strong interior with guards Andrew Donnal (6’7”, 305) and Conor Boffeli (6’5”, 295), and center Austin Blythe (6’3”, 300). On the other side of the football, LSU’s D-tackle duo of Anthony Johnson (6’3”, 294) and Ego Ferguson (6’3”, 308) is arguably the best in the nation.
Iowa’s O-line will need to move Johnson and Ferguson out of the way if fullback Mark Weisman hopes to have any success against the Bayou Bengals. Although he finished the regular season with 938 yards and seven TDs, Weisman struggled against several of the elite run defenses he faced this season — with seven carries for nine yards (1.3 ypc) in a 26–14 loss to Michigan State and nine carries for 15 yards (1.7 ypc) in a 28–9 loss to Wisconsin.
Hawkeyes’ Run Defense
LSU trots into Tampa with a stable of running backs, the nation’s 33rd-ranked rushing offense (200.8 ypg) and the 11th-most rushing TDs in the country (34). But Jeremy Hill (1,185 yards, 14 TDs), Terrence Magee (614 yards, 8 TDs), Alfred Blue (317 yards, TD) and Kenny Hilliard (307 yards, 7 TDs) could have some trouble against Iowa’s stout defensive front. The Hawkeyes’s run defense ranks 17th in the nation, allowing 120.8 yards per game on 3.49 yards per carry. Most impressive, Iowa has allowed just five TDs on the ground this season, tied with BCS national championship favorite Florida State for first in the country.
LSU’s Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry
Iowa’s pass defense might be even better than its run defense. The Hawkeyes rank 11th in the country in yards allowed (182.4 ypg). But Iowa was vulnerable to the scoring strike through the air, allowing 20 passing TDs this season — the most of any team ranked in the top 20 pass defenses. LSU’s dynamic receiving duo of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry combined to catch 132 passes for 2,289 yards (17.3 ypc) and 18 TDs. Beckham and Landry fill different roles in the passing game. Beckham provides a more explosive threat, with 57 catches for 1,117 yards (19.6 ypc) and eight TDs, while also averaging 26.9 yards per kick return and 10.1 yards per punt return. Landry is as reliable as they come, with 75 grabs for 1,172 yards (15.6 ypc) and 10 trips to the end zone.
Key Player: Anthony Jennings, QB, LSU
The elephant in the room is Jennings, the freshman quarterback replacing injured starter Zach Mettenberger — who passed for 3,082 yards, 22 TDs and eight INTs before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Coming out of high school in Marietta, Ga., Jennings was rated as a four-star prospect and the sixth-best dual-threat quarterback in the country by recruiting service Rivals.com. The 6’2”, 205-pounder has completed 6-of-10 pass attempts for 99 yards, one TD and zero INTs, while rushing for 49 yards and one TD in limited action this season.
After Mettenberger’s injury, Jennings completed 4-of-7 passes for 76 yards and one TD while scrambling three times for 26 yards (8.7 ypc) to hold on for a 31–27 victory over Arkansas. He’s got time to prepare, a running game to lean on and a pair of NFL wideouts at his disposal. But this Iowa defense will be unlike any Jennings has seen in his brief college career.
Kirk Ferentz is 6–4 in bowl games at Iowa, including a 2–1 mark in the Outback Bowl and a 1–0 record head-to-head with LSU. Ferentz is making a return to bowl season after sitting last year out on the hot seat following a 4–8 campaign in 2012. On the other side, Les Miles is 5–3 in bowls at LSU, including the 2007 BCS National Championship. But the Mad Hatter is riding a two-game bowl losing streak after being embarrassed by Alabama in the 2011 BCS national title game and collapsing to lose a late lead against Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last season. Miles is one win away from his seventh 10-win season at LSU, which would also be his fourth straight 10-win year. A ninth win for Ferentz would be his best since the 11-win Orange Bowl squad of 2009.
Make no mistake, this will be an old-fashioned heavyweight fight won in the trenches and the turnover column of the stat sheet. A few rookie mistakes from Jennings could put LSU in jeopardy against a disciplined Iowa squad. But barring self-inflicted freshman errors, the Tigers’ talent will likely be too much for the Hawkeyes.
Prediction: LSU 24, Iowa 16