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Perhaps no team needed a coach or quarterback who can roll with the punches quite like Oregon.
While Ohio State has coped with injuries at the most visible position, Oregon has spent all season dealing with absences chipping away at its roster. The Ducks’ roster lost its first pieces in the preseason, and the trend continued into the week before the national championship game.
The failed drug test from wide receiver Darren Carrington means Oregon will be without four receivers and tight ends from its post-spring depth chart, not to mention 2013 starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone.
If Oregon looks like a team that doesn’t seem to be rattled by these key absences, pay attention to the demeanor of the two men at the Ducks’ key leadership positions at head coach and quarterback.
For sure, Ohio State has the same steady hand. So did Alabama, Florida State and any other team in contention for the semifinals at the end of the season.
As it does nearly everywhere else in its program, Oregon does this a little differently.
Mark Helfrich is unlike most coaches at power programs. He’s not a control freak like Nick Saban. He’s not someone who seems like he’ll burn out like Urban Meyer once did. Though he’s been repeatedly questioned about the fortitude of his team, he’s not as defensive as Jimbo Fisher has been at times this season.
And most important, he doesn’t share the kind of acerbic tone that marked his predecessor Chip Kelly.
He doesn’t have the tightly wound demeanor that seems to be a prerequisite to lead a national championship contender in 2015.
When a reporter asked Ohio State coach Urban Meyer how the Buckeyes’ would stop Oregon’s tempo offense, Helfrich interjected: “Be specific, please.” Earlier this season — in the controlled environment of a postgame press conference — a middle school student reporter explained that at his Catholic school there are three important things: “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota.” Helfrich, of course, rolled with it.
Imagine Saban in such an exchange.
Helfrich is a normal guy in an abnormal profession. You wonder what it might take to tick this guy off.
But this can be deceiving.
"His personality has a tendency to hide how fierce a competitor he is,” said Jim Palazzolo, Helfrich’s college coach at NAIA Southern Oregon. “He just seems to be able to internalize that and maintain his sense of humor, his glibness. He’s very, very consistent.”
Consistency is the same hallmark of Helfrich’s quarterback and not just because Marcus Mariota completes nearly 70 percent of his passes and rarely throws an interception.
Mariota is nearly as prolific as his Heisman predecessors. His image, though, isn’t as easy to define. Whether by their sideline demeanors or outward leadership (or flirtations with controversy), the last four Heisman winners — Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton — all had a distinct personas.
They enjoyed being superstars. For Mariota, it seems like a bother. Before the Rose Bowl — to say nothing of Saturday’s championship media day — he seemed exhausted from the media circuit. After the season, he went from the awards ceremony in Orlando, to the Heisman ceremony and the Late Show with David Letterman in New York. After a break for Christmas in his home state of Hawaii, he went to three straight days in front of cameras for Rose Bowl prep.
He looked miserable.
“I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I was looking forward to this being done,” Mariota said in his final media session before the semifinal win over Florida State.
On the field, Mariota was the same steady had he’d been all year, even though he lost his fastest receiver, Devon Allen, on the opening kickoff.
The stoicism is by design.
When he was the quarterback at the Saint Louis School in Honolulu, Mariota was the type who’d drop his head and unhook his chin strap after a bad play. Playing high school games under a Jumbotron, though, will give a young quarterback a quick lesson in body language.
“We played Aloha Stadium, so we had all the cameras,” said Darnell Arceneaux, Mariota’s high school coach who is now quarterbacks coach at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “We said, if you make a bad play or we have a three and out or the receiver drops it, the camera goes on two people, the head coach and the quarterback. When your teammates see you on that Jumbotron, that’s contagious.”
Arceneaux watched Mariota throw an interception against Florida State, not long after another would-be pick bounced off the hands of Seminoles safety Jalen Ramsey. Mariota never lost his cool.
“In that Rose Bowl, he throws that pick and you didn’t see that chin strap or that head go down,” Arceneaux said. “You saw a kid who let one get away and he worked through it.”
Indeed, Oregon has a coach-quarterback combination that’s not the norm for top contenders, not that it was ever unquestioned
Though he left Southern Oregon in 1995, Palazzolo never left the region. He’s a loan officer in Medford, Ore., and he heard the doubts about Helfric taking over Kelly’s program. Oregon had been on an upward trajectory ever since Rich Brooks led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in 1994. Kelly took Oregon to its first national title game and made the Ducks a perennial contender.
Helfrich, an internal hire who might not have been a top candidate for any other top program in the country, was not viewed as the guy who would be able to lead the Ducks to the next step, a national championship.
“Chip was larger than life,” Palazzolo said. “He was progressive and new wave and his personality was distinct. That would be the nicest way to put it. There was a lot of speculation on who would replace Chip.”
The doubts persisted as Oregon finished 7-2 in the Pac-12 last season, losing a shot at the Pac-12 title with a 26-20 loss to Stanford and a rare loss to a major underdog in Arizona.
Did 2014 mark major growth for Helfrich as a coach? The results say that might be the case, but having Mariota healthy for an entire season doesn’t hurt. Still, players say Helfrich is a little more comfortable in his own shoes.
For all of his offensive wizardry, Kelly was distant. Helfrich’s softer hand is a welcome change.
“Not saying Coach Kelly didn't love his players, but Coach Helfrich’s door is always open," Mariota said. "He's always the guy that's asking how your family is doing, how you're doing.”
Oregon is a program without yelling, offensive coordinator Scott Frost says. He says players have more fun in the Oregon program
And maybe that’s the way it’s going to need to be done for some programs.
Coaches and players are pulled in more directions than ever before. With every misstep on and off the field documented, scrutiny is at an all-time high. Not every key player will be as — and this is not a bad thing — dull as Mariota.
The coach and quarterback who remains steady and rolls with the punches may be at an advantage.
“His personality lent itself to making that transition,” Palazzolo said. “The pressure was there, it was transparent. Somehow he was able to internalize all that stuff. I don’t think he felt like he was overcoming anything. He just had to put his own blueprint on this thing.”
Dion Waiters ending up with the Oklahoma City Thunder was tough to see coming. But the Cleveland Cavaliers finally found a way to ship off their oft-troubled reserve guard this week, in a three-team trade involving the New York Knicks.
With the Thunder, Waiters has a new chance. His relations with his old squad had clearly cratered more than a year ago, as new teammate Kevin Durant noted:
Kevin Durant on Dion Waiters: "We're going to make him feel wanted. I don't think he's felt that the last few years."— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 6, 2015
OKC wants Waiters to move past what happened with the Cavs, even making sure he put his first foot forward in the attempt to form a new identity… in an unusual fashion:
You don’t hear a ton about professional athletes and their jersey number selections. Fans are typically left to speculate about the superstition behind these things, and just how seriously teams take them. But this instance from the Thunder shows that the symbolism of your number is often no small matter.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti took a calculated gamble by bringing in Waiters, a talented scorer who can be a huge asset if he’s dialed in, but a terrible distraction if he’s not. Whether or not things work out between Dion and his new team will be largely a matter of personality fit — there’s no question the Thunder can use Waiters’ skill set, though.
They’re four games out of the playoff picture in the staggering Western Conference, struggling to keep up the world-killing pace they need to climb aggressively up the standings. Critics of the team have more fuel than ever regarding the infamous Harden trade, as the Thunder’s former third banana is now an MVP candidate with the rival Houston Rockets.
Waiters probably can’t live up to the standards set by his predecessor, so the Thunder might be right to deny him Harden’s number, and push him down his own unique, beardless path.
— John Wilmes
This has been the week of close calls.
Since Jan. 3, Kentucky and Virginia have both needed an overtime game to preserve undefeated records. Duke needed a late rally against Wake Forest to preserve its unblemished record. And those are just the three remaining undefeated teams.
Ohio State, Iowa State and Kansas both needed some late heroics this week to pick up key conference wins.
That should be a clear sign that all the unpredictable results that come with conference play should be on the way in the coming weeks.
Kentucky, Virginia and Duke survived, but will be they be so lucky this weekend or next?
Jan. 10-11 Weekend Preview and Predictions
All times Eastern
Cincinnati at Connecticut
Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN2
The Bearcats remain an American Athletic Conference contender despite the absence of coach Mick Cronin, who is out for the remainder of the season due to health issues. Cincinnati are 4-1 without him, including a key win over presumptive AAC favorite SMU last week. Don’t expect anything pretty between two teams ranked in the top 25 of defensive efficiency and 86th and 96th in offensive efficiency on KenPom.
Prediction: UConn 52-47
Ohio State at Indiana
Saturday, noon, ESPN
If don’t already know D’Angelo Russell, maybe it’s time to fix that. The Ohio State guard is the best freshman north of Lexington and he’s quickly rounding into form. He’s shooting 21-of-46 and averaging 20.7 points per game in three Big Ten games so far. He could feast upon a bad defensive Indiana team. The Hoosiers could have the offense to keep up, but they’re a game removed from a a 50-point, 0.82 point-per-possession effort against Michigan State.
Prediction: Ohio State 78-66
Kentucky at Texas A&M
Saturday, 1 p.m. CBS
The Wildcats got their first real test of the season in an 89-86 win over Ole Miss in overtime at home. The impenetrable Kentucky defense allowed the Rebels to average 1.15 points per possession and shoot 47.6 percent from two-point range. On paper, the Wildcats shouldn’t have much trouble with an offensively- challenged Texas A&M team, but how Kentucky responds to a road trip after a home scare should be telling.
Prediction: Kentucky 67-52
Louisville at North Carolina
Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN
The Tar Heels’ momentum was halted with a 71-70 home loss to Notre Dame on Monday, and now North Carolina is in need of a signature moment this season. The Heels’ best wins are over UCLA and Florida in the Bahamas — that’s not going to cut it for an ACC contender. The Heels have been a surprisingly good defensive team this season, particularly defending the 3-point line (26.1 percent). Meanwhile, Louisville can’t find any consistency from long range.
Prediction: North Carolina 63-58
Baylor at TCU
Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2
Maybe that football rivalry and the end-of-year playoff debate will add a little juice to the first basketball meeting of 2015. Putting that aside, this is a key game for surprising Baylor. The Bears started the season 11-1 but have since dropped their first two Big 12 games. That should be an uneasy feeling for a Baylor team that started hot last season before dropping eight of its first 10 conference games. At 13-2, TCU isn’t the easy out it once was in Big 12 play, but the Horned Frogs are having trouble staying competitive in the second half of two Big 12 games so far.
Prediction: Baylor 64-57
DePaul at Villanova
Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Well, hello there, DePaul. The long-suffering Blue Demons should take a screen grab of those Big East standings as DePaul sits at 3-0 in the league. The Blue Devils’ next conference win, whenever it happens, will clinch their best Big East season since 2007-08. DePaul aren’t likely to beat Villanova, and it’s probable Oliver Purnell’s team is playing a bit over its head so far in conference play — DePaul lost six in a row just before league play began. Still, let’s take a moment to appreciate that DePaul is going to play meaningful basketball this season.
Prediction: Villanova 76-63
Texas at Oklahoma State
Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPNU
A critical momentum game for both teams. Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor has been back for two games, but the Longhorns were embarrassed at home by Oklahoma on Monday. The Sooners beat Texas 70-49 and led by as much as 28 points in the second half. Oklahoma State’s rally at Iowa State on Tuesday fell short, and now the Cowboys will try to get a good showing at home before a two-game road trip against Kansas and Oklahoma.
Prediction: Texas 63-61
Virginia at Notre Dame
Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Bet you didn’t expect this to be the game of the week or one of the most intriguing ACC games of the season. Undefeated Virginia visits South Bend for a showdown between high-scoring Notre Dame and the Cavaliers’ stifling defense. The Irish are coming off a game in which they scored a season-low 71 points — and won on the road at North Carolina. The Cavaliers have allowed more than 70 points in regulation once all season (Dec. 30 to Davidson).
Prediction: Virginia 68-65
Iowa State at West Virginia
Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
After a loss to South Carolina and a close call at home with Oklahoma State, Iowa State is entering a key stretch against three consecutive KenPom top 20 teams, two of which on the road (at West Virginia, at Baylor, Kansas). In theory, Iowa State should be getting stronger with 6-9 Marquette transfer Jameel McKay joining the team in the last four games. Meanwhile, West Virginia is one bizarre finish — a 74-73 loss to LSU — from being undefeated. The Mountaineers’ full-court press will be a test for an Iowa State team that traditionally had one of the best offenses in the country under Fred Hoiberg.
Prediction: West Virginia 65-61
Duke at NC State
Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS
Maybe Wake Forest had a good game plan. Maybe Duke’s getting a little bored. Either way, the Blue Devils needed a late flurry from Quinn Cook to put away the Demon Deacons 73-65 on Wednesday. Freshman star Jahlil Okafor struggled with only 12 points and five turnovers in Duke’s third consecutive game against a sub-top-100 team. That trend is about to change against NC State and then Miami, Louisville and Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Duke 75-65
Sunday afternoon’s Indianapolis vs. Denver AFC Divisional Round game will be the first postseason meeting between Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and the man he replaced in Indy, Peyton Manning — who is now the first quarterback to play at least 200 games with a team and then face that team in the playoffs. According to Football Perspective, the Broncos have the edge in yards per attempts, yards allowed per attempt, yards per carry and yards allowed per carry. Since 1990, there have been 16 games where a home team had the advantage in those four metrics, and the home team is 15–1 in those matchups.
Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 11 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Denver -7
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Andrew Luck
The spotlight shines on the respective quarterbacks in this one. When the two face off Sunday afternoon it will be the third meeting between the two signal-callers and the first rubber match. In 2013, Luck led the Colts to a 39–33 victory in Manning’s first game back in Indianapolis. Both quarterbacks threw for three scores in that game, while Luck was turnover-free and Manning had an interception. Luck has had better postseason success early on in his career than Manning, arriving in Denver this week with a 2–2 playoff record in his first three seasons. It took Manning until his sixth season to win a playoff game, and it was his fourth postseason contest that he finally got his first W. If Luck protects the football, and the Colts defense can force some miscues, then the road upset becomes very realistic.
Denver’s Key to Victory: Peyton Manning
For whatever reason, Manning is not the same quarterback in the postseason that he is during the regular season. In 23 playoff games, Manning is 11–12 and has a passer rating of 89.2. Compare that to his regular season record (179–77) and passer rating (97.5). Granted, the opponents get tougher in the postseason, but Manning hasn’t exactly risen to the occasion with any regularity under the brightest lights. It’s important that the Broncos get at least a reasonable facsimile of October Manning (102.2 career passer rating) and not January Manning (83.5). “I think Peyton’s been doing fine. I don’t know if it’s about hype; I know it’s just another playoff game. I can’t answer that question for him but I think he’ll be fine,” Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas said. “We had them the first game of the season and he was fine. It’s a playoff game so it’s a little bit different because if you lose, you’re done and if you win, you keep going. I can’t really talk for Peyton but I think he’s fine.” Okay, fine.
Peyton Manning has been one-and-done in the playoffs eight times in his career, by far the most for any quarterback in the Super Bowl era, and he’s also the record-holder with 12 postseason losses. Those numbers have to be weighing on this proud warrior, who will be looking for vindication in this postseason. This week, at least, he’ll get it.
Prediction: Denver 31, Indianapolis 24
The NFL’s best road team will face the best home team when the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers get together Sunday afternoon in the NFC Divisional Round on FOX. NFC East champion Dallas was the only team in the league to 8-0 on the road during the regular season, while NFC North champion Green Bay was the only team to go undefeated at home. Jason Garrett’s Cowboys needed a second-half comeback last week at home against Detroit in the Wild Card game to set up this matchup between the No. 2 and 3 seeds.
This will be the first postseason meeting at Lambeau Field between these two storied franchises since the 1967 NFL Championship Game, better known as the “Ice Bowl.” One of the most memorable games in pro football history, Bart Starr rallied his Packers to a 21-17 victory over the Cowboys in a game that was played in minus-13 degrees weather (minus-46 wind chill). Green Bay then went on to defeat AFL champion Oakland 33-14 in Super Bowl II.
It won’t be near that cold Sunday afternoon, as Dallas looks to extend its postseason winning streak over Green Bay to five. The last time these teams played each other in the playoffs was the NFC Championship Game in Dallas back on Jan. 14, 1996. The Cowboys won 38-27 and then beat Pittsburgh 27-17 in Super Bowl XXX to claim their fifth world championship. That’s also the last time Dallas played in the Super Bowl.
Dallas Cowboys at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 11 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -5.5
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
It’s no secret that one of the keys to the Cowboys’ success this season has been the running game. Dallas finished second in the NFL in the regular season in rushing offense, thanks in large part to the efforts of DeMarco Murray. The No. 1 rusher by nearly 500 yards, Murray tapered off some in the second half, but still racked up 1,845 yards on the ground and a league-best (tied with Marshawn Lynch) 13 rushing touchdowns. Murray also led the league in carries (392) by a wide margin, as the Cowboys were content to wear down opposing defenses by running the football. This run-heavy approach paid off in another way, as Dallas led the league in time of possession (32:51). Controlling the clock not only helps the offense in that it’s usually an indicator that a team is able to move the ball, it also assists a defense by limiting the number of possessions they are on the field. This is especially important for the Cowboys considering their defense is ranked the worst (19th) in total yards allowed among the remaining playoff teams, and even lower (26th) against the pass. Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, but it remains to seen how it will impact an offense that averaged a league-high 39.8 points per game while going 8-0 at home. Rodgers has been near perfect (25 TDs, 0 INTs, 133.2 passer rating) at Lambeau, so hobbled or not, Dallas’ defense will have its work cut out for it Sunday afternoon. One way to make this task a little easier would be for the Cowboys’ offense to chew up as much clock as possible. After all, the best defense when it comes to slowing down Rodgers and company is to keep them off of the field.
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Allow Rodgers to R-E-L-A-X
Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a tear in his calf muscle, so it will be interesting to see how it impacts him Sunday afternoon. Everyone knows that the Packers will only go as far in the playoffs as Rodgers can carry them, but that doesn’t mean he has to do all of the work. If anything, Rodgers’ mobility figures to be limited somewhat, so Dallas will certainly look for ways to get to him in the pocket, even if that means blitzing more than it usually does. To counter this approach, Green Bay’s offensive game plan could focus on short throws and intermediate routes, which would get the ball into the hands of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams as quickly as possible to see if they can’t do some damage in the YAC (yards after catch) department. Another way to take some of the burden off of Rodgers is to let Eddie Lacy and James Starks have their share of touches. Since the Week 9 bye, the ground game has averaged 142 yards per contest. The Cowboys have been more susceptible to the pass (26th in NFL) than the run (8th) this season, but that doesn’t mean the Packers shouldn’t try and give Dallas a taste of its own medicine. If anything, Lacy and Starks figure to be much fresher and healthier than Rodgers, so perhaps it’s time for them to do the heavy lifting. After all, the Packers will definitely need their MVP candidate quarterback at his best next weekend should they get by the Cowboys.
Is this “Ice Bowl II”? Well, it won’t be nearly as cold at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon as it was more than 47 years ago, but this postseason matchup between Dallas and Green Bay is historic for another reason. It’s the first time in NFL playoff history that a team that went 8-0 at home hosts one that was 8-0 on the road. The Packers have been unstoppable at home, averaging nearly 40 points per game, while the Cowboys put up 34.4 points per game on the road. Something has to give and Packer Nation certainly hopes it’s not Aaron Rodgers’ calf muscle. The leading MVP contender may not be at 100 percent, but I still think Green Bay will be able to score enough points on a suspect Dallas defense to win and advance to the NFC Championship Game.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Dallas 23
Two of the AFC’s most successful franchises since 2000 are set to meet in the playoffs once again, as the Baltimore Ravens and New England Patriots square off in a Divisional Round matchup Saturday afternoon on NBC. The Ravens are looking to build off of the momentum stemming from last week’s 30-17 Wild Card win in Pittsburgh, while the AFC East champion Patriots hope home-field advantage will result in a return to the Super Bowl.
This represents the fourth postseason meeting between New England and Baltimore in the last six years, as these teams have developed their own playoff rivalry. The Patriots lead all teams with an 18-8 postseason record since 2000, while Baltimore is second at 15-7. During this span, these two franchises have combined to win five Super Bowls in seven appearances (Patriots 3-2, Ravens 2--0).
The Ravens are no strangers to playing in Foxboro, Mass., in January, as all their playoff games against the Patriots have taken place in Gillette Stadium. Baltimore is 2-1 against one of the NFL’s winningest home teams, including a 28-13 victory in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago. The only other team to beat New England at home in the postseason since 2000 is the Jets, who beat the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the 2010 playoffs.
While Tom Brady has been under center for every one of those 18 playoff wins (most all-time), Joe Flacco has put together his own impressive postseason resume. Flacco is 10-4 in his career, which ties him for ninth all-time, and has a higher winning percentage (.714) than Brady (.692).
What’s more, 11 of Flacco’s 14 career playoff games have come on the road. The Ravens have won seven of the 11, giving Flacco the most road playoff victories all-time, including their last three in a row. Baltimore’s last road playoff loss was three years ago, a 23-20 AFC title game setback to, you guessed it, New England.
Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 4:35 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: New England -7
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Dominate Up Front
Having faced Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the postseason three times in the past five seasons, the Ravens already know what they need to do to beat the AFC’s top seed. One of the keys to beating New England is to get to Brady and make him uncomfortable in the pocket. As Baltimore showed last week in the Wild Card win over Pittsburgh, its defensive line is one of the most disruptive and effective units in the NFL. The Ravens sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times, picked him off twice and held the Steelers to just 68 yards rushing on 3.6 yards per carry. Yes, Pittsburgh was without leading rusher Le’Veon Bell, but Baltimore held him to an identical 3.6 yards per carry (79 yds. on 22 att.) in the two regular season matchups. Two years ago, the Ravens beat the Patriots 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game, as Brady completed 29 of 54 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown. Baltimore didn’t sack him, but it did pick Brady off twice, gave up just 3.9 yards per carry on the ground, and limited New England to a touchdown and two field goals. The Ravens will look for similar results, as they hope their pass rush (49 sacks, tied for 2nd during regular season) can be productive against a Patriots offensive line that has had protection issues from time to time. On the other side of the ball, Baltimore also needs to establish its own running game, especially after averaging a meager 2.1 yards per carry last week against Pittsburgh. New England’s defense has given up some sizeable chunks on the ground this season and the outcome didn’t go the Patriots’ way in most of those instances. The Ravens would like nothing more than for this trend to continue Saturday afternoon, especially if it results in another victory against the most successful head coach-quarterback duo in NFL history.
New England’s Key to Victory: Attack Baltimore Secondary
Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offensive line figures to have their hands full against the Ravens’ front seven. Not only is the defensive line whole again with nose tackle Haloti Ngata back from a four-game suspension, but the linebacker corps is equally solid with veterans Terrell Suggs and Daryl Smith flanking standout rookie C.J. Mosley with either Courtney Upshaw or pass-rush specialist Elvis Dumervil rounding out the quartet. New England may be hard-pressed to get its ground game going, but if the pass protection holds up, there should be opportunities for plays down field. As good as the front end of Baltimore’s defense has played, there are plenty of questions when it comes to the back end. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness have produced a revolving door when it comes to the Ravens’ secondary with free safety Darian Stewart the only defensive back to make more than 11 starts during the regular season. The result is a Baltimore pass defense that is ranked the worst among the remaining playoff teams in terms of passer rating (90.6) and completion percentage (64.2) allowed during the regular season. The Ravens yielded 22 touchdown passes compared to 11 interceptions prior to picking Ben Roethlisberger off twice (vs. 1 TD pass) in last week’s Wild Card win. That does not necessarily bode well against Brady, who posted an impressive 33:9 TD-to-INT ratio during the regular season. Brady’s top three targets have been tight end Rob Gronkowski and wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell, three options he didn’t have the last time he faced Baltimore in the playoffs. When the Ravens beat the Patriots at home in the AFC Championship Game two seasons ago, Gronk (arm) and Edelman (foot) were both out with injuries, while LaFell was a Carolina Panther. Edelman (concussion) and LaFell (toe) are dealing with some injury issues entering this game, but this trio is fully expected to be out there and need to make their presence felt to help Brady exact some payback on one of the few teams that have given him any trouble in the postseason.
It may not have the sizzle of Ravens vs. Steelers or Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady, but don’t underestimate the budding rivalry between these two teams. The last two times Baltimore and New England met in the playoffs it decided which team would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. That’s not the case this time around, but it doesn’t change the fact that John Harbaugh and the Ravens would like nothing more than to keep Bill Belichick and Tom Brady from reaching their goal, while the Patriots are looking for some payback against the last team to beat them at home in the postseason. Joe Flacco doesn’t have the same number of playoff wins or rings as Brady, but he’s proven himself just as capable on this stage, especially on the road. New England may have more offensive firepower, but Baltimore has more than enough on defense, as well as the experience and veteran leadership that’s needed to beat a No. 1 seed at home. Flacco’s numbers won’t overwhelm, but he makes the plays he needs to and the Ravens’ defense does the rest. Belichick and Brady are left to ponder “what if” yet again following another painful home playoff loss to Harbaugh and Flacco.
Prediction: Baltimore 27, New England 24
Two of the NFL’s hottest teams look to get one step closer to the Super Bowl when the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks meet in the NFC Divisional Round on Saturday night on FOX. The Panthers have won five in a row, including last week’s Wild Card victory at home over Arizona, while the Seahawks have rattled off six wins in a row.
Carolina repeated as NFC South champions despite a 7-8-1 regular season record, which included a 13-9 home loss to Seattle back in Week 8. The Seahawks are hoping home-field advantage will help them in their quest to become the first repeat Super Bowl champions in a decade.
These were the top two defenses in 2013 and both units enter this game playing their best football of the season. Points may be hard to come by, as the last three meetings between Carolina and Seattle featured a grand total of 69 or 23 per game. The Seahawks won all three games by an average of just 4.3 points per contest.
Carolina Panthers at Seattle Seahawks
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 10 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Seattle -11
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Accept Last Week’s Results
All the Panthers did last week was set an NFL record by holding the Cardinals to just 78 total yards in their 27-16 Wild Card win at home. As impressive as a defensive performance as that was, Carolina was far from perfect as a team. Cam Newton completed just 18 of 32 passes with two touchdowns and an interception, the Panthers turned the ball over a total of three times, were just 5-for-15 on third down conversions, and committed eight penalties for 80 yards. There were plenty of good things to take away from the game besides the stellar defense – namely 188 yards rushing and dominating time of possession (37:06) – but Carolina cannot expect a similar team performance to get the job done Saturday night. Not against the defending Super Bowl champions who are at home and playing their best football of the season. Survive and advance is the name of the game in the playoffs, and the Panthers will need to bring their A game if they want to do just that.
Seattle’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
The Seahawks are rolling, winners of six in a row, and one of the big reasons why is the resurgence of the Legion of Boom. Seattle’s defense has really put the clamps down, holding opponents to just 39 points (6.5 ppg) during this winning streak. Pete Carroll’s team has surrendered just three touchdowns and not a single point in the fourth quarter over their last six games. The Seahawks also have limited opponents to just 66 yards rushing per game, which is the key when it comes to Carolina’s offense. The Panthers have a run-first mentality and a quarterback in Cam Newton who is just as dangerous making plays with his legs than his arm. During their five-game winning streak, the Panthers have averaged nearly 200 yards rushing per game with Jonathan Stewart (524 yds., 5.1 ypc) and Newton (6.3 ypc, 3 TDs) doing the bulk of the damage. If Seattle can stifle Carolina’s ground game, it will force Newton to try and make more plays from the pocket. And even though Newton has playmakers in tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Seahawks counter with the league’s top secondary, headlined by a trio of All-Pros in Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas (first team) and Kam Chancellor (second team). Simply put, if the Panthers can’t gain any ground, this offense may be hard-pressed to get much of anything done Saturday night at CenturyLink Field.
Carolina’s defense grabbed all the headlines and set an NFL record last week, but no unit is playing better than Seattle’s right now. The defending Super Bowl champions are rounding into form at just the right time and will be playing at home backed by the support of “The 12th Man,” the loudest fan base in the league. The Panthers earned the right to be in the playoffs with a strong late-season push and validated their entry with last week’s impressive Wild Card win over the Cardinals, but the best the NFC West has to offer simply has too much talent for Ron Rivera’s team to overcome. Pete Carroll and company get a step closer to a repeat Super Bowl berth with a championship-caliber performance at home.
Prediction: Seattle 24, Carolina 10
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 9:
• Tiger Woods is starting his 2015 season at the zoo that is Phoenix, on Super Bowl Sunday. Prepare for the crazy.
• Knicks fans are reaching for the paper bags. It's the players who should be wearing them.
• Simmons goes longform on Flacco. But is he elite?
• The Titans decided to "live-tweet" the Music City Miracle on its 15th anniversary. The St. Louis Rams had the perfect response.
• Marv Albert shared his all-time Albert Achievement Awards on Letterman.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
One of the biggest surprises of the NBA season is the outstanding play we’ve seen from the 27-8 Atlanta Hawks. Georgia’s basketball birds are enjoying a renaissance, swiftly establishing an identity as a pass-first, system-oriented squad that selflessly swings the ball around to their deep array of shooters and always plays with defensive discipline.
Under second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, the Hawks have earned comparisons to this century’s most prolific franchise, the San Antonio Spurs.
All this, after the team looked left for dead months ago, smeared in the media as their owner Bruce Levenson, and general manager Danny Ferry, confessed to using racially insensitive language in company correspondences. Levenson is now selling the team, and Ferry is on indefinite leave — even as his roster moves all come to brilliant fruition on the floor.
It’s a complicated spot between bad marks of the past and a bright view for the future, with these Hawks. But they’ve played well enough to largely obscure that storyline, keeping the league increasingly focused on just how sharply they do this basketball thing as they roll through the cream of the NBA’s playoff crop.
But you still don’t have to peel the onion too far back to find its murky center: The Hawks and Atlanta haven’t historically been much of a fit. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz pondered the odd pairing in a recent piece:
“As has long been tradition in this transient city, it's an uphill climb to fill Philips Arena night in and night out and, consequently, attract the kind of name superstars who could put the Hawks on the map. LeBron James never considered Atlanta. Pau Gasol turned down a heftier offer than he received in Chicago. And that was before owner Levenson's email buried the franchise even deeper in the consciousness of the league.”
The Hawks, as consequence of their dim legacy, have had trouble bringing in the big talent typically associated with title contention. But if their charge to the NBA Finals continues at this furious pace for much longer, maybe they can be one of those starless outliers, who win big by playing the right way.
— John Wilmes
College football’s four-team playoff concludes on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas when Ohio State and Oregon meet to decide the national championship. The Ducks are looking for their first title, while the Buckeyes are after their first national championship since 2002.
Oregon is around a seven-point favorite by the Vegas experts for Monday night’s game, but there’s not much separating the Ducks and Buckeyes in the depth chart breakdown.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best player on the field, but Ohio State owns an edge on defense, and running back Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed over 200 yards in back-to-back games.
National Championship Position-by-Position Breakdown
So far, so good for Cardale Jones. Since replacing J.T. Barrett after a season-ending injury against Michigan, Jones is 32 of 55 for 500 yards and four touchdowns. The sophomore also has 52 rushing yards over the last two contests. The coaching staff would probably like Jones to raise his completion percentage (58 percent), but the sophomore has thrived under pressure by hitting on 7 of 10 passes on third down with seven yards or more to go in 2014.
|Marcus Mariota is without a doubt the best player on the field in Arlington. And stopping the junior and Oregon’s up-tempo offense is the biggest challenge for Ohio State’s defense, especially with just one week to prepare. Heading into Monday night’s showdown, Mariota's season stat line is simply ridiculous: 280 completions on 408 passes for 4,121 yards and 40 scores. Efficiency is an underrated aspect of Mariota’s game, as the junior enters the championship with just three picks and averages 10.1 yards per attempt. Mariota also ranks second on the team with 731 rushing yards and 15 scores.|
Jones has played well. But Mariota is the best in CFB this year.
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott was overlooked in the hierarchy of Big Ten running backs this season, but the sophomore has made plenty of noise in his last two games. Elliott gashed Wisconsin for 220 yards and recorded 230 yards on 20 attempts in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Expect Elliott to see a heavy workload on Monday night. For the season, Elliott has 1,632 yards (6.9 ypc) and 14 scores. When Elliott needs a break, the Buckeyes can work in Curtis Samuel or H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson.|
True freshman Royce Freeman helped the Ducks eliminate question marks about their physicality on the ground. Freeman enters the championship matchup versus Ohio State with 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns (No. 1 in Pac-12), averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (511 yards, 5 TDs) returned from injury to record 124 yards on 13 attempts against Florida State and should see 10-15 carries to keep Freeman fresh for the fourth quarter. Byron Marshall (383 rushing yards, 1 TD this season) was the team’s leading rusher last year, but he’s switched to an all-purpose/receiver role in 2014.
Even - Oregon has an edge in depth. But Elliott is on fire.
The Buckeyes may not have Oregon’s depth of options at receiver, but this unit has made progress under coach Urban Meyer. Devin Smith leads the nation with a robust 27.7 yards per catch average on 32 receptions and has scored four touchdowns in the last two games. Michael Thomas caught seven passes for 66 yards in the Sugar Bowl, placing the sophomore at 50 receptions in 2014. Corey Smith, Evan Spencer and tight ends Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are also major contributors. The Buckeyes also get partial credit here for H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall (13.5 ypc).
The loss of Devon Allen to a knee injury from the Rose Bowl is a significant blow to Oregon’s receiving corps. Allen was one of the Pac-12’s top freshmen in 2014, recording 41 catches for 684 yards and seven scores. The Ducks also received more bad news at receiver this week, as Darren Carrington failed a drug test and is out for Monday night's game. While Allen and Carrington will be missed, this unit was also able to overcome the loss of Bralon Addison in the preseason and perform at a high level in 2014. Without Allen, leading receiver Byron Marshall (66 catches) and Dwayne Stanford will see more passes in their direction. Freshman Charles Nelson (4 catches for 40 yards in Rose Bowl) is a gamebreaker that could see more time, and tight end Evan Baylis emerged as another threat by catching six passes against Florida State.
Even - Allen's absence is a setback for Oregon. OSU's group continues to trend up.
This unit needed to be revamped with the departure of four starters in the offseason. Left tackle Taylor Decker was the only returning starter for 2014, and this group struggled early. In the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes allowed seven sacks. However, the offensive line progressed throughout the year and limited opponents to just 15 sacks in nine Big Ten games. Decker and guard Pat Elflein are the standout performers, but freshman guard Billy Price, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Darryl Baldwin have each started all 14 games this season. The Buckeyes have averaged at least five yards per carry in seven straight games.
A healthy Jake Fisher (LT) and center Hroniss Grasu (C) (both first-team All-Pac-12 in 2014) made a huge difference in the performance of Oregon’s offensive line. The Ducks had to mix and match personnel up front all year due to injuries and has not allowed a sack in their last two games. Fisher and Grasu are two of the best in the nation at their position and helped pave the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry. Freshman Tyrell Crosby (RT - 8 starts in 2014), sophomore Cameron Hunt (RG - 13 starts) and senior Hamani Stevens (LG) round out the starting five. The Ducks' 5.5 yards per carry average ranks No. 12 nationally. In the Rose Bowl win over FSU, Oregon gashed the ' Noles for 301 yards. Winning the battle up front is a must for UO on Monday.
Even - Another close call. Fisher and Grasu's health is a huge plus for OSU. However, Ohio State has improved all year.
The Buckeyes have one of – if not the No. 1 – defensive line in college football. This unit limited opposing rushers to 3.9 yards per carry through 14 games and held Wisconsin to just 71 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship. End Joey Bosa was quiet in the Sugar Bowl, but the sophomore is one of the top defensive players in the nation. Bosa recorded 53 tackles (20 for a loss), 13.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in 2014. Tackle Michael Bennett is another All-American up front, as the senior came on strong at the end of the year to finish with 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. End Steve Miller returned an interception for a touchdown against Alabama, while junior Adolphus Washington joins Bennett on the interior.
The Ducks ranked eighth in the Pac-12 (4.2 ypc allowed) in rush defense and was susceptible to plays on the ground against Florida State in the Rose Bowl (180 yards, 4.6 ypc). While Oregon will give up yards, this unit was disruptive at times against the Seminoles. And Don Pellum's line has generated at least two sacks in four consecutive games. Ends Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) present a challenge with their length and athleticism, and this duo combined for 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. Oregon uses a lot of odd-man fronts, but Armstead and Buckner can create havoc against the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Junior Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp are the main contributors at nose guard. Oregon's defensive line will play a critical role on Monday night. Can this unit stop the run? UO has played better up front in recent weeks.
Ducks have talent up front, but the Buckeyes might have the best DL in the nation.
Similar to the offensive line, the Buckeyes went into fall practice with some concern in this group. Standout Ryan Shazier left for the NFL, and while there wasn’t an issue about talent, this unit needed to find its next playmaker. Mission accomplished. Junior Joshua Perry led the team with 118 tackles, but freshman Darron Lee recorded 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced turnovers. Lee’s emergence helped ease the loss of Shazier, while senior Curtis Grant (58 tackles, 5 INTs) provides steady play at middle linebacker. Talented true freshman Raekwon McMillan (49 tackles, 6 TFL) is the team’s top reserve.
This unit delivered a solid performance against Florida State and needs to have another big game on Monday for the Ducks to win the national title. Tony Washington returned a fumble 58 yards for a score and recorded a sack, Rodney Hardrick forced a fumble, and Derrick Malone made four stops. Outside linebacker Tyson Coleman recovered a fumble and made three stops against FSU. All four players will be tasked with slowing Ohio State’s rushing attack, as well as limiting the plays by Cardale Jones outside of the pocket. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot also recorded a sack against Florida State and joins Washington and Christian French (6.5 sacks in 2014) as key pass-rush threats for coordinator Don Pellum.
Even - Oregon's group is coming off a good performance. Lee is a rising star for OSU.
Fixing the pass defense was a priority for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash this offseason. Ohio State allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more and gave up 31 touchdown passes last season. Even without first-round pick Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes have made progress against the pass. Ohio State limited opponents to 15 passing scores – tied for third in the Big Ten – and opposing quarterbacks were held to a 55.1 completion percentage. Cornerback Doran Grant had a standout year (58 tackles, 5 INTs, 9 PBU), while the young safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell combined for 10 interceptions. While Ohio State has made progress against the pass, the matchup against Oregon will be its toughest of the season.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was a big loss for the Ducks, but Chris Seisay held his own in the Rose Bowl. The redshirt freshman made six stops in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State and will be under the spotlight once again on Monday night. On the other side, Oregon senior Troy Hill was one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks in 2014 and needs to follow up his Rose Bowl effort (9 tackles, 2 PBU) against a dangerous receiving corps. Safeties Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels combined for 17 stops in the Rose Bowl. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson (35 tackles in 2014) is a future star but also a key contributor in a backup role. Dargan was the team’s top ball hawk in the secondary, picking off seven passes in 2014. Similar to the run defense, Oregon will give up some yards through the air. However, the Ducks limited the big plays (eight of 40 yards or more) by opposing offenses.
Ducks played well versus FSU last week. However, Ekpre-Olomu's absence could be felt this week. Close call here.
Winning the field position battle is an underrated part of any game, and punter Cameron Johnston (45.3) is a key weapon on special teams for the Buckeyes. Kicker Sean Nuernberger is 13 of 20 on field goals this year and has missed 5 of 10 attempts from 40 yards or more. Returns are in good shape with Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall on special teams. Marshall averages 12 yards per punt return, while Wilson averaged 24 yards per kickoff return this year.
The impact of Allen’s knee injury isn’t just limited to offense, as the redshirt freshman averages 26.1 yards per kickoff return. In his absence, freshman Charles Nelson (20.3 yards per kickoff return) will see additional time on special teams. Nelson is one of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners (15.5 ypr, 2 TDs). Kicker Aidan Schneider passed Matt Wogan as the No. 1 kicker this year and connected on 9 of 10 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler (39 yards per punt) isn’t used much (41 attempts) thanks to an explosive offense.
Johnston is a weapon on punts. Returns are almost even. Field goals are a wash.
Urban Meyer is one of the nation’s best coaches and has been an instant winner at each of his four FBS coaching opportunities. The Buckeyes are 37-3 under Meyer’s direction and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular season game. Prior to Ohio State, Meyer won two national titles at Florida, went 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and was hired as Houston’s new head coach. The additions of assistants Chris Ash (safeties, co-defensive coordinator) and Larry Johnson (defensive line) made a huge impact on Ohio State’s defense.
Mark Helfrich inherited a national championship contender from Chip Kelly, and the second-year coach is 24-3 in his first two years at Oregon. Helfrich and this staff did a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season and the Ducks have a nine-game winning streak entering the national championship. Coordinator Don Pellum has stabilized the defense after a slow start, holding the last four opponents to 20 points or less. Pellum's defense has been opportunistic with 30 forced turnovers and held Florida State to field goals - not touchdowns - in the red zone last week. Offensive play-caller Scott Frost guided the Ducks to an average of 40 points per game for the fifth consecutive season.
Credit to Helfrich for getting the Ducks here. However, Meyer is arguably one of the top 3 coaches in CFB.
Gambling is sports. It makes meaningless games infinitely more important to fans.
However, Monday night's national championship game doesn’t need any added juice to lure in viewers from other fan bases. All of college football will watch Oregon and Ohio State do battle.
I don’t need to place a bet on the game to enjoy it. But for national title games, like the Super Bowl, prop bets can be an added dimension compared to the traditional point spreads or over/under.
Here are some of the most intriguing Ducks-Buckeyes prop bets and final picks for the more traditional gamblers.
Ohio State (+7) vs. Oregon
The Ducks have the experience edge and Marcus Mariota. Ohio State has the coaching and talent edge and will be playing the disrespect card once again. These two teams are evenly matched and the game could go either way. However, Urban Meyer is 5-0 straight up as an underdog since getting to Columbus. I’ll take Oregon to win, but OSU to cover. Prediction: Ohio State +7
Ohio State vs. Oregon: Over/Under 75
Only one BCS title game out of 16 went over 75 points and that was the 79-point Texas-USC showdown in 2005. Two other times — in 2004 (74) and 1999 (75) — has the title game gone over the 70-point mark. But it hasn’t happened since ’05, and the average total for the championship game since is 49.5. These are two of the highest-scoring teams in the nation with a combined per game average of 92.2, but title games are traditionally played tighter than usual. I’d take the under as both could score in the 30s and the bet would still win. Predictions: Under
Oregon total points: O/U 41
I’d take the under because of Ohio State’s defensive line and developing linebackers. Oregon may still win the game but may have to battle all game long against this nasty front seven. Prediction: Under
Ohio State total points: O/U 34
I’d take the over here. Ohio State can score, as it just posted 59 against Wisconsin and 42 against Alabama. The Ducks' defense has given up tons of yards this season and the Buckeyes should be able to move the ball. Prediction: Over
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Marcus Mariota rushing yards: O/U 51.5
Seven times in 14 games has Mariota gone over 50 yards rushing this season with four of those coming in the last six games. When pressured (which will happen) and when in big games, go with the best player on the field doing whatever it takes to move the sticks. Predictions: Over
First downs: Ohio State (+4) vs. Oregon
Take the Buckeyes and the “points” here. Even if Oregon wins, the odds are the Ducks will be ripping off large chunks of yards. Ohio State, meanwhile, will look to control the clock more from the start. Take OSU and the four first downs. Prediction: OSU +4
Team to get first penalty: Ohio St (even) or Oregon (-130)
If there is one area Ohio State has a significant advantage in it is the yellow flags. The Ducks are 119th in the nation in penalties per game (8.1) — well ahead of Ohio State (5.6). Hence, the $130 bet to win $100. I’d still take the Ducks here. Prediction: Oregon
Cardale Jones longest completion: O/U 45.5
The Ducks are 50th nationally in allowing pass plays of more than 40 yards and Jones’ best skill seems to be the deep ball. He’s had a 47-yard completion against Bama and a 44-yarder against UW in just two career starts. I’d say OSU will hit at least one big one. Prediction: Over
Cardale Jones TDs + INTs: O/U 2.5
Definitely take the over here. There is a good chance he'll record at least one of each. And in what many believe will be a higher scoring game, a good chance he’ll get two of each. I’d take the over and feel great about it from a guy with tons of ability, lots of weapons and little experience. Prediction: Over
Longest TD scored (both): O/U 63.5
Oregon and Ohio State both rank in the top 10 nationally this fall in plays of 60 yards or more. Each team posted eight plays of 60-plus yards, giving this game a good chance of seeing multiple big plays. Prediction: Over
Team to score longest TD of the game: Ohio St (+140) or Oregon (-170)
Take the Buckeyes all day here. As I just pointed out, Ohio State is just as prone to big plays as Oregon and the Ducks' defense has given up more yards and big plays than OSU by a wide margin. Take the odds and run. Prediction: Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott rushing yards: O/U 120.5
This is the biggest prop bet in terms of production on the board for a reason. Ohio State will run the ball like crazy and Oregon hasn’t shown it can stop a power-rushing attack all year. Elliott has been over 120 yards in three straight games and the Ducks are 51st in the nation in rushing defense. Prediction: Over
The first score will be (for fun):
- all odds provided by @ToddFuhrman @BovadaLV and Westgate Las Vegas Sports Book.
From three yards and a cloud of dust, as Woody Hayes might say, to three plays per minute.
Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but when Ohio State is in the conversation to be one of the fastest national champions in college football history, the message is clear: The hurry-up, no-huddle is as mainstream as can be.
If Oregon wins the national championship, the Ducks will be the most up-tempo team to win the national title since at least the BCS era.
That’s not a surprise to anyone who follows college football closely.
This, though, is the revelation: If Ohio State wins the national title, the Buckeyes might end up one of the fastest champions since the start of the BCS era, too.
Ohio State still has a way to go to catch up to Oregon in tempo, but the Ducks and Buckeyes are running track meets compared to national champions since 1998.
“(Tempo is) an advantage for the offense,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters in Columbus earlier this week. “And if you don't take it, then that's fine. But even Alabama is moving in that direction, and is it full speed all the time? We're not, but certainly that gives us an advantage at times.”
Ohio State might not be the full-time tempo team like Oregon is, but either way, the Buckeyes or Ducks will be the first national champion since the BCS era to run 1,000 plays in a season. And that doesn’t have anything to do with playing a 15th game. Both easily crossed that threshold in the semifinals, their 14th game of the season.
Both teams average more than 72 plays per game — Oregon at 74.8 and Ohio State at 72.5. Only five BCS/AP champions in 16 years averaged more than 70 plays per game — 1999 Florida State (74.5), 2000 Oklahoma (71.9), 2004 USC, 2005 Texas (72.4) and 2007 LSU (71).*
*if that LSU team looks out of place, there’s a good reason for it. The “undefeated in regulation Tigers” played a total of six overtime periods in two games that season.
The plays per minute metric may be even more telling. Oregon averages nearly 2.8 plays per minute, which would be a BCS record by a wide margin.
Ohio State averages over 2.3 plays per minute. As it stands, the Buckeyes would be the fourth-fastest team to win a title since 1998.
|Pace of Play and National Championships|
|Year||Team||Games||Plays||Plays per Game||Plays per Minute|
*complete data unavailable
What’s that you say? Auburn-Oregon in 2010 was already the signal that tempo offense had arrived?
Maybe for Oregon. Even with Gus Malzahn running the offense, Auburn ran at a pace not that different from what came earlier in BCS championship history.
Under Chip Kelly, the Ducks averaged 78.8 plays per game and 2.9 plays per minute. Had the Ducks won that game, they would have been the most up-tempo champion by a mile.
Instead, Auburn won. And while Malzahn’s scheme and tempo set the tone for a new era in the SEC, that Tigers team was not as fast as either team in Dallas.
That Cam Newton-led Auburn team ran 67.7 plays per game, well below the 70-play threshold. The Tigers that season averaged 2.31 plays per minute, well behind Oregon’s pace this season and a smidgen behind Ohio State.
Perhaps that’s not the most startling of storylines until you examine where Ohio State and Urban Meyer started.
Meyer’s 2006 and 2008 championship teams at Florida were two of the four slowest champions of the BCS era in terms of plays per game. Ohio State’s 2002 title team ranks 11th of 17 champions in plays per game during that span.
“At Florida, there's a misunderstanding that we were a big tempo team,” Meyer said. “We weren't.”
All things change, and the tempo at Ohio State is among them. Meyer’s last two Buckeyes teams have averaged more than 71 plays per game and 2.28 plays per minute. As recently as 2008, Ohio State averaged 62.1 plays per game and fewer than two plays per minute.
In other words, the Buckeyes have gone from old school to new school in six seasons.
The irony is that Oregon isn’t running at its breakneck pace on every snap. The Ducks’ 2.76 plays per minute this season is their lowest since 2009.
Will this be the wave of the future? Oregon coach Mark Helfrich isn’t quite sure, though the change won’t come from the Ducks.
6. The dominant Atlanta Hawks
It’s not that nobody saw the Hawks coming. They were a tough out last year, pushing the then-heavyweight Indiana Pacers to seven games in an arduous first-round playoff battle — and they did this despite losing arguably their best player, Al Horford, for the season.
But who can say they saw Atlanta coming this fast, and this hard? The Hawks have gone 19-2 after a bumpy start, and are now tied with the Portland Trail Blazers for the league’s second-best record. A rejuvenated Horford is an All-Star candidate, as is frontcourt partner Paul Millsap.
Don’t sleep on their guards, either, though. Jeff Teague is demonically quick at the point, shrewdly beginning their Spurs-like sets as he knifes into the lane. The best possible result of their dynamite passing sequences? A three-pointer from Kyle Korver, who’s shooting an otherworldly 51 percent from beyond the arc.
5. The Detroit Pistons’ turnaround
Dropping Josh Smith has clearly done more than just free up the Pistons’ clogged-up big man rotation. When coach and team president Stan Van Gundy made an example of the sagging star by sending him out the door, it seemed to awaken the fight and focus in his whole roster. After a pitiful 5-23 kickoff to the year, Detroit is now undefeated since exiling Smith seven games ago.
And they’re not just beating patsies, either. The Pistons’ most recent action saw them sweep a dreaded Texas two-step, taking down the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in thrilling fashion, then beating Rajon Rondo and the rolling Dallas Mavericks the very next night. Keep your eyes turned to the ongoing basketball renaissance in Motor City.
4. Increased player movement
Newfound parity in the NBA is about a lot of things, but the largest factor of all is a set of financial rules that makes it hard for teams to keep rosters together, and encourages them to treat contracts and assets fluidly.
In other words: this season’s winter trading market has been piping hot. Dion Waiters, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, Rajon Rondo, Brandan Wright, Andrei Kirilenko and Jae Crowder have all switched teams, with more than a month to go before the deadline, and with plenty more rumblings out there. Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson, for starters, are both said to be on the block.
3. Cleveland’s shaky beginnings
Just as we didn’t see the Hawks getting so good, so quickly, it’s hard for anyone to convince the world they saw the Cleveland Cavaliers’ monstrous struggles in their crystal ball. LeBron James’ squad was, we knew, full of young talent and led by a rookie NBA head coach in David Blatt. It was never going to be easy.
The level of acrimony and upheaval in Cleveland has been astounding, though. Two mid-season trades (for Shumpert and Mozgov) point to a heightened level of urgency as the organization fights to retain James and Kevin Love this summer, both of whom can walk away. Considered title contenders before the season, the 19-17 Cavs are now working overtime just to get decent playoff positioning, and to make sure they don’t have to break the band up anytime soon.
2. Jimmy Butler’s surge into MVP territory
The Chicago Bulls have been kicking tail. If it weren’t for the Hawks’ unstoppable play, they’d have found their way to Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed by now. And the top source of their success is coming from an unlikely figure: shooting guard Jimmy Butler has become the Bulls’ best player.
Butler has long been a defensive menace, wearing his opponents’ thin with his brash, ceaseless hustle. But his sudden scoring touch has pushed him into the land of superstars. Most remaining doubters of Butler’s brilliance shut their lips when they saw him corner MVP front-runner James Harden into zero second-half field goals in a Bulls win over the Houston Rockets. Butler straight up made Harden look bad:
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1. The Sacramento Kings firing Mike Malone
Just when you thought the Western Conference was getting that much harder… it got a little bit easier.
The Sacramento Kings had been lost, directionless for years amid questions of ownership and a poor track record in the draft and free agency. Then, they did the unthinkable, and looked like a contender with a 9-5 start, behind the amazing work of big man DeMarcus Cousins and the best version yet of written-off forward Rudy Gay.
But when Cousins missed a string of games with viral meningitis and the Kings dropped eight out of 10 contests, their overzealous owner Vivek Ranadive lost his cool. He fired one of the leaders of his team’s turnaround, head coach Mike Malone. Malone wasn’t the best in the league by any means, but he was doing a damn good job, and had the difficult Cousins on his side.
Under the direction of Ty Corbin, the Kings have been a mediocre 4-6, even with DeMarcus healthy back in the rotation. Basketball optimism will probably have to keep waiting for another day, in California’s capital.
— John Wilmes
There are still eight teams battling for the ultimate prize, and the chance to hold the Lombardi Trophy over their heads at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. It’s what everyone in the NFL is after every season, far more important than any individual awards.
But the individual awards are important too, and while those haven’t been awarded yet, they’ve surely already been decided. Here’s a look at how some of those votes should go.
Nominees: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers; QB Tom Brady, Patriots; DE J.J. Watt, Texans; QB Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers; QB Tony Romo, Cowboys; RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Winner: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers
There’s a lot of buzz for Watt to become the first defensive player to win the MVP since Lawrence Taylor in 1986. And the buzz is deserved coming off a brilliant season that included 20.5 sacks, 10 pass deflections, an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown and a few TDs on offense, too. But in this era nobody affects a game like a quarterback does. And Aaron Rodgers was simply brilliant, throwing for 4,381 yards and 38 TDs with only five interceptions. He also r-e-l-a-xed the Packers and their fan base after some early issues. A good case can be made for Brady and Roethlisberger for the same reason, but Rodgers was simply better. As for Romo and Murray, they turned the Cowboys into a true contender, finally, but it’s hard to figure which one of them was the MVP for their own team.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Nominees: Jason Garrett, Cowboys; Bruce Arians, Cardinals; Bill Belichick, Patriots; Bill O’Brien, Texans; Doug Marrone, Bills
Winner: Bruce Arians, Cardinals
In almost any other year, Garrett would be the runaway winner for completely transforming the Cowboys into a power team – both physically and in the standings. He also would win points for enduring all these years and surviving Jerry Jones. But what Arians did in Arizona was remarkable considering the string of injuries his team faced – including early and late injuries to quarterback Carson Palmer. He was unfazed by the adversity and still guided the Cards to a 12-win season and the playoffs (though it ended badly behind his third-string quarterback). Belichick deserves consideration, as always, considering many predicted the demise of the Patriots. And O’Brien and Marrone helped revive struggling franchises despite problems at quarterback. But what Arians did, especially with his quarterback issues, was the best job in the NFL this year.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nominees: QB Aaron Rodgers, Packers; QB Tom Brady, Patriots; QB Andrew Luck, Colts; WR Antonio Brown, Steelers; RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Winner: RB DeMarco Murray, Cowboys
Assuming Rodgers doesn’t win this too – personally I like to have this go to someone other than the MVP – this becomes more of a stat-based award. Murray was brilliant from the get-go, opening the season with eight straight 100-yard rushing games (and 10 of the first 11). In this pass-happy era, that’s remarkable. So were his 1,845 yards, which were about 500 more than any other RB in the field.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Nominees: DE J.J. Watt, Texans, LB Justin Houston, Chiefs; CB Richard Sherman, Seahawks; DT Ndamukong Suh, Lions; LB Von Miller, Broncos; LB DeAndre Levy, Lions
Winner: DE J.J. Watt, Texans
Watt will win this in a runaway – probably unanimously – and he should. No defensive player was as spectacularly good or as consistent throughout the year, and none had anything close to the impact on games that he did. He has earned MVP consideration, though he likely won’t – and shouldn’t – win that. So this is his consolation prize. Everyone else is a distant runner up, but the only other defender who has a shot to get a vote or two is Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston, who came within a fraction of Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record by finishing with 22 sacks. Still, that’s only 1.5 more than Watt and he doesn’t come to the table with everything else Watt brings. In the NFL, at least on defense, neither does anyone else.
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nominees: WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants; G Zack Martin, Cowboys; WR Mike Evans, Buccaneers; RB Jeremy Hill, Bengals; QB Teddy Bridgewater, Vikings
Winner: WR Odell Beckham Jr., Giants
As good as this rookie class has been – and its been one of the best in years – this really should be unanimous. Beckham had 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 touchdowns, which is better than all the other rookie receivers. And he did it in only 12 games and in spectacular fashion, with the highlight-reel catch of the year. Hill and Evans were good, but his numbers don’t compare, and Bridgewater wasn’t able to do what a quarterback is supposed to – lead his team to the playoffs.
The best case for “other” would be Martin, who was brilliant on the Cowboys’ revived offensive line and by at least one measure didn’t allow a sack all season. It’s hard to single out one player on an O-line, though. Also it’s hard to imagine a guard will garner much support considering Beckham’s other-worldly numbers.
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Nominees: DT Aaron Donald, Rams; LB C.J. Mosley, Ravens; LB Khalil Mack, Raiders; LB Anthony Barr, Vikings; S Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, Packers
Winner: DT Aaron Donald, Rams
This is a hard award to give out, because it will have to be based more on eyes than on stats. None of these rookies put up any kind of spectacular defensive numbers. What they mostly did was become solid players at unheralded positions who improved their team’s defenses. The only exception is Donald, which is why he may run away with this award. His nine sacks stand out among all defensive tackles, especially since most sacks usually come from ends. He provided excellent run-stopping for a good Rams front, while adding a much-needed pass-rushing push.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for January 8:
• This is somehow perfect: The Browns might be interested in Charlie Weis.
• Former NBA great Adrian Dantley has added JV reffing to his resume, along with his crossing guard duties.
• Not sports, but interesting nonetheless: Time's list of the 100 best children's books of all time.
• Today in Steve Ballmer insanity: The Clippers owner flails around to Fergie.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Despite being only 5'10" and 210 pounds, Daniel Bryan found a home as a WWE Superstar and became the heavyweight champion. His “Yes!” chants ring throughout arenas and just about everywhere he shows up. We spoke with the 33-year-old Washington state native as he recovers from an injury and asked him for a glimpse inside the wild world of wrestling.
Was it hard to get your wrestling career started?
In the old days, you had to find someone to train you. Now, there are wrestling schools all over. I was lucky that I went to The Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy.
So, what advice would you have for someone who wanted to get started?
One, find a good, reputable school. The second thing I would stress is conditioning. I’ve never been a guy who was jacked up, but I was always in good shape. Number three, never give up. Even when I was on the independent tour and not making a lot of money, I had a lot of fun. I traveled the world. It was a blessing.
How did your “Yes!” chant start?
My favorite cage fighter, Diego Sanchez, says, “Yes!” for motivation. I said to myself, “That would get under so many people’s skins.” All of a sudden, I started doing it, and a couple weeks later, it caught on. It has transcended other sports. I did an opening speech for the San Francisco Giants’ playoff game. It’s surreal.
Who would you consider to be the best athletes in WWE?
I’m impressed with John Cena. We were somewhere at an Olympic lifting place, and there were all these gym records listed on the wall, and he goes out and breaks a bunch of the records in one day. We’re supposed to be taking it easy, and he’s breaking records.
Which wrestler is most different from their ring persona?
Kane. He is literally the nicest guy and he’s super intelligent. I learned a lot about economics from him. I learned a lot of history from Kane. Brie and I saw him in the airport after a show one time, and he was in a coffee shop with his glasses on, reading. Brie laughed and said, “If people had seen what he was doing the night before, they wouldn’t believe it.”
Is there anybody you wish you could have wrestled?
Shawn Michaels. He trained me, but I never got the chance to wrestle him.
What’s the highlight of your career?
The highest point of my career was Wrestlemania XXX, as far as ring accomplishments go. But last December, the “Slammies” were in Seattle, and my dad was able to go. It was special, because my dad was mentioned (during the event). He called my sister and told her how much of a great time he had. He even signed some autographs. He signed them, “Daniel Bryan’s Dad, Buddy Danielson.” (Bryan’s real name is Bryan Danielson.) My dad just passed away in April, so that night was special to me.
How much does it help that you are married to someone (wrestler Brie Bella) who is in the business?
It’s incredibly helpful. Our lives are very hectic. We also just support each other. The frustrations in wrestling are different than those in a regular job.
What does the future hold for you?
Right now, I’m trying to focus on getting better. But I am working on a completely different style of wrestling. I have a chance to do some things that people have never seen before.
When it comes to Ohio State football, few names are more important than Archie Griffin, a two-time Heisman Trophy winner. Here's our quick Q&A with the Buckeyes great as his team prepares for the national championship.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
Well, "awesome" is the word, and I believe that about this team. But probably more appropriate right now is "resilient." We’ve had some adversity this season and bounced back.
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
More when I was a player. Back then I would make sure I would eat the same thing that I had eaten the week before, usually a small piece of steak, spaghetti with a very bland sauce, and two pieces of toast with butter and honey on them. Coach (Woody) Hayes always said he wanted us to play hungry and the truth is we actually were hungry (laughs). Now I don’t do much. I’ve always been confident in our team and the way they’re going to perform. But I do pace around during games. That happens.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I’m going to ...
… be overjoyed. And if you’re asking me what would I do – I’m going to go to Disneyland. Make sure you hold me to that.
4. Where will you be watching the game?
I will definitely be there.
5. Who’s your favorite player on the team? (Why?)
I like Zeke, Ezekiel Elliott. I think he’s a well-rounded back. He does a great of running the football, he blocks well, and he does a good job catching the ball out of the backfield. Jalin Marshall is a fun one to watch as well. But I really like Zeke and really believe he has a tremendous future ahead of him at Ohio State. I think he’s a very special player.
Oregon and Ohio State close out college football’s first four-team FBS playoff on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas. Monday night’s matchup is uncharted waters for college football in the new postseason format, as the Ducks and Buckeyes have to regroup for the championship just one week after bowl victories. Oregon used five Florida State turnovers and 41 second-half points to defeat the Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State overcame a 21-6 first-half deficit to defeat Alabama – the No. 1 ranked team – in the Sugar Bowl.
Both teams have been hit hard by injuries this season. Oregon suffered a couple of injuries to its offensive line in the regular season, including ailments to star left tackle Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a knee injury after the regular season and is out for the remainder of the year. But those three players aren’t the full extent of the Ducks’ injury report. This team lost starting tackle Tyler Johnstone and receiver Bralon Addison before the first snap of the year. Despite all of the injuries, Oregon’s offense continued to perform at a high level thanks to Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Ducks averaged 47.2 points per game and rebounded from a loss against Arizona in early October to finish the year with nine consecutive victories.
While Oregon’s injuries have been significant at various positions, Ohio State’s losses have been centered on one position – quarterback – without a doubt the most important spot on the field. Braxton Miller was lost for the year in fall practice due to a shoulder injury, but redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett filled in admirably, leading the Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular season. Barrett suffered a season-ending leg injury against Michigan, which pushed third-stringer Cardale Jones into the lineup. Jones had only two career pass attempts prior to this season, but the sophomore delivered with solid performances in big games against Wisconsin (Big Ten championship) and Alabama (Sugar Bowl).
Oregon and Ohio State have met eight previous times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes have won all eight matchups. The last meeting between Oregon and Ohio State took place in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
Oregon vs. Ohio State (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 12 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Marcus Mariota
When the College Football Playoff National Championship kicks off on Monday night, there’s no doubt the best player on the field will be wearing a white No. 8 jersey. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won Oregon's first Heisman this year, entering this game with 4,121 yards passing and 40 scores. The junior also has rushed for 731 yards and 15 touchdowns while tossing just three picks in 408 passing attempts. Additionally, Mariota is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt – the best in the nation – and boasts a quarterback rating of 184.4. The junior started slow in Oregon’s Rose Bowl win over Florida State but finished with 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks are far from a one-man show on offense, as the line is one of the best in college football, running back Royce Freeman has rushed for 1,343 yards as a true freshman, and the receiving corps is loaded with speed and talent. Stopping Oregon’s offense falls to Ohio State co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Luke Fickell, while its offense shares some of the burden by attempting to slow down the pace and keep the Ducks on the sideline. No defense held Oregon under six yards per play through the first 14 games. Can Ohio State find a few answers? This assignment is no easy task, especially with just a week to prepare. On the positive side, teams with a good defensive line/front seven have been able to slow Oregon’s offense (at times). Ohio State has one of the nation’s most-talented front sevens on defense, headlined by end Joey Bosa, tackle Michael Bennett and rising star Darron Lee at linebacker. The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s most active teams around the line of scrimmage (105 tackles for a loss, 43 sacks) and need a big performance from the front seven in order to slow down Mariota. Of course, it’s going to be hard for Ohio State to completely keep Oregon in check all four quarters. The Buckeyes have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and limit the damage done by the Ducks’ skill players in open space. Ohio State may have to give up some yards, but this unit needs to limit big plays and force Oregon into longer drives than this team is used to.
2. Ohio State’s Gameplan on Offense
Oregon is going to rightfully garner the pregame attention as the best offense in Arlington. But let’s not forget about Ohio State’s attack. There are more similarities between these two offenses than some may realize, as coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman have modeled the Buckeyes’ gameplan after former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s attack. This season, the Ducks have run 1,047 plays in 14 games. Ohio State has run 1,015 in 14 contests. And in terms of yards per play, Oregon is averaging 7.4, Buckeyes 7.0. While Ohio State’s offense isn’t as explosive as the Ducks, this unit is capable of scoring 40 points on Monday night. Quarterback Cardale Jones has kept Ohio State’s offense performing at a high level, but the key to Monday night’s game could be running back Ezekiel Elliott. The sophomore has rushed for 450 yards and four scores over the last two games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 180 yards on 39 attempts against Florida State. Even though the Buckeyes want to play at an up-tempo pace, slowing down the game and allowing Elliott and Jones to control the flow of the game on the ground might be the best plan of attack. When Jones drops back to pass, the sophomore has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, including big-play threat Devin Smith (27.7 ypc), the steady Michael Thomas (50 catches) and rising star Jalin Marshall. When Ohio State moves into scoring position, the Buckeyes can’t afford to settle for field goals or have turnovers like Florida State experienced last week. Oregon’s defense is prone to allowing yards in exchange for turnovers and stops in the red zone. Ohio State has to grind it out with its rushing attack and eliminate the giveaways.
3. Turnovers, Third Downs, Red Zone Offense/Defense
While the good folks in Vegas pegged Oregon as a touchdown favorite, there doesn’t appear to be a significant advantage for either team on Monday night. Considering there’s very little separating Oregon and Ohio State, small aspects of the game like turnovers and red zone performance will be critical. In the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the Ducks forced five turnovers. And for the season, Oregon has posted a positive or even turnover margin in every game. It’s critical the Ducks win the turnover battle (+20 for the season), especially since their defense will give up yards. Ohio State is +10 in turnover margin but lost 22 this year. The Buckeyes can be sloppy with giveaways, as Meyer’s team lost at least two turnovers in a stretch of four out of five games. However, in Ohio State’s last three contests, this team has lost only two turnovers. Oregon simply won’t beat itself with turnovers on Monday night. The Buckeyes need to find a way to force a couple of turnovers and finish with a zero in their giveaway column. These two teams are also among the best in the nation at converting third-down attempts. The final stat sheet may not look pretty for either defense in terms of yards or points allowed, but both units have to get off the field on third downs and get the ball back to their offenses. And when Ohio State is on defense, it has to find a way to make the Ducks kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. In the red zone, Oregon has scored 51 touchdowns on 76 trips. That news has to be concerning for Ohio State, as the Buckeyes are tied for 87th nationally in red zone defense. The motto for Ohio State is pretty simple on Monday night: Allow yards but give up only three points.
There’s no shortage of intrigue for the Ohio State-Oregon showdown. For the first time since the 2006 BCS National Championship Game (Texas vs. USC), there’s not a team from the SEC in the final game of the college football season. The Ducks are looking to win their first national title in school history, while the Buckeyes are hoping to claim their first since 2002. Despite losing two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, coach Urban Meyer kept Ohio State in contention for the playoff and national championship. Meyer is one of the best in the nation, and his big-game experience could benefit the Buckeyes on Monday night. On the other sideline, Oregon has the No. 1 player in college football and an offense that is tough to stop with only a week to prepare. Will Mariota deliver in what could be his final college game? Or will the Ducks’ defensive concerns eventually be too much to overcome? Is this the game where a relatively inexperienced Cardale Jones struggles? All of those questions (and more) will be answered on Monday night.
Here are the staff predictions from Athlon Sports, along with a pick for MVP honors:
|Mitch Light||Ohio State 34-30||QB Cardale Jones, Ohio State|
|Steven Lassan||Ohio State 38-34||RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State|
|Mark Ross||Oregon 37-31||QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon|
|David Fox||Oregon 42-35||QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon|
Florida State is starting over at quarterback next season after 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday. Replacing Winston’s on-field production will be one of college football’s top offseason storylines to monitor, as coach Jimbo Fisher has a cast of talented, yet largely unproven options in the mix.
Before previewing Florida State’s quarterback battle for 2015, let’s take a step back and examine Winston’s two-year career in Tallahassee.
Winston’s departure ends one of the top two-year runs by a quarterback in recent memory. The Seminoles went 26-1 under Winston and claimed the 2013 national championship with a victory over Auburn last season. The Alabama native led Florida State to the playoff in 2014, but the Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Statistically, Winston’s numbers dropped from 2013 to 2014. After throwing for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2013, Winston threw for 3,907 yards and 25 scores in 2014. Additionally, Winston’s interceptions climbed from 10 (2013) to 18 this year.
Even with Winston’s drop in production, coach Jimbo Fisher believed the sophomore had a better year than he did in 2013. It’s also worth noting Winston was playing with a revamped receiving corps and a shuffled offensive line that struggled at times in 2014.
While Winston received plenty of attention for off-field matters, his two-year run at Florida State is going to be hard to top by the next starter or any passer in Tallahassee. And it’s not unfathomable to suggest Winston was the most talented quarterback to play at Florida State.
Considering Winston’s two-year run in Tallahassee, there are big shoes to fill under center. Assuming Winston goes in the first few picks as expected, he will become the third consecutive Florida State quarterback to go in the first round of the NFL Draft. That’s some impressive accolades for Fisher to tout on the recruiting trail.
Let’s examine the next options in Tallahassee:
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
Maguire should open spring practice as the favorite to win the quarterback job. The New Jersey native was a three-star recruit coming out of high school after running a wing-T offense at Seton Hall Prep. In two years of snaps at Florida State, Maguire completed 38 of 70 passes for 455 yards, three scores and four interceptions. He has one start (Clemson) under his belt, throwing for 304 yards against a tough defense on Sept. 20 this year. Maguire isn’t as talented as Winston, but he has experience in the offense.
2015 Year of Eligibility: Redshirt Freshman
Cosentino is a Pennsylvania native with plenty of talent, but he’s also a bit on the raw side after also playing in a wing-T offense in high school. Cosentino was considered by 247Sports to be a four-star recruit last year and redshirted in his first year on campus. The talent is certainly there for Cosentino. How quickly can he adapt to Fisher’s offense?
John Franklin III
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
Franklin III played in two games this year after spending 2013 as a redshirt. The Florida native isn’t short on athleticism, as he was a member of Florida State’s track and field teams. According to his school bio, Franklin III recorded a 6.82 time in the 60-meter dash and shared Offensive Scout Team Player Award honors with Wilson Bell last year. Franklin III is probably a longshot to win the starting job next year.
The wild card: Braxton Miller
Ohio State’s quarterback situation is crowded for 2015. Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller are each proven options for coach Urban Meyer. Miller is eligible to transfer and start at another program in 2015, and unless he’s guaranteed a starting spot in Columbus, it’s hard to envision the senior staying to sit on the bench or playing sparingly as a third-string quarterback. The Palm Beach Post reported in late December there was interest from Miller about transferring to Florida State. Miller is a different quarterback than what Fisher has worked with recently, as the senior is a dynamic dual-threat option. However, Miller is coming off two shoulder surgeries and may not be at full strength by this spring. Although Miller has the talent to be an All-American quarterback, he seems like an unlikely fit for Florida State.
Florida State has three freshman quarterbacks committed (as of Jan. 7).
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 100 recruit nationally
Kai Locksley (listed by 247 as an athlete)
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 225 recruit nationally
3-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 377 recruit nationally
Johnson is already enrolled at Florida State, but Francois and Locksley could still flip to another school by Signing Day. Even if all three sign with the Seminoles, it’s hard to envision a true freshman taking the first snap of the year for Fisher.
The Supporting Cast Consideration
Regardless of which quarterback starts for Florida State next season, Fisher and the staff needs to retool the supporting cast. Receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary combined to catch 147 of the Seminoles’ 330 completions in 2014, and both players have expired their eligibility. There’s certainly no shortage of talent, as Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones is a solid group of young receivers. Four starters must be replaced on the offensive line, but left tackle Roderick Johnson is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. And the new quarterback will have a rising star in sophomore Dalvin Cook to lean on at running back.
Maguire takes the first snap of 2015 for Florida State. Even though he wasn’t the biggest recruit in the quarterback huddle for the Seminoles, the New Jersey native has experience and will have a better grasp of the offense with an offseason to work as the No. 1 passer. Maguire’s first start (Clemson) wasn’t overly impressive on the stat sheet (21 of 39, 304 yards, two picks), but it’s also important to consider the Tigers had one of the best defenses in college football in 2014. Fisher will find an answer at quarterback by the opener, and the guess here is Maguire is the starter against Texas State.
On Monday night in Arlington, one team’s national championship window might be opening while the other one might be closing.
First, don’t overreact. Both Oregon and Ohio State have proven their staying power on the big stage. The Ducks and Buckeyes will make College Football Playoff appearances in the years to come.
For Ohio State, the return trip might be a little sooner.
Of the 33 players who started at least one game for Ohio State this season, 13 of them came from the signing class of 2013. Six of those sophomores or redshirt freshmen started in the Sugar Bowl.
Contrast that with Oregon. True, the Ducks have a total of 14 freshmen, sophomores and redshirt freshmen who played regular snaps this season. But the Ducks are also relying heavily on the most veteran of veteran players.
Oregon started eight fifth-year seniors during the course of the season, including one who signed in the final class under Mike Bellotti two coaches ago. Six starters for Oregon in the Rose Bowl were fifth-year seniors.
There are many ways to build a national championship team, and few illustrate that better than Oregon and Ohio State in the title game this season. One is relying on young talent, the other on veterans. One is more likely to nab top-100 recruits, one has done a better job of developing three-star talent. And both tend to stay on their own sides of the Mississippi River to recruit.
Athlon Sports looked at every player who started a game for Oregon and Ohio State this season, giving us the 36 Ducks and 33 Buckeyes who have led the way for both teams to reach the final game of the 2014 college football season.
Here’s a look at how Oregon and Ohio State built contenders.
Listen to College Football National Championship Prediction podcast:
Youth vs. Experience
|Signing Class||Ohio State (33 starters)||Oregon (36 starters)|
• On its face, Oregon’s 13 first- and second-year players would seem to put the Ducks on even footing with Ohio State’s 14 first- and second-year players. A deeper look proves otherwise. The Buckeyes’ last two signing classes produced standout defensive end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and running back Ezekiel Elliott — not to mention injured quarterback J.T. Barrett. Oregon’s last two signing classes produced running back Royce Freeman, wide receiver Devon Allen and starting guard Cameron Hunt among others.
• There’s no doubt Ohio State is Urban Meyer’s team. Take a look at the last three signing classes for Ohio State. Two-thirds (22 of 33) of all the players to start a game this season signed under Urban Meyer.
• Oregon’s team is a little more evenly distributed by signing class, not a surprise since the program has seen little upheaval on the coaching staff despite Mark Helfrich taking over for Chip Kelly in 2013.
• The Ducks, though, have an abundance of fifth-year seniors. Oregon started six fifth-year seniors in the Rose Bowl: safety Erick Dargan, center Hroniss Grasu, cornerback Troy Hill, wide receiver Keanon Lowe, linebacker Tony Washington and offensive guard Hamani Stevens. Stevens will be the oldest player in the game. He signed at Oregon in 2008 before leaving for a two-year religious mission.
Where are the five-star recruits?
|Star Ranking*||Ohio State||Oregon|
*according to 247Sports Composite
• Both teams pull their share of top recruits, so it’s a bit of a shock to see only a combined five five-star prospects getting significant snaps for Oregon and Ohio State. Maybe that has something to do with the lack of the recruiting-mad SEC in the title game.
• That said, all of the five-star prospects in this game are playing major roles: Ohio State safety Vonn Bell, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and linebacker Curtis Grant are all starters. Oregon defensive tackle Arik Armstead is a starter. The lone exception is running back Thomas Tyner, who led Oregon in rushing in the Rose Bowl.
• Another unexpected twist: The best recruit for either team in the last five recruiting cycles isn’t on the roster. Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence, the No. 5 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012, was declared permanently ineligible earlier this season amid positive drug tests. Meanwhile, the most decorated player in the game, Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, was a three-star prospect.
• Oregon did an exceptional job of locating and developing three-star talent. Besides Mariota, Oregon’s best three offensive linemen (Grasu, Stevens and Jake Fisher) were three-star prospects as were the Ducks’ three starting linebackers.
• And let’s not paint with too broad a brush: Ohio State unearthed some good three stars itself in linebacker Darron Lee and quarterback Cardale Jones.
• Between the two of them, Oregon and Ohio State started only two junior college prospects all season and only one of them (Oregon linebacker Joe Walker) started in the semifinals. Ohio State signed two players out of high school but needed to wait for them to return from a prep school. They were worth the wait — the prep school Buckeyes were Cardale Jones and wide receiver Michael Thomas.
From coast to coast
|High Schools by State|
|Ohio (22)||California (16)|
|Oregon (6)||Florida (2)|
|Arizona (4)||Texas (2)|
|Hawaii (2)||Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey (1 each)|
|California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Virginia (1 each)|
• Few surprises here. Ohio State grabbed a majority of its key players from in-state with 22 Ohioans starting games for the Buckeyes this season. No other state pulled more than two. Oregon pulled 15 starters from the state of California, primarily from the Los Angeles metro area.
• Ohio State has one starter who went to high school in the West in Michael Thomas of Woodland Hills, Calif. Ohio State recruited him twice, once from his California high school and once from prep school in Virginia. Oregon, meanwhile, has four key players it recruited from a Big Ten state.
• The hometown crowd might not be too fired up about this: The game will feature more players from the state of Hawaii than the state of Texas. Oregon has two starters from Honolulu in Mariota and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. Ohio State started two players from Texas this season — quarterback J.T. Barrett and receiver Dontre Wilson.
Move over, Jon “Bones” Jones. Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is looking to take up the fighting mantle — except with other NBA coaches.
Well, maybe he was joking a little. Casey made the suggestion that he’d raise his fists in the name of Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, and his impending All-Star status. "I hope our fans get out and vote and don't put it in the hands of the coaches,” Casey said to Josh Lewenberg of The Sports Network. “And if the coaches don't do it, I'm probably going to get in a physical fight with those guys.”
Lowry is a legitimate MVP candidate on a Raptors team that has one of the best records in the NBA at 24-10, even without starting shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, who’s missed the last 18 games with a groin injury. Perhaps DeRozan’s return (which could come as soon as Thursday against the Charlotte Hornets) can help Casey and his Canadian fanbase bring the Raptors to a level of attention and appreciation that allows them to put down the veritable boxing gloves.
Getting the world to turn their heads that far north to watch the game’s best new ballers remains a chore, though. This Toronto squad is easily the most competitive, exciting outfit they’ve fielded since the halcyon days of Vince Carter, with a pattern of mediocrity holding for over a decade in between then and now. The frozen nation has a thrilling team today, though, as well as the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett — a duo both drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers, but now both doing business just beneath their home country with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Basketball is on the rise in Canada, with Toronto as a hyper-loving sports city that deserves every bit of the Raptors’ success. And if their shockingly good attendance for their team’s first-round playoff presence in 2014 is any indication, there’s hope that they can gather the needed votes to promote Lowry beyond fourth place (his current standing regarding votes among Eastern Conference guards) and keep their coach from spilling blood at his next union meeting.
— John Wilmes
LOS ANGELES — If there was a time this season to give up on Oregon playing for a national championship, odds are the Ducks’ offensive line was involved.
First, left tackle Tyler Johnstone, an NFL draft prospect, was lost for the season to a torn ACL before the season ever started. Oregon moved veteran Jake Fisher from right to left tackle, but optimism for that move was short-lived.
Then, Fisher went down with a leg injury after three games. So did reserve Andre Yruretagoyena. Oregon responded with its two worst games of the season, giving up seven sacks in a narrow win over Washington State and five sacks in a loss to Arizona.
Oddly enough, the loss seemed to enhance Oregon’s chances for the playoff once Fisher returned to the lineup. When Fisher was healthy, Oregon was unstoppable. It didn’t hurt that Arizona finished the regular season with 10 wins and a Pac-12 South title.
In Pasadena, though, there was reason for doubt again. Veteran center Hroniss Grasu had missed three final three games of the regular season. He, too, recovered in time.
Grasu and Fisher were both in fine form for the Rose Bowl, a game in which Oregon neutralized a Florida State defensive front stocked with pro potential.
“It's been patchwork all year,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said from Rose Bowl preparation. “Guys that were called on that didn't expect to play have done a great job.”
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Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards were reasons the Seminoles won the eye test in Pasadena. The final eye test, though, was in Oregon’s favor.
Goldman and Edwards were non-factors in the Playoff semifinal. Against the Ducks’ line, the duo didn’t have a single tackle, forced fumble or tipped pass.
In other words, they were absent from the final stat sheet. Marcus Mariota was never sacked, and the Ducks rushed for a total of 301 yards and five touchdowns. Oregon didn’t even move backward on a run play until backup quarterback Jeff Luckie was in the game in the fourth quarter.
Now, all the Oregon offensive line has to do for the Ducks to win the national championship is post similar results against one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
Florida State front has pro prospects, for certain, but Ohio State’s line is better. This is a group that had three sacks against Alabama’s Blake Sims and contributed to three interceptions in the semifinal. A game before that, it held Melvin Gordon to 76 yards and no runs of longer than 13 yards in the Big Ten title game.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota may be the top player on either team, but no collection of players may be more impressive than Ohio State’s defensive front.
One of the key matchups in the game will be between defensive end Joey Bosa, a unanimous All-America selection, against Fisher, who was slated to spend the season at right tackle until August.
This kind of a matchup isn’t likely to faze Fisher.
“Jake is a dog,” running back/wide receiver Byron Marshall said. “He doesn't take nothing from nobody, and I can appreciate that about him. If he gets pissed off, then it's good. Honestly, I like him mad. He gets to talking out there, and you can just see in his eyes that he's just ready.”
Oddly enough, Fisher, from Traverse City, Mich., committed to Michigan before the Wolverines fired coach Rich Rodriguez. Fisher now has a chance to beat Michigan State and Ohio State in the same season — but for Oregon.
While Fisher will continue to receive most of the accolades for Oregon’s offensive line thanks to the team’s performance when he’s in the lineup, he’s not the only difference-maker here.
A four-year starter and three-time All-Pac-12 selection, Grasu is one of the nation’s top centers. And although he missed the final three games of the regular season, he returned to pave through Goldman and the Semionles’ front line. Guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt are on a streak of 39 consecutive starts combined. When Grasu was out, Stevens was the one who moved from left guard to center.
And even tough Fisher’s injury exposed Oregon at the time, it provided freshman Tyrell Crosby with valuable experience. He’s started the last five games at right tackle. That includes no sacks allowed against Arizona or Florida State, a long way from his early starts against Washington State at Arizona.
“He was a freshman and trying to pick up the tempo of a college game,” Marshall said. “We were able to get that experience, help control the line that much more, and just helped us bust runs.”
What started as a patchwork is now a strength, perhaps enough of one to lead Oregon to its first national championship.
“Early on, when they were thrown in, they've had struggles, but those guys have really matured and developed as the year's gone along,” Frost said. “We've got more guys healthy right now than we've had almost the entire season.”
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for January 7:
• Jameis Winston is leaving Florida State for the NFL. Watch out, bars and strip clubs of Tallahassee.
• The Preds' Pekka Rinne made an insane backwards leg save.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Waiters-Smith-Shumpert trade was not exactly the beginning of swap season, either. That was signaled when Rajon Rondo was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks. Then it was continued by Josh Smith’s shocking dismissal from the Detroit Pistons, followed by his sign-up with the potent Houston Rockets.
What else is on the grill? Some have speculated that Phil Jackson isn’t done sending pieces out in New York, and that 33-year-old veteran point guard Jose Calderon could also soon be out the door.
But not only crummy teams like the Knicks are in a place to potentially make moves. Even the Golden State Warriors, basketball’s best team, are under some pressure to tweak their roster and salary cap situation. In order to make room for red-hot power forward Draymond Green, financially, they might look at moving All-Star David Lee, who’s been relegated to a reserve role as Green has a career year. Green is headed for restricted free agency this summer, and his coveted combination of three-point accuracy and stingy interior defense makes him worth a pretty penny.
That’s the nature of the new NBA. The complex, thorny collective bargaining agreement — written and instituted just about three seasons ago — means contracts will jump around the league like hot potatoes, both now and going forward. Continuity and consistency are all too difficult to attain under these movement-favoring rules.
— John Wilmes
Ohio State and Oregon clash in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 12 to decide college football’s national champion. The Ducks and Buckeyes advanced to the national championship after bowl wins on Jan. 1, setting up an intriguing matchup with no shortage of storylines. Both teams are led by offensive-minded coaches and were two of the top programs during the BCS era. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will be the best player on the field in Arlington, but Ohio State counters with a defense that limits opponents to 22.1 points per game. Despite losing starter J.T. Barrett, third-string quarterback Cardale Jones has filled in admirably and kept the Buckeyes’ offense hitting on all cylinders.
While Mariota, Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa will get most of the pregame hype as the top players on Jan. 12, there are always a few x-factors that deliver with a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine five potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 12.
5 X-Factors for the 2015 College Football National Championship
1. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
Jones easily passed his first two tests as Ohio State’s No. 1 quarterback. The sophomore threw for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Jones doesn’t have the explosive running ability of former starter J.T. Barrett, but he’s certainly not a statue in the pocket. Against Wisconsin, Jones only rushed for nine yards on eight attempts, but he added 43 yards on 17 rushes against Alabama. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is clearly the best quarterback on the field when the Buckeyes and Ducks meet on Jan. 12. However, Jones has proven he is more than just a third-string quarterback in two starts. If Jones plays like he did against Wisconsin and Alabama, Ohio State has a good shot to win on Monday night in Arlington.
2. Evan Baylis, TE, Oregon
The loss of standout tight end Pharaoh Brown was a huge blow to Oregon’s offense. Brown suffered a major knee injury in the win over Utah and finished the year with 25 receptions for 420 yards and six scores. With Brown sidelined over the final three regular season games, Oregon tight ends – Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis – only caught three passes. But in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the tight end was featured more by coordinator Scott Frost and quarterback Marcus Mariota. Baylis grabbed six passes for 73 yards against the Seminoles, and both totals were season-high marks for the sophomore. With the speed and vertical threats in Oregon’s passing game, having a tight end like Baylis attacking the middle of the field is another dangerous option for Mariota.
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3. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State
Stopping Oregon’s offense starts at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State has the necessary defensive line to give the Ducks trouble from the snap, as end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett earned All-America honors in 2014. But Bosa and Bennett aren’t the only contributors to a line that is among the best in the nation. Washington ranked as the No. 21 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012 and has been a major contributor since his true freshman campaign. In 14 games this year, Washington recorded 45 tackles (9.5 tackles for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. The junior will be tasked with disrupting Oregon’s offense and winning the battle at the point of attack with interior linemen in guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt, along with center Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks will be focused on keeping Bosa and Bennett out of the backfield. However, with the attention diverted to the two All-Americans, Monday night’s game is a good opportunity for Washington to have a huge performance.
4. Chris Seisay, CB, Oregon
Seisay was pushed into the spotlight in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury ended Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s season. Despite Ekpre-Olomu’s absence, Oregon held Florida State to 20 points and no receiver eclipsed the 100-yard mark. The Ducks limited All-ACC receiver Rashad Greene to six catches for 59 yards, while tight end Nick O’Leary caught only one pass for four yards. Judging cornerbacks by statistics is always tricky, but Seisay recorded six tackles in his second career start. By all accounts, Seisay’s performance was not an issue in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State’s receiving corps doesn’t have an All-American performer like Greene, but this unit has made strides over the last few seasons. Devin Smith averages 27.7 yards per catch, while Michael Thomas has 10 catches over the last two games. Seisay was under the spotlight in the Rose Bowl, and it’s a safe bet to assume the Buckeyes will test the redshirt freshman once again on Monday night.
5. Jalin Marshall, All-Purpose, Ohio State
The official Ohio State depth chart lists Marshall at the starting H-back, but the freshman will get the ball in a variety of ways. And if something happens to Cardale Jones on Monday night, Marshall is technically the backup quarterback. Regardless of where he lines up, Marshall is an emerging star for the Buckeyes. The freshman rushed for 142 yards and a score on 23 attempts this year, attempted two passes and caught 33 balls for 447 yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, Marshall was a weapon on special teams, averaging 12 yards per punt return. In the Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama, Marshall recorded 10 touches in an all-purpose role. And if Ohio State is going to win on Monday night, he needs to have 10-15 opportunities to make plays in a variety of ways. The Buckeyes aren’t hurting for playmakers with running back Ezekiel Elliott and receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Dontre Wilson was the starter at H-Back earlier this year and missed the Sugar Bowl due to injury. Even if Wilson returns against Oregon, Marshall is too valuable (and too productive recently) to leave out of the gameplan.