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Defensive purists may not want to watch tonight when the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles go at it in the opening NFC Wild Card game at 8:10 p.m. ET on NBC. The Saints (11-5) and the Eagles (10-6) are among the top four offenses in the NFL and combined averaged more than 52 points per game during the regular season.
New Orleans is back in the postseason after a one-year hiatus, but the Saints were unable to hold off Carolina for the NFC South crown, meaning they will have to do something they have never done – win a road playoff game – if they want to return to the Super Bowl. Philadelphia meanwhile won the NFC East in Chip Kelly’s first season, putting the Eagles in the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Now Kelly and quarterback Nick Foles will try and win their first career playoff game together by beating the Saints’ Super Bowl-winning duo of Sean Payton and Drew Brees.
4 Things to Watch
Philadelphia and New Orleans finished second and fourth, respectively, in the NFL in total offense. Both teams averaged about 400 yards per game and also were among the top 10 teams in scoring. Although their offensive approaches are slightly different, there are numerous similarities between these two teams. Both Nick Foles and Drew Brees completed better than 64 percent of their passes, ranked among the top six in passer rating and top 10 in touchdown passes. The veteran Brees finished behind only Peyton Manning in terms of passing yards (5,162) and touchdowns (39), while first-year starter Foles took over for an injured Michael Vick and wound up leading the league in passer rating (119.2) while posting an impressive 27:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Both signal-callers have legitimate No. 1 receivers that caught at least 82 passes and nine touchdowns, along with a host of other reliable options, including running backs. Neither defenses are terrible by any means, but with offensive masterminds Sean Payton and Chip Kelly calling the plays and the likes of Brees, Foles, LeSean McCoy, Jimmy Graham, DeSean Jackson and others executing them, don’t expect this postseason tilt to develop into a defensive struggle.
Philadelphia’s Backfield Edge
Offensive similarities aside, if there’s one position the Eagles have a significant edge at it’s running back. LeSean McCoy not only led the NFL in rushing with 1,607 yards, but he set a new, single-season franchise record and finished with nearly 300 more than the next guy (Matt Forte) on the list. The man known as Shady averaged 5.1 yards per carry and added 52 receptions for 539 yards in his first season in Chip Kelly’s up-tempo offense. McCoy found the end zone a total of 11 times (nine rush, two receiving) and had 17 total plays from scrimmage that went for at least 20 yards. With McCoy leading the way, Philadelphia was tops in the league in rushing offense at 160.4 yards per game. On the flip side, New Orleans, which is known for being a passing team with Drew Brees under center, came in at 25th overall with just 92.1 yards rushing per game. The Saints as a team averaged 3.8 yards per carry and their leading rusher (Pierre Thomas, 549 yards) has already been ruled out for tonight’s game because of a back injury. McCoy had 598 yards rushing in his last five games alone and on the season the Eagles’ first-team All-Pro (Associated Press) has out-rushed the entire Saints team by 134 yards (1,607 to 1,473). To make matters worse for New Orleans, its defense finished 19th in the league against the run, giving up 112.2 yards rushing per game. McCoy has played a huge role in Philadelphia getting this far, so there’s no reason to not expect to see a lot of Shady tonight.
Saints’ Road Woes
For whatever reason, New Orleans is simply a different team away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The results speak for themselves. The Saints went 8-0 at home this season, averaging a robust 34.0 points per game. On the road, they were 3-5 and scored nearly half (17.8 ppg) as many points. New Orleans got off to a good start this season, winning in Tampa Bay and Chicago to open its road slate, but won just one more away game the rest of the way. In their last three (Seattle, St. Louis and Carolina), the Saints were outscored 78-36. And if that’s not enough, New Orleans is 0-5 all-time on the road in playoff games, including 0-3 with Sean Payton as head coach and Drew Brees as quarterback. The last loss came in the 2011 Divisional Round when San Francisco scored late in the fourth quarter to beat New Orleans 36-32. As the No. 6 seed in the NFC bracket, the Saints already have the deck stacked against them, needing three road victories to get to the Super Bowl. Add in that the Eagles have won four in a row at home and are 3-1 in their past four playoff games at Lincoln Financial Field and it’s clear the Saints have their work cut out for them if they want to get this road monkey off of their backs.
Eagles’ Improving D
On paper, New Orleans’ defense has fared considerably better than Philadelphia’s, and it’s not even close. The Saints finished the regular season fourth in yards allowed (305.7 ypg) while the Eagles were near the bottom (29th, 394.2 ypg). That said, Philadelphia’s D has shown signs of improvement recently, meaning this unit may be peaking at just the right time. Outside of a disastrous showing in Minnesota (455 YA, 48 PA), the Eagles gave up an average of 313 yards and 18.5 points per game in their past five games. Three of these games were at home and the Saints’ road woes were documented earlier. If these two trends continue tonight, then Chip Kelly may not need big numbers from his offense in order to win his first career playoff game as an NFL head coach.
New Orleans Key Player: Jimmy Graham, TE
Philadelphia has the big edge at running back in LeSean McCoy. The same can be said for the Saints when it comes to Graham. A near-unanimous first-team All-Pro as voted by the Associated Press, the tight end led the NFL with 16 touchdowns and finished among the top 15 in both receptions (86) and yards (1,215). A matchup nightmare, Graham posted six 100-yard games and caught at least one touchdown in all but five games despite being hampered by plantar fasciitis for much of the season. The Eagles did a good job against opposing tight ends this season, giving up just three touchdowns, but Graham is no ordinary tight end. He will no doubt draw plenty of defensive attention tonight, but even that may not be enough to slow down the 6-7, 256-pound athletic freak of nature.
Philadelphia Key Player: Nick Foles, QB
Tonight’s game features a matchup of native Texans as Foles followed in Drew Brees’ footsteps when he played quarterback at Westlake High School in Austin. Ten years younger than Brees, Foles now has a chance to beat his Super Bowl-winning idol in his first playoff game. It has already been a dream season for Foles, who took over for an injured Michael Vick and would up going 8-2 as the starter for the NFC East champs. In 13 total games this season, Foles led the NFL with a 119.2 passer rating, as he threw 27 touchdowns, including a record-tying seven against Oakland, and just two interceptions. He also can make plays with his legs (221 yards rushing, 3 TDs), but the key for Foles tonight is to not try and match Brees throw-for-throw. Unlike Brees, Foles has the NFL’s leading rusher (LeSean McCoy) to lean on, but there will still be times when he will need to make something happen either inside or outside of the pocket. Foles grew up idolizing one of the best quarterbacks the game has ever seen, but tonight is this Texan’s opportunity to stand tall and make a name for himself.
From an experience standpoint, New Orleans has a clear edge over Philadelphia, as Sean Payton and Drew Brees have posted a 5-3 record in the playoffs together, including a win in Super Bowl XLIV to end the 2009 season. Meanwhile, Chip Kelly and Nick Foles are both playing in their first career postseason game.
That said, the Eagles are the home team and have won four in a row at Lincoln Financial Field, They also boast one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses with Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and others taking full advantage of Kelly’s up-tempo system. Then there’s also the Saints’ lack of success on the road, not only this season but also in the playoffs. New Orleans went just 3-5 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome this season and is 0-5 all-time in postseason road contests.
Brees and the Saints are capable of putting up some big offensive numbers of their own, especially with weapons like All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham, but the Eagles have much more balance, highlighted by McCoy, the league’s leading rusher. In the end, the Eagles have too much offense for a more one-dimensional Saints attack to overcome, especially one that can’t seem to put it all together when they are the visitors.
Philadelphia 31, New Orleans 27
The 2013 NFL playoffs will kick off Saturday with a Week 16 rematch when the Kansas City Chiefs and Indianapolis Colts square off in the AFC Wild Card game at 4:35 p.m. ET on NBC. Andy Reid’s Chiefs (11-5) should be at near full strength for the first time in more than a month while Chuck Pagano’s Colts (11-5) appear to be peaking at the right time.
After starting out the season 9-0, Kansas City lost five of their final seven games, including a 23-7 setback at home to Indianapolis just two weeks ago. The Chiefs also haven’t won a playoff game since the 1993 Divisional Round, as their seven-game postseason losing streak is tied with Detroit for the longest in NFL history. Included in this streak are three losses to the Colts, the most recent being a 23-8 home defeat in the 2006 Wild Card game.
Indianapolis won the AFC South with a perfect 6-0 divisional record and also defeated Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC respectively, as well as San Francisco during the regular season. After playing uneven to open the second half of their schedule, the Colts finished with a flourish, winning their final three games by a combined score of 78-20. Now Andrew Luck will look to keep the momentum going at home, put an end to Indianapolis’ own three-game postseason skid and earn his first career playoff victory in the process.
3 Things to Watch
Two weeks ago, Indianapolis, 9-5 at the time, entered its Week 16 game against Kansas City (11-3) as the underdog and in the midst of a six-game stretch in which the Colts traded losses and wins. Meanwhile, the Chiefs had seemingly righted the ship after dropping three in a row (two of those to Denver) at home, beating the Redskins and Raiders on the road by a combined score of 101-41. Back at Arrowhead Stadium, the Chiefs jumped out to 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a 31-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Charles, only to watch the visiting team take over from there. Indianapolis scored the final 23 points of the game, as Andrew Luck threw for 241 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers and Donald Brown scored two touchdowns (one rush, one receiving) to supply most of the offense. On defense, the Colts gave up 155 yards rushing, including 106 to Charles, but limited Alex Smith to just 153 yards passing, sacked him five times and forced a total of four turnovers (three by Smith) to hold the Chiefs scoreless for the final 50 minutes of the game.
The Colts opened this season strong, winning five of their first seven games, including home contests against Seattle and Denver and on the road against San Francisco. Coming out of their Week 8 bye, however, Indianapolis struggled to find any consistency or rhythm. A road wins against Houston was followed up by a 38-8 home shellacking administered by St. Louis, while a victory in Nashville over Tennessee preceded a 40-11 beatdown in Arizona. This win-then-lose pattern continued for two more weeks until the Colts handily defeated the defending AFC South champion Texans, 25-3, in Lucas Oil Stadium. That was the start of a three-game winning streak to end the regular season in which Indianapolis beat Houston, Kansas City and Jacksonville by an average of 19.3 points per game. Both sides of the ball have been clicking lately, as the offense has displayed balance and the defense has stiffened up. The offense has averaged 359 yards per game during this stretch, its best three-game run since early in the season, while the defense held teams to 292 yards per contest and forced a total of seven turnovers. Put it all together and Chuck Pagano’s team appears to be peaking at just the right time and now gets to face a Chiefs squad it just beat two weeks ago. What’s more, this game will be on the Colts’ home turf, on which they went 6-2 during the regular season, including wins over Denver and Seattle, the top seeds in the AFC and NFC playoffs, respectively. There’s little question that Indianapolis comes into this one with plenty of momentum on its side. The question now is can the Colts capitalize on it to produce a fourth straight win?
Kansas City’s Reinforcements
The Chiefs roared out to a 9-0 start, but limped home with a 2-5 finish due in large part to injuries. That’s the main reason why Andy Reid rested 20 of 22 starters in the regular-season finale in San Diego, a game that the Chiefs had a chance to win on a 41-yard field goal attempt by Ryan Succop at the end of regulation. It was not meant to be however, as Succop’s kick just missed to the right (and the referees missed a penalty on the Chargers that would have resulted in another shot from 36 yards away), giving the Chargers a second chance. San Diego made the most of the extra period, winning the game with a field goal in overtime and snatching the final playoff spot in the AFC from Pittsburgh in the process. While the Chiefs’ postseason berth had been secured two weeks prior, it didn’t take away the fact that Kansas City finished the regular season with two straight losses. The good news, however, is that the Chiefs should be back to near full strength for their rematch with the Colts, as linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali, along with left tackle Branden Albert are all expected to play. Houston (dislocated elbow) and Hali (swelling in the knee) could be difference-makers for a defense that has struggled for the past two months. After allowing just 12.3 points per game in the first seven games, the Chiefs have given up 27.7 over their last seven contests. Houston, who has missed the past five games, and Hali have combined for 22 of the team’s 47 sacks. In the past five games, Kansas City has collected 10 sacks, but six of those came in one game (at Washington), and the defense had just one of Andrew Luck in the Week 16 home loss to Indianapolis. The pass rush has been one of the signatures of this Chiefs defense and it appears it will be closer to 100 percent for the most important game of the season to date. On offense, don’t underestimate the return of Albert either. He has missed the past four games and his presence is even more important now that fellow tackle Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall pick in April’s draft, injured his groin in practice on Tuesday, putting his status up in the air. The offense needs Albert to help open up space for Jamaal Charles on the ground and to give Alex Smith enough time in the pocket to make some plays. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe also has been cleared to return after missing last week’s game due to a concussion he sustained in the first meeting against the Colts. Which Kansas City team – the one that started 9-0 or the one that lost five of its final seven games – shows up in Indianapolis remains to be seen, but at least the starting lineup should look more like the former rather than the latter.
Kansas City Key Player: Jamaal Charles, RB
Besides leading the AFC in rushing with 1,287 yards, Charles is the Chiefs’ leading receiver with 70 catches for 693 yards and he led the entire NFL in touchdowns with 19 (12 rush, 7 receiving). Put it all together and Charles is responsible for more than a third (36.6 percent) of Kansas City’s total offense (1,980 of 5,396 yards) and nearly half (46.3 percent) of the team’s offensive touchdowns. Simply put, Charles is the Chiefs’ offense and he needs to put up big numbers against the Colts to take the pressure off of quarterback Alex Smith and the passing game, as well as a defense that’s been reeling lately. In the first meeting against Indianapolis in Week 16, Charles staked Kansas City to a 7-0 lead and finished the game with 106 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving. The biggest problem was that he touched the ball just 18 times, which tied for his second-fewest of the season. Not surprisingly, the Chiefs managed just seven points and posted the third-fewest offensive yards (287) on the season in the home loss. The Colts finished 26th in the league in rushing defense, giving up 125.1 yards per game. Charles averaged 132 total yards per game, so there’s no reason to not expect him to get 20-plus touches this time around, especially if the Chiefs want to put themselves in a position to survive and advance.
Indianapolis Key Player: Andrew Luck, QB
Luck has already done something that his predecessor, Peyton Manning, didn’t accomplish during his tenure in Indianapolis. Luck, the former Stanford star and No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft, has led the Colts to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons, posting 11-5 marks both years. Manning went 3-13 in his 1998 rookie campaign before turning that record completely around and winning the AFC East the following season. Now Luck will try and beat Manning to another milestone by winning his first career playoff game in just his second try. Manning lost his first three postseason contests before taking the Colts to the AFC Championship Game in 2003, where they lost to the Patriots. Luck’s second postseason game will come at home, and he knows better than anyone that he must improve on his first playoff effort to put his team in a position to win. In last season’s AFC Wild Card game in Baltimore, Luck completed just 28 of 54 passes for 288 yards with an interception and he also lost a fumble after a sack. The Ravens, who were the No. 4 seed, went on to win Super Bowl XLVII over San Francisco, a path the Colts would no doubt love to copy. The first step is beating the Chiefs for the second time in three weeks. However, as his predecessor will attest to, regular-season success doesn’t automatically carry over to the playoffs. Luck has already demonstrated he’s a quick study, increasing his completion percentage by more than six points (54.1 to 60.2) and cutting his interceptions in half (18 to 9) from his rookie season to this one. Now’s the time to find out if his maturation process carries over to the games that count the most.
Indianapolis enters this rematch with Kansas City playing its best football of the season. The Colts are at home, where they have already beaten the Seahawks and Broncos, and also have a road win against the Chiefs under their belt. Kansas City struggled to close the season out, but injuries played a big hand in its 2-5 finish and Andy Reid basically treated the finale against San Diego as a bye week. The Chiefs should be close to full strength for this game, and the defense has already shown on multiple occasions that it’s capable of dominating the opposition.
As well as the Colts have played lately, I think one of the keys in this game will be the Chiefs’ re-energized pass rush. Kansas City had 47 sacks in the regular season, and Indianapolis has had its issues with teams that can pressure the pocket. Andrew Luck had little trouble with the Chiefs’ defense in the first game, but Kansas City wasn’t close to 100 percent on that side of the ball. This time, I am expecting Luck to be under more duress, and the Colts don’t have a running back like Jamaal Charles in their backfield to take the pressure off of their quarterback.
In the end, Kansas City returns to the formula that produced a 9-0 start – a heavy dose of Charles combined with a relentless pass rush and opportunistic defense – and make just enough plays in the second half to keep a scrappy Indianapolis team at bay. The Chiefs put an end to their seven-game losing streak in the playoffs while the Colts’ grows to four in a row, as Luck gets a second taste of the postseason disappointment that his predecessor experienced early in his career.
Kansas City 27, Indianapolis 23
Seven of the nation's best prospects announced where they intend to play college football, at the seventh annual Under Armour game in Florida on Thursday.
While a verbal commitment is literally worth nothing in the formal sense, many teams got a lot of good news yesterday. Until the paper work — i.e., the National Letter of Intent — is signed on the first Wednesday in February, these announcements amount to little more than a hill of beans technically. But when six of the top 30 players in the nation make a national television decision on where they will be playing their college ball, it is big news.
Here are the winners and losers from Tropicana Field on Thursday night.
Note: All rankings come from 247Sports
Under Armour Winners:
The Tigers had eyes on going “5-for-5” at the Under Armour event. While that was highly unlikely, Tigers fans everywhere started to get nervous when it missed out on instate talents Speedy Noil and Gerald Willis, along with Texas product Tony Brown. However, Les Miles and "The University of LSU" capped the day by landing the No. 1 overall player in the nation in tailback Leonard Fournette and the No. 2 safety in the nation in Jamal Adams. Picking up two top 30 prospects in one afternoon is a huge coup no matter who else the Tigers might have missed out on. LSU moved from No. 10 in the team rankings to No. 5 and is third in the SEC behind only Alabama and Texas A&M.
Texas A&M Aggies
The nation’s No. 1 quarterback Kyle Allen is playing in the U.S. Army Bowl on Saturday and will be in line to take over for Johnny Manziel in College Station in 2014. Allen and Kevin Sumlin got a big boost on Thursday from the No. 1 wide receiver prospect in the nation. New Orleans (La.) Edna Karr playmaker Speedy Noil (5-10, 175) picked Texas A&M over instate LSU at the Under Armour event. He then went on to post a team-high 116 all-purpose yards, including three receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown. The diminuative dynamo was electric all week in practice. Adding to that, the nation’s No. 2 defensive end in the nation, Myles Garrett, was unstoppable all week in practice and had a strong showing in the event. The Arlington (Texas) James Martin prospect is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds and posted a game-high six tackles, including one sack. Sumlin had a good week in Tampa as the Aggies moved from fifth nationally in the team rankings to third.
The Pac-12’s biggest win of the day was Arizona landing Washington (D.C.) Friendship Academy cornerback Jalen Tabor. The 6-foot-1, 182-pound athlete is the nation’s No. 4-rated cornerback and the No. 24-rated overall prospect in the 2014 class. Tabor picked the Wildcats over Alabama and he would likely be the biggest recruit of the Rich Rodriguez era in Tucson. RichRod also pulled the switcharoo with big-time offensive lineman prospect Jordan Poland, luring the four-star tackle away from USC on Thursday. Arizona made a huge jump in the team rankings, moving from 24th to 15th in the 247Sports team rankings.
Florida State Seminoles
Early in the week, the Seminoles got some big news by flipping Dalvin Cook, the nation’s No. 2-rated running back, from his Florida commitment. The 5-foot-11, 190-pounder is the No. 12-rated overall player in the nation and hails from Miami (Fla.) Central. But then during the game in Tampa, Florida State snagged West Palm Beach star wide receiver Travis Rudolph. Not only did FSU get a commitment from Rudolph over Miami, Florida, Alabama and Auburn, but also watched Rudolph shine all week. He is one of the most developed players at his position nationally and posted four catches for 48 yards and a TD in the game.
Of the seven elite players who announced their college intentions in Tampa, the SEC landed five of them. The No. 1 running back (LSU), No. 1 wide receiver (Texas A&M), No. 2 safety (LSU), No. 2 defensive tackle (Florida) and No. 3 cornerback (Alabama) in the nation all picked to play ball in the SEC. According to 247Sports team rankings, the SEC now boasts the No. 1 (Alabama), No. 3 (Texas A&M), No. 5 (LSU), No. 6 (Tennessee), No. 8 (Auburn), No. 10 (Georgia), No. 11 (Florida) and No. 13 (Ole Miss) classes in the nation.
Under Armour Losers:
A team normally cannot win and lose on the same day but that is what happened to LSU on Thursday. A die-hard LSU friend of mine told me after the game on Thursday that the “fence that was once around Louisiana has definitely come down.” Watching two of the top five players in the Pelican State choose rival schools — Noil to Texas A&M and Willis to Florida — had to be painful. And watching Tony Brown, the No. 9-rated player in the nation, pick the rival Crimson Tide over LSU had to sting a bit as well. Landing the top player in the nation in Fournette and another top 10 athlete nationally in Adams obviously means the day was successful. But had LSU landed one or two more, giving them three or four top 30 commitments in one day could have been a historic moment for Miles and the Bayou Bengals. For the record, LSU has just one of the top six players in the state of Louisiana committed.
The day was saved for Will Muschamp and Florida when Willis decided to “take his talents to Gainesville.” However, the Gators are feeling the blow of a 4-8 record on the recruiting trail. Muschamp’s staff missed on Fournette, Rudolph and Adams to archrivals LSU and Florida State on Thursday. This coming on the heels of losing Dalvin Cook to the Seminoles earlier in the week. Willis is a huge get and keeps the Gators ranked in the top 15 nationally of the team rankings, but right now, Florida is seventh in the SEC team ranks.
The Trojans dropped from 28th in the 247Sports team rankings to 35th in one day. Not only did USC miss out on landing elite cornerback Tony Brown but the Men of Troy appear to have lost La Jolla (Calif.) Country Day School lineman Jordan Poland to a division rival. The four-star 6-foot-6, 330-pound offensive tackle decommitted from USC and switched his commitment to Arizona.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide claims the No. 1 class in the nation and landed an elite talent in Beaumont (Texas) Ozen cornerback Tony Brown. However, Nick Saban and company missed out on Fournette, Tabor and Rudolph to LSU, Arizona and Florida State, respectively. The other angle to consider is how Cameron Robinson, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the nation, played all week and in the game. Robinson looked overmatched at times and was on his heels for most of the Under Armour event. If Robinson is going to slide inside to play guard, he has no business being ranked as the No. 3 prospect in the nation. All of this on the same day that Bob Stoops whipped Saban’s defense in the Sugar Bowl.
The most famous mother in football recruiting had yet another awkward moment on national television on Thursday. Justin, the mother of star defensive tackle Gerald Willis, clearly didn’t want her son to leave the state of Louisiana. Willis picked Florida and his mother responded with “It is what it is. LSU is still No. 1.” It was bizarrely similar to what happened two years ago at the Under Armour event when her other son, Alabama safety Landon Collins, picked Alabama over the instate Tigers. “I feel that LSU is a better place for him to be” was Justin’s response on ESPN when Collins picked Bama. Justin might be the only woman in the nation who could have two sons become All-SEC performers and not really be excited about it.
The Big Ten
Of the seven players who were committing live at the Under Armour All-American Game in Tampa, one player had one Big Ten school listed as a finalist. Tony Brown, the nation’s No. 3 cornerback, had Ohio State listed among USC, Texas, LSU and Alabama (he picked Alabama). But not one other school in the Big Ten was even a finalists for one of these elite prospects — five of which picked an SEC school. Michigan did have seven prospects in the game and Penn State had four but the Midwestern league was noticeably absent from any headlines in Tampa this week.
Art Briles was mentioned by many as one of the leading candidates to replace Mack Brown at Texas. And with Baylor’s season complete, the rumor mill has been in full effect over the last few days, as Briles’ name came up in regards to a possible interview with Texas athletic director Steve Patterson.
However, Briles tweeted his support of the school (and his current job) on Friday. And the school also released a statement from Briles, which confirmed his intentions to stay in Waco.
Arkansas State finds itself in familiar territory while Ball State will be looking to make program history in this year’s GoDaddy Bowl. The last bowl before the BCS National Championship Game, the Red Wolves are in Mobile, Ala., in January for the third straight season, while the Cardinals are aiming to cap off this season with their first-ever postseason victory.
Besides playing in its third consecutive GoDaddy Bowl, Arkansas State will be led once again by an interim head coach. Bryan Harsin, who led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 mark in the regular season and a third straight Sun Belt title (co-champions with Louisiana-Lafayette), accepted the head coaching job at Boise State, his alma mater, on Dec. 11. This is the similar path that Harsin’s predecessors, Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn), also took following the 2011 and ’12 seasons, respectively.
The school has hired former North Carolina offensive coordinator Blake Anderson as the new head coach, but he won’t officially take over until after the bowl game. Defensive coordinator John Thompson is acting as interim head coach, the same role he fulfilled last season after Malzahn left for Auburn. Thompson led his team to a 17-13 win over Kent State in last year’s GoDaddy Bowl, the first postseason triumph for the Red Wolves in three tries.
Ball State (10-2) will have Pete Lembo calling the shots in Mobile, but it remains to be seen if that will be the case once the dust finally settles on the coaching carousel. The Cardinals have posted 19 wins over the past two seasons under Lembo and will try and cap off just the third 10-win season in program history with their first bowl victory. Ball State is 0-6 in bowl games as a FBS member, including last season’s 38-17 loss to UCF in the Saint Petersburg Bowl.
This also represents the first-ever meeting between these two schools.
Arkansas State vs. Ball State
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ball State -7.5
Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Pound the football
Quarterback Adam Kennedy is fourth in the nation in completion percentage (69.3), but he’s averaging less than 200 yards passing per game. The key to the Red Wolves offense is the ground game, as they are averaging nearly as many yards on the ground (206.0 ypg) as through the air (208.2 ypg). Sophomore running back Michael Gordon is the leading rusher with 717 yards and he’s averaging nearly seven yards per carry. Gordon has scored 10 rushing touchdowns too, but he hasn’t been the only productive ground-gainer for Arkansas State. Two others, including Kennedy, have rushed for more than 500 yards this season, while Kennedy and fellow quarterback Fredi Knighten have combined for nine touchdowns on the ground. All told, the Red Wolves have 30 rushing touchdowns compared to just 13 passing. Arkansas State’s offensive strength has been Ball State’s defensive weakness. The Cardinals are 92nd in FBS in rushing defense, as they have given up 194.8 rushing yards per game. More than half (seven) of the teams Ball State has played this season has posted at least 200 yards rushing, including 363 by Army. In the Cardinals’ two losses, to bowl teams North Texas and Northern Illinois, they surrendered a total of 455 yards on the ground and 5.4 yards per carry. Ball State’s offense has been difficult to stop this season, but Arkansas State’s offense can help out its defense if the Red Wolves are able to run the ball successfully.
Ball State’s Key to Victory: Soar on offense
The Cardinals’ formula for winning 10 games this season has been pretty simple – pile up the yards and points. Ball State enters this game 19th in the nation in total offense with 486.3 yards per game. The Cardinals are just one of 11 teams in FBS averaging better than 40 points per game and the passing attack is ninth in the nation with 333.3 yards per game. Ball State posted at least 420 yards of total offense in all 12 of its games and was held to fewer than 31 points just three times. In those games, the Cardinals still managed 27 points, although they did go 1-2. While much of the damage has been done through the air, Ball State is capable of running the ball and this attack will be a tough test for Arkansas State’s defense. The Red Wolves are 80th in the nation in yards allowed (417.3 ypg), including 234.4 yards passing per game. Against teams that finished with a winning record (Auburn, Louisiana-Lafayette, Missouri, Western Kentucky), that number jumps to 459.8 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play. For the season, Ball State is averaging 6.7 yards per play. As long as the Cardinals maintain the status quo on offense, it should be another productive night on the field and scoreboard at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Key Player: Keith Wenning, QB, Ball State
The key to the Cardinals’ prolific offense is Wenning, who has rewritten the record books during his Ball State career. A senior, Wenning is the school’s all-time leader in virtually every passing category after setting career highs in yards (3,933) and touchdowns (34) this season. He has completed 65.2 percent of his passes and has thrown just six interceptions. Wenning is sixth in the nation with 327.8 yards passing per game and has hooked up with 13 different receivers this season. His main weapons are his wide receiver trio of Willie Snead, Jordan Williams and Jamill Smith, who have combined for 228 catches, 3,300 yards (14.5 ypr) and all but two of Wenning’s 34 touchdown passes. Contrast that to Arkansas State’s passing attack, which has totaled 2,498 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. A four-year starter already with 27 wins, a host of school records and other accolades under his belt, there’s just one thing left for Wenning to do to cap off his impressive Ball State career – lead the Cardinals to their first-ever bowl victory.
Arkansas State has gone 27-11 over the last three seasons, all of which resulted in a trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. Ball State has posted 19 wins in the past two seasons, but is still looking for that first postseason victory. Arkansas State is no longer an unknown commodity, as its past three head coaches have left after just one season to take over at Ole Miss (Hugh Freeze), Auburn (Gus Malzahn) and Boise State (Bryan Harsin), respectively. Pete Lembo may not be at Ball State by the time the 2014 season kicks off, but he and the Cardinals have unfinished business to attend to before closing the book on their ’13 campaign. As much success as Arkansas State has enjoyed recently, I think this Red Wolves team will have their hands full, especially on defense, against a potent Ball State offense. The Cardinals have a senior quarterback in Keith Wenning under center, and boast plenty of weapons at receiver and in the backfield. No team has really been able to slow down Ball State’s offense this season and I expect that trend to continue against Arkansas State. The Cardinals just have too much firepower for the Red Wolves to contend with, as Wenning and the rest of the senior class cap off their collegiate careers with a historic win.
Prediction: Ball State 38, Arkansas State 27
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 3.
• It's the New Year, but last night was Christmas for Bama haters. Enjoy this heaping helping of Saban-freude. Another upside: We got a lot of Katherine Webb concern-face in what might have been her last moment in the spotlight. .
• A weird night in Miami: LeBron left skidmarks on the American Airlines court last night. His teammate, Dwyane Wade, blew an uncontested layup.
• Ice Bowl II: Game-time temp could be minus-5 in Green Bay this weekend. That's bad news for the game's sideline reporter, Erin Andrews.
• College football crowns its champion Monday night. Here's some BCS Championship Game trivia.
• Who knew that a pooping dog could double as a compass? We're here to educate.
• We've brought you several videos of returning soldiers surprising family members. Today, we bring you a dog who's psyched to Skype with his deployed owner.
• Some enterprising Bills fans spent an otherwise lost season posterizing opposing fans in the Ralph parking lot.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Vanderbilt is headed to a bowl game for the third straight season and will be making its first trip to an out-of-state postseason game since the 1982 Commodores played in the Hall of Fame Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham. James Franklin’s team struggled early in the season — the Dores were 3–3 overall (0–3 in the SEC) after six games — but won five of its last six games, highlighted by victories over Georgia at home and Florida and Tennessee on the road.
Vanderbilt, however, will not have the services of starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. The fifth-year senior had surgery to repair a torn ACL a few days after the season-ending win over Wake Forest. Carta-Samuels injured his knee in a mid-October win over Georgia but managed to start the final three games, wins over Kentucky, Tennessee and Wake Forest. Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman who started two games and played significant snaps in three others, will get the nod for the Dores.
Houston is back in a bowl game after missing out on the postseason in two of the last three years. Tony Levine’s first season as a head coach did not go too well — the Cougars went 5–7 in 2012 — but he bounced back with an 8–4 overall record and a 5–3 mark in the new American Athletic Conference. The Cougars lost to BYU by one point in non-conference action and lost to the three teams that finished ahead of them in the AAC (UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati) by an 6.3 points. This is a solid team that doesn’t have any bad losses but doesn’t really have any good wins, either.
Vanderbilt vs. Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Vanderbilt -2.5
Vanderbilt’s Key to Victory: Run the ball
Vanderbilt features one of the elite wide receivers in the nation in senior Jordan Matthews, but the Commodores’ first order of business will be to establish the running game. Vanderbilt’s rushing numbers down the stretch weren’t impressive — the Dores averaged under 3.0 yards per carry in four of the final five games — but there’s no doubt it will be a big part of offensive coordinator John Donovan’s game plan, especially with Robinette at quarterback. The redshirt freshman, a better runner than passer at this stage of his career, rushed for a combined 85 yards on 19 carries in the final two games of the season. The Commodores will also have starting running back Jerron Seymour back in the lineup. The sophomore only carried the ball five times against Tennessee and did not play against Wake Forest while nursing a leg injury. Vanderbilt will look to attack a Houston defense that ranked ninth in the AAC in stopping the run, allowing 143.8 rushing yards per game.
Houston’s Key to Victory: Keep forcing turnovers
Houston has done one thing better than any team in college football in 2013 — force turnovers. The Cougars lead the nation in both takeaways (40) and turnover margin (plus-2.08), which is a huge reason why this team improved from five wins in 2012 to eight wins in ’13. Houston has forced at least one turnover in every game and has had three or more takeaways in nine of 12 games. This team can win a game without winning the turnover margin — the Cougars went 1–1 with a margin of zero — but Levine would much prefer to keep this seemingly unsustainable pace going for at least one more game.
Key Player: John O’Korn, QB, Houston
O’Korn, a true freshman from Florida, was thrust into the starting role early in the season when veteran David Piland was forced to retire from the sport due to ongoing issues with concussions. O’Korn responded with a terrific season, completing just under 60 percent of his passes for 2,889 yards with 26 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Now, however, he must play his first game without offensive coordinator Doug Meachem calling the plays. Meachem resigned following the end of the regular season to take a similar position at TCU, leaving Travis Bush, formerly the running backs coach, as the play-caller. Bush called plays for the final 11 games of the ’12 season after offensive coordinator Mike Nesbitt was fired following a Week 1 loss to Texas State. O’Korn will also be facing an outstanding secondary that features four senior starters, including two All-SEC performers (safety Kenny Ladler and cornerback Andre Hal). The Commodores rank second in the SEC with 16 interceptions and had a total of 11 in their last four games. You can bet that defensive coordinator Bob Shoop will do all he can to confuse the true freshman quarterback.
On paper, you would figure any 8–4 team from the SEC would be quite a bit better than an 8–4 team from the American Athletic Conference. But the boys in Vegas have only made Vanderbilt a 2.5-point favorite. The Commodores, despite winning their last four games, weren’t playing great down the stretch. They played well enough to win but struggled in home games against Kentucky and Wake Forest and had to rally to beat Tennessee late in the fourth quarter. Houston has put up some impressive offensive numbers against some inferior defenses, but has struggled against the better defensive teams on its schedule — scoring 14 vs. UCF, 13 vs. Louisville and 17 vs. Cincinnati. With the possible exception of Louisville, Vanderbilt figures to be the best defensive team Houston will face this season.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 27, Houston 23
Florida State and Auburn will do battle in the 15th and final BCS National Championship Game on Monday, Jan. 6, in Pasadena, Calif.
It marks the second trip to the BCS national title game for Auburn, both coming in the past four years. The berth for the Seminoles is their fourth trip to the championship game since the BCS’ inception in 1998, but just their first since losing to Oklahoma in 2000.
Florida State boasts Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and an elite, explosive balanced offense. Auburn enters with “Team of Destiny” headlines and a middle of the pack junior college quarterback recruit who has resurrected his career on The Plains. This bout has all the makings of an instant classic — despite what those in Las Vegas think — with star power both in the huddle and on the sidelines.
Can Auburn’s secondary hold up against that Noles' passing game? Can Florida State find a way to contain Gus Malzahn’s zone-read attack? All will be answered on Monday evening. But before that day comes, here are the facts and figures you need to know before the final BCS National Championship Game kicks off.
14: Florida State’s closest margin of victory
The Seminoles crushed teams in 2013 by an average margin of victory of 42.3 points per game. Only once did the Noles allow more than 17 points in a game and only once did the opponent finish with 27 points against Florida State — both of those coming in a 48-34 win at Boston College. The closest second-half game FSU played all season was when those same Eagles kicked a field goal a few minutes into the second half to cut the lead to 24-20. Florida State then scored back-to-back touchdowns to push the lead to 38-20 with three minutes to go in the third quarter. The point is, Jameis Winston and this team haven’t face one critical fourth-quarter play, series or situation all season long. This has to help Auburn.
335.7: Auburn’s rushing yards per game
In 2012, the Auburn Tigers ranked 118th nationally in total offense at 305.0 yards per game and were 80th nationally in rushing at 148.4 yards per game. In 2013, Gus Malzahn’s team averages more yards rushing (335.7) per game than it did in total offense last season. The Tigers led the nation in rushing and are third nationally in both yards per carry (6.5) and rushing touchdowns (46). Tre Mason led the SEC with 1,621 yards and quarterback Nick Marshall was eighth with 1,023 yards — more than Johnny Manziel or Todd Gurley. Florida State finished the year ranked 13th in rushing defense at 116.5 yards per game and led the nation with just five rushing touchdowns allowed all year. Mason and Marshall combined for 33.
103rd: National ranking for Auburn’s passing defense
Jameis Winston is deadly accurate and has a host of elite weapons to target — wide receivers Rashad Greene and Kelvin Benjamin, tight end Nick O’Leary and running back Devonta Freeman out of the backfield. Auburn’s secondary has had major issues in 2013, allowing an SEC-worst 259.3 yards per game, which ranks 103rd nationally. The Tigers allowed 344 yards passing to Washington State, 272 to Arkansas State, 340 to Ole Miss, 469 to Texas A&M, 415 to Georgia, 277 to Alabama and 303 to Missouri. Good luck stopping the nation’s most efficient passing attack (178.28).
222.7: Average weight of Florida State’s linebackers
Alabama’s four starting linebackers — Adrian Hubbard (252), Trey DePriest (245), C.J. Mosley (238) and Xzavier Dickson (265) — combine to weigh 1,000 pounds at 250.0 pounds per player. Mosley is the smallest at 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds. Florida State’s starting trio is dramatically smaller and will be asked to stop Malzahn’s relentless zone-read. Christian Jones (6-4, 235), Terrance Smith (6-4, 215) and Telvin Smith (6-3, 218) combine to average nearly 30 pounds less per player (222.7 pounds) than Alabama's linebacking corps. And the Noles' defensive line isn’t one of the bigger units either with Nile Lawrence-Stample the largest at 6-foot-1 and 305 pounds. How this unit holds up against Auburn’s rushing attack remains to be seen.
29.0: Sacks allowed this year by Florida State
The Seminoles have allowed 29.0 sacks this season, ranking 87th nationally and 10th in the ACC. Auburn was third in the SEC in getting after the quarterback with 28.0 QB takedowns. The Tigers got to Missouri 3.0 times in the SEC title game but failed to get to AJ McCarron (1.0) or Aaron Murray (1.0) in their two previous games that, frankly, Auburn was very lucky to win. Comparatively, Auburn ranked 18th nationally and third in the SEC with just 16.0 sacks allowed. Some of that are the two totally different offensive styles each team plays, but if Auburn can pressure Jameis Winston into a few mistakes, it could be the difference in the game.
1.31: Florida State’s No. 2-ranked turnover margin
The Noles finished third nationally with 34 turnovers created while only giving the ball away 17 times this fall. The Tigers, who ranked 114th nationally in 2012 with just 13 takeaways, didn’t fare much better this fall, ranking 95th nationally with just 18 turnovers forced all season. Auburn finished dead even in the turnover battle this season with 18 giveaways and 18 takeaways. Florida State has a distinct advantage in the turnover game heading into this bout with Auburn and few stats in the box score indicate victory more so than turnovers.
7.81 and 7.03: Florida State and Auburn yards per play on offense
Florida State led the nation with 7.81 yards per play on 881 offensive snaps. Auburn was seventh nationally and one of only seven teams to average over 7.0 yards per play with 7.03 yards per snap on 934 offensive plays. Florida State (2012 and '13) is the only ACC team to reach the 7.0 level of efficiency since 2007. During that same span, only six SEC teams had reached the 7.0 yards per play benchmark before this season and two of those — Florida in 2008 and Auburn in '10 — went on to win the national title. When both offenses get rolling they can be impossible to stop, so common logic would indicate high-scoring and big numbers.
6: Nation’s longest active bowl winning streak
It is fitting that either Auburn or Florida State will tie Ole Miss for the nation's longest active bowl winning streak on Monday night. The Rebels topped Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30, moving their streak to six — their lost postseason loss coming in the 2000 Music City Bowl. The winner of the final BCS National Championship Game will likewise push their bowl winning streak to six straight postseason wins. A fitting footnote for a game of this magnitude and intrigue.
7: Consecutive times the SEC has covered the spread in BCS title games
Yes, we all know about the seven straight national titles by the SEC. But did you know that the SEC has covered the spread in all seven of those games as well? Alabama was the biggest favorite of the bunch as a 10-point pick to beat Notre Dame last year and handled that feat with ease. Auburn is an 8-point underdog, joining only Florida in 2006 (+7) and Auburn in '10 (+1) as SEC underdogs to another conference in the national title game (LSU was a slight underdog to Alabama).
Jan. 6: Jameis Winston's birthday
Yes, every one knows that the final BCS national title game is on Monday, Jan. 6. But did you know that the youngest Heisman Trophy winner in history will turn 20 on the very same day? Winston was born Jan. 6, 1994 (yeah, how old do you feel now?). Emotion is such a huge part of the college game but will it help or hurt Winston that he is trying to win a national championship on his birthday?
The 14th annual U.S. Army All-American Bowl will take place Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on NBC live from the Alamodome in San Antonio. This game has been around twice as long as the Under Armour event in Florida and has an excellent track record of luring the nation’s top talent to the heart of Texas every January.
Former MVPs of the Bowl include Vince Young, Chris Leak, DeSean Jackson — despite his hilarious and embarrassing touchdown gaffe — Beanie Wells, Terrelle Pryor, Tajh Boyd and Dorial Green-Beckham. Potential NCAA (and maybe even NFL) Hall of Famers like Haloti Ngata, Adrian Peterson, Joe Thomas, Reggie Bush, Ndamukong Suh and Tim Tebow have graced the Alamodome with their presence — before they became the collegiate superstars.
Which team wins or loses is irrelevant. Getting to study these players in head-to-head situations all week in practice is critical to the evaluation process. Fans get a chance to get to know some of these unknown personalities. And, most importantly, live announcements impact future depth charts from across the nation. Jalen Ramsey (pictured above) played in this game a year ago and is now starting for Florida State at safety in the BCS National Championship game.
What about your favorite team?
Ohio State and Georgia fans will have the most to watch this weekend as both Urban Meyer and Mark Richt boast six prospects respectively. Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, LSU, Oregon, Texas and North Carolina each have commitments from four prospects in San Antonio. Clemson, UCLA, Stanford and Alabama have three each verbally committed. In all, there are 108 prospects on display this weekend — 54 on each team — and 23 have yet to make an announcement on where they will play their college football. There are 37 different college football teams with at least one future prospect to watch, including Western Michigan, Iowa State, Kentucky, Minnesota and Cal.
Who is under center?
While the Under Armour event featured 10 different highly-touted quarterback prospects, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is much more exclusive when it comes to signal callers. Each team has just three quarterbacks on the roster and all six should get plenty of playing time. Four of the top six pro-style quarterback prospects in the nation will be in attendance and two of the top four dual-threat quarterback prospects. Overall, five of the top eight QB recruits — and six of the top 11 — will showcase their talents this weekend.
The West Team will feature Kentucky’s Drew Barker, Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen and Texas’ Jerrod Heard. Allen is widely regarded as he No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation and his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame should be fun to watch on Saturday. Barker is the No. 11 overall QB prospect in the land and Heard is the No. 8-rated QB talent.
The East Team boasts the No. 3 overall signal caller in Florida’s Will Grier. The dual-threat talent is undersized but has tremendous ability and also should be fun to watch. North Carolina’s Caleb Henderson is the sixth-best QB prospect in America and Georgia’s Jacob Park is No. 7.
This is an excellent group of elite level quarterbacks, and all six will face the most talented defense they have ever seen in their careers to date on Saturday.
A big part of every U.S. Army event each year is the live announcements. Message boards buzz all morning with who will pick which hat throughout the event. Here is a list of who might be making their selection tomorrow during the 14th U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Note: Rankings by 247Sports
Joe Mixon, RB (6-2, 195)
Oakley (Calif.) Freedom
Ranks: No. 18, No. 1 APB
Schools: Oklahoma, UCLA, Wisconsin
Marshon Lattimore, CB (6-0, 175)
Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville
Ranks: No. 36, No. 5 CB
Schools: Ohio State, Alabama
Nyles Morgan, LB (6-1, 225)
Crete (Ill.) Crete-Monee
Ranks: No. 54, No. 3 ILB
Schools: Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Florida
Frank Iheanacho, WR (6-6, 220)
Houston (Texas) Westside
Ranks: No. 86, No. 11 WR
Schools: Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Oregon and Missouri
Bryce Dixon, TE (6-4, 220)
Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure
Ranks: No. 116, No. 2 TE
Schools: UCLA, USC, Texas, Miami
Brian Wallace, OL (6-6, 305)
St. Louis (Mo.) Christian Brothers
Ranks: No. 118, No. 14 OT
Schools: Alabama, Arkansas
Jamil Kamara, WR (6-2, 210)
Virginia Beach (Va.) Bishop Sullivan
Ranks: No. 125, No. 10 ATH
Schools: Virginia, Wisconsin Pitt
Matt Elam, DT (6-5, 350)
Elizabethtown (Ky.) John Hardin
Ranks: No. 166, No. 16 DT
Schools: Kentucky, Alabama
Elisha Shaw, DL (6-4, 295)
Tucker (Ga.) High
Ranks: No. 216 overall, No. 19 DT
Schools: Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama, Auburn
At the beginning of the season, Auburn and Florida State were considered longshots to play for the national championship. Fast forward to Jan. 6 in Pasadena, and that’s the unlikely, yet highly anticipated matchup to determine college football’s 2013 champion.
In addition to crowning the No. 1 team in the nation, this game is also the final matchup in the BCS era. Next year – for better or worse – college football’s postseason shifts to a four-team playoff format.
The BCS era has been kind to both Florida State and Auburn. The Seminoles opened the BCS era with an appearance in the national championship, losing 23-16 to Tennessee after the 1998 season. But Florida State won the national title the next year and played for it again after the 2001 season. Auburn has only one previous appearance in the BCS title game, a 22-19 victory over Oregon to claim the championship for the 2010 season.
Auburn’s ascension into the national championship game was more of a surprise than Florida State, but the Seminoles didn’t have an easy path to their 13-0 record. Florida State had to replace six assistant coaches, and 11 players from last year’s team were selected in the NFL Draft. But coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited well, and the Seminoles’ roster was able to quickly reload in time for 2013. And Fisher’s hires on the coaching staff were outstanding, including the additions of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive ends coach Sal Sunseri.
After a 3-9 record last year, Auburn parted with Gene Chizik and brought former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn back to the Plains as head coach. Recruiting talent hasn’t been an issue for the Tigers, so it was no surprise the Tigers were one of the most-improved teams in the nation. However, no one could have expected what transpired at Auburn in 2013. Sure, the Tigers caught a few lucky breaks, but this team improved throughout the season and finished the year on a nine-game winning streak.
Auburn and Florida State have 18 previous meetings. The Tigers own a 13-4-1 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1990. There are some current ties between the two programs, as Auburn co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig worked under Jimbo Fisher at Florida State from 2010-12. And Fisher worked at Auburn from 1993-98 under Terry Bowden.
Auburn vs. Florida State
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7.5
Three Things to Watch
Florida State’s run defense vs. Auburn’s offense
The Seminoles are loaded with talent on defense. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt brought a new scheme to Tallahassee, but the production didn’t drop from 2012. Florida State ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense last year and led the nation in fewest yards allowed per play (3.9). Despite seven new starters, the Seminoles were dominant once again, holding opponents to 10.7 points per game and just 3.9 yards per play in 2013. Florida State’s defense held Clemson’s high-powered offense to just 14 points and only one opponent scored more than 20 points in 2013. But the Seminoles’ defense will be tested by an Auburn offense that finished the regular season on a tear. The Tigers averaged 47.8 points per contest over their final four games, largely due to their rushing attack. Quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason combined to rush for 2,644 yards this season, and both players averaged at least five yards per carry. Marshall is a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s spread attack, as he is adept at carrying out the fakes and reads to run Auburn’s offense. Of course, no offense is successful without a good offensive line, and the Tigers have a solid front five. Left tackle Greg Robinson is the headliner, but center Reese Dismukes is one of the best in the nation. Can Auburn’s offensive line continue to win the battle in the trenches against Florida State? The Seminoles have held their last six opponents to under 3.3 yards per carry, and the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing touchdown. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan is one of the best in the nation, but end Mario Edwards Jr. is stout against the run and is a key piece for Florida State’s defense on Jan. 6. Which unit will win the battle at the point of attack? If Auburn’s rushing game has success, it will help to keep the Seminoles’ offense on the sidelines and control the tempo of the game. However, Florida State wants to put the Tigers into long-distance situations and force Marshall to beat the defense with his arm.
Auburn’s secondary vs. Florida State’s passing attack
Turnovers and special teams
We could talk about several areas in this section, but in the national championship, every area of the game is magnified. One small mistake could be end up as a game-changing play, which is why turnovers and special teams should be monitored throughout Monday night’s matchup. Florida State kicker Roberto Aguayo is one of the best in the nation, connecting on 19 of 20 attempts in 2013. And the Seminoles are set on returns with Kermit Whitfield (kickoffs) and Kenny Shaw (punts). Punter Cason Beatty was average this year, managing 40.8 yards per kick. Much like Florida State, Auburn’s special teams have been solid. Kicker Cody Parkey has connected on 14 of 19 attempts, and punter Steven Clark averaged 42.5 yards per punt, while placing 23 inside the 20. The Tigers are also in good shape on returns, with Chris Davis averaging 20.1 yards per punt return (with one touchdown), while Tre Mason and Quan Bray take the lead on kickoff returns. In the turnover department, Florida State has an edge. The Seminoles have forced 34 turnovers this year, creating a margin of +17. Auburn is even in turnover margin, forcing only 18 turnovers in 2013.
Key Player: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall is the x-factor in this game. Florida State will load up to stop Auburn’s rushing attack, which should leave Marshall with opportunities to make plays through the air. The junior made progress as a passer in his first season with the Tigers, finishing 2013 with 1,759 passing yards, 12 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 60.4. Marshall’s rushing ability is a perfect fit for this offense, but his arm will be a critical aspect on Monday night. Auburn doesn’t have the standout playmakers like Florida State has in the receiving corps, but Sammie Coates (22.1 ypc), Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis and Quan Bray form a solid group of options for Marshall. If the Seminoles jump out to an early lead, the Tigers won’t be forced to abandon the run, but more will be placed on Marshall’s arm. If Auburn does fall behind by two or three scores, is Marshall up to the task to pass his team back into the game? And on the flipside, the junior averages 6.6 yards per carry and will be a key cog in the rushing attack on Monday. Marshall has thrown only five interceptions this year. He needs to another mistake-free game on Monday night for Auburn to claim another national championship.
Last year’s BCS Championship between Notre Dame and Alabama was a total dud. Expect things to be different on Jan. 6. Florida State and Auburn should provide an entertaining game, with two teams bringing contrasting, but still high-scoring offenses to Pasadena. The Tigers are a run-first team, while the Seminoles are balanced and capable of hurting opposing defenses in a variety of ways. A key question to watch on Monday night: Can Auburn get pressure with its defensive line? Or will the Tigers have to blitz? If Auburn has to blitz, Winston and Florida State’s receivers will hit on several big plays. But if the Tigers can control the battle in the trenches by getting pressure on Winston with their front four, Auburn will be in good shape. When the Tigers have the ball, they have to stay out of long-distance yardage situations. Although Auburn can throw the ball effectively, its offense just isn’t built to rally from a three-score deficit. Florida State has simply dominated this year. Will the Seminoles pickup where they left off in the ACC Championship? The Tigers navigated the SEC with one loss but seemed to get better each week. Will Auburn once again find a way to win a close game?
|Steven Lassan||Florida State 38-34||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|Mitch Light||Florida State 37-34||Devonta Freeman, RB, FSU|
|Mark Ross||Florida State 35-27||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|Braden Gall||Auburn 41-38||Dee Ford, DE, Auburn|
|Nathan Rush||Florida State 42-33||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|Rich McVey||Florida State 45-35||Jameis Winston, QB, FSU|
|David Fox||Auburn 38-35||Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn|
Finals are finished. The holiday break has ended. And conference play is beginning.
Time for college basketball to take center stage.
The first two Saturdays of January have had plenty of eventful games -- last week brought us a meeting between undefeated Villanova and Syracuse, plus Kentucky and Louisville.
This week may be just as interesting. A showdown between two Big Ten contenders is the headliner in the league but not the only key game in the league. Lawrence, Kan., will host an intriguing conference game, but it might not be the best Big 12 game in the state of Kansas.
Those aren’t the only games this week. Here are our picks of the top games you need to keep an eye on Saturday and Sunday.
College Basketball Viewer’s Guide: Jan. 4-5
Game of the Week:
Iowa at Wisconsin (Sunday, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network)
An early matchup between Iowa and Wisconsin pairs two unlikely contenders for the Big Ten crown. Iowa has delivered — and more — on its promise to be one of this season’s teams on the rise, and Bo Ryan may have his best team in several years in Madison. Two intriguing storylines to watch: Iowa ranks 20th in the nation in possessions per game, and Wisconsin ranks 335th. Also, Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff will make his debut in Madison after transferring within the conference but not without some consternation. Uthoff is averaging 10.9 points and 6.5 rebounds for the Hawkeyes.
Interesting Non-Conference Game:
San Diego State at Kansas (Sunday, 4:30 p.m., CBS)
Kansas has pulled out of a funk in which it lost three of four games to Villanova, Colorado and Florida. The Jayhawks have returned to Lawrence to pick up three quality home wins over New Mexico, Georgetown and Toledo. A game against Mountain West contender San Diego State will wrap up a brutal non-conference schedule. The key in the last three games for Kansas has been the Jayhawks’ ability to spread the wealth beyond just Andrew Wiggins. The Aztecs may be the toughest opponent in this four-game homestand, though. San Diego State’s only loss came in the second game of the season to Arizona.
Tricky Road Trip:
Michigan State at Indiana (Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS)
Michigan State rallied to outscore Penn State 39-16 in the second half of a 79-63 win Tuesday and turn around for a second Big Ten road trip, not an easy task when that trip is to Bloomington. Indiana is coming off an 83-80 overtime heartbreaker at Illinois, but point guard Yogi Ferrell showed he may be ready to carry the Hoosiers through the Big Ten season with 30 points against the Illini.
Oklahoma State at Kansas State (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNU)
Oklahoma State will be without starting forward Michael Cobbins and backup point guard Stevie Clark in its conference opener. That hit on depth may hurt the Cowboys on the road against an Kansas State team that is starting to look like an NCAA contender. The Wildcats need freshman point guard Jevon Thomas (six assists, no turnovers in his debut vs. George Washington) to lift the offense in a major way.
SMU at Connecticut (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPNU)
Opening American Athletic Conference play 0-for-Texas is not a good look. The Huskies already lost 75-71 to Houston this week and now face the better of the AAC’s Lone Star State team. Larry Brown has SMU in Tourney contention, but the Mustangs are also coming off a loss, to Cincinnati on Wednesday. UConn made our list of teams in the New Year that could be in trouble thanks to its its undersized lineup.
Game to Watch to Make you Feel Smart:
Oregon at Colorado (Sunday, 5 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
Neither teams are traditional Pac-12 powers, and neither have the same fanfare of No. 1 Arizona. But the Pac-12 may be the strongest conference in the country this season, and Oregon and Colorado are major reasons why. Three transfers (Joseph Young from Houston, Mike Moser from UNLV and Jason Calliste from Detroit) lead Oregon in scoring while Colorado continues to thrive with the inside-out duo of Spencer Dinwiddie and Josh Scott. Get to know both teams before March.
Others of Note
Cincinnati at Memphis (Saturday, noon, ESPN2)
Cincinnati has quietly won five in a row, including Pittsburgh and SMU. The Bearcats need a good showing on the road to be taken more seriously.
Pittsburgh at NC State (Saturday, noon, ACC syndication)
T.J. Warren is a star (23.9 points, 7.8 rebounds), but we’re still not sure how serious a factor NC State is in the ACC race.
St. John’s at Georgetown (Saturday, 1 p.m., Fox Sports 1)
At 9-4 with a 10-point loss to Xavier on Tuesday, talented St. John’s is one of the nations big disappointments.
Butler at Xavier (Saturday, 2 p.m., Fox Sports Net)
Butler’s three losses have come by a combined seven points to Oklahoma State, LSU and Villanova. The Bulldogs and first-year coach Brandon Miller have our attention.
Duke at Notre Dame (Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS)
Notre Dame’s famed homecourt advantage has been anything but this season, and now the Irish are without Jerian Grant. A rough first ACC season may start Saturday.
Virginia at Florida State (Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN2)
Looking for the No. 3 team in the ACC after Syracuse and Duke? How about Florida State? The Seminoles are stout on defense again.
The New Year is a good time for optimism. Someone should remind these college basketball teams about that in the coming weeks.
They’ll need all the help they can get.
On Thursday, we picked nine teams that will be on the rise in the first weeks of 2014. This is the flip side.
Injuries, suspensions, arrests and weaknesses exposed in recent games mean a handful of teams enter conference play and the new year with a set of new problems.
Anyone expecting a repeat of Louisville and Michigan in the title game will be disappointed. Both teams are coming off of deflating news, both on the scoreboard and on the roster. Two of the heroes of the Final Four are gone — Chane Behanan is gone for good and Mitch McGary won't be back anytime soon.
Coaches Rick Pitino and John Beilein have plenty of talent remaining on their rosters, but like the other teams on this list, they'll spend the early part of the New Year grasping for answers.
Teams in Trouble in the New Year
Why: Size disadvantage starting to show itself
Shabazz Napier is a fantastic, fearless guard, but he probably should’t be leading a team in rebounding. UConn’s 9-0 start with wins over Florida and Indiana looked a bit of a fantasy, and now the cracks are starting to show thanks to UConn’s size disadvantage. The Huskies have only one regular taller than 6-foot-7 (6-9 DeAndre Daniels). In a 75-71 loss to Houston on Tuesday, Cougars forward TaShawn Thomas feasted on the matchup with 23 points and eight rebounds. Meanwhile, Daniels finished 3 of 10 from the field and center Amida Brimah played only four minutes. And this was against what’s not expected to be a great team in the American. UConn, which also lost to Stanford at home Dec. 18, will face two NCAA contenders in its next two games against SMU and Harvard.
Why: Robert Carter’s knee injury
Non-conference losses dimmed Georgia Tech’s hopes of challenging for the NCAA Tournament, but those aspirations may be finished with a knee injury to Robert Carter. Carter had been averaging 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. He could be out for the season, meaning even the NIT may be a tough goal to reach.
Why: Injuries to Gary Bell Jr., Sam Dower and Kevin Pangos
Gonzaga was tentatively on the list of teams likely to improve thanks to the midseason arrival of Louisville transfer Angel Nunez, but that bit of good news is now a foot note. Guard Gary Bell Jr., who averages 12.7 points per game and is Gonzaga’s top perimeter defender, will miss 4-6 weeks with a broken hand. Meanwhile, Sam Dower has missed two games with a back injury, and point guard Kevin Pangos is playing through turf toe. Gonzaga defeated Saint Mary's 73-51 at home Thursday, a good sign for the depleted roster for now.
Why: Finishing the year without Chane Behanan and Kevin Ware
Louisville is still ranked No. 1 in the KenPom.com ratings, but a handful of analysts already are giving up on the Cardinals’ ability to defend their national title. By losing to Kentucky on Dec. 28, Louisville completed its non-conference schedule without a true marquee win and now has a depleted roster. Chane Behanan ran out of second chances and was permanently dismissed from the team. Moreover, Kevin Ware won’t play at all this season as he continues to recover from the devastating broken leg from last year’s NCAA Tournament. Behanan was averaging 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds, and Ware hand’t played at all. They’re not the worst losses Louisville could have endured, but the Cardinals are still struggling to get major contributions from Wayne Blackshear and Luke Hancock. The backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones can’t do everything.
Why: Duane Wilson redshirting
Marquette’s season hasn’t unfolded anything Buzz Williams would’ve hoped. The Golden Eagles were Athlon’s pick to win the Big East, but Marquette is 8-6 following a 67-49 loss at Creighton to open the conference season. Reinforcements won’t be coming, at least not from highly regarded freshman point guard Duane Wilson. The school announced last week Wilson would redshirt the season while he recovers from a stress fracture in his left leg. The Golden Eagles need all the help they can get on the offensive side of the court: Marquette ranks 117th nationally in offensive efficiency on KenPom.com and ranks 132nd in points per possession.
Why: Mitch McGary out indefinitely
Replacing player of the year Trey Burke was hard enough — especially as Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III adapted to playing without the star point guard. Now, Michigan enters conference play without McGary, who is out indefinitely due to back surgery. Senior Jordan Morgan is poised to take over for McGary in the starting lineup, but that leaves Michigan still with a freshman point guard and without its best post presence.
Why: Jerian Grant out for the season
Only days after blowing an eight-point lead in the final minute against Ohio State, Notre Dame announced leading scorer Jerian Grant would be suspended for the remainder of the season due to an academic issue. This is already a team that had lost Cameron Biedscheid to a transfer and lost to indiana State and North Dakota State at home in the non-conference schedule. Making things tougher: Notre Dame opens ACC play at home against Duke on Saturday.
Why: Michael Cobbins’ injury, Stevie Clark’s suspension
Oklahoma State’s top five scorers remain intact, but the Cowboys enter Big 12 play at Kansas State on Saturday with depleted depth. Forward Michael Cobbins was lost for the season Monday with a torn Achilles. He had been averaging 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds, but he had started every game this season. Stevie Clark probably won’t miss the rest of the season, but the freshman backup point guard was arrested for marijuana possession. Clark, who averages 7.0 points and 3.7 had already been suspended for four games earlier this season.
Why: Jarred Shaw’s drug arrest
Utah State’s odds of reaching the NCAA Tournament might have been small to begin with, but the Mountain West hoped the Aggies would at least competitive. That’s going to be tough without Jarred Shaw, who was charged with felony drug distribution a week ago. Shaw averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 rebounds in the first eight games of the season, and Utah State lost 73-72 in their fifth game without him. Utah State may be on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for three consecutive seasons, the longest such drought of the Stew Morrill era.
Georgia Tech’s offense will have a new quarterback next season, as Vad Lee has decided to transfer following the Yellow Jackets’ bowl loss to Ole Miss.
Lee was Georgia Tech’s No. 1 quarterback in 2013, throwing for 1,561 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushing for 513 yards and eight scores.
Why is Lee leaving Georgia Tech? Check out this tweet:
GT QB Vad Lee said he will transfer. "The triple option was never really my thing," Lee said.— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) January 3, 2014
With Lee transferring, Justin Thomas is likely to open spring practice as Georgia Tech's No. 1 quarterback.
The Athlon Sports Cover 2 Podcast returns after a brief holiday hiatus to talk about the three big stories in college football. The Texas job remains opens as the Longhorns (maybe) close in on candidates. David Fox and Braden Gall discus the reported list of finalists.
Penn State also opened up this week. Where does this job rank right now given the sanctions for the next few years, and what kind of candidates can Penn State hope to get?
After that, Fox and Gall delve into the national championship game. On paper, all the signs point to Florida State dominating. But there’s something about this Auburn team.
Finally, we share our hopes for the college football world in 2014 and react to a best names of 2013 bracket.
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall or @DavidFox615 or email [email protected]. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com, iTunes and our podcast RSS feed.
The adjusted golf calendar means that the 2014 PGA Tour season is already underway. So for fantasy die-hards, that means another draft. So it's time to dust off the dumb, dirty and/or tasteless puns and come up with a team name. Here’s our list for 2014, in no particular order of awesomeness.
Weapons of Grass Destruction
This reference worked a little better in 2002.
Sure to induce a few giggles at the draft table.
This one’s almost too obvious.
Now we’re talking. That’s pretty creative.
The Fore Horsemen
The “fore” genre provides a deep well of name choices. Some of them are pretty crude. Use your imagination.
The ball genre is fertile ground for your golf fantasy team name. And for cheap laughs.
No. 1 Balls in Golf
Maybe your team could get a Titleist sponsorship.
Dude, Where’s My Par?
Nice. Golf clap for that one.
Sultans of Swing
Nothing says golf like a late 1970s Dire Straits reference.
Fairway to Heaven
Going even further into the music archives. Can’t go wrong with classic Zep.
Sure, it’s stolen from that talking baby commercial. But it’s still solid.
Grip It and Sip It
Could be a good slogan for John Daly's new cocktail, which actually exists.
The Swinging Johnsons
What? We’re just talking about Dustin and Zach.
A Shingo Ate My Baby
Sure, Shingo Katayama's an obscure player, but his name's worth its weight in fantasy golf gold.
Caddyshack references always work.
Ditto for Happy Gilmore references.
Working on my Putz
Brandt Awareness or The Grateful Sned
Brandt Snedeker's name brings fantasy possibilities.
May the Schwartzel Be With You
A Spaceballs reference combined with a Masters champ equals fantasy gem.
Fists of Furyk
Back to the Kuchar
Don't Rory Be Happy
I Like Big Putts and I Cannot Lie
Dufnering Miss Daisy
Bring in Da Fred Funk
Party of Fore
Dr. Vijay's Antler Spray
Jonas Blixt Brothers
The Bogey Men
The DrawShank Redemptions
Who's Your Caddy
Droppin' A Deuce
The Ball Washers
The Long Balls
The Happy Hookers
RELATED: 50 Funny Fantasy Football Team Names
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 2.
• Everything's coming up Bortles this morning. Blake Bortles led his UCF Knights to a big BCS bowl win, and according to his coach, George O'Leary, his girlfriend deserves "6 million Googles." See if you don't agree. That's her in the photo.
• The NHL has taken over New Year's Day with the Winter Classic. Here's a cool time-lapse video of the Big House's transformation into hockey heaven.
• Steve Spurrier: master troller. The guy's a genius. Really.
• My question following the recent round of bowls: What is going on with Kevin Sumlin's deformed knuckle?
• Mark Dantonio's footwork in avoiding a Gatorade bath was truly impressive. He even threw in a taunt at the end.
• Headline of the day: Red Wings Fan Videobombs Reporter, Wipes Out, Falls Down On Live TV.
• Jets QB Geno Smith has a not-safe-for-work scandal. Just what he needed.
• The New Year's Day bowls have become a Big Ten-SEC grudge match breeding ground. Edge again to the SEC.
• Cody Zeller attempted a dunk. The rim had other ideas.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
If you like offense, Friday night’s Orange Bowl matchup between Clemson and Ohio State will be must-see television. The Tigers and Buckeyes combined to average 86.5 points a game during the regular season, and there’s little to suggest a defensive struggle is in store at Sun Life Stadium.
Outside of the National Championship, the Orange Bowl matchup between the Buckeyes and Tigers might be the most intriguing bowl from the 2013-14 postseason.
Ohio State was a win away from playing for the BCS title, while Clemson capped off its best three-year stretch in program history with a 10-2 mark during regular season. The Buckeyes only defeat came in the Big Ten Championship against Michigan State, while the Tigers lost 51-14 to No. 1 Florida State and 31-17 to rival South Carolina.
Clemson and Ohio State have played only once – and what a meeting it was. These two teams played in the 1978 Gator Bowl, with the Tigers winning 17-15. But a Clemson victory wasn’t the biggest storyline from that game. Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman intercepted a pass with less than two minutes to go, which sealed the victory for the Tigers. However, after he was tackled along the Ohio State sideline, Bauman was punched by Buckeyes’ coach Woody Hayes. The incident resulted in the end of Hayes’ coaching career at Ohio State.
Clemson vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 3. at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -2.5
Three Things to Watch
Ohio State's secondary vs. Clemson's receivers
The biggest weakness on Ohio State’s defense is the secondary. The Buckeyes ranked 11th in the Big Ten against the pass, allowing 259.5 yards per game and 26 passing scores. Opposing quarterbacks completed 60.5 percent of their throws against Ohio State’s defense this year. The Buckeyes are strong in the trenches with an outstanding defensive line, but the secondary has not played at an elite level. In the last four games of 2013, Ohio State allowed at least 288 passing yards and gave up seven passing scores in its last two contests. Making matters worse for coach Urban Meyer is the status of top cornerback Bradley Roby. The junior suffered a knee injury in the Big Ten Championship and is not expected to play. With Roby sidelined, sophomore Armani Reeves is listed as the backup and would slide into the starting lineup. But without Roby, the pressure also increases on the rest of the secondary, including the other starter at cornerback (Doran Grant) and senior safeties Corey Brown and C.J. Barnett. Even if Roby was able to play, Ohio State’s secondary would have its hands full against Clemson’s passing game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has thrown for 11,526 yards and 102 touchdowns in his career and has completed 67 percent of his throws in back-to-back years. Boyd also has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including the explosive Sammy Watkins (14.6 ypc, 10 TDs), Adam Humphries (41 receptions), and Martavis Bryant (20.5 ypc). If Ohio State can generate a consistent pass rush, it would help take the pressure off a questionable secondary. However, if Boyd has all day to throw, the senior will torch the Buckeyes’ secondary.
Despite a three-game suspension to start the season, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde led the Big Ten by averaging 140.8 yards per game and finished only 160 yards behind Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah for the conference rushing title. The senior averaged at least six yards per carry in each of his last eight games, including a ridiculous 10.3 average against Illinois. Clemson’s rush defense finished ninth in the ACC, allowing 152.6 yards per game. At first glance, those numbers would appear to be a huge problem for the Tigers. However, a deeper look at the statistics shows Clemson hasn’t been awful against the run, as giving up 248 to Georgia Tech and 323 to Syracuse skewed the numbers. Winning the battle in the trenches will be critical for the Tigers, especially against an Ohio State offensive line that features four senior starters. The Tigers can counter in the trenches with an underrated defensive front. End Vic Beasley was an All-American in 2013, and there's depth at end with Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Shaq Lawson. The tackle spots are in good shape with Grady Jarrett, D.J. Reader, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams. There’s no question the Buckeyes want quarterback Braxton Miller to throw downfield. However, the run game helps to set the table for the offense. While Clemson can’t solely focus on stopping Hyde, keeping Ohio State in long yardage situations is critical to its Orange Bowl title hopes.
Clemson's secondary vs. Braxton Miller
As we mentioned above, the defensive backfields will be under fire on Friday night. Ohio State’s secondary struggled during the regular season and could be shorthanded in the Orange Bowl. Clemson’s secondary finished third in the ACC in pass defense and 16th nationally in pass efficiency defense. However, the Tigers are thin on depth in the secondary, as three freshmen are listed on the depth chart. Safety Jayron Kearse finished tied for second on the team with three interceptions, but fellow freshman Jadar Johnson played in less than 100 snaps this year. Needless to say, Clemson cannot afford an injury in this unit on Friday night. While depth may be an issue, there is talent for coordinator Brent Venables. Cornerback Bashaud Breeland had an All-ACC caliber season, and senior Darius Robinson picked off three passes on the other side. Ohio State doesn’t have a No. 1 option like Sammy Watkins, but the Buckeyes aren’t short on talent at receiver. Corey Brown led the team with 55 catches, while Devin Smith averaged 15.6 yards per catch, and tight end Jeff Heuerman quietly recorded 25 receptions. Evan Spencer, Chris Fields and freshman standout Dontre Wilson are also options to watch. And the triggerman for Ohio State’s offense is junior quarterback Braxton Miller, who threw for 1,860 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. Miller missed two games due to injury but also rushed for 1,033 yards in 2013. When healthy, the junior is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and makes the Ohio State offense go. Clemson didn’t play a plethora of elite quarterbacks this year but allowed 444 passing yards to Florida State and Jameis Winston. If Clemson struggles to stop Carlos Hyde on the ground, Miller and his receivers should have no trouble carving up this secondary.
Key Player: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
With cornerback Bradley Roby expected to sit due to a knee injury, and the suspension of defensive end Noah Spence, there’s even more pressure on Shazier to set the tone for Ohio State's defense. Shazier led the team with 134 tackles (22.5 for a loss) and recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles in 2013. The junior will be tasked with keeping Clemson running back Roderick McDowell from breaking any big plays, while also cleaning up any missed tackles all over the field. The Tigers are always capable of throwing a trick play or two at opposing defenses, which makes having a veteran leader in the linebacking corps even more valuable. And most importantly, Shazier is the heart and soul (and leader) for this defense. With a dangerous offense on the other sideline, Shazier will need to play one of his best games in an Ohio State uniform for the Buckeyes to earn the victory.
Get ready for an offensive showcase. Ohio State and Clemson are loaded with talent on offense, including two of the best quarterbacks in the nation (Tajh Boyd and Braxton Miller). While Boyd and Miller should put on a show, the outcome of this game will be determined by which defense can get the most stops or create a turnover at an opportune time. The Buckeyes’ secondary is a huge concern, but the front seven should get pressure on Boyd to disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. With Hyde and four senior starters on the offensive line, Ohio State will grind the clock in the fourth quarter, with Miller tossing a late score that gives the Buckeyes their first victory in the Orange Bowl since 1977.
Prediction: Ohio State 38, Clemson 34
Alabama arrives at the Sugar Bowl eager to prove that its one loss — on one of the most amazing plays in the history of college football — was a fluke. The Crimson Tide ranked No. 1 in the nation until that defeat at Auburn, would like to show the college football world that they truly are the best team in the land. They have no hope of earning the No. 1 ranking — in any poll — but a win over Oklahoma will allow this senior class to go out on a high note. One of those seniors, quarterback AJ McCarron, has an opportunity to add to one of the most impressive résumés we have seen in decades — he’s 36–3 as a starter with two national titles and three bowl wins.
Oklahoma under Bob Stoops has become one of the steadiest programs in the country. Like clockwork, OU is good for at least 10 wins and a major bowl game every year. The 2013 season, though, might be one of the better achievements of Stoops’ tenure. Oklahoma began the year ranked outside of the Associated Press top 15 for the first time since 2000, the year OU won the national championship.
Despite uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Sooners went 10–2 and beat rival Oklahoma State on the road in a thrilling season-finale. Sure, there were some rough patches — most notably in lopsided losses to Texas (36–20) and Baylor (41–12) — but the Sooners managed to reach a BCS bowl for the ninth time in the Stoops era.
Alabama vs. Oklahoma
Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 2. at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -15
Three Things to Watch
The quarterback position at Oklahoma
Stoops has yet to determine whether Trevor Knight or Blake Bell will get the starting assignment at quarterback against one of the elite defenses in the nation. Knight, a dynamic runner, started the final two games of the season but left the Oklahoma State game with an injury. Bell, regarded as the better passer, guided the Sooners on the game-winning drive in Stillwater that ultimately led to the Sugar Bowl invite. Very few quarterbacks have had success against Alabama, but the numbers suggest that going with the better runner might be the prudent decision for Stoops. Only two teams scored more than 17 points against Alabama this season, and both teams received solid production from their quarterback in the running game. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries in the Aggies’ 49–42 loss to Bama in September, and Auburn’s Nick Marshall ran for 99 yards on 17 carries in the Tigers’ 34–28 victory. Obviously, having a running quarterback doesn’t guarantee success against Alabama, but it appears you at least need to the threat of the run from the quarterback position to test this defense. Even if Knight does get the start, it would be a surprise if both quarterbacks don’t play in the Sugar Bowl.
Alabama’s running attack
AJ McCarron will go down as one of the most successful quarterbacks in the history of the collegiate game, but Alabama is at its best when the running game gets going. The Crimson Tide boast arguably the deepest collection of quality tailbacks in the nation, but only two — T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake — have received significant carries. Yeldon leads the way with 1,163 yards (on a 6.1-yard average) and 13 touchdowns. Drake, whose workload diminished late in the season as the Tide relied more on Yeldon, has 694 yards on 92 attempts for an impressive 7.5-yard average. If either one is injured, Alabama can turn to true freshman Derrick Henry (10.1-yard average), Jalston Fowler (6.6-yard career average), Altee Tenpenny or Dee Hart. This group of tailbacks will look to attack an Oklahoma defense that struggled against the run — due in part to some key injuries on the front seven — for much of the 2013 season. The Sooners ranked fourth in the Big 12 in rushing defense (fifth on a yards-per-attempt basis) and allowed at least 200 rushing yards in four games — Notre Dame (220), Texas (255), Baylor (255) and Oklahoma State (200). Look for Alabama to be the fifth OU opponent to top the 200-yard mark.
Oklahoma’s return game
The Sooners, more than a two-touchdown underdog, will have to win the battle of special teams to make this game competitive. Fortunately for OU, it has one of the elite punt returners in college football. Jalen Saunders, also a top-flight wide receiver, ranks sixth in the nation with a 16.8-yard average on his 18 punt returns, and he scored on returns against Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Alabama, which has allowed only 52 total punt return yards all season, will do its best to kick the ball away from Saunders.
Key Player: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
Mosley will be the best player on a field that will be loaded with 4- and 5-star recruits at every position. He leads Alabama in tackles by a wide margin — his 88 stops are 37 more than anyone else on the team — and did some his best work on the other side of the line of scrimmage with nine tackles for a loss and eight quarterback hurries. It will be important for Mosley and the rest of the Alabama linebacking corps to slow down Oklahoma’s running game and make the Sooners beat them with the forward pass. Oklahoma ranks ninth in the Big 12 in passing offense and has only topped 250 yards in a game once — against Tulsa in September.
There’s a reason Alabama is the big favorite. This is an elite Alabama team that was on the verge of playing for its third straight national title before losing late at Auburn on the final weekend of the regular season. Alabama’s secondary might not be up to its usual high standard and the kicking game can be an issue — remember the Auburn game? — but Nick Saban’s team has few weaknesses.
Oklahoma won 10 games — hitting double digits for the 12th time in 14 seasons — but this is not a great OU team. They were blown out twice — vs. Texas (36–20) and at Baylor (41–12) — and won five games by 10 points or less. The offense is mediocre (and a bit too one-dimensional), and the defense has had difficulty stopping the run. Too many things will have to go well — at least one special teams score, force multiple turnovers, etc. — for Oklahoma to win this game.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Oklahoma 14
The seventh annual Under Armour All-American game will take place Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN in Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Names like A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Manti Te’o, Matt Barkley, Trent Richardson, Jameis Winston, Jadeveon Clowney, Andrus Peat and Christian Hackenberg have made their first big college splash at the Under Armour All-American game.
The All-Star event is a showcase for college football’s next generation of gridiron stars. Frankly, who wins or loses the game means very little to anyone — the players, fans, coaches or family members in the crowd. But the week of practice is a great chance for scouts and evaluators to see the best face the best. And the recruiting announcements carry monumental importance for the future of the sport as a whole, shaping future depth charts for years to come.
The 2014 version of the Under Armour All-American game won’t be any different.
Who has the most players to watch?
Alabama and Nick Saban lead all teams with 11 committed players playing in The Trop on Thursday. Notre Dame and Michigan are second with seven prospects apiece participating. Miami and Auburn each have six prospects involved while Penn State, Florida State and Florida boast four recruits to watch on Thursday. In all, 30 different college teams — including Virginia, Mississippi State, Kansas, Arkansas, Maryland — will have someone to watch in the seventh edition of the all-star game. There are over 100 talented recruits involved in this game and 22 of them are still undecided. Bringing us too…
Who is under center?
Quarterback is the most important position on the field and this game has featured some big-time names of late. Landry Jones starred in 2008, Matt Barkley in '09 and Blake Bell and Devin Gardner played in the '10 event. Braxton Miller and Brett Hundley gave the world a taste of what was to come in 2011, while Jameis Winston starred in the '12 game. Chrisitian Hackenberg was the big name to watch in last year’s showcase.
Ten future college quarterbacks will be on display this Thursday with all 10 already committed to 10 different teams. SEC schools LSU, Arkansas, Auburn and Alabama will have their future signal-caller playing in Brandon Harris, Rafe Peavey, Sean White and David Cornwell. There are many who believe Cornwell, the No. 4-rated pro-style passer by 247Sports, could be the starter for Nick Saban as early as next fall.
Penn State’s Michael O’Connor, Stanford’s Keller Chryst, Oklahoma’s Justice Hansen, Oregon’s Morgan Mahalak, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Michigan’s Wilton Speight will all be featured as well. Chryst is the No. 3-rated QB prospect in the nation while Watson is the No. 1-rated dual-threat prospect and No. 4-rated overall QB in the nation.
Who will be announcing?
According to 247Sports, eight different players are set to announce during the game. The group features the No. 1 player in the nation, six of the top 25 players in the nation and two more ranked in the top 70. Here are those players who could be revealing their choice, where they rank and the list of schools they are believed to be choosing from:
Leonard Fournette, RB (6-1, 226)
New Orleans (La.) St. Augustine
Rank: No. 1 overall, No. 1 RB
Schools: Alabama, LSU, Florida
Tony Brown, CB (6-0, 188)
Beaumont (Texas) Ozen
Rank: No. 9, No. 3 CB
Schools: Alabama, LSU, Ohio State, Texas, USC
Speedy Noil, WR (5-10, 175)
New Orleans (La.) Edna Karr
Rank: No. 11, No. 1 WR
Schools: LSU, Texas A&M
Dalvin Cook, RB (5-11, 190)
Miami (Fla.) Central
Rank: No. 12, No. 2 RB
Schools: Florida, Florida State (switched commitment from Florida to FSU on Tuesday)
Gerald Willis, DT (6-3, 275)
New Orleans (La.) Edna Carr
Rank: No. 21, No. 2 DT
Schools: LSU, Florida
Jalen Tabor, CB (6-1, 182)
Washington (D.C.) Friendship Academy
Rank: No. 24, No. 4 CB
Schools: Alabama, Arizona
Jamal Adams, S (6-0, 199)
Carrollton (Texas) Hebron
Rank: No. 27. No. 2 S
Schools: Florida, LSU, Ole Miss
Travis Rudolph, WR (6-1, 185)
West Palm Beach (Fla.) Cardinal Newman
Rank: No. 69, No. 7 WR
Schools: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami
Other names to watch:
The No. 1-rated defensive tackle in the nation, Andrew Brown, is committed to Virginia and has played well in practice. Could he save Mike London’s job? Keep an eye on the big fella from famed Oscar Smith High School in Chesapeake, Va.
Michigan has a future star in do-everything athlete Jabrill Peppers out of Paramus (N.J.) Catholic. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder is as talented a defensive prospect as scouts have seen in years so his No. 2 overall ranking in the nation should be warranted. Be sure to find Peppers on Thursday afternoon.
The No. 100-rated player in the nation is future Alabama wide receiver Cameron Sims. The Mike Evans-clone has been excellent in practice and could be a productive target for whomever is under center in Tuscaloosa. The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder simply makes plays and the Under Armour game should be no different.
Dillon Bates is the son of NFL All-Pro tackler Bill Bates and his football IQ and development is befitting an NFL offspring. He needs to gain some poundage to play quickly for Tennessee but his ability to make plays and be in the right position is uncanny for a player of his age. Watch for Bates to be all over the field on Thursday.
Jacory Washington may get lost among a long list of elite wide receivers in attendance this year. But the No. 6-rated tight end prospect in the nation from Westlake (La.) High has been a bright spot in practice and could find himself moving up rankings following the All-American game.
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some like to keep it simple and use the ol' eyeball test, while others fall on the sabermetric side of things. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from another stellar season of Pac-12 college football:
353: Marcus Mariota's Pac-12 record consecutive attempts without an INT
Oregon star quarterback Marcus Mariota set a Pac-12 record by not throwing an interception for over a year. From Nov. 17, 2012 to Nov. 23, 2013, Mariota threw 353 passes without an interception. However, in the season’s most critical game with the Pac-12 North crown hanging in the balance, Mariota tossed two interceptions on the road in an ugly 42-16 loss to Arizona. The loss ended the Ducks' shot at a Pac-12 title and snapped the four-year BCS bowl streak.
2006: The last time Oregon didn’t lead the Pac-12 in scoring
The Oregon Ducks finished fourth nationally and led the Pac-12 in scoring at 45.5 points per game this season. It marks the seventh consecutive season that the Ducks have led the league in scoring offense. Oregon has finished outside of the top 10 nationally in scoring only once over that span, a 12th-place finish in 2007. The Cal Bears led the league in scoring in 2006 at 32.9 points per game while the Ducks finished third at 29.5 points per game.
89: Connor Halliday's NCAA single-game record for pass attempts
Purdue's Drew Brees threw the ball an NCAA-record 83 times against Wisconsin in 1998. Against an Oregon team with a big lead for most of the night, Washington State's Connor Halliday threw the ball 89 times in Week 8. Halliday also tied the NCAA mark for completions with 58 (Andy Schmitt, Eastern Michigan) and set the Pac-12 single-game passing benchmark with 557 yards (Andrew Walter, 536). And much like Brees that night back in '98, Wazzu lost in part because of multiple interceptions. Halliday threw four interceptions to go with his four touchdowns in the 62-38 loss to the Ducks.
16: Consecutive 100-yard games for Ka’Deem Carey
Carey led the nation in rushing and set all types of records as a sophomore in 2012. All he did as an encore this fall was build upon his incredible Pac-12 resume. He rushed for at least 119 yards in every game he played, finishing No. 2 in the nation in rushing at 157.1 yards per game. In the last two seasons, the Zona star tailback has carried 652 times for 3,814 yards and 42 rushing touchdowns. He was named Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year this year by the coaches.
2: Number of players to win two Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Awards
Only two players in conference history have ever won a second league Defensive Player of the Year award and Arizona State’s Will Sutton is one of them. The senior defensive lineman won back-to-back D.P.O.Y. awards this season after helping lead Arizona State to a Pac-12 South title. He finished with 48 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and 4.0 sacks for the season. Washington’s Steve Emtman split the award in 1990 with Arizona’s Darryl Lewis and won the award outright in '91. Sutton is technically the only two-time outright Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year winner.
133.1: Brandin Cooks' nation-leading yards receiving per game
Oregon State is one of two teams in the nation to ever boast two different Biletnikoff Award winners for the nation’s top receiver. Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks joined Mike Hass (2005) to make the Beavers one of just two teams to claim more than one such winner. Pittsburgh (Antonio Bryant and Larry Fitzgerald) is the only other team with two different winners. Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have won two Biletnikoff Awards but both were won by the same player — Justin Blackmon and Michael Crabtree respectively. Cooks led the nation with 1,730 yards, was second with 128 catches and second with 16 touchdowns. He broke the Pac-12 single-season record for receptions and yards this fall.
57-14: Stanford's combined first-half score over Arizona State
Back in September, Stanford jumped out to a 29-0 halftime lead over the Sun Devils in Palo Alto. The Cardinal eventually pushed the lead to 39-7 before letting off the pedal and winning 42-28. Two months later, nothing changed as Stanford blitzed ASU in the first half of the Pac-12 Championship Game. Kevin Hogan and Tyler Gaffney posted a 28-7 second-quarter lead and a 28-14 halftime margin. David Shaw's bunch never looked back, crushing the Sun Devils 38-14 for its second consecutive Pac-12 championship — the first time the school has done that since 1970-71.
529.6: Cal’s total yards allowed per game
Sonny Dykes is a well-respected coach but probably didn’t realize what he was getting himself into when he took the Cal job this season. In his first year, his defense was historically bad. Cal allowed a Pac-12 worst 529.6 yards per game, ranking 124th nationally — out of 125 teams. The Bears had the worst defense of any of the “Big 6” conferences and was better than only New Mexico State’s 549.5 yards per game allowed. Cal’s 45.9 points allowed per game were also dead last in the Pac-12 and among all “Big 6” teams, finishing 124th ahead of only Idaho and their pathetic 46.8 points allowed per game.
7-2: USC’s record without Lane Kiffin
Lane Kiffin was fired on the LAX tarmac in the wee morning hours of the final Sunday in September. USC had been pounded 62-41 in Tempe by Arizona State, dropping their record to 3-2 — and 10-8 since the beginning of the 2012 season. Ed Orgeron, and later Clay Helton for the bowl game, was elevated to an interim position and he proceeded to lead USC to six straight Pac-12 wins. Coach O and Helton combined to finish 7-2 on the year, giving USC 10 wins in the process and clinching its first bowl win since the 2009 Emerald Bowl. Only 18 “Big 6” teams won at least 10 games this year and the USC Trojans were one of them.
The teams in the Cotton Bowl will hope their final games of the 2013 regular season weren’t as bad as they looked.
Missouri matched Auburn for three quarters in the SEC Championship Game, a matchup that would have sent Mizzou to the national title bout. On the other hand, Missouri’s defense, the hallmark of the surprising season in Columbia, was non-existent that day, running out of steam in the fourth quarter. Missouri surrendered 677 yards, including 545 rushing, to Auburn in the Georgia Dome.
Earlier in the day, Oklahoma State looked out of sorts with the Big 12 title and a BCS bid on the line against Oklahoma. The Cowboys outgained Oklahoma by 42 yards, but allowed de facto third-string quarterback Blake Bell to put together a game winning drive in the final 19 seconds.
The letdown factor could be at play in Dallas, but it shouldn’t be.
For Missouri, this is another opportunity to prove the Tigers will thrive as an SEC program, if there was any lingering doubt after Mizzou won the East this season. Texas A&M thrashed its former conference foe Oklahoma in last year’s Cotton Bowl, and Missouri can do the same against a program it defeated only once in the final five meetings in the Big 12.
For Oklahoma State, the Cowboys lost two winnable games this season — the sloppy effort against OU in the Bedlam Game and a baffling loss to bowl no-show West Virginia.
Missouri vs. Oklahoma State
Kickoff: Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. Eastern
TV Channel: Fox
Spread: Missouri by 1
Three Things to Watch
Missouri’s huge receivers vs. Oklahoma State’s secondary
Unlike other teams in the SEC East, Missouri was able to overcome injuries at quarterback in part because of the top receiving corps in the confererence. Dorial Green-Beckham (6-foot-6, 225), L’Damian Washington (6-4, 205) and Marcus Lucas (6-5, 220) are all big bodies who combined to catch 24 of Missouri’s 30 touchdown catches this season. Oklahoma State finished ninth nationally in pass efficiency defense and fourth in interceptions, but the Cowboys’ also linebackers played a key role in defending the pass as eight of Oklahoma State’s 20 picks this season came from linebackers. Cowboys cornerback Justin Gilbert (six interceptions, two touchdowns) will be in the spotlight to make a game-turning turnover, but James Franklin, who will start the bowl, and Maty Mauk combined to throw only seven picks all year.
Clint Chelf vs. Missouri’s pass rush
Clint Chelf capped the 2013 regular season with his best two games of the season against Texas and Baylor and then one of his most lackluster since regaining the job against Oklahoma. Chelf went 19 of 35 for 200 yards wiht a touchdown and an interception and was a non-factor in the run game against the Sooners. Missouri’s bread and butter on defense was a pass rush that led the SEC at 2.9 sacks per game. The defensive front of Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Kony Ealy combined for 23 sacks this season. Chelf will seek a replay of the win over Texas in which the Oklahoma State quarterback used designed runs to evade the Longhorns’ elite pass rushers.
Big plays from Henry Josey
This is another meeting of strength vs. strength. Missouri running back Henry Josey averaged 8.9 yards on 48 carries in the final four games of the season, including a 65-yard run against Auburn, a 57-yard run against Texas A&M and an 86-yard run against Kentucky. Meanwhile, Oklahoma State allowed only three 30-yard runs all season, the fewest in the Big 12.
Key Player: Desmond Roland, Oklahoma State
The lasting image from the SEC championship game will be Tre Mason scampering for 304 yards and four touchdowns against the Missouri defense. Oklahoma State doesn’t have Auburn’s run game, but Desmond Roland is capable of putting up a big performance. He rushed for 219 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa State, 96 yards and three touchdowns against Texas Tech and 144 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma. The Cowboys may need something like that to beat Missouri.
In many ways, Missouri and Oklahoma State is an ideal bowl matchup. Both teams have their share of strengths that will be up against a strength for the other team — Missouri’s receivers against Oklahoma State’s pass defense, Clint Chelf’s mobility vs. Michael Sam, for starters. The game has all the signs of a tight bowl matchup, especially compared to some of the other January bowl matchups. One thing worth remembering: Even through realignment, the SEC has won nine of the last 10 Cotton Bowl games — the exception being Missouri’s 38-7 win over Arkansas in the 2008 game.
Prediction: Missouri 28, Oklahoma State 24
The change in the calendar isn’t really college basketball’s midpoint, but it is the most logical time for teams to take stock of what they have and turn the page as conference play begins.
Meanwhile, late December is the time of year where a handful of midseason transfers and freshmen become eligible (or ineligible. More on that tomorrow).
While many teams are undoubtedly improving as the season goes a long, a handful can take major steps forward in the coming weeks. Some are because a key freshman is about to enter the lineup or a midseason transfer is able to join the team. Some are younger teams starting to figure out rotations and starting lineups.
We’ve selected nine teams that look like they’re ready to take the next step into the new year.
Teams on the Rise in the New Year
Why: Freshman Chris Walker is eligible
Florida started the season as shorthanded as any team in the country, but that has changed in recent weeks. The Gators enter conference play with point guard Scottie Wilbekin back from suspension for the last seven games. The same goes for Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed only two games. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill has returned from injury. But the last piece is freshman Chris Walker. Coach Billy Donovan has tried to diminish expectations for a player who was just cleared to practice in December, but Florida is still slated to add an athletic 6-10 McDonald’s All-American sometime early in conference play.
Why: Veterans emerging
The Big 12 is going to be more of a grind than most thought at the start of the season — Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor also have hopes of winning the league, and Texas and Kansas State have surprised in the non-conference schedule. Maybe it’s a good thing Bill Self’s young team has gone through a gauntlet in the non-conference slate. Point guard Naadir Tharpe responded from his brief benching earlier this season to put up 20 points with eight assists against previously undefeated Toledo and 10 points against Georgetown. Memphis transfer Tarik Black emerged to score 17 points in 20 minutes against Georgetown on Dec. 21. Both are great signs for the Big 12 season. And this is still a team with two of the best freshmen in the country in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
Why: Jevon Thomas is eligible
Kansas State has already improved through its non-conference schedule, losing early to Northern Colorado and Charlotte before defeating Ole Miss and Gonzaga in December. Thomas is still working his way into the lineup after returning to practice last week when he became eligible as a midseason transfer. Thomas may become Kansas State’s top point guard by season’s end.
Why: Improvement in the backcourt
Saturday was the day Kentucky fans have been waiting for since the top signing class in college basketball history came together. The Wildcats beat Louisville 73-66 for their signature win of the season, but more important, they started to show what they can do when all the parts are playing together. Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and James Young combined to score 29 of Kentucky’s 32 points in the second half against the Cardinals.
Why: Seth Allen’s return
Maryland might not be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Terrapins at least have hope with the return of point guard Seth Allen from a foot injury on Sunday. Allen gave the Maryland offense an added dimension with three 3-point shots on six attempts in an 85-77 win over Tulsa and had only one turnover to three assists in 21 minutes.
Why: The return of Leslie McDonald
Befitting North Carolina’s up-and-down season, the Tar Heels may well end up on a list of teams on pace to improve and take a step back. The good news: The Tar Heels returned shooting guard Leslie McDonald after he missed nine games with an NCAA-mandated suspension. He’s 10 of 23 from the field and 8 of 17 from 3-point range in his first three games back, but he’s not even the top player Carolina hoped to get back from a suspension. P.J. Hairston’s career appears to be done after the Tar Heels abandoned hope of getting him back this season. Roy Williams will have to hope the finality of the Hairston decision will help his team move on.
Why: Cullen Neal and Deshawn Delaney in the starting lineup
First-year coach Craig Neal drew criticism earlier this season for giving too many minutes to a struggling freshman point guard. The point guard happened to be his son. Cullen Neal, though, has adjusted. He’s started the last three games, including a 24-point outburst in a win over Marquette. Junior college transfer guard Deshawn Delaney entered the starting lineup in the last two games and contributed 10 points and 10 rebounds against Marquette.
Why: Dominic Artis and Ben Carter back from suspension
Oregon has started 12-0 despite missing Artis and Carter for the first nine games during an NCAA-mandated suspension. The Ducks are still working both into the rotation. Artis, the bigger impact player of the two, played only 11 minutes in an overtime win over BYU. Fellow point guard Johnathan Loyd has handled the point guard job just fine. Carter adds a little bit of depth to the forward position, but the Ducks already rank in the top 10 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage on KenPom.com.
Why: John Johnson eligible
Penn State probably won’t threaten for an NCAA Tournament slot, but the Nittany Lions have the players to be a spoiler in the Big Ten race. Penn State already has high-scoring guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill and now adds Pittsburgh transfer John Johnson to the mix. The 6-1 guard from Philadelphia went 8 of 11 from the field for 20 points in his season debut against Mount St. Mary’s on Dec. 22.
One of the defining moments of college football since the turn of the century was Vince Young leading Texas to a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship over USC following the 2005 season.
In 2014, both teams involved in that legendary game will have new coaches.
USC is already on its second full-time coach since then. After a dramatic back-and-forth with reports indicating Mack Brown had resigned and had not resigned, Brown eventually retired Dec. 14.
Brown’s departure means two of the top jobs in college football will have opened following the 2013 season. The coaching carousel causes us to reevaluate the most desirable jobs in college football.
This year, there’s not much of a reason to recalibrate. Texas remains the top job in college football, not just the top job to open this season. USC is not far off.
We’ve given every job in the coaching carousel a grade, all the way from Texas to Eastern Michigan. The only question is where the Texas and USC dominoes will settle.
The 2013-14 Football Coaching Carousel: Ranking Every Job
Out: Mack Brown, retired (158-47 in 16 seasons)
In: Charlie Strong, Louisville coach
Mack Brown rebuilt the Texas program into a national contender after the failed tenures of David McWilliams and John Mackovic. The Longhorns won at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons at one point under Brown, but that run yielded one national championship and only two Big 12 titles. The new coach will be under pressure to bring — in Brown’s words — “some new energy” to the program. This is perhaps the best job in college football in every sense. Texas has the best recruiting base in college football thanks to the state’s rich high school football tradition. This season, as many as 11 starting quarterbacks in the NFL went to Texas high schools. The problem for Texas was that none of them played in Austin. The Longhorns are flush with big-money donors, and despite strides by Texas A&M and others, Texas has the largest fanbase in the state. Even though the Longhorn Network is difficult to find, no other college program can claim its own ESPN-backed television network (BYU is the only other school with a TV network). How good is this job? Nick Saban’s name was speculated for the job, and it wasn’t crazy to think the Alabama coach would leave.
How good is the Texas job? A-plus
Out: Lane Kiffin, fired (28-15 in three-plus seasons)
In: Steve Sarkisian, Washington coach
USC is only five seasons removed from Pete Carroll’s last top-three finish and Rose Bowl victory and three seasons removed from going 10-2 in 2011. Many programs can claim tradition, but recruits can still remember when USC was college football royalty. The Trojans are also slated to unveil a renovation of Heritage Hall early in 2014. New coach Steve Sarkisian must navigate one more season of scholarship limitations while facing a tougher Pac-12 with Oregon and Stanford at national powerhouse status and UCLA, Arizona State and Washington on the rise. Still, there’s no reason USC can’t be back in national title contention each year.
How good is the USC job? A-plus
Out: Steve Sarkisian, hired at USC (34-29 in five seasons)
In: Chris Petersen, Boise State coach
Washington was in ruins when Sarkisian took over in 2009. A year earlier, the Huskies had gone 0-12 and were eight years removed from their last conference title. Washington still hasn’t reached the Rose Bowl since the 2000 season, but this is a program in position to reclaim former glory. Sarkisian improved the talent base by leaps and bounds in five seasons, and Washingotn recently completed a $280 million renovation of Husky Stadium. The state of Washington isn’t the best for prospects in Pac-12 territory, but it has produced Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Bishop Sankey, Jake Locker and — this is relevant to the ex-Boise coach — Kellen Moore.
How good is the Washington job? A-minus
4. Penn State
Out: Bill O’Brien, hired by the Houston Texans (15-9 in two seasons)
In: James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach
In the long run, Penn State is one of the top jobs in college football. Lengthy tradition, a massive stadium with a rabid fan base and a state with good, but dwindling, talent plus access to Ohio and Maryland/D.C. prospects all make this one of the premier jobs in the Big Ten. It’s just going to take at least five years to get back to that spot due to the deep NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA has loosened some of the recruiting restrictions, but Penn State won’t have a full complement of 85 scholarships until 2016, the same year the Nittany Lions will be eligible for a bowl. Between a wave of transfers in 2012 and limited signing classes, the new coach will have a depleted roster for his first two seasons, if not more. Bill O’Brien also ran into the old adage that it’s tough to follow a coaching legend, and no shadow looms larger than that of Joe Paterno, in spite of the scandal that tarnished his legacy. The new coach, however, will inherit budding star quarterback Christian Hackenberg for at least two seasons. That alone may help Penn State weather some of the leanest years under sanctions.
How good is the Penn State job? B-plus
Out: Charlie Strong, hired by Texas (37-15 in four seasons)
In: Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky coach
The new Louisville coach won’t inherit a cushy position, despite the Cardinals’ 23-3 record the last two seasons. Louisville moves into the ACC — into a division with Florida State and Clemson, no less — without star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Otherwise, an experienced team returns. Louisville has proven it can built teams that are a factor in the national conversation while playing a Conference USA, Big East and American schedule. How Louisville holds up against the ACC, which will include regular games against Notre Dame, will be in question. To compete in the ACC, the Louisville coach must have an aggressive recruiting strategy to supplement in-state prospects. Both Bobby Petrino and Strong flourished due to a substantial presence in the state of Florida. Tom Jurich is regarded as one if the best athletic directors in the country, and he’s given his coaches the infrastructure they need to thrive, including stadium and facility upgrades.
How good is the Louisville job? B-minus
Out: James Franklin, hired at Penn State (24-15 in three seasons)
In: Derek Mason, Stanford defensive coordinator
Franklin left Vanderbilt as the school’s best coach since Dan McGugin, who coached all but one season from 1904-34. Franklin’s run, which included a pair of nine-win seasons, will be tough to replicate, but Vanderbilt also has committed to competing in the SEC in recent years. An indoor practice facility, locker room upgrades and — most important — a financial commitment to a coaching staff all have lifted the Commodores job from the depths of the SEC. Don’t mistake this for a top-half job in the SEC or the next Stanford: Academic hurdles, a shallow recruiting base in Tennessee and limited fan support still make this one of the tougher jobs in the league. However, now Vanderbilt will expect regular bowl appearances.
How good is the Vanderbilt job? C-plus
7. Boise State
Out: Chris Petersen, hired at Washington (92-12 in eight seasons)
In: Bryan Harsin, Arkansas State coach
Petersen turned Boise State from a nice story out West to a bona fide national championship contender. Boise State twice went undefeated and finished in the top 10 four times under Petersen. The Broncos have a clear identity as innovators on offense and unearthing gems in recruiting, in California and as far away as the Netherlands. The Mountain West may cut into Boise State’s ability to put up gaudy records on a yearly basis, but there’s no reason the Broncos can’t be the flagship program in the league.
How good is the Boise State job? C-plus
8. Wake Forest
Out: Jim Grobe, retired (77-82 in 13 seasons)
In: Dave Clawson, Bowling Green coach
Wake Forest is a tough enough job as it is, a private school competing in a division with Florida State, Clemson and, starting in 2014, Louisville. Clawson will have to follow the beloved Jim Grobe, who won the ACC in 2006 and tied D.C. Walker for the most wins in school history. Grobe proved what it takes be competitive at Wake — an unconventional offense and unconventional thinking (i.e. near-universal redshirting).
How good is the Wake Forest job? C-minus
Out: Paul Pasqualoni, fired (10-18 in two-plus seasons)
In: Bob Diaco, Notre Dame defensive coordinator
The talent base in the Northeast is scant, especially after Penn State, Syracuse, Rutgers and Boston College take the top players in the area. The American Athletic Conference may be the seventh-best league in the country. The stadium is 25 miles from campus. That’s enough to make Maryland look like a dream job.
How good is the Connecticut job? C-minus
10. Arkansas State
Out: Bryan Harsin, hired at Boise State (7-5 in one season)
In: Blake Anderson, North Carolina offensive coordinator
Welcome to the nation’s best stepping stone job as the last three coaches have gone on to Ole Miss, Auburn and Boise State all after one year apiece on the job. The three one-and-done coaches have turned Arkansas State into a consistent factor in the Sun Belt, but one has to wonder the toll so much turnover has caused for the program.
How good is the Arkansas State job? C-minus
11. Bowling Green
Out: Dave Clawson, hired at Wake Forest (32-31 in five seasons)
In: Dino Babers, Eastern Illinois coach
Like most schools in the MAC, Bowling Green is only as good its head coach. Bowling Green isn’t quite Northern Illinois or Toledo in the MAC, but it’s not Eastern Michigan. All but one coach since the 1964, and each of the last four coaches, left Bowling Green with a winning record.
How good is the Bowling Green job? C-minus
12. Western Kentucky
Out: Bobby Petrino, hired at Louisville (8-4 in one season)
In: Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky offensive coordinator
A former Division I-AA power, Western Kentucky needed a few seasons to become a competitive program in the Sun Belt. An astute hire of Willie Taggart and taking advantage of Petrino’s baggage has given the Hilltoppers three consecutive winning season. Western Kentucky reached only one bowl game in that span, due to the Sun Belt’s lack of bowl arrangement. That changes as the Hilltoppers join Conference USA in 2014.
How good is the Western Kentucky job? D
Out: Dave Christensen, fired (27-35 in five seasons)
In: Craig Bohl, North Dakota State coach
Wyoming isn’t going to compete with Fresno State or Boise State in the Mountain West, but the Cowboys aren’t in need of a rebuild like Utah State did when Gary Andersen took over. Laramie has a small but passionate fan base, if not a lot of major college football prospects.
How good is the Wyoming job? D
Out: Carl Pelini, fired (9-15 in one-plus season)
In: Charlie Partridge, Arkansas defensive line coach
FAU has a brand new stadium near the beach and the closest college football program to the talent-rich area in West Palm Beach, Belle Glade and Pahokee. And its nearest rival, FIU, can’t seem to get its act together. The right coach can make this a Conference USA contender.
How good is the FAU job? D
15. Miami (Ohio)
Out: Don Treadwell, fired (8-12 in two-plus seasons)
In: Chuck Martin, Notre Dame offensive coordinator
Miami has arguably the greatest tradition of any MAC program as the cradle of coaches (Bo Schembechler, John Pont, Dick Crum, Randy Walker and Terry Hoeppner all coached here). Throw out the 2010 MAC championship season, and Miami is 19-65 since 2006. The struggles are baffling.
How good is the Miami (Ohio) job? D
Out: Rich Ellerson, fired (20-41 in five seasons)
In: Jeff Monken, Georgia Southern coach
Ellerson appeared to be a slam dunk hire for Army. He was successful at Cal Poly running the triple option. He was successful early, leading Army to a 7-6 season and a bowl game in the second year. Army, though, is lagging behind the other service academies. Ellerson went 1-9 against Navy and Air Force. Like the Navy and Air Force, the Army coach needs schemes that can even the odds against more talented teams. All three service academies have restrictions, but Army has the toughest road of the three to get players.
How good is the Army job? D
17. Georgia Southern
Out: Jeff Monken, hired at Army (38-16 in four seasons)
In: Willie Fritz, Sam Houston State coach
Paul Johnson led Georgia Southern to two FCS/Division I-AA national championships, and Monken returned the Eagles to contender status. Georgia Southern will be in the FBS in 2014 and will be eligible for a Sun Belt title in 2015 along with Appalachian State. With a long history in the lower division, Georgia Southern could have similar success to another former FCS champion, Western Kentucky, in transitioning to the Sun Belt.
How good is the Georgia Southern job: D
Out: Garrick McGee, hired as Louisville offensive coordinator (5-19 in two seasons)
In: Bill Clark, Jacksonville State coach
UAB has not had a winning season since reaching the only bowl game in school history in 2004. In theory, team in the heart of Birmingham in football-crazy Alabama should put together a respectable program, but fan support is lacking and facilities aren’t up to par even for Conference USA. A move to build an on-campus stadium has been a non-starter.
How good is the UAB job? F
19. Eastern Michigan
Out: Ron English, fired (12-48 in five seasons)
In: Chris Creighton, Drake coach
Athlon rated Eastern Michigan as the toughest job in college football in a 2010 feature. Little has changed. UMass, Idaho and New Mexico State may be the only FBS jobs less desirable, and that’s a big if.
How good is the Eastern Michigan job? F
Out: Charley Molnar, fired (2-22 in two seasons)
In: Mark Whipple, Cleveland Browns quarterback coach
UMass is on the short list of the worst jobs in major college football. After one season at the FBS level, the UMass faculty senate voiced misgivings about the move up from the FCS. That’s not without valid reasons: UMass won only one MAC game in each of its first two seasons, and attendance was sparse. Building a competitive program with a limited recruiting footprint and fan and booster support will be extremely difficult.
How good is the UMass job? F
According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, Penn State’s Bill O’Brien has accepted the head coaching job with the Houston Texans. O’Brien went 15-9 in two years with the Nittany Lions.
O’Brien inherited a challenging situation at Penn State, as the program was hit by NCAA sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal prior to his first season in Happy Valley.
Penn State is one of the Big Ten’s top jobs, but it isn’t without challenges. The school has uncertainty surrounding its athletic director position and is ineligible for a bowl game for the next two years.
Here are 10 replacements for Bill O'Brien at Penn State.
Texans are expected to introduce Bill O'Brien as their new head coach by Saturday, per sources.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) January 1, 2014
After a two-year stint at Penn State, Bill O’Brien has decided to leave for the NFL and the Houston Texans. O’Brien guided Penn State through a difficult period, which included scholarship sanctions and a bowl ban due to the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
O’Brien went 15-9 at Penn State, with 10 of those victories coming in Big Ten play. Despite winning records in both seasons, NCAA sanctions prevented the Nittany Lions from participating in a bowl over the last two years.
There’s no question O’Brien is a NFL guy, as he interviewed for openings last season and spent from 2007-11 with the Patriots.
O’Brien brought stability to Happy Valley after the NCAA sanctions were announced and recruited solid talent, including quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Even with two more years of a postseason ban, Penn State is still one of the top jobs in the Big Ten. However, there’s some uncertainty about who will serve as the school’s athletic director in the coming years. Will that deter a big-name coach from Penn State?
Candidates to Replace Bill O’Brien at Penn State
James Franklin, head coach, Vanderbilt
Franklin is one of the hottest names in coaching circles for open vacancies. The Pennsylvania native’s name has popped up for the jobs at Texas, Penn State and in the NFL. In three years at Vanderbilt, Franklin is 23-15 and has guided the Commodores to three consecutive bowl games. Vanderbilt’s three straight bowl games are a school record and 23 wins over a three-year period is one of the best stretches in the program’s history. As a Pennsylvania native, this is a chance for Franklin to return home. However, he could have his pick of offers – including college football’s No. 1 job in Texas.
Al Golden, head coach, Miami
Much like Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Penn State represents an opportunity for Golden to return to a familiar setting. Golden grew up in Colts Neck, N.J. and played at Penn State from 1987-91 under Joe Paterno. Golden also coached linebackers with the Nittany Lions in 2000. In addition to his one-year stint at Penn State as an assistant, Golden worked at Virginia and Boston College before taking over at Temple in 2006. Under his direction, the Owls went from being one of the worst teams in the nation to a bowl team. Temple went 27-34 during Golden’s five seasons, but the Owls went 17-8 in his last two years. Golden inherited a mess at Miami due to an off-the-field scandal and has brought improvement to the Hurricanes. In three years under Golden, Miami is 22-15 and is 10-6 in the ACC over the last two seasons. After cleaning up from one NCAA scandal at Miami, would Golden want to finish another at Penn State?
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman is a rising star in the assistant coach ranks. The Cincinnati native started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Texas in 1999. After two years with the Longhorns, he stayed in the Lone Star State with stops at Sam Houston State, Texas State and Rice. After four stops in Texas, Herman was the offensive coordinator at Iowa State from 2009-11. And after three years with the Cyclones, Herman was hired by Urban Meyer to coordinate the Ohio State offense. Under Herman’s direction, the Buckeyes averaged 37.2 points a game in 2012 and 46.3 points a contest in 2013. Much like Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, Herman is due for a chance to run his own program. However, is Penn State willing to gamble on an assistant with no head coaching experience? If the Nittany Lions are, Herman would be an outstanding hire.
Larry Johnson Sr., assistant coach, Penn State
Johnson is a bit of a longshot, but if Penn State wants to move quickly in replacing O’Brien, he should be near the top of the list. The North Carolina native has worked at Penn State since 1996, serving as an assistant coach under Joe Paterno and Bill O’Brien. Johnson is regarded as an excellent defensive line coach and recruiter, and his presence will be key in keeping the 2014 signing class together. Johnson’s only head coaching experience occurred in high school at two different locations.
Pete Lembo, head coach, Ball State
Lembo wouldn’t be a big-name hire like James Franklin or Al Golden, but the New York native is a coach that is due for a promotion to run a BCS program. Lembo has been a successful head coach at three different stops, starting with a 44-14 stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. From 2006-10, Lembo guided Elon to a 35-22 mark and one playoff appearance. In three years at Ball State, the Cardinals are 25-12 under his watch. Lembo has also led Ball State to back-to-back bowl games for just the second time in school history.
Chad Morris, offensive coordinator, Clemson
Morris is the highest-paid assistant in college football and should be ready to run his own program after spending the last four years as an offensive coordinator in the FBS ranks. Under Morris’ direction, Clemson has averaged at least 440 yards per game in each of the last three seasons. The Tigers also averaged 40.2 points a game in 2013. There’s no question Morris is one of the nation’s top offensive minds. But his only head coaching experience took place at the high school level. Would Penn State take a chance on Morris? Or does he need to take another head coaching job at a smaller program before having a chance to run a program like Penn State?
Mike Munchak, head coach, Tennessee Titans
Munchak’s status with the Titans is up in the air for 2014. However, his future in Tennessee may not matter now that Penn State is open. Munchak played at Penn State from 1979-81 and was drafted by the Oilers in 1982. After a 12-year career in the NFL, Munchak retired and joined Houston’s coaching staff in 1994. He worked with the Oilers and Titans in an assistant capacity until 2011, as he was promoted to head coach after the team parted ways with Jeff Fisher. In three seasons as the Titans’ head coach, Munchak is 22-26. Munchak has no experience coaching on the college level, but he is a Pennsylvania native and a former Penn State player. With strong ties to Happy Valley, Munchak figures to be a strong candidate for athletic director Dave Joyner.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi turned down Connecticut, but a job with the profile of Penn State would certainly provide intrigue for the 47-year-old coach. Narduzzi’s coaching career started at Miami (Ohio) in 1990 and continued there until 1992. From 1993-99, Narduzzi worked at Rhode Island and spent the following three years (2000-02) at Northern Illinois. Narduzzi’s first chance to coordinate a defense on the FBS level was in 2003 at Miami (Ohio), and he joined forces with Mark Dantonio at Cincinnati in 2004. Since 2004, Narduzzi has worked under Dantonio and has coordinated some of the nation’s top defenses at Michigan State. Narduzzi won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant coach in 2013. The Spartans led the nation in total defense this year and allowed just 3.9 yards per play. The only downside to Narduzzi’s resume is no head coaching experience.
Greg Roman, offensive coordinator, San Francisco 49ers
Roman was in the mix the last time the Penn State job was open and should be a candidate to replace O’Brien this year. Most of Roman’s experience has been in the NFL, starting with the Panthers in 1995, continuing with the Texans in 2002, the Ravens in 2006 and the 49ers in 2011. Roman worked with Jim Harbaugh at Stanford from 2009-10. Although he has no head coaching experience, Roman has worked under one of the best coaches in the NFL (Harbaugh) and is an excellent offensive mind. How quickly Roman would be available depends on how far San Francisco goes in the NFL playoffs.
Greg Schiano, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
Schiano recently joined the ranks of the unemployed, as he was fired after Tampa Bay’s Week 17 loss to New Orleans. While Schiano was just 11-21 in two years with the Buccaneers, he had a much better stint in college at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights struggled mightily prior to Schiano’s arrival, but he led Rutgers to six bowl appearances in his final seven years. The Scarlet Knights also won at least eight games in five out of the last six seasons. Schiano is also regarded as an excellent recruiter in the New Jersey/Pennsylvania area. Considering his losing record at Tampa Bay, Schiano could be a tough sell to Penn State’s fan base.