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This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for January 7:
• Jameis Winston is leaving Florida State for the NFL. Watch out, bars and strip clubs of Tallahassee.
• The Preds' Pekka Rinne made an insane backwards leg save.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Waiters-Smith-Shumpert trade was not exactly the beginning of swap season, either. That was signaled when Rajon Rondo was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks. Then it was continued by Josh Smith’s shocking dismissal from the Detroit Pistons, followed by his sign-up with the potent Houston Rockets.
What else is on the grill? Some have speculated that Phil Jackson isn’t done sending pieces out in New York, and that 33-year-old veteran point guard Jose Calderon could also soon be out the door.
But not only crummy teams like the Knicks are in a place to potentially make moves. Even the Golden State Warriors, basketball’s best team, are under some pressure to tweak their roster and salary cap situation. In order to make room for red-hot power forward Draymond Green, financially, they might look at moving All-Star David Lee, who’s been relegated to a reserve role as Green has a career year. Green is headed for restricted free agency this summer, and his coveted combination of three-point accuracy and stingy interior defense makes him worth a pretty penny.
That’s the nature of the new NBA. The complex, thorny collective bargaining agreement — written and instituted just about three seasons ago — means contracts will jump around the league like hot potatoes, both now and going forward. Continuity and consistency are all too difficult to attain under these movement-favoring rules.
— John Wilmes
Ohio State and Oregon clash in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 12 to decide college football’s national champion. The Ducks and Buckeyes advanced to the national championship after bowl wins on Jan. 1, setting up an intriguing matchup with no shortage of storylines. Both teams are led by offensive-minded coaches and were two of the top programs during the BCS era. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will be the best player on the field in Arlington, but Ohio State counters with a defense that limits opponents to 22.1 points per game. Despite losing starter J.T. Barrett, third-string quarterback Cardale Jones has filled in admirably and kept the Buckeyes’ offense hitting on all cylinders.
While Mariota, Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa will get most of the pregame hype as the top players on Jan. 12, there are always a few x-factors that deliver with a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine five potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 12.
5 X-Factors for the 2015 College Football National Championship
1. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
Jones easily passed his first two tests as Ohio State’s No. 1 quarterback. The sophomore threw for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Jones doesn’t have the explosive running ability of former starter J.T. Barrett, but he’s certainly not a statue in the pocket. Against Wisconsin, Jones only rushed for nine yards on eight attempts, but he added 43 yards on 17 rushes against Alabama. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is clearly the best quarterback on the field when the Buckeyes and Ducks meet on Jan. 12. However, Jones has proven he is more than just a third-string quarterback in two starts. If Jones plays like he did against Wisconsin and Alabama, Ohio State has a good shot to win on Monday night in Arlington.
2. Evan Baylis, TE, Oregon
The loss of standout tight end Pharaoh Brown was a huge blow to Oregon’s offense. Brown suffered a major knee injury in the win over Utah and finished the year with 25 receptions for 420 yards and six scores. With Brown sidelined over the final three regular season games, Oregon tight ends – Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis – only caught three passes. But in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the tight end was featured more by coordinator Scott Frost and quarterback Marcus Mariota. Baylis grabbed six passes for 73 yards against the Seminoles, and both totals were season-high marks for the sophomore. With the speed and vertical threats in Oregon’s passing game, having a tight end like Baylis attacking the middle of the field is another dangerous option for Mariota.
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3. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State
Stopping Oregon’s offense starts at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State has the necessary defensive line to give the Ducks trouble from the snap, as end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett earned All-America honors in 2014. But Bosa and Bennett aren’t the only contributors to a line that is among the best in the nation. Washington ranked as the No. 21 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012 and has been a major contributor since his true freshman campaign. In 14 games this year, Washington recorded 45 tackles (9.5 tackles for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. The junior will be tasked with disrupting Oregon’s offense and winning the battle at the point of attack with interior linemen in guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt, along with center Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks will be focused on keeping Bosa and Bennett out of the backfield. However, with the attention diverted to the two All-Americans, Monday night’s game is a good opportunity for Washington to have a huge performance.
4. Chris Seisay, CB, Oregon
Seisay was pushed into the spotlight in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury ended Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s season. Despite Ekpre-Olomu’s absence, Oregon held Florida State to 20 points and no receiver eclipsed the 100-yard mark. The Ducks limited All-ACC receiver Rashad Greene to six catches for 59 yards, while tight end Nick O’Leary caught only one pass for four yards. Judging cornerbacks by statistics is always tricky, but Seisay recorded six tackles in his second career start. By all accounts, Seisay’s performance was not an issue in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State’s receiving corps doesn’t have an All-American performer like Greene, but this unit has made strides over the last few seasons. Devin Smith averages 27.7 yards per catch, while Michael Thomas has 10 catches over the last two games. Seisay was under the spotlight in the Rose Bowl, and it’s a safe bet to assume the Buckeyes will test the redshirt freshman once again on Monday night.
5. Jalin Marshall, All-Purpose, Ohio State
The official Ohio State depth chart lists Marshall at the starting H-back, but the freshman will get the ball in a variety of ways. And if something happens to Cardale Jones on Monday night, Marshall is technically the backup quarterback. Regardless of where he lines up, Marshall is an emerging star for the Buckeyes. The freshman rushed for 142 yards and a score on 23 attempts this year, attempted two passes and caught 33 balls for 447 yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, Marshall was a weapon on special teams, averaging 12 yards per punt return. In the Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama, Marshall recorded 10 touches in an all-purpose role. And if Ohio State is going to win on Monday night, he needs to have 10-15 opportunities to make plays in a variety of ways. The Buckeyes aren’t hurting for playmakers with running back Ezekiel Elliott and receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Dontre Wilson was the starter at H-Back earlier this year and missed the Sugar Bowl due to injury. Even if Wilson returns against Oregon, Marshall is too valuable (and too productive recently) to leave out of the gameplan.
The most important, bizarre, interesting and entertaining stats you need to know about the 2015 College Football National Championship game:
1939: First NCAA basketball tournament
Why is the first-ever NCAA basketball tournament relevant to the first-ever college football tournament? Because they both featured the same two teams. Oregon and Ohio State met in the 1939 NCAA Tournament final in the first-ever NCAA tourney. The Ducks topped the Bucks 46-33 for the championship in the 16-team, two-region tourney.
11,654: Difference in Marcus Mariota's and Cardale Jones' career yards
Cardale Jones has started two games in two seasons at Ohio State. He has 1,007 total yards of offense in his entire career — 876 this season and 131 in 2013. That’s only 11,654 yards behind Marcus Mariota’s career total of 12,661 yards. Jones has 621 career passing yards and 386 career rushing yards with seven total touchdowns. Mariota has 10,463 yards passing, 2,198 yards rushing and 132 total touchdowns.
460.34: Cardale Jones' QB rating on third and long
Jones was spectacular on third down against Alabama. More specifically, he has been excellent on third and long for Ohio State. On third and six yards or less, Jones hasn’t completed a pass all season (0-for-5) but on third and seven yards or more, Jones has a passer rating of 460.34. He’s 7-for-10 with 186 yards and two touchdowns without an INT.
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7.2: Ohio State’s average recruiting ranking the last five years
Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have been building their roster with an SEC blueprint. With an average national class ranking of 7.2, Ohio State has the fourth-best roster in the nation in 2014 (tied with LSU) behind only Alabama, Florida State and Florida. Meyer has signed three consecutive top-five classes since arriving following the 2011 season, giving OSU the “combine” advantage over Oregon.
15.6: Oregon’s average recruiting ranking the last five years
The Ducks' average recruiting ranking over the last five seasons is 15.6 nationally. That is good for 14th. Oregon falls behind the five listed above and (in order) USC, Texas, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan and Tennessee. Oregon hasn’t had a class ranked better than 12th in the last five cycles and Mark Helfrich has landed the No. 21 (2014) and No. 19 (2013) classes respectively.
92.2: Oregon, Ohio State combined points per game
Offense shouldn’t be an issue for either team in the season’s final game. Oregon is second in the nation in scoring at 47.2 points per game while Ohio State is fifth in the nation at 45.0. No team in the nation scored more touchdowns this year than these two teams. Oregon leads the country with 88 touchdowns and OSU is tied for second (Marshall) with 84 touchdowns.
56,435,000: Viewers for the Playoff semifinals
According to ESPN, the two College Football Playoff semifinals drew the two largest cable audiences in history. The Rose Bowl set a cable record with 28,164,000 viewers, based on a 14.8 rating. That record was broken later that night by the Sugar Bowl with 28,271,000 million viewers, based on a 15.2 rating.
21.7: Highest-rated BCS title game
It should come as no surprise that Texas-USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl ending the ’05 season was the highest-rated BCS title game. In fact, it wasn’t really close. No other game ever reached an 18 rating. Six different title games landed a 17 rating: Oklahoma-Florida State (17.8), Florida State-Virginia Tech (17.5), Florida-Ohio State (17.4), Alabama-Texas (17.2), Ohio State-Miami (17.2) and Tennessee-Florida State (17.2).
119th: Oregon's national ranking in penalties
One area of weakness for the Ducks has been their discipline on the field. Oregon ranks 119th nationally in both penalties per game (8.1) and penalty yards per game (72.8). The Buckeyes aren’t elite in this category but are significantly better than the Ducks, ranking 47th in penalty yards per game (48.6) and penalties per game (5.6).
Nov. 23, 2013: Last time Oregon lost the turnover battle
Turnovers are the name of the game in football and few teams take care of the football and create turnovers better than the Ducks. Oregon was the only team in the nation that never lost the turnover battle this season. In fact, the last time the Ducks had a negative in the TO column was Nov. 23, 2013 when it lost to Arizona in the desert (-3). Oregon leads the nation with just 10 giveaways and is 10th nationally with 30 takeaways. Both the Ducks and Bucks forced seven turnovers in their last two games and both are +5 in their last two.
4.76: Ohio State’s yards per play allowed against Power 5 teams
The Buckeyes were 18th nationally this year with a tidy 4.86 yards per play allowed. But against Power 5 teams, Ohio State was even better at 4.76 yards per play — good for seventh nationally. The Ducks allowed 5.44 yards per play against Power 5 teams (40th) but have tightened up of late, giving up just 4.49 yards per play in their last four games.
6: Times Urban Meyer has been an underdog at Ohio State
Oregon is favored by a touchdown over Ohio State. It marks just the sixth time since arriving in Columbus that Urban Meyer has been an underdog, including the past three games. What happened in all five previous games? Ohio State has won outright every time, beating Michigan State (-2) and Wisconsin (-1) in 2012 and Michigan State (-3.5), Wisconsin (-4) and Alabama (-7.5) this season. Six also is the number of Top 15 teams Oregon will have played after facing OSU.
192.3: Rushing yards OSU gained over Alabama’s average allowed
The Crimson Tide entered last week’s Playoff game leading the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 88.7 yards per game on the ground. Behind Jones and Ezekiel Elliott, the Buckeyes rushed for 281 yards — or 192.3 more yards than Alabama normally allows. For what it's worth, the Ducks are 51st in the nation in rush defense at 156.1 yards allowed per game.
Sometimes, it’s nice to be proven wrong.
No one wants to watch a coach lose a job, but it’s a fact of life in college basketball that programs are paying for performance. Fail to perform a few years in a row and someone will pay the price, usually the head coach.
And most of the of the time, the trajectory of a program and a coach’s job is clear. Too many NITs, too many missed postseasons and the writing is on the wall for the coach’s last shot to save himself and his career.
That’s why it’s so remarkable to watch a coach turn a program, to watch a fired coach walking walk right into a contract extension. The pressure must be enormous and the buy-in may be tenuous.
But it happens again and again. Check any hot seat list from any given year and there’s likely a coach there who kept his job. For example, who at the start of last season though Rick Barnes was on his last legs at Texas?
A loss to Oklahoma on Monday notwithstanding, Barnes is doing just fine at Texas in 2014-15.
Who could be this year’s version of Rick Barnes? Here are a few candidates who might make the turn from coach in trouble to coach of the year this season.
Mark Turgeon, Maryland
All signs pointed to a mess of a season for Mark Turgeon, who entered the Big Ten losing five members of last year’s rotation to transfers. Instead, the Terrapins are at or near the top of the heap at No. 2 behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Maryland started 14-1 with wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Michigan State and Minnesota. The only loss is to Virginia. The Terps' offense has caught up to the defense with the highest offensive efficiency (31st) on KenPom in Turgeon’s four seasons at Maryland. Moreover, he’s done this with only eight games from Dez Wells. Four-star freshman guard Melo Trimble is averaging 16.2 points per game, and guard/forward Jake Layman has emerged as a 55 percent shooter, up from 40 percent last season.
Travis Ford, Oklahoma State
Ford was pointed to a no-win scenario in 2014-15. The Cowboys were already coming off a season that came unraveled despite the presence of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. Oklahoma State is 11-2, one game off from last year’s mark of 12-1 at this point. Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte are still here, and Anthony Hickey’s career has been revived after his transfer from LSU. Some of those wins don’t look as good as they normally would (Memphis, Missouri, Kansas State), and there are plenty of questions on how the Pokes will perform in a deep Big 12 again. Still, Ford appeared to be headed to another long season. The Cowboys at least will be competitive.
Steve Lavin, St. John’s
Lavin has had trouble matching the NCAA appearance in 2011. Granted, not all of that record the last three seasons is due to his coaching. In the two years since he returned from a bout with prostate cancer, St. John’s is 18-18 in the Big East with two NIT appearances. Could the Johnnies be pulling out of that slump? They started 11-1 with a wins over Syracuse and Minnesota and the lone loss coming to Gonzaga. St. John’s is 0-2 in the Big East and may start with a third consecutive loss to Villanova on Tuesday. It’s worth noting, however, that a four-point loss to Butler came without second-leading scorer Rysheed Jordan.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
A former Rick Pitino aide, Willard looked like he had Seton Hall on the road to relevance with an NIT appearance in his second season in 2012. That came crashing down with 3-15 Big East mark in 2013 and a 6-12 mark last year. Willard’s fifth season with the Pirates may shape up to be his best and not entirely due to the arrival of highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead, though he's a big part of it. Seton Hall is 12-2 with a pair of wins over St. John’s and Villanova to start Big East play. Both have come without Whitehead, who missed the last three games with a stress fracture in his right foot. The Pirates have cracked the top 20 in the AP poll for the first time since 2001, Tommy Amaker’s final season.
Lorenzo Romar, Washington
Romar is a survivor, that’s for sure. He’s been at Washington for more than a decade and he’s rebuilt the the Huskies twice during his tenure. He may be on his away to another renaissance in Seattle after three consecutive years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Huskies started 11-0 with wins over San Diego State and Oklahoma. Nigel Williams-Goss remains one of the nation’s most underrated point guards, and Fresno State center Robert Upshaw solidified the interior defense with 4.6 blocks per game. The last three games spoiled an otherwise stellar start with an 0-2 start to Pac-12 play and a loss to Stony Brook. Still, no one expected much out of this Huskies team.
Trent Johnson, TCU
Johnson might not have been on the hot seat entering the season, given the uphill climb TCU has in the Big 12. Going 2-34 in the conference in the first two seasons, though, isn’t a great omen for job security. TCU started the season on a 13-game winning streak. The Horned Frogs did zero heavy lifting during that win streak. Six games were against sub-300 opponents compared to one against a top-100 opponent (Ole Miss). Still, TCU ranked 234th on KenPom last season and won only nine games. The Frogs will take it.
Still in limbo...
Tom Crean, Indiana
The scene in Indiana has calmed from a few months ago when a series of off-court incidents left Crean with a depleted roster. An NCAA Tournament bid isn’t completely out of the question as the Hoosiers have wins over SMU, Pittsburgh, Butler (on a neutral floor) and Nebraska (on the road) on the resume. Indiana is going to score a bunch, take a ton of 3s and not play a much defense. That’s a recipe to at least keep things interesting down the stretch.
Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Arkansas’ fate in the SEC will be intriguing as always. The Razorbacks are 11-2 but their best win is over SMU and the losses came to Iowa State in a blowout and Clemson. If the Razorbacks can’t win enough against teams not named Kentucky in the SEC to make the NCAA Tournament, Anderson will be in some trouble.
Anthony Grant, Alabama
The Crimson Tide might be feeling a bit better had Alabama found a way to hold a lead against Wichita State on Dec. 16. Instead, the Tide lost 53-52 and enter SEC play without a top 50 win. Unfortunately for Grant, once considered one of the up-and-comers in the sport, this situation is all too common.
Hosts Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan go in-depth to break down college football's national championship game.
Fox recounts his trip to Pasadena, what the Rose Bowl is all about and his lonely New Year's Eve. Gall breaks down NOLA on New Year's and his favorite moments from the Sugar Bowl.
How do Ohio State and Oregon stack up against each other? The guys go position-by-position to analyze both teams to find strengths and weaknesses for both. Who has the coaching edge? Is Marcus Mariota simply too good to beat?
Each host offers up in-depth analysis and a final prediction for the season's final game.
Buzz about this winter being a particularly active one on the trade market seems prescient today. The Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks have completed a huge swap.
The Knicks send J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to the Cavs in the deal, while the Thunder will get much-maligned guard Dion Waiters. The Knicks end up with a collection of waivable, non-guaranteed contracts, including Lance Thomas, Alex Kirk and Lou Amundson.
For Phil Jackson’s Knicks, the move looks like a “reset the tone” maneuver, or a bit of addition by subtraction. The frequently ridiculous Smith was long believed to be on his way out once Jackson took a post with New York, while Shumpert is a useful piece as a perimeter defender — but only on a team that’s going somewhere in the short-term.
For the Thunder, who give up close to nothing in the move, bringing on Waiters seems like a calculated gamble. A frustrating but talented player, Waiters could offer the extra scoring firepower that OKC might need to get through the stacked Western Conference. But reining him in was always a challenge in Cleveland, so a more level version of Waiters still seems like an unlikely prospect. Shipping him in only seems like a good move only if they’re prepared to bury him down their bench if he doesn’t fit into what the Thunder are doing.
And for the Cavs, sending Dion out has a similar effect to what the Knicks do by jettisoning Smith. He wasn’t molding into their program, seemingly worsening their chemistry, not helping it. The question remains, though: How much different will things be with the equally difficult J.R.?
Getting Shumpert in the wine-and-gold, however, is a clear win. LeBron’s squad needs a lot of things, and extra strength on defense is one of them; Iman and his famously towering hairdo can provide that in spades.
— John Wilmes
But lately, it seems unlikely we’ll ever see him play elite ball again. This came out about Sanders yesterday:
Sources tell me that Bucks center Larry Sanders recently told some Bucks officials that he doesn't want to play basketball anymore.— Gery Woelfel (@GeryWoelfel) January 5, 2015
Sanders has missed a string of games this winter due to “personal reasons” as he struggles with whether to continue on in the NBA. Whether or not his absence was also caused by any friction with his team, or coach Jason Kidd, is unclear at this time. But Sanders has said in the recent past that he doesn’t want to be remembered as a basketball player, and is always thinking beyond the game as much as he can.
He’s also coming off a strange 2013-14 season, during which he played only 23 games due to injuries and legal issues. Sanders’ erratic behavior in 2014 further included him stating this past spring, rather publicly, that he supports and smokes marijuana.
If Sanders doesn’t want to play basketball, that’s fine and well. Nobody has to do anything they don’t want to — particularly not occupying the dream job of millions of others, when they’re apathetic to its goals. But the Bucks have $11 million dedicated to Sanders each of the next three seasons. He and his organization will likely have to work a way out of the rest of his contract if he’s truly considering retirement.
Similarly dispirited, would-be stars of Sanders’ generation include Andrew Bynum, Andrew Bynum’s hair, Royce White, and Gilbert Arenas before them. Having all the talent in the world only takes you so far, when you’re not interested in using it. Maybe the Bucks’ new facial coding expert can tell us what it is about these mugs that say “no thanks, basketball glory.”
— John Wilmes
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Jan. 6:
• While we all returned to work in the cold January air following the New Year holiday, Scottie Pippen's wife Larsa grabbed some sun poolside.
• The real Hall of Fame drama today surrounds Mike Piazza. I'd vote him in.
• More hockey fun: Watch Andre Burakovsky take a shot to the face during a goal celebration.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The college football coaching carousel is one of the most intriguing aspects of every offseason. Regardless of whether a team had a losing record or finished in the top 10 of the final rankings, coaching changes are possible for any program after the regular season has finished.
The 2014 carousel produced several interesting hires, including Lane Kiffin to Alabama, Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia and Doug Meacham to TCU. And all four of college football playoff’s teams this season had a shakeup at one of the coordinator spots, as Florida State replaced Pruitt with Charles Kelly, and Oregon promoted Don Pellum to replace long-time coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Let’s take a look at the coordinator hires that had the biggest impact on the 2014 season:
College Football’s Top Coordinator Hires from 2014
Lance Anderson, Defensive Coordinator, Stanford
Derek Mason’s departure was expected to have an impact on Stanford’s defense, but Anderson ensured the Cardinal remained near the top of the nation in fewest yards per play and points allowed per game. Stanford held opponents to 4.2 yards per play and limited opponents to 16.4 points per contest. The Cardinal also generated 46 sacks and allowed only 10 plays of 30 yards or more. It’s a small sample size, but Anderson appears to be plenty capable of keeping Stanford’s defense among the best in the nation.
Chris Ash, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
After allowing 31 passing scores last year, Ohio State needed to find a few answers in the secondary this offseason. The first step to fixing the pass defense came in the form of Ash, as the former Wisconsin and Arkansas assistant has an extensive background in working with defensive backs. The Iowa native brought immediate improvement to the Buckeyes’ defense, as the secondary limited the big plays and held opposing passers to just 55.1 percent completion percentage. Ohio State’s defense also cut its yards per play allowed mark from 5.3 to 4.9 in 2014.
Manny Diaz, Defensive Coordinator, Louisiana Tech
Diaz was one of the nation’s top rising stars in the assistant ranks but was dismissed at Texas just two games into the 2013 season. However, Diaz rebounded in a big way this year, coordinating a Louisiana Tech defense that led the nation with 42 takeaways. The Bulldogs also limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play and 24.7 points per game. Diaz accepted a job at Mississippi State in early January, but he made a huge impact on Louisiana Tech’s defense and helped the Bulldogs win Conference USA’s West Division in 2014.
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
The final numbers revealed Wake Forest’s defense allowed 26.4 points per game and ranked 10th in the ACC (league-only games) by giving up 5.6 yards per play. While the Demon Deacons didn’t rank near the top of the ACC or nation in defensive categories, this unit had to overcome an offense that averaged just 3.1 yards per play in league contests. Additionally, Wake Forest’s offense ranked 12th in the ACC in time of possession, leaving the defense on the field for large chunks of the game. Despite some of the offensive shortcomings, Elko’s work was noticeable with this defense. The Demon Deacons generated 19 sacks in conference play and tied Clemson for the fewest touchdown passes allowed in the ACC.
Ralph Friedgen, Offensive Coordinator, Rutgers
Friedgen was one of the nation’s top coordinator hires for 2014 and was a critical addition for a Rutgers program looking to build positive momentum in its first season in the Big Ten. Friedgen joined the Scarlet Knights’ staff after being out of football since 2010 and brought immediate improvement in a tougher league. Rutgers averaged 26.7 points per game and six yards per play this season, while producing 31 plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback Gary Nova also recorded a 57.2 completion percentage, which was the highest mark of his career.
Tony Gibson, Defensive Coordinator, West Virginia
The West Virginia defense benefited from having a little better luck in the injury department and improved overall depth, but Gibson and veteran assistant Tom Bradley helped this unit take a step forward in 2014. In nine Big 12 contests, the Mountaineers allowed only 5.3 yards per play – ranked No. 3 in the league – and held conference opponents to 27.1 points per game. West Virginia also ranked second in the Big 12 in third down defense and third in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Gibson’s work in 2014 resulted in a significant raise to place the West Virginia native among the nation’s highest paid assistants.
Todd Grantham, Defensive Coordinator, Louisville
Grantham inherited a defense that wasn’t short on talent but had only four returning starters and had to transition to a new 3-4 scheme. Despite the preseason question marks, this group was one of the best in the ACC in 2014. The Cardinals allowed only 4.8 yards per play, held ACC opponents to 19.3 points per game and led the conference with 30 forced turnovers.
Tyson Helton, Offensive Coordinator, Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky’s offense flourished under Helton and first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. The Hilltoppers used an up-tempo approach on offense to record 534.6 yards per game and a robust 7.1 yards per play. Western Kentucky ranked second in Conference USA by averaging 44.4 points per game and recorded 39 plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback Brandon Doughty was one of the biggest benefactors of the change in coaching staffs, as he threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns under Helton’s play-calling. Prior to 2014, Helton was an assistant at Cincinnati for one year after spending 2007-12 at UAB.
Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Kiffin’s hire was met with some skepticism after his stint with USC ended during the 2013 season. However, Kiffin was one of the finalists for the Broyles Award – nation’s top assistant – after leading Alabama’s offense to an average of 36.9 points per game in 2014. The Crimson Tide also averaged 6.7 yards per play, produced 20 plays of 40 yards or more and finished second in the SEC in third down offense.
Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
TCU’s offense was in need of an overhaul after averaging just 25.1 points per game in 2013. Coach Gary Patterson turned to Meacham and former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie as the team’s new co-offensive coordinators, and the Horned Frogs offense quickly emerged as one of the best in the Big 12. TCU averaged 46.5 points per game, led the Big 12 by recording 6.7 yards per play and generated 41 plays of 30 yards or more. Meacham and Cumbie also developed quarterback Trevone Boykin into one of the nation’s most improved players in 2014.
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Pruitt was pegged as an upgrade over former coordinator Todd Grantham, and the former Florida State assistant helped Georgia’s defense improve after allowing 29 points per game in 2013. Under Pruitt’s direction in 2014, the Bulldogs held opponents to 20.7 points per contest and just 4.8 yards per play. Georgia also forced 29 turnovers – 14 more than this unit posted in 2013 – and ranked third nationally in fewest plays of 30 yards or more allowed. Pruitt’s background as a defensive backs coach was also a huge boost for a secondary that was filled with youth in 2014.
Doug Ruse, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia Southern
Ruse is a veteran play-caller, serving as an offensive coordinator for six different programs since 1988. The Missouri native followed coach Willie Fritz from Sam Houston State to Georgia Southern and helped to guide the offense to an average of 7.3 yards per play. The Eagles also led the Sun Belt by averaging 39.1 points per game and finished first nationally by scoring 55 rushing touchdowns.
Mike Sanford, Offensive Coordinator, Boise State
Sanford is no stranger to life on the blue turf in Boise. The former Boise State quarterback returned to coordinate coach Bryan Harsin’s offense in 2014, and the Broncos averaged 39.7 points per game – the highest mark by the Boise State offense since 2011. The Broncos also averaged 6.7 yards per play in Mountain West games and produced 89 plays of 20 yards or more. Sanford was targeted by Vanderbilt this offseason, but he decided to stay at Boise State for the 2015 season. The former Stanford assistant will have his work cut out for him next year, as the Broncos have to replace standout running back Jay Ajayi and quarterback Grant Hedrick this offseason.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Penn State has a strong track record of success on defense, and Shoop continued to raise the bar in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions led the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 4.3 yards per play and finishing first in the conference in scoring defense (18.6 ppg). The numbers posted by Shoop’s defense are even more impressive when you consider the offensive struggles by Penn State (14th in Big Ten in scoring). Prior to following James Franklin to Happy Valley, Shoop spent three years calling the plays for Vanderbilt’s defense. Under Shoop’s watch, the Commodores finished second in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.1) in 2013. Shoop might be the nation's most underrated defensive coordinator.
Robb Smith, Defensive Coordinator, Arkansas
Bret Bielema’s decision to hire Smith after Chris Ash left for Ohio State paid huge dividends for the Arkansas defense. The Razorbacks allowed 30.8 points per game in 2013 but limited opponents to just 19.2 points per contest in 2014. The defense was playing at a high level to finish the season, as Arkansas allowed only 28 points over its last four games. Smith’s group also ranked second in the SEC in red zone defense, gave up the fewest plays of 20 yards or more in the conference (44) and held opponents to 5.9 yards per play – a yard decrease (6.9) from the 2013 performance.
Other Key Power 5 Coordinator Hires
Vance Bedford, Defensive Coordinator, Texas
Bedford and Charlie Strong helped to transform Texas back into one of the top defensive teams in the Big 12. The Longhorns allowed only 4.7 yards per play and held opponents to 23.8 points per game.
Art Kaufman, Defensive Coordinator, California
The Golden Bears took a step forward on defense under Kaufman, but this unit still needs more talent and depth. California allowed 6.3 yards per play this season – a decrease from 7.1 in 2013.
Pete Kwiatkowski, Defensive Coordinator, Washington
The Huskies had a young secondary but still managed to limit opponents to 24.8 points per game and 5.4 yards per play (Pac-12 only games).
Mark Mangino, Offensive Coordinator, Iowa State
Mangino didn’t bring a ton of improvement to Iowa State on the stat sheet, but the Cyclones lost standout receiver Quenton Bundrage to injury early in the year. Quarterback Sam Richardson tossed 18 touchdowns, which was the most by an Iowa State quarterback since Bret Meyer had 19 in 2005.
Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke
Former NFL assistant returned to Durham and coordinated an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game in 2014. Montgomery is a rising star in the coaching ranks and a name to remember over the next few seasons.
Don Pellum, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon
Pellum’s start as Oregon’s defensive coordinator got off to a rocky start, but the Ducks played better in the second half of the year. Oregon limited its last six opponents to an average of just 17.5 points per game.
Kurt Roper, Offensive Coordinator, Florida
Roper is looking for a new home after Will Muschamp was dismissed as Florida’s coach at the end of the regular season. Roper was only in Gainesville for a year, but the Gators made small gains on the stat sheet. Florida averaged 30.3 points per game in 2014, which was a sizeable increase after finishing last in the SEC with an 18.8 mark in 2013. The Gators also generated 27 plays of 30 yards or more.
Other Key Group of 5 Hires
Scott Boone, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Nevada
Nevada rebounded back into the postseason after missing out on a bowl bid in coach Brian Polian’s debut in 2013. Boone’s arrival from William & Mary helped the defense take a step forward on the stat sheet. The Wolf Pack gave up 7.1 yards per play last season but cut that number to 5.9 in 2014. Also, Nevada allowed the fewest plays of 30 yards or more (17) in the Mountain West this year.
Kevin Clune, Defensive Coordinator, Hawaii
Clune inherited a defense that returned just five starters and allowed 38.8 points per game in 2013. The Rainbow Warriors showed improvement under Clune’s watch, limiting opponents to 26.8 points per game and finishing first in the Mountain West in red zone defense.
Travis Pearson, Defensive Coordinator, South Alabama
South Alabama’s defense had a couple of key losses from its front seven, but the Jaguars remained one of the top units in the Sun Belt. Pearson’s group held opponents to 5.2 yards per play and 22.9 points per game in conference matchups. The Jaguars also ranked second in the Sun Belt with 21 forced turnovers.
Tyson Summers, Defensive Coordinator, UCF
Summers started his tenure as the defensive signal-caller at UCF on a high note, as the Knights defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. In his first full year as the coordinator, Summers guided UCF’s defense to a No. 1 rank in the American Athletic Conference in fewest yards allowed per play and limited opponents to 19.2 points per game.
Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, UAB
Vincent inherited a good group of skill talent in Birmingham, but the Blazers did not have a quarterback with any attempts in a FBS game. Despite the lack of experience under center, Vincent’s offense helped UAB to reach six victories. The Blazers averaged 5.5 yards per play and 33.2 points per game in 2014.
Duwan Walker, Defensive Coordinator, UAB
UAB’s defense allowed 43.8 points per game in 2013, but Walker and coach Bill Clark helped the Blazers cut that total to 29.9 points per contest in 2014.
Marcel Yates, Defensive Coordinator, Boise State
Yates returned to Boise State after a stint on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M and coordinated a defense that limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play in 2014. Additionally, the Broncos led the Mountain West in third down defense.
Ohio State won the BCS National Championship in 2002 in dramatic fashion over heavily-favored Miami.
An unbeaten, Charles Woodson-led Michigan team split a national championship with Nebraska in 1997.
But, quickly, name the last time the Big Ten won a national title in football before the ’97 Wolverines? That would be the undefeated 1968 Ohio State Buckeyes coached by Woody Hayes.
Following two titles in six years, it's been 11 more years of nothing but national disappointment for the Big Ten. So Ohio State is playing for more than just a championship on Jan. 12 against Oregon. It’s playing for an entire conference. Clearly, the value of a victory for the Big Ten in the championship game cannot be overstated.
“It was a big day for the Big Ten,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the Buckeyes win over Alabama. “We’ve had some struggles over the years but our talent level is up and our coaching is up.”
The Big Ten was the least successful conference during the BCS Era. It had the fewest programs play in the title game (one) and had the fewest championships (one) of any of the Power 5 conferences. Even the defunct Big East had two different teams play in the BCS title game (Virginia Tech, Miami twice).
Michigan is on its fourth coach in nine years. Penn State is on its third coach in four years after the worst scandal in college football history. Wisconsin has lost two coaches in three years for supposedly “lesser” jobs in other power conferences. Nebraska is more known for a fake twitter account or their former coach’s sharp tongue than competing for championships.
A few bowl upset wins for the league were exciting and welcome but were merely a brief moment of respite. Big Ten fans should not be excited about the future of their league because Baylor had a field goal blocked or Auburn’s kicker missed by six inches.
The Big Ten wasn’t underrated this year. It was terrible. It lost every major non-conference matchup with the exception of Indiana’s win over Missouri. The ballyhooed bowl season still included embarrassing B1G showings against middle of the pack teams like Tennessee, Stanford and those same Mizzou Tigers.
But all of that — a decade of championship irrelevance, coaching turmoil and disrespect — was erased in a matter of days. The Big Ten should be ecstatic about its future because of what the Ohio State Buckeyes did in New Orleans and Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor.
Beating Alabama wasn’t just another postseason for Ohio State. It was knocking off the most dominant team in the sport deep in the heart of SEC country when no one believed it to be possible.
“You definitely represent your conference,” Buckeyes defensive end Adolphus Washington said. “You always hear about the competition down South in the SEC being so much better than up North. It gave us a chance to show what the Big Ten can do against the SEC.”
Listen to College Football National Championship Prediction podcast:
Landing Harbaugh wasn’t just another hire. He immediately adds juice to a league in desperate need of headlines and credibility. He’s instantly one of the top two coaches in the league and one of the top dozen sideline generals in all of college football. With James Franklin settling in at Penn State and Mark Dantonio already clicking on all cylinders at Michigan State, the Big Ten East is set to become one of the power divisions in college football.
With Harbuagh, the Big Ten becomes must-see TV once again.
“It’s great to have him coaching in the Big Ten,” Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple said of Michigan’s new head coach. “It’s great for the rivalry and it’s great for the sport.
Scoring Harbaugh and beating Alabama can set two foundations for the Big Ten's future. Last week was the first step of many if the league wants to return to national prominence. The next step comes on Jan. 12 in the title game against Oregon, making a strong showing in Arlington that much more important.
“The Big Ten takes a lot of scrutiny from other leagues," Apple said. "They think we aren’t as talented. So this is a great platform to show the world that we can play with anybody."
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa sees the national title game as not only an opportunity for Ohio State to reestablish itself as a national power but also a statement on the league.
“So many people are talking about the Big Ten not being relevant," Bosa said. "It would be nice to silence some haters.”
The term “addition by subtraction” has rarely seen brighter days.
The Detroit Pistons are playing their best basketball in years, after cutting so-called star Josh Smith from their roster, eating tens of millions of dollars in the process — just to keep him away. They’ve won five games, and lost none, since they waived the talented forward.
Smith, with his new Houston Rockets squad, hasn’t exactly disproved the notion of himself as a locker room cancer. Since joining the Rockets, the team has achieved a season-worst .500 winning percentage, struggling to incorporate him into a James Harden-led strategy that was taking the stacked Western Conference by storm. A previously clear, effective Rockets pecking order has been clogged by Smith’s presence.
While it’s certainly too early to tell if Josh is a fit with the Rockets, the current trend in Houston is bad. And if it persists, the term “subtraction by addition” might gain as much steam as its foil.
Forward-thinking Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is a smart man, who’s often ahead of the curve. The utter shock that went through the league when he traded for Harden — an MVP candidate who few saw coming — is a long-standing testament to that. As is the continuation of his coup the following summer, when he scooped Dwight Howard, the best defensive center in the game, out of free agency.
For the rest of the NBA, Morey has become a quick celebrity by creating some swift, telling lessons in asset management. Harden and Howard becoming Rockets wasn’t a matter of dumb luck — they came to Houston by way of years and years of Morey counting his dollars in the margins. The complex monster that is the NBA salary cap had clearly found one of its new masters when Morey suddenly turned zero superstars into two of them.
But the acquisition of Smith might represent a miscue. An inefficient player who’s long been one of the most frustrating players around, Josh has a lot to prove if he’s to become more than a sorry specimen for the annals of NBA nostalgia. Unless he soon finds a way to contribute to the Rockets’ title-seeking program — without detracting from it — he risks becoming the straw that broke their championship-bound backs.
— John Wilmes
The much anticipated Baseball Writers Association of America vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is upon us, with the final vote being announced Tuesday, Jan 6.
2014 saw Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Frank Thomas as just the third class in 70 BBWAA elections in which three, first-year candidates were inducted, and just the eighth time overall that three players were inducted in the same year. With a little luck, and some cooperation from the baseball writers, Cooperstown could have three, hopefully four, new inductees this summer.
Getting 75 percent of approximately 700 active baseball scribes to agree on one player is tough enough. Getting 75 percent of many writers to agree on four players is more than exceptional. Not since 1954-55 have three or more BBWAA-elected players been inducted in successive years, and not since 1947 have four players been elected by the BBWAA on the same ballot.
Here, I will break down who I expect the BBWAA to elect for enshrinement in July, not necessarily who I believe should be inducted. That is a whole other column.
Two of the four players who I anticipate to be chosen are absolute locks. Take it to the bank. Pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were two of the most dominating and feared pitchers of their era, and are easy first-ballot selections who should earn more than 90 percent of the writer’s votes.
Pitcher John Smoltz and second baseman Craig Biggio, should also receive the call from the Hall of Fame come Tuesday afternoon, but their numbers may need more scrutinizing than those of Johnson and Martinez to warrant first-ballot induction.
The Big Unit, towering at 6’11 may have been the most intimidating pitcher of the past half century. His exploding slider and blinding fastball were as gnarly as the trademark mullet pouring out of his cap, leaving hitters helpless in the batter’s box for 22 Major League seasons.
The 10-time All Star won five Cy Young Awards, including four in a row (1995, 1999-2002) in the National League. Johnson was able to add a World Series ring, Series co-MVP, and Sports Illustrated co-Sportsman of the Year Award to his mantle after leading the fabled 2001 Diamondbacks to the Fall Classic.
Johnson is a four-time ERA champion (1995, ’99, 2001, ’02), nine-time strikeout champion (1992-95, 1999-2002, 2004), and led the league in complete games four times (1994, ’98, 2000, ’08), ERA+ six times (1995, 1999-2002, ’04), FIP six times (1994-95, 1999-2001, ’04), WHIP three times (1995, 2001, ’04), hits per nine innings six times (1992-93, ’95, ’97, 2001, ’04), and strikeouts per nine innings nine times (1992-95, ’97, 1999-2002).
Considering that Johnson pitched in the same era as names like Clemens, Martinez, Glavine, Smoltz, Maddux, Schilling, and Mussina makes his accomplishments all the more fantastic - all while playing in the heart of the Steroid Era when guys like Brady Anderson were hitting 50 home runs a season.
The Big Unit finished his 22-year career first all-time in strikeouts per nine innings (10.6/SO9), second all-time in strikeouts (4,875), and a member of the 300 win club (303).
Randy Johnson is as Hall of Fame as it gets.
What Pedro Martinez lacked in stature (5’11,170 pounds) he made up for with grit, consistency, and a platinum arm. Martinez, an eight-time All Star and three-time Cy Young Award winner (1997, ’99, 2000), is a concrete first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher.
While Martinez is more renown for his success with the Red Sox, he was just as dominant as a member of the Montreal Expos (1994-97), posting a .625 Win-Loss Percentage, 3.06 ERA, 20 complete games, eight complete game shutouts, and a strikeout per nine innings of 9.5/SO9 in four seasons north of the border.
In 1997, Pedro was awarded his first Cy Young Award after finishing one of the greatest pitching seasons since the Dead Ball era in which he lead all of baseball in ERA (1.90), complete games (13), strikeouts (305), ERA+ (219), FIP (2.39), WHIP (0.932), hits per nine innings (5.9/H9), and strikeouts per nine innings (11.4/SO9).
Martinez, miraculously, would best his 1997 showcase in 1999 and 2000, striking out a combined 597 batters, with a combined ERA of 1.90 to go along with 41 wins, 12 complete games, and leading the American League in adjusted ERA, FIP, WHIP, hits, strikeouts, and home runs per nine innings, strikeouts per win, and winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards, putting him in the same breath as the great Sandy Koufax in terms of consistent domination.
Martinez led his league in ERA five times (1997, 1999-2000, 2002-03) and topped the American League in strikeouts three times (1999, 2000, ’02). As a testament of his superior command, Martinez was responsible for striking out 3,154 batters over 18 seasons of work, and ranks third in career strikeouts per nine innings at 10.0/SO9.
Martinez retired in 2009 as the career leader in WHIP (1.054) and adjusted ERA (154 ERA+) for a starting pitcher, sitting second all-time behind Mariano Rivera for all pitchers, making him arguably the best starting pitcher of his era and a certainty to be enshrined in Cooperstown in 2015.
Biggio missed the 2014 class by just two votes, garnering 74.8 percent of the votes needed. Does Biggio missing the Hall buy 0.2 percent make him a sure thing in 2015? I think so, especially considering his percentage of votes has increased each year he’s been on the ballot, growing from 68.2 percent in 2013 to last year’s 74.8.
Biggio is a seven-time All Star, a four-time Gold Glove Award winner (1994-97), with five Silver Slugger Awards (1989, 1994-95, 1997-98) at two different positions (C, 2B). While Biggio is most remembered for his time playing second base (17,154.2 innings), he also spent significant time at catcher (3,493 innings) and center field (2,203.2 innings) making him the most versatile defensive candidate on the 2015 ballot.
Currently, Biggio is the only Hall eligible member of the 3,000 hit club, not banned or suspected of PEDs, not currently enshrined. Amassing 3,000 hits is practically an invitation to Cooperstown. His 3,060 hits rank 21st all-time, and he presently sits fifth all-time with 668 doubles. Biggio’s other career numbers include 1,014 extra base hits, 12,504 plate appearances, 414 stolen bases, 1,844 runs scored, 4,505 times on base, and 4,711 total bases.
With Jack Morris dropping off the ballot after failing to be elected in his final year of eligibility, it would be logical to assume those writers who previously voted for Morris and not Biggio, could do so this year, and put the 20-year Astro in Cooperstown.
In addition to Morris, 14 other names were dropped from last year’s ballot for not earning the required five percent of votes to remain eligible. This year’s ballot outside of Smoltz, Johnson, and Martinez is largely marginal and could see another 10 or so names disappear from consideration. Also, the superstars on the ballot who have been connected to PEDs aren't getting the support they need to remain relevant as 2014 saw fewer votes cast for Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa than in prior elections. Look for these voting trends to continue, and to aid Biggio’s cause.
My gut says the BBWAA puts Craig Biggio and his 285 hits-by-pitch in the Hall of Fame where he belongs.
The third arm in perhaps the greatest pitching rotation ever is looking to join his Braves teammates in Cooperstown. John Smoltz’s resume should make his candidacy an open and shut case for the BBWAA.
Smoltz’s career, while fantastic, is also intriguing because of his relocation to the bullpen after spending the first half of his career as a supreme starter. Following Tommy John surgery, Smoltz was moved into the Braves’ closer role where he continued to thrive. In 2002, Smoltz was named the Rolaids Reliever of the Year after leading the National League with 55 saves. This accomplishment left Smoltz and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley as the only two hurlers in baseball history with a 20-win season and a 50-save season in their respective careers. Smoltz is the only player in the game’s history to earn 200 wins and 150 saves during a career, giving him a unique appeal for a first-ballot enshrinement.
Smoltz is an eight-time All-Star and the 1996 Cy Young Award winner in which he posted a 24-8 record, 2.94 ERA, 276 strikeouts, 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings, in 253.2 innings of work. His career ERA is 3.33 and is the 16th member of the 3,000 strikeout club with 3,084. Smoltz boasts a brilliant career adjusted ERA of 125, a career 1.176 WHIP, and sits 13th all-time for pitchers with 320 putouts.
Look for “Smoltzie” to join Mad Dog and Glavine in Cooperstown this July.
- By Jake Rose
There’s a reason ESPN has become the sports goliath that it is today.
They were the first and best in the business to do what they do. It began on Sept. 6, 1979 with the original run of their signature nightly sportscast that kept fans informed about what was happening in sports. This well before the eruption of the Internet, blog-o-sphere, social media or niche television networks.
For those of us born in the early '80s (like myself), SportsCenter was as big a part of my childhood as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I could follow my favorite teams, stories and personalities from all over the nation in one place. I could watch Knicks and Mets highlights every night whether I lived in Dallas, Atlanta or Austin. But what took SportsCenter from small cable network newscast to broadcasting behemoth was the creative, funny and unique personalities that, as Ron Burgundy would say, read the news.
With that in mind, from the viewer's perspective, here are the Top 25 SportsCenter anchors of all-time:
1. Keith Olbermann (1992-97)
After a decade with CNN, Olbermann joined ESPN’s SportsCenter in 1992 quickly becoming a marquee personality. By 1995, he had won the Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster. After things had soured internally at ESPN, and with an eye always toward the political spectrum, Olbermann left SportsCenter for MSNBC in 1997. He also worked for Fox Sports Net and NBC Nightly News. The cult-hit sitcom Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin, is based on Olbermann’s time spent with Patrick on the set of SportsCenter. Despite his bizarre and eccentric personality, ESPN likely isn’t what it is today without the impact of the combination of Patrick and Olbermann. He is credited with the advent of the phrase “This is SportsCenter” which has been used in cross-promotion and advertising for nearly two decades.
2. Dan Patrick (1989-06)
Not many jobs in any broadcasting field last for nearly 20 years and Patrick was the one of the best. Signature phrases "en fuego" (which actually started as "el fuego") and "The Whiff" helped grow the idea that SportsCenter was as much entertainment as it was news. He and his cohort Keith Olbermann should be largely credited with the initial growth of ESPN as the World Wide Leader. Others brought creativity and entertainment to sports broadcasting but Patrick and "KO" perfected the art and changed the way fans consume highlights forever. Not many sportscasters have 16 motion pictures and two national radio shows on their resume. Patrick has set the bar in the sports broadcasting industry.
3. Chris Berman (1979-present)
When he was good, few have ever been as entertaining and likable as Berman. Signature catch phrases and nicknames made him one of the preeminent SportsCenter anchors during the time of biggest growth for ESPN. His work on NFL Primetime and the Home Run Derby makes him one of the most distinctive personalities in ESPN history. However, his longevity might be his biggest weakness as 30 years in the business has left his shtick a bit stale. At his best (the '90s), he was one of the greats. And at his worst (the '00s), he can be nails on a chalkboard.
4. Bob Ley (1979-present)
The classy stalwart has been with the network since its inception in 1979, making him one of (if not the) longest tenured ESPN employees in the building. Over the course of his prestigious career, Ley has claimed eight sports Emmys (Sports Journalism) and three Cable ACE awards (Sports Information Series) and has been the long-time host of the acclaimed investigative program Outside the Lines. He is credited with breaking the story of Pete Rose being banned from baseball.
5. Stuart Scott (1993-2015)
His influence on sports fans and the media was vast and interwoven with the very sports he covered. He added a vocabulary with a never before seen flair — “booyah” and “cooler than the other side of the pillow” — that changed the way broadcasters covered the sport. But most importantly, he was a role model, influence and road-paver for young African-American journalists across the country. And he did it with class, humor, courage and originality. He will be missed.
6. Greg Gumbel (1979-88)
There is little Mr. Gumbel has yet to accomplish in his illustrious broadcasting career. He has done play-by-play for the NCAA Tournament, NBA, MLB, Winter Olympics, college baseball and NFL. He has hosted shows about every sport on NBC and CBS as well as ABC. But it all started back in 1979 when he started his career at ESPN. He was a reporter, anchor and play-by-play man at a time when many doubted the future of SportsCenter. Gumbel’s no-nonsense approach has made him a model and iconic broadcaster who influenced generations of rising journalists and TV personalities.
7. Scott Van Pelt (2001-present)
The signature bald head of Van Pelt has become a staple of the ESPN television and radio broadcasts. He began working at the Golf Channel and has continued his work as one of the top host/analysts at all the major tournaments each season. Much like Patrick, Mayne and Olbermann, SVP’s comedic talents on SportsCenter helped him land an ESPN Radio gig as well as a variety of video game jobs (EA Sports).
8. Kenny Mayne (1994-present)
Few television personalities have ever had a dryer sense of humor than Mayne. The Washington native and junior college quarterback debuted on SportSmash in 1994 before moving over to the big network and developing into one of the funnier broadcasters in sports. His extensive and creative home runs calls in particular have withstood the test of time. He then developed “The Mayne Event” for NFL Sunday mornings and is still currently involved with his own feature “Wider World of Sports” as well as horse racing.
9. Linda Cohn (1992-present)
In 1987, Cohn made her first big mark in the business by becoming the first full-time national female sports anchor in U.S. radio history. She has withstood the test of time, hosting SportsCenter for over 20 years. Along the way, she was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and given the Women’s Sports Journalism Award. She also authored her own biography and has paved the way for women everywhere to break into the sports broadcasting business — or, as she puts it, “The Boys’ Club.”
10. Rece Davis (1995-present)
Laurece “Rece” Davis graduated from Alabama in 1968 and worked his way to ESPN2 by 1995. The consummate professional, Davis can play both host and analyst roles as well as anyone in the business. His work on College Football Live, Gameday Final and College Gameday make him one of the best in the business. He is always gracious with his time and is one of the few who genuinely loves the sports he covers.
11. Robin Roberts (1990-04)
The smooth-talking Roberts has been a staple of national television for over two decades. With quality catch-phrases and her up-tempo personality, Roberts developed into one of the best SportsCenter anchors of all-time. She won three Emmys for her work at ESPN and was given the Mel Greenberg Media Award in 2001. It eventually landed her on ABC’s signature morning program Good Morning America. Her very public bout (and victory) with cancer is just one reason millions have grown to love the Mississippi native.
12. Brian Kenny (1997-11)
A baseball and boxing junkie, Kenny won an Emmy at ESPN and was named the network’s Volunteer of the Year in 2007. He also was named SI’s Media Personality of the Year in 2004 and Boxing Broadcaster of the Year in 2005.
13. John Anderson (1999-present)
Hailing from one of the most prestigious journalism departments in the nation at Missouri, Anderson has been one of the best new generation anchors at ESPN. He won the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year in 2012 and has crossed over into mainstream as the co-host of ABC's Wipeout.
14. Craig Kilborn (1993-96)
Many give credit to Kilborn, Patrick and Olbermann for bringing comedy to the SportsCenter set. He went on to host The Daily Show on Comedy Central and The Late, Late Show on CBS. He also famously appeared in Old School.
15. John Buccigross (1996-present)
The hockey aficionado has won Emmys for his work on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight as well as NHL Tonight. He has written for the Web site (as well as a book) and hosted for ESPN for nearly 20 years.
16. Dave Revsine (1999-07)
An even-keel broadcaster is as professional as they come. A Northwestern grad, Revsine hosted a variety of shows for ESPN and did play-by-play. In 2007, he left ESPN to become the lead studio host for the Big Ten Network when the channel launched.
17. Charley Steiner (1987-01)
The jolly, bearded anchor always seemed to have a good time on the air and always seemed to be involved in the funnier SC moments (Carl Lewis?). He eventually worked his way onto ESPN’s national baseball radio broadcasts as well before moving on to the Yankees' radio team in 2002.
18. Rich Eisen (1996-03)
The affable NFL Network lead host began his broadcasting career at KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif. He landed at ESPN in 1996 and built a name for himself with baseball impersonations and quality reporting. His podcast (The Rich Eisen Podcast) is one of the most listened to on the Web (over 7 mill. downloads).
19. Mike Tirico (1991-1997)
One of the smoothest sportscasters in the business today has arguably the best job in the business calling Monday Night Football. However, he got started on SC in the early 90s. He is calm, cool and collected at all times and it makes for an enjoyable broadcast nearly everytime.
20. Steve Levy (1993-present)
A quality and likable broadcaster, Levy has been around the SportsCenter desk for two decades. His famous “bulging disk” slip-up is one of the all-time great moments in ESPN history. He also earned the nickname “Mr. Overtime” for his work as a hockey broadcaster.2
21. Tim Brando (1986-94)
Brando has been a broadcasting giant for nearly 30 years. He has worked for CBS and, now, SiriusXM College Sports Nation and FOX Sports, but it all began nationally at ESPN. He worked on the NCAA basketball championships and the beginning of the great College Gameday as well as anchoring SportsCenter for nearly a decade.
22. Neil Everett (2000-present)
The West Coaster worked at Hawaii Pacific University for 15 years before getting back into broadcasting. His signature deep, gravelly voice and Island vocabulary makes him one of the better “new” anchors.
23. Suzy Kolber (1993-96, 1999-present)
She has been around and lasted as long as anyone in the business. Like Roberts and Cohn just before her, Kolber is a bit of a pioneer in the male-dominated industry. She also gave American sports fans one of the greatest TV moments of all-time.
24. Kevin Frazier (2002-04)
His time was brief at ESPN, but “K-Fray” has long been one of the business’ most respected personalities. He is now the host of The Insider as well as college football coverage on FX and Fox.
25. Sage Steele (2007-present)
One of the most affable hosts in the business earned her stripes as a SC anchor and it delivered her a big-time gig. Steele recently has taken over as the lead chair for ESPN's NBA coverage.
That’s what Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin told reporters on Sunday, amidst frenzied speculation in the press about first-year coach David Blatt not getting along too well with LeBron James and Co., and reportedly facing a possible firing if the team doesn’t soon turn it around.
"It's a non-story, it's a non-narrative. Coach Blatt is our coach, he's going to remain our coach. Do not write that as a vote of confidence. He never needed one. It was never a question. So don't write it that way.”
And while Griffin may be right that the issue of Blatt, specifically, is largely a fiction invented by the media to drive readership, there’s really no mistaking the larger, underlying issues in northeast Ohio these days.
Griffin’s address came just before another bad Cavs loss, this one at home to Rajon Rondo and the Dallas Mavericks, 109-90. With starting center Anderson Varejao gone for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, and James sitting at last two weeks with a variety of sore body parts, Cleveland looks even more unseasoned and confused than they did before. Losers of five of their last seven, they look far from the championship contention many had them penciled in for this summer.
Griffin also didn’t beat around the bush about looking to make a trade. Even before Varejao’s injury, they needed depth defensively in the front court. Frequently cited transaction targets for the Cavs include Timofey Mozgov of the Denver Nuggets and Kosta Koufos of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Maybe Griffin’s no-nonsense voice will help set a tone of short-term improvement in Cleveland. But in all greater likelihood, this team needs a few huge things that even the King can’t give them with ease, and that only time can truly bring. They’re seeking a roster replete with health, experience, and continuity. And even if things look ugly now, staying the course and doing the hard work, with Blatt and the rest of this crew, is the Cavs’ best way to get there.
— John Wilmes
Ohio State advanced to the College Football Playoff National Championship after a 42-35 upset victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes have played Oregon eight previous times, but the meeting on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas is easily the matchup with the most implications between these two programs.
Urban Meyer’s team had to overcome two significant injuries at quarterback this season, yet the offense hasn’t suffered much of a drop with third-stringer Cardale Jones in games against Wisconsin and Alabama. In addition to the steady play from Jones, Ohio State’s offensive line has showed marked improvement since losing to Virginia Tech, and the defense has allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more – the fewest in the nation.
The Buckeyes enter the national championship with a 12-game winning streak and are looking to win their first time since 2003. Ohio State’s last appearance in the title game came in 2007 with a 38-24 loss to LSU.
Five Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win the National Title
1. Ezekiel Elliott
The Big Ten was home to two running backs (Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman) that eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark, so Elliott’s production was largely under-the-radar throughout the course of the season. However, after back-to-back 200-yard efforts, Elliott is quickly emerging as one of the nation’s top running backs. The sophomore enters the national championship with 1,632 yards and 14 scores. In games against Wisconsin and Alabama – two solid run defenses – Elliott rushed for 450 yards and four scores on 40 attempts. The sophomore eclipsed at least 100 yards in his last four games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 6.9 yards per carry on 15 attempts to Florida State running back Dalvin Cook in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks allowed 156.1 rushing yards per game this season and were vulnerable at the point of attack against the Seminoles. Elliott should plan on a heavy workload in the national championship, especially as Ohio State needs to control the clock and keep Marcus Mariota on the sidelines.
2. Cardale Jones
Jones opened fall practice as Ohio State’s No. 3 quarterback, but the sophomore has been the least of coach Urban Meyer’s problems over the last two weeks. Against Wisconsin, Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores. And in the Sugar Bowl versus Alabama, Jones completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown. The sophomore isn’t as mobile or elusive as former starter J.T. Barrett, but he has 52 rushing yards on 25 attempts over the last two games. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Jones is a load for opposing defenders to bring down, and he’s been plenty capable of making plays through the air. If Jones continues to play mistake-free ball and delivers on third downs, Ohio State’s offense will continue to perform at a high level.
3. Defensive Line
Ohio State’s defensive line was pegged as one of the best in college football this season and is anchored by two All-Americans in end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett. Bosa was quiet in the win over Alabama (just three tackles), but the rest of the line stepped up and limited T.J. Yeldon to 47 yards on 10 carries, while Derrick Henry rushed for 95 yards on 13 attempts. End Steve Miller returned an interception 41 yards for a score, while Bennett recorded a sack and four stops. Stopping Oregon’s attack starts at the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes have the defensive line to disrupt quarterback Marcus Mariota’s timing, and the development of the linebackers have only added to the ability of the front seven to control the flow of the game. Ohio State generated 43 sacks this season and tied for seventh nationally in 105 tackles for a loss. If this unit continues to be disruptive at the point of attack, the Buckeyes should be able to limit the damage from Mariota and the array of talented Oregon skill players.
4. Coaching Experience
In a one-game scenario, there are few coaches better than Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Although Oregon’s Mark Helfrich is 24-3 in his first two years in Eugene, the edge in coaching has to lean to the Ohio State sideline. Meyer is 37-3 in his first three years at Ohio State and navigated injuries to his top two quarterbacks to reach the national championship this season. Prior to taking the top job in Columbus, Meyer went 65-15 at Florida, 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. And in 13 years as a college coach, Meyer has reached the national championship game three times. The Ohio State staff is among the best in college football, which features Broyles Award winner in offensive coordinator Tom Herman and veteran offensive line coach Ed Warinner. On the defensive side, the addition of co-coordinator Chris Ash made a huge impact in 2014, and line coach Larry Johnson Sr. is one of the top assistants in the nation. The best player in the national championship is clearly Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, it’s a safe bet to assume Meyer’s big-game experience will help Ohio State on Jan. 12.
5. Development of the Offensive Line
Line coach Ed Warinner had his work cut out for him at the start of the season. The Buckeyes had only one returning starter and surrendered seven sacks in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech in early September. But over the last seven games, Ohio State has allowed only 11 sacks and rushers have averaged at least five yards per carry in five out of the last seven games. Left tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein both earned All-Big Ten honors, while the same five players have started all 14 games for the Buckeyes this season. Center Jacoby Boren suffered an ankle injury in the Sugar Bowl but returned to action and delivered a solid performance against a talented Alabama defensive line. Oregon’s defensive front has been vulnerable to the run this year, and establishing Elliott and Jones on the ground will be crucial to Ohio State’s hopes at victory. Even though Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner played well for the Ducks in the victory against Florida State, the Buckeyes should have an advantage in the trenches.
Oregon is 60 minutes away from its first national championship after a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks had plenty of help from the Seminoles, using five turnovers by the Seminoles to score 41 points in the second half. As usual, Oregon had plenty of explosive plays by its offense, averaging 7.9 yards per play behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner started slow but finished with 338 passing yards and two scores and added 62 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
The Ducks were pegged as one of the favorites to win the college football playoff in the preseason and used a huge win over Michigan State on Sept. 6 to start 4-0. However, injuries took a toll on the offensive line, and Oregon lost 31-24 to Arizona in early October. But the Ducks regrouped after the loss and finished the year with nine straight victories.
Oregon has eight previous matchups against Ohio State. The Ducks are winless against the Buckeyes and lost their last trip to the national championship game, as Auburn defeated Oregon 22-19 in 2011.
Five Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the National Title
1. Marcus Mariota
When Oregon and Ohio State kick off on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, Marcus Mariota will undoubtedly be the best player on the field. The junior claimed the Heisman after throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 touchdowns and adding 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground. While Mariota’s overall production in yardage and touchdowns is impressive, it’s his efficiency that doesn’t get enough credit. Mariota completed 68.6 percent of his passes in 2014 and tossed only three interceptions on 408 attempts. The junior also led the nation by averaging 10.1 yards per pass and recording 31 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Ohio State’s secondary has made marked improvement under the direction of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013 but cut that number to just 18 in 2014. However, despite an improved secondary and fierce pass rush, this is the best passing attack Oregon has played this year.
2. Defensive Improvement
Considering Oregon’s pace of play on offense, the Ducks are always going to struggle to rank among the nation’s best in total defense. However, yardage allowed is an overrated stat for judging the effectiveness of defenses, and first-year coordinator Don Pellum has settled in over the course of the season. Oregon allows 5.5 yards per play (58th nationally) but lowered that mark to 5.1 since November. The Ducks also held their last four opponents to less than 20 points and made steady improvement on getting opposing offenses off the field on third downs late in the year. Oregon is still far from a shut down defense and will bend to allow opponents to drive the field. However, this unit has played better since an uneven start to the year, as evidenced by five forced turnovers in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State.
3. Improving Health
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff has done a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season. The Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a significant knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State, but this team is in much better shape in terms of health than it was earlier in the year. Running back Thomas Tyner missed the last three games of the regular season and announced his return to the lineup by recording 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts in the Rose Bowl. The offensive line was dealing with several injuries throughout the year and is nearly at full strength. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and was forced to miss three games but returned to anchor the offensive line against Florida State. With Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, this line is one of the best in the nation. And the return of Grasu back to full strength comes at a critical time, as Ohio State’s defensive line is capable of creating plenty of problems and havoc at the line of scrimmage. Tyner’s return also gives coordinator Scott Frost another weapon on offense.
4. Winning the Turnover Battle
Turnover margins vary greatly from year-to-year. Additionally, forcing and recovering turnovers is largely an exercise in luck. Oregon has been one of the best in the nation in turnover margin this year, recording a +19 mark headed into the national championship. The Ducks lost only 10 turnovers in 2014 – the fewest in the nation – and forced 30 (tied for 10th) this season. How good (or fortunate?) has Oregon been in turnover margin this year? The Ducks were the only team in the nation to record a zero or positive margin every game this season. Ohio State lost 22 turnovers in 14 games but has a +10 overall margin. The Buckeyes are better in the turnover department than Florida State, but the Ducks have consistently generated takeaways to overcome a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy on defense. In a tight game, turnovers could be the deciding factor. And that aspect of the national championship matchup favors Oregon.
5. Skill Talent
Few teams in the nation that can rival Oregon’s depth and overall talent at the skill positions. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the workhorse for the ground game, recording 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on 242 attempts. Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12, and the freshman recorded three 100-yard efforts over the final four games. Tyner’s return will help take some of the workload off Freeman’s shoulders, and the Ducks can use all-purpose threat Byron Marshall on the ground (7.5 ypc) when needed. At receiver, Devon Allen will be missed, but Marshall (66 catches), Darren Carrington (19 ypc), Keanon Lowe (14.3 ypc), and Dwayne Stanford (39 catches) are big-play targets for Mariota. This group also contains talented freshman Charles Nelson and tight end Evan Baylis – caught six of his 10 passes in 2014 against Florida State – as additional options. Oregon’s deep group of skill players is a tough assignment for any team to stop, especially with the Ducks becoming more physical on the line of scrimmage and in the rushing attack. Slowing down Oregon’s offense will be a huge challenge for Ohio State on Jan. 12.
A regular season rematch is on tap when the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts face off in the second AFC Wild Card game on CBS. The Bengals (10-5-1) and Colts (11-5) have already played each other this season in Lucas Oil Stadium, a game that took place back in Week 7 that Cincinnati would rather forget.
Indianapolis held the visitors to just 135 total yards, as the Colts dominated the Bengals 27-0, handing Cincinnati its first shutout in five years. Unfortunately for the Bengals, one of the storylines from that game will remain the same. All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green didn’t face the Colts then because of a toe injury and he won’t this afternoon either, as he’s been ruled out because of a concussion.
Cincinnati will have to try and win its first playoff game in more than two decades without its leading receiver. The Bengals are in the playoffs for a fourth straight season, a franchise record, but haven’t won in the postseason since defeating the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) in the Wild Card round back on Jan. 6, 1991.
Cincinnati is 0-7 since that victory, including road losses to Houston in both 2011 and ’12 and at home to San Diego last season. The Bengals have been outscored 77-33 in their last there Wild Card game appearances.
Indianapolis meanwhile is coming off of back-to-back AFC South championships, as the head coach-quarterback tandem of Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck are in the playoffs for the third time in as many seasons. Luck is 1-2 the postseason so far, with the lone victory coming in last season’s Wild Card round at home. In that game, the Colts turned a 38-10 third-quarter deficit into the second-biggest comeback in playoff history with a thrilling 45-44 victory.
With Baltimore's Wild Card win in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, Cincinnati and Indianapolis already knows whichever team wins will be heading to Denver to take on the Broncos in the Divisional Round next weekend.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Indianapolis -4
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave Dalton Hanging
Andy Dalton’s lack of postseason success has been well documented. Despite leading the Bengals to a 40-23-1 record in the regular season and a franchise-record four straight playoff appearances, Dalton hasn’t been able to get the postseason monkey off of his back. An 0-3 record with an anemic passer rating of 56.2 and an alarming one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions certainly doesn’t help Dalton’s case, but it’s probably unfair to expect him to carry the team on his back in the first place. That’s especially the case this afternoon since Dalton won’t have A.J. Green, his All-Pro wide receiver, on the field. While fellow wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate will need to step up in Green’s absence, what Dalton really needs is for the running game to take charge. Following Cincinnati’s 27-0 dismantling by Indianapolis back in Week 7, head coach Marvin Lewis shook up his backfield, moving rookie Jeremy Hill ahead of Giovani Bernard on the depth chart. To be fair, Bernard’s ineffectiveness was somewhat due to the variety of injuries he was dealing with, but the switch also was just what the Bengals’ offense needed. In 10 games as the main back, Hill has rushed for 954 yards and six touchdowns. The second-round pick out of LSU is averaging more than five yards per carry and he’s had five 100-yard performances, including two games in which he went over 150 on the ground. Not surprisingly, Cincinnati went 7-3 down the stretch with Hill carrying the load, and he should be able to find some room to run this afternoon against a Colts defense that’s giving up 113.4 yards rushing per game on the season and has yielded 130.3 over its last four contests. The Bengals’ defense has picked up its play recently too, but points will be needed to beat Andrew Luck and company on their own turf. Cincinnati’s recent playoff failures have largely been blamed on Dalton, so perhaps it’s time for someone else to step up and give their embattled quarterback a helping hand?
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Don’t Make Luck Do It All
Andrew Luck has one more playoff victory than his counterpart, Andy Dalton, but there’s no question which quarterback is under more pressure this afternoon. Luck and Dalton are similar in that each has led their team to the playoffs every season since entering the NFL, but outside of that these two signal-callers are not often mentioned in the same breath. For starters, Luck finished the regular season third in passing yards with 4,761, while Dalton was 16th (3,398). Luck tossed 21 more touchdown passes (40 to 19) and one fewer interception (16 to 17), while placing seventh in passer rating (96.5). Dalton checked in at No. 25 (83.5) in that category. However, it also should be pointed out that Luck was third in attempts (616), averaging more than 38 per game while Dalton averaged 30 attempts per contest. The point of this comparison is to show that the Colts rely much more on Luck’s arm than the Bengals do Dalton’s, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For one, all those passes also open Luck up for some additional hits. Even though their sack numbers (Luck 27, Dalton 21) may be similar, there’s little dispute that Luck has taken more of a beating over the season. Cincinnati’s defense is the worst in the league in getting to the quarterback (just 20 sacks), but one way to help Luck in the pocket would to be run the ball effectively, which would then keep the Bengals on their heels. Indianapolis isn’t known for running the ball, but Daniel Herron and Trent Richardson have each had their moments. More to the point, teams have had success running on Cincinnati this season, although the Bengals have really clamped down lately – just 55.7 yards rushing per game allowed over their last three. Luck is certainly capable of leading the Colts to victory pretty much single-handedly, but that’s not always the best strategy to rely on in the playoffs, especially if you want to keep your franchise quarterback healthy for what hopefully will end up being an extended stay.
Andy Dalton may be 0-3 in the playoffs, but his head coach, Marvin Lewis is 0-5. So Cincinnati’s postseason issues extend beyond the quarterback. That said, Dalton’s hopes of getting rid of his 0-for record are not helped by A.J. Green’s absence (concussion). The Bengals have played well down the stretch, but Indianapolis is really comfortable at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the end, Andrew Luck and company simply have too much firepower, especially against a Cincinnati offense missing its All-Pro wide receiver.
Prediction: Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 20
The day your five-year-old has waited for his whole life for is finally here — the Dallas Cowboys are back in the postseason. Behind the record-setting offensive trio of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, Dallas won the NFC East with a 12–4 record and has returned to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2009. A 4–0 showing in December has helped erase a stigma that surrounded a Cowboys franchise that could not win in the last month of the year, particularly under coach Jason Garrett and Romo. Dallas entered this season 8–11 in December in four seasons with Garrett, and Romo had gone 14–22 in the month.
Meanwhile, Detroit (11-5) is back in the postseason for the second time in three years after previously not having made it since 2000. The Lions are still looking for their first playoff win since a 38–6 Divisional Round win over Dallas on Jan. 12, 1992. That win was the first postseason victory for the franchise since 1957, with only two appearances in between.
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Dallas -7
|Detroit 2014 Schedule|
|12/7||vs TB||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||vs MIN||W 16 - 14||Recap|
|12/21||@ CHI||W 20 - 14||Recap|
|12/28||@ GB||L 20 - 30||Recap|
|1/4||@ DAL||L 20 - 24||Recap|
Detroit’s Key to Victory: Stafford to Johnson
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford carries this unfortunate bit of baggage into this game: He is 0–16 as a starting quarterback in road games against teams that finished the season with a winning record, the third-most losses without a win in such games for any quarterback since the 1970 merger. But he’s 2–0 against Tony Romo, which gives the Lions a glimmer of hope. Both wins featured dramatic comebacks, including a 31–30 win in 2013 in which Stafford threw for 488 yards and Calvin Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards, the second-best yardage total in NFL history. Johnson’s yardage total of 1,077 this season marks his lowest since 2009, but expect Stafford to look Megatron’s way early and often.
|Dallas 2014 Schedule|
|12/4||@ CHI||W 41 - 28||Recap|
|12/14||@ PHI||W 38 - 27||Recap|
|12/21||vs IND||W 42 - 7||Recap|
|12/28||@ WAS||W 44 - 17||Recap|
|1/4||vs DET||W 24 - 20||Recap|
|1/11||@ GB||L 21 - 26||Recap|
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Unleash DeMarco Murray
It’s been a season-long theme for Dallas: Use a powerful running attack to set up Tony Romo for success in the passing game. This week, the Cowboys are facing the NFL’s top rushing defense (69.3 ypg), but it’s critical that DeMarco Murray find some running room against the Lions' defense to open things up for Romo and Dez Bryant — a job that gets tougher with the unexpected availability of leg-stomper Ndamukong Suh. The grind of a long NFL season seemed to catch up with Murray, whose 1,845 rushing yards broke Emmitt Smith’s franchise record and were the third most in the NFL over the last eight seasons. In Weeks 15-16, Murray could muster only a combined 139 yards on 2.6 yards per carry, including a season-low 58 yards in a Week 16 win over Indianapolis. He recaptured some of his early-season form with 100 yards on 20 carries against Washington, his 12th 100-yard game of the season (second most in NFL history). We’ll see if the wear and tear of 392 carries hampers him on the postseason stage.
In an unexpected turn of events for two somewhat downtrodden franchises, both the Detroit and Dallas saved some of their best football for late in the season, combining to go 7–1 in the month of December. So which one is prepared to take the next step and win in January? Jerry Jones sees something he likes in his Cowboys, saying that, “This team has a uniqueness to it that could serve us well in the playoffs.” We tend to agree.
Prediction: Dallas 27, Detroit 21
The 2014 NFL playoffs will kick off in Charlotte Saturday afternoon when the Arizona Cardinals take on the Carolina Panthers on ESPN. The Cardinals (11-5) have four more wins than the Panthers (7-8-1), but are a near-touchdown underdog on the road against the NFC South champions.
Arizona got off to a terrific start, winning nine of its first 10 games despite losing several key defenders before the season even started. Unfortunately, the injuries continued to pile up for the Cardinals, with the casualties including their No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks and top running back, as Bruce Arians’ team stumbled to a 2-4 finish.
Even though Carolina is just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record (Seattle, 2010 as NFC West champions), the Panthers have won four games in a row and are one of the hottest teams in the league. The first to win back-to-back NFC South division titles, Carolina is hosting a playoff game for the second straight season. Last season, Ron Rivera’s second-seeded Panthers fell 23-10 to the 49ers in the Divisional Round.
Carolina is 0-3 in the postseason since losing in Seattle in the 2005 NFC Championship Conference Game. The Panthers are 2-2 at home in the playoffs, including a 33-10 loss to the Cardinals in the Divisional Round on Jan. 10, 2009. That was the year Arizona would go on to play in Super Bowl XLIII, losing a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh 27-23.
The Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Arians, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLIII, will be making his postseason debut as a head coach.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Carolina -6.5
Arizona’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave it Up to Lindley
Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals’ third-string quarterback, will be making just his seventh career start, but this obviously is no ordinary game. Lindley is in this position because Carson Palmer tore his ACL in Week 10 and backup Drew Stanton is dealing with a knee injury of his own. This past Sunday, Lindley finally threw his first touchdown pass, after an NFL-record 229 attempts, yet Arizona wound up losing 20-17 to San Francisco. For the season, Lindley is completing less than half of his attempts (48.4) with twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two), and is averaging 187.3 yards passing per game. He also, briefly, was benched in favor of rookie Logan Thomas prior to last week’s game, but Bruce Arians decided to stick with Lindley for that game and this one. To add to the challenge facing Lindley, the Cardinals are without top running back Andre Ellington, but they still will have to figure out a way to generate some sort of rushing attack to take pressure off of their unproven quarterback. That is especially the case considering how well Carolina’s defense has been playing lately. During their four-game winning streak, the Panthers have limited opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating and have yielded just 43 points. Arizona’s defense by and large has carried this team for much of the season, and it will need to come up with yet another solid performance. Forcing some turnovers would certainly help the Cardinals’ cause, but what is critical is their 29th-ranked passing defense must not give up many big plays to a Carolina offense that’s known more for running the ball. Arizona is a good team, as it’s no small feat to win 11 games, especially in the division where the defending Super Bowl champion resides. And it will take another well-rounded team effort against the Panthers if the Cardinals want to keep their dream of playing in the Super Bowl at home alive. A breakthrough game from Lindley is certainly possible, but it’s probably in Arizona’s best interests to not put pin all of their postseason hopes on their young, untested, third-string quarterback.
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Getting the Ball to No. 88
It’s fair to say that the Panthers already have the advantage on defense going up against third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. However, Carolina will still need to score points to beat Arizona, and this is not a team that exactly lights up the scoreboard. The Panthers enter this game 19th in the NFL in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) while the Cardinals are fifth in scoring defense (18.7 ppg). Carolina’s calling card has been running the ball, and it has been quite effective doing so recently behind the resurgence of running back Jonathan Stewart and a rejuvenated Cam Newton. However, the key to the Panthers’ offensive game plan Saturday afternoon may be tight end Greg Olsen. The leading receiver on the team despite the presence of first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, Olsen is Newton’s most trusted target and should be able to take advantage of what has been a weakness for Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals have allowed a NFL-high 1,085 yards receiving (on 85 rec.) to tight ends this season, along with eight touchdowns. Two weeks ago, Arizona gave up 139 yards and two scores to Seattle’s Luke Wilson. No disrespect to Wilson, but Olsen, who recorded his first 1,000-yard campaign this season, is a little more experienced and established at the TE position. It’s just a matter of Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula recognizing this and making No. 88 a priority in the game plan.
It’s been a great run for Arizona, especially considering all of the injuries the Cardinals have had to deal with throughout the season. However, I think it’s too much to expect Ryan Lindley, who has a grand total of six starts under his belt, to break through under these circumstances. Scoff all you want about Carolina’s losing record, but the Panthers won their division and are one of the NFL’s hottest teams right now. The defense is playing more like it did last season and Cam Newton seems to have gotten a second wind thanks to the contributions of Jonathan Stewart. Arizona will hang around, but I think the odds are stacked too much against the Cardinals this time. The team that everyone says doesn’t belong in the playoffs sends the Super Bowl host home three victories shy of making their dream a reality.
Prediction: Carolina 20, Arizona 13
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their heated rivalry with a Saturday night, AFC Wild Card showdown on NBC. This will be the fourth time since 2001 the Ravens (10-6) and Steelers (11-5) have played in a playoff game, with the Steelers winning all three previous matchups.
There’s no love lost between these two teams and the annual meetings are usually close. However, this season’s get-togethers produced two blowouts. Baltimore used three Pittsburgh turnovers en route to an easy 26-6 victory on Sept. 11. The Steelers returned the favor in early November, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards in a decisive 43-23 victory over the Ravens.
Adding to the intrigue of Saturday night’s game is that the Steelers will be missing a big piece of their offense because of injury, while the Ravens will wecome back a key defender. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore’s All-Pro nose tackle, is set to return from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in last week’s win over Cincinnati and has already been ruled out for the wild card game. The team's leading rusher and No. 2 receiver, Bell's absence is something the Steelers must overcome.
Pittsburgh owns a 21-17 overall series edge against Baltimore. The Steelers have won the last two meetings in Heinz Field, but the Ravens claimed back-to-back victories in enemy territory on Nov. 6, 2011 and Nov. 18, 2012.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Win the Battle in the Trenches
With All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata’s return, the Ravens’ defensive line is at full strength and will create plenty of headaches for Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first two meetings this year, Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger five times and held Steeler rushers to just 154 yards on 43 carries. Considering the problems in pass defense this season, the Ravens need to disrupt Pittsburgh’s offense by generating pressure on Roethlisberger. And when Roethlisberger breaks free of the initial rush, it’s critical the Ravens stick with their coverage to limit big plays by Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Even with Le'Veon Bell already ruled out because of a knee injury, Baltimore should look to put Roethlisberger in long-yardage situations and use its physical, aggressive front seven to generate pressure. When the Ravens have the ball on offense, getting running back Justin Forsett on track will be a priority. In the first meeting between these two teams, Forsett gashed the Steelers for 96 yards on 22 attempts. In the rematch, Forsett was limited to 38 yards on nine carries. Balance on offense is crucial to set up Baltimore’s play-action game from quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable to play, which means rookie James Hurst will be under pressure to protect Flacco against Pittsburgh’s front seven. If Flacco has protection, there will be opportunities for big plays against a secondary that ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass. Even if cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu return from injury, the Steelers could struggle to contain the Baltimore pass offense.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Attack the Ravens’ Secondary
Even if Le'Veon Bell ended up playing, running the ball against Baltimore still figured to a be a tough task for the Steelers. After all, Pittsburgh managed only 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts in the first matchup, and the Ravens limited the Steelers to 55 yards on 25 carries in the second meeting. Combine Bell’s absence with Haloti Ngata’s return, and it’s easy to see why this game will rest on the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh added some backfield insurance with the addition of veteran Ben Tate, but it’s difficult to envision Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Tate having much success against a Ravens defense that limited opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry and 88.3 yards per game. Roethlisberger battled an illness in last week’s win over Cincinnati but should be at full strength for this one. In the early November meeting against the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass, but held its last four opponents under 200 yards through the air. Of course, the Ravens didn’t exactly run the gauntlet of quarterbacks in playing Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville and Miami. With the uncertainty surrounding the ground attack and the strength of Baltimore’s front seven, Roethlisberger will have to be perfect for Pittsburgh to win. The veteran is having an outstanding season (32 TDs, 9 INTs) and is surrounded by a deep group of receivers. Antonio Brown led the NFL with 1,698 receiving yards this season, while tight end Heath Miller (66 receptions) and Markus Wheaton (53 catches) were steady options. Rookie Martavis Bryant is an emerging star, averaging 21.1 yards per reception in 2014. The Steelers are known for winning with their defense and rushing attack, but on Saturday night, their best chance of advancing in the playoffs likely rests with an offense taking to the air and Roethlisberger attempting 40-50 passes.
Five out of the last seven matchups between these two teams were decided by three points or less. While both Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh games in the regular season were one-sided affairs, the wild card battle on Saturday night should be close. No Le'Veon Bell for the AFC North champions puts even more pressure on Josh Harris, Ben Tate and Dri Archer to produce out of the backfield. However, the Steelers still have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. Although defenses usually control this rivalry, don’t be surprised if Saturday night’s affair features more scoring. If Pittsburgh had Bell in on the field, the Steelers would be at least a touchdown favorite. Without him, the game moves closer to a toss-up. Roethlisberger does just enough, and Pittsburgh’s defense picks up a late turnover to seal the victory and send the Steelers to Denver for next weekend’s AFC Divisional Round.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 27
The GoDaddy Bowl will feature some familiar faces when Arkansas State and Toledo face off in Mobile, Ala. The final postseason contest before the first national champion of the Playoff era is crowned, the Red Wolves (7-5) are playing in their fourth straight GoDaddy Bowl (formerly GMAC Bowl) while the Rockets (8-4) are making their second appearance.
While Arkansas State has been no stranger to ending its season in Mobile, what has changed is the fact that it will have the head coach it started with. Blake Anderson led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in the Sun Belt in his first season after replacing Bryan Harsin, who left after the 2013 regular season to become the head coach at his alma mater, Boise State. Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) also departed for bigger programs prior to the GoDaddy Bowl in 2011 and ’12, respectively.
Arkansas State is looking for a third straight win in the GoDaddy Bowl against a Mid-American Conference opponent. The Rockets have defeated Kent State and Ball State in Mobile the past two seasons.
Toledo tied Northern Illinois with a 7-1 record atop the MAC’s West Division, but didn’t earn a spot in the championship game because of a loss to the Huskies. After going 7-5 last season but not getting invited to a bowl game, Matt Campbell has the Rockets back in the postseason for the fourth time since 2010.
Campbell is coaching in his third bowl game, as he led Toledo to a victory over Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl after Tim Beckman departed for Illinois. The next season, the Rockets lost 41-15 to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Toledo played in the GMAC/GoDaddy Bowl back in 2005, beating UTEP 45-13.
This is the third meeting between these two schools with Toledo winning both times at home. Toledo outscored Arkansas State 92-28 in those two games, which were played in 1990 and ’92.
Toledo vs. Arkansas State
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Toledo -4
Toledo’s Key to Victory: Make Drives Count
Arkansas State has beaten two of Toledo’s MAC conference mates in each of the past two GoDaddy Bowls even though each outgained the Red Wolves. In 2012, Kent State had 350 yards of total offense compared to 285 for Arkansas State, while Ball State outpaced the Red Wolves 363 to 331 last season. Despite this statistical advantage, Arkansas State won both games by a combined seven points, as both the Golden Flashes (13 points) and Cardinals (20) struggled to finish off drives. The Rockets enter this game 18th in the nation in total offense (486.3 ypg) and 31st in scoring offense (34.4 ppg), but it’s the latter that’s going to be critical. In the Red Wolves’ seven wins they have given up an average of 17.3 points per game. In their five losses that number soars to 42.4. If Toledo can put together anything close to an average game offensively, it should be in good position to win. The Rockets just need to remember it’s points and not yards that matter most, something that two other MAC teams are painfully familiar with when it comes to facing Arkansas State.
Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
The Red Wolves saved their best of the regular season for last when they pounded New Mexico State 68-35 at home. Arkansas State set a Sun Belt record with 764 yards of offense, including 469 on the ground. Three different Red Wolves ran for over 100 yards, led by quarterback Fredi Knighten’s 153. Running the ball won’t be easy against Toledo, who enters this game ranked 18th in the nation in rushing defense (120.5 ypg), but it’s still something Arkansas State must try to do. For one, the Red Wolves are not a prolific passing team at less than 250 yards per game and only 20 scores through the air. But secondly, and perhaps most important, an effective running game will chew up some time on the clock while also keeping the Rockets’ offense off of the field. Statistically speaking, there’s not much separation between these offenses, but Arkansas State has been more generous than Toledo on the other side of the ball. In their last six games alone, the Red Wolves have yielded 35.0 points and 269.2 rushing yards per contest. That’s not a good sign considering the Rockets’ Kareem Hunt is third in the nation (151.1 ypg) in rushing. The real estate may be hard to come by, but Arkansas State needs to make a concerted effort to run the ball or run the risk of Toledo doing the same thing.
The GoDaddy Bowl has become the Arkansas State invitational recently and the Red Wolves have not been gracious hosts to their MAC counterparts. Toledo, however, has the offensive firepower, led by sophomore running back Kareem Hunt, to match Arkansas State and appears to have a slight edge on defense. The Red Wolves’ adopted home-field advantage may help them keep it close, but the Rockets’ have too much fuel and will eventually pull away and exact a little MAC payback in Mobile.
Prediction: Toledo 38, Arkansas State 27
Bowl season has a funny way of changing uninteresting September matchups into must-see TV.
That Western Michigan-Air Force game in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl might not have been on anyone’s radar on the second Saturday in September, but by virtue of being a bowl, the game deserves at least a bit of attention.
The Birmingham Bowl might be the opposite.
In September, East Carolina-Florida would be a compelling early season matchup — the offensive-minded American Athletic Conference upstart facing a defensively stout, yet vulnerable, SEC team.
As a bowl game in the no-man’s land between New Year’s Day and the championship game, though, it’s decidedly lower tier, and both teams share some of the blame.
Florida is between two coaching regimes. While interim coach D.J. Durkin leads Florida into the bowl, new coach Jim McElwain is filling his staff and looking to 2015. Two Gators have already declared for the NFL Draft.
Like Florida, East Carolina had an uneven season. The Pirates seemed destined for a major bowl spot back in September when they picked up two wins against ACC teams. Those dreams faded with back-to-back losses against Temple and Cincinnati on the road to start November. The Pirates added a 32-30 loss to UCF on a Hail Mary to wrap up the regular season.
If both teams play to their potential, though, this could be a compelling game. East Carolina has a reputation as a giant-killer against ACC teams, but the Pirates can’t say the same against the SEC. The game will pair ECU’s Air Raid against a solid Florida pass defense, highlighted by the matchup between receiver Justin Hardy and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Florida should be out to set the tone for 2015 behind sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, who led the Gators’ late-season spurt.
East Carolina vs. Florida
Kickoff: Jan. 3, Noon ET
Spread: Florida by 7
East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Solve the Florida secondary
The bread-and-butter to the Pirates’ offense is easy to figure out: East Carolina comes from the Mike Leach/Air Raid school of offense. Using that approach, East Carolina defeated Virginia Tech (427 passing yards, three touchdowns) and North Carolina (446 yards, four touchdowns, one interceptions) in September. Consistency, though, was lacking. Quarterback Shane Carden still finished third in the nation in passing yards per game and in the top 30 in efficiency. Wide receiver Justin Hardy will finish his career with more receptions than anyone in college football history. ECU, though, will need to return to its early season form against a stout Florida secondary led by sophomore corner Vernon Hargreaves III. The Gators are one game removed from intercepting Jameis Winston four times and finishing fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Florida’s Key to Victory: Keep the eye on the prize
The Gators will have all the excuses to snooze through the game in Birmingham. Florida will be playing under an interim coach while it waits for Jim McElwain to take over. Running back Matt Jones and defensive end Dante Fowler already have announced intentions to go to the NFL Draft. And the Gators will be facing their first non-power conference program in a bowl since facing Miami (Ohio) in the 1973 Tangerine Bowl. Florida should have a substantial talent edge — particularly on defense — but we’ve seen the script in a bowl game before. The last time Florida played in a bowl with an interim coach was 10 years ago after Ron Zook was fired. Charlie Strong led an uninterested team to the Peach Bowl where the Gators lost 27-10 to Miami.
East Carolina has earned a reputation as a spoiler the last two seasons, going 4-1 against ACC programs. The Pirates, though, haven’t defeated an SEC opponent since South Carolina in 1999, going 0-5 in that span. Florida would be ripe for the picking in the Birmingham Bowl. That said, East Carolina tailed off at the end of the season, losing three games in AAC play once it became the clubhouse leader for a major bowl appearance. For all of it struggles, Florida hit a stride on offense late in the season once the Gators changed quarterbacks from junior Jeff Driskel to freshman Treon Harris. Which edition of these two streaky teams shows up in Alabama will determine the course of the game.
Prediction: East Carolina 28, Florida 21
NEW ORLEANS — Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have squared off with a right to play for the national championship before, but no one could have forecast what took place in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.
In the first instant classic of the playoff era, Ohio State defeated the favored Crimson Tide 42-35 to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 12 against Oregon.
The action-packed semifinal was a game of runs, big plays, dramatic swings, elite coaching and two rabid fan bases in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
And it proved why college football has been salivating for a playoff for decades.
With just over three minutes to play in the first half, Alabama had a 21-6 lead. Ohio State made crucial mistakes. Quarterback Cardale Jones looked flustered and shaky and the offense had missed opportunities to put points on the board.
But offensive coordinator Tom Herman shook up his gameplan and allowed Jones to attack the Crimson Tide secondary. The 250-pound gunslinger found a rhythm at the end of the first half, and with the help of a trick play, rallied the Buckeyes with big throws and emphatic runs.
"I never would have thought we would have been in this position," Jones said. "We weren't supposed to be in this position. We just beat the No. 1 team in the world."
Ohio State rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a 34-21 lead late in the third quarter. As expected, Alabama never went away, cutting the lead to six with 1:01 left in the third and then against to seven points with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter.
When Blake Sims' Hail Mary attempt landed into the waiting arms of Tyvis Powerll as time expired, the Scarlet and Gray half of the Superdome erupted into a celebration befitting of the Big Easy on New Year's Day.
Regardless of who won, college football was the real winner Thursday. The performance from both teams validated the College Football Playoff in just its first year of action.
Earlier in the day on the other side of the country, the other semifinal was less dramatic with Oregon defeating Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl but no less significant. The Ducks' win ended Florida State's 29-game win streak and bid to win a second national title.
And the best part? One more game to determine a national champion.
"It's awesome. It's perfect," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the game. "This is the first year and everyone is already talking about eight. The reality is you will always have someone left out. But this works. Today we had phenomenal football games. I think it's worked."
The former BCS system likely would have placed the undefeated, defending champions (Florida State) against the one-loss No. 1-rated SEC champs (Alabama) into a one-game playoff. Now both teams are eliminated.
Instead of Florida State-Alabama, Arlington will play host to two teams left for dead in the first month of the season.
The experts certainly weren't predicting an Oregon-Ohio State battle. In the system's first year, the sport has already witnessed two of the sport's most historic games. In a battle of two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in the most gorgeous of settings, Oregon ended Florida State's dominance. Meanwhile, Ohio State did something few believed possible.
College football gets to do it all again next week in Texas.
To no one's surprise, Oregon is a touchdown favorite over Ohio State to win the season's final game in Arlington. So let the drama and prognostication begin again.
"Underdogs again?" freshman linebacker and Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP Darron Lee said. "When will they ever learn?"
PASADENA, Calif. — Credit to Jameis Winston for being a true believer.
The Florida State quarterback kept talking about trying to mount a comeback in a game that finished 59-20, a game that featured a 34-0 run thanks to four turnovers in four possessions.
He described the game as “unfortunate.”
“We were never stopped at all,” Winston said. He talked about Florida State beating itself.
Sure, that’s confidence. And what else should Winston be expected to say after a loss like that?
It’s also lunacy.
Oregon is good. Oregon is national championship good. Oregon is championship good down to every last man, it seems.
A message for the Ducks' championship foe Ohio State: Don’t believe Winston. Nothing about a 59-20 rout was a fluke or some series of lucky bounces or even one player getting a lucky on broken coverage.
Oregon set Rose Bowl records for total yards (639) and scoring. The Ducks scored the most points against a Florida State team since 1985 when Auburn’s Bo Jackson was the one doing the damage.
And put in greater context, what the Ducks did to Florida State was more staggering.
This was a game in which Marcus Mariota threw an interception, something that happened only twice all season. He nearly threw two picks with one pass bouncing out of the hands of Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey.
Mariota wasn’t sharp early, but giving him a short field five times is begging for embarrassment. Oregon obliged Florida State's request.
Mariota completed 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns all of it after his top deep threat left the game with a knee injury sustained on the opening kickoff.
Oregon's offense didn't sustain even a hiccup without Devon Allen.
A running back who didn’t play the last three games rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
A receiver who didn’t have a catch in four games this year caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
A tight end who caught four passes all year ended up catching six for 73 yards.
These sorts of things don’t happen by chance. They happen because Oregon has built a program with enough depth so that Thomas Tyner, Darren Carrington and Evan Baylis can contribute on the biggest stage on a moment's notice.
“Those guys did vital stuff without the ball, which was vital for our success,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We had to win on the perimeter both in the run game and bubble game and all that stuff goes into it.”
And then there were the turnovers. Two fumbles were clawed out of the hands of Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Others came on pressure of Winston.
And again, Oregon had an built-in excuse if the Ducks had major lapses defensively. Starting cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was lost to a torn ACL during practice back in Eugene. No doubt, it was a blow from a personnel perspective and leadership perspective.
Without their best defensive player, the Ducks gained five turnovers, scoring 34 total points off takeaways. Oregon’s lone squandered opportunity off a turnover was a blocked extra point.
That’s dominance. Winning a game under less than ideal circumstances is the sort of thing national champions do. Oregon did it by 39 points.
“We were just ready for the fight,” linebacker Tony Washington said. “And we came out on top.”