Articles By All
The 2013 regular season is in the books and the Michigan State Spartans are the champs.
The improbable run to the Rose Bowl for Mark Dantonio is the main headline for what turned out to be a very memorable campaign in the Big Ten, but it’s not the only one.
The league welcomed two new coaches to the fray with Wisconsin’s Gary Andersen and Purdue’s Darrell Hazell achieving wildly different outcomes. Kirk Ferentz saved his job and returned Iowa to relative prominence with wins over rivals Nebraska and Michigan. Minnesota inspired the nation by winning eight games despite Jerry Kill’s health issues. Bill O’Brien posted his second consecutive winning season in the face of crippling NCAA sanctions with a true freshman quarterback.
Then there were the Buckeyes. Urban Meyer began his Big Ten career a perfect 24-0, including a win in one of the greatest Michigan-Ohio State games ever played. But, much to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany’s chagrin, Meyer’s Buckeyes couldn’t finish the season as Big Ten champs and therefore cost the league a berth in the BCS National Championship Game.
And next year, the league will have a totally new look as both Maryland and Rutgers join and new divisional lineups take shape.
Big Ten 2013 Season Awards
Coach of the Year: Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Michigan State did the unexpected by running the Big Ten table for the first time since 1966, capping their magical season by stunning the Buckeyes 33-24 in the third annual Big Ten Championship Game. Dantonio has returned the Spartans to the promised land — i.e., the Rose Bowl — for the first since 1987 when Lorenzo White and Nick Saban roamed the sidelines. He is fifth all-time in Michigan State history with 51 wins and could be as high as third all-time by next season. He has the highest winning percentage of any coach in East Lansing since Biggie Munn’s remarkable 84.6 percent benchmark set back in 1953. Michigan State had three 10-win seasons prior to his arrival and Dantonio has had three in the last four seasons. After being picked fourth in the Legends Division by most, Dantonio is clearly the Coach of the Year in the Big Ten.
Offensive Player of the Year: Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State
A (very good) case can be made for either Connor Cook or Jeremy Langford from Michigan State. Or even Penn State’s Allen Robinson. But the most dynamic player in the league this fall was Ohio State’s Miller. He finished seventh in the league with 1,033 yards rushing — fourth nationally among quarterbacks — and scored 10 rushing touchdowns. He led the league in passing efficiency (157.94) with 1,860 yards, 22 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Miller had been unbeaten as a starter until the conference championship game loss to the Spartans.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio State
Wisconsin’s Chris Borland is a truly great player who epitomizes all that Badgers football represents. And while he is a deserving challenger to Shazier, only one player in the Big Ten led the league in tackles (135), tackles for a loss (23.5) and forced fumbles (4) while leading his team to 24 straight wins. Shazier also finished fifth in the league in sacks (7.0). He was fifth nationally in tackles and second nationally in tackles for a loss on a team that won its division and didn’t lose a regular season game. Few players make as many big plays or big hits as Ohio State’s talented linebacker.
Newcomer of the Year: Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
It cannot be understated how good Hackenberg was in just his first season in college football. He finished third nationally among freshman quarterbacks to only Jameis Winston (38) and John O’Korn (26) in passing touchdowns (20). Hackenberg also was third nationally among freshmen in yards (2,955) and was fourth nationally in passing efficiency (133.99). He finished five yards out of second in the Big Ten in passing (Devin Gardner, 2,960) after setting every major Penn State freshman passing record. He led his team to furious comeback wins against Michigan and Illinois and performed like a seasoned vet (339 yards, 4 TDs) in the regular-season finale road upset of Wisconsin. This was a total slam dunk.
Biggest Disappointment of 2013: Michigan
Picked by most to win the Legends Division and possibly press Ohio State for Big Ten supremacy, Michigan finished eighth in the Big Ten power rankings. The offense looked downright atrocious for most of the season as Michigan won two games against teams with winning records (Notre Dame, Minnesota). Otherwise, the Wolverines fell flat on their faces against good teams, losing in ugly fashion to Michigan State, Nebraska, Iowa and Penn State. Brady Hoke’s bunch did save its best showing for last in what turned out to be a historic meeting with rival Ohio State, but that didn’t salvage what has to be considered the most disappointing season in the Big Ten this fall.
Biggest Surprise of 2013: Iowa
Ohio State did exactly what it was supposed to by going 12-0. Gary Andersen had a fabulous first season in Madison. Indiana showed improvement. Michigan State overachieved and is in the Rose Bowl for the first time since ’87. And Minnesota was a heart-warming story. But Iowa and Kirk Ferentz — with the help of an extraordinary trio of linebackers — did the most with the least of any team in the league. Picked by most to finish last in the Legends Division (4-8 by Athlon Sports), the Hawkeyes eventually finished fourth in the overall final B1G power rankings. Wins over rivals Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern gives Ferentz new life in Iowa City after a 4-8 showing last season.
Athlon's 2013 All-Big Ten Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense|
|QB Braxton Miller, Ohio St||QB Connor Cook, Michigan St|
|RB Jeremy Langford, Michigan St||RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin|
|RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio St||RB Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska|
|WR Allen Robinson, Penn St||WR Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin|
|WR Jeremy Gallon, Michigan||WR Cody Latimer, Indiana|
|TE C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa||TE Devin Funchess, Michigan|
|C Corey Linsley, Ohio St||C Cole Pensick, Nebraska|
|G John Urschel, Penn St||G Andrew Norwell, Ohio St|
|G Ryan Groy, Wisconsin||G Blake Treadwell, Michigan St|
|T Jack Mewhort, Ohio St||T Brandon Scherff, Iowa|
|T Taylor Lewan, Michigan||T Rob Havenstein, Wisconsin|
|AP James White, Wisconsin||AP Josh Ferguson, Illinois|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense|
|DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan St||DE Frank Clark, Michigan|
|DE Randy Gregory, Nebraska||DE Noah Spence, Ohio St|
|DT Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota||DT Carl Davis, Iowa|
|DT DaQuan Jones, Penn St||DT Michael Bennett, Ohio St|
|LB Ryan Shazier, Ohio St||LB James Morris, Iowa|
|LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin||LB Denicos Allen, Michigan St|
|LB Max Bullough, Michigan St||LB Anthony Hitchens, Iowa|
|CB Darqueze Dennard, Michigan St||CB Blake Countess, Michigan|
|CB Bradley Roby, Ohio St||CB Ciante Evans, Nebraska|
|S Isaiah Lewis, Michigan St||S Brock Vereen, Minnesota|
|S Kurtis Drummond, Michigan St||S C.J. Barnett, Ohio St|
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists|
|K Jeff Budzien, Northwestern||K Mitch Ewald, Indiana|
|P Mike Sadler, Michigan St||P Cody Webster, Purdue|
|KR Akeem Hunt, Purdue||KR Kenny Bell, Nebraska|
|PR Kevonte Martin-Manley, Iowa||PR V'Angelo Bentley, Illinois|
The 2013 season will be an extremely memorable one for Pac-12 fans. New coaches Sonny Dykes and Mark Helfrich had very different debuts out West. The Pac-12 North turned out to be one of, if not the, best divisions in college football and first place was handled like a hot potato for the better part of a month. A group of second-year coaches lit up the night sky in the Pac-12 South each weekend. And the coach of the most powerful football program west of Austin, Texas, was fired after just one month of action.
The ousting of Lane Kiffin stole the headlines early in the season but fans in Los Angeles were given new life when the affable Ed Orgeron rallied the troops and circled the wagons in Heritage Hall. Then gaudy numbers took center stage in October as names like Sean Mannion, Marcus Mariota, Brandin Cooks, Marion Grice and Ka’Deem Carey all seemed to be leading the nation in something important.
Finally, the month of November rolled around and the division championships took center stage. Stanford and Oregon ran the zone read to perfection, handing off first place in the Pac-12 North three times in three weeks. Eventually, Oregon’s loss to Arizona in the desert awarded the crown to David Shaw and the Cardinal for the second consecutive season.
Speaking of the desert, while USC and UCLA got the national attention for most of the year, Arizona State quietly went about its business and posted the best record in the conference. But even getting to host the Pac-12 Championship Game couldn’t help Todd Graham break the Sun Devils' two decades-long Rose Bowl drought in Tempe.
But he did win Athlon Sports' Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors.
Pac-12 2013 Season Awards
Coach of the Year: Todd Graham, Arizona State
Arizona State winning the Pac-12 South didn’t come as a big surprise to Athlon Sports — we picked ASU to win the division back in the summer. But to post the best record in the league at 8-1? To host the conference championship game? And to win 10 games? No, all of that came as a bit of a surprise. Arizona State was one win away from its first Rose Bowl since 1996 and won 10 games in a season for just the third time since 1986. Arizona State led the league in turnover margin, sacks and fewest penalties while finishing second in scoring to only Oregon at 41.0 points per game. Todd Graham is one of 10 finalists for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year nationally.
Offensive Player of the Year: Tyler Gaffney, RB, Stanford
This is a remarkably talented offensive conference so there are a number of deserving candidates for Offensive Player of the Year but none played bigger and more consistently in brighter moments than Stanford’s Gaffney. No one in the Pac-12 scored more rushing touchdowns than the Cardinal ball-carrier (20), as Gaffney scored at least once in 12 of 13 games. He scored five times in two wins over the “best” team in the league, Arizona State, and set the single-game attempts record with 45 carries against Oregon in the biggest game of the year. His 307 carries were third nationally, his 1,626 yards are sixth nationally and he helped carry his team to a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth by rushing for 133 yards and three touchdowns on the road in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Defensive Player of the Year: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
The Cardinal defense has more than one MVP with outside linebacker Trent Murphy and safety Ed Reynolds also certainly worthy of consideration. But Skov is the heart and soul of a unit that might be the most physical in the nation. The Stanford middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense and leading tackler on the Pac-12’s top defense. He collected 100 total tackles, 10.0 for a loss, and 4.5 sacks but, like Gaffney, played his best in the biggest moments. Skov had 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks in a three-point win over Washington. He forced two fumbles and posted nine tackles in a fabulous showing against Oregon. He leapt over the ASU line of scrimmage in true LaVarr Arrington fashion on a critical Pac-12 title-clinching goal-line stand in the title game. When it comes to toughness, leadership and production, few nationally can match the two-time conference champion’s resume.
Newcomer of the Year: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA
While Player of the Year honors were difficult to narrow down, the Newcomer of the Year award is a pretty simple debate. Myles Jack is the only correct answer. In a bizarre maneuver by the Pac-12, Jack was awarded both the Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year honors. He posted 70 tackles (third among all Pac-12 freshmen), 5.0 for a loss, a forced fumble and an interception as a starting linebacker on defense. The two-way star, however, also added 267 yards rushing and seven touchdowns on an impressive 7.2 yards per carry on offense as a running back. He only played offense for four games but played a huge role in wins over Arizona, Washington and USC late in the year. The Paul Hornung Award finalist is the clear-cut newcomer of the year out West.
Biggest Disappointment of 2013 (team): Oregon
Normally, a 10-win season and No. 10-postseason ranking in the AP Poll would be things programs would call successful. Especially, a team with a first-year head coach. But the Ducks were preseason No. 3 in the nation and picked by almost all to win the Pac-12 championship this summer. Instead, Oregon will be playing in the Alamo Bowl. Oregon was in control of its own Pac-12 North destiny not once but twice and lost both times in ugly fashion to Stanford and subsequently Arizona. It handed the division crown to Stanford after laying an egg in the desert late in November and needed a touchdown with less than 30 seconds to play against Oregon State to salvage the 10-win season. It was a solid year for Oregon but not the one most anticipated and in a league in which almost every team overachieved, the Ducks get the nod as biggest disappointment.
Biggest Disappointment (individual): Lane Kiffin, USC
While Oregon gets the nod as the most disappointing team, the most disappointing aspect of the ’13 Pac-12 season has to be Lane Kiffin. The Trojans were loaded with talent but clearly had no desire to play for the embattled head coach. So after a wildly disappointing first month, Pat Haden didn’t even give Kiffin a chance to return to his office, firing the young head coach at Los Angeles International Airport before the team buses could even depart for campus following a lackluster showing in a 62-41 loss at Arizona State. What makes Kiffin even more disappointing is that his old team fought valiantly under interim head coach Ed Orgeron and has a chance to finish the season with 10 wins.
Biggest Surprise of 2013: Washington State
The Pac-12 preseason predictions were pretty accurate across the board in 2013. Did Oregon State and Cal lose a few extra games this fall? Sure. Did Arizona State surprise by winning a few extra this season? Certainly. But the job Mike Leach did at Washington State to take a 3-9 squad to a bowl game this fall after being picked to finish last in the conference has to be considered a minor upset. This team hasn’t had a winning record or been to a bowl game since 2003 and both of those could be checked off the list this month in just Leach’s second season. The Cougars improved on offense from 359.5 to 423.2 yards per game and pulled multiple road upsets over quality opponents like USC and Arizona. Leach won as many league games (4) in 2013 as Wazzu had won in the previous four seasons combined (4).
Athlon's 2013 All-Pac-12 Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense|
|QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon||QB Taylor Kelly, Arizona St|
|RB Tyler Gaffney, Stanford||RB Bishop Sankey, Washington|
|RB Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona||RB Marion Grice, Arizona St|
|WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon St||WR Ty Montgomery, Stanford|
|WR Paul Richardson, Colorado||WR Jaelen Strong, Arizona St|
|TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Wash.||TE Chris Coyle, Arizona St|
|C Hroniss Grasu, Oregon||C Isaac Seumalo, Oregon St|
|G David Yankey, Stanford||G Jamil Douglas, Arizona St|
|G Xavier Su'a-Filo, UCLA||G Marcus Martin, USC|
|T Evan Finkenberg, Arizona St||T Cameron Fleming, Stanford|
|T Andrus Peat, Stanford||T Tyler Johnstone, Oregon|
|AP Myles Jack, UCLA||AP De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense|
|DE Leonard Williams, USC||DE Scott Crichton, Oregon St|
|DE Trevor Reilly, Utah||DE Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington|
|DT Will Sutton, Arizona St||DT Taylor Hart, Oregon|
|DT Tenny Palepoi, Utah||DT Devon Coleman, Arizona St|
|LB Anthony Barr, UCLA||LB Devon Kennard, USC|
|LB Shayne Skov, Stanford||LB Chris Young, Arizona St|
|LB Trent Murphy, Stanford||LB Carl Bradford, Arizona St|
|CB Robert Nelson, Arizona St||CB Rashaad Reynolds, Oregon St|
|CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon||CB Marcus Peters, Washington|
|S Ed Reynolds, Stanford||S Alden Darby, Arizona St|
|S Deone Bucannon, Washington St||S Dion Bailey, USC|
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists|
|K Zane Gonzalez, Arizona St||K Vincenzo D'Amato, Cal|
|P Tom Hackett, Utah||P Travis Coons, Washington|
|KR Ty Montgomery, Stanford||KR Victor Bolden, Oregon St|
|PR Nelson Agholor, USC||PR Bralon Addison, Oregon|
The American Athletic Conference so far is performing like a league born from a diverse group of programs with different resources and expectations.
Not that we’d expect anything else, since this is a league smashed together among programs with different resources and expectations.
On one end, there’s Louisville, Connecticut and Memphis who are continuing on what all three programs did last season.
The defending national champion Cardinals get the benefit of the doubt given the returning cast, but they’ve played only one major opponent and lost to North Carolina. Now that Connecticut has a chance to play for the NCAA Tournament, the Huskies are relishing in the opportunity, despite obvious limitations. And Memphis has flipped the narrative after earning redemption from a blowout road loss to Oklahoma State with a win over the same Cowboys in Orlando.
On the other end is a team like SMU still striving to prove it belongs among the upper echelon of the league with Louisville, Connecticut, Memphis and Cincinnati. To do that, SMU may have to prove what it’s not and that means separating itself from Rutgers, UCF, USF and Houston.
Early Season Report Card: American Athletic Conference
Bubble watch: Cincinnati, SMU
Best win: Memphis 73, Okla. State 68
Worst loss: FAU 75, UCF 64
Power rankings so far
Important non-conference games remaining
Cincinnati at Xavier (Dec. 14)
Florida at Memphis (Dec. 17)
Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (Dec. 17)
Stanford at Connecticut (Dec. 18)
Connecticut at Washington (Dec. 22)
Louisville at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
The AAC’s leading scorers Russ Smith and Sean Kilpatrick deserve mention, but Napier has been the clear do-it-all player for the Huskies. Drawing comparisons to Kemba Walker, Napier has been huge in the Huskies’ top wins with 26 points against Florida, 27 against Indiana, 20 against Boston College and 18 against Maryland. The only question is if he’ll need to keep up this torrid pace (15.3 points, seven rebounds and 5.9 assists per game) for UConn to remain an AAC contender. And then there was this shot.
Top freshman: Austin Nichols, Memphis
Nichols has stepped in to give Memphis the inside presence the Tigers need in their guard-heavy lineup. The 6-8, 212-pound forward has averaged 5.9 rebounds per game including a 19-point and eight-rebound performance against LSU in the Old Spice Classic.
Top newcomer: Chris Jones, Louisville
Taking over for Peyton Siva is no easy task, but Jones has assumed the point guard role successfully with the Cardinals. He’s second to Russ Smith in scoring (14.9 ppg) and has played relentless defense. One of the more interesting games of the season will be when the junior college transfer Jones returns to his hometown of Memphis to face the Tigers and to play in the AAC Tournament.
Surprise player: Justin Jackson, Cincinnati
Justin Jackson had been a steady contributor on the defensive end as shot blocker, but he didn’t have a developed offensive game. That has changed in his senior season. Before this year, he’d never averaged more than 5.1 points per game in a season. He’s up to 10.6 points while averaging 3.3 blocks.
Early season flop: Louisville’s loss to North Carolina
Let’s forget that North Carolina has been wildly inconsistent this season and just count Louisville’s 93-84 loss to the Tar Heels as a loss to a solid team on a neutral court. Even then, how do you account for the dismal performance of Louisville’s supporting cast, a group that came up huge in the Cardinals’ title run last season. Montrezl Harrell was 2 of 5 (but with 10 rebounds). Luke Hancock was 1 of 8. Wayne Blackshear was invisible, missing his only shot in 17 minutes. Louisville still has a game at Kentucky on Dec. 28, but of the top 10 or so preseason teams, we know the least about Louisville. After North Carolina, Lousiville has faced only two other top-100 opponents on KenPom (Southern Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette).
Lingering concerns: Connecticut’s inside presence
Napier, a 6-1 guard, leads UConn in rebounding at seven per game. The next best player, forward DeAndre Daniels, averages 4.7. The Huskies have managed to start 9-0 despite ranking 240th in defensive rebounding percentage and 182nd in offensive rebounding percentage. That can’t hold up over the course of the season.
Best NCAA resume: Connecticut
No one is comparing the 2013-14 Huskies to the 2010-11 team that won the title, but a hot start has been a big part of both. Defeating Florida on a buzzer beater at home is nice, defeating Indiana on a neutral court is just as good. Maryland and Boston College might not be NCAA teams, but the Huskies beat both on neutral courts as well.
A quick look at every game on the NFL schedule for Week 15, along with the consensus picks of Athlon Sports’ editors.
Chargers (6-7) at Broncos (11-2)
Historically, Peyton Manning has had tough times against the Bolts — snapping a 13-game winning streak in 2005, throwing six INTs in ’07 and four INTs with a pair of pick-sixes in ’10. But Manning didn’t have any problems in Week 10 this year, passing for 330 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during a 28–20 win at San Diego. The Broncos were a quick-strike offense that day, with scoring drives lasting 57 seconds, 1:25, 2:27 and 3:26, respectively. Broncos by 10
Redskins (3-10) at Falcons (3-10)
One year ago, Washington and Atlanta hosted playoff games. How quickly a team can get caught in the undertow of NFL parity and flipped from first to worst in its division standings. Falcons by 3
49ers (9-4) at Buccaneers (4-9)
There are no moral victories in the NFL. A loss is a loss is a loss, obviously. But San Fran’s four defeats are at Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina and at New Orleans — a quartet of teams with a combined 38–14 record this season. 49ers by 8
Seahawks (11-2) at Giants (5-8)
Much has been made of Russell Wilson’s 14–0 career record at home in Seattle. Fewer Hawks fans are eager to bring up Wilson’s 5–5 mark (including playoffs) in the Eastern Time Zone. Seahawks by 9
Eagles (8-5) at Vikings (3-9-1)
The good news is it appears Adrian Peterson will not need surgery on his mid-foot sprain, which is not of the dreaded Lisfranc variety according to recent MRI results. The bad news is A.D. is in a walking boot and unlikely to play in Week 15, backup Toby Gerhart has a hamstring issue and third-string back Matt Asiata has three career carries for nine yards in 2012. Eagles by 7
Patriots (10-3) at Dolphins (7-6)
New England beat Miami, 27–17, in Week 8. But the win was Tom Brady’s worst statistical game of the season, with season lows in completions (13), attempts (22) and passing yards (116). Brady’s 116 yards were his fewest since 2009. Patriots by 2
Bills (4-9) at Jaguars (4-9)
J-Ville has won four of its last five since coming back from London, where the Jags fell to 0–8 after a rock-bottom 32-point loss to the 49ers. Jaguars by 1
Texans (2-11) at Colts (8-5)
Indianapolis overcame a 21–3 halftime deficit to pull off a 27–24 win at Houston in Week 9. In three career games against the AFC South rival Texans, Luck has seven TDs and zero INTs. Colts by 6
Bears (7-6) at Browns (4-9)
Marc Trestman backs Jay Cutler as Chicago’s top QB, despite Josh McCown’s recent success. That’s nothing. Cleveland has had four guys throw TDs this season, including a punter. Browns by 1
Chiefs (10-3) at Raiders (4-9)
K.C. destroyed Oakland, 24–7, in Week 6, with the Chiefs D notching 10 sacks and three INTs. Chiefs by 8
Jets (6-7) at Panthers (9-4)
The Cats’ top-ranked scoring defense (14.5 ppg) had not allowed more than two TDs in a single game until the Saints scored three times in one quarter during last week’s 31–13 loss — which was only the second time all season Carolina allowed 24 or more points. Meanwhile, the Jets have scored 14 or fewer points in seven games, including four games in single digits. Panthers by 11
Packers (6-6-1) at Cowboys (7-6)
Obviously, the status of Aaron Rodgers is the giant cheese block in the room. But since even the doctor in charge isn’t sure of what to do about Title Town’s most valuable collarbone, let’s talk about Tony Romo’s 13–20 career record in December and January, instead. This rematch of the 1967 “Ice Bowl” will be awfully cold for the losing team in this must-win showdown. Cowboys by 8
Cardinals (8-5) at Titans (5-8)
Bruce Arians beat Tennessee twice last season as the Colts interim coach, with a 19–13 win in Music City and a 27–23 victory at Indy. Cardinals by 1
Saints (10-3) at Rams (5-8)
New Orleans has marched to a 7–0 record at home and a 3–3 mark on the road. But St. Louis plays in a dome, where N’Awlins is 8–1. Saints by 5
Bengals (9-4) at Steelers (5-8)
Andy Dalton has been unstoppable at home — with 14 TDs, five INTs and a perfect 6–0 record that includes victories over Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck and Ben Roethlisberger. On the road, however, Dalton has been vulnerable — with 11 TDs, nine INTs and a 3–4 record that includes losses to Brian Hoyer, Jay Cutler and Ryan Tannehill. Bengals by 1
Ravens (7-6) at Lions (7-6)
Tampa-born, Dallas-raised and Georgia-educated Matthew Stafford is happy to be in a heated dome after last week’s blizzard in Baltimore. Lions by 1
Last week: 14–2 // Season: 137–70–1
Not so long ago, Robert Griffin III and Mike Shanahan were taking the Washington Redskins to the playoffs and the biggest Scandal in D.C. was an ABC prime time drama starring Kerry Washington.
Times have changed in the nation’s capital. Some are calling for an emergency midterm election — i.e. the Redskins’ first midseason coaching change since Norv Turner was fired by owner Daniel Snyder after 13 games in 2000. To be fair, Turner had been hired by the late, great Jack Kent Cooke in 1994 and was never Snyder’s “guy.”
No, Snyder’s list of head coaching hires reads Marty Schottenheimer (2001), Steve Spurrier (2002-03), Joe Gibbs’ second term (2004-07, following his Hall of Fame stint from 1981-92), Jim Zorn (2008-09) and, drum roll please, Shanahan (2010-who knows?).
Following a humiliating 45–10 blowout loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14 — Washington’s 10th loss this season — Shanahan’s status is in doubt. Then again, so is the status of RG3, whom Shanahan claims may be benched for the final three games of the season as a health precaution.
“We had 24 sacks in the last five games. That’s a lot,” Shanahan said. “I want to make sure he’s healthy. I think that’s the most important thing going into the offseason, that he has his first full offseason of being healthy. And if something did happen to him, I think it would set out franchise back.”
Griffin III famously suffered a devastating knee injury on Jan. 6 earlier this year and many have speculated that the 23-year-old former Heisman Trophy winner has still not returned to 100 percent.
The numbers back that assertion. As a rookie, RG3 had 27 total TDs and seven turnovers while leading the Skins to a 10–6 record. This year, he has 16 total TDs and 16 turnovers with a miserable 3–10 record, including the team’s current five-game losing streak.
Stats and losses are only part of the problem in Washington, where the cozy friendship between RG3 and his owner, Snyder, is under the microscope. Shanahan allegedly feels his power has been usurped by his young signal-caller and his relationship with Snyder may have been damaged beyond repair.
Normally, a team in such bad shape can at least look forward to the upcoming NFL Draft. Washington, however, traded away its 2014 first-round pick to the St. Louis Rams as part of the bounty to acquire RG3 in 2012.
“There’s always a lot of noise when you’re 3–10,” Shanahan said. “I understand that, and every organization has it. There’s going to be a lot more noise over the next few weeks.”
Ranking all 32 NFL teams, with the two-loss Broncos back on top and the two-win Texans cellar-dwelling.
1. Broncos (11-2) Matt Prater makes NFL-record 64-yard field goal.
2. Seahawks (11-2) Richard Sherman blames loss on bad calls by refs.
3. Saints (10-3) Drew Brees fastest to 50,000 yards (183 games).
4. 49ers (9-4) Frank Gore 51-yard run seals win over Seattle.
5. Patriots (10-3) Rob Gronkowski out for season with torn ACL, MCL.
6. Bengals (9-4) Improve to perfect 6–0 mark at Paul Brown Stadium.
7. Chiefs (10-3) Andy Reid celebrates Sporting KC’s MLS Cup win.
8. Panthers (9-4) “We got a little full of ourselves,” says Ron Rivera.
9. Eagles (8-5) Nick Foles finally throws first INT in win over Lions.
10. Cardinals (8-5) Tyrann Mathieu out for season with torn ACL, LCL.
11. Colts (8-5) Lose at Cincy, but wrap up AFC South title anyway.
12. Bears (7-6) Mike Ditka’s No. 89 retired at halftime vs. Cowboys.
13. Lions (7-6) Reggie Bush injures calf after pregame fall in snow.
14. Cowboys (7-6) Jerry Jones thinks defense should “take more risk.”
15. Packers (6-6-1) Plus-one on scoreboard with minus-one wind chill.
16. Ravens (7-6) Win game with five lead changes in last two minutes.
17. Dolphins (7-6) Notch first victory on road at Pittsburgh in 23 years.
18. Jets (6-7) Avoid first four-game losing streak under Rex Ryan.
19. Chargers (6-7) Philip Rivers celebrates 32nd birthday with victory.
20. Titans (5-8) Job status “not a concern” for coach Mike Munchak.
21. Giants (5-8) San Diego fans heckle former draft pick Eli Manning.
22. Steelers (5-8) Antonio Brown steps out of bounds on last-ditch TD.
23. Rams (5-8) Remember, Rams own Redskins’ first-round pick.
24. Buccaneers (4-9) Have won four of last five after 0–8 start to season.
25. Browns (4-9) Allow two Tom Brady TDs in final 61 seconds of loss.
26. Raiders (4-9) Have lost 13 straight games in Eastern Time Zone.
27. Jaguars (4-9) Third straight win is first at home since Nov. 2012.
28. Bills (4-9) Extend NFL-worst 14-season postseason drought.
29. Falcons (3-10) OC Dirk Koetter interviews for Boise State vacancy.
30. Vikings (3-9-1) Adrian Peterson carted off field, awaits more tests.
31. Redskins (3-10) Mike Shanahan on hot seat, debates benching RG3.
32. Texans (2-11) Gary Kubiak fired after 61–64 record in eight years.
LeSean McCoy, RB, Eagles
Shady was a one-man Iditarod during a 34–20 come-from-behind win over the Lions, slicing and dicing his way through eight inches of snow en route to 29 carries for 217 yards and two TDs. Philadelphia continued its quest to go from worst to first in the NFC East by scoring all 34 points in the second half — including 28 fourth-quarter points — in blizzard-like conditions at Lincoln Financial Field. McCoy led the way with 148 fourth-quarter yards on his way to breaking Steve Van Buren’s single-game team rushing record (205) set in 1949.
Peyton Manning, QB, Broncos
The four-time MVP gave the cold shoulder to those critics who claimed Manning was a lesser passer in cold weather — completing 39-of-59 passes for 397 yards, four TDs and zero INTs during a 51–28 win over the Titans. “Whoever wrote that narrative can shove that one where the sun don’t shine,” Manning told Denver’s KOA-AM during a postgame interview. “I felt pretty good out there today.” Playing in low-teen temperatures that felt like single-digit weather, Manning set a Broncos team record with 39 completions, as well as four scores to four different pass-catchers (Wes Welker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker).
Marques Colston, WR, Saints
Sure, New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees topped the 50,000-yard mark for his career during a 31–13 statement win over NFC South rival Carolina on Sunday night. But it was the resurgence of Brees’ go-to wideout, Colston, that has Saints fans ready to party like Fat Tuesday came early this year. Colston — who has accounted for 8,115 of Brees’ 50,026 yards — added nine catches for 125 yards and two trips to the end zone. The breakout effort was Colston’s second 100-yard game this year and his first multi-TD contest since Week 17 last season (also against Carolina).
John Abraham, LB, Cardinals
The 14th-year veteran pass rusher took down St. Louis’ Kellen Clemens for three sacks — one of which resulted in a safety — along with a forced fumble during a 30–10 victory over the Rams. Abraham also bull-rushed his way to ninth on the all-time sacks list with 133.0, passing Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O’Neal, both of whom had 132.5 career sacks. Abraham is five sacks shy of overtaking John Randle and Richard Dent’s 137.5 career sacks for seventh place on the all-time list.
The regular college football season has come to an end and that can only mean one thing: you're going to be invited to join your buddy's College Bowl Pick'em league. Of course, who has time to come up with a clever or witty team name to impress your bowl-picking counterparts? Well, we've got you covered. Check out these 50 funny (we use the term loosely) college team-related names for your bowl-picking pleasure.
The Glory Bowl
Clowney Question, Bro
I Shaved My Bowls for This?
Look at My Big Bowls
50 Shades of Johnathan Gray
(Rashad) Greene With Envy
I Hit You Like a Wrecking Bowl
(Tyler) Lockett Up
(Yawin) Smallwood Needs Lovin' Too
Jackson Turner Overdrive
Chubb Small World After All
Too Many Brandin Cooks in the Kitchen
The League's Ameer (Abdullah) Player
In A Major Quandre (Diggs)
To the Max Bullough
Calvin and the Chipmunks
Ring My Blake Bell
The Mighty Casey Pachall Strikes Out
Kiss My David Ash
Eric Ward of the State
Tevin Reese's Peanut Butter Cups
2 Much Johnson For You
Lache Key Kid
Jeckle & Carlos Hyde
My Posse's on (Terrance) Broadway
Vad Case of Loving You
Keeping Up with The Butch Joneses
(Matt) Rhule Girls, One Cup
Johnny Come Lately
Everett Golson's Tutors
Hotty Toddy Hotties
Colonel Reb Is Smiling
USC Sweater Puppies
Neon Nike Ducks
Kingsbury Skinny Jeans
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 10.
• I love actress Emmy Rossum of "Shameless," and you should, too. After you read this, you will.
• The "Sorry Your Team Lost" NFL Week 14 roundup. At least we won't have Gary Kubiak to kick around anymore.
• No wonder the Bears' Josh McCown is putting up huge numbers. He's throwing to Alshon Jeffery. The guy Lane Kiffin said would be pumping gas if he went to South Carolina.
• Not all the entertainment is on the field or the court. Here are 25 fans in the process of getting their minds blown, their worlds rocked and their hopes destroyed.
• Sorry, fellas: Alex Morgan is off the market.
• A quick rundown of this year's bowl swag. We can't pay 'em, but we can give 'em a Playstation 4.
• Tis the season for humiliation, disgrace and regret: 9 things not to do at your office Christmas party.
• To celebrate Dick Vitale's 35 years at ESPN, his colleagues at the worldwide leader did their best imitations.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
College football’s most prestigious award will be handed out on Saturday night, and six players will head to New York for the ceremony: Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, Northern Illinois’ quarterback Jordan Lynch, Boston College running back Andre Williams, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Auburn running back Tre Mason.
Winston is considered a heavy favorite to win on Saturday night, and the redshirt freshman is expected to become the third Florida State player to claim the Heisman Trophy.
Mason has made a strong case late in the season, while Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch totaled 45 touchdowns in 13 games this year.
Williams leads the nation by averaging 175.2 rushing yards per game.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is the defending Heisman winner, and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron threw just 13 interceptions over his three seasons as the Crimson Tide’s starter.
Heisman finalists: Jameis Winston - FSU Jordan Lynch - NIU Johnny Manziel - TAMU Tre Mason - AUB A.J. McCarron - ALA Andre Williams - BC— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 9, 2013
Wake Forest moved quickly in replacing Jim Grobe, choosing Bowling Green’s Dave Clawson to be its next head coach.
Grobe tied the school record with 77 victories during his Wake Forest tenure, which included an 11-3 record with an ACC Championship in 2006.
Clawson is a good hire for Wake Forest, as he has a 90-80 career record in three head coaching stops. Clawson went 29-29 in five years at Fordham, 29-20 in four years at Richmond and 32-31 in five seasons at Bowling Green.
Wake Forest isn’t an easy job, but Clawson already has experience winning at difficult programs, and his rebuilding effort at Bowling Green should serve him well in Winston-Salem.
The Pac-12 is a conference on the rise, and the league was strengthened during this year’s coaching carousel. Washington hired Chris Petersen away from Boise State to replace Steve Sarkisian, who left to take over at USC.
Boise State had success in the years prior to Petersen taking over, but the California native guided the program to new heights, including two BCS bowl victories. Petersen’s final record at Boise State was 92-12.
Sarkisian didn’t inherit much to work with when he arrived in Washington in 2009. The Huskies made a five-game improvement in the win column in his first season and won at least seven games in each of the next four years.
With more resources and an expected top-notch coaching staff at his disposal at USC, Sarkisian is expected to return the Trojans to national championship contention.
Both programs seem to have found a good fit. Is Sarkisian or Petersen the better hire this offseason?
Washington or USC: Which Program Made the Better Coach Hire?
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Steve Sarkisian is a good fit at USC, but Washington made the better hire. Boise State’s Chris Petersen is arguably one of the nation’s top 15-20 coaches and guided the Broncos to a 92-12 record. Boise State also went 5-2 in bowl games under his watch and finished six times in the final Associated Press poll from 2006-12. Winning in a BCS league on a week-to-week basis is certainly going to be a bigger challenge than in the Mountain West, and Petersen has to prove he can win outside of Boise State, unlike previous coaches (Dan Hawkins and Dirk Koetter) that left for Pac-12 jobs. However, Petersen is regarded as one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the nation and will have more resources at his disposal in Washington. Sarkisian will win a lot of games at USC, but I think the Huskies upgraded when they hired Petersen away from Boise State.
I think both schools made solid hires, but I believe Washington hit the proverbial "home run" in luring Petersen away from Boise State. Don't get me wrong, I have no issues whatsoever with USC picking Steve Sarkisian as Lane Kiffin's replacement, but I have been anxious to see what Petersen could do at a "major" program for several years. This is a guy who up until this season had won at least 10 games every season with the Broncos. Included in his eight-year run was five conference titles and two BCS bowl victories. Now Petersen, a California native who played at UC Davis, gets to stay "home" in the Pacific Northwest and apply his winning formula at Washington, a school with significantly more resources and national brand recognition than Boise State, even with the Broncos' recent run of success.
USC is one of the top coaching jobs in college football, but instead of going for the "home run," athletic director Pat Haden decided to tap into the Trojans' most recent glory days by hiring Sarkisian, a former assistant coach under Pete Carroll. This actually put Washington AD Scott Woodward in the tougher position of filling his vacancy, and give him credit for finally saying the right things to convince Petersen to leave Boise. Of the course the biggest question regarding the Huskies' new head man is will the winning follow him from the famed "Smurf Turf" to Seattle? Only time will tell, but Washington fans have no reason to not be excited about the future of their football program.
David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Let’s start by saying both will do well. I’d argue both Washington and USC upgraded their coaching situations. Go ahead and point to the the last two Boise State coaches who flamed out at major jobs, both at current Pac-12 schools. Dirk Koetter took over a program that had stagnated at Arizona State and still had nice seasons. Dan Hawkins took over a mess of a program at Colorado. Petersen, though, has a program ready to return to national prominence. That’s partly due to the facilities upgrades and the work Sarkisian did when he took over a program in disarray. Skeptics wonder if Petersen will be able to recruit at the level Washington needs to in order to beat Oregon and Stanford. I have enough faith in Petersen as an administrator to augment his abilities with his staff. After all, this is a guy who needed to replace Justin Wilcox, Bryan Harsin, Brent Pease and others over the years. He’ll do fine at Washington.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Can I wait until I see the entire make up of coaching staffs to make that decision? On the surface, Chris Petersen feels like the better hire. However, if Steve Sarkisian can lure Justin Wilcox, Tosh Lupoi and Peter Sirmon to join him in Los Angeles, than I would switch my vote. Petersen is more of a proven commodity who has obviously won at a higher level. But he has struggled the last two seasons (relatively speaking) as the Broncos stepped up in competition by joining the Mountain West. And his 2013 campaign was the worst of his head coaching tenure at Boise. Coach Sark knows the USC landscape and understands what the expectation levels will be at Heritage Hall. Both teams made quality hires given their circumstances, but for now, Washington has done something that many have failed to do in luring Petersen away from Boise State. Trojans fans likely think they "under hired" while Huskies believe they actually upgraded.
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some fall on the sabermetric side of things, while others like to keep it simple and use the ol' eyeball test. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 14 of the NFL season:
90: NFL record for total TDs scored on a single day
The previous single-day NFL record for total touchdowns scored was 87 from Week 17 last year on Dec. 30, 2012. With five total touchdowns, Carolina and New Orleans pushed Sunday’s total to a new NFL-record 90 touchdowns. It was the single-highest scoring day in NFL history and it came when snowy, inclement weather played a huge role in multiple games. All told, Week 14 produced 104 touchdowns, making it the first week in NFL history to feature 100 trips to the end zone. Not surprisingly, Week 14 also broke the record for most points scored in a single week with 859.
6: Most fourth-quarter lead changes in NFL history
The defending Super Bowl champs played one of the most entertaining fourth quarters in NFL history against the Vikings on Sunday. There were six lead changes in the final period, setting a new NFL record for most lead changes in the fourth quarter. What’s more impressive is that the two teams combined for five total touchdowns over the final 2:05 of the game. Joe Flacco got the last laugh by leading his Ravens on a five-play, 80-yard drive in just 41 seconds, which culminated with him connecting with Marlon Brown for the game winner with four seconds left. The win pushes Baltimore to 7-6 on the season and in a tie with Miami for the final AFC Wild Card spot.
217: LeSean McCoy's Eagles single-game rushing record
In nasty (but entertaining) weather in Philadelphia, LeSean McCoy set a franchise record with 217 yards rushing. The Eagles scored four fourth-quarter touchdowns, including two long McCoy scoring runs of 40 and 57 yards, to pull away from Detroit in a critical NFC showdown between division leaders. McCoy became just the third Eagles player to rush for 200 yards in a game, breaking Steve Van Buren’s 64-year-old single-game rushing record (205) set back in 1949. Duce Staley is the only other Eagle to top 200 yards (201 in 2000). Phily (8-5) has won five straight and is leading the NFC East after a 4-12 record a year ago.
7: Total fumbles by the Lions
The Eagles clearly handled the heaping piles of snow at The Link on Sunday. The Lions mustered just 288 yards of offense and 11 first downs in the key loss to the Eagles. They also fumbled seven times, losing three of them. Matthew Stafford fumbled five times (one lost) and Joique Bell lost both of his fumbles. The Eagles allowed zero sacks, didn’t lose a fumble and threw just one interception — Nick Foles' first pick of the 2013 season. Additionally, Calvin Johnson passed Herman Moore as the Lions' all-time leading receiver with 9,184 yards. Megatron already owns the Detroit franchise record for receiving touchdowns (66) and is 57 receptions away from passing Moore (670) for that mark. Johnson has played 41 fewer career games than Moore.
1: NFL teams to have four players with at least 10 TDs
Peyton Manning had no issues with the cold weather as the Broncos topped the Titans 51-28. He continued his record-setting season by throwing for 397 yards and four touchdowns in the playoff-clinching win for Denver. The Broncos became the first team in NFL history to boast four players with at least 10 touchdowns on the same team. Knowshon Moreno (12), Demaryius Thomas (11), Julius Thomas (11) and Wes Welker (10) all scored a touchdown on Sunday and all have double-digit scores in 2013. Eric Decker needs two more touchdowns to become the fifth player on the Broncos to reach at least 10 this season. Denver was one of two AFC teams to clinch a postseason berth on Sunday as the Colts, despite losing, clinched the AFC South because of Tennessee's loss to the Broncos.
64: Matt Prater's NFL-record longest field goal
In the same game, Matt Prater kicked the longest field goal in NFL history when he connected from 64 yards out. It broke the previous NFL record of 63 — a number many could match but none had surpassed until Prater. Tom Dempsey (1970), Sebastian Janikowski (2011), David Akers (2012) and Jason Elam (1998) were all tied with a 63-yard make. Elam’s, Janikowski’s and Prater’s record-setter came at altitude in the city of Denver.
3: Straight wins for the Patriots after trailing by at least 10 points in the second half
The Pats trailed the Browns 19-3 with less than minute to go in the third quarter. The offense lost Rob Gronkowski and the defense allowed 391 yards passing to Jason Campbell. But New England still has Tom Brady. The Pats quarterback engineered four scoring drives in the final 16 minutes of action to outscore the Browns 24-7 over that span, including two touchdown passes in the final 1:01 of play. It marks the first time since the 1993 Eagles that a team has overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half to win three straight games in a row. New England trailed by 10 to Houston, 24 to Denver and 16 to Cleveland in the second half but somehow won all three.
1990: The last time Miami won in Pittsburgh
Two teams with a combined 12 Super Bowl appearances did battle on Sunday in snowy Pittsburgh. Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill played in the snow for the first time in his entire life but he looked like a seasoned vet, throwing three touchdowns in the win. He overcame the elements — and this wild final play — to secure the victory by leading five second-half scoring drives, including the eventual game-winning touchdown with less than three minutes to play. The victory was only the third by the Fish over the Steelers since 1990 and the first in the Steel City in 23 years (Sept. 30, 1990). More importantly, the Phins are tied with Baltimore for the final Wild Card spot in the AFC. Mike Wallace, in his return to Pittsburgh, caught just two passes for 19 yards against his former team.
61-64: Gary Kubiak’s record as the Texans' head coach
Dom Capers was the Texans' head coach in the first four seasons of the franchise’s existence. He never had a winning record, finishing with an 18-46 overall record. After working as an assistant for a decade with the Denver Broncos, Gary Kubiak accepted the head coaching position in Houston in 2006. In just his second year, he posted the team’s first non-losing season and by Year 6, Kubiak had won the franchise’s first division crown and delivered the team’s first postseason berth. Kubiak was 22-10 in 2011-12 before starting this season 2-11. He was fired on Friday as the head coach of the “worst” team in the NFL and finished his eight-year tenure with a sub-.500 (61-64) overall record. He had three losing seasons, three winning seasons and two 8-8 campaigns.
For the last time, the coaches’ poll and Harris poll will factor into the national championship.
The end of the BCS means the end of the coaches’ poll as a component of postseason selection and the end of the Harris Interactive top 25 altogether.
For that, college football fans should be relieved.
Whatever their intentions, both polls ended up with their share of voters who made bizarre choices for their rankings. A disregard to head-to-head records, conference favoritism and voters who may or may not have paid attention to the season infiltrated the final polls year after year.
Granted, a majority of the voters probably made an honest effort and could justify their ballots with well-thought out data and observations.
The others, though ... it's fun to point and laugh sometimes.
Here’s what we found when the ballots were released late Sunday.
Inside the coaches’ poll (link to every ballot)
• Eight coaches did not start their polls with Florida State, Auburn and Alabama in that order. Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio voted his team second, ahead of Auburn and Alabama. Can you blame him? West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen also voted Michigan State second for reasons unknown.
• Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Mark Hudspeth and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier voted Florida State and Auburn first and second but Michigan State third. Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury voted FSU and Auburn and then Baylor, a team in the same league and led by another coach from Texas Tech stock. Washington State coach Mike Leach voted Stanford third
• Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, ever the pot-stirrer, voted Ohio State at No. 12, the Buckeyes' lowest ranking. Bielema did vote his former team Wisconsin at No. 21 despite Badgers’ fans ire at his departure. Bielema also gave Louisville its highest ranking at No. 6.
• Steve Spurrier for years gave Duke the No. 25 spot on his preseason ballot as a thank you to the Blue Devils for giving him his first head coaching job. USA Today eventually told him to knock it off to protect the integrity of the poll. Now given a chance to vote for Duke for real, Spurrier gave the Blue Devils their highest rank at No. 16.
• Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was not totally impressed with the SEC this season, ranking Missouri 14th and LSU 15th. Both were ranked behind the top three teams in the Big 12 (Baylor, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) and top two teams in the American (UCF and Louisville).
• Baylor coach Art Briles was quite the Big 12 homer, voting Baylor fourth, Oklahoma State sixth and Oklahoma seventh. That came at the expensive of No. 8 Michigan State and No. 11 Missouri.
• The coaches’ poll as a whole did not peg UCF ahead of Louisville until the final week of the season (UCF beat Louisville 38-35 on Oct 18). Arizona State coach Todd Graham didn’t get the memo, voting Louisville ninth and UCF 22nd. For the record, UCF coach George O’Leary and Louisville coach Charlie Strong both voted the Knights higher.
• Washington State coach Mike Leach was even less of a fan of the American Athletic Conference with UCF at No. 24 and Louisville at No. 25. Leach also gave Oregon its highest ranking at No. 6.
• Texas State coach Dennis Franchione had two MAC teams on his ballot, neither of which won the championship. Franchione voted Ball State 24th and Northern Illinois 25th.
• Other evidence of conference favoritism: Dantonio tacked Iowa and Minnesota at the end of his ballot, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher gave his last two votes to Miami and Virginia Tech, Marshall coach Doc Holliday made room for C-USA champion Rice at No. 24.
• Where coaches voted their own teams (final ranking in parentheses):
David Bailiff, Rice, NR (also receiving votes)
Art Briles, Baylor, No. 4 (No. 5)
Rod Carey, Northern Illinois, No. 13 (No. 23)
Dave Clawson, Bowling Green, No. 25 (also receiving votes)
David Cutcliffe, Duke, No. 20 (No. 21)
Mark Dantonio, Michigan State, No. 2 (No. 4)
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State, No. 18 (No. 20)
Jimbo Fisher, No. 1 (No. 1)
James Franklin, Vanderbilt, No. 23 (also receiving votes)
Al Golden, Miami, No. 24 (No. 25)
Todd Graham, Arizona State, No. 14 (No. 17)
Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State, No. 10 (No. 13)
Mark Helfrich, Oregon, No. 7 (No. 12)
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame, No. 25 (also receiving votes)
Jerry Kill, Minnesota, No. 25 (also receiving votes)
Urban Meyer, Ohio State, No. 5 (No. 6)
Les Miles, LSU, No. 11 (No. 14)
George O’Leary, UCF, No. 12 (No. 15)
Mark Richt, Georgia, No. 20 (No. 24)
Nick Saban, Alabama, No. 3 (No. 3)
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina, No. 7 (No. 8)
Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, No. 9 (No. 10)
Charlie Strong, Louisville, No. 12 (No. 16)
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M, No. 20 (No. 21)
Dabo Swinney, Clemson, No. 9 (No. 11)
Tommy Tuberville, Cincinnati, No. 25 (also receiving votes)
Inside the Harris poll (link to every ballot)
Related: Identifying every voter in the Harris poll
• Auburn received eight first-place votes, becoming the only other team besides Florida State to be ranked No. 1. Among those who voted Auburn first were Kansas City Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr.
• Auburn, though, hasn’t convinced everyone in the Harris poll. Jack Ebling, a host for WVFB in Lansing, Mich., voted Alabama second, one spot ahead of Auburn, despite the Tigers’ victory on a last-second missed field goal returned for a touchdown.
• How much did Ohio State’s 34-24 loss in the Michigan State hurt the Buckeyes’ stock? Seven voters dropped Ohio State to No. 10 or lower after the Buckeyes were second in the poll before the championship game. A few of these must have taken into account the weakness of the Big Ten as five of the seven ranked Michigan State lower than the rest of the poll. Former Notre Dame player Derrick Mayes ranked Ohio State 13th and Michigan State 11th. Former Army player Bob Anderson ranked Ohio State 12th and Michigan State eighth.
• For four voters, it’s as if the Big Ten championship game never happened. The following voted Ohio State ahead of Michigan State:
Bob Grim, former Oregon State player: No. 4 Ohio State, No. 9 Michigan State
Mike McGee, former Cincinnati and USC athletic director: No. 5 Ohio State, No. 6 Michigan State
Jordan Palmer, former UTEP quarterback: No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Michigan State
Riley Skinner, former Wake Forest quarterback: No. 4 Ohio State, No. 6 Michigan State
• Speaking of blatant disregard for head-to-head results among teams with similar records, 19 voters kept Oklahoma State ahead of Oklahoma despite identical records and the Sooners’ 33-24 win in Stillwater. Former Texas player Denny Aldridge ranked the Cowboys a full eight spots ahead of Oklahoma (No. 8 and No. 16).
• At least former South Alabama athletic director Joe Gottfried paid attention to Bedlam: He ranked Oklahoma sixth ... and Baylor ninth. Baylor won the Big 12 in part by beating Oklahoma 41-12 on Nov. 7.
• Former UAB broadcaster Gary Sanders turned in one of the strangest ballots with Louisville as high as No. 7. But the most eye-catching ranking was UCLA at No. 12. He found room for Pac-12 South champion Arizona State at No. 25.
• Sanders was one of 36 voters to rank UCLA ahead of Arizona State. The Sun Devils beat the Bruins 38-35 in the Rose Bowl to clinch the Pac-12 South.
• One storyline of the season was Louisville remaining ahead of UCF despite the Knights’ 38-35 win on the road over the Cardinals. UCF’s win, plus an edge in the non-conference schedule that included a win at Penn State and three-point loss to South Carolina, didn’t swing the 39 voters who kept Louisville ranked ahead of UCF in the final poll. Five voters ranked Louisville at least seven spots higher than UCF: former West Virginia player John Mallory, former Cal player Craig Morton, former UAB broadcaster Gary Sanders, former Kentucky player Jeff Van Note and former Louisville player Dwayne Woodruff.
• Dwayne Woodruff’s No. 8 ranking of his alma mater Louisville aside, favoritism didn’t appear to be too rampant in the final Harris poll. One notable exception: Former Fresno State athletic director Scott Johnson voted the Bulldogs 12th. Fresno State was ranked 20th in the final poll.
• Among the more, shall we say, interesting ballots:
Former Miami and Kentucky coach Fran Curci voted Baylor fourth, Louisville, eighth, Miami 17th, Rice 19th and Arizona State 24th ... while leaving Texas A&M and Georgia unranked.
Former Stanford quarterback Todd Husak ranked Oregon eighth, Arizona State 13th, UCLA 16th and Washington 25th.
Bob Marcum, former athletic director at Kansas, South Carolina and Marshall, voted Fresno State 13th, Northern Illinois 15th and Duke 16th ... all ahead of Clemson, Oregon, LSU and Arizona State.
Former Notre Dame player Derrick Mayes ranked Missouri fourth, South Carolina fifth, Clemson sixth, Oregon eighth, Michigan State 11th, Louisville 12th and Ohio State 13th.
Jim Walden, a former coach at Iowa State and Washington State, ranked both UCF (sixth) and Louisville (eighth) in the top 10 at the expense of South Carolina and Missouri. South Carolina defeated UCF 28-25 in Orlando.
The top two teams are set. Florida State and Auburn.
The Legends Poll was the only human poll to rank Auburn ahead of Ohio State heading into championship weekend, and Auburn kept its No. 2 ranking after its 59-42 win over Missouri in the SEC Championship Game.
Ohio State suffered its first loss in two seasons against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game and fell four spots to No. 7.
Top-ranked Florida State showed no mercy against a surprise Duke team in the ACC Championship Game in a 45-7 rout. And with the win, the Seminoles clinched a spot in the final BCS Championship Game in January —their first appearance since 2000.
If there were a four-team playoff this season, the final two spots would be occupied by once-beaten Alabama and Michigan State, according to the Legends Poll voters. No. 5 Stanford would be on the outside, looking in.
Big 12 champ Baylor finished the regular season at No. 6 in the rankings. Followed by Ohio State, South Carolina, Missouri and Oregon.
No. 14 Oklahoma State fell eight spots with its loss to the Sooners and No. 16 Arizona State dropped three spots.
No. 23 Duke finished in the final regular season Legends Poll ever, dropping three spot after its loss to Florida State.
To see the individual votes by coach, visit the Legends Poll.
|1||Florida State (15)||13-0||399||1|
* The Legends Poll voting process is exactly what the BCS is trying to create and Athlon will bring it to you as the de facto Selection Committee for fans to follow over the next two seasons, allowing you to see how the Selection Committee will operate from 2014 onward. You can see the entire Poll at www.legendschannel.com.
It might be golf's Silly Season, but there was nothing lighthearted about the intensity Zach Johnson brought to the final few holes of the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge. Trailing tournament host Tiger Woods by four shots with eight holes to play, Johnson found some magic with his short irons and found himself tied with Tiger on the 18th tee.
Johnson's worst shot of the week — a tepid 8-iron approach shot that found the hazard — threatened to bring an anticlimactic end to a compelling weekend. Instead, Johnson holed out from the drop area for an unlikely par, forcing Woods to get up and down from a greenside bunker just to force a playoff. Here's the shot that send cheers resounding across Sherwood Country Club:
On the first extra hole, Johnson completed the stunning comeback when Tiger missed a 5-footer for par, one of a couple of costly misses for the world's No. 1 player.
To his credit, Tiger didn't play the excuse game. "Pretty impressive what he did," Woods said. "He got me."
Tiger still called 2013 a "damn good year," one that featured five wins. But it ended with one that shockingly got away.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 9.
• The 50 most popular women on the world wide web in 2013, according to Google searches. Somehow, Jennifer Lawrence is only No. 24. I weep for our country.
• Yesterday was the snowiest NFL Sunday since 1991. Looked like fun.
• More than a game of inches, NFL football is a game of a handful of critical plays.
• This year's 50 Most Influential People in Sports. Although I don't recall being influenced by anyone on this list.
• The lasting image of Championship Saturday: Sad Urban Meyer eating pizza alone in a golf cart.
• Saints punter Thomas Morstead got his money's worth out of a rare tackle opportunity with a neck-snapping facemask of Ted Ginn.
• Nick "Swaggy P" Young's attempt to overshadow Kobe's return with a highlight reel 360 clanged harmlessly off the top of the backboard. But he still made 11 Essential Links.
• A little history was made in the chilly mile-high air of Denver yesterday: Matt Prater's record 64-yard field goal.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Playoff hopes could be on the line tonight when the Dallas Cowboys take on the Chicago Bears at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.” Jason Garrett and the Cowboys (7-5) are looking for a third straight victory, which would tie them with the Eagles for best record in the NFC East, while Marc Trestman and the Bears (6-6) are trying to snap a two-game losing streak and draw even with the Lions in the North.
Winning their division needs to be the focus of these two teams, as the Wild Card spots are currently held by Carolina and San Francisco, both of which are 9-4. The Cowboys have a better divisional record (4-0) than the Eagles (3-2), so they would assume first place with a win. The Bears are basically in must-win mode for the rest of the season, as the Lions have a better divisional mark (4-1 vs. 3-2) and have already defeated the Bears twice.
3 Things to Watch
Dallas’ December Woes
Since Tony Romo became the starting quarterback in 2006, the Cowboys are 13-17 in December. Romo, who missed 10 games in 2010, is 11-15 in the final month of the regular season. In each of the past two seasons, the Cowboys have had a chance to secure a playoff spot with a victory in their final game, and have come up short both times. To be fair, both of these games were on the road, and one of them was actually played on Jan. 1 and not in December, but the Cowboys’ inability to finish strong has been well documented and something everyone on the team is painfully aware of. In 2011, Dallas entered December 7-4 before losing four of its final five games, including the finale against the Giants on New Year’s Day, to finish 8-8. Last season, the Cowboys actually played well to start their final month, winning their first three games to put their record at 8-6. But an overtime home loss to New Orleans followed by a loss at Washington gave the Redskins the NFC East title and left Dallas at 8-8 and out of the playoffs once again. Whatever the reason behind Dallas’ late-season struggles, Jason Garrett needs to figure out a way to help get his team over the hump in December. Once again, the division title and the playoffs are within reach and Garrett knows better than anyone else what’s likely to happen if the Cowboys miss the playoffs for a fourth straight season.
Can the Cowboys Stop the Pass?
Dallas entered Week 14 ranked second to last in the NFL in passing defense. The Cowboys are giving up 294.9 yards per game through the air and have yielded 22 touchdown passes. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 64.3 percent of their passes and the Cowboys have already set an NFL record by allowing four different quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford) to throw for at least 400 yards. Drew Brees (392 yards) almost made it a fifth in Week 10, but the Saints did put up 49 points, 625 yards of total offense and an NFL-record 40 first downs in their victory over the Cowboys. As productive a season as Tony Romo (3140-24-7) is having, it’s too much to ask him to constantly bring the Cowboys from behind and to bail the defense out. Even though Chicago starting quarterback Jay Cutler is going to miss his fourth straight game because of an ankle injury, the Cowboys’ defense could have its hands full with backup Josh McCown. In six games this season, four of them starts, McCown has thrown for 1,461 yards, nine touchdowns and just one interception. He has posted back-to-back 350-yard efforts and has plenty of weapons to work with. Wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have become one of the league’s most productive duos, combining for 148 receptions, 2,099 yards and 14 touchdowns. Tight end Martellus Bennett has 48 catches and five touchdowns, while running back Matt Forté (58 rec.) is one of the more dangerous receiving threats out of the backfield. The Cowboys’ defense will get a huge boost with the return of linebacker Sean Lee. He injured his hamstring in the Week 10 loss to the Saints and hasn’t played since. Lee leads the team with four interceptions and is second on the team in tackles. Still Lee’s return is not necessarily a cure-all for the Cowboys’ pass defense, which will surely be tested tonight by McCown and the Bears.
Can the Bears Stop the Run?
As much as Dallas has struggled to stop the pass, Chicago has had even more issues against the run recently. Over their last six games, the Bears are allowing an average of 205.2 yards rushing per game and 5.9 yards per carry. Adrian Peterson gashed them for 211 in Minnesota’s overtime win last week, while Eddie Lacy (150), Ray Rice (131), Benny Cunningham (109) and Reggie Bush (105) all have gone over 100 yards during this six-game span. Not surprisingly, the Bears are dead last in the NFL in rushing defense at 153.6 yards per contest and for once, the Cowboys may be in ideal position to take advantage of this. Dallas has gone over 100 yards rushing in each of its last two games for the first time all season. Last week, the Cowboys had 144 on the ground in their Thanksgiving Day win over the Raiders with Lance Dunbar (12 att., 82 yds.) leading the way. Dunbar suffered a season-ending knee injury late in that game, but the team still has leading rusher DeMarco Murray. Despite missing two games because of a sprained knee, Murray leads the Cowboys with 697 yards and seven rushing touchdowns. Three of those scores came last week and for the season, Murray is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Murray is at his best when he gets plenty of carries, as he’s averaging 94.8 yards per game in the six where he has gotten at least 14 attempts. The Bears are giving up an NFL-worst five yards per carry, so look for Murray to get the ball early and often tonight. Dallas’ rushing defense isn’t exactly rock solid, allowing 126.7 yards per game, so there could be a lot of ground gained between the two teams. However, Chicago hasn’t been able to stop anyone from running the ball lately, and look for the Cowboys to extend the Bears’ misery in this department tonight.
Dallas Key Player: Tony Romo, QB
Even though the Cowboys will try and exploit the NFL’s worst rushing defense (see above), the buck on offense begins and ends with Romo. The highest paid and most visible player on America’s Team will continue to be criticized, no matter how well he plays, as long as the Cowboys continue to miss the playoffs. Romo entered Week 14 among the top 10 quarterbacks in the league in both passing yards (3,140) and touchdowns (24) and has thrown only seven interceptions, yet all he’s hearing about is how poorly he has played in December. While his record as the starter (11-15) in the final month of the regular season certainly leaves something to be desired, Romo should get a lot of credit for the fact that the Cowboys are in the thick of the NFC East race despite having the league’s worst defense. That said, Romo himself has acknowledged he needs to have a strong finish and there is no better place to start than tonight. Besides putting the Cowboys in first place in the NFC East, a win tonight would help Romo atone for one of the worst games of his career. In Week 4 of last season at home against Chicago, Romo threw five interceptions, two of which were returned by the Bears for touchdowns, in a 34-18 loss. That game also was on “Monday Night Football.” Romo has a chance to exact some revenge tonight, which would taste extra sweet considering this game is in December and a victory also would put the Cowboys one step closer to playing in January.
Chicago Key Players: James Anderson, Jonathan Bostic and Khaseem Greene, LBs
Dallas’ defense is set to get a big boost in the return of their best linebacker, Sean Lee, from a hamstring injury tonight. Meanwhile, Chicago will be without their top backer, Lance Briggs, for a sixth straight game. Briggs suffered a shoulder injury back on Oct. 20 and hasn’t played since. To make matters worse, D.J. Williams is on injured reserve, which is why the Bears have been forced to start two rookies (Bostic and Green) alongside the veteran Anderson. Bostic and Greene are former college stars at Florida and Rutgers, respectively, and believed to be the future foundation of the linebacking corps. As can be expected, however, they have endured their share of growing pains this season. Anderson is an eight-year veteran, but this is his first season with the Bears. So couple all of this inexperience with the rash of injuries Chicago’s defense has suffered to its defensive line, along with the absence of All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman (IR, triceps), and it’s little surprise the Bears are last in the NFL in rushing defense and are giving up nearly 28 points per game. The heart and soul of last year’s Monsters of the Midway were linebackers Briggs, Brian Urlacher and Nick Roach. Briggs is injured, Urlacher is retired and Roach is in Oakland, so it now falls to the current trio to help turn around a defense that hasn’t been able to stop anyone from running the ball if the Bears wish to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Considering this game is in December in Chicago and knowing Tony Romo and the Cowboys’ history of late-season swoons, you would think this would be easy picking for the Bears. Especially with the NFL’s worst defense coming to town against a quarterback that has thrown just one interception all season and is coming off of back-to-back 350-yard games.
However, this is not your typical Monsters of the Midway defense, as the Bears have been getting run over by everyone for more than a month. And even though the Cowboys are known more as a passing team with Romo under center, I would like to think Jason Garrett and his coaching staff are smart enough to attack what is an apparent weakness.
The pressure is always on when it comes to Jerry Jones’ team, but I Jason Garrett’s squad takes care of business on the road. The Bears are a team in a bit of transition with head Marc Trestman in his first season, Jay Cutler in the final year of his contract and on the sidelines because of an ankle injury, and a youth movement in place on defense because of several key injuries.
DeMarco Murray continues to torment the Bears’ rushing defense, with Romo applying the finishing touch and giving the Cowboys defense just enough of a cushion to escape Soldier Field with a much-needed December win and, more importantly, possession of first place in the NFC East.
Dallas 30, Chicago 27
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of the game. Any game, for that matter.
Some fall on the sabermetric side of things, while others like to keep it simple and use the ol' eyeball test. In the football world, that means total offense, total defense and points scored versus points per play and defensive efficiency ratings. Rational and logical arguments can be made for the legitimacy and relevance of both sides of the stats spectrum.
With that in mind, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of college football action:
101: SEC championship game record for total points
The mighty SEC saw little to no defense in Atlanta on Saturday night. Auburn (28) and Mizzou (27) set an SEC championship game record with 55 first half points. The game ended with a SEC championship game-record 101 total points scored — 26 more than the previous record (75) set in 1996 by Florida and Alabama. Auburn also set an SEC title game record with 676 yards of offense, 544 yards rushing and 59 points. Tre Mason carried the load with an SEC title game record 46 carries, an SEC championship record 304 yards and, you guessed it, an SEC title game record four touchdowns in the win. The previous record for yards was set by Auburn with 589 in 2010. Missouri began the weekend ranked No. 2 in the SEC in rushing defense (119.1 ypg) but will finish eighth (151.8 ypg) after the carnage in the Georgia Dome. All in all, Auburn set 16 SEC title game records on Saturday. Gus Malzahn was relentless in his play calling as he rode his zone-read triple option to an SEC championship in just his first season as a head coach in the nation's toughest league.
3: SEC coaches to win the league in their first season
Gus Malzahn became the third head coach in SEC history, and the first in the championship game era, to win a conference crown in his first trip through the league with the impressive showing against Mizzou. Malzahn joined Bernie Moore, who led LSU to a 9-2 record in 1935, and John Vaught, who led Ole Miss to a 9-2 record in 1947, as first-year coaches to win SEC titles. Malzahn took a winless SEC team that averaged 305.0 yards per game on offense — 118th in the nation — and turned them into SEC champions in one offseason, and now the Tigers will play for the BCS National Championship in Pasadena against the Florida State.
17 and 46: Ohio State plays and total yards in the final 20 minutes
There are a lot of stats to like about the Big Ten championship game. Michigan State snapped Ohio State's 24-game winning streak to go to its first Rose Bowl since 1987. Connor Cook, the game's MVP, threw for a career high 304 yards and three touchdowns in the signature performance of his young career. But over the final 20 minutes, the Spartans defense was the story. Ohio State scored with 5:36 left in the third quarter to take its first lead of the game, but Mark Dantonio's defense completely shut down Ohio State the rest of the way. The Buckeyes had four possession in which they ran 17 plays for 46 total yards during the final 20:36 of play. Those four drives ended in two punts and two turnovers on downs. Meanwhile, the Spartans scored 17 unanswered to win the Big Ten championship.
57-14: Stanford's combined first-half score over Arizona State in two games
Back in September, Stanford jumped out to a 29-0 halftime lead over the Sun Devils in Palo Alto. The Cardinal eventually pushed the lead to 39-7 before letting off the pedal and winning 42-28. Two months later, nothing has changed as Stanford blitzed ASU in the first half of the Pac-12 championship game. Kevin Hogan and Tyler Gaffney posted a 28-7 second-quarter lead and a 28-14 halftime margin. David Shaw's bunch never looked back, crushing the Sun Devils 38-14 for its second consecutive Pac-12 championship — the first time the school has done that since 1970-71. The Michigan State-Stanford Rose Bowl will be as physical as a football game can get in the modern era of spread offenses and touchy officiating.
1-8: Mike Gundy's record against Oklahoma
Over the last four years, Oklahoma State is 41-10 overall with three seasons of at least 10 wins. But Mike Gundy just can't seem to solve the Bedlam riddle. The Sooners, led by starter-turned-backup Blake Bell, drove 66 yards on eight plays to score the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left. The loss wasn't just a bitter defeat at the hands of an in-state archival. Oklahoma State was a double-digit favorite at home needing a win to clinch a BCS bowl and win the Big 12 championship. Moreover, Oklahoma State had the lead with less than two minutes to play. The loss knocks Oklahoma State out of the Fiesta Bowl and pushes Gundy's record against Oklahoma and Bob Stoops to 1-8.
1980: Baylor's last outright conference championship
Technically, the Bears earned a share of the 1994 Southwest Conference championship. However, Texas A&M had the best record in the league (10-0-1) but was ineligible as Baylor tied with Texas, TCU, Texas Tech and Rice at 4-3 for a five-way split championship. But the last time the Bears won an outright conference championship was the 10-2 squad of 1980 coached by Grant Teaff. Only twice prior to 2013 had Baylor won 10 games in a season (1980, 2011) and had never won 11 games in school history. In fact, the last time Baylor finished a season with just one loss was a 5-1-2 Frank Bridges-coached team in 1923. The Bears will play in their first BCS game in program history when it meets UCF in the Fiesta Bowl. The icy cold 30-10 drubbing of Texas was a perfect way to put an end to Floyd Casey Stadium.
38: Jameis Winston's NCAA freshman passing TD record
He is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy for a reason. Jameis Winston has led the Seminoles to a perfect 13-0 record, an ACC championship and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game against . He is the nation's most efficient passer (190.06) and has thrown more touchdown passes than any freshman in NCAA history. With three scoring strikes in the easy win over Duke in the ACC title game, Winston passed Sam Bradford's NCAA freshman passing TD record of 36. The Noles signal caller finished the year with 3,820 yards, 38 touchdowns, 10 interceptions on 67.9-percent passing to go with 193 yards rushing and four more touchdowns on the ground.
42.3: Average margin of victory for Florida State in 2013
After topping Duke 45-7 in the ACC title game, Florida State won all 13 games it played this fall and earned a spot in the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn. But the Noles didn't slip into the title game like the Tigers did. Florida State didn't need any help from Michigan State, Oklahoma State or Utah. The Seminoles crushed the opposition all season. Jimbo Fisher's squad outscored its 13 opponents 689-139 for an average margin of victory of more than six touchdowns per game. Again, that's more than six touchdowns per game. There is a reason they are the clearcut No. 1 team in the polls — even if they are facing the "Team of Destiny" in Pasadena.
7: Games UCF won by one score or less
Its first bowl appearance in school history came in 2005 and its first bowl win in school history came in 2010. And now, UCF will play in its first BCS bowl less than two decades since making its FBS debut. The Knights proved that in one season it could step up in competition and find success, moving from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference. With a 17-13 win over SMU, the AAC champions finished 8-0 in league play and 11-1 overall. It's the best record in school history, and it didn't come easy. Seven of those 11 wins were by one touchdown or less. UCF beat Penn State, Memphis, Louisville, Houston, Temple, USF and SMU by a combined 28 points.
1957: Rice's last outright conference championship
The Owls (10-3) rolled through Marshall 41-24 in the Conference USA championship game. The Thundering Herd had been averaging more 50 points per game during its five-game winning streak entering the weekend but David Bailiff's defense held Marshall to just 24 points, 371 yards and only 4.8 yards per play. It is Rice's first outright conference championship since winning the Southwest Conference in 1957.
Auburn is 60 minutes away from extending the SEC’s national title streak to eight in a row. The Tigers are a surprise contender for the BCS title, but this team is one of the hottest in the nation and moved to the No. 2 spot after Ohio State’s loss to Michigan State.
The Tigers were a dismal 3-9 in 2012 but rebounded quickly under the direction of first-year coach Gus Malzahn. Behind quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, Auburn is averaging 335.7 rushing yards per game. Marshall is still developing as a passer, but the junior has made progress over the second half of the season.
Auburn lost 35-21 to LSU in late September, but the Tigers rallied with nine consecutive victories to close out 2013, including a huge victory over Alabama to win the SEC West.
Here are five reasons why Auburn is the team to beat on Jan. 6 in Pasadena.
5 Reasons Why Auburn Will Beat Florida State for the National Championship
1. Auburn can run the ball … on everyone
We realize that Florida State is stout against the run. The Seminoles rank 14th nationally in rushing defense, allowing only 116.5 yards per game. Looking at yards per attempt — a more accurate indicator — they are tied for ninth in the country at 3.14. This, however, should not be too big of a concern for Auburn, which has proven it can run the ball on any defense. Want proof? Tigers rushed for 545 yards against Missouri (378 more than it allowed per game vs. SEC competition), 296 against Alabama (173 more than its SEC average), 323 against Georgia (163 more than its SEC average) and 444 against Tennessee (209 more than its SEC average). On the strength of the aforementioned 545 yards against Missouri, Auburn now leads the nation in rushing with 335.7 yards per game. If that holds up, the Tigers will be the first non-triple option team to win the rushing title since Nevada — led by Colin Kaepernick — did so in 2009.
Related Content: 5 Reasons Why Florida State Will Beat Auburn for the National Title
2. The Tigers are very good on the offensive line
Auburn’s scheme and the skill players who operate that sheme are no doubt key reasons for the success of the Tigers’ running game, but we can’t forget this team is outstanding on the offensive line. Four of the five starters were 4-star recruits, and three of those four were ranked in the top 100 nationally in their respective classes. Alabama coach Nick Saban, during his guest spot on ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday morning, singled out Auburn’s offensive line as one of the best in the SEC. The group, led by center Reese Dismukes, has done a tremendous job opening holes for the Auburn ball-carriers and has protected quarterback Nick Marshall when the Tigers decide to throw the ball — which isn’t often. The line has held up against some of the best the SEC has to offer, but Florida State will present a huge challenge. The guess here is that veteran position coach J.B. Grimes will have his guys ready to play.
3. Nick Marshall continues to improve
Nick Marshall showed up at Auburn over the summer with a ton of ability but not much experience as a quarterback at a high level. After playing defensive back at Georgia as a freshman in 2011, Marshall signed with Garden City (Kan.) Community College as a quarterback. The results were mixed: He proved to be one of the nation’s most productive dual-threat weapons, but he threw 20 interceptions in 12 games. Surely, a quarterback who was picked off 20 times in the junior college ranks couldn’t get the job done in the SEC. Well, Marshall has proven his skeptics wrong. After a decent start to his junior season, Marshall has been playing as well as any quarterback in the nation over the latter half of the season. He has only thrown one interception in the last seven games, and that came in a 32-point win over Tennessee. In Saturday’s win over Missouri in the SEC Championship Game, Marshall did lose two fumbles but was otherwise superb running the Tigers’ attack. He completed 9-of-11 for 132 yards and one touchdown and added 101 yards rushing and one TD on 16 carries. With about a month to prepare for the Florida State defense, Marshall could emerge as the biggest difference-maker in the BCS title game.
4. Auburn has experience playing in close games
Half of Auburn’s 12 wins have come by eight points or fewer. That could be an indication that this team is a bit lucky, or it could simply mean this team knows how to win close games. Depends on your point of view. But there is no arguing the fact that Auburn is more prepared to play in a tight game than its opponent in the BCS National Championship Game. Florida State, the most dominant team in the nation from wire to wire, did not have a game that was decided by less than 14 points. The Seminoles never had to play under pressure in the fourth quarter. What will happen if this team, quarterbacked by a redshirt freshman, is forced to make plays late with the game on the line? Conventional wisdom suggests that Florida State will be fine in such a scenario — it’s good to have talent on your side — but coach Jimbo Fisher can’t be 100 percent sure how his team will respond. That is not a concern for Auburn, which has proven many times this season that it can operate under the most stressful of conditions.
5. Auburn is a team of destiny
We can dive into the numbers, look at the strengths and weaknesses on each side, but sometimes in sports, certain teams seem to have destiny on their side. How else can we explain what has happened on the Plains this season? A team that went 0–8 in the SEC last season — and was outgained by more than 200 yards in those eight league games — won the SEC West. A team that needed two key fourth-quarter stops to beat Washington State at home in the opener, is playing for the national title. A team that was responsible for two of the unlikeliest endings in the history of college football — in consecutive games — finds itself in position to complete the greatest worst-to-first script since … maybe forever. Florida State appears to be the more talented team — just ask the boys in Vegas — but Auburn has made a habit of defying the odds this season.
College football’s regular season is over, and the chase for the national championship is down to Florida State and Auburn.
The Seminoles returned only 10 starters this year and had to replace six assistants, but coach Jimbo Fisher has recruited and developed talent as well as any team in the nation.
Florida State scored at least 40 points in 12 of its games this season and only one matchup was decided by 20 points or less.
This is the Seminoles’ first appearance in the BCS Championship since 2000. Florida State is 1-2 in national title appearances in the BCS era, but the Seminoles are 3-0 under Fisher in bowl appearances.
Standing in the way of Florida State’s first national title since 2000 is Auburn. The Tigers represent the SEC – the home of the last seven national champions. Can the Seminoles knock off Auburn and end the SEC’s run?
Here are five reasons why Florida State is the team to beat on Jan. 6. in Pasadena.
5 Reasons Why Florida State Will Beat Auburn for the National Championship
1. Florida State’s passing game will have its way against Auburn’s secondary
The strength of Auburn’s defense is its line, which has generated 28 sacks this year. End Dee Ford leads the way with 8.5 sacks, and talented freshman Carl Lawson has four. Florida State’s offensive line is anchored by tackle Cameron Erving, who was picked as the ACC’s top lineman in 2013. Provided the Seminoles protect quarterback Jameis Winston, he should have plenty of opportunities to make plays against Auburn’s secondary. The Tigers rank last in the SEC against the pass, allowing 259.3 yards per game. Auburn also ranks 63rd nationally in pass efficiency defense and has allowed 27 passing plays of at least 30 yards in 2013. Florida State has one of the deepest receiving corps in college football, with three receivers over 900 yards. Tight end Nick O’Leary is also a difficult matchup for opposing defenses, as the junior has 33 receptions for 557 yards and seven scores. Auburn has allowed two teams to throw for more than 400 yards this season: Georgia and Texas A&M. Considering Florida State’s offense has been more productive than the Bulldogs and the Aggies this year, it should be able to move the ball easily against the Tigers.
Related Content: 5 Reasons Why Auburn Will Beat Florida State for the National Title
2. The Seminoles have the pieces to stop Auburn’s rushing attack
If Florida State wants to win, it has to stop the run. Auburn’s bread and butter on offense is its ground game, which features a dynamic quarterback in Nick Marshall, as well as running back Tre Mason. Over the last five games, Mason is averaging 173.6 rushing yards per game. Marshall isn’t a polished passer but has made strides in the second half of the season. One of the junior’s biggest assets is his ability to handle the necessary reads and fakes in this offense. In order to stop Auburn’s ground attack, Florida State needs to be strong at the point of attack. Defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan is one of the best in the nation, while the linebacking corps is athletic and fast. The Seminoles have to be disciplined and keep a close watch on the fakes and reads Auburn will use. Florida State held opponents to just 116.5 rushing yards per game this year, while the first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing score. The Seminoles don’t necessarily have to get constant penetration in the backfield, but they have to be able to maintain gaps and block responsibility against Auburn’s offense. And with excellent cornerbacks, Florida State can cheat an extra safety or two into the box to stop the Tigers’ ground game.
3. Florida State is more than Jameis Winston
Even though Florida State’s offense averages 322 passing yards a game, quarterback Jameis Winston isn’t the sole reason for the Seminoles’ success. The backfield goes three-deep in terms of talent. Devonta Freeman is a tough runner between the tackles, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and leads Florida State’s running backs with 19 catches. Karlos Williams switched from safety this season and is averaging 8.2 yards per carry. James Wilder Jr. is another weapon for Jimbo Fisher, averaging 6.9 per carry and has the size and talent to be a punishing option in the fourth quarter. On the other side of the ball, Florida State ranks second nationally with 34 forced turnovers. Roberto Aguayo might be the nation’s best kicker, converting 19 of 20 attempts this year. While Winston is certainly deserving of the Heisman, don’t lose sight the Seminoles are the nation’s most-complete team.
4. Florida State was college football’s most dominant team in 2013
Auburn has the edge in strength of schedule, but Florida State was clearly college football’s most dominant team this year. The Seminoles’ margin of victory was 42.3 points a game, and Jimbo Fisher’s team easily dispatched four ranked opponents by a combined score of 200-35. Sure, the SEC is the best conference. And Florida State’s ability to win close games is uncertain without a game decided by less than 14 points. However, the Seminoles took care of business by simply dominating their competition.
5. Auburn’s luck will run out at some point
It’s unfair to call Auburn a lucky team. But let’s be honest: Ricardo Louis’ catch against Georgia and Chris Davis’ field goal return to beat Alabama aren’t every day plays. While the Tigers deserve credit for beating Alabama, Texas A&M, Missouri, Ole Miss and Georgia, let’s also not overlook the seven-point win to a 6-6 Washington State team and a last-minute touchdown pass to beat 6-6 Mississippi State. The SEC is still the best conference in college football, but it’s also not as strong as it has been. Florida – a traditional SEC East power – finished 4-8. Georgia was hit hard by injuries and finished with an 8-4 mark. Again, Auburn is very good and deserves to play for the national championship. However, despite playing in a weaker conference, Florida State is the better team. While Auburn has a penchant for making plays at the right time, the Seminoles have dominated and that will show in Pasadena on Jan. 6.
College football’s regular season is over and the postseason is set. 35 bowl games take place, starting on Dec. 21 and stretching until the national championship on Jan. 6. Which bowls should you tune into?
Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid.
Ranking the 35 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-Miss
1. BCS Championship – Florida State (13-0) vs. Auburn (12-1) – Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET
This is it. The final national championship before the playoff era (for better or worse) is an unlikely, but intriguing matchup. Florida State has been the most dominant team in the nation this year, but Auburn is red hot, riding a nine-game winning streak to Pasadena. Can the Seminoles stop the Tigers’ ground game? Florida State’s first-team defense has yet to allow a rushing score in 2013 and only one team has rushed for more than 150 yards over the last seven games. Quarterback Jameis Winston – the likely Heisman winner – and the Florida State receiving corps is a tough matchup for Auburn’s secondary. With both teams averaging over 40 points a game, the BCS Championship shouldn’t be short on offensive fireworks. Can the SEC close out the BCS era with an eighth consecutive national title? Or will Florida State end the SEC’s run of dominance?
2. Orange – Clemson (10-2) vs. Ohio State (12-1) – Jan. 3 at 8 p.m. ET
Clemson and Ohio State have only one previous meeting – a rather infamous Gator Bowl matchup in 1978. The Buckeyes are 24-1 under Urban Meyer, while the Tigers have won 31 games over the last three years – the most in a three-year span in program history. This bowl features one of the best quarterback duels of the postseason, with Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Clemson’s Tajh Boyd combining for 70 touchdowns in 2013. With a berth in the Orange Bowl, the Buckeyes have played in all five BCS games since 1998.
3. Rose – Michigan State (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2) – Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET
Most of the BCS bowls seem to favor offense and high-scoring games, but defense should win out in Pasadena on Jan. 1. Michigan State and Stanford rank in the top 10 nationally in scoring defense and have combined for 71 sacks in 2013. With both teams among the nation’s elite on defense, which offense can make the most plays? Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is coming off a strong performance in the Pac-12 title game, throwing for 277 yards and one touchdown. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook tossed only five picks in 344 attempts this year.
4. Cotton – Oklahoma State (10-2) vs. Missouri (11-2) – Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET
With the Cotton and Orange Bowls on the same night, Jan. 3 is shaping up to be one of the better days of the bowl season. Oklahoma State and Missouri are former Big 12 foes, with the Cowboys winning four out of the last five against the Tigers. Both teams have talented pieces on defense, but this should be a high-scoring matchup. One of the bowl season’s intriguing one-on-one player matchups should be Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham taking on Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert. Even though both teams fell short of reaching the BCS, the Cotton Bowl is a nice consolation prize.
5. Capital One – Wisconsin (9-3) vs. South Carolina (10-2) – Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
Much like the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Capital One Bowl always has one of the must-see matchups of the postseason. The SEC has won four out of the last five meetings against the Big Ten in this game, but Wisconsin should have a good chance to end that run on Jan. 1. Led by the one-two punch of Melvin Gordon and James White, the Badgers average 283 rushing yards per game. South Carolina’s defensive line is among the best in the nation, which will challenge the Badgers in the trenches. End Jadeveon Clowney and tackle Kelcy Quarles are future NFL standouts, and both players have to win the battle at the point of attack to slow down Gordon and White. South Carolina also features a standout running back (Mike Davis), but quarterback Connor Shaw is one of the nation’s most underrated players, throwing only one interception on 259 attempts in 2013.
6. Sugar – Alabama (11-1) vs. Oklahoma (10-2) – Jan. 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET
On paper, this is a great matchup between two of the top programs of the BCS era. But realistically, Oklahoma isn’t the best matchup for Alabama. The last time Alabama played in the Sugar Bowl, it was upset 31-17 by Utah. Considering the Crimson Tide was a heavy favorite to win the title in the preseason, there has to be some disappointment to be in New Orleans – instead of Pasadena. Oklahoma’s offensive strength is on the ground (235.8 ypg), but Alabama is holding opponents to 108.3 yards per game. The Sooners probably can’t line up and run over the Crimson Tide’s defense, so it’s important for Bob Stoops to get consistent production in the passing game, whether it’s Blake Bell or Trevor Knight under center.
7. Alamo – Oregon (10-2) vs. Texas (8-4) – Dec. 30 at 6:45 p.m. ET
Even though the combined final record for both teams is 18-6, it’s fair to say 2013 was a slight disappointment for Oregon and Texas. The Ducks had national title aspirations, but losses to Stanford and Arizona prevented an opportunity to play in a BCS game. The Longhorns rallied from a slow start to get back into Big 12 title contention. However, Texas fell short against Baylor and Oklahoma State, dropping Mack Brown’s team to 8-4. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered a knee injury late in the season and didn’t seem to be 100 percent in the final weeks. With a month to heal, Mariota should be closer to full strength, which should help the Ducks’ offense regain their early 2013 form. This Brown’s final game on the Longhorns’ sideline, so there's some extra motivation for Texas on Dec. 30. With Mariota already announcing his intention to return in 2014, Oregon can use this game as a springboard for a run at a Pac-12 title next season.
8. Fiesta – Baylor (11-1) vs. UCF (11-1) – Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Not only is this matchup the first between Baylor and UCF, but it’s also the first BCS appearance for both schools. The month off should help the Bears’ offense, with receiver Tevin Reese (wrist) and running back Lache Seastrunk (groin) nursing late-season injuries. Baylor averaged 61.2 points a game through the first nine weeks but was held to just 29.3 per game average over the final three contests. Eight of UCF’s games were decided by seven points or less, but the Knights have the firepower to hang around in this game. Quarterback Blake Bortles is efficient (seven picks) and averages 273.3 passing yards per game. Running back Storm Johnson leads the American Athletic Conference with an average of 84.6 rushing yards per game.
9. Russell Athletic – Miami (9-3) vs. Louisville (11-1) – Dec. 28 at 6:45 p.m. ET
Next season, Miami and Louisville will be ACC foes. But for now, the Cardinals-Hurricanes matchup is just an intriguing bowl game, as there is some familiarity between these two programs and players. Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was committed to Miami during his recruiting process, and the Cardinals pluck a lot of prospects from the state of Florida. Coach Al Golden has Miami on the right track, and a win over Louisville would give the Hurricanes double-digit victories for the first time since 2003. With Bridgewater projected to be one of the top-five picks in the 2014 NFL Draft, this could be the final college game for the junior quarterback.
10. Las Vegas – Fresno State (11-1) vs. USC (9-4) – Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Derek Carr vs. USC’s defense is one of the must-see matchups from the pre-Christmas bowls. Fresno State’s senior signal-caller threw for 4,866 yards and 48 touchdowns this year, with receiver Davante Adams (122 catches) the primary target. The Trojans’ defense is the toughest matchup that Fresno State will see this year, especially in the trenches. USC’s defense generated 34 sacks this season and held four out of the last seven opponents to 17 points or less. The Trojans also lead the Pac-12 in pass defense and have intercepted 16 passes this year. Fresno State’s rush defense will be tested against a USC offense that averages 174.2 yards per game on the ground. While the Trojans aren’t short on talent, they will be led by an interim coach (Clay Helton) for this game. Will the motivation be there for USC?
11. Fight Hunger – BYU (8-4) vs. Washington (8-4) – Dec. 27 at 9:30 p.m. ET
The Fight Hunger Bowl should be one of the better pre-New Year’s Day matchups this season. Washington finally got over the 7-6 mark with a solid 8-4 record in 2013, but instead of building on this year's success in 2014, coach Steve Sarkisian left for USC. The Huskies were able to pull Chris Petersen away from Boise State, which is easily one of the top hires of the BCS era. Regardless of the coaching situation, Washington will be a tough opponent for BYU. The Huskies ranked second in the Pac-12 in total offense (514.3 ypg), and running back Bishop Sankey is expected to be a postseason All-American (147.9 ypg). The Cougars went 2-4 against BCS competition this season, but Bronco Mendenhall’s defense ranks 21st nationally in points allowed (21.3), while quarterback Taysom Hill is a dangerous dual-threat option. BYU has been vulnerable in the secondary, and it’s critical for linebacker Kyle Van Noy to get pressure on Washington quarterback Keith Price.
12. Outback – Iowa (8-4) vs. LSU (9-3) – Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
These two programs have met only once – a 30-25 thriller in the Capital One Bowl – but there are plenty of similarities between Iowa and LSU for this year’s matchup. With quarterback Zach Mettenberger sidelined with a knee injury, the Tigers should plan on a run-heavy approach on offense. LSU has one of the deepest backfields in the nation, with Jeremy Hill leading the way (1,185 yards, 14 TDs). Freshman Anthony Jennings is expected to replace Mettenberger under center on Jan 1. Iowa averages 4.4 yards per rush on offense, led by Mark Weisman (938 yards, 7 TDs). But quarterback Jake Rudock was solid in his first year as the starter (18 TDs, 60.2%). With Jennings making his first start, Iowa has to stop the run and force LSU’s young quarterback to win the game.
13. Chick-fil-A – Texas A&M (8-4) vs. Duke (10-3) – Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
The Chick-fil-A Bowl is the final college football game of 2013, and as always, this game is the perfect way to ring in the New Year. The Aggies – led by sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel – make their first appearance in this bowl. This is also Duke’s first appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and the Blue Devils are looking for their first postseason win since 1961. Both teams should be able to move the ball with ease, as Texas A&M’s defense allowed 460.3 yards per game. The Blue Devils gave up 408.5 yards per contest this year, but this unit made some big plays and good adjustments in the second half of games. The month to prepare should allow the Aggies some time to get their younger players on defense valuable reps to help defend against the Blue Devils' solid offense. A win over Texas A&M would cap an impressive season for Duke, which featured the first Coastal Division title in school history, along with the program’s first double-digit win total.
14. Sun – Virginia Tech (8-4) vs. UCLA (9-3) – Dec. 31 at 2 p.m. ET
Something has to give when the Hokies and Bruins meet in El Paso. Virginia Tech’s defense is allowing just 17.4 points a game, while UCLA averages 36.5 points per contest. The Hokies’ defensive line (37 sacks) will be a handful for a young Bruins’ offensive line, but quarterback Brett Hundley has thrown for only one interception in his last five games. Virginia Tech’s offense has been inconsistent and won’t have much margin for error against a UCLA defense that boasts two of the nation’s top pass rushers in linebackers Anthony Barr and Myles Jack.
15. Holiday – Arizona State (10-3) vs. Texas Tech (7-5) – Dec. 30 at 10:15 p.m. ET
The Holiday Bowl is known for its high-scoring affairs and offensive shootouts, so it’s no surprise Arizona State and Texas Tech will meet in San Diego. The Sun Devils were handled by Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship, but Todd Graham’s team has an opportunity to win 11 games for the first time since 1996. First-year coach Kliff Kingsbury guided Texas Tech to a 7-0 start. But a difficult schedule in the second half of the season dropped the Red Raiders to five consecutive losses to end the year. Arizona State running back Marion Grice missed the last two games of the year with a leg injury, and if healthy, he should find plenty of running room against a Texas Tech defense allowing 194.5 rush yards per game.
16. Belk – Cincinnati (9-3) vs. North Carolina (6-6) – Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET
Cincinnati returns to Charlotte to defend its Belk Bowl title after its third consecutive season with at least nine wins. The Bearcats beat Duke 48-34 in this bowl last year. North Carolina started 1-5 but rallied with a 5-1 finish to get bowl eligible. Both teams average over 30 points a game so this year’s Belk Bowl could exceed last season’s 82 points scored. Even though the Tar Heels lost quarterback Bryn Renner to a season-ending shoulder injury in November, the offense hasn’t missed a beat. Sophomore Marquise Williams accounted for 10 scores over the final three games, and his dual-threat ability will challenge a Cincinnati defense that has allowed only two opponents to score more than 30 points in 2013.
17. Poinsettia – Utah State (8-5) vs. Northern Illinois (12-1) - Dec. 26 at 9:30 p.m. ET
From the BCS to the Poinsettia Bowl. That’s the story of the postseason for Northern Illinois. The Huskies were easily handled by Bowling Green in the MAC Championship, which dropped Rod Carey’s team to the Poinsettia Bowl. Quarterback Jordan Lynch recorded 4,557 yards and 45 overall scores this season. The senior is one of the top players in college football, but he will be tested by a Utah State defense that held opponents to just 17.3 points a game. First-year coach Matt Wells did an outstanding job guiding the Aggies to a Mountain West division title, especially after losing quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a knee injury. With Utah State limited on offense, it needs a big effort from its defense and rushing attack to hold off Lynch.
18. Hawaii – Boise State (8-4) vs. Oregon State (6-6) – Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
For a team (Boise State) with an interim coach, and the other team (Oregon State) with a 6-6 record, a trip to Hawaii isn’t the worst way to spend time around Christmas. The Beavers lost their final five games, including a 69-27 drubbing at the hands of Washington. Boise State will be led by interim coach Bob Gregory after Chris Petersen left for Washington. The Broncos are rebuilding, yet finished 8-4 and needed one more win to play for the Mountain West title. Quarterback Joe Southwick suffered a broken ankle against Nevada and played in the regular season finale against New Mexico. Southwick could be ready to reclaim his starting job in time for this game. The Broncos’ defense has been steady this year, but the secondary will be tested by the Beavers’ passing attack, which features receiver Brandin Cooks (120 catches).
19. Gator – Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4) – Jan. 1 at Noon ET
Do not adjust your vision. Yes, this is a rematch of last year’s Capital One Bowl, which resulted in a Georgia 45-31 victory. With two backup quarterbacks likely to start this game, points could be at a premium in this year’s matchup. Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez has not played since late October, leaving freshman Tommy Armstrong Jr. and former walk-on Ron Kellogg III to handle the starting quarterback duties. Georgia lost Aaron Murray to a torn ACL in late November, but backup Hutson Mason started and played well against Georgia Tech. While there’s uncertainty at quarterback, there’s no question about the running backs in this game. Todd Gurley (Georgia) and Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska) are two of the best in the nation.
20. Buffalo Wild Wings – Michigan (7-5) vs. Kansas State (7-5) – Dec. 28 at 10:15 p.m. ET
Considering both teams return a chunk of their roster for 2014, this bowl game could be a springboard to bigger and better things next season. Michigan’s offense struggled this year, largely due to an inability to establish the run and protect quarterback Devin Gardner. But the junior finished the regular season on a high note by throwing for 451 yards and four touchdowns against Ohio State. With just 10 returning starters, Kansas State was in rebuild mode this year. And it showed early on, as the Wildcats started 2-4 but rebounded to win five out of their final six games. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
21. AdvoCare V100 – Arizona (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5) – Dec. 31 at 12:30 p.m. ET
Get your stopwatches ready: With two teams that like to lean on the run, this could be one of the fastest games of the bowl season. Or better yet: How many passes will be thrown in this game? The AdvoCare V100 Bowl features the nation’s leading rushers in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey (156 ypg) and Boston College’s Andre Williams (175.2 ypg), and both players should expect a heavy workload on Dec. 31. Williams was banged up at the end of the regular season but is expected to be at full strength for this game. Carey rushed for at least 100 yards in every contest this year. With two teams dedicated to the run, this game could be decided on which quarterback is able to make the most plays (B.J. Denker, Arizona or Chase Rettig, Boston College).
22. Music City – Georgia Tech (7-5) vs. Ole Miss (7-5) – Dec. 30 at 3:15 p.m. ET
Despite being separated by less than 400 miles, this the first meeting between these two programs since 1971. Georgia Tech is just 1-4 in bowl games under coach Paul Johnson, but the Yellow Jackets have finished in the final Associated Press poll in four out of the last five years. Stopping the Georgia Tech option is no easy assignment. Ole Miss ranked ninth in the SEC against the run but allowed 26 rushing scores this season. The Rebels have an edge in talent in the trenches, but freshman Robert Nkemdiche and senior Cameron Whigham have be able to maintain gap responsibility instead of trying to rush the backfield on every snap. The Yellow Jackets’ defense made progress under new coordinator Ted Roof this season, but the secondary finished 13th in the ACC against the pass. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace struggled in its last two games (4 INTs), but the junior has one of the nation’s most-talented trio of receivers at his disposal.
23. BBVA Compass – Vanderbilt (8-4) vs. Houston (8-4) – Jan. 4 at 1 p.m. ET
It seems one team is shafted every year in the bowl process. And this season, that team is clearly Vanderbilt. The Commodores finished 4-4 in the SEC and is picked behind two 3-5 teams in Ole Miss and Mississippi State. While there may be a sense of disappointment for Vanderbilt, this is a favorable matchup for James Franklin’s team. Houston lost three of its final four games – albeit against solid competition – and offensive coordinator Doug Meachem left for TCU in early December. Houston quarterback John O’Korn had a solid freshman season (2,889 yards, 26 TDs), but the Commodores finished fifth in the SEC against the pass.
24. Military – Marshall (9-4) vs. Maryland (7-5) – Dec. 27 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Despite their states bordering one another, Marshall and Maryland have never met. And while some mid-tier bowl games won’t draw much interest among fanbases, this one should have some intrigue. The Terrapins are back in the postseason after a two-year absence, and the Thundering Herd posted its best win total (nine) since winning 11 games in 2002. Maryland was hit hard by injuries on both sides of the ball this year, but its defense held opponents to just 366.9 yards per game. Behind quarterback Rakeem Cato and receiver Tommy Shuler, Marshall’s offense is dynamic (43 ppg). However, the Thundering Herd’s defense is suspect, allowing 184.9 rushing yards per game in nine C-USA contests. Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown played well against Virginia Tech and NC State, and he will have opportunities to make plays against Marshall’s defense.
25. Liberty – Rice (10-3) vs. Mississippi State (6-6) – Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
Expect plenty of cowbells in Memphis on Dec. 31, as Mississippi State fans should overwhelm the Liberty Bowl with less than a three-hour drive from Starkville. This is Rice’s first appearance in the Liberty Bowl, and a victory over the Bulldogs would give the Owls their first 11-win season in school history. Mississippi State has the edge in talent and size in the trenches, but the Bulldogs will be tested by a Rice rushing offense that averages 240.2 yards per game. Running back Charles Ross has 1,252 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, but quarterback Taylor McHargue is also a dangerous runner (466 yards) in addition to his arm (17 TDs, 2,261 yards). Mississippi State’s quarterback situation for this game is uncertain. Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott were injured late in the year, but Prescott came off the bench and rallied the Bulldogs to a victory over Ole Miss in the regular season finale. Russell won't play in this game, which means Prescott and true freshman Damian Williams will get the nod under center.
26. Little Caesars Pizza – Pittsburgh (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (10-3) – Dec. 26 at 6 p.m. ET
After three consecutive trips to Birmingham for the BBVA Compass Bowl, Pittsburgh has to be ecstatic for the post-Christmas trip to Detroit. But the Panthers have a tough matchup on their hands, as Bowling Green has its first double-digit win season since 2003 and knocked off Northern Illinois in the MAC title game. Points could be at a premium in Ford Field. Bowling Green is allowing only 14.8 points a game, while Pittsburgh boasts ACC Defensive Player of the Year in tackle Aaron Donald.
27. New Mexico – Washington State (6-6) vs. Colorado State (7-6) – Dec. 21 at 2 p.m. ET
The bowl season kicks off in Albuquerque with a striking contrast in styles. Washington State made significant progress in Mike Leach’s second season, improving its win total by three games after a 3-9 record last year. The Cougars love to throw the ball, leading the nation with 698 pass attempts. Quarterback Connor Halliday has tossed 28 touchdowns but also has 21 picks. Colorado State also improved its win total by three games this year, but the Rams didn’t do it through the air. Running back Kapri Bibbs emerged midway through the season and finished with 1,572 yards and 28 scores on 254 attempts. Which style will win out on Dec. 21?
28. Pinstripe Bowl – Rutgers (6-6) vs. Notre Dame (8-4) – Dec. 28 at Noon ET
The Pinstripe Bowl should have a good crowd for this one, as Notre Dame will travel well to New York City, and the Scarlet Knights are about an hour away from Yankee Stadium. After playing in the national title last season, the Pinstripe Bowl has to be a disappointment for the Fighting Irish, but this team lost quarterback Everett Golson in the preseason, and injuries on defense prevented this unit from matching last year’s success. Rutgers needed a win over South Florida on the final weekend just to get bowl eligible. Turnovers and consistency on offense were huge concerns for the Scarlet Knights this year, but quarterback Chas Dodd threw for 179 yards, two touchdowns and no picks in the win over the Bulls. The time off to prepare for the bowl should help Rutgers’ running back Paul James return to 100 percent, who never seemed to be at full strength after suffering a leg injury against Arkansas in late September.
29. GoDaddy – Arkansas State (7-5) vs. Ball State (10-2) - Jan. 5 at 9 p.m. ET
For the third consecutive season (and three different coaches), Arkansas State makes its postseason home in Mobile. The Red Wolves are 1-1 in this bowl, beating Kent State last year and losing to Northern Illinois in 2012. Ball State was overshadowed by Northern Illinois in the MAC, but the Cardinals averaged 486.3 yards per game in 2013 and held opponents to 24.8 points per contest. Ball State coach Pete Lembo could be in the mix for openings at Wake Forest and Connecticut. Will he coach the Cardinals in this game?
30. New Orleans – Tulane (7-5) vs. Louisiana-Lafayette (8-4) – Dec. 21 at 9 p.m. ET
Bragging rights in the state of Louisiana are on the line for this game, as less than 150 miles separate Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns have won the last two New Orleans Bowls, while this is the Green Wave’s first appearance in a bowl since 2002. Tulane has made significant improvement under second-year coach Curtis Johnson, improving from 2-10 last year to 7-5 in 2013. The Green Wave failed to score more than 17 points in four out of their last five games, but the defense was one of the best in Conference USA, limiting opponents to 353.1 yards per game. Louisiana-Lafayette quarterback Terrance Broadway suffered an arm injury in the Nov. 30 loss to ULM but is expected to play in this game. Despite the close proximity between the two schools, this is just the second meeting between Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette since 2001.
31. Texas – Syracuse (6-6) vs. Minnesota (8-4) – Dec. 27 at 6 p.m. ET
Minnesota is back in the Texas Bowl for the second consecutive season. The Golden Gophers were one of the Big Ten’s best stories in 2013, rallying around interim coach Tracy Claeys while Jerry Kill took time away from the team to deal with medical concerns. Syracuse squeaks into the postseason after a last-second win against Boston College. The Orange dealt with transition to a new conference, as well as a new quarterback, yet still made it into a bowl in Scott Shafer’s first season. Both teams have enjoyed success on the ground this year, with Syracuse averaging 194.3 yards per game and Minnesota rushing for 200.9 per contest.
32. Heart of Dallas – UNLV (7-5) vs. North Texas (8-4) – Jan. 1 at Noon ET
Yes, there are too many bowls, but it’s also good to see 35 postseason games when they create matchups like this one. UNLV is back in a bowl for the first time since 2000, while North Texas returns to a postseason game after a 12-year drought. The Mean Green’s run defense held opponents to only 125.1 yards per game this season, but that number should be tested by UNLV running back Tim Cornett (1,251 yards, 15 TDs). North Texas isn’t particularly flashy on offense, with quarterback Derek Thompson completing 63.9 percent of his throws but tossing 13 picks. Running back Brandin Byrd is the Mean Green’s standout performer on offense, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. UNLV led the Mountain West in pass defense, but it left a lot to be desired against the run (222.6 ypg).
33. Beef ‘O’ Brady’s – East Carolina (9-3) vs. Ohio (7-5) – Dec. 23 at 2 p.m. ET
It’s hard to find many reasons to get excited about this bowl, especially since it’s clear these two teams are headed in opposite directions. East Carolina has a solid resume in 2013, beating North Carolina 55-31 in Chapel Hill and falling to Virginia Tech by just five points. The Pirates should score plenty of points behind quarterback Shane Carden (32 TDs, 3,866 yards). Ohio limps into the postseason by losing three of its final four games. However, quarterback Tyler Tettleton threw for 2,623 yards this season and will test an East Carolina defense ranked 90th nationally against the pass.
34. Famous Idaho Potato – Buffalo (8-4) vs. SDSU (7-5) – Dec. 21 at 5:30 p.m. ET
This bowl has produced some high-scoring affairs in its 16-year history, but defense could be this season’s theme. Buffalo’s defense is led by linebacker Khalil Mack, who forced 16 fumbles in his career and was named the MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Mack isn’t the only standout on Jeff Quinn’s team, as Branden Oliver gashed opposing defenses for 1,421 yards and 15 touchdowns this year. San Diego State lived on the edge in 2013, winning six games by seven points or less. The Aztecs’ offense is guided by running back Adam Muema (1,015 yards), while walk-on Quinn Kaehler stabilized the passing attack after he replaced Adam Dingwell as the starter.
35. Armed Forces – MTSU (8-4) vs. Navy (7-4) – Dec. 30 at 11:45 a.m. ET
This is the first meeting between the Blue Raiders and Midshipmen. Navy still has one game remaining, a showdown with rival Army next Saturday. MTSU finished its regular season by winning five in a row, including a 51-49 victory over C-USA East champ Marshall. Stopping the run is always critical when playing Navy, and MTSU ranked eighth in Conference USA in rush defense, allowing 185.8 yards per game. But the Blue Raiders should benefit from the extra bowl practices to develop a plan to stop Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
Despite fears to the contrary two weeks ago, the final BCS standings and selection for the major bowls featured little controversy or drama.
Ohio State lost in the Big Ten title game, clearing the path for Auburn to be the undisputed No. 2 team. Northern Illinois’ loss in the final week cleared the path for Oklahoma to be the final at-large pick, ironic given undefeated NIU pushed the Sooners out a year ago.
Perhaps the only questionable decision by the BCS game executives was the Sugar Bowl’s selection of Oklahoma to face Alabama rather than a higher-ranked Oregon team.
Maybe the matchup is less attractive for most viewers, but Oklahoma promises to bring more fans to a closer game site. The Sugar Bowl also will have an SEC-Big 12 matchup when the College Football Playoff begins next season. To the end, politics and tradition played a role in the selection of the top postseason games.
Here’s a look at the final pairings and the selection process in the final bowl lineup of the BCS era.
BCS Championship: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 2 Auburn
Rose: No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Stanford
Orange: No. 12 Clemson* vs. No. 7 Ohio State*
Sugar: No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 11 Oklahoma*
Fiesta: No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 15 UCF
Other team eligible for at-large selections:
No. 10 Oregon
No. 14 Arizona State
Order of selection:
1. Florida State and Auburn were automatic bids placed in the championship game.
2. Michigan State and Stanford were automatic to the Rose, Baylor automatic to the Fiesta.
3. Orange selects Ohio State to replace ACC champion Florida State.
4. Sugar selects Alabama to replace SEC champion Auburn.
5. Orange selects Clemson as at-large.
6. Sugar selects Oklahoma as at-large.
7. Fiesta selects UCF as the final automatic bid.
Observations on the final standings (full standings as a .pdf)
• In the first BCS standings of the season after Week 9, Auburn was ranked No. 11, behind teams like Miami and Texas Tech. Auburn’s rise to the title game was the biggest of the BCS era, second only to LSU moving from No. 12 in the first rankings in 2003 to No. 2.
• Michigan State enjoyed a jump from No. 10 to No. 4 in the final rankings after defeating Ohio State 34-24 in the Big Ten title game. The Spartans were unranked in the first BCS standings in Week 8. Before Sunday, Michigan State had never been ranked higher than fifth in the BCS standings (Oct. 24, 2010).
• The SEC finished with four teams in the top 10 (No. 2 Auburn, No. 3 Alabama, No. 8 Missouri, No. 9 South Carolina), a year after the SEC had six teams in the top 10 a year ago. Eight different teams account for those 10 spots in the top 10.
• The Harris poll and coaches’ poll were in lockstep on the top four (Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and Michigan State). No top 25 team in either poll was separated by more than three spots.
• The computers continued to love No. 14 Arizona State compared to the human polls. The Sun Devils, who faced Wisconsin and Notre Dame in the non-conference schedule, ranked 11th in the computer average and in the top three in three of six computer rankings. The flip side was No. 6 Baylor, who ranked eighth or lower in four computer rankings and ninth in the computer average.
• The BCS standings ends where it started in a way with Florida State at No. 1. The Seminoles were No. 2 in the final BCS standings of the season when the rankings began in 1998. Tennessee, of course, was No. 1 that year and won the title, but the top 10 also included Kansas State, Ohio State, UCLA, Texas A&M, Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin and Tulane.
All-Time BCS Rankings At a Glance
For better or worse, the BCS standings have been a way to measure success for prominent teams, here’s a look how teams have fared in the BCS standings since 1998:
|Most weeks in top 25||Most weeks at No. 1||Most teams in top 25||Most BCS Game Appearances|
|1. Texas, 104||1. Oklahoma, 20||1. SEC, 555||1. Ohio State, 10|
|2. Oklahoma, 100||2. Alabama, 16||2. Big 12, 499||2. Oklahoma, 9|
|3. Florida, 92||T3. Ohio State, 15||3. Big Ten, 433||3. Florida State, 8|
|4. LSU 89||T3. USC, 15||4. Pac-12, 381||T4. Florida, 7|
|5. Oregon, 85||5. LSU, 10||5. ACC, 374||T4. USC, 7|
|6. Ohio State, 84||6. Florida State, 9||6. Big East/AAC, 186||T6. Alabama, 6|
|7. Virginia Tech, 82||T7. Florida, 7||7. Mountain West, 137||T6. Virginia Tech, 6|
|8. Florida State, 80|
T7. Miami, 7
|8. WAC, 79|
|9. Michigan, 77||T9. Nebraska, 5||9. C-USA, 78|
|10. USC, 73||T9. Tennessee, 5||10. Independents, 51|
|T11. Georgia, 72||11. MAC, 44|
|T11. Wisconsin, 72|
|13. Alabama, 66|
|T14. Boise State, 64|
|T14. Miami, 64|
By the time Missouri took a 17-14 lead in the second quarter, Saturday’s SEC Championship Game was already was one of the wildest title games in league history.
Then Tre Mason happened.
On Auburn’s next drive, Mason rushed for 49 yards on five carries and took the lead on a 7-yard touchdown run. He topped that with a 52-yard run on his next carry and another touchdown four attempts later.
With Bo Jackson on the sideline, Mason put up Bo Jackson-like numbers and a running performance never seen in the previous 21 SEC title games.
Mason rushed for 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries to give Auburn a 59-42 win and a chance to play for the national championship. The record-setting performance earned Mason Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors and an outside shot to become a Heisman finalist.
“It was always a dream growing up, wanting to win the Heisman,” Mason said. “I’m sure that every kid that played football, that’s one of their dreams. It’s hard to describe, the feelings that I’m having right now.”
Athlon Sports Week 15 National Awards
National Player of the Week: Tre Mason, Auburn
Mason put on the best rushing performance in SEC history, setting records for carries (46), rushing yards (304), all-purpose yards (312) and touchdowns (four). Mason’s 304 rushing yards was tied for the fifth-highest total in 2013, and he did it against a Missouri defense that hadn’t allowed 200 rushing yards in a game all year.
National Defensive Player of the Week: Telvin Smith, Florida State
Even the ACC Championship Game became routine for Florida State. Telvin Smith led the defensive effort in a 38-7 win over Duke as the senior linebacker picked up eight tackles, a sack, two tackles for a loss and an interception. His pick early in the second quarter set up a quick drive to give FSU a 24-0 lead.
National Freshman of the Week: Ronnie Moore, Bowling Green
Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson spread the ball around in knocking Northern Illinois out of BCS contention, completing five touchdown passes to five different receivers in the 47-27 win in the MAC Championship Game. Freshman Ronnie Moore was one of the beneficiaries, catching four passes for 165 and a touchdown. He had a 61-yard catch to set up a field goal in the first quarter and added 36-yard TD catch on the following drive.
National Coordinator of the Week: Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State
Ohio State got its rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, but that was about it. Michigan State allowed a season-high 273 rushing yards, but the defense dominated just about every other facet of the 34-24 win over the Buckeyes to clinch the Big Ten title. Narduzzi’s defense held Ohio State to 8 of 23 passes for 101 yards and 1 of 12 on third and fourth downs. The Spartans tightened up even more in the fourth quarter, allowing Ohio State to amass only 25 yards on the final three possessions.
AFC division leaders are set to face off when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Cincinnati Bengals at 1 p.m. ET on CBS. Andrew Luck and the Colts (8-4) currently hold a commanding three-game lead over the Titans in the AFC South, while Andy Dalton and the Bengals (8-4) are two games ahead of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens for first place in the AFC North.
Even though the teams are tied at 8-4, Indianapolis currently is the third seed in the AFC playoffs due to a better winning percentage in conference games (6-2, .750) compared to Cincinnati (6-3, .666).
3 Things to Watch
Indianapolis’ First Half Struggles
Indianapolis has gone 3-2 since its Week 8 bye and one of the biggest reasons why has been the Colts’ slow starts. In their last five games, the Colts have managed a total of three field goals in the first quarter while their opponents have scored six touchdowns. That 42-9 scoring margin in the first quarter balloons to 100-24 by halftime. Prior to last week’s slim 12-7 lead at the half, Indianapolis had trailed by at least 11 points after the first 30 minutes of play in its previous four games. The Colts haven’t scored a touchdown in the first half since their Week 7 victory over Denver at home back on Oct. 20. Chuck Pagano’s team should get plenty of credit for going 3-2 during this span, despite trailing at halftime by an average of 15.2 points per game, but that’s only due to a remarkable comeback against lowly Houston in Week 9 and two wins against a Tennessee team that’s starting its backup quarterback. On the other hand, the losses to St. Louis at home and on the road against Arizona have not been pretty. The Colts were outscored 55-3 in the first half and 78-19 overall by the Rams and Cardinals. Indianapolis can ill afford another slow start this afternoon, especially on the road against a Cincinnati team that is a perfect 5-0 at Paul Brown Stadium this season.
Protecting the Quarterback
Both Indianapolis and Cincinnati rank near the bottom of the NFL in sacks allowed this season. However, both teams have had issues keeping their quarterback upright recently. The Colts currently are tied for 23rd in the league with 29 sacks allowed. Andrew Luck’s pocket presence and dual-threat capabilities certainly make his offensive line’s job easier, but this unit has struggled since the bye in Week 8. In the past five games, Luck has gone down 14 times or roughly half of his season total (29). To make matters worse, Cincinnati is ninth in the league in sacks with 36, with the defense producing three or more sacks in four of its past five outings. The Bengals have fared even better than the Colts in keeping their quarterback’s jersey clean. Andy Dalton has been sacked 26 times, which places the team 27th in the league in sacks allowed. Ten of these came in Weeks 9 and 10 when the Bengals lost to the Dolphins and Ravens in back-to-back games. In fact, Miami beat Cincinnati thanks to a sack, a rare walk-off safety courtesy of the Dolphins’ Cameron Wake. The losses to the Dolphins and Ravens are the only two the Bengals have suffered over their last eight games. On the whole, the Colts’ and Bengals’ offensive lines have done a solid job of protecting their quarterbacks. Luck and Dalton both hope this trend, and not the recent hiccups in this area, continues this afternoon.
Which Offense Gets a Passing Grade?
While neither Indianapolis nor Cincinnati will ever be mistaken for Denver, New Orleans or Detroit when it comes to passing offenses, both the Colts and Bengals have really struggled in this area recently. Since the Week 8 bye, Andrew Luck has averaged 243.8 yards passing per game. His 353-yard effort in Week 10 greatly inflates this average, and that was a game in which the Colts were forced to pass because the Rams were up 28-0 at halftime. This span of five games also coincides with the number of games leading receiver Reggie Wayne has missed. The veteran tore his ACL in the Week 7 win over Denver and without him, Luck hasn’t been as near productive when he drops back to pass. The second-year signal-caller has completed just 55.2 percent of his passes and has as many touchdowns as interceptions (five apiece) in five games without Wayne. T.Y. Hilton has stepped into Wayne’s role as the No. 1 receiver, but other than a 121-yard, three-touchdown performance against Houston, Hilton has totaled 258 yards receiving and no scores since the bye. Part of the problem has been no one has emerged behind Hilton as a reliable secondary option for Luck. Pass protection (14 sacks in the last five games), also has been an issue, but the bottom line is that Luck and the Colts must figure out a way to “fix” a passing attack that has netted a total of 319 yards in the last two games combined. On the other side is Andy Dalton, who went through a three-game stretch in October during which he averaged 344.7 yards passing per game with a total of 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Since then, however, he has averaged less than 225 yards passing and has posted a 9:6 interception-to-touchdown ratio over his past four outings. Unlike Luck, Dalton has the luxury of a premier wide receiver at his disposal in A.J. Green. The All-Pro is tied for sixth in the NFL with 1,103 yards receiving and has hauled in seven touchdowns. Green has totaled just 90 yards in his last two games, but that was preceded by a three-game stretch in which he averaged 131.3, so he’s capable of breaking out at any moment. The Colts (238.7 ypg) have been a little more generous than the Bengals (213.8 ypg) in terms of pass defense this season, but it remains to be seen if either struggling aerial attack will be able to make much of an impact this afternoon.
Indianapolis Key Player: Coby Fleener, TE
The Colts’ offense hasn’t been the same since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL in the Week 7 win against Denver. T.Y. Hilton has replaced Wayne as Andrew Luck’s No. 1 target, but the second-year wide receiver can’t do it alone. The coaching staff was hoping that Darrius Heyward-Bey would step up in Wayne’s absence, but that has not materialized and the free agent acquisition is basically an afterthought in the Colts’ offensive game plans at this point. That’s where Fleener comes in. With a relationship that goes back to their days at Stanford, Luck obviously trusts Fleeer, as he’s averaged nearly eight targets per game in the five games the Colts have been without Wayne. Fleener has turned all of these looks into 22 catches for 309 yards and one touchdown. While productive, the Colts need even more out of Fleener, especially if no other wide receiver emerges behind Hilton.
Cincinnati Key Player: Giovani Bernard, RB
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is getting the most carries and may lead the Bengals in rushing (614 yards), but Bernard is the difference-maker out of the backfield. The first running back drafted in April (second round, 37th overall), the former North Carolina star has had his moments as both a rusher and receiver this season. He’s averaging 4.4 yards per carry, compared to Green-Ellis’ 3.5 and has the same number of rushing touchdowns (four) as the veteran. As a receiver, he’s second to All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green in receptions on the team with 43 and of Bernard’s 354 yards receiving, 346 of them have come after the catch. Bernard’s speed and explosiveness have already produced several highlight-reel plays, and his role in the offense only figures to grow in the Bengals’ final four games.
Indianapolis is a win away from clinching the AFC South, but the Colts have been the beneficiary of a lackluster division and have not been the same team since Reggie Wayne tore his ACL back in Week 7. The offense has struggled to find its rhythm and the defense hasn’t been able to figure out how to consistently stop the run.
Cincinnati is in the driver’s seat in the AFC North, thanks to Baltimore and Pittsburgh’s slow starts, but this is not a Bengals team without its own flaws either. Outside of one ridiculous three-game stretch in October, quarterback Andy Dalton has been average at best, while the defense has lost some key personnel, most notably All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, to injuries.
Since Wayne went down, the Colts have put themselves into big holes early in games, which is something they can ill afford to do on the road against Cincinnati. Quarterback Andrew Luck and his running mates have struggled against good defenses recently, as both Arizona and Tennessee have held the Colts’ offense in check over the past two weeks.
Like the Cardinals and Titans, the Bengals have a pretty good defense of their own and in the end, this will be the difference this afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati’s pass rush prevents Luck from getting comfortable in the pocket and finding his rhythm, while the Bengals’ offense uses playmakers A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard to attack a susceptible Colts’ secondary. The Bengals maintain serve at home in a game that will impact how the AFC playoffs shake out when all is said and done.
Cincinnati 27, Indianapolis 20