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NEW ORLEANS — Alabama players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Ohio State. What have they been saying?
Scouting Ohio State
Nick Saban, HC
"They're very well coached, which is nothing different from any other team that we've faced that Urban Meyer has coached, because he does a fantastic job with his players and coaches to put an outstanding product on the field. There are some similarities with what they do, especially offensively in terms of what they did when they were at the University of Florida, what he did."
Scouting Cardale Jones
Landon Collins, S
"Basically with the offensive, we've got a new quarterback and basically we're going to try to confuse him and do our best ability to do that and just break him down, break him down with what they like to do from the last game because it's a different quarterback. He's a more passing type quarterback that we see and has a tremendous arm. So once he tries to get the ball out there, try to get it to receivers they're going to try to do something spectacular."
"I watch the film, his tendencies, what his motions is, and stuff like that. It's a disadvantage to only have one film. But we've got a lot of plays on him. And that's the best thing, because I mean we only had like 30 plays, you can't really pick up stuff on, and the teams come out, they get a lot of reps and easy to get ready for oncoming games. We picked up on a few things. And they haven't changed the offense, the way how we looked at it."
Scouting Ohio State's defense
Blake Sims, QB
"Their defensive line reminds me of Missouri. They've got great defensive linemen that they're good at all spots. And I think that that was a good team to compare them to. They're a great team. They play with a lot of passion. And they want to win games. They play together. Very fundamental, sound. And they do what their coach tells them to do."
Jalston Fowler, FB
"They like to move these guys around a lot. I mean, they like to stand them up, give them different looks. It's crazy how they work their defense around that guy. But you gotta always know where he's at because he's one of the main priorities, one of the top guys on the defensive line."
Nick Saban, HC
"Up front on defense, they're very physical and what makes defensive players good is they're hard to block. And they certainly have some guys up front that are hard to block and they played very well and have been difficult to score against. Create a lot of negative plays for people, and it's going to be very challenging for us up front with our offensive line to do a good job of executing against what they do."
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think the two inside players, the two defensive tackles, are issues because they play so hard and they get off your centers and guards. And their two inside linebackers are very physical and their field linebacker can really run. And they leave him in there against three wides a lot and because they have the confidence that he can cover. So this is a very, very good defense. One that really if you look out, if you look all year, outside of Michigan State, which a lot of those yards are at the end of the game, people aren't really moving the ball against these guys very much at all."
Scouting Joey Bosa
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think first off Bosa is an issue. Very long, strong player, relentless. Effort player. So we have to know where he is. They do a really good job of moving him around. I think that's missed. People talk about his numbers and what a good player he is. He's a great player but they do a great job of moving him so it's difficult. He's inside. He's right. He's left. He's off the ball. He's on the ball. So I feel like what they've done with him on defense is kind of what people do on offensive guys, skilled guy. They move him around, make it hard to find and they've done a great job with that. I think they play very physical."
Scouting Ohio State's secondary
Amari Cooper, WR
"Their cornerbacks are both really fast. 12 is extremely fast. Probably like a legit 4.3 guy. They never let the receivers they play against get too much separation from them. So they're both really solid corners. I think their secondaries are pretty fast, the corners are pretty fast. And their safeties are really good tacklers, their safeties are 2 and 3 on the team in tackles. So, they're really solid defensive backs."
"Overall we feel they're a really sound defense. We feel like the players on their defense are really confident in their scheme. We feel like they're comfortable in that scheme. They don't really change around their defense at all. They do the same things, because that's what they're comfortable doing. And they're really what word can I use? They're just used to running that defense and they do it really well."
NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Alabama. What have they been saying?
Scouting Alabama's offense
Urban Meyer, HC
"You always try to, as part of the game plan and preparation, expose a weakness. And that's difficult with Alabama whether it be punt rush, whether it be kickoff coverage, and then obviously offense/defense. you're trying to find that player or part of that defense or offense that's not very good and you go after it. Alabama is the kind of team it's hard to find that."
Curtis Grant, LB
“They’re a dynamic offense. They’ve got two great backs and obviously they have a great receiver. We’re going to try our best to make them one-dimensional.”
Joey Bosa, DE
"Big talented guys. Athletic. Big, big dudes. And we haven't really matched up with someone like this before, this athletic, this big, but like I said yesterday, I don't think they've seen someone - a D line as consistent as us and as physical as we're going to be. It's going to be interesting to see."
Michael Bennett, DT
"They have a fantastic O line that is very big and actually very athletic. And that's a hard combination to achieve at O line. They prefer the zone offense. They have the guys to run a power offense when they feel like it and they try to every now and then but they like to zone because they have those big athletic bodies up front that can displace people and be on the runs so their running backs can find holes.
Joshua Perry, LB
“I think the key is that you can’t focus too much on stopping [Amari ] Cooper and doing the things that they do in their passing game, because you’ll lose focus on the run and they can get you on that."
Doran Grant, CB
“They are different offensively. They are more balanced and like to run the ball a lot, obviously, but they can spread the ball around more than they have in the past.”
Luke Fickell, DC
"They've got weapons all over the place. That's the thing, that's the thing that gets overlooked sometimes is the offensive line. That's where the games start and that's where they've been so successful over obviously the last seven, eight years."
Scouting Amari Cooper and Blake Sims
Luke Fickell, DC
"Obviously Amari Cooper gets most of the attention. The reality is we haven't seen a guy especially in our league that would warrant as much attention as he does. It's not just the catch to me; it's the runs after the catch. For a guy that cannot only have the deep ball, home run shots, but he can take an out screen and turn it into a touchdown long distance. He does the intangible things. He's going to block and do some things that sometimes you don't see the first rounders or the truly top, top dogs do.
Doran Grant, CB
“He’s a great player. We’ve seen a lot of film on him. He’s a good route runner and has good speed. He’s a very, very good ball-catcher.”
Curtis Grant, LB
“He’s one of those quarterbacks that can keep plays alive. He can beat you with his arm when you’re not paying attention. If you give him a little bit of space, he can make you miss and run the ball to keep the play alive. You’ve got to be able to contain him.”
Scouting Alabama's defense
Taylor Decker, OT
“It is without a doubt the best defensive line we will face all season. It will probably be the best defense we will face. Incredible depth, they rotate all kinds of guys in there. On film, there are four defensive ends I will play against personally. They are really good athletes, big, strong guys that can move. They aren’t just space fillers. That is going to be a challenge as far as the offensive line is concerned, because it is the best we have faced so far."
Cardale Jones, QB
“By far, this will be the best defense we’ve played against all year, the most physical defense we’ve played all year, and the fastest defense we’ve played all year. They’ve got some unbelievable guys on defense that we do our best to simulate and get that look. That’s going to be a challenge for not just me, but the offense. Speed, size, the strength, the physicality. This is going to be the most physical defense we've ever played against. We've got to be ready for that."
Ezekial Elliott, RB
"They’re a great team. They have a big front seven. You don’t really get much movement off the line of scrimmage. The key to our offense is getting the running game going so we can take shots down field, so establishing the running game is going to be very important.”
“They are a very big, physical team. Their d-line, their line backers are just big guys and so they are a lot bigger than the guys we play. Their line backers are all 250, interior d-linemen all 300 pounds, so getting some momentum early in the game, getting movement off the line of scrimmage is going to be important.”
Jeff Heuerman, TE
“They are a very good defense. They know what they want to do and they do it very well. They have a very good secondary. They don’t do a whole lot of crazy things schematically. They know what they want to do and they do it well and execute. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
The college football playoff kicks off on Jan. 1 with Florida State and Oregon meeting in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama and Ohio State squaring off in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. There’s no shortage of talent among the four teams in the playoff, but some players are more valuable than others.
To help prepare for the first four-team playoff, Athlon projects the 25 most important players for Thursday’s games. This top 25 player list isn't necessarily a ranking of the best or projected by talent but a compilation of how important players will be in the playoff matchups. There’s little surprise among the top four, as quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Cardale Jones and Blake Sims take the first spots. But after the quarterbacks, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, Oregon tackle Jake Fisher, Florida State receiver Rashad Greene and Oregon cornerback Troy Hill rank as the most important players for the playoff matchups.
25 Most Important Players for College Football Playoff
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Jr.
It’s rare now for the preseason pick for the Heisman to follow through and win the award. Mariota might not have been the leader every week, but he was darn close. Oregon’s first Heisman winner is exceedingly efficient, throwing a ridiculously low two interceptions this season and four last year. He completed 80 percent of his passes twice this season and fewer than 60 percent just once.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, So.
Winston couldn’t contend for a second Heisman trophy thanks to 17 interceptions and the off-field issues that followed him through the season. He was unstoppable in the second half, though. He completed 71.2 percent of his passes in the third quarter and only one of his picks this season came in the fourth quarter.
3. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State, So.
The 250-pound backup was efficient and productive against Wisconsin but will have to be nearly perfect against Alabama for Ohio State to have a shot at the upset.
4. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama, Sr.
Lane Kiffin has turned this fifth-year senior into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation. Expect a unique and creative gameplan from the Bama play-caller and it’s up to Sims to execute against an elite defensive front.
5. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State, So.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year must play the game of his life against an Alabama offense that can run it as well as it throws it. He is the leader of the D-Line.
6. Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Sr.
His value was underscored when the Ducks’ only loss of the season (Arizona) and close call against Washington State occurred with Fisher out of the lineup. The Ducks are undefeated when the senior from Traverse City, Mich., starts, thanks in part to his mean streak.
7. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State, Sr.
The expert route runner is Winston’s favorite target with 76 catches in 2013 and 93 receptions this season and a total of 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. With two more scores, he can tie Peter Warrick’s school record of 29 career TD catches.
8. Troy Hill, CB, Oregon, Sr.
Hill’s position will be magnified with standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu out for the playoff due to a torn ACL. Offenses tested him with Ekpre-Olomu in the lineup, as Hill finished the season with 16 pass breakups. That won’t change now that he is the de facto No. 1 corner.
9. Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State, Jr.
After suffering an ankle injury against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, Goldman is expected to be ready for Oregon. That’s no small matter, either, as the standout defensive tackle may matchup with center Hroniss Grasu. The All-America selection has four sacks and eight tackles for a loss this season.
10. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State, So.
One of the most disruptive players in Florida State’s defense, Ramsey finished the season with two interceptions, 9.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks ... as a safety. His game-clinching performance against Miami was one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season.
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Fr.
Arguably Florida State’s most clutch performer in the final two months of the season, Cook notched long touchdown runs that sealed games against Louisville and Miami. In the final weeks of the season, Cook has become a workhorse back.
12. Cam Robinson, LT, Alabama, Fr.
After 13 games, Robinson really isn't a freshman. However, the Tide's starting left tackle will face arguably his toughest test of the year against Ohio State. He'll be charged with slowing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa for most of the evening.
13. A'Shawn Robinson, NG, Alabama, So.
Robinson is the most disruptive defensive lineman Nick Saban has had since Marcell Dareus or Terrence Cody. The sophomore is a load to stop up the middle and could single-handedly destroy OSU's offensive front.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It might be shocking that the best wideout in the nation isn't higher on this list but there is a good chance Cooper plays more of a decoy role than anything else. He's impossible to stop and could torch the Buckeyes, so he should expect plenty of safety help and double coverage.
15. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, Fr.
Another star freshman running back in a class full of them, Freeman gave Oregon a physical edge in the run game in the second half of the season. Freeman rushed for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns in Oregon’s eight-game winning streak to end the season.
16. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State, Jr.
Oregon has been susceptible to the pass rush this season, and Edwards is the best edge defender for the Seminoles with 20.5 tackles the last two seasons. Edwards already has been a stud at the Rose Bowl with three tackles for a loss in last year’s BCS title game.
17. Cameron Erving, C, Florida State, Sr.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who has coached two Rimington Award winners for the nation’s best center, raves about Erving at the position. His move from left tackle, where he was an All-ACC performer, enabled FSU to have its best OL group of the year with freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle.
18. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon, Sr.
It wouldn’t be Oregon if the Ducks didn’t have a lingering offensive line concern entering the playoff. Grasu is one of the best centers in the country when healthy, but he missed the final three games of the regular season with a leg injury.
19. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon, Jr.
Buckner is the bulk for a team that is unfairly labeled as a finesse squad. The 6-7, 290-pound Hawaiian leads the Ducks’ defensive line with 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
20. Tre Jackson, OG, Florida State, Sr.
Jackson earned unanimous All-America honors in 2014. He has led a revival of the Florida State run game, highlighted by a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, FSU’s first since 1996, and potentially a second in 2014.
21. Jalin Marshall, AP, Ohio State, Fr.
Ohio State will need to make big plays out in space and possibly on special teams. Marshall can make things happen from anywhere on the field and must be a big-play threat for OSU. He surged over the final month and needs to continue his excellent play.
22. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State, So.
The talented big-play defensive back will have his eye on Amari Cooper the entire game. He won't be in many man-to-man situations with No. 9 but Bell will be asked to help early and often.
23. Landon Collins, S, Alabama, Jr.
Collins is likely to be the most explosive defensive player on the field for either team and maybe the best tackler of the bunch. He must intimidate in the passing game and fill holes against the run.
24. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State, Jr.
Williams returns to Pasadena as the Rose Bowl MVP. The three-year starter at cornerback had the game-sealing interception in last year’s national championship game against Auburn.
25. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State, Sr.
The Mackey Award winner is more than a safety valve. He’s a go-to receiver. O’Leary caught four touchdown passes in the final three games of the season. In an era when the tight end is vanishing, O’Leary’s consistency, his 47 receptions and 13 yards per catch is notable.
Technically, this is the 26th annual TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Formerly known as the Copper Bowl (1989-96), the Insight Bowl (1997-2011) and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (2012-13)
Washington will represent the Pac-12, which has the highest winning percentage in bowl history with seven wins in eight tries (87.5%). Oklahoma State will represent the Big 12, which has the most wins (10) and appearances in the Cactus Bowl (15).
The Huskies and Cowboys have played twice in history, splitting a home-and-home in 1980 (Stillwater) and 1985 (Seattle) with, strangely enough, the home team losing both times.
The Cowboys won their only appearance in the game in 2007 over Indiana, while Washington has never been to Tempe for this game.
After seven years of missing the postseason, Chris Petersen has kept alive a now five-game bowl streak in his first year at Washington. This season marks the ninth consecutive bowl game for Mike Gundy in 10 years at the helm in Stillwater.
Washington vs. Oklahoma State
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -5.5
Washington’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage
On defense, a dominant Washington frontline must protect a young secondary, while an elite set of linebackers wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage. On offense, the Huskies must continue their second-half surge on the ground. Washington topped 200 yards rushing in four of their last five games and posted 188 in the easy win over Washington State. Dwayne Washington has been the spearhead for the improvement, topping 100 yards in three straight and reaching paydirt in four straight. If Washington can win the battle up front on both sides of the ball, it could be a long day for the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State's Key to Victory: Keep Mason Rudolph upright and efficient
Oklahoma State's freshman signal-caller Mason Rudolph is one of the big reasons the Pokes ended 2014 with a flurry instead of disappointment. Rudolph had his issues getting acclimated to big-time college football — 53.3% completion rate, three INTs in two starts — but has been productive as well. On the road against two of the Big 12's best (Baylor and Oklahoma), he threw for 554 yards and four touchdowns. Against a Huskies defense that led the Pac-12 in takeaways (27) and is third nationally in sacks (49), keeping Rudolph upright and protected is the only way Oklahoma State can get the win. That's a tall order considering OSU allowed the most sacks of any team in the Big 12.
Both teams capped a bumpy season with a critical victory in their respective rivalry games, adding some energy to the postseason meeting. But the Cowboys are genuinely lucky to still be playing, as this is one of the weaker OSU teams Gundy has coached since arriving in Stillwater. There is hope in the form of Rudolph, but the Cowboys are overmatched from a talent perspective and will be without its top offensive weapon after Tyreek Hill was dismissed from the team. The UW defense could dominate the line of scrimmage, so if the offense can produce just an average performance, the Huskies should get a ninth win this year.
Prediction: Washington 27, Oklahoma State 17
UCLA and Kansas State were on the cusp of playing in a bigger postseason game, but the Bruins and Wildcats should have plenty of motivation when they meet on Friday night in the Alamo Bowl. Both teams recorded a 9-3 record in the regular season and went into the final weekend of action with conference title aspirations. UCLA lost to Stanford to end its hopes of playing in the Pac-12 Championship, while Kansas State’s Big 12 title aspirations ended after TCU defeated Iowa State on Dec. 6.
Kansas State is always a threat to win the Big 12 with coach Bill Snyder on the sidelines, and the Wildcats won at least eight games for the fourth consecutive season. There’s no shame in the three losses by Kansas State in 2014, as Snyder’s team dropped games against Auburn, TCU and Baylor – three of arguably the top 10-15 teams in the nation. UCLA was pegged by some as the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, but coach Jim Mora’s team dropped back-to-back games against Utah and Oregon in early October to end its playoff hopes. The Bruins’ 31-10 loss to Stanford in the regular season finale allowed Arizona to win the Pac-12 South. Perhaps UCLA was overranked to start the season, but under Mora’s direction, the Bruins have won at least nine games in every season. This program is on the right track under Mora, and with a win over Kansas State, UCLA will have double-digit victories in back-to-back years for the first time since 1997-98.
UCLA and Kansas State have met only two previous times. The series is tied at one victory apiece, with the last meeting occurring in 2010. These two teams have never played each other in a bowl game.
UCLA vs. Kansas State
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UCLA -1
UCLA’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s a simple goal, but Kansas State won’t beat itself. The Wildcats lost only 11 turnovers – No. 3 nationally – and committed just four penalties per game. UCLA struggled with its discipline at times in 2014, as Mora’s team committed seven penalties per game and registered a -1 in turnover margin. The Alamo Bowl will be quarterback Brett Hundley’s last game in a UCLA uniform, as Mora already indicated his quarterback is set to go to the NFL. Hundley has been efficient this season, throwing for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns to only five picks. The junior is facing a K-State secondary that ranked fifth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.9 percent of their throws. In addition to Hundley, the Wildcats have to find a way to slow down running back Paul Perkins (1,381 yards, 7 TDs). Protecting Hundley has been a challenge at times this year, but UCLA’s line has played better since the addition of Conor McDermott at left tackle. Kansas State allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more (fewest allowed in the Big 12) this season. Hundley and the Bruins offense have plenty of firepower, but patience is required against a defense that doesn’t allow many big plays and has forced 20 turnovers this year. If UCLA limits its mistakes, opportunities should be there for Hundley and this offense to match its 32.9 points per game scoring average.
Kansas State’s Key to Victory: Waters to Lockett
Kansas State doesn’t have the most prolific rushing offense, as the Wildcats rank sixth in the Big 12 by averaging just 142.8 yards per game. What Kansas State doesn’t have in terms of a dominant rushing attack, it certainly makes up for it through the air. Quarterback Jake Waters completed 66.2 percent of his passes this year for 3,163 yards and 20 scores to only six interceptions. The senior’s favorite target is senior Tyler Lockett, who grabbed 93 receptions for 1,351 yards and nine scores in 2014. Lockett averaged 14.5 yards per reception and was a weapon on special teams with two punt returns for scores. UCLA’s secondary allowed only three plays of 40 yards or more during the regular season and it needs to keep Lockett under wraps on Friday night. The Bruins have struggled to generate a pass rush this year, so if the front seven can’t get to Waters, the opportunities should be there for Lockett to make plays downfield. If UCLA can limit the damage by Lockett and Waters, the Bruins should be in good position to earn the Alamo Bowl victory.
On paper, this is an even matchup. Perhaps one of the best of the bowl season. UCLA clearly has more talent on its roster, but Kansas State simply doesn’t beat itself and has one of the nation’s top coaches in Bill Snyder. In a tight game, turnovers could be critical. The Wildcats have been better in that department this season, which could be enough to swing this game in favor of K-State. Also, which team should have more motivation? Both teams had hopes of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl but losses on the final weekend knocked UCLA and Kansas State out of contention for a premier postseason destination. The Bruins have been up-and-down this season, while the Wildcats’ senior class is looking to close out their career with one more win. This one in San Antonio is a coin flip, but let’s a give a small edge to Kansas State.
Prediction: Kansas State 34, UCLA 31
As Oregon prepares to take on Florida State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, we got a chance to throw some questions at one of the Ducks' biggest fans, Modern Family actor Ty Burrell. He did not disappoint.
1. If you could describe the team in one word, what would it be?
2. Do you have a game-day tradition or superstition?
Yes, traditionally I like to get really nervous, even if we’re favored by 35. Then we like to sit down and watch it as a family and scream at the television. My mom is a lovely woman, but in front of a game she has the mouth of a sailor that other sailors find offensive. Then we all enjoy passing out from the exhaustion of the aforementioned nerves and screaming and such.
3. Finish this sentence: If my school wins the national title, I'm going to…
Have a joy seizure.
4. Where will you be watching the playoff?
Hopefully from the sidelines, but if I’m not able to make it, then I’ll be repeating the procedure in answer number 2.
5. Who's your favorite player on the team?
Hard not to say (Marcus) Mariota here. He checks all the boxes, both as a player and a person. That said, Tyler Johnstone is a great kid who’s been fighting through a lot with a great attitude. So, Tyler Johnstone. Oh wait, Pharaoh Brown is a great young man too. Sorry, there’s too many.
After three years without a trip to a bowl game and four straight seasons with seven losses, Tennessee finally returns to the postseason with a marquee Big Ten-SEC showdown. Butch Jones will try to avoid a fifth straight seven-loss season in his first bowl as the Vols headman.
Despite plenty of up-and-down seasons under Kirk Ferentz, this is Iowa's 12th bowl trip in its last 14 seasons. Ferentz won three straight bowls from 2008-10 but hasn't won a season finale since.
The Gator Bowl is one of the longest-running college football events in the sport, dating back to the first edition in 1946. The Vols are 3-2 in five trips to the Gator Bowl, now known as simply the TaxSlayer Bowl, and the Hawkeyes are 0-1, losing to Florida in the 1983 edition.
The Vols and Hawkeyes have split two previous meetings. Iowa topped Tennessee 28-22 in the 1982 Peach Bowl, while the Big Orange knocked off the Hawkeyes 23-22 in the 1987 Kickoff Classic in New Jersey.
Iowa vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: 3:20 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -3.5
Iowa’s Key to Victory: Control the trenches
The Hawkeyes should have an advantage up front on both sides of the ball. Tennessee ranks No. 122 in the nation in sacks allowed (42.0) and No. 103 in rushing (135 ypg), so Iowa's veteran defensive line should be in for a good game. On the flip side, in what should be a slightly more even matchup, Iowa's O-Line is led by All-American Brandon Scherff but has struggled against quality competition of late. Over the final four games, Iowa rushed for 304 yards in the win over Illinois but couldn't get going on the ground in three losses to Minnesota (84 yards), Wisconsin (101) and Nebraska (142). Victory for Iowa will be determined in the trenches.
Tennessee's Key to Victory: Turn loose Astro Dobbs
When Tennessee was at its best on offense this year, it featured a dynamic dual-threat quarterback igniting every aspect of the playbook. Joshua Dobbs has the ability to negate a pass rush with his legs and open up the playbook with his knack for playing outside of the pocket. He finished with 393 yards rushing, 1,077 yards passing and 14 total touchdowns in just four starts to end the year. A rested Jalen Hurd should help ease the pressure on Dobbs, but the onus of offensive production falls on Dobbs with a depleted receiving corps and an inexperienced O-Line around him.
Both defenses should fare well in this matchup but it may be due more to ineffective offense than anything else. Special teams will eventually determine the outcome of what appears to be an evenly matched and potentially sloppy bowl contest. The difference could be motivation, which is always extremely difficult to pinpoint in bowl games. The Vols have been hungry for a postseason trip and haven't won a bowl game since 2007. The Hawkeyes have a clear experience edge, while the Vols have a slight talent edge. The motivational edge should fall to the SEC squad.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Iowa 23
Teams in similar positions will cross paths when Houston and Pittsburgh meet up in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas. Both the Cougars (7-5) and Panthers (6-6) are wrapping up their seasons with interim head coaches, as Houston’s Tony Levine was fired on Dec. 8 and Pittsburgh’s Paul Chryst left two weeks ago for Wisconsin, his alma mater.
Instead, defensive coordinator David Gibbs will lead the Cougars, while Panthers offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph will be calling the shots on the other sideline. Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi has already been hired as Pitt’s next head coach, while Houston has tabbed Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman.
Even though Levine went 21-17 in three seasons and led Houston to back-to-back bowl games, it wasn’t enough to keep his job. The Cougars have one of the stingier defenses in the nation, but consecutive 5-3 showings in the American Athletic Conference apparently didn’t impress the powers that be.
It’s up to Gibbs to try and match last’s season eight wins with a victory over Pittsburgh. Houston is making its 22nd bowl appearance overall and fourth in the Armed Forces Bowl (formerly the Fort Worth Bowl). The Cougars are 1-2 in this game, which is played at TCU’s Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, about four hours away from Houston. They last appeared in this bowl game in 2009, when they lost 47-20 to Air Force. The Cougars also lost their most recent postseason game – 41-24 to Vanderbilt in the BBVA Compass Bowl a year ago.
Chryst departed Pittsburgh after going 19-19 in three seasons, including a 7-9 conference record in the Panthers’ first two seasons in the ACC. Pittsburgh is playing in its seventh straight bowl game. The Panthers have gone 3-3 during this span, including last season’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
These two schools have only played each other twice previously, with the last meeting occurring nearly two decades ago. Each has won on the other’s home field – Houston in 1996 and Pittsburgh in ’97.
Houston vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Pittsburgh -3
Houston’s Key to Victory: Force the Issue
More known for producing prolific quarterbacks like 1989 Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware, David Klingler, Case Keenum and others, this Cougars team has gotten the job done on defense. Houston enters this game ranked 19th in total defense (334.6 ypg) and tied for 10th in scoring defense (19.5 ppg). It figures to be tested on the ground by ACC Player of the Year James Conner and the nation’s 15th-ranked rushing attack, but the Cougars have fared well in that department (136.3 ypg allowed, 32nd) too. The key for Houston’s defense could be forcing Pittsburgh to make mistakes. The Cougars are tied for seventh in takeaways with 30, including 19 interceptions. If Conner has any weakness, it’s a tendency to lose his grip on the football, so you can bet that Houston defenders will be looking to exploit that when they get their hands on him. The Cougars have turned three of these takeaways into touchdowns, but sometimes the change in possession is effective in that it gives the ball back to the offense. The Panthers’ defense has given up its share of yards and points, so mistakes forced and then capitalized on by Houston could go a long ways towards making interim head coach David Gibbs’ debut a successful one.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Conner-Boyd Combo
The Panthers have one of the nation’s most dangerous duos in running back James Conner and wide receiver Tyler Boyd, both sophomores. Conner was named the ACC’s Player of the Year after rushing for 1,675 yards (fifth nationally) and a school-record 24 touchdowns (tied for third). Boyd went over 1,000 yards receiving for the second straight season (1,149, second in ACC), and chipped in eight touchdowns. Together this duo has been responsible for 57 percent of Pittsburgh’s total offense (2,957 of 5,211 yards) and two-thirds of its total touchdowns (32 of 48). They are clearly the two biggest weapons on the Panthers’ roster and will be hard to stop even with all of the attention they will draw from Houston’s stout defense. Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, the interim head coach is offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. If there’s anyone who knows how important it is to get the ball to Conner and Boyd, it’s him.
Both Houston and Pittsburgh are facing similar circumstances with interim head coaches calling the shots. It just so happens that the two fill-ins have plenty of familiarity with their team’s strongest side of the ball. So in this classic matchup of Houston’s defense vs. Pittsburgh’s offense, which team has the advantage? The Panthers boast two of the nation’s best young playmakers in ACC Player of the Year James Conner and electric wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Even if the Cougars can slow down Conner, which is easier said than done, I think the combination of him and Boyd will be tough for Houston’s offense to overcome. Look for Pittsburgh to end the Paul Chryst era and usher in Pat Narduzzi on a winning note.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Houston 23
NEW ORLEANS — Blake Sims is a living, breathing American fairy tale and the storybook ending is just four quarters from its final chapter.
In modern college football, Alabama's starting quarterback is the exception, not the rule. Sims is more seasoned philosophy professor than student athlete finishing his first season in the starting lineup.
He's someone America should root for and look up to.
Sims came to Alabama as a highly-recruited "athlete" in the Class of 2010, lured to Tuscaloosa from Gainesville (Ga.) High School by then offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and Nick Saban. Since arriving on campus, Sims has changed positions three times and is working under his third offensive coordinator.
He played running back and wide receiver on the Crimson Tide scout team before settling in as the scout-team quarterback. He sat quietly behind two-time champion and Heisman finalist AJ McCarron. He deftly handled the arrival of highly-coveted and publicized transfer quarterback Jacob Coker from Florida State — the supposed savior of Life After McCarron.
Through it all, Sims has been nothing but a team player, quietly confident that if given the chance, he'd be ready to perform.
"I have plenty of guys ask me how did I do it," Sims said. "I tell them you have to have a positive mindset, you have to be patient, never take a day off and when you get your opportunity, you have to take full advantage."
It's an impressive attitude in an age where transferring is the name of the game at the quarterback position. When Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin and signed Coker, Sims was an afterthought. Yet, here he is in New Orleans after leading his team to an SEC championship, a No. 1 ranking and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
"I'm extremely excited for all of the offensive players but especially for Blake Sims," Kiffin said. "He's had so many opportunities to quit or transfer every year of not playing, but he's an example of fighting through adversity.
"When we brought in Coker, he told me, 'Don't worry about me, I'll do whatever you want.' To see that attitude pay off, which is so unusual these days, has been great to see," Kiffin continued. "I think it should be a really good lesson. You don't just leave because its not going your way."
Sims didn't leave and his hard work and humble attitude has paid off in spades.
He was the most efficient passer in the SEC with a rating of 161.92, good for seventh nationally — well ahead of future pros like Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty and Jameis Winston. He set the Alabama single-season passing record with 3,250 yards. He added 321 yards rushing, setting the Bama total offense record (3,571). He accounted for 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Sims is two average games away from becoming just the sixth player in SEC history to post 4,000 total yards of offense in a season.
"He's one of the most humble players on the team," Alabama offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "Calm, cool and collected. I don't think I've seen him nervous in the huddle yet."
The current news cycle is dominated by negative headlines. Domestic violence or postgame brawls or high-level cover-ups. But under center for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl will be the personification of a humble American success story.
Win or lose, Blake Sims is the type of role model everyone can support.
Even Ohio State fans.
LOS ANGELES — The 2014 season was the year of the freshman running back.
The Rose Bowl features two of the best rookie backs in Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who both emerged during the second half of the season to help their teams to the national semifinal.
The flip side is the upperclassman running backs asked to shelve their egos and do something else so Freeman and Cook can thrive.
Oregon’s Byron Marshall and Florida State’s Karlos Williams entered the season with some fanfare — not as much as their quarterback teammates, but fanfare nonetheless.
On Thursday, they’ll play in the Rose Bowl as not even the most feared running backs on their own teams.
Marshall started 2014 as the only returning 1,000-yard rusher in the Pac-12, but by the end of fall camp, running backs coach Gary Campbell called him into his office to pull him off the running back position.
The season-ending injury to Bralon Addison left Oregon without its top three receivers from a year ago. With incoming freshman Royce Freeman joining the team, Marshall’s carries would be limited.
Oregon needed him to learn the slot receiver position. Starting from square one. And he needed to do it fast.
“I couldn't read the defense for the life of me,” Marshall said.
By the end of September, Marshall learned how to read coverages enough to say he felt like a natural at the position. Now, he calls his position an “athlete,” a position that’s common for recruits who could play a number of spots for a number of teams.
He says it not to be arrogant, but it’s the truth: How many players can say they led a team in rushing one year and in receiving the next?
After rushing for 1,038 yards last season, Marshall caught 61 passes for 814 yards with five touchdowns and still managed to rush for 383 yards and 7.7 yards per carry in 2014.
“I don't have to stare at the defense before the play to know what they are,” Marshall said. “I can give a quick look and say they're in cover one, I should run my route this one, or they're in cover way, I should run my route this way. It just came natural after a couple games.”
At 5-10, 205 pounds, Marshall won’t be a burner at the position. Nor does he need to be. His counterpart at receiver, freshman Devon Allen, is on the Oregon track team and can fill that role. Marshall just needs to be a steady target in the slot and an occassional tailback.
“(Marshall’s) ability as a runner is what makes him so effective as a receiver,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's such a dynamic playmaker that he has a chance to score every time he touches it.”
On the Florida State sideline, Williams wasn’t quite so fortunate to have a role waiting for him to fill after Cook started to emerge during the second half of the season.
Williams entered the season as a fringe Heisman contender after rushing for 730 yards and eight yards per carry behind 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman.
The dreams of any awards faded as the season went along. Williams lost out in the numbers game and missed two games due to injury. He’s become something of a short-yardage back to complement Cook’s home run ability. Williams finished the season with 10 touchdowns but only 4.4 yards per carry.
“I always expected to be one of the best in the country,” Williams said. “It's kind of surprising because we didn't really know. Nobody knew what kind of season each one of us was going to have.”
Instead, he and Marshall arrived at the Rose Bowl expected to contribute in their new roles and take a backseat in some ways to younger, more dynamic talent.
And along the way, they had to show they embraced their altered roles, not just on the field, but as mentors and cheerleaders for freshmen.
“It's amazing to be able to watch young guys explode, and I remember when I was a freshman I was a big‑time kick returner,” Williams said. “I (was) able to take control of the game, be able to change the game and make plays. It makes me really, really proud.”
Orchard Park, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Veteran quarterback Kyle Orton announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday.
Orton, 32, started the final 12 games for the Buffalo Bills this season after 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel was benched. He completed 287-of-447 passes for 3,018 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Orton had contemplated retirement last offseason, but signed with the Bills and helped them finish 9-7, their first winning season since 2004.
Selected by Chicago in the fourth round of the 2005 draft out of Purdue, Orton threw for 18,037 yards with 101 touchdowns and 69 interceptions in 87 career games for the Bears, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Bills.
LOS ANGELES — Troy Hill and Chris Seisay aren’t the first names anyone conjures when it comes to Oregon football.
They’re cornerbacks, and they’re not even the star cornerback for the Ducks.
Yet Hill and Seisay may be the most important players early in the Rose Bowl national semifinal against Florida State.
Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston says he’d test stud NFL corner Richard Sherman given the chance, so what does that mean for the second-, third- and fourth-best corners at Oregon?
“They’ll probably test me early with the first couple of passes,” Seisay told Athlon Sports. “But I’m going to be ready for the ball at all times.”
Oregon secondary coach John Neal says he takes comfort in Oregon bouncing back from injuries in the past. Just this season, receiver Bralon Addison and offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone were hurt before the season started. Tackle Jake Fisher missed the loss to Arizona.
The Ducks won the Sun Bowl in 2007 with Justin Roper at quarterback after Dennis Dixon was hurt. They’ve absorbed running back injuries.
But those are all on offense, and none of those injuries occurred when the stakes are as high as they are now. The season-ending injury to three-time All-Pac-12 cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is different.
Losing an All-America-caliber corner weeks before facing a Heisman-winning quarterback is no one’s idea of an optimal situation.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt (Winston will target the backup corners), but they’ll test our entire defense,” Neal told Athlon Sports. “Their quarterback is fearless. Who is he going to test? He’s going to test his best option.”
If there’s any consolation, Seisay has been thrown into the fray before — on shorter notice and when the redshirt freshman had less experience.
Against Michigan State in the second week of the season, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook and MSU’s bigger receivers picked on the 5-9 corner Dior Mathis. At halftime, Neal sent the 6-1 Seisay out for a better matchup.
Cook completed 17-of-25 passes for 218 yards before halftime and 12-of-22 for 125 yards after.
“There can’t be any drop when you come into the game,” Seisay said.
That performance, though, guarantees nothing. Seisay earned a start the following week against Wyoming and was promptly burned for an early touchdown.
In other words, there’s experience here, but who knows what will be the outcome in the Rose Bowl.
The senior Hill, who started this season opposite Ekpre-Olomu, has 57 tackles and 16 pass breakups. Seisay and Mathis have been in the rotation all season, facing a deep group of Pac-12 quarterbacks.
And as much as Ekpre-Olomu leaves a void in terms of skill and lockdown ability, his absence leaves just as big a hole in leadership.
“That's family, especially in that secondary,” Hill said. “He's our leader, our brother.”
And now Oregon is down a brother and expects the remaining defensive backs to be targeted early and often.
“They’ll play the best games of their lives,” Neal said. “How good that will be, we’ll find out.”
NEW ORLEANS - When Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State, he vowed to bring an SEC blueprint to Columbus.
After three seasons in the Big Ten, Meyer's blueprint has the Buckeyes one win away from the national championship game.
But what exactly is an "SEC blueprint?" The Buckeyes boasted a raucous 100,000-seat crowd, massive athletic department budget and state of the art facilities well before Meyer showed up in town. In fact, lots of schools outside of the infamous SEC have these things.
What truly separates the conference that claims eight of the last nine national titles from the rest of college football is recruiting and developing elite defensive lines. Just ask Tom Brady and the nearly perfect 2007 New England Patriots about how a dominant defensive line can stop even the mightiest of offenses.
With the help of Big Ten lifer Larry Johnson Sr., Meyer assembled arguably the best defensive line in the nation. Ohio State lured the former Penn State defensive line coach to Columbus this year, and, on Thursday night in the Sugar Bowl, will attempt to administer to the SEC a heavy dose of its own medicine by stuffing the run and pressuring the quarterback.
Thanks to Johnson's leadership and guidance, the fearsome foursome of Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller give Ohio State the necessary pieces to finish what the '06 and '07 Buckeyes couldn't.
"We've progressed so much as a D-Line and it's all thanks to Coach Johnson," Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa said. "It says a lot about how he's brought us closer together. We are much closer as a unit and play much harder for each other. That's the biggest difference."
Bosa, a 6-foot-5, 278-pound sophomore defensive end from Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas, dominated the Big Ten, leading the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20.0) by a wide margin. But he came "really close" to wearing a much different shade of red this week in New Orleans.
"I was actually about to commit to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was so young and it was getting into my head, so I just took my time and went through the process," Bosa reminisced about his recruitment. He instead landed in Columbus and now leads a collection of elite D-Liners that will have to stop the Crimson Tide's vaunted rushing attack to win a national title.
Winning that type of recruiting battle for a highly-coveted prospect from deep within SEC territory is what defines Meyer's gameplan for building a champion. In fact, all four starting defensive linemen were elite prospects with long offer sheets from all across the nation.
Tackles Michael Bennett, a 6-foot-2, 288-pound senior, and Adolphus Washington, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound junior, anchor the middle while Steve Miller, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound senior, plays opposite of Bosa. According to 247Sports, Bennett was the No. 6 defensive tackle prospect in the nation in 2011, Washington was the No. 2 weakside defensive end in the nation in '12 and Miller was the No. 4 weakside end in the nation in '11.
All the talented group needed was a little push from a guy who's been around the game longer than Joey Bosa has been alive.
"During spring ball, Coach Johnson asked why we don't ever celebrate together," Washington said. "As spring ball went along, you could see it on film that everyone was so much more hyped for the next guy than for themselves because Coach Johnson and Coach Meyer put a big emphasis on it.
"Be happier and willing to do more for the next person than for yourself. That brought us together more as a team and defensive line. At the end of the day, you need all four of us to get the job done," finished Washington.
Get the job done they have. The foursome helped Ohio State finish sixth nationally and tops in the Big Ten in sacks (40.0). The Buckeyes also led the league in tackles for a loss as one of only eight teams in the nation to post at least 100 tackles for a loss.
"They are one of the best defensive lines we've seen," said Alabama offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. "All four of their defensive linemen are great players. On the outside, they have two guys who can really get up the field and put pressure on the quarterback. On the inside, they've got two guys that can wreak havoc."
When talent comes together with coaching, great things can happen. It appears that is what this deep collection of elite prospects and Coach Johnson has accomplished. This unit believes in one another but has also taken to coaching and it reminds Bama of the what it normally sees in the SEC.
"They're very technically sound and don't make many mistakes," the Tide's star running back T.J. Yeldon said. "They remind me of Florida, Arkansas and ourselves because they don't make any mistakes."
Talented, motivated, well-coached, disciplined and experienced sounds like a good recipe for success against a team that has played in three of the last five national championship games.
"We see Ohio State as a great defense," Alabama veteran center Ryan Kelly said. "We've been studying them for a couple of weeks and they look a lot like the teams we play in the SEC. They have a lot of great athletes and their defensive line coach has done a tremendous job."
Meyer landed in the Big Ten knowing he needed to win the line of scrimmage if he wanted to return Ohio State to the top of college football. He's recruited at an elite level, hired one of the top coaches in the business to develop that talent and is now faced with the exact challenge most college football fans have been waiting for since he announced his return to a collegiate sideline.
The world will find out Thursday night if his blueprint will work.
The 2011 NBA Lockout was about a lot of things — money and power, mostly — and one of its sub-missions was to decentralize power in the league. When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh pooled their talents at the top of their games to make for a mini-dynasty with the Miami Heat (a squad that went to visit the NBA Finals four years in a row), the game’s owners wanted to do something to prevent similar future occurences.
Today, the measures they took seem to have worked. A complex, restricting salary cap structure that heavily taxes teams who color outside the lines has made for extremely fluid player movement. Keeping a ton of great players together is harder than it’s ever been, and the 2015 version of the NBA will enjoy a wide-open landscape, in which several teams are equally likely to win a championship.
Title contenders this season include James’ Cleveland Cavaliers (however much they may be struggling lately), the Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, the defending champion San Antonio Spurs — the list could go on, so don’t feel slighted if your team isn’t on it. They probably belong there.
If any new teams repeat the Heat’s feat, you can color this columnist surprised. Annual free agency madness and the ever-shifting economics of the sport make things less and less predictable in the modern NBA. And, business-wise, this benefits the bottom line. Less fixed results means more fan intrigue, higher Vegas action, and greater growth potential for every franchise. Pro basketball is starting to achieve something like its ideal, dream state of affairs as an exciting, turbulent product, with elite talent in constant motion on the court and off.
— John Wilmes
(SportsNetwork.com) - Despite the club's first double-digit loss campaign since 2004, the New York Giants have apparently decided to retain long-time head coach Tom Coughlin.
Multiple reports on Monday stated that the Giants will have the 68-year-old on the sidelines for one more season. Following a 34-26 home loss to the Eagles on Sunday, New York finished 2014 with a 6-10 record.
Coughlin has a record of 96-80 during his 11-year run with the Giants, a tenure that has been highlighted by a pair of Super Bowl titles. They have not made the playoffs since 2011 and made just one postseason appearance in the past six years.
Coughlin has the second-longest tenure in Giants coaching history, behind only Steve Owen's 24-year stint from 1930-53. His 96 wins trail only Owen's total of 153.
In 19 years as an NFL head coach, including eight with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Coughlin has amassed a record of 164-140. He also has a postseason mark of 12-7.
Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan is a huge boost to a program that has struggled to be nationally relevant in recent years. The Wolverines recorded three seasons of double-digit victories from 2002-06 but have only one year of 10 or more wins since 2007. Harbaugh is going to elevate Michigan back into Big Ten title contention over the next few years, but the former Wolverine quarterback isn’t inheriting a perfect depth chart or situation for success.
What might be Harbaugh’s biggest problem to overcome in 2015? Let’s take a look at a couple of obstacles for Michigan and its new coach next season.
Obstacles for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan in 2015
This area will receive the most – and immediate – attention for Harbaugh and his staff. In 247Sports composite standings, Michigan is No. 90 nationally in team recruiting rankings. The No. 90 ranking nationally equals the No. 14 class in the Big Ten. That’s right, as of Dec. 30, Michigan ranks last in the Big Ten in recruiting. Sure, recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but there’s some truth in the evaluations. The Wolverines have just six commitments and none of those players are regarded as five-star talents. Michigan was slated to bring in a small recruiting class, so numbers aren’t necessarily needed. However, Harbaugh has a lot of work to do on the recruiting trail and only has a month and a few days to salvage a class that is ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten. Michigan won’t finish last in the conference in recruiting but building a successful class in just over a month is challenging.
2. Quarterback Play
Devin Gardner concluded his career at Michigan with 1,896 yards and 10 passing scores in 2014. Gardner also tossed 15 picks this year, but the Detroit native didn’t have much help from his supporting cast. Harbaugh – a former quarterback – has a penchant for developing signal-callers. Harbaugh’s ability to develop a quarterback will be tested in 2015, as Michigan needs to find a replacement for Gardner. Junior Shane Morris is the frontrunner, and in two seasons in Ann Arbor, he has completed 43 of 87 passes for 389 yards and five interceptions. Morris was a four-star recruit in the 2013 signing class and is a good fit as a pro-style passer for what Harbaugh wants to do on offense. If Morris isn’t the answer, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight or incoming freshman Alex Malzone are the other options for Harbaugh. Developing Morris or finding another answer here will determine just how high Michigan can climb in the Big Ten East Division next season.
3. The Pieces Around the QB
Michigan’s defense has a few holes to fill, but overall, the Wolverines are in good shape on that side of the ball after limiting opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. The biggest questions for Harbaugh are clearly on offense, starting at quarterback and continuing into the skill talent and offensive line. Settling on a quarterback is the first priority, but Harbaugh has work to do at receiver and on the offensive line. Michigan must replace receiver Devin Funchess and needs a big season from younger players like Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Freddy Canteen and tight end Jake Butt. Also, the offense needs a go-to running back to emerge. Is that De’Veon Smith? Or will Derrick Green return to full strength after a season-ending injury and reach his recruiting hype? All five starters on the offensive line from the depth chart for the Ohio State game are back, but this unit has to show marked improvement after struggling once again in 2014. The line allowed 26 sacks in 12 games and rushers averaged only 4.1 yards per play in eight Big Ten contests. There’s hope for improvement with the returning players, along with the development of left tackle Mason Cole. Even though Harbaugh should make a difference on offense, Michigan will need to win with its defense in 2015 – at least early in the year.
Florham Park, NJ (SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Jets cleaned house Monday, firing both head coach Rex Ryan and general manager John Idzik after a 4-12 season.
The Jets closed the 2014 campaign with a 37-24 win at Miami on Sunday. It was the worst mark in Ryan's six seasons as head coach.
Idzik was on board for just two years, taking over for the fired Mike Tannenbaum in January 2013. He had served as the vice president of football administration with the Seattle Seahawks for six seasons before taking over the reins for New York.
"After extensive thought and reflection about the current state of our football team, this morning I informed Rex Ryan and John Idzik that they will not be returning for the 2015 season," Jets chairman and CEO Woody Johnson said in a statement. "Both Rex and John made significant contributions to the team, and they have my appreciation and gratitude for their efforts and commitment. Over the years, Rex brought the Jets a bold confidence and a couple of great postseason runs, which all of us will remember."
Ryan compiled a record of 46-50 with the Jets. He took over for the 2009 season and promptly led New York to a pair of AFC Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons.
New York was 9-7 in Ryan's first year, losing to Indianapolis in the AFC title game, then went 11-5 the following season and fell to Pittsburgh in the championship tilt.
The Jets haven't had a winning season since, finishing 8-8 in 2011 and 2013. Last year's .500 finish came in what was expected to be a rebuilding year with rookie quarterback Geno Smith -- selected as part of Idzik's first draft class -- at the helm.
That bought Ryan another season after rumors of his departure during the 2013 campaign. But after a win over Oakland to start this season, it was downhill from there.
The Jets lost eight in a row, the worst skid for the franchise since an eight- game slide to start the 1996 season.
Smith's development, or lack thereof, was a major reason for the Jets' struggles this season. He was benched after a Week 8 loss to Buffalo, then returned to the starter's role a month later in a Dec. 1 loss to Miami.
The Jets played well down the stretch this season, as three of their last four losses came by less than six points.
STORY UPDATE: Suh's appeal was heard by Ted Cottrell, who overturned the one-game suspension and reduced his punishment to a $70,000 fine. Suh will play in Sunday's wild-card game in Dallas.
New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL suspended Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh one game without pay on Monday for stepping on the leg of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Suh twice stepped on Rodgers' left leg on the same play during the fourth quarter of the Packers' NFC North-clinching 30-20 victory over the Lions on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers had missed two Green Bay series in the game after aggravating a left calf injury.
"You did not respond in the manner of someone who had lost his balance and accidentally contacted another player who was lying on the ground. This illegal contact, specifically the second step and push off with your left foot, clearly could have been avoided," NFL vice president of football operations Merton Hanks said in a letter to Suh.
"You unnecessarily stepped on your opponent's unprotected leg as he lay on the ground unable to protect himself."
It was the second time Suh was suspended for stepping on a player, following a two-game ban in 2011 for stomping on the arm of Packers lineman Evan Dietrich- Smith. Suh also drew a $30,000 fine for kicking Houston Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in 2010.
Under terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, the suspension may be appealed within three business days. Appeals are heard and decided by either Derrick Brooks or Ted Cottrell, the officers jointly appointed and compensated by the NFL and players union to decide appeals of on-field player discipline.
Suh's absence creates a hole in the Lions' defensive line for their wild-card game against the Dallas Cowboys and leading rusher DeMarco Murray this Sunday.
The biggest name came off the board almost as quickly as the board opened. Jim Harbaugh could’ve had his pick of almost any NFL job he wanted. Instead, when he bolted the San Francisco 49ers, he took a job at the University of Michigan instead.
What he left in his wake are five NFL teams at least, and maybe soon more, scrambling to find qualified candidates to fill their coaching vacancies created on Black Monday (or in some cases, before). But what the 49ers, Jets, Bears, Falcons and Raiders are quickly learning is there isn’t really another Harbaugh out on the market this year.
There are qualified candidates, but no no-brainers. Here are a look at the five current NFL head coaching vacancies, the candidates they might look at, and who makes the most sense to lead their team:
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
No team has a bigger void than the Niners, who lost their finest coach since Bill Walsh. All Harbaugh did in four years was take the team to three NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, before chaos reigned this year. Whatever troubles he caused inside the organization, the man could flat-out coach.
There doesn’t appear to be any big-name replacement waiting in the wings, either. The candidates mentioned most for the Niners are all in the “hot assistant” category – coaches like Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (who may turn out to be the hottest of them all). Given the 49ers’ issues on offense, though, it would seem to make more sense for them to go to an offensive coordinator like Denver’s Adam Gase or Cleveland’s Kyle Shanahan.
Here’s a name to watch, though, if the 49ers decide they need or want a big name: Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father, is still available, and he was the 49ers offensive coordinator once – albeit eons ago in the early '90s.
The Bears seemed to be a logical landing spot for Harbaugh, had he decided to remain in the NFL. And, like the Raiders and Jets, they reportedly reached out to him. But alas, he said no, leaving them to search through the also-rans.
Could they pull the trigger on the most interesting, explosive, and probably best hire of the offseason and bring in ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan, son of former (and beloved) Bears defensive coordinator Buddy? It seems like perfect situation for the brash Rex to coach the team his daddy always wanted to run, and the perfect coach for the Bears to replace the milquetoast Marc Trestman.
If not Ryan, Bowles or Quinn could be on the menu because they do love their defense out in Chicago. But considering their biggest problem is their quarterback, Jay Cutler, and their dysfunctional offense they might want to take a long look at Stanford coach David Shaw.
NEW YORK JETS
Another team that reached out to Harbaugh and would’ve been lucky to land him. Now it seems the new coach will be in the hands of the new GM, whoever that may be. And until the GM is in place, the coaching search is just a guess.
They certainly could go the Shanahan route to make a big splash, though it’s hard to believe there are many GMs eager to work with him. Josh McDaniels, a former Bill Belichick disciple who flopped as a first-team head coach in Denver, could return to the head coaching ranks with something to prove (and with a few of the Patriots’ secrets).
The Jets’ biggest problem, much like the Bears, is their offense, though. And the development of a quarterback – perhaps Geno Smith, but really any quarterback – has to be the priority. It could be that Andrew Luck’s mentor, Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, will fit that bill.
This has long been rumored to be Ryan’s next stop, assuming he doesn’t take a TV job first. They’ve got a loaded offense – something he never had in New York – and a defense known for it’s underachieving. He could immediately change that, as well as bring an attitude and identity that the Falcons sorely need after years of relatively anonymity under Mike Smith.
They do seem likely to stay on the defensive side of the ball in their search, which could mean they look to Bowles or Quinn. Another name that has surfaced in connection with them is Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. McDaniels wouldn’t be a terrible choice either, especially if they want someone to fine-tune the offense, which was erratic but in general is pretty good.
Boy did the Raiders want and need Harbaugh. He would’ve been the perfect coach to restore winning and respectability to a franchise that is sadly lacking in both. He would’ve brought discipline and order (two things they again have been lacking). And keeping Harbaugh in his Northern California would’ve been quite the shot at the 49ers, who have long been the bigger ticket in town.
With Harbaugh out of the picture, the Raiders may have trouble landing a coach given their reputation for being a place where players and coaches go to end their careers. That said, if candidates can look past that then Ryan, Bowles and maybe Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, a former head coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars and a Bay Area native, could be in play.
But one name to watch is interim coach Tony Sparano. He’s never distinguished himself in that spot – either with Oakland or with Miami – but he reportedly has a lot of support from the players he led down the stretch.
Michigan’s coaching search is finally over, and athletic director Jim Hackett got his man in former Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh. After a successful four-year stint in San Francisco, Harbaugh and the front office had a mutual parting, and the Michigan alum is set to return to the Michigan sidelines in 2015.
It’s easy to throw around the term “home run hire” when a coach is introduced at a press conference. However, it’s appropriate to throw that term around when it comes to Harbaugh. The 51-year-old coach is exactly what Michigan needs to return to the top of the Big Ten.
The Positives for Michigan:
Game Changer in the East Division
The Wolverines needed someone who can go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer, James Franklin and Mark Dantonio. Harbaugh certainly checks that box. And under Harbaugh, Michigan is ready to jump back into Big Ten title contention.
Eye for Assistant Talent
At Stanford, Harbaugh hired an excellent staff. David Shaw, Derek Mason, Scott Shafer, Willie Taggart, Brian Polian and D.J. Durkin are some of the names Harbaugh hired during his Stanford tenure, and it’s expected he will piece together a standout coaching staff this offseason.
Success at Every Level
Harbaugh has experienced success at every level, starting with a stint at San Diego from 2004-06. Under Harbaugh’s direction, the Toreros went 29-6, including a 22-2 mark over the final two years. Harbaugh took over at Stanford in 2007 and went 4-8 in his first season. The four wins indicated a three-game improvement from 2006 for the Cardinal. Harbaugh improved Stanford to 5-7 in 2008, followed by a 20-6 mark over his final two years. Harbaugh was successful in the NFL, guiding the 49ers to three playoff appearances and a berth in the Super Bowl against the Ravens in the 2012 season.
Offense was the biggest problem under former coach Brady Hoke. Under Harbaugh, the offense shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, it may take a year or two for the program to recruit the right talent, but Harbaugh’s background on offense should immediately help Michigan take a step forward on this side of the ball in 2015.
The Negatives for Michigan:
Are there any negatives?
There’s not a guarantee with any coaching hire, but it’s hard to envision Harbaugh not winning big at Michigan. The former Wolverine quarterback already won at two jobs – San Diego and Stanford – that were more challenging than Ann Arbor. As a former quarterback at Michigan, Harbaugh is returning to familiar surroundings and knows what it takes to win in Ann Arbor. Additionally, he has the right attitude and acumen to go head-to-head with the best in college football on Saturdays, as well as on the recruiting trail. It’s a cliché, but Harbaugh certainly gives Michigan an edge it seemed to be missing over the last few years.
If there is something to be concerned about for Michigan fans, it has to be the NFL. At some point in the future, would Harbaugh want to jump back into the NFL? Maybe. However, if Harbaugh wins a couple of Big Ten titles and leads the Wolverines into premier bowl games on a consistent basis, it’s safe to say the hire worked out well for Michigan and he returned his alma mater into relevance.
As a program, Michigan has been struggling to maintain national relevance in recent years. The Wolverines are just 20-18 over the last three seasons and has a losing record in Big Ten play in three out of the last five years.
With Harbaugh’s arrival, that is about to change. Again, there’s no guarantee with any coaching hire, but it’s hard to see this one not working out. Harbaugh is the right coach to fix Michigan football and should win big over the next couple of years. And for the rest of college football, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry just got a lot more interesting. Harbaugh’s arrival is also huge for the Big Ten as a conference. The Big Ten has fallen in the conference pecking order in recent years, with Michigan’s struggles playing a large role in why the league has taken a step back. But with Harbaugh coming back to Michigan, the Wolverines are set to return to national relevance, helping the Big Ten improve its overall image.
This hiring cycle has been filled with good hires from most programs looking for a head coach. However, Michigan’s hire of Harbaugh might be the best of the bunch. Expect to hear plenty from the Wolverines and Harbaugh over the next couple of seasons. Simply, this is the best hire Michigan could make. There's not a better fit - and a coach at the right time - for Michigan than Harbaugh.
Final Grade for Michigan: A+
The Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Ohio State may not have the quarterback star power of Florida State-Oregon in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no shortage of intrigue in New Orleans. The Buckeyes hope to carry the banner for the Big Ten and score a huge win over Alabama and the SEC, while the Crimson Tide hopes to win their fourth national title in six years.
Ohio State’s playoff hopes suffered a huge setback with the loss of quarterback J.T. Barrett to a season-ending injury against Michigan. However, Cardale Jones played well against Wisconsin and has a month to get ready for Alabama’s defense. Although Jones has extra time to prepare, the Crimson Tide defense also has a month to add a few new wrinkles to the repertoire. As if a quarterback making his second career start wasn’t enough to overcome, Ohio State has to face the nation’s top receiver (Amari Cooper), along with a punishing ground attack led by T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.
Let's take a look at the position-by-position preview for the 2015 Sugar Bowl:
Position-by-Position Sugar Bowl Preview
|QB||Blake Sims entered the year as a question mark but had a breakout year under the direction of coordinator Lane Kiffin. Sims threw for 3,250 yards and 26 scores, while completing 64.8 percent of his passes. The senior also rushed for 321 yards and six touchdowns. Sims tossed only seven picks on 355 attempts, with three of those interceptions coming against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Sims was one of the SEC's top quarterbacks in 2014.|
Injuries have marred the Buckeyes’ quarterback depth chart in 2014. Braxton Miller was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in August, and J.T. Barrett was a Heisman candidate before a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Cardale Jones completed 12 of 27 passes for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the only start of his career. Having a month to prepare for Alabama should help Jones in his second career start.
Jones played well against Wisconsin, but Sims is the proven option.
This is one of the top running back corps in the nation. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 1,767 yards and 20 scores in the regular season, and both players will challenge an Ohio State rush defense that allowed only 3.7 yards per carry in Big Ten play. Tyren Jones (6.2 ypc) is the third back, while Jalston Fowler is a solid all-around fullback. Yeldon needs 68 yards to reach 1,000, while Henry needs 105 to hit that mark.
Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 1,402 yards and 12 scores during the regular season and headlines a talented backfield for coach Urban Meyer. Elliott also factored into the passing game (26 catches). He rushed for 6.5 yards per carry and finished the regular season with three straight 100-yard efforts. Curtis Samuel added 376 yards and six scores, while Warren Ball is slated to fill the No. 3 role.
Ohio State is solid, but Alabama is loaded with talent. Yeldon and Henry is a tough 1-2 punch.
|WR||The Crimson Tide has an edge at this position due to Amari Cooper. The junior is the best in the nation at his position and thrived under Lane Kiffin’s tutelage by recording 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 scores. Alabama may not have a standout No. 2 threat, but DeAndrew White is a solid option, and tight end O.J. Howard averages 16.5 yards per reception. Christion Jones ranks third on the team with 19 receptions.|
Urban Meyer is making progress in upgrading the talent at receiver, but the Buckeyes still have a ways to go at this position. Devin Smith is a big-play threat (26.6 ypc), and Michael Thomas (43 catches) has been solid in 2014. Tight end Jeff Heuerman caught only 17 passes this season after grabbing 26 last year. H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson also factor into this position. Wilson is questionable to play with a foot injury.
Tough to pick against a group that includes Amari Cooper.
|OL||This unit may not be as dominant as Alabama’s last national championship team, but the Crimson Tide has one of the nation’s top lines. Left tackle Cam Robinson had a standout freshman campaign, center Ryan Kelly is one of the best in the SEC, and right tackle Austin Shepherd has allowed only one sack in 2014. Arie Kouandjio had a standout year at guard, while senior Leon Brown rounds out the starting group. Alabama allowed only 13 sacks in 13 games this year and paved the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per rush.|
Perhaps no unit on Ohio State’s team made as much progress as the offensive line did in 2014. The Buckeyes allowed eight sacks in their first two games but gave up 16 the rest of the year. Left tackle Taylor Decker earned second-team All-Big Ten honors by the coaches, while guard Pat Elflein was a first-team selection. Rounding out the starting five will be center Jacoby Boren, right tackle Darryl Baldwin (the lone senior up front) and guard Billy Price. The same five players have started all 13 games for Ohio State’s offensive line this year.
OSU's OL has improved, but Alabama gets the edge.
|DL||In a 3-4 scheme, Alabama’s defensive line isn’t asked to post big numbers. However, this unit is loaded with talent and is a key cog in the success of the Crimson Tide defense. A’Shawn Robinson can play on the interior or on the edge, and the sophomore recorded 6.5 tackles for a loss this year. Starting ends Jonathan Allen (4.5 sacks) and Jarran Reed combined for 16 tackles for a loss, and there’s no shortage of depth with Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand in the mix. The Crimson Tide allowed only three rushing scores in 2014.|
The Buckeyes are loaded with talent here. End Joey Bosa creates a ton of havoc at the line of scrimmage, recording 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in 2014. Bosa was a first-team Athlon All-American this year. Steve Miller starts opposite of Bosa at defensive end, while Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes and Rashad Frazier will also see significant snaps. The interior is stout with senior Michael Bennett and junior Adophus Washington anchoring the middle. Ohio State tied for sixth nationally with 40 sacks in 2014.
Close call on the DL. Bosa and Bennett edge Alabama's group.
|LB||Regardless of personnel departures, Alabama continues to own one of the SEC’s top linebacker corps on a yearly basis. 2014 was no different, as Trey DePriest (82 tackles) and Reggie Ragland (88 tackles) helped to anchor a Crimson Tide front that led the nation in rush defense. Senior Xzavier Dickson led the team with eight sacks and also registered 10 quarterback hurries. There’s no shortage of depth here with Ryan Anderson (three sacks), Reuben Foster (20 tackles) and Dillon Lee each capable of playing major snaps.||The Buckeyes had to replace standout Ryan Shazier coming into 2014, but this unit performed at a high level with the emergence of Darron Lee and development of Joshua Perry. Perry and Lee ranked as two of the team’s top tacklers, with Curtis Grant (53 stops) rounding out the starting trio. True freshman Raekwon McMillan is a future star in Columbus and contributed 49 stops and 2.5 sacks in 13 games this year. Ohio State's front seven is coming off a stellar performance, holding Wisconsin to 71 rushing yards.|
Small edge to Alabama here due to depth.
|DB||The biggest concern on Alabama’s defense is at the cornerback position. The Crimson Tide allowed 17 passing scores and gave up 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more this year. Junior Cyrus Jones improved as the season progressed and will start at one corner spot. Sophomore Eddie Jackson made a quick recovery from a torn ACL in the spring and will start opposite of Jones. True freshman Tony Brown, sophomore Maurice Smith and junior Bradley Sylvie are the other key contributors at cornerback. Safety Landon Collins is one of – if not the best – safety in college football. Collins led the team with 91 tackles and intercepted three passes.||The arrival of Chris Ash as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator was also critical to the improvement in the secondary. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more last season but cut that number to just 16 in 2014 – and that’s with cornerback Bradley Roby leaving as a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Senior Doran Grant (five interceptions) is the top player in the Ohio State secondary and could draw the assignment of facing Amari Cooper. Vonn Bell picked off five passes this year and is joined by fellow sophomore Tyvis Powell at the other safety spot. The Buckeyes ranked fourth in the Big Ten pass efficiency defense in 2014.|
Collins is the best secondary player in this game. However, OSU ranked No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Field goals have been an adventure at times for Alabama, but the rest of the special teams unit is solid for coach Nick Saban. JK Scott – a true freshman – is already one of the top punters in the nation. Scott averaged 47 yards per punt in 2014. Adam Griffith connected on 12 of 19 field goals this year, while Gunnar Raborn hit on 2 of 3 attempts. Christion Jones is a dangerous option on punt or kickoff returns.
Similar to Alabama, Ohio State has an excellent punter (Cameron Johnston, 45.1 avg.), but field goals have been an issue. Sean Nuernberger has connected on 11 of 18 attempts this year and has hit on just 5 of 10 field goals from 40 yards or more. Jalin Marshall is a dangerous punt returner (12.7 avg., 1 TD), and the Buckeyes have options (Marshall, Curtis Samuel) if Dontre Wilson is unable to play due to injury.
Even - Good punters/return men, question marks on FGs.
|Coaching||Nick Saban is the No. 1 coach in college football - and that's not really up for debate. In eight years at Alabama, Saban is 91-16, has three national championships and has won at least 10 games in seven consecutive years. Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart are two of the nation’s top coordinators, with Kiffin engineering an offense that averaged 6.4 yards per play in his first season in Tuscaloosa. Saban has assembled an outstanding staff, headlined by Mario Cristobal (OL coach), Billy Napier (WR), Lance Thompson (OLB) and Burton Burns (RB).|
Urban Meyer is one of the nation's top coaches and boasts an overall record of 140-26, with two national championships at Florida. Meyer is 36-3 in three seasons at Ohio State and has a perfect 24-0 record during regular season play in the Big Ten. Similar to Alabama, Meyer has assembled an outstanding staff. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman was hired to be Houston’s next head coach, but he will stay with the Buckeyes through the playoffs. The addition of Chris Ash has paid dividends for Ohio State’s defense in 2014.
Meyer is an outstanding coach, but Nick Saban ranks as the best in college football.
Amidst the ceaseless hubbub about Derrick Rose’s inner moral core, and other silly debates regarding the former youngest NBA MVP in league history, the Chicago Bulls have become one of the best teams in basketball.
Rose says they’re good enough to win it all. "I think we can," Rose said to reporters Monday. "I don't want to jinx ourselves, but I think we can really make a run for this (championship) this year. But it just takes focus, discipline, and we got to sacrifice a little bit.”
Rose’s two previously battered, operated-upon knees are feeling better these days, he says, and that’s been clear in his recent play. Over his last four contests, he’s averaging 20.8 points per game on 54 percent shooting. Rose and the scintillating Jimmy Butler, his starting backcourt partner, now make for one of the most potent duos in the league. Butler, the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, has emerged as a clear All-Star this season.
And the Bulls are in rarefied air of true contenders on both sides of the ball, consistently ranking in the NBA’s top ten for both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. A previously all-D squad is now enjoying some balance, and their hard-charging coach Tom Thibodeau is starting to almost break character, and seem a little pleased during his team’s current six-game winning streak.
"I think we're moving in the right, the last 10 games, we're moving in right direction," Thibodeau said to reporters. "I think (we're) playing strong on both sides of the ball. We're getting a lot of contributions from different people. And it's been good, but we have to be able to sustain it and keep building.”
With the shaky state of LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, this season looks like the best title window Chicago’s seen since the days of MJ. Bulls fans ought to keep their fingers crossed, and fists knocking on wood — if they stay healthy, it could be a real fun spring in the Windy City.
— John Wilmes
The Rose Bowl matchup between Florida State and Oregon should be one of college football’s top postseason matchups. And there’s more at stake than just a Rose Bowl trophy, as the Ducks and Seminoles are playing in the first FBS college football playoff game and a chance to meet the winner of Ohio State and Alabama in the national championship game in Arlington, Texas.
The margin between Florida State and Oregon appears to be small. Although the good folks in Vegas like the Ducks as the favorite, the position-by-position analysis shows these two teams are even and should meet for an entertaining game on Jan. 1.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are the headliners and should have a huge performance against defenses that had their share of struggles in 2014. However, keep an eye on what happens in the trenches. Will Florida State’s shuffled offensive line make a big difference? Or will Oregon’s defensive front create enough pressure to disrupt Winston and slow down Dalvin Cook?
Let’s take a look at the position-by-position breakdown for the 2015 Rose Bowl:
Position-by-Position Rose Bowl Preview
Jameis Winston tossed more interceptions (17) this season than he did in 2013, but the sophomore still played at a high level. Despite a struggling offensive line and new faces at receiver, Winston completed 65.4 percent of his throws and helped FSU’s offense average 34.8 points per game in 2014. Winston didn’t take home much postseason hardware, but coach Jimbo Fisher believed his quarterback was better in 2014 than in his Heisman-winning 2013 campaign.
Marcus Mariota is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. The junior was lethal in the big-play department, recording 27 passing plays of 30 yards or more. And Mariota was incredibly efficient, tossing only two picks on 372 attempts and boasting a 68.3 completion percentage. Mariota led the nation by averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt. The junior also rushed for 669 yards and 14 scores in 2014. Mariota is the driving force behind Oregon’s offense and a main reason why the Ducks are in position to win the national title.
Even - There's simply no wrong answer here.
Karlos Williams was pegged by most to be FSU’s leading rusher in the offseason, but the senior finished with 609 yards and was passed by true freshman Dalvin Cook as the No. 1 option late in the year. Cook rushed for 905 yards and eight scores and averaged at least five yards per rush in each of the final four games. Mario Pender was limited by injuries in 2014 but averaged 5.2 yards per rush in limited snaps.
Similar to FSU, Oregon also had a true freshman lead the team in rushing. Royce Freeman powered the ground attack by recording 1,299 yards and 16 scores in his first season on campus. Sophomore Thomas Tyner was limited to nine games due to injury but has 1,098 yards in two seasons. Byron Marshall led the team in rushing last year (1,038 yards). However, Marshall played in an all-purpose role (383 rush yards, 61 receptions) in 2014.
Could go with even here too. Small edge to the Ducks.
The top two receiving options in the Rose Bowl reside on the Florida State sideline. Senior Rashad Greene is Jameis Winston’s favorite target (93 catches), while Nick O’Leary won the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Freshman Travis Rudolph is an emerging star (32 catches), while Jesus Wilson, Ermon Lane and Kermit Whitfield round out the FSU receiving corps. The time to prepare for the Rose Bowl should help Winston and Rudolph develop a better connection.
The Ducks lost their top three statistical wide receivers from last season, but this unit has performed at a high level. Running back/receiver Byron Marshall leads the team with 61 catches, while redshirt freshman Devon Allen is one of the nation’s top big-play threats (16.7 ypc). Dwayne Stanford (37 catches) and Darren Carrington (17.9 ypc) are two valuable targets for Mariota. The loss of tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a season-ending knee injury was a huge hit to the receiving corps for Oregon.
Greene and O'Leary are All-Americans. Rudolph could have a breakout performance against a thin secondary.
The Seminoles battled inconsistency up front early in the season, but this unit has performed much better since freshman Roderick Johnson was inserted at left tackle and Cameron Erving was shifted to center. The offensive line has paved the way for rushers to average 4.8 yards per carry over the last four games and surrendered only two sacks in that span. Guard Tre Jackson was a first-team Athlon All-American in 2014.
Health is a major concern for this unit. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and missed the final three games. Grasu’s status for the Rose Bowl is uncertain. If Grasu can’t play, the Ducks will likely turn to Hamani Stevens at center. Senior Jake Fisher is one of the top tackles in college football, and his return from injury seemed to spark the offense after the loss to Arizona. Freshman Tyrell Crosby started seven games in 2014. This unit allowed 29 sacks in 13 games this year.
Even - FSU's shuffled front might have a small edge. Will Grasu play?
FSU’s defensive line is expected to receive a boost with the return of tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample. The junior suffered a pectoral injury earlier in the season but is expected to play in the Rose Bowl. This unit will also benefit from a healthy Eddie Goldman at tackle, while end Mario Edwards Jr. is one of the nation’s most underrated players. Depth is an issue here, but FSU’s front-line talent is capable of controlling the flow of the game.
Oregon’s base defense on its depth chart features a three-man alignment in the trenches. Ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are the headliners, with Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp anchoring the nose guard spot. Buckner was more productive than Armstead on the stat sheet, recording 69 tackles and ranking first on the team with 12 tackles for a loss. The Ducks ranked 51st nationally against the run and generated 34 sacks.
Return of Lawrence-Stample is a boost for FSU. Edwards Jr. and Goldman have All-America talent.
Injuries were a major problem for FSU’s linebacking corps this year. Terrance Smith missed two games and was limited in others due to injuries. Smith recorded 85 stops, while Reggie Northrup led the team with 113 tackles. Redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas was also banged up throughout the second half of the year. He’s an x-factor to watch in the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks boast a veteran group of linebackers, led by honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection Joe Walker and senior Derrick Malone. Rodney Hardrick ranked fourth on the team with 65 stops, while Tony Washington rounds out the starting linebacking corps while recording 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. Junior Christian French leads the team with 6.5 sacks.
FSU has talent and time to heal will help. But a slight edge goes to Oregon.
The individual talent outweighs FSU’s place on the stat sheet this year. The Seminoles allowed 20 passing scores this season and ranked 10th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit has three standouts in safety Jalen Ramsey and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Ramsey should be all over the field in various roles, while coordinator Charles Kelly needs Williams and Darby to regain their All-ACC form from last season.
Oregon was dealt a serious blow with the loss of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu due to a knee injury. Without Ekpre-Olomu, the secondary will ask even more of senior cornerback Troy Hill, who broke up 16 passes and recorded 57 stops in 2014. Freshman Chris Seisay and Dior Mathis will also see an increased role at cornerback. Safety Erick Dargan leads the team with 82 tackles. Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson join Dargan as key contributors at safety. Oregon ranked 50th nationally in pass efficiency defense this season.
Ekpre-Olomu's loss is huge. Ramsey is the best defensive player on the field.
Kicker Roberto Aguayo is the best in college football. The sophomore connected on 25 of 27 attempts this season, including all three attempts from 50 yards or more. Punter Cason Beatty has been inconsistent but averaged 41.6 yards per punt in 2014 – a slight uptick from 2013. Rashad Greene (punts) and Kermit Whitfield (kickoffs) are dangerous return men. FSU does not have a score on kick or punt returns this year.
With the speed on Oregon’s roster, it’s no surprise this team has some of the nation’s top return men. Charles Nelson scored twice on punt returns, while three players averaged at least 20 yards per kickoff return. Devon Allen attempted only seven kickoff returns but averaged 27 yards per return. Two kickers – Matt Wogan and Aidan Schneider – combined to connect on 15 of 18 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler wasn’t used much (39 punts) and averaged only 39.1 yards per kick.
Another close call. Aguayo is the difference here.
Big advantage to FSU in coaching. Jimbo Fisher is 58-10 in five years with the Seminoles and has this program on a 29-game winning streak. Fisher’s staff is stocked with experienced and proven assistants, including recruiting ace Tim Brewster, line coach Rick Trickett and defensive line coach Sal Sunseri. The defense took a step back with several new faces in the lineup under first-year coordinator Charles Kelly. However, Kelly did a nice job of making second-half adjustments this season.
Mark Helfrich is a bit of a mystery. He’s 23-3 in two years as Oregon’s coach, but he also inherited a loaded squad - including Mariota - from former coach Chip Kelly. Helfrich and the staff did a good job of navigating various injuries this year, and offensive coordinator Scott Frost was a finalist for the Broyles Award. First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum had his share of ups and downs, but the Ducks held their last three opponents under 20 points. This game is a huge opportunity for Helfrich to put his stamp on the program.
Fisher is one of CFB's best coaches - and an outstanding play-caller.
For two teams that have played just three times in history, there is some sneaky good history between Auburn and Wisconsin in bowl games.
The series is tied 1-1-1 all-time. A loaded Wisconsin offense pulled off a huge upset over No. 7 Auburn 24-10 in the 2006 Capital One Bowl. The Tigers controversially topped the Badgers in the Music City Bowl 28-14 to end the 2003 season and catapult Auburn to an unbeaten '04 campaign. The two played to a 7-7 tie in Madison in 1931.
This will be Auburn's second berth in the Outback Bowl. It won a classic overtime thriller against Northwestern to end the '09 season.
After Gary Andersen left for Oregon State, Barry Alvarez returns to the Big Red sideline for the second time since his retirement following the '05 upset of Auburn. It marks the 13th consecutive year that Wisconsin has spent the holiday season in a bowl game. Alvarez also coached the Badgers in the Rose Bowl loss to Stanford when Bret Bielema departed for Arkansas in 2012.
This is Wisconsin's fourth appearance in the Outback Bowl, but the Badgers have yet to get a win. Wisconsin lost to Georgia following the 1997 and 2004 seasons and was defeated by Tennessee to end the 2007 campaign.
Auburn vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: Noon (Jan. 1)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Auburn -6.5
Auburn’s Key to Victory: Stack the box
The Tigers have had defensive issues this year, to say the least — just pop in a tape of the Alabama or South Carolina game. Against conference foes, Auburn finished 10th in the SEC in rushing defense (183.9 ypg), including 289 yards and 227 yards allowed to Georgia and Alabama, respectively. Wisconsin is as one-dimensional as any team in the nation, so stacking the box in an effort to slow Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon is a likely strategy. Alvarez claims Gordon is the best Wisconsin running back of all-time, and the junior will have a chance to prove it in his final collegiate game against the Tigers. Auburn will try to stop Gordon with an interim defensive coordinator, as veteran assistant Charlie Harbison will call the signals after the departure of Ellis Johnson. Former Florida coach Will Muschamp will be Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2015.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Predictions podcast:
Wisconsin's Key to Victory: Complete forward passes
This has been much easier said than done at Wisconsin this year. And needless to say, the Badgers have to score to keep up with Auburn. The Badgers are 118th in passing offense (150.8 ypg), 98th in pass efficiency offense (117.93), 96th with 14 passing touchdowns and own just a 14:13 TD:INT ratio. Stave has been anything but productive. He threw 26 incompletions and three interceptions against Ohio State, has completed just 53.6% of his passes all year and has just two touchdown passes in his last three games. Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are fantastic weapons on the ground, but unless Stave can at least create the illusion of a passing threat, the Tigers will sell out to stop the run.
Stopping the run will be the game plan for both teams as Wisconsin and Auburn are fourth (314 ypg) and 12th (258.5 ypg) nationally in rushing offense, respectively. Unlike Auburn, the Badgers have been strong against the run all season — at least, until facing Ohio State. The Tigers will be the best offense UW has faced all season, as Gus Malzahn's balanced spread attack is sure to gash a Badgers unit that gave up 301 yards rushing, 558 total yards and 59 points in the Big Ten title game.
Prediction: Auburn 41, Wisconsin 24
NEW ORLEANS – For Amari Cooper, the superlatives come almost as quickly as he glides through the secondary.
"Coop is an amazing player," Alabama offensive lineman Austin Shepard said. "I don't how you can stop him."
His quarterback, Blake Sims, agrees: "Any quarterback in the nation would love to have him. I'm glad to have him."
He is such a dynamic player that he even helps the Alabama defense get better every day.
"Going against Cooper in practice of one of the reasons I'm a good player today," Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. "I credit him for my progress over the last year, because going against him is like playing the best guy in the country."
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell understands the challenge the Buckeyes face with No. 9 in crimson is more than just covering Cooper the receiver. He's not just worried about Cooper the guy who can "take a five-yard out route 80 yards," but he's concerned about Cooper the running back, Cooper the blocker and Cooper the leader as well.
"His balance in what he does makes him a complete player," Fickell said of Cooper. "It's not just his ability to catch the ball, it's also his ability to come out of the backfield, crack [block] on a safety to spring a running back, catch the deep ball and his ability to break tackles. All of those things are what make that guy special."
Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant is likely to draw the unenviable task of covering the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder in the Sugar Bowl.
"I'm looking forward to it," Grant said. "He's a great wide receiver. Why wouldn't you want to go up against a great wide receiver. Especially, in a big game like this. I take it as a great compliment from my coaching staff to put me in that position to make plays. You've got to be technique sound and ready to play every snap."
What everyone is getting at in a roundabout way is that Amari Cooper is the greatest SEC receiver of all time. No, that's not hyperbole. In fact, the normally subjective discussion is pretty cut and dry.
The soft-spoken Alabama superstar has accomplished everything a college athlete could possibly dream of achieving. Cooper won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best wide receiver, claimed the SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors, is a two-time SEC champion, a unanimous All-American and a BCS national champion.
Cooper is also the only SEC wide receiver to finish in the top six in Heisman balloting since Auburn's Jimmy Phillips finished sixth in 1957 and is the first wide receiver to be named SEC Player of the Year since LSU's Wendell Davis in 1987. Phillips caught 15 passes for 357 yards and 4 touchdowns that season while Davis caught 72 passes for 993 yards and seven touchdowns in '87.
The Tide pass-catcher already owns the single-season and career Alabama record for receptions, yards and touchdowns — the holy triumvirate of statistical records for receivers. But he's close to doing the same thing for the SEC record book as well.
His 115 receptions this season broke Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews' single-season SEC record (112) and he enters the Sugar Bowl just 84 yards shy of breaking LSU's Josh Reed's single-season SEC receiving yards record (1,740). Reed also won an SEC title and the Biletnikoff Award in 2001 as well while Matthews is the SEC's all-time leader in receptions (262) and both are considered among the SEC's greatest wideouts of all-time.
But Reed and Matthews, along with others like Georgia's A.J. Green, Alabama's Julio Jones or South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, can't come close to the astonishing resume Cooper has produced.
No player in the history of the SEC has produced more receiving yards than Cooper's 3,759 or caught more passes in the SEC title game (12). With 17 more receptions, Cooper would move into second place all-time in SEC history in receptions (he's third currently). With two more touchdowns, Cooper would tie Chris Doering for No. 1 all-time in SEC history with 31 career touchdown receptions. With four more touchdowns, he would tie Reidel Anthony's SEC single-season record of 18 touchdown catches.
Keep in mind, Cooper is finishing just his third season at Alabama.
He's got the records, he's got the individual awards, he's got the championships and he's got the first-round NFL talent. But he knows his career in Tuscaloosa is far from over and that it's been much more than simply a stepping stone to what is an almost guaranteed successful NFL career.
"Anytime you have a goal and you don’t accomplish it, you feel like there’s something that you did wrong in the process of getting there. We’re just trying to do everything right in the process,” Cooper said. "I’ve always kept in mind, team first. You have one goal and you want to win a national championship, so that’s always been in the back of my mind.
"Right now, the playoff game hasn’t really hit me, but I think later on, in the future we’ll be able to sit back and say we were one of the first teams in the college football playoffs. It’ll be something we can sit back and be proud of."
Cooper may not recognize the greatness he's achieved yet but clearly knows what is at stake this week in New Orleans. But two more wins would make him one of the greatest wide receiver in the history of the sport regardless of conference. And that legacy isn't lost on the young pass catcher.
"I hope receivers want to come to Alabama based on the season I've had," Cooper said.