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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.
Football nerds unite.
Just think, less than a decade ago, Baylor and Michigan State were teams worthy of laughs in their respective conferences. Baylor was a bottom feeder in the Big 12, and Michigan State’s various foibles made the Spartans an also-ran in the Big Ten.
Thanks to a great offensive mind and a great defensive mind, Baylor and Michigan State have conference titles under their belts.
Now, we get the best of both in a bowl game.
Art Briles revamped Baylor with an up-tempo, pass-happy offense, turning the Bears into a two-time Big 12 champion. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio built a classic Big Ten program at Michigan State with a grinding offense and stifling defense leading the way to a Rose Bowl last season.
Both teams hoped to reach the College Football Playoff this season, but the Cotton Bowl nonetheless is a fantastic matchup for those who want to see one of the top new age offensive minds going up against old school Big Ten defense.
Baylor vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m.
Spread: Baylor by 3
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan State’s defensive statement
The likely storyline for the Cotton Bowl is probably the test for Baylor’s offense against a stout Michigan State defense. True, Baylor can continue to establish itself as a legitimate national power if it can solve a traditionally powerful Michigan State defense. But the reverse is true, too. The 2014 edition of Michigan State has something to prove as well. The Spartans allowed the most yards per game (293.5) and yards per play (4.8) since 2010. Oregon and Ohio State both thrashed the Spartans’ D for their two losses of the year. Michigan State played only one other top 60 offense (Indiana) this season, making that a pretty hollow 10 wins for Sparty this season. Baylor, the No. 1 team in the country in total offense, presents a perfect chance for redemption.
2. Baylor’s run defense
Baylor may quietly have an edge in run defense compared the Michigan State’s run game. The Bears allowed 2.9 yards per carry, fourth-best in the country. Michigan State ranked 28th at 5.1 yards per carry. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford rushed for 1,360 yards and backup Nick Hill added 596 for a combined total of 28 touchdowns. Behind senior linebacker Bryce Hager, Baylor allowed only 2.5 yards per carry in the first half this season — a telling stat considering how many lopsided games Baylor played. Michigan State will try to set up the run, but Baylor might not allow it.
3. Who wants to be here?
Through the lens of history, Baylor and Michigan State in a New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl should be a time for celebration. Yet both teams have the excuses to go through the motions in a bowl game. Baylor was one of two teams left out of the final spot for the College Football Playoff along with TCU, so a Cotton Bowl may seem like a consolation prize even if the Bears are playing in this game since winning the Southwest Conference in 1980.
One of the great aspects of this game is that neither team has faced an opponent quite like the other. The stylistic differences between the Big 12 and the Big Ten couldn’t be more stark. The cliche about New Year’s bowls used to be the comparison of Big Ten power vs. SEC speed. That’s changed. Baylor hasn’t played many teams like Michigan State, but the Spartans at least have the advantage of playing Oregon earlier in the season.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Baylor 28
The Orlando-based bowl game with the New Year’s afternoon timeslot is back to its traditional name, but it’s a long way from its traditional matchup.
The Citrus Bowl — returning to that name for the first time since 2002 — still has a Big Ten-SEC matchup, even if the game features teams entering new postseason territory.
Minnesota is playing in a Florida bowl game for the first time since 2000 when the Gophers reached the Micron PC Bowl (now the Russell Athletic Bowl, also in Orlando).
Missouri’s wait has been even longer. The Tigers are playing a Florida Bowl for the first time since 1981 when Mizzou reached the Tangerine Bowl (the precursor to the Citrus/Capital One Bowl).
A number of factors played a role in these two unlikely teams facing each other in a prime slot on New Year’s Day. Conference realignment put Missouri in the SEC’s bowl lineup. Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss reaching the College Football Playoff bowls made the SEC East champs the most attractive team for the Citrus.
And lackluster seasons from Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan allowed overachieving Minnesota to slide into a bowl slot normally reserve for the Big Ten’s power programs.
Make no mistake, these teams earned their spots in a big-time bowl. Missouri overcame early losses to Georgia and Indiana to win the SEC East for 22 overall wins in the last two years. Minnesota defeated rivals Iowa and Michigan, plus Nebraska, to come within one game of a Big Ten division title.
Minnesota vs. Missouri
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 1 p.m.
Spread: Missouri by 5
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Run, run, run
Missouri’s defense is led by its standout pass rush, anchored by defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden (21 combined sacks). A stout rushing attack can take Missouri off its game. What is the common thread among Missouri’s three losses? Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Arkansas also challenged Missouri with its run game in a loss. In three losses, Missouri opponents are averaging 231 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 10 total rushing touchdowns compared to 106.6 yards, 3.3 yards per carry and seven total TDs in 10 wins. Neutralizing the pass rush with the run game also freed up opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.9 percent of their passes in Mizzou’s three losses. Behind tailback David Cobb, Minnesota has a run game that could take Missouri’s defense out of its comfort zone.
Missouri’s Key to Victory: Maty Mauk
Mauk completed fewer than half of his passes against Alabama in the SEC title game, but he still hit a pair of deep passes to give the Crimson Tide pause in the third quarter (Alabama still won by 29). Mauk may never have a great completion rate thanks to his risky nature, but he can’t turn the ball over if Missouri is going to win. Mauk threw eight interceptions in Missouri’s first six games but calmed down during the second half of the season. As the Tigers finished the year on a 6-1 run, Mauk threw only three picks. Minnesota has a solid secondary that finished the season with 11 picks among six DBs. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is a ball hawk who could cause headaches for Mauk.
At the start of the season, this game seemed more like an optimistic Texas Bowl pairing. At some point, we’ll just trust coaches Gary Pinkel and Jerry Kill to exceed expectations. Instead, Missouri and Minnesota were factors in their respective conference races and ended up in a coveted Jan. 1 bowl spot. On paper, Missouri as the SEC’s representative would seem to have the edge, but Minnesota’s offensive scheme could even the odds against the Tigers’ pass rush.
Prediction: Missouri 28, Minnesota 21
LOS ANGELES — If it’s possible to save a season for a team that went undefeated, then Dalvin Cook is on the short list of players who accomplished such a feat.
Cook is the home run threat who turned the momentum in two of the toughest tests for FSU this season. He was the official MVP of the ACC championship game and an unofficial MVP of October and November for Florida State.
When Florida State meets Oregon in the Rose Bowl, the most Oregon-like player in the game won’t play for the Ducks.
The most explosive player in the Rose Bowl will be Cook.
“If we get that guy the ball 40 times a game, he'd have Melvin Gordon numbers,” quarterback Jameis Winston said.
That hasn’t been necessary just yet. First, Florida State has a Heisman winner at quarterback, a Mackey winner at tight end and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver starting at wideout.
Besides, Cook is breaking off yards in chunks. He has 12 carries of 20 yards or more this season. That figure ranks 23rd nationally, remarkable considering he didn’t become a fixture of the Florida State offense until mid-October.
“He adds a whole other element of speed to the game,” Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone said. “He's a fast guy and he's able to catch the ball and outrun you ... Scary stuff. He'll run to the sideline and try to outrun you."
There was a time Cook didn’t fit perfectly into Florida State’s plans.
Cook, a five-star recruit, didn’t even play in Florida State’s opener against Oklahoma State.
What held him back was no different than what hinders most freshman running backs — pass blocking and knowing his reads. He also had a fumbling problem at one point this year.
“Trust your eyes as a coach, watch him in practice, how he competes every day. Not just when he makes a big run, but how does he pick up the blitz?” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even if it's a four‑yard run, the reads he made. Does he understand the blocking schemes? All those kind of things. We just had to feel for that in time.”
Cook delivered at first with 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in a 38-20 win over Syracuse on Oct. 11 when veteran Karlos Williams was injured.
The true breakout, though, was two games later.
On Oct. 30 at Louisville, Florida State trailed the Cardinals 21-0 at one point. The Seminoles began their comeback with a fumble recovery in the end zone by tight end Nick O’Leary and a 68-yard TD pass from Winston.
Cook, though, was the hero of the game. His 40-yard touchdown run pulled FSU to within three in the third quarter. His 38-yard TD run with 3:46 to go gave Florida State its first and final lead of the game in a 42-31 win.
In Florida State’s other closest call this season, Cook rushed for a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Miami and the game-winning 26-yard score in the final 3:05 in the 30-26 win over the Hurricanes.
“My time came,” Cook said. “I waited and embraced the moment.”
Cook finished the regular season with a combined 321 yards on 55 carries against Florida and Georgia Tech. He added seven receptions for 71 yards.
The push has given him 905 rushing yards this season, a freshman record for Florida State. He’s within striking distance of 1,000 yards, remarkable for a few reasons.
Florida State didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher from the time Warrick Dunn left in 1996 until Devonta Freeman did it in 2013. Karlos Williams, who averaged more than eight yards per carry and rushed for 11 touchdowns last season, seemed to be next in line.
By the end of the season, Cook had become a feature back, not something Florida State has utilized to a great degree in the last decade. Cook’s 31 carries against Georgia Tech was the most for a Florida State tailback since Greg Jones in 2002.
The senior Williams and sophomore Mario Pender, though, eventually had to defer to the rookie.
“When (Cook) has the ball in his hands, he knows how to tote that rock and that's very hard to find,” Winston said. “We’ve got some other backs, Karlos and Mario Pender that can do the same and they allowed Dalvin to come in and take the shine, so I’ve got to give it to them.”
As it turns out, Dallas is a fitting spot for the college football championship game this season.
Not only is that where the first College Football Playoff will be won on the field, it’s not that far from where the four teams will try to win the hearts of football fans.
Twitter issued a nationwide, county-by-county breakdown of where each of the four college football semifinalists have the greatest rate of followers.
The results shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Ohio State owns the Midwest. Florida State owns the Sunshine State. Alabama owns the South. Oregon owns the West.
Large swaths of the Central and Mountain time zones, though, are up for grabs. See for yourself in this map:
LOS ANGELES — From afar, the scene around Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at Rose Bowl media day isn’t all that different. The quarterbacks of college football playoff teams and Heisman winners both merit throngs of attention.
In fact, they occupied the same podium in the same corner an hour apart in an LA hotel ballroom.
As the 2014 Heisman winner, Mariota has spent the weeks since the end of the regular season in the postseason award parade. The spotlight hasn’t really left Mariota.
And while Winston may be the most visible player in the sport today, it hasn’t been because he’s sought media attention in recent months.
He’s the most visible because he’s the quarterback of an undefeated team (again) and the most dramatic team in the country. He’s the most visible player due to the off-field legal and student conduct saga that has clouded his career since midway through the 2013 season.
But Winston has been insulated. His meetings with the media have been few and short. His statements have been prepared. His first meeting with Mariota wasn’t at the Heisman ceremony, where he could have attended as a previous winner; it was as both teams arrived in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl.
Winston wrapped up his third day of extended interviews with the media Monday at the Rose Bowl, but it won’t be the end of the interviews, especially if Winston elects to leave school early to enter the NFL draft after the season.
Days before arriving in Los Angeles for Rose Bowl preparation, Winston was cleared of violating the student code of conduct following allegations of a sexual assault of an FSU student in December 2012. Prior to that, criminal charges were not filed against Winston, although Florida State’s and the Tallahassee Police Department’s handling of the case has been called into question.
In his longest interview sessions since the ACC preseason media day, Winston isn’t necessarily relieved, animated or apologetic.
He’s more or less resigned that the perception from outside of Florida State will remain in limbo.
“I can't get people to like me,” Winston said. “What they read or what they may see, it's them. I can't control anyone's opinion. Like I say, my family, this football family, everyone associated with us, they know me and people that have met me and actually talked to me, they know who I am.”
If Winston didn’t understand that being a Heisman winner and facing the allegations he faced put him into a spotlight earlier this season, he does now.
During the offseason, Winston was caught on camera stealing crab legs from a grocery store. In September, Winston was suspended when students on social media documented his use of “offensive and vulgar” language about women in the student union, a suspension extended from a half to the duration of the Clemson game when he failed to give an accurate account of the incident to school officials.
Since then, Winston has tried to lay low. While his teammates may be able to celebrate a win on the town in Tallahassee, Winston says he tries to stay away.
“Obviously I know that I'm under a microscope,” Winston said. “That's why I stay in Tallahassee. I've just got to sit in because people will tweet about you for walking down the street backwards. You've just got to chill. ... I love being around my teammates, and the only time I can be around them is in the locker room. I can't celebrate with them, can't do nothing with them, but it comes with the territory.”
Even though Winston has been absent from the team, the support hasn’t wavered, both players and coaches said.
“There were definitely times that it took some of his time away from football,” quarterback coach Randy Sanders said. “But at the same time it made him become more efficient. In a lot of ways coming to practice, playing the games, being in meetings, being around the guys, a lot of ways it made him appreciate the team and appreciate football even more.”
Of course, the reason Winston is in demand isn’t just because he hasn’t spoken publicly much this season or that he’s a lightning rod in the sport.
It’s because his team is still playing on the biggest stage.
“Why would I be down on myself when I'm a blessed man?” Winston said. “I have a great team. We haven't lost in two years. So (the media) always look(s) at the negative things in life but I look at the positive things in life. I'm so blessed. I have a young brother, I have both my parents, my grandma is still living, I have a little sister and I gotta do right for them. It's more than football sometimes. People can criticize me and say whatever they want to say about me, but I'm a blessed guy.”
Numbers and statistics are unquestionably a huge part of football. With that in mind, Athlon Sports rounded up the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from Week 17 of the NFL season.
Kansas City's wide receivers finished the 2014 season with zero touchdown receptions. That's the first time in at least 50 years that has happened to an NFL team. According to The Sporting News, the Chiefs are just the fourth team in league history to lay the receiver TD goose egg, the last being the 1964 New York Giants. Dwayne Bowe's Dec. 8 (2013) TD was the last for the Chiefs. He was thought to have caught a TD on Sunday but fumbled it and it was recovered by Travis Kelce for the score.
The Carolina Panthers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-3 to win the NFC South Sunday and became the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs, despite having a winless streak of at least seven games during the season. The 7-8-1 Panthers became the second sub-.500 team to win a division since the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9).
New York Giants rookie receiver Odell Beckham Jr. set a record for most catches (91) and receiving yards (1,305) in the first 12 games to start a career after catching 12 balls for 185 yards against Philadelphia Sunday. His nine straight games with at least 90 yards receiving tied Michael Irvin for the longest single-season streak in NFL history. Beckham missed the first four games of the year due to a hamstring injury.
Five teams that missed the postseason in 2013 – Dallas, Arizona, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore – advanced to the 2014 playoffs. Since the 12-team playoff format was adopted in 1990, at least four teams have qualified for the playoffs in every season that were not in the postseason the year before.
Nine different quarterbacks threw at least 30 touchdown passes, the most ever in a season. The previous mark was five set multiple times. The nine quarterbacks with at least 30 touchdown passes this season: Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck (40), Denver’s Peyton Manning (39), Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers (38), Dallas’ Tony Romo (34), New England’s Tom Brady (33), New Orleans’ Drew Brees (33), Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger (32), San Diego’s Philip Rivers (31), and the New York Giants’ Eli Manning (30).
The Dallas Cowboys defeated the Redskins at Washington to finish the regular season 8-0 on the road. They are the sixth team with a perfect 8-0 road record since the 16-game schedule was adopted in 1978. Four of the previous five teams to accomplish the feat advanced to the Super Bowl.
Houston defensive end J.J. Watt had three sacks and a safety in the Texans’ 23-17 win against Jacksonville, finishing the season with 20.5 sacks. Watt, who led the league with 20.5 sacks in 2012, is the first player with at least 20 sacks in two different seasons since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. He is the first player in NFL history with at least three offensive touchdowns, two touchdowns on takeaways and a safety in the same season.
Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a 139.6 passer rating in the Packers’ 30-20 win over Detroit. Rodgers finished the season with a 112.2 passer rating and is the only player in NFL history to register a 100+ rating in six consecutive seasons.
Rodgers threw two touchdowns and no interceptions in the win over Detroit to finish the regular season with 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions at home.
Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck had two touchdown passes in the Colts’ 27-10 win at Tennessee. Luck led the NFL with 40 touchdown passes in 2014 and is the eighth player in NFL history with at least 40 TD passes in a season. Since entering the NFL in 2012, Luck has 12,957 passing yards, the most of any NFL player in his first three seasons, and 86 TD passes, which ranks second only to Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino (98) for the most in a player’s first three years.
Dallas running back DeMarco Murray ran for exactly 100 yards against Washington Sunday, and had 12 100-yard rushing games in 2014. Only Barry Sanders' 14 in 1997 is better in an NFL season.
With its 23-20 loss to New Orleans on Sunday, Tampa Bay earned the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. It is the first time since 1987 that the Buccaneers will select first overall. They took Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde then.
Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown had his third punt return for a touchdown since 2011 Sunday night against Cincinnati. Only Devin Hester and Patrick Peterson with four apiece have had more during that span.
New York Jets receiver Eric Decker had 221 yards receiving against Miami Sunday, becoming the first Jet with 200 yards receiving since Rich Caster in 1972.
Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri was 29-for-29 on field goal attempts this season before missing one in the third quarter against the host Tennessee Titans Sunday.
Miami running back Lamar Miller's 97-yard touchdown run Sunday is tied for the third-longest run in NFL history, and was the longest since Ahman Green had a 98-yard run for Green Bay against Denver in 2003. Miller's run was the longest in Dolphins history.
LOS ANGELES — Clint Trickett even had his own father in the dark regarding the concussions that ended his football career.
As Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett prepared for the Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon, Trickett also was keeping in touch daily with his son who was in the process of retiring from football due to concussions.
Clint Trickett, West Virginia’s starting quarterback for most of the last two seasons and a former FSU backup, revealed last week that he had sustained five concussions in the last 14 months.
The final concussion in a 26-20 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 20 was the last of his football career. Instead of joining his teammates on the field in the Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M on Monday, Clint Trickett will begin to pursue a career in coaching.
“I’ll mess with a shoulder, I’ll mess with a knee, I’ll mess with an elbow, but I’m not going to mess with a head,” Rick Trickett told Athlon Sports from Florida State’s Rose Bowl media day Monday.
Perhaps most chilling for the father was the revelation that Clint Trickett had hidden two of the five concussions from West Virginia trainers and his father.
Rick Trickett noted that Clint had suffered from migraines, so that may have contributed to uncertainty regarding Clint’s headaches. However, Rick said he should have known his son sustained a concussion in a 31-30 loss to TCU on Nov. 1.
“I didn’t know about the one at TCU. I should have picked up on it,” Rick Trickett said. “Then he told me about it after Kansas State. He tries to be a tough guy. Obviously, I would have got on him about that.”
Instead, Clint Trickett got an early start to his coaching career. He served as an unofficial quarterbacks coach while West Virginia staffers were out recruiting. Rick Trickett said he would have liked Clint to go through the NFL free agent process, even though the options would have been limited for a 186-pound quarterback without a concussion history.
“He’s not the biggest guy in the world and he wasn’t going to be able to play in the bowl game anyway,” Rick Trickett said. “He wants to coach. He got a taste of it. He kind of took to it, liked it.”
The sports world bid farewell to some legends in 2014. We mourn their passing, but celebrate the memories they leave behind.
Marvin “Bad News” Barnes, basketball legend
Died Sept. 8, Age 62
In marking his death, the New York Times called Barnes “one of basketball’s most talented and defiantly self-indulgent players, whose career dissolved in a haze of drugs and alcohol.” But, as sportscaster Bob Costas said, “The truth is that there were many nights, even when Dr. J was in the game, when the best player on the floor was Marvin Barnes.” Barnes helped lead Providence to the Final Four in 1973 before spending two seasons for the Spirits of St. Louis in the American Basketball Association and then four in the NBA.
Rob Bironas, Tennessee Titans kicker
Died Sept. 20, Age 36
One of the most accurate kickers in NFL history, Bironas holds the NFL single-game record with eight field goals against the Texans in 2007, a year in which he earned All-Pro recognition. Bironas died in a single-car accident in Nashville; witnesses reported that he had been driving aggressively, and tests revealed a blood alcohol level of 0.218.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, boxer
Died April 20, Age 76
Immortalized in song by Bob Dylan and portrayed on screen by Denzel Washington, Carter was a middleweight boxer who was convicted of murder but freed after almost 20 years in prison via a petition of habeas corpus. Carter’s saga inspired the Dylan song “Hurricane” and the 1999 film “The Hurricane.”
Jimmy Ellis, boxer
Died May 6, Age 74
Ellis was a former WBA heavyweight champion who had memorable fights with Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, among others. Upon Ellis’ death, Ali said: “In the world of heavyweights I always thought him one of the best.”
Tom Gola, basketball Hall of Famer
Died Jan. 26, Age 81
One of the biggest basketball stars of the 1950s, Gola led La Salle to the 1952 NIT title and the 1954 NCAA title. Gola, who still holds the NCAA record for career rebounds with 2,201, was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976. He was later elected to the Pennsylvania State House.
Tony Gwynn, Baseball Hall of Famer
Died June 16, Age 54
Quite possibly the hardest-working, sweetest-swinging player in baseball history, Mr. Padre used an incomparable mind for the game, tireless hours of film study and an uncanny ability to find gaps in the defense to win eight batting titles and rap out 3,141 career hits. His death from oral cancer made him a cautionary tale against smokeless tobacco use.
Frank Jobe, pioneer sports surgeon
Died March 6, Age 88
Countless athletes owe their careers to the pioneering orthopedic surgeon, who performed the first “Tommy John surgery” on the procedure’s namesake in 1974 and also performed the first major shoulder reconstruction for a pro athlete, allowing Orel Hershiser to continue his career.
Ralph Kiner, Baseball Hall of Famer
Died Feb. 6, Age 91
In the years following World War II, Kiner was the most feared slugger in baseball, leading MLB in homers every year from 1947-52 and surpassing 50 dingers twice. He then spent 53 years as a beloved broadcaster for the Mets.
Philip Lutzenkirchen, football player
Died June 30, Age 23
The former Auburn tight end was a fan favorite who played for the 2010 National Championship team and set a school record for tight ends with 14 career touchdown catches. He died in a one-car crash in his home state of Georgia.
Don Meyer, basketball coach
Died May 18, Age 69
Meyer held the record for most wins by a men’s college basketball coach with 923 until his total was surpassed by Mike Krzyzewski in 2011. A highly influential coach and teacher of basketball, Meyer was credited by Pat Summitt with teaching her “how to teach others how to play the game.”
Chuck Noll, Hall of Fame NFL coach
Died June 13, Age 82
Noll’s legendary 23-year tenure as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers produced 209 wins, four Super Bowl titles and induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1993. He was the architect of the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s and also was known for providing significant opportunities for African Americans, both on the field and on the sidelines.
Dr. Jack Ramsey, NBA coach and broadcaster
Died April 28, Age 89
A highly respected coach and broadcaster, Dr. Jack led the 1977 Portland Trail Blazers to the NBA title and won a total of 864 games as an NBA head coach. He then spent nine seasons as a color commentator for the 76ers and Heat. He also authored several books on basketball.
Oscar Taveras, Baseball phenom
Died Oct. 26, Age 22
Known as "El Fenómeno,” Taveras was a highly coveted baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic who drew comparison to countryman Vladimir Guerrero and spent one season with the St. Louis Cardinals before his death in an automobile accident in his home country.
Kevin Ward Jr., driver
Died Aug. 9, Age 20
Ward was an obscure young competitor on the lower levels of professional auto racing before his death in a controversial and tragic dirt-track incident with Sprint Cup star Tony Stewart. Angered by Stewart’s aggressive driving during a sprint car race at New York’s Canandaigua Motorsports Park, Ward got out of his car on the track to confront Stewart but was struck and killed by Stewart’s car.
Don Zimmer, MLB player/manager/coach
Died June 4, Age 83
Baseball lifer Zimmer spent 65 years in professional baseball as a player, manager and coach., winning 885 games as a big-league manager. From 2008 until his death, Zim was the last former Brooklyn Dodger still in the game.
Jerry Coleman, baseball player-turned-broadcaster
Lou Hudson, basketball player
Hank Lauricella, Hall of Fame football player
Earl Morrall, Super Bowl quarterback
Robert Newhouse, NFL running back
Bob Suter, hockey player and member of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. team
Orlando Thomas, NFL lineman
Fuzzy Thurston, member of the 1960s Packers dynasty
Bob Welch, MLB pitcher
NEW ORLEANS - The Sugar Bowl will go one of two ways for Ohio State's 250-pound sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones.
His inexperience will cost the Buckeyes a shot at the national championship. Or, his international-man-of-mystery status will surprise Alabama coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and a defense that has no idea what to expect from a player with only one game of film.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer probably wants something in between. He wants Jones protecting the football, dumping it off to a cavalcade of talented offensive weapons and stepping back into the offensive shadows. But that won't be good enough to defeat the No. 1 team in the nation.
To pull off one of the biggest upsets in national championship history, Meyer knows he will have to take risks with his unproven quarterback.
The Bucks head coach must turn Jones' weakness into a strength. Flip his inexperience and underexposure into an advantage. After all, the biggest unknown for two head coaches who seemingly know everything about one another is No. 12 in Scarlet and Gray. The unpredictable nature of the Buckeyes quarterback situation might be Ohio State's best chance to upset the heavily favored and much more experienced Crimson Tide.
It appears Smart and Co. agree across the board.
"You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations," Smart said. "We haven't seen enough tape to know."
This is where Meyer and Ohio State coordinator Tom Herman have an opportunity against one of the great defensive coaching tandems in the country. Jones' skillet is somewhat of known commodity for Saban and Smart. He's massive, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 250 pounds, and he's got a huge arm and isn't likely to run around much. But beyond that, there is nothing concrete Saban or Smart can prepare for when it comes to the opposing signal caller. The playbook is somewhat of a blank canvas and Ohio State needs to empty the tool box on offense to win.
"He's a mystery," Alabama defensive back Nick Perry said. "We really don't know exactly what he can do or what kind of offense they're going to have come game time, so we're just preparing for everything and anything."
One thing the Buckeyes know that the Tide is sure to find out is that Jones isn't lacking in confidence. His path from middle-of-the-pack recruit from famed Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville to starting in the first college football playoff is evidence.
Listed at just 215 pounds coming out of high school, Jones enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy and added 35 pounds in one year. He became the No. 1 prep school quarterback prospect in the nation and signed with Ohio State in Meyer's first class in Columbus. He didn't attempt a pass in 2012 as he redshirted and only attempted two passes in 2013. It would have been easy for a player of his talent to consider going elsewhere as Heisman candidates Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett showed that there was little room for his 250-pound frame on the field. Jones could quarterback Ohio State to a national championship and enter next season as the third-string quarterback.
But Jones got his chance with the Big Ten Championship hanging in the balance and he delivered in a big way. He completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions while leading his team to a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers.
"I think the confidence that he showed in himself, the confidence that we had in him as a staff and then for him to go out and put forth the performance he did really just reinforced it," Herman said. "The confidence was put to the test and he answered the test."
His ability to step into the huddle and execute has not only won over his coaches but also his teammates as well.
“I definitely think he is going to be ready for any and all situations that he is going to face in the game," Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said. "I think he is getting really comfortable with his checks and reads. He's gotten all kinds of reps since training camp and I think the way he performed in the Big Ten Championship Game is a testament to how he has taken those reps seriously throughout the season.”
The compusure in a high-pressure situation against Wisconsin, a game not only for the Big Ten title, but also an opportunity to seal the final playoff bid, also spoke to the Alabama defense.
"[Jones] is very unflappable and not affected easily," Smart said. "He does a good job in the pocket and really threw the deep ball well in the Big Ten championship game. He's done everything he's been asked to do and done it at a really high level."
Added Alabama's middle linebacker and defensive leader Trey DePriest: "We saw what he did against Wisconsin. How he handled himself. Coming into the Big Ten championship and showing that type of composure and putting up the numbers that he did was impressive."
There is no doubt Jones was impressive against Wisconsin. But he was thrust into the fire without any time to think against a team that was significantly outmatched. Facing the No. 1 team in the nation and its elite defense on the floor of the Superdome with the entire universe watching and a national championship on the line is a totally different animal all together.
Will the month off help Jones and Ohio State, giving Herman and Meyer time to concoct a bizarre secret strategy that will allow OSU to shock the college football world? Or is four weeks enough time for a four-time national championship coaching guru to devise a gameplan complex enough to confuse a player who has attempted 19 career passes?
Smart knows the lay-off and the unknown commodity under center could help Ohio State.
"It's who takes advantage of that time better. It could pay off for either one of us," he said.
Cardale Jones gets it, too.
“Nick Saban and Alabama’s coaches have seen it all. We’re not trying to fool anybody here. We’re trying to come out and play football," Jones said. "It’s humbling, because this is a point in my career that I always wanted to be at. Personally, this is the biggest game, hands down. It’s a one-game season, the first ever college football playoff. This is the game that goes to the national championship, so it is the biggest game.”
The college football playoff officially begins when Florida State and Oregon meet on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl for the first national semifinal matchup. The Seminoles and Ducks are two of the nation’s most successful programs in recent years, and the Rose Bowl semifinal could be one of the best bowl matchups of the 2014-15 postseason. And there’s no shortage of storylines between Florida State and Oregon, as both programs are among the nation’s best on offense and feature the last two Heisman winners in Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
After dominating its opponents last season, it’s been a different story for Florida State in 2014. The Seminoles won seven games by a touchdown or less, including the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech (37-35) and a road win at Miami (30-26) in mid-November. Pinpointing the reasons for the drop in margin of victory for Florida State isn’t easy, but it’s largely due to the turnover in personnel on defense and an increase in turnovers. Despite problems in those areas, the Seminoles finished the regular season unbeaten and enter the Rose Bowl with a 29-game winning streak. Oregon finished its regular season with one blemish – a 31-24 loss to Arizona – but dominated most of the opponents on its schedule. The Ducks crushed the Wildcats 51-13 in a rematch against the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship, defeated Utah 51-27, beat Stanford 45-16 and used a second-half rally to knock off Michigan State 46-27 on Sept. 6. Oregon has suffered its share of key injuries this year and has struggled to find consistency on defense under first-year coordinator Don Pellum. However, having Mariota and a lethal group of skill players helps to alleviate many of the team’s issues on defense.
This is the first meeting between Florida State and Oregon. The Seminoles are making their second consecutive postseason trip to Pasadena after beating Auburn for the BCS National Championship last season. The Ducks won earlier this year in the Rose Bowl by defeating UCLA 42-30. Oregon’s last trip to the Rose Bowl as a postseason game occurred in 2012, as Chip Kelly’s Ducks defeated Wisconsin 45-38.
Florida State vs. Oregon
Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota
Assuming both players declare, it’s no secret Winston and Mariota are expected to be high picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. And as the last two Heisman winners, there’s plenty of hype and anticipation for this quarterback duel in the Rose Bowl. Winston’s interceptions increased from 10 (2013) to 17 this year, which was largely due to a struggling offensive line and new faces at receiver. Despite the uptick in turnovers, Winston was still performing at a high level. The sophomore completed 65.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,559 yards. Winston was at his best late in games, completing 68.4 percent of his passes in the second half, while tossing only four picks in the final two quarters. The matchup of Winston versus the Oregon secondary took an interesting turn when the Ducks announced top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu would miss the playoffs due to a knee injury. Without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks will ask more of senior Troy Hill and freshman Chris Seisay in coverage, which is a tough assignment against Florida State’s group of receivers – including standout senior Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. On the other sideline, Mariota has been virtually unstoppable all year. The junior passed for 3,783 yards and 38 scores, while recording 669 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Similar to Winston, Mariota also had to deal with inconsistency on the offensive line and a new group of targets at receiver. While the huge passing and rushing numbers always get first mention when discussing Mariota, it’s his efficiency that deserves more attention. The junior has completed at least 68 percent of his passes in two out of his three years in Eugene and tossed only two picks on 372 attempts in 2014. Mariota and Winston are the nation's most-talented quarterbacks. And with both players facing defenses that have been less than elite this year, the two quarterbacks should close out the 2014 season with a huge performance. The showdown between Mariota and Winston might be one of the most-anticipated matchups to occur in a bowl.
2. Which defense gets timely stops?
Considering the firepower on both sidelines and on the stat sheet this year, it would be a huge surprise if this game turns into a defensive battle. With that in mind, it’s unrealistic to expect either defense to be perfect in this game. Florida State has dealt with injuries all season on defense, but the time off between the ACC Championship and Rose Bowl should help return this unit to near full strength. Tackle Eddie Goldman suffered an ankle injury in the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech and is expected to return to the starting lineup against Oregon. But Goldman’s return isn’t the only key injury tidbit for Florida State, as tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample may play after suffering a pectoral injury earlier in the year, and a banged up linebacking corps should have a full complement of players available. For Oregon, Ekpre-Olomu is a huge loss against a talented Seminole passing offense. However, if there’s a bright spot for the Ducks, it’s the depth this unit has established over the course of the season. Additionally, Oregon held four out of its last five opponents to less than 20 points and limited each of its final three offenses to less than 4.6 yards per play. Both teams have struggled to get off the field on third downs, but Florida State is 11th nationally in red zone defense. In a tight game, turnovers could play a critical role in the outcome. Oregon has forced 25 takeaways this year, and the Seminoles have 24. There’s no doubt both defenses are going to have their hands full on Jan. 1. Don’t expect either to have a particularly effective day, but the determining factor could be key stops in the fourth quarter, turnovers and sacks. One or two plays on defense could decide this game.
3. Offensive Lines
Both teams had question marks about their offensive lines at various points in 2014. Oregon started the year with a significant setback, as tackle Tyler Johnstone was lost for the season with a knee injury. Johnstone’s injury wasn’t the only setback for the Ducks, as tackles Jake Fisher and Andre Yruretagoyena and center Hroniss Grasu missed time due to various ailments. Fisher’s return sparked the offense in the second half of the year, while Grasu is expected to play in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury suffered against Utah kept him on the sidelines for the final three regular season games. Having Grasu back in the mix is critical with the Seminoles regaining the services of tackle Lawrence-Stample and the strength of Goldman on the interior. End Mario Edwards Jr. is one of the nation's best at stopping the run and holding his own at the point of attack. Florida State had to replace standout center Bryan Stork this season and struggled to find consistency on the ground and in pass protection early in the year. However, this unit has thrived since moving Cameron Erving to center and inserting freshman Roderick Johnson at left tackle. Since the line shuffle, the Seminoles are averaging 146 rushing yards per game and recorded 5.4 yards per carry against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship. This unit has also benefited from the emergence of true freshman running back Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 321 yards and one touchdown over his last two games. In addition to protecting the two quarterbacks (Winston and Mariota), it’s also critical that both teams are physical at the point of attack and open up rushing lanes.
This game has all of the makings for an entertaining shootout. Mariota versus Winston will be one of the top quarterback duels in recent memory, while both players are surrounded with talent, including receiver Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O’Leary and running back Dalvin Cook for Florida State, along with receivers Devon Allen and Byron Marshall, running backs Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman for Oregon. Offenses are going to dictate the flow of the game. Expect Florida State to use its rushing attack and Cook to keep the Ducks’ offense and Mariota on the sidelines, while Oregon hopes to get the Seminoles into an up-tempo shootout. It’s going to be a tough day for both defenses. However, whichever unit gets timely stops or generates a couple of turnovers will make a huge difference. This game could go either way and may not be decided until the final possession. Florida State can’t afford to commit turnovers like it did during the regular season, as a second-half deficit against the Ducks will be too tough to overcome. However, the loss of Ekpre-Olomu is huge for Oregon, and the Seminoles do just enough on defense to leave the Rose Bowl with a victory and a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 12.
Prediction: Florida State 41, Oregon 34
This past spring, the Milwaukee Bucks were purchased by Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry — a billionaire hedge fund duo from New York City. Things in Bucksland have changed considerably since then.
Former old-school owner Herb Kohl gave his team a mandate to stay as competitive as possible, pushing for playoff spots each year regardless of the long view. This led to a holding pattern of mediocrity in Milwaukee, with a lot of first-round exits, middling draft status, and little buzz around the league.
Edens and Lasry have altered that program swiftly. Focusing on the future, they’re content to eschew the acquisition of win-now talent in the name of harvesting a youth culture under coach Jason Kidd. Now they’re an exciting team, and the delight of many basketball nerds with their lengthy lineups, featuring Greek prodigy Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And they’re also using a new, strange form of technology to aid the process of team-building. As reported by Kevin Randall of The New York Times, the team is now enlisting the help of a face expert. “In May,” Randall writes, “the team hired Dan Hill, a facial coding expert who reads the faces of college prospects and N.B.A. players to determine if they have the right emotional attributes to help the Bucks.
“Hill contends that faces betray our true emotions and can predict intentions, decisions and actions. He employs the psychologist Paul Ekman’s widely accepted FACS, or Facial Action Coding System, to decipher which of the 43 muscles in the face are working at any moment. Seven core emotions are identified: happiness, surprise, contempt, disgust, sadness, anger and fear.”
The report also reveals that Australian-born guard Dante Exum (now with the Utah Jazz) fell out of the Bucks’ favor through Hill’s analysis. In last June’s draft, they instead opted for Jabari Parker with the No. 2 overall pick — because, in so many words, he had a more winning face.
— John Wilmes