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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
It's not just another Sugar Bowl.
In fact, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes don't even use the words Sugar Bowl. It's (finally) all about the playoffs for everyone involved.
College football fans couldn't have asked for a juicer matchup in the second of two inaugural College Football Playoff games on New Year's Day.
Meyer and his Buckeyes head South deep into SEC country to face the czar of the nation's best conference in Nick Saban and Alabama. It marks the fourth meeting between the two likely Hall of Fame coaches — the third of which will act as a national semifinal.
Meyer's Gators topped an unbeaten Alabama team in the 2008 SEC title game en route to a national title. Saban's Tide came back the next year and knocked off an unbeaten Florida team in 2009 SEC title game en route to their first national championship since 1992.
These two teams may not be as evenly matched those two meetings but that won't effect the hype leading up to massive showdown in New Orleans.
The Big Ten champs and the SEC champs will duke it out in the Superdome for the right to play in the National Championship game.
Alabama vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Jan. 1)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Cardale Jones handling the pressure
It's no secret which player likely holds the key to victory in this epic North-South showdown. Ohio State's third-string-turned backup-turned starting quarterback Cardale Jones must manage the game, protect the football and make plays on third down for Ohio State to win the game. He's got some developing playmakers around him in the form of do-everything dynamo Jalin Marshall and workhorse back Ezekiel Elliott. Everyone on the Buckeyes offense must play perfectly to put the strong-armed, 250-pound signal caller in the right spots to succeed. And even then, it still comes down to the guy making his second career start to make the right play.
2. Can Ohio State's D-Line win the line of scrimmage?
One of the few areas Ohio State could have an advantage is up front along the defensive line. This isn't a vintage Saban O-Line and the Buckeyes boast arguably the best defensive line in the country. Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington must control the line of scrimmage, stop the run and pressure Jones for OSU to have a chance to win. While this isn't the most talented group of blockers Saban has had at Bama, the Tide still led the SEC in sacks allowed (13.0) and rushed for 209.5 yards per game this fall. Bosa and company have to play disruptive football right from the first whistle.
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3. What do you do with Amari Cooper?
If the Bucks defensive line is up to the task, the next question for Meyer and staff is what to do with Amari Cooper. Bracket coverage? Double team? Safety help? Press-man or zone? There are a lot of ways to attack a player of Cooper's caliber but he is capable of beating them all. So if Meyer decides to sellout on defense to stop No. 9, it falls to Lane Kiffin to use other weapons. Unfortunately for Ohio State, those other weapons are extremely capable. DeAndrew White, OJ Howard and Christion Jones have proven to be effective when forced into action.
Ohio State is technically 1-9 all-time against the SEC in bowl games and is 0-3 all-time against Alabama. If Urban Meyer wants to reverse those trends, two things must happen: Cardale Jones must play efficient football and his defensive line needs to win the battle up front. If OSU can do those two things, the game is narrowed to a few big plays. If those big plays come from Lane Kiffin and Blake Sims, then Alabama will win. If those big plays from Ezekiel Elliott or Jalin Marshall, then Ohio State has a shot. However, if the Buckeyes lose the battle along the line of scrimmage on defense and Jones makes mistakes, the Tide will roll in a big way.
Prediction: Alabama 37, Ohio St 24
College football’s new four-team playoff format added intrigue to the bowl schedule, and the anticipated New Year’s Six slate begins with a showdown between TCU and Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Horned Frogs went into the last weekend of action as the No. 3 team in the college football playoff rankings but was jumped by Ohio State and Baylor in the final standings. Ole Miss spent some time in the top four of the committee rankings, and despite a couple of significant injuries, still finished 9-3 with a win over rival Mississippi State in the regular season finale.
TCU was one of the nation’s most improved squads in 2014. The Horned Frogs went 4-8 in 2013 but rebounded into playoff contention behind an offense that averaged 46.8 points per game. The seven-game jump in wins was largely due to the turnaround on offense and the development of quarterback Trevone Boykin. Ole Miss started 7-0 and suffered its first loss of the year at LSU on Oct. 25. After the defeat in Baton Rouge, the Rebels went 2-2 over their next four games, which included a 30-0 loss to Arkansas but a 31-17 win over Mississippi State. The Rebels have increased their win total in each of coach Hugh Freeze’s three seasons and posted their best SEC record (5-3) since 2008.
Ole Miss and TCU have met in six previous meetings. The Rebels own a 5-1 edge over the Horned Frogs. These two teams have not played since 1983. TCU’s only win over Ole Miss took place in 1949.
TCU vs. Ole Miss
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 31 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: TCU -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. TCU’s Pass Offense Against Ole Miss’ Secondary
Something has to give here. TCU recorded 332.8 passing yards per game and ranked 15th in the nation in pass attempts. Quarterback Trevone Boykin is one of the nation’s most-improved players and emerged as a Heisman contender after throwing for 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions on 461 attempts. While Boykin had an outstanding regular season, the bowl matchup against Ole Miss will be the best defense he has played in 2014. The Rebels allowed only eight passing scores this season and only one opponent (Texas A&M) managed to pass for more than 300 yards against this defense. Cornerback Senquez Golson had a standout season by intercepting nine passes, while safety Cody Prewitt is among the best in the nation at his position. While the secondary is stingy, the success of Ole Miss’ defense starts up front with a talented defensive front. Boykin has been efficient (60.5 completion percentage and only seven interceptions) this season. However, the Rebels are the toughest defensive team he’s faced all year and will create problems at the point of attack and in the secondary.
2. Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
Wallace has experienced his share of ups and downs in his Ole Miss career. The senior threw three interceptions in the opener against Boise State but threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns in an upset win over Alabama. Wallace struggled against LSU and Arkansas, yet made just enough plays (13 of 30 for 296 yards) to help Ole Miss knock off Mississippi State. The senior has played his share of tough defenses this season – Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Memphis and Mississippi State – and TCU will present another challenge on Dec. 31. Under the direction of coach Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs are always among the nation’s best on defense. This unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense (20.3 ppg allowed) and limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play. TCU’s secondary missed shutdown cornerback Jason Verrett this year but still managed to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. The Horned Frogs held opposing passers to a 49 percent completion percentage and intercepted 23 passes in 2014. Three players from the secondary earned All-Big 12 accolades, as safety Chris Hackett garnered first-team awards by the conference after intercepting six passes. There’s little doubt Wallace will have a tough time moving the ball through the air against this defense. And that task was made even more challenging after receivers Vince Sanders and Laquon Treadwell suffered season-ending injuries. While Wallace has his hands full, moving the ball through the air has been the best offense for Ole Miss this defense. The Rebels don’t have a traditional rushing attack, so it’s critical Wallace has success early and often against TCU. Limiting mistakes and turnovers is a priority, but Freeze needs his senior to deliver in his final collegiate game.
3. The Offensive Lines
It’s an understatement, but winning the battle at the point of attack is critical for both teams on Dec. 31. Despite the departure of end Devonte Fields before the season started, TCU’s defensive line still managed 34 sacks in 2014. The Horned Frogs’ line has an advantage in the trenches against Ole Miss, as the Rebels will be without standout guard Aaron Morris and allowed 22 sacks in eight SEC games. Can the offensive line provide enough protection for Wallace to attack downfield? Or will Freeze look to get rid of the ball quickly on short passes to give the offensive line help? On the other side, TCU’s offensive line entered the year as a question mark but allowed only 16 sacks in nine Big 12 contests. The Horned Frogs have faced their share of solid defensive fronts this year, including Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma. However, Ole Miss could have the best defensive line TCU has played in 2014. Ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes combined for 10.5 sacks, while tackle Robert Nkemdiche is a force on the interior.
At the beginning of the season, not many expected TCU or Ole Miss to be in one of college football’s premier bowl games. However, fast forward a couple of months, and that’s exactly the scenario playing out in Atlanta on Dec. 31. The Horned Frogs and Rebels both spent time inside of the top four of the college football playoff committee rankings and should provide an entertaining matchup. Ole Miss needs a huge effort from its defense, as injuries will force the offense to lean even more on quarterback Bo Wallace. It may take a quarter for TCU’s offense to adjust to the fast, athletic and tough Rebels’ defense, but the Horned Frogs will simply have too much firepower. Expect Boykin to cap a breakout year with a solid performance, as TCU finishes the 2014 season with victory No. 12.
Prediction: TCU 34, Ole Miss 27
College football’s 2015 season is still several months away. However, it’s never too early to take an early look at how the rankings for next season may look when the preseason polls and predictions are released.
Considering all that usually transpires in a college football offseason, this ranking of top 25 teams will change several times until kickoff next year. Whether it’s unexpected personnel changes or breakout players that emerge in the spring, it’s unlikely this top 25 ranking looks exactly the same in a month, three months or by next August.
With that in mind, here’s Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams for 2015.
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2015
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have a quarterback quandary to answer in 2015, but it’s a good problem for coach Urban Meyer to have. Will it be Braxton Miller under center after returning to full strength from shoulder surgery? Or will J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones fight for the starting job in offseason workouts? Regardless of which player takes the first snap, Ohio State’s depth chart is loaded with talent. Running back Ezekiel Elliott headlines a solid group of playmakers, and the offensive line is slated to return four starters, including standout left tackle Taylor Decker. End Joey Bosa should be among the nation’s best returning defenders next season, but defensive tackle Michael Bennett and cornerback Doran Grant must be replaced. A lot can change between now and September. However, at least on paper, there’s few potential roadblocks on Ohio State’s schedule in 2015.
Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide aren’t going to slip far in the rankings next year despite a few personnel losses. Receiver Amari Cooper is expected to depart for the NFL, and quarterback Blake Sims must be replaced, but Alabama is loaded with talent and the defense can carry this team to a SEC Championship. Florida State transfer Jake Coker could open spring practice as the favorite to replace Sims, and coordinator Lane Kiffin has to find some new pieces around the quarterback. Kiffin should be able to build around left tackle Cam Robinson and running back Derrick Henry next season, while the team can lean on a defense that should be the best in the SEC once again. There are personnel concerns with this team, and Alabama’s schedule will be challenging, as road trips to Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn won’t be easy.
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3. Florida State
Florida State’s preseason ranking and projection will largely be determined on how many and which players decide to leave for the NFL. If quarterback Jameis Winston (as expected) declares for the draft, the Seminoles will slide in this ranking by a couple of spots. But Winston isn’t the only early player that could leave Tallahassee early, as defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could all declare for the next level. Replacing Winston will be the biggest offseason storyline for coach Jimbo Fisher, with Sean Maguire considered the favorite to take the first snap in the spring. In addition to Winston’s departure, the Seminoles lose four starters on the offensive line and must replace standout receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. Despite the personnel losses, Florida State is still loaded with young talent and has one of the nation’s top coaches in Jimbo Fisher.
The Horned Frogs were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014. In 2015, TCU could be one of the preseason favorites to make the four-team playoff. What a difference a year makes. Coach Gary Patterson’s decision to hire Doug Meacham as the team’s play-caller paid huge dividends in 2014, as quarterback Trevone Boykin emerged as a Heisman candidate. Boykin could be even better in 2015 with another year to learn under Meacham, and the offense returns nearly all of its main contributors at the skill positions. Patterson will have some holes to address on defense, starting in the trenches with the departure of tackle Chucky Hunter and linebacker Paul Dawson and in the secondary with standout safety Sam Carter. TCU plays at Minnesota in the season opener but has a favorable schedule until the end of the year with back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Baylor.
Much like Florida State, Oregon’s preseason ranking and 2015 projection is cloudy until more is known about the future of quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner is expected to declare for the NFL, but if he returns, the Ducks could be ranked higher on this list. Even if Mariota declares, Oregon is still expected to be the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 North. The offense is loaded with skill talent, including running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, while the receiving corps returns Byron Marshall, Devon Allen and Charles Nelson. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, including standouts center Hroniss Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum will have holes to fill on each level, but the front seven could be the biggest concern if DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead leave for the NFL. Oregon has a challenging road slate in 2015, including trips to Michigan State, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington.
The Bears have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons and will be picked near the top of the Big 12 once again in 2015. Quarterback Bryce Petty departs, but the depth chart is stocked with talented arms, with Seth Russell holding an edge to take the first snap in spring practice. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Bears might have the Big 12’s top collection of skill talent in 2015. Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson are back at running back, and the receiving corps features weapons like Corey Coleman, KD Cannon and Jay Lee. And assuming left tackle Spencer Drango returns to Waco for his senior season, the Bears will have all five starters back on the offensive line. The defense has improved under the direction of coordinator Phil Bennett, and the Bears return a good chunk of talent for 2015. End Shawn Oakman could enter the NFL Draft, but defensive tackle Andrew Billings, linebacker Taylor Young and cornerback Xavien Howard are three All-Big 12 talents returning in 2015.
7. Michigan State
Under coach Mark Dantonio’s watch, the Spartans have won at least 10 games in four out of the last five seasons. And while Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten next year, Michigan State should be in contention for a spot in one of college football’s premier bowl games. Quarterback Connor Cook has already announced he will return to East Lansing for 2015, and the steady passer will be working with a new starter at running back and No. 1 receiver next year. The Spartans could lose defensive standouts Trae Waynes and end Shilique Calhoun to the NFL, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi is leaving East Lansing to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Narduzzi won't be easy to replace, but Dantonio has a good staff and should find the right answers to keep Michigan State's defense among the nation's best.
Even with quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates departing, Auburn’s offense is going to be just fine with Jeremy Johnson at the controls. In two seasons, Johnson is 57 of 78 for 858 yards and nine passing scores. In addition to the departure of Marshall, Artis-Payne and Coates, the Tigers have to replace center Reese Dismukes and guard Chad Slade. Coach Gus Malzahn hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp to fix the defense, and there’s hope for immediate improvement with a good chunk of the depth chart returning. End Carl Lawson missed all of 2014 due to a knee injury, and his return should help spark a pass rush that ranked near the bottom of the SEC. The Tigers open with a neutral site (Atlanta) game against Louisville and catch Georgia and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2015.
The Tigers will finish 2014 without a double-digit win total for the first time since 2009. However, the future is bright in Baton Rouge with a depth chart loaded with young talent. Running back Leonard Fournette should push for 1,000 yards in his second year on campus next season, and the rushing attack will have to carry the team once again. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will be expected to compete for the starting quarterback job again in the spring, and the receiving corps should improve with the development of young receivers like Travin Dural, Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse. The offensive line may have a facelift in the offseason, especially if Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins declare for the NFL. As usual, the defense should be strong for coach Les Miles. The Tigers could lose a couple of defenders early to the NFL, but rising stars like tackle Davon Godchaux, sophomore Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams will keep this unit among the best in the SEC.
Coach Steve Sarkisian’s first season had its share of ups and downs, but USC could be the favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2014. Quarterback Cody Kessler is expected to return for his senior year, and the California native should benefit from an offensive line that returns all five starters from the bowl game and the continued development of young receivers JuJu Smith, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Top receiver Nelson Agholor may leave early for the NFL, but if he returns for his senior season, Agholor would be one of the top receivers in the nation in 2015. Coordinator Justin Wilcox is expected to lose end Leonard Williams to the NFL, while linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Gerald Bowman and linebacker/end J.R. Tavai expire their eligibility after the Holiday Bowl. Another positive for USC in 2015 is the full allotment of scholarships to use in recruiting after being shorthanded due to NCAA sanctions in recent years.
With Florida dealing with a coaching transition and South Carolina having question marks on both sides of the ball, Georgia and Missouri should enter the spring as the favorites in the SEC East. The Bulldogs have their share of holes to fill, starting on offense where quarterback Hutson Mason, receiver Michael Bennett and center David Andrews will expire their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. Replacing a starting quarterback is never easy, and coach Mark Richt will be working with a new coordinator after Mike Bobo left for Colorado State. Running back Nick Chubb will be one of the best in the SEC next season. Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an impact in his first season as the defensive signal-caller in Athens, as Georgia lowered its yards per play allowed to 4.8 after giving up 5.4 in 2013. Pruitt should continue to mold the Bulldogs’ defense into one of the best in SEC next season but standout linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera must be replaced. The secondary was considered the biggest weakness for Georgia this year and should show improvement in 2015 with only one player expected to depart (Damian Swann) from the Belk Bowl two-deep. The Bulldogs play Auburn and Alabama in crossover games with the SEC West next season.
12. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are coming off their first double-digit win season since 1999, and coach Dan Mullen has this program trending up after spending time at No. 1 in 2014. Quarterback Dak Prescott is considering the NFL Draft, but if he returns to Starkville, the senior should be one of the nation’s top returning signal-callers in 2015. Prescott isn’t the only Bulldog pondering a jump to the next level, as running back Josh Robinson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney may also leave for the NFL. In addition to the early entries to the NFL, Mississippi State will have to replace receiver Jameon Lewis, three starters on the offensive line and six starters on defense.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels are coming off their first season of double-digit victories since 1999. And the arrow on coach Hugh Freeze’s team is pointing up, as this team has the pieces in place to finish among the top 10-15 nationally in 2015. Bo Wallace must be replaced at quarterback, but the new starter will benefit from the return at Laquon Treadwell at receiver. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is one of the best in the nation and is part of an offensive line that returns all five starters from the Peach Bowl depth chart. With the uncertainty at quarterback, the defense will have to carry Ole Miss – at least early on – in 2015. This unit allowed only 13.8 points per game in 12 regular season contests and should have one of the nation’s top defensive lines. However, there’s concern in the secondary with the departure of cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt.
14. Arizona State
With only eight returning starters in 2014, the Sun Devils were considered by some to be in rebuild mode. However, Arizona State finished 9-3 and came within a victory of playing for the conference title. Coach Todd Graham’s team will have some personnel losses to address with receiver Jaelen Strong leaving for the NFL, and Taylor Kelly expiring his eligibility. But the cupboard isn’t empty on either side of the ball. Mike Bercovici should be a solid replacement for Kelly at quarterback, three starters are back on the offensive line, and running back D.J. Foster is one of the nation’s top all-purpose players. Graham’s specialty is on defense, and this unit used an aggressive pass rush to rank near the top of the nation in tackles for loss and sacks. The defense returns nearly intact in 2015, with safety Damarious Randall and end Marcus Hardison the biggest losses for Graham to replace.
The defending Pac-12 South champions will be among the favorites to win the conference in 2015. Quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are only going to improve in their second season as starters, and the receiving corps is stocked with playmakers in Samajie Grant, DaVonte’ Neal and Cayleb Jones. The offensive line will be revamped with three new starters in 2015. Arizona’s defense has showed progress under coordinator Jeff Casteel, but there’s a few personnel concerns next season. Linebacker Scooby Wright will be a first-team All-America selection in 2015, but he will have to shoulder even more of the defensive spotlight with defensive backs Jourdon Grandon and Jared Tevis and linemen Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl. The talent level is on the rise in Tucson, and Rodriguez is clearly one of the best in the conference. Another double-digit win season is a strong possibility.
The Sooners were considered by most to be one of the biggest disappointments in college football this year. And after finishing the regular season at 8-4, coach Bob Stoops’ team will start 2015 lower in most preseason polls. Oklahoma will be a tough team to rank next season, as there’s reason to believe this team will rebound – and also plenty of room to doubt this squad. Quarterback Trevor Knight is expected to be pushed by Baker Mayfield for playing time in spring practice, but the strength of the offense resides in the backfield with Alex Ross, Samaje Perine and Keith Ford (and potentially Joe Mixon). Top receiver Sterling Shepard also returns, and pass targets could get deeper for the quarterback if Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham decides to eschew the NFL Draft. There’s talent at the skill positions, but the offense could be hampered by a line that loses four starters. The Sooners return a solid core on defense and will be helped by the return of linebacker Frank Shannon.
There’s an interesting contrast of personnel returning to Clemson in 2015. The Tigers are stocked with promising young talent on offense, but the defense is losing several key pieces. Quarterback Deshaun Watson decided to sit out the Russell Athletic Bowl and undergo ACL surgery to be ready in time for summer drills. Watson is one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback and is surrounded by freshmen standouts Wayne Gallman (RB) and Artavis Scott (WR). While talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Tigers, three starters on the offensive line must be replaced, and Chad Morris is no longer calling the plays. With Morris off to SMU, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted into the co-coordinator role. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be busy this spring, as the Tigers lose ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford, along with tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. In addition to the losses on the line, linebacker Stephone Anthony, cornerback Garry Peters and safety Robert Smith will expire their eligibility after the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Coach Gary Pinkel’s team has a good shot to earn its third consecutive SEC East title. Quarterback Maty Mauk returns but will be surrounded by a revamped group of skill talent, as receivers Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt, along with running back Marcus Murphy expire their eligibility after the Citrus Bowl. Mauk should be better in his second full season as Missouri’s starter, and he should benefit from the return of running back Russell Hansbrough and four starters on the line. Pinkel will probably ask more of his offense in 2015, especially with losses on defense expected to alter the depth chart. The line is set to lose tackle Matt Hoch and end Markus Golden, while end Shane Ray could leave early for the NFL. The linebacking corps should return intact, and three starters are back in the secondary. Coordinator Dave Steckel left to be the head coach at Missouri State, but Barry Odom (Memphis) was a good replacement.
19. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish stumbled to a 7-5 finish in the regular season after a 6-0 start. Injuries, turnovers and defensive problems were largely to blame for the second-half collapse, but there’s optimism for coach Brian Kelly’s team in 2015. Quarterback Everett Golson has do a better job of limiting turnovers after tossing 14 interceptions and eight lost fumbles in the regular season. Assuming Golson holds off Malik Zaire for the starting job, he will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including four starters on the offensive line, receiver Will Fuller (71 catches) and running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The Fighting Irish gave up 29.3 points per game during the regular season, and this unit has to improve for Notre Dame to get back into one of college football’s top bowl games. The good news for Kelly and coordinator Brian VanGorder is most of the personnel from 2014 will return, and top cornerback KeiVarae Russell is back from academic suspension. The Fighting Irish has a difficult schedule next season, featuring matchups against Texas, Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC, Stanford and Pittsburgh.
Paul Chryst is back in Madison, and the Badgers’ new head coach inherits a team that’s capable of winning the Big Ten’s West Division once again. Running back Melvin Gordon will be missed, but Corey Clement is the next star in the backfield for Wisconsin. In addition to Clement’s emergence, Chryst could help the development of the passing game, which is in need of receivers to emerge to help quarterback Joel Stave. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, and guard Kyle Costigan and tackle Rob Havenstein are big losses. Coordinator Dave Aranda kept the Wisconsin defense among the best in the Big Ten despite heavy personnel losses prior to 2014. The Badgers return most of its core, with linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, along with linemen Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring expiring their eligibility after the Outback Bowl. Wisconsin misses Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover play with the East Division.
The biggest offseason priority for coach Jim Mora and the UCLA coaching staff will be to find a replacement for quarterback Brett Hundley. Jerry Neuheisel led the Bruins to a victory over Texas this season, but the California native is expected to be pushed by Asiantii Woulard and incoming freshman Josh Rosen. While the quarterback spot is a concern, the rest of the depth chart returns largely intact. All five starters are slated to return on the offensive line, running back Paul Perkins is back after rushing for 1,000 yards and six receivers that caught at least 20 passes will return next season. Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich need to replace linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive back Anthony Jefferson and tackle Owa Odighizuwa. Late-season road trips to Utah and USC could decide how high UCLA climbs in the Pac-12 South next year.
22. Georgia Tech
Expect another year of uncertainty at the top of the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech – as the defending division champs – get a slight edge as the early favorite, but coach Paul Johnson’s team has to overcome a schedule that features conference games against Florida State and Clemson and road trips to Miami, Duke and Notre Dame. Quarterback Justin Thomas needs a couple of new options at running back with the departure of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon at running back. Guard Shaquille Mason will also be missed. Even with the losses on offense, Johnson’s option attack should continue to perform at a high level, while the defense should improve with only four seniors listed as starters on the Orange Bowl depth chart.
The brutal SEC West provides few breaks for Arkansas, so there may not be drastic improvement in the win column for coach Bret Bielema’s team. However, the Razorbacks are moving forward under Bielema and will once again be a tough out in the West. Quarterback Brandon Allen showed progress in his second year under center and needs more help from his receiving corps to take another step forward in 2015. Even with improvement in the passing game, Arkansas is going to lean on its ground attack. Jonathan Williams decided to return for his senior season, and the senior will team with Alex Collins to form one of the nation's top one-two punches at running back. And we can’t mention the ground attack without a tip of the cap to the offensive line, which figures to be among the best in the nation. First-year coordinator Robb Smith had the defense playing at a high level at the end of the season, and this unit will hope to improve without standout end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight.
24. Texas A&M
Young talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Kevin Sumlin. Quarterback Kyle Allen supplanted Kenny Hill as the team’s starting quarterback late in the season, and the Arizona native will have a deep group of receivers at his disposal in 2015. Of course, Allen’s position at the top of the depth chart isn’t a guarantee with the arrival of true freshman Kyler Murray. The left side of the offensive line must be revamped with tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard Jarvis Harrison expiring their eligibility after the Liberty Bowl. Regardless of the small concerns on offense, the Aggies won’t be able to climb higher in the SEC West without improvement on defense. Sumlin will have a new defensive signal-caller after Mark Snyder was fired, and this unit has to take a step forward after allowing 36.6 points per game in eight SEC contests. There are reasons for optimism on defense, starting with talented freshmen in end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and linebacker Otaro Alaka.
Jim McElwain inherits talent, but the first-year coach needs to find answers for an offense that averaged only 4.9 yards per play in SEC games. Quarterback Treon Harris should be better in his second season as the starter, but the offensive line is a concern with center Max Garcia out of eligibility and tackle D.J. Humphries set to leave for the NFL. The Gators should be solid on defense under the direction of coordinator Geoff Collins, and this unit should be the strength of the team until McElwain and coordinator Doug Nussmeier has time to stabilize the offense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will be one of the top returning defenders in the nation, but end Dante Fowler will be a huge loss on the defensive front. There's no shortage of talent in Gainesville. How quickly can McElwain get the Gators back on track? The East Division isn't loaded with national title contenders next season, so a quick turnaround is possible at Florida.
The Next Five
Charlie Strong clearly has Texas trending in the right direction. However, the Longhorns could lose standout defensive tackle Malcom Brown to the NFL, which would be a huge loss for a defense that is already slated to lose end Cedric Reed, linebacker Jordan Hicks and cornerback Quandre Diggs.
The Utes are coming off their best season since joining the Pac-12. Now, coach Kyle Whittingham hopes to propel Utah in 2015 to its first double-digit win mark since 2010. Quarterback Travis Wilson will be pushed by Kendal Thompson for snaps in the offseason, and running back Devontae Booker could leave for the NFL after recording 1,512 yards in 2014. The Utes had one of the nation’s top pass rushes, but end Nate Orchard and tackle Sese Ianu depart. Hunter Dimick will replace Orchard’s production at end, and the front seven should benefit with the return of linebacker Gionni Paul from a foot injury. Another positive for Utah: Perhaps the best special teams in the country with kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett.
Much like some of the other new coaches in the SEC, Butch Jones has his program headed in the right direction. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a good building block, but the Volunteers need more help in the trenches.
Bobby Petrino’s first season back at Louisville was a success, and the Cardinals should be a fringe top 25 team in 2015. Reggie Bonnafon is a promising quarterback, but the offense won’t have receiver DeVante Parker and running back Michael Dyer next season. Louisville’s defense was one of the best in the ACC in 2014. However, there is work for coordinator Todd Grantham to do next season, as safety Gerod Holliman and linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin depart.
The Golden Gophers were a win against Wisconsin away from playing for the Big Ten title. Coach Jerry Kill’s team should be in the mix for the division title once again in 2015. Running back David Cobb must be replaced, and quarterback Mitch Leidner has to improve as a passer if Minnesota wants to take the next step in the Big Ten.
11 Other Teams to Watch
The Broncos have some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team will be in the mix for the Mountain West title (and a top 25 spot) in 2015. The biggest losses are on offense with the departure of quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi.
A healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback and Jamaal Williams at running back should help BYU navigate a difficult schedule that features games against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri.
Is 2015 the year Miami takes a step forward under coach Al Golden? Quarterback Brad Kaaya is promising, but the Hurricanes lose running back Duke Johnson to the NFL.
Talent certainly isn't an issue in Ann Arbor. And new coach Jim Harbaugh should bring immediate improvement to a roster that underachieved in 2014. How much? Probably not enough to win the division. However, a top 25 finish isn't out of the question.
The Wolfpack closed 2014 by winning four out of their last five games, including a rivalry matchup against North Carolina and a bowl game against UCF. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett should be one of the ACC’s top returning offensive players for 2015.
The Cowboys returned only seven starters in 2014 and needed an upset win over Oklahoma to reach a bowl with a 6-6 mark. Oklahoma State should be better in 2015, especially if Mason Rudolph continues to improve at quarterback.
The Nittany Lions should be improved in coach James Franklin’s second season. Better depth and more scholarships will help, especially if the offensive lines takes a step forward and protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis must be replaced, but receiver Pharoh Cooper is one of the nation’s top all-around talents. The defense was a major issue in 2014 and must be fixed for the Gamecocks to rank among the nation’s top 25 teams in 2015.
After winning at least 11 games in each year from 2010-13, the Cardinal regressed to 7-5 in 2014. Will David Shaw find the right answers this offseason for an offense that averaged only 23.8 points in Pac-12 games this year? In addition to finding answers on offense, Shaw has to replace seven starters from a defense that limited opponents to 16 points per game in 2014.
Boise State and Utah State should be the top teams in the Mountain West next year. Despite significant injuries at quarterback, Coach Matt Wells has guided the Aggies to 19 wins over the last two seasons. The defense loses standout linebacker Zach Vigil, but Kyler Fackrell returns after missing nearly all of 2014 due to a knee injury.
The Hokies were a disappointment in 2014, but there’s hope for a turnaround in 2015. Getting cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy back to full strength will help on defense, and there’s a talented group of skill players returning on offense.
Mississippi State and Georgia Tech picked a good year to have their best seasons in recent history.
For sure, the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets could be left wanting more. Mississippi State was in the playoff race until the final weeks of the season, and a loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl spoiled a bit of the Bulldogs’ season. And Georgia Tech had a shot at Florida State in the ACC title game, but like so many others it was all for naught.
Yet these teams are both in the Orange Bowl, no small feat for a matchup that would seem more likely in the Music City Bowl than in Miami.
This was also the kind of matchup that may have never happened under the BCS. Second-place ACC teams generally don’t make the premier bowl games. And by virtue of losing to an equally worthy Ole Miss, Mississippi State may have seen its bowl standing diminish in the old system.
Without a two-teams-per-conference restriction and the ACC’s automatic bid, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech will meet in an odd Orange Bowl matchup. The Yellow Jackets were last here in 2009, losing 24-14 to Iowa in their only appearance in a major bowl since the 2000 Peach Bowl. Mississippi State is making its highest profile bowl appearance since defeating Clemson 17-7 in the 1999 Peach Bowl.
Instead, the cowbells will be ringing in Sun Life Stadium while Georgia Tech fans do whatever they can to put the din out of their minds.
Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State
Kickoff: Dec. 31, 8 p.m.
Spread: Mississippi State by 7
Three Things to Watch
1. The state of State’s backfield
Mississippi State had one of the best starting backfields in the SEC for stretches this season, but there was enough inconsistency here to merit some concern. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw eight interceptions during a stretch of four SEC games from Oct. 11-Nov. 15, culminating with three picks against Alabama. He was more efficient in the final two games with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Josh Robinson also tailed off near the end of the season, averaging 48.2 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry in the final five compared to 125.3 per game and 7.2 in the first seven. Robinson didn’t rush for a touchdown in any of Mississippi State’s final four games.
2. Georgia Tech’s passing game
This is no secret: Georgia Tech isn’t going to pass very often. Jordan Thomas averaged 13.4 pass attempts per game and only once topped 20 passes. Perhaps making the pass less dangerous is a key injury. Leading receiver DeAndre Smelter (35 receptions, 715 yards, seven touchdowns) is out after suffering a torn ACL before the ACC title game. Darren Waller became Thomas’ favorite target against Florida State with five catches when no one else had more than one. Georgia Tech uses its passing game to catch teams creeping up on the option, so losing a guy who averages more than 20 yards per catch is a significant loss.
3. Stopping the option
Georgia Tech is 1-5 in bowl games under Paul Johnson, and no doubt at least one part of that poor record is that teams have time to prepare for the option. Will the odds be even against Mississippi State? Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was hired to the same position at Florida and in a bit of an odd move, he won’t coach in the bowl game for the Bulldogs. And this was a defense that had its lapses already this season, allowing more than 500 yards to UAB, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
Both teams enter the bowl game coming off a loss, but Georgia Tech is the hotter team playing in Miami. The Yellow Jackets won its final four ACC games handedly, including a 28-6 rout of Clemson, and a dramatic victory over rival Georgia in overtime on the road. Mississippi State’s 9-0 start was spoiled by road losses to Alabama and Ole Miss in two of the last three games (lowly Vanderbilt was the win). Still, Mississippi State has the healthier team and the top difference maker in Prescott.
Prediction: Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 24
Understandably, the theme of 2014 will be the first College Football Playoff.
The new postseason format represented a seismic shift in the sport, and even if the playoff expands beyond four teams, college football won’t be the same again.
Thanks to 2014, the record books won’t be the same either.
The single game rushing record that stood for 15 years fell — twice. So did the single-game passing record. Same with school records both offensively and defensively.
Make no mistake, the 2014 season will be memorable for reasons beyond the first final four in the sport.
Here are the 20 individual performances we’ll remember most.
1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska 59-24
Records in college football fall seemingly every couple of weeks. School records, conference records, streaks, passing and receiving numbers. Every now and then, though, some records are more special than others. TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 406 yards against UTEP in a game in 1999. For all of the offensive explosions in the ensuing 15 years, no one broke that mark. When Melvin Gordon did it, he needed only three quarters and against a storied program to boot. Gordon rushed for 408 yards and four touchdowns on only 25 carries in three quarters against Nebraska. Though Gordon never touched Barry Sanders’ single season rushing record — which seemed a possibility for a time — Gordon put together a game and a season for the ages.
2. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Nov. 22 vs. Kansas
LaDainian Tomlinson’s rushing record got its learner’s permit. Gordon’s record never got a stroller. A week after Gordon broke LT’s single-game record, a freshman from Oklahoma broke Gordon’s. Perine became the first back to rush for 200 yards in each half against an opponent with a new record of 427 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries against Kansas. Perine’s game will stand as the record, but his nine more carries against a lesser opponent will keep him as No. 2 to Gordon in the eye test.
3. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State
Mariota’s Heisman moment occurred early, though he added plenty more as the season went along. After falling behind 27-18 to the reigning Big Ten champions, Mariota took over in the second half for 28 unanswered points in a 46-27 win. Mariota completed 17-of-28 passes for 318 yards with three touchdowns, numbers that don’t often occur against the Spartans’ defense. Mariota put up the second-highest passing total against Michigan State since 2010 and the fourth-highest efficiency rating.
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Sept. 20 vs. LSU
Although LSU did not have a vintage season, wins over the Tigers, especially on the road at night still carry considerable weight. In a 34-29 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated, Prescott led Mississippi State to a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter that put the Bulldogs on the national scene and the quarterback in the Heisman race. Prescott completed 15-of-24 passes for 268 yards with two touchdowns while rushing for 105 yards and a score on 22 carries.
5. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Nov. 8 vs. Michigan State
When Ohio State looks back at its 2014 season, the win over Michigan State will be the turning point. Before Nov. 8, the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech seemed too much to overcome for a playoff bid, and J.T. Barrett was still a precocious redshirt freshman who had done an admirable job stepping in for Braxton Miller. Barrett, though, became a Heisman candidate and Ohio State became a playoff possibility after a 49-37 win in East Lansing. Barrett completed 16-of-26 passes for 300 yards with three touchdowns for the third-best efficiency rating against the Spartans’ D since 2010. Barrett also rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
6. Amari Cooper, Alabama
Nov. 29 vs. Auburn
How much of a sure thing was Amari Cooper in 2014? Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin started celebrating his touchdown before he even caught the pass. That’s how automatic Cooper is in single coverage. In an unprecedented Iron Bowl shootout, Cooper caught 13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns, including the 75-yard score that spurred Kiffin’s celebration.
7. Bryce Petty, Baylor
Oct. 11 vs. TCU
Hard to believe, but at one point this season, Bryce Petty looked like a shadow of last season’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. That changed with a shootout with TCU, a shootout that became one-sided after Baylor scored 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 61-58 win. Petty completed 28-of-55 passes for 510 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions and led Baylor to the highest yardage total (782) against a Gary Patterson-coached team.
8. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Nov. 15 vs. Miami 30-26
Could the best performance by a Florida State player in 2014 have come from a safety? In our eyes, yes. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey was Florida State’s top playmaker in a 30-26 win over Miami, the closest the Seminoles came to losing this season. Ramsey had a forced fumble, an interception, a tackle for a loss and four pass breakups in the 30-26 win. Perhaps most important, his blocked extra point in the fourth quarter came in handy as Miami tried to drive in the fourth quarter for a game-winning TD rather than a game-tying field goal.
9. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Aug. 30 vs. Clemson
Gurley’s season may be more remembered for the misfortune that surrounded him this season — the suspension related to NCAA rules and the torn ACL. Yet when he played, Gurley was arguably the top player in the country, or at least the top player East of Eugene. Gurley flashed that in the opener with 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries in a 45-21 win. By adding a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Gurley set a personal best with 293 all-purpose yards, a mark he nearly matched with 285 yards on Sept. 27 against Tennessee.
10. Scooby Wright, Arizona
Nov. 28 vs. Arizona State
Like many players on this list, Scooby Wright has a number of performances in the discussion for his best of the year. Our pick is the linebacker’s effort in a 42-35 win over Arizona State that, thanks to UCLA’s loss to Stanford, clinched a trip to the Pac-12 title game. Wright finished that game with 13 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.
11. Cardale Jones, Ohio State
Dec. 6 vs. Wisconsin
Other performances were more prolific and more dramatic, but arguably no performance was more important that Cardale Jones’ first start. The chair of the selection committee indicated that Jones’ performance against Wisconsin in place of injured starter J.T. Barrett would be watched closely for playoff consideration. Jones was near perfect, completing 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game to clinch a playoff spot for the Buckeyes.
12. Connor Halliday, Washington State
Oct. 4 vs. Cal
Here’s a scary thought: Connor Halliday played only eight games from start to finish and still had three of the top eight single-game passing totals this season. None was more prolific this season — or any season in college football history — than his record 734 passing yards and six touchdowns in a 60-59 loss to Cal.
13. Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
Nov. 1 vs. South Carolina
Tennessee fans will be forever grateful for Josh Dobbs being the quarterback who finally got the Volunteers over the hump. After many close calls and bizarre finishes, Tennessee was finally on the winning end in a 45-42 overtime win over South Carolina. Dobbs completed 23-of-40 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns against the Gamecocks. He led scoring drives of 75 and 85 yards in the final 1:50 to send the game to overtime.
14. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Oct. 25 vs. Rutgers
It takes a significant effort for a Nebraska running back to set new school records. Abdullah did that in a 42-24 win over Rutgers with 341 all-purpose yards, a school record and the fifth-highest total of the season. Abdullah rushed for 225 yards on only 19 carries and returned a kickoff 76 yards. Abdullah rushed for touchdowns of 53, 48 and 23 yards in the rout.
15. Shaq Thompson, Washington
Sept. 13 vs. Illinois
Before Thompson became a full-time running back, he was content to score touchdowns on the defensive side of the ball. He still rushed for 16 yards in this game, but he added a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 52-yard fumble return for a score in the 31-7 win.
16. Clint Trickett, West Virginia
Sept. 13 vs. Maryland
West Virginia had trouble staying in the conversation of Big 12 turnarounds with what happened at TCU this season, but the Mountaineers' return to the postseason was impressive, too. Trickett got things started by completing 37-of-49 passes for 511 yards with an interception in a 40-37 win over Maryland.
17. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Dec. 5 vs. Arizona
Mariota wrapped up his Heisman campaign with the kind of performance that’s pretty much the norm for him. In a 51-13 win over Arizona, avenging the Ducks’ only loss of the season, Mariota completed 25-of-38 passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns, and, of course, no interceptions. He also rushed for three touchdowns.
18. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M
Aug. 28 vs. South Carolina
The Aggies flipped the script on the SEC before the first Saturday of the season. Kenny Hill was the star of September, completing 44-of-60 passes for 511 yards with three touchdowns in a 52-28 rout of South Carolina. Alas, he and A&M didn’t stay on top all year.
19. Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky
Nov. 28 vs. Marshall
Credit goes to Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm for the guts to go for 2 in the first overtime, but credit Brandon Doughty for converting in a 67-66 win over Marshall to spoil the Thundering Herd’s undefeated season. Doughty went toe-to-toe with Rakeem Cato, completing 34-of-50 passes for 481 yards with eight touchdown passes and two interceptions.
20. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Nov. 22 vs Ohio State
Indiana would have had yet another forgettable season if not for a herculean effort from Tevin Coleman, who topped 2,000 rushing yards this season. His finest performance may have been his 228 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries against Ohio State. Without its first-string quarterback, Indiana still gave Ohio State all it could handle thanks to Coleman before the Buckeyes pulled away for a 42-27 win.
Boise State knows all about the Fiesta Bowl but never before have the Broncos had to face a home team in Tempe.
This is Boise State's third trip to the Fiesta Bowl in the last nine seasons and its 13th consecutive bowl berth overall — the postseason debut under first-year head coach Bryan Harsin. The previous two visits netted historic wins over Oklahoma and TCU, capping two undefeated seasons.
Arizona, however, is making its first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl since 1993, as this would have been the Wildcats first "BCS" bowl appearance. It's about 100 miles up I-10 from Tucson to Tempe, so Rich Rodriguez is banking on a homefield advantage in the Cats biggest bowl in more than two decades.
The 44th Fiesta Bowl marks the first-ever meeting between the reigning Mountain West champs and the reigning Pac-12 South champions.
Boise State vs. Arizona
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (Dec. 31)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arizona -3
Three Things to Watch
1. What does Anu Solomon look like?
Solomon had a remarkable first season on a college gridiron. He was one of the most productive freshman quarterbacks in the country, trailing only Ohio State's J.T. Barrett in total offense among all freshmen with 285.9 yards per game. The redshirt freshman led Arizona to the Pac-12 championship game with plenty of late-game heroics. Yet, he slowed as the season wound down due to nagging injuries and partly due to fatigue. Solomon will have time to rest, get healthy and continue to develop a rapport with a deep and talented group of wide receivers. Arizona not only needs him to play well to beat the Broncos but a great showing in the season finale could catapult Solomon into a monster sophomore season.
2. Scooby Wright III vs. Jay Ajayi
Few bowl games will offer an individual matchup like the one the Fiesta Bowl affords when Boise State is on the field. National defensive superstar Scooby Wright III is charged with stopping one of the most productive backs in the nation in Jay Ajayi. The BSU tailback finished ninth in the nation at 129.9 yards per game and was second with 25 touchdowns. During Boise's eight-game winning streak, Ajayi topped 100 yards seven times and scored multiple touchdowns seven times. Both are overachievers who have gotten the most of their ability and the head-to-head battle should be fun to watch.
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3. Can Arizona run the ball?
Boise State was strong against the run this fall, holding opponents to less than 100 yards on the ground seven times. Over the last three games, the Broncos allowed 259 yards on 109 carries for just 2.4 yards per carry. The best way Rodriguez can help his young quarterback is to run the football. But in losses, the Cats have been stymied on the ground. USC (77 yards allowed), UCLA (80) and Oregon (111) were all able to stop the Arizona rushing attack and it led to the Cats only three defeats of the year. If Boise State wins the battle up front on defense, it will fall to the freshman Solomon to make plays.
Despite being ranked the lowest of any of the New Year's Six teams by a wide margin, Boise State brings a great challenge to Tempe for Arizona. Both teams have dynamic quarterbacks who can make plays outside of the pocket and both teams bring balanced offensive attacks. But victory or defeat for both hinges on the defensive fronts. These two teams have lost a total of five times this year and those defeats featured three of Arizona's worst four rushing performances and two of Boise State's three worst rushing performances of the season. This isn't a vintage Broncos team in terms of talent, giving Arizona a slight edge in personnel — and fan support.
Prediction: Arizona 35, Boise State 27
Nashville could not be happier about this year’s matchup. The 17th annual Music City Bowl features one of the best billings in the history of the game with blueblood programs Notre Dame and LSU coming to Lower Broadway.
Both programs began the season ranked in the top 20 but neither ended the season ranked and the two traditional powerhouses combined for nine losses. The Tigers and Fighting Irish are making their Music City Bowl debut and both Les Miles (10 years) and Brian Kelly (5) are perfect in getting their programs to the postseason.
The all-time series between the Tigers and Fighting Irish is tied 5-5, but both bowl meetings (1997, 2006) ended in lopsided LSU wins. Miles crushed the Charlie Weis-led Irish 41-14 in the ’07 Sugar Bowl the last time these two teams met.
LSU vs. Notre Dame
Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET (Dec. 30)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: LSU -7
LSU’s Key to Victory: Run, run and run some more
The LSU gameplan won’t be complicated or difficult to figure out. After rushing for 384 yards in the regular season finale against Texas A&M, Miles will turn to Leonard Fournette and Terrence Magee to power the offense against an injured Notre Dame defense. Fournette rushed for a career-high 146 yards against the Aggies, and he should be able to abuse an Irish defense that has given up 244.2 yards per game rushing over its last five contests. LSU won’t get elite quarterback play but it may not need much support from the passing game as a few play-action passes will likely put the nail in the Irish coffin.
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Notre Dame's Key to Victory: Stable QB play
The defensive issues at Notre Dame are well documented and if that unit can’t stop LSU’s rushing attack, it won’t matter who plays quarterback. But operating under the assumption that the Irish somehow slow the Tigers, it will fall to whoever is under center to lead productive drives and protect the football. Everett Golson has scored 37 touchdowns this season but turned the ball over 22 times. He was benched late in the USC game for Malik Zaire and Kelly has stated that both will get to play in the Music City Bowl. If the Irish want any shot at winning, they will have to get quality quarterback play and hold LSU to under 4.0 yards per carry on offense. LSU is 2-4 this season when rushing for less than 4.0 yards per carry.
The Irish head to Music City as a heavy underdog in a matchup that seems to favor the SEC team in a big way. Notre Dame can’t stop the ground game and has major questions under center — not a great recipe when facing a team as talented as LSU. Downtown Nashville could be dry by the time these two fanbases drink their way through the Honky Tonks, so no matter the outcome, good times will be had by all in Middle Tennessee.
Prediction: LSU 33, Notre Dame 13
The Rose Bowl should be jealous as the 13th edition of the Foster Farms Bowl — formerly the Kraft Fight Hunger, Emerald and San Francisco Bowl — will be one of just two postseason games that features a Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup (Holiday Bowl).
This will be the first-ever meeting between the Cardinal and the Terrapins. Stanford is making its debut in the bowl, while Maryland appeared once before, losing to Oregon State in the 2007 Emerald Bowl.
Stanford has been to six straight bowls but will miss a major “BCS” bowl for the first time since 2009. David Shaw has never missed the postseason as a head coach. After missing the postseason in first two seasons in College Park, Randy Edsall has taken the Terps to back-to-back bowls after winning just two games in his first season.
Maryland vs. Stanford
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Dec. 30)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Stanford -14
Maryland’s Key to Victory: Win on special teams
Quarterback C.J. Brown is an exciting player and will have to play outstanding football under center for the Terps to win against the one of the best defenses in the land. But one key advantage for Maryland should come on special teams. Lou Groza Award winner Brad Craddock has been near perfect and needs to score points if drives stall. Return specialist and star defensive back William Likely makes plays all over the field, reaching paydirt three times this year. Finally, Edsall is optimistic do-everything dynamo Stefon Diggs will be available and should be force-fed the ball if possible. The Terps need to be great in all three phases to pull off the big upset and could use a score on special teams to increase their chances of victory.
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Stanford's Key to Victory: Continue to surge on offense
The Cardinal defense is one of the best in the nation, so victory normally depends on Kevin Hogan and the offense. With two games to play in the regular season, Stanford was staring at a losing record. However, Hogan led his offense to 6.5 yards per play in convincing wins over Cal and UCLA on the road. This team ran the ball for more than 200 yards in each game — the only two times it did that all season. If Stanford can continue its surge on offense, particularly on the ground, Maryland’s 97th ranked defense won’t be able to put up much of a fight.
Expectations entering the season were wildly different for these two programs as the Cardinal was picked by some to win the Pac-12 North, and the Terrapins were an afterthought in the Big Ten East. And both will travel a wildly different routes to get to Santa Clara — Stanford will go 14 miles from Palo Alto while Maryland will travel 2,846 miles from College Park. But here they are head-to-head in Stanford’s backyard and that likely explains the massive two-touchdown point-spread. If the Cardinal play their game on defense, the Terps will be hard-pressed to move the ball or score many points.
Prediction: Stanford 24, Maryland 13
The Belk Bowl was one of the big winners in college football’s bowl tie-in shuffle prior to 2014, as the Charlotte, N.C. postseason game now features an annual matchup between the SEC (Georgia) and ACC (Louisville). The Bulldogs and Cardinals both finished the regular season at 9-3, and there’s a little familiarity between the two programs thanks to recent moves in the coaching carousel. Todd Grantham worked from 2010-13 as the Bulldogs’ defensive signal-caller but left to coach under Bobby Petrino prior to 2014. New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was one of the top coaching hires of the offseason, but the Bulldogs now have uncertainty on offense after offensive signal-caller Mike Bobo left to be the head coach at Colorado State.
Georgia was considered by most preseason prognosticators to be the favorite in the East Division. Despite an early loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs were in good shape to play in Atlanta after dismantling Missouri 34-0 in mid-October. However, a 38-20 loss to Florida in November put Georgia behind the Tigers – despite Richt’s team winning in Columbia – in the East pecking order. The story was slightly different at Louisville, as Bobby Petrino returned to his old stomping grounds to replace Charlie Strong, and the program recorded a solid 9-3 record in its first year in the ACC. There’s no shame in any of the Cardinals’ three losses, including a Thursday night defeat at the hands of Florida State and a 23-17 loss at Clemson.
This is the first meeting between Georgia and Louisville. The Bulldogs are just 1-3 in their last four bowl appearances. The Cardinals have experienced better luck in recent bowl games, as Louisville is 4-1 in its last five postseason trips.
Georgia vs. Louisville
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7
Georgia’s Key to Victory: Contain DeVante Parker
Louisville’s quarterback situation is a mystery. Will Gardner entered the year as the No. 1 option, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Boston College. True freshman Reggie Bonnafon saw significant snaps this year and replaced Gardner after his knee injury. However, Bonnafon also suffered a knee injury against Kentucky and it’s uncertain if he will play against Georgia. If Bonnafon doesn’t play, Kyle Bolin will get the start. Bolin completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three scores against Kentucky. Regardless of which quarterback starts, it’s critical Petrino finds ways to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker. The senior was limited to just five games due to injury but caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five scores. Parker averaged 30 yards per catch against Kentucky and topped 100 receiving yards in four out of his five appearances. Georgia’s secondary ranked second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, which was an impressive showing under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs had a couple of offseason personnel departures in the defensive backfield and leaned on a couple of freshmen to play major snaps in the secondary. Georgia recorded only 24 sacks this season, but this unit forced 26 turnovers. Louisville won’t have running back Michael Dyer, which forces Brandon Radcliff and Dominique Brown to shoulder more of the workload on the ground. If Georgia finds a way to limit Parker and keep Bonnafon and Bolin under pressure, Pruitt’s defense has the necessary pieces in the front seven to create havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Louisville’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
Even though Georgia will have a new play-caller for this bowl, don’t expect the formula for success or gameplan to change. The Bulldogs ranked second in the SEC with 255 rushing yards per game, and true freshman Nick Chubb leads the way for the backfield after a suspension and season-ending injury to starter Todd Gurley. Chubb posted 1,281 yards and 12 scores, and the freshman finished the year by recording seven consecutive 100-yard efforts. Georgia’s offense is built around its rushing attack, which helps to open play-action passes for quarterback Hutson Mason. The senior hasn’t posted huge numbers in 2014, but he’s been efficient (67.9 completion percentage) and tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. Louisville’s defense allowed only nine rushing scores and limited opponents to 2.9 yards per carry this season. Additionally, just one team (Florida State) managed to record more than four yards per carry against the Cardinals in 2014. Considering how familiar Grantham is with Georgia’s offense, it should help the Cardinals prepare for this matchup. However, the familiarity won’t matter if Louisville’s front seven is unable to slow down Chubb and backups Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas. Keeping the Bulldogs in long-yardage situations and limiting Chubb on early downs will be the Cardinals’ best formula for a victory. And if Louisville gets Georgia’s offense into obvious passing situations, it should help a pass rush that recorded 39 sacks during the regular season get to the quarterback.
As mentioned above, there’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville, and the question marks grew larger in the build up to the bowl with the announcement that running back Michael Dyer won’t play on Dec. 30. Whether it’s Bolin or Bonnafon under center, the Cardinals have to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker to take advantage of a young Bulldogs’ secondary. Georgia’s offense needs Chubb to lead the way against a solid defensive front for the Cardinals, allowing Mason and his receiving corps to take shots downfield on play-action passes. Both defenses could control the flow of this game and a high-scoring matchup would be a surprise. There’s a little more certainty with Georgia’s offense at quarterback and at running back as Chubb is one of the SEC’s most-explosive playmakers. The guess here is a close game, but the Bulldogs find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Louisville 24
The AFC playoff picture will come into complete focus when the Cincinnati Bengals take on the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight on NBC. The final game of the 2014 regular season pits the Bengals (10-4-1) against the Steelers (10-5) with the AFC North division title hanging in the balance.
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are two of the NFL’s hottest teams since late October, each going 7-2 during that span. The Steelers beat the Bengals 42-21 in Cincinnati three weeks ago, as Pittsburgh exploded for 25 points in the fourth quarter.
Both teams have already secured playoff berths, but seeding is still up in the air. The Bengals clinched their postseason spot on Monday night with an impressive 37-28 win over Denver. With a win or a tie tonight, Cincinnati would claim the AFC North and host a playoff game. The No. 2 seed and a first-round bye are also still in play, but the Bengals need the Broncos to lose to Oakland for that to be a possibility.
The Steelers are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and are looking to win their first division title since ’10. Pittsburgh knows it’s playing on Wild Card weekend regardless, but a win would mean at least one more game at Heinz Field.
Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
|Cincinnati 2014 Schedule|
|11/6||vs CLE||L 3 - 24||Recap|
|11/16||@ NO||W 27 - 10||Recap|
|11/23||@ HOU||W 22 - 13||Recap|
|11/30||@ TB||W 14 - 13||Recap|
|12/7||vs PIT||L 21 - 42||Recap|
|12/14||@ CLE||W 30 - 0||Recap|
|12/22||vs DEN||W 37 - 28||Recap|
|12/28||@ PIT||L 17 - 27||Recap|
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Take the Air out of the Ball
The Bengals have won five of their past six games. One constant during this stretch has been the running game, specifically rookie Jeremy Hill. With Giovani Bernard battling injuries, Hill has taken over as the main rusher and he has produced. The second-round pick has three games of 140 yards or more on the ground, including a total of 295 in the past two contests – wins over Cleveland and Denver. On the season, Hill is second among running backs at 5.2 yards per carry and he has nine rushing touchdowns. Last week, he gashed the Broncos’ second-ranked rushing defense for 147 yards on 22 carries, the big blow being an 85-yard touchdown gallop in the first quarter that tied the game following a pick-six by Denver’s Aqib Talib. Andy Dalton’s struggles in big games (0-3 in playoff starts) are well documented, which is why it’s critical that Hill makes some noise on the ground. In the first game against Pittsburgh, Hill ran for just 46 yards, but he did that on only eight carries (5.8 ypc), so it was more a lack of opportunity rather than production. The Steelers are sixth in rushing defense (99.3 ypg), but they have allowed at least 140 yards rushing five times. Hill has four such performances by himself, and a fifth tonight could help produce an AFC North championship for the visitors.
|Pittsburgh 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||@ NYJ||L 13 - 20||Recap|
|11/17||@ TEN||W 27 - 24||Recap|
|11/30||vs NO||L 32 - 35||Recap|
|12/7||@ CIN||W 42 - 21||Recap|
|12/14||@ ATL||W 27 - 20||Recap|
|12/21||vs KC||W 20 - 12||Recap|
|12/28||vs CIN||W 27 - 17||Recap|
|1/3||vs BAL||L 17 - 30||Recap|
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Go Big or Go Home
Historically the Steelers may be known more as a defensive team (think Steel Curtain), but the 2014 edition leans heavily towards the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s defense has done a solid job against the run (ranked sixth), but it’s 20th in total yards allowed and 19th in points. On the other hand, the offense is second in the NFL in total yards and passing yards and seventh in points per game. The Steelers are led by its Pro Bowl QB-RB-WR trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. Roethlisberger and Bell are second in passing and rushing yards, respectively, while Brown leads the league in both receptions and receiving yards. Bell also is second in yards from scrimmage and he and Brown have combined for 23 touchdowns. These three definitely had an impact in the first game against Cincinnati three weeks ago. Roethlisberger threw for 350 yards with three touchdowns (and no INTs), Bell had 235 total yards (185 rushing) and three scores, and Brown chipped in 117 yards on nine catches. Pittsburgh’s quick-strike ability was on full display, as the Steelers turned a 21-17 fourth-quarter deficit into a 42-21 rout. The biggest plays from the 25-point outburst were a 53-yard touchdown run by Bell and a 94-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant. Pittsburgh’s offense isn’t known for being patient or for grinding out drives, and it has several big-play weapons. With a playoff berth already secure and the benefit of playing at home tonight, why change the game plan now?
Both teams are already in the playoffs, but don’t expect either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh to just mail this one in. Not with a division title, a home playoff game, and (for the Bengals) potentially more on the line. The Steelers, however, are the ones who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2011, so they may be a little extra fired up, especially at home. Motivation aside, Pittsburgh has a three-headed monster on offense that has gotten the job done all season, while Cincinnati is relying on a quarterback whose track record in big games isn’t that impressive, a rookie running back and a banged-up wide receiver. Advantage Steelers, who complete their comeback by reclaiming supremacy in the AFC North with a sweep of the Bengals.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Cincinnati 23
It’s winner takes the NFC South this afternoon in the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons host the Carolina Panthers on CBS. A win for the Panthers (6-8-1) will cap a four-game winning streak to give Ron Rivera’s team an improbable second straight division title On the other side, Mike Smith’s Falcons can punch their ticket to the playoffs by sweeping the reigning division champs.
Atlanta upended Carolina 19-17 back in Week 11 on a 44-yard Matt Bryant field goal with a little more than two minutes to play. At the time, both teams seemed well out of the playoff picture with the Falcons sitting at 4-6 and the Panthers at 3-7-1. However, no team in the NFC South was able to distinguish itself this season, leading to a four-pack of teams with losing records. Regardless of their win-loss record not only will Carolina or Atlanta get into the postseason, whichever team wins also will host a Wild Card game next weekend.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Kickoff: 4:25p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Atlanta -4
|Carolina 2014 Schedule|
|11/10||@ PHI||L 21 - 45||Recap|
|11/16||vs ATL||L 17 - 19||Recap|
|11/30||@ MIN||L 13 - 31||Recap|
|12/7||@ NO||W 41 - 10||Recap|
|12/14||vs TB||W 19 - 17||Recap|
|12/21||vs CLE||W 17 - 13||Recap|
|12/28||@ ATL||W 34 - 3||Recap|
|1/3||vs ARI||W 27 - 16||Recap|
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Let Julio Jones Beat You
The Panthers won the NFC South last season, finishing with the conference’s second-best record at 12-4. Carolina’s strength was its defense, which ranked behind only eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFL in both total and scoring defense. This season, the defense has not enjoyed the same success, which is one of the reasons behind Carolina’s decline in the win column. The Panthers are a respectable 10th in total defense, but 22nd in scoring, giving up 24.7 points per game. They have tightened things up during their three-game winning streak, surrendering a total of 40 points in victories over the Saints, Buccaneers and Browns. Atlanta has averaged 29 points per game over its past four and one of the keys has been wide receiver Julio Jones. The league leader in receiving yards per game (109.6), Jones has been near uncoverable recently, posting 555 yards receiving in his last three outings. Included in this stretch was a franchise-record 259 yards against Green Bay and then 107 in last week’s big win in New Orleans, even though he was questionable entering the game because of an oblique injury. Jones isn’t the only target Matt Ryan has to throw to (Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Levine Toilolo), but he is the key when it comes to stopping the Falcons’ offense. Outside of the Green Bay game, Jones has averaged just 75 yards receiving per game in the seven losses he’s been a part of (missed the Pittsburgh game because of injury). Carolina’s defense appears to be peaking at the right time, but it needs to put together one more strong effort on the road to seal the deal. Focusing its efforts on keeping Jones in check is not only a good first step in that direction, it also could be the difference back-to-back division titles or a tough finish to a disappointing season.
Atlanta’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
The Falcons are known more for being an offensive team, and the statistics certainly back that up, but it doesn’t mean their defense can’t have an impact. Atlanta is ranked last in the NFL in both total and passing defense, but this unit has done a good job creating turnovers. The Falcons are fourth in the league in takeaways with 28, 19 of these coming in their six wins. To put it another way, Atlanta is plus-12 in turnover margin in wins and minus-four in losses. The Falcons used four takeaways, including a fumble returned for a touchdown at the end of the game, to beat the Saints last week. They also created three miscues in a big home win over the Cardinals in Week 13. Carolina is dead even in turnover margin on the season, but Cam Newton threw two interceptions in the Week 11 home loss to Atlanta. If the Falcons can continue to force the other team to make mistakes, it doesn’t matter how many yards the defense gives up. If the turnovers don’t come, however, then it will be up to the offense to not only do its part, but also pick up the slack on the other side of the ball too.
While much has been made of the mediocre NFC South this season, the reality is that whichever team wins this afternoon not only gets into the playoffs, it also will host a Wild Card game next weekend. Carolina is the reigning division champion and appears to be peaking at the right time. Atlanta has a potent offense, but toes a rather thin line on defense. The Panthers have enough difference-makers on both sides of the ball to overcome the Falcons’ home-field advantage and the great Julio Jones. Carolina comes into the Georgia Dome and caps its late-season surge by claiming its second straight division crown.
Prediction: Carolina 27, Atlanta 23
The NFC North is just one of the things that will be decided when the Detroit Lions take on the Green Bay Packers this afternoon on FOX. The Lions and Packers both enter this showdown at 11-4 with playoff berths already secure. However, a win would give Detroit its first division title and first home playoff game since 1993. A Green Bay victory would move the Packers’ home record to 8-0 and deliver a fourth consecutive NFC North crown.
Detroit has won four in a row and has defeated Green Bay the last two meetings. The most recent occurred in Week 3 when the Lions’ defense completely shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense in a 19-7 victory. That loss put Green Bay at 1-2 and led to Rodgers’ now-famous “R-E-L-A-X” comment. Since that point, the Packers have gone 10-2 with their only two losses coming to the Saints and Bills, both on the road. Detroit has gone 9-3 during this same span with a home loss to Buffalo and setbacks on the road to a pair of playoff teams in Arizona and New England.
Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Kickoff: 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Green Bay -7.5
|Detroit 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs MIA||W 20 - 16||Recap|
|11/16||@ ARI||L 6 - 14||Recap|
|11/23||@ NE||L 9 - 34||Recap|
|11/27||vs CHI||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/7||vs TB||W 34 - 17||Recap|
|12/14||vs MIN||W 16 - 14||Recap|
|12/21||@ CHI||W 20 - 14||Recap|
|12/28||@ GB||L 20 - 30||Recap|
Detroit’s Key to Victory: Rattle Rodgers
The Lions’ second-ranked defense was in fine form back in Week 3, holding Aaron Rodgers to just 162 yards passing in a 19-7 victory at home. Rodgers was sacked just twice and didn’t throw an interception, but Detroit consistently sent four pass-rushers, which was enough to throw off Rodgers’ timing (16 of 27, including five underthrows) and disrupt Green Bay’s offensive rhythm. The Packers ran just 51 offensive plays, the fewest in a Rodgers start since the final game of the 2011 season while the 162 yards passing were the fifth-lowest of his career (102 starts). The Lions showed it’s possible to beat Rodgers without a bunch of sacks or turnovers, but they also did this on their own turf. Rodgers has been near-perfect at Lambeau Field this season, so Detroit’s defense will definitely have its work cut out for it. However, it already has the blueprint for success against arguable the leading contender for MVP honors and it may get a break with Rodgers nursing a minor calf injury. The Lions’ defense has been really hard to run on, but the difference between winning and losing this afternoon will come down to how well this unit fares against No. 12.
|Green Bay 2014 Schedule|
|11/9||vs CHI||W 55 - 14||Recap|
|11/16||vs PHI||W 53 - 20||Recap|
|11/23||@ MIN||W 24 - 21||Recap|
|11/30||vs NE||W 26 - 21||Recap|
|12/8||vs ATL||W 43 - 37||Recap|
|12/14||@ BUF||L 13 - 21||Recap|
|12/21||@ TB||W 20 - 3||Recap|
|12/28||vs DET||W 30 - 20||Recap|
Green Bay’s Key to Victory: Lean on Lambeau
The Packers are 7-0 at home this season, averaging an impressive 41.1 points per game at Lambeau Field. They have scored 53 or more points twice and have defeated opponents by nearly three touchdowns (20.7) per home contest. A big reason for Green Bay’s home success has been the play of Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 23 touchdown passes and not a single interception at home. He has completed more than 66 percent of his attempts for an average of 301.1 yards per game and a mind-boggling 132.6 passer rating. As a team, the Packers are plus-10 in turnover margin at Lambeau and even though the defense has given up some yards and points on occasion, Mike McCarthy’s team has rarely been challenged in front of the home crowd. Detroit got the better of Green Bay the first time around, but that was in the Motor City. This afternoon’s game is on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field where the Packers have beaten the Lions the past 22 times. With a fourth straight NFC North title and a first-round bye on the line, Green Bay certainly doesn’t want to see this streak come to an end this afternoon.
Detroit has a championship-caliber defense, but Green Bay has a MVP quarterback and hasn’t lost to the Lions at Lambeau Field in 22 games. Both teams are in the playoffs and have the necessary pieces to make deep runs, but Aaron Rodgers will make sure his team starts their postseason at home.
Prediction: Green Bay 27, Detroit 23
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer recently underwent throat surgery and spent the Military Bowl victory against Cincinnati coaching from the press box. The Hokies used a couple of turnovers by the Cincinnati offense, along with 210 rushing yards to earn the victory and post a winning record (7-6.)
However, Beamer wasn’t limited in his post-game availability, as the 68-year-old coach broke out the dance moves to celebrate the victory.
Check out Beamer’s post-game dance:
Arkansas and Texas renew an old Southwest Conference rivalry in NRG Stadium on Dec. 29 for the ninth Texas Bowl matchup. Low expectations surrounded both teams entering the season, as the Razorbacks were considered by most to be a year away from bowl contention and the Longhorns had to rebuild under first-year coach Charlie Strong. But both teams overcame preseason personnel concerns to reach a bowl and finished the year playing arguably their best ball of the season.
Second-year coach Bret Bielema has Arkansas headed in the right direction, as the Razorbacks won three out of their final five games to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. Bielema came to Arkansas after a successful stint at Wisconsin, and the Illinois native is building the Razorbacks in a similar image to how he shaped the Badgers. Arkansas has established itself as a physical, run-first team, and the defense played well in the second half of the season. Texas won three out of its final four games in 2014 to get bowl eligible in Strong’s first year. As with any coaching change, there was plenty of attrition on the Longhorns’ roster, with Strong trying to reshape the overall image and discipline of the program. Injuries also hurt Texas’ roster, as quarterback David Ash retired from football due to concussions and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson was lost for the year with a knee injury.
Texas owns a 56-21 series edge over Arkansas. The Longhorns have won two in a row over the Razorbacks, but these two teams have not played since 2008. The last win by Arkansas took place in 2003.
Arkansas vs. Texas
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arkansas -6
Arkansas’ Key to Victory: The Offensive Line
The Razorbacks own college football’s biggest offensive line, which has been a key cog in the turnaround for this team in 2014. Dan Skipper is a mammoth left tackle at 6-foot-10 and 326 pounds, and the sophomore is surrounded by three other underclassmen in the trenches, along with standout senior Brey Cook. This unit allowed only 13 sacks during the regular season, while clearing the way for rushers to average 5.2 yards per carry. Two players eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for Bielema, with Jonathan Williams (1,085 yards) slightly ahead of Alex Collins (1,024) on the stat sheet. Texas ranked fifth in the Big 12 (league-only games) by allowing 155.7 rushing yards per game this season, and the defensive line is headlined by standout tackle Malcom Brown. The junior was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports this season. Brown isn’t the only standout on the line, as ends Cedric Reed (5.5 sacks) and Hassan Ridgeway (six sacks) are capable of giving Arkansas’ offensive line all it can handle. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage is critical for Bielema’s team. Quarterback Brandon Allen was efficient (18 TDs, 5 INTs), but the Razorbacks have only nine passing plays of 30 yards or more this season. Allen doesn’t have a deep group of receivers, and this team isn’t built to come from behind. Arkansas needs its offensive line to control the line of scrimmage and keep Brown, Ridgeway and Reed out of the backfield. If the line can clear holes for Collins and Williams, Allen will be able to stay out of obvious passing situations. It’s critical the Razorbacks stay in short-yardage situations, and when Allen has time to throw, the junior needs to continue to play mistake-free ball.
Texas’ Key to Victory: QB Tyrone Swoopes
Due to Ash’s retirement, Swoopes has been pressed into starting action this season. The sophomore has thrown for 2,352 yards and 13 scores but also has 10 interceptions and completed less than 53 percent of his passes in three out of the last five games. Swoopes rushed for 294 yards on 103 attempts this year, and his mobility could be a valuable asset against an Arkansas defense that was playing at a high level at the end of the season. First-year coordinator Robb Smith brought the defense along as the year progressed, and the Razorbacks pitched shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss, limited Missouri to 21 points and held Mississippi State to 17 points in November. The strength of Arkansas’ defense is up front. End Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon are two of the best at their position in the SEC, and linebacker Martrell Spaight emerged as one of the conference’s top linebackers this season. Swoopes should benefit from the extra time to prepare for the bowl game, especially after struggling in the regular season finale against TCU. The sophomore won’t have to win this game just on his right arm. The Texas’ rushing attack averaged 157 yards per game in Big 12 contests, with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray expected to take the pressure off of Swoopes. And when Swoopes has to throw, John Harris and Jaxon Shipley are the primary targets against an Arkansas secondary that allowed only one passing score over the last three games. If Swoopes plays mistake-free ball and uses his mobility to make plays when the pocket breaks down, Texas should have a good shot to knock off Arkansas.
These two teams are similar in terms of style. Arkansas and Texas prefer to lean on the run to setup the pass, and the defenses for both teams are a strength. The Razorbacks and Longhorns have each lost 22 turnovers this year, but Arkansas is +5 in margin, while Texas is -1. In a tight, low-scoring game, turnovers and mistakes will be magnified. There’s not much that separates these two teams. Winning the battle on the line of scrimmage is critical for both squads, as Arkansas hopes to use its massive offensive line to control the clock and establish Collins and Williams on the ground. For Texas, an active defensive front needs to get a good push to slow the Razorbacks’ rushing offense and generate pressure on Allen to force mistakes. Expect Arkansas to have just enough success on the ground to keep Allen out of obvious passing situations, and the junior quarterback outduels Swoopes to give Bielema a bowl victory in his second year.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Texas 20
What a difference a year makes? Clemson and Oklahoma both topped current members (Ohio State and Alabama, respectively) of the College Football Playoff in BCS bowls last year.
Neither team envisioned a trip to Orlando this postseason, but the folks at the Russell Athletic Bowl should be ecstatic to get two historic brands coming to town to play in the newly renovated Citrus Bowl.
The bowl has changed names seven times, originally starting out in 1990 as the Blockbuster Bowl. This will be the third game under the current title. This is the 16th consecutive bowl game for Oklahoma, all of which have come under Bob Stoops’ leadership. This is Clemson’s 10th consecutive bowl game, the last six coming under Dabo Swinney.
These two powerhouse programs have only played three times but will return to the scene of the crime this winter. Oklahoma won both meetings in Norman in 1963 and '72 with Clemson taking a 13-6 victory in the 1989 Citrus Bowl — the same site of the Russell Athletic Bowl.
It will be the third appearance for Clemson and Oklahoma’s first berth in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Oklahoma vs. Clemson
Kickoff: 5:30 p.m. ET (Dec. 29)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oklahoma -3.5
Oklahoma’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage
The Sooners are getting healthier and that means Trevor Knight is back under center. It’s a huge boost to get him back but establishing a ground game, protecting the quarterback and winning the line of scrimmage battles along the O-line is still the key for Oklahoma. Against a nasty Clemson front seven, OU needs to get Samaje Perine and company going on the ground while keeping Knight upright and safe. Knight was so electric with time to prepare against an elite defense last year that it's tough to see Clemson fully stopping Oklahoma.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Predictions podcast:
Clemson's Key to Victory: Create balance on offense
It’s simple and to the point, but Clemson will have to be able to run the ball successfully if it wants to beat the Sooners. Without Deshaun Watson, tailback Wayne Gallman will be called upon to create balance for a struggling Cole Stoudt. Gallman topped 100 yards in three of his final five games and posted 191 yards on 27 carries against rival South Carolina to end the year. The Tigers’ defense is outstanding and will provide a big challenge to Oklahoma but Clemson can’t win without some semblance of an offense. Stoudt hasn’t shown enough against quality opponents to think the Tigers can win relying on his right arm. Not having offensive whiz Chad Morris drawing up plays is going to hurt in a big way as well.
Clemson has struggled in a big way without Watson under center and Stoudt hasn’t proven the ability to move the ball efficiently and consistently against Power 5 teams. The Tigers' saving grace is one of the best defenses in the land. Oklahoma, meanwhile, is as healthy as it’s been in months on offense and is just as stingy on defense as Clemson. The question of motivation might favor the Tigers but is that enough to overcome what should be an ugly offensive performance?
Prediction: Oklahoma 27, Clemson 17
The scoreboard in Memphis should be active on Dec. 29 when West Virginia and Texas A&M meet in the Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers and Aggies each average over 30 points per game, and there’s plenty of familiarity between the programs due to the coaching staffs. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and both programs run a variation of the Air Raid offense. Current Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital coached under Holgorsen at West Virginia from 2011-12.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 record in 2013. However, the Mountaineers showed marked improvement (and had better luck in the health department) this year, starting in the opener with a 33-23 loss to Alabama and a 41-27 win over Baylor in Morgantown. West Virginia lost three out of its final four games but getting back to the postseason was huge for the program. Texas A&M finished 7-5 in the Year One in the post-Johnny Manziel era. The Aggies started 5-0 but stumbled with five losses over their last seven games. Defense continues to be a problem for Texas A&M under coach Kevin Sumlin. However, the offense continued to thrive, averaging 34.4 points per game in 2014.
This is the first meeting between West Virginia and Texas A&M. The Mountaineers essentially replaced the Aggies in the Big 12 a couple of years ago during college football’s latest realignment period. West Virginia is making its first appearance in the Liberty Bowl since 1964. Texas A&M has not played in the Liberty Bowl since 1975.
West Virginia vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: West Virginia -3.5
West Virginia’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
A big reason for West Virginia’s turnaround in the win column in 2014 was the play of quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White. Trickett led the Big 12 with a 67.1 completion percentage and threw for 300 yards in each of his first seven games. However, Trickett was held in check over the second half of the season and tossed five interceptions over his final three starts. Trickett did not play in the finale against Iowa State due to a concussion, and Skyler Howard completed 21 of 40 passes for 285 yards and three scores in his first career start. Trickett was ruled out for the bowl game on Friday, leaving Howard as the clear No. 1 quarterback. The junior college recruit should have an opportunity for a huge day, as Texas A&M’s secondary ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 16 passing scores this year. The Aggies generated 33 sacks in 2014, so it’s critical West Virginia protects Howard and gives him time to find White and fellow playmaker Mario Alford (10 TDs). But the key to victory for the Mountaineers isn’t the passing offense. Texas A&M’s rush defense allowed 223.5 rushing yards per game this season, and West Virginia has the necessary pieces to take advantage of a struggling front seven. Guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski lead a steady offensive line, with Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood combining for 1,411 rushing yards this season. If the Mountaineers establish the run, it should slow the Texas A&M defensive front and allow West Virginia to control the pace of play.
Texas A&M’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s no secret Texas A&M is going to have success moving the ball on offense. The Mountaineers made improvement on this side of the ball under first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, but this unit allowed 26.2 points per game and gave up 5.3 yards per play. Opportunities will be there for quarterback Kyle Allen and a talented group of skill players. Allen finished the regular season by tossing 12 touchdowns to only six interceptions and completed 61.1 percent of his passes. The true freshman should benefit from the extra practices prior to the bowl. Three Texas A&M receivers caught at least 40 passes, including standout junior college recruit Josh Reynolds (16.2 ypc) and freshman Speedy Noil (44 catches). Trey Williams is the team’s leading rusher (474 yards) and averages a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. West Virginia’s defense allowed 162 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action, so there will be opportunities for Williams to hit big plays on the ground. However, regardless of Texas A&M’s success on offense, it’s critical for this team to win the turnover battle. West Virginia is -15 in turnover margin, while the Aggies are -7. Both teams have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, but the Mountaineers have been more generous in their giveaways. If Texas A&M scores 30 points and wins the turnover battle, it’s a good bet Sumlin’s team wins the Liberty Bowl.
With the familiarity between the two head coaches and ability of both teams to score around 30 points a game, this could be one of the most entertaining bowl matchups from outside of the New Year’s Six arrangement. The turnover battle is critical for both teams, as Texas A&M and West Virginia each recorded a negative margin in 2014. Whichever team wins the turnover battle and makes a few timely stops on defense will win. It’s a tossup, but the guess here is Howard fills in admirably for Howard, White shines in his last collegiate game, while Shell tops 100 yards on the ground for the Mountaineers to close out 2014 with a victory.