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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 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
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 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
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.
Prediction: West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 34
The 39 bowl games on this year’s roster may be too many for some.
That’s fine. For some of us, that’s not enough. Not just because if the insatiable need for December and January college football. Bowl games — especially bad bowl games — offer a wide variety of ridiculous bowl names, wild destinations and “what were you thinking” ideas.
Bowl games have come and gone over the years. Some were successful, including the Bluebonnet Bowl, All-American Bowl and Freedom Bowl. Some were cool ideas like the Bacardi Bowl. And some were doomed from the start — a bowl game in Dayton? Really?
Here are 15 bowl games you won't see in December and January.
Site: Honolulu (Aloha Stadium)
Technically, this is a defunct bowl, though a bowl game returned to Hawaii two years later for the imaginatively named Hawaii Bowl. The Aloha Bowl was played on Christmas Day for the final 14 games of its run and often featured ranked teams from major conferences. The Hawaii Bowl, on the other hand, is traditionally played on Christmas Eve and features Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC teams. Edge: Aloha Bowl.
All-American Bowl/Hall of Fame Classic
Site: Birmingham, Ala. (Legion Field)
A second-tier bowl game for more than a decade, Birmingham eventually abandoned the All-American Bowl to host the SEC Championship Game, which moved to Atlanta two years later. A shame: This Birmingham game ended in 1990 before Pittsburgh ever had a chance to play in it.
Site: Dayton, Ohio (Welcome Stadium)
As the hometown of the Wright brothers and the site of where they designed their flying machine, Dayton considers its the birthplace of aviation (the University of Dayton mascot is the Flyers). The Aviation Bowl, though, never really took flight, and New Mexico’s 28-12 win over Western Michigan in 1961 was the only bowl game in Dayton. Only 3,694 people attended the game.
Site: Havana, Cuba (Tropical Stadium)
The first Bahamas Bowl was played in 2014, but that won’t be the first bowl game played in the tropics. Not by a long shot. Auburn’s first bowl game was in pre-Castro Cuba on New Year’s Day 1937 in a 7-7 tie with Villanova. The Bacardi Bowl is the accepted name, but the game also went by the Rhumba Bowl or Cigar Bowl.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium/Astrodome)
An equivalent to the Holiday or Alamo bowls, the Bluebonnet Bowl had the longest history of a now-defunct bowl, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Bluebonnet usually had a Texas team or a Southwest Conference team on one side. One exception: This Missouri-Georgia Tech meeting in 1962 called by legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray:
Site: Louisville, Ky. (Fairgrounds Stadium)
Fairgrounds Stadium is now an eyesore from the Interstate in Louisville, especially compared to the Cardinals’ new facility. Not only did Louisville play football here, it hosted Oklahoma State’s 1958 bowl win over Florida State. The game was attended by a mere 7,000 people, but it’s more notable for being the first national television appearance for Howard Cosell.
Site: Fresno, Calif. (Bulldog Stadium)
The game gave us one of the great bowl sponsors in the California Raisin Advisory Board. The claymation dancing and singing raisins were more memorable than any of the bowl matchups between the WAC and the MAC. The California Raisin Bowl is not to be confused with simply the Raisin Bowl, also held in Fresno from 1945-49.
Site: Anaheim, Calif. (Anaheim Stadium)
The Freedom Bowl featured a fair amount of star power in its decade of existence, including MVP performances from Chuck Long, Ty Detmer, Marshall Faulk and Tedy Bruschi.
Garden State Bowl
Site: East Rutherford, N.J. (Giants Stadium)
The Garden State Bowl learned what the NFL may figure out in 2014: Postseason games in December and January are to be avoided. Rutgers and Temple played in the first two games here before embarking on lengthy bowl droughts. After four games, Giants Stadium became the site of the popular and much more successful (and warmer) Kickoff Classic, a game that ran in late August from 1983-2002.
Site: New York (Yankee Stadium)
The matchup between Nebraska and Miami in the 1962 game would be much more interesting decades later, but this game preceded Miami’s first national title by 21 years and featured Bob Devaney in only his first season as Nebraska’s coach. Still, the Gotham Bowl is such a great name. Unfortunately, the words “Gotham” and “football” probably shouldn’t go together. Thanks, Christopher Nolan.
Great Lakes Bowl
Site: Cleveland, Ohio
This bowl was probably doomed from the get-go because “bowl destination” and “lake effect snow” don’t go together. The game featured only one matchup between major teams, but at least it was historically notable as the first bowl appearance and bowl win by then-Kentucky coach Bear Bryant in 1947.
Site: Toronto (Rogers Centre)
In addition to being the first bowl game off American soil in 70 years, the International Bowl carries the distinction of being one of the first in an unfortunate trend of placing lower-tier bowl games in between New Year’s Day and BCS championship game. The demise of the Big East, 4-0 in this game against the MAC, and low attendance contributed to the demise of the game.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium)
Florida has oranges and tangerines, and Georgia has peaches. Makes sense for Texas to have the Oil Bowl, right?
Site: Phoenix (Montgomery Stadium)
This game featured North Texas and Arizona State back when they were teachers’ colleges and when Drake, Dayton and Xavier went to bowl games. Not sure how it ended up a New Year’s Day bowl game. Like the Cherry Bowl, the Salad Bowl is virtually un-Google-able on the first try.
Silicon Valley Classic
Site: San Jose, Calif. (Spartan Stadium)
Back in the early 2000s, many games ended up with a dot com sponsor — galleryfurniture.com, EV1.net, Insight.com. Only one claimed all of Silicon Valley. The game went bust after the dot com bubble burst.
This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for Dec. 24:
• For your Christmas Eve enjoyment, here's The Rock singing "Here Comes Santa Claus" in a yuletide onesie. Speaking of The Rock, his Christmas card this year is spectacular.
• The 101 most popular Deadspin posts of 2014. I'm sure I've linked to many of these this year.
• Amazing universe we live in: The most beautiful space photos of 2014.
• Continuing our countdown theme: Funniest athlete Tweets of 2014.
• This is disturbing: Jim Harbaugh once smeared a player's blood on his face. Not surprising, but disturbing.
• Vlade Divac sank a halfcourt shot for charity and got a round of applause from Jack Nicholson.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
1. Golden State Warriors (23-3)
The Warriors are 23-3, boasting an insane .885 winning percentage. Until their success rate drops below such historically impressive levels, they’ll hold tight to this top spot. Just imagine if they had a healthy Andrew Bogut in tow.
2. Portland Trail Blazers (22-7)
The knock on last year’s surprising Blazers’ squad is that they never had to endure any injury troubles with their unusually cohesive starting five. But now that center Robin Lopez is out and they’ve still got the second-best record in the league, skeptics are disappearing in droves.
3. Memphis Grizzlies (21-7)
Injuries to Tony Allen and Zach Randolph have seen the Memphis juggernaut slow a bit, but not enough to discredit the spectacular play they’ve put up so far — which includes being one of the only teams to beat Golden State.
4. Chicago Bulls (18-9)
The Bulls are rounding into form offensively as Derrick Rose finds himself again and Jimmy Butler blossoms into a superstar. Their recent 49-point fourth quarter against the Raptors should have the rest of the league in a state of fright.
5. Toronto Raptors (22-7)
Despite losing DeMar DeRozan weeks ago, Toronto’s still got the best record in the Eastern Conference. Canada forcing its way into the primetime of roundball TV looks like something more solid than a blip this Christmas.
6. Houston Rockets (20-7)
The Rockets have cooled down after a crazy, mysterious surge without Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones. Their best basketball is still in front of them, though, provided they can get everyone healthy — and provided they can sign Josh Smith without disrupting their chemistry.
7. Atlanta Hawks (20-7)
The Hawks have been one of the league’s smartest, most efficient teams on both sides of the ball this autumn. The question is whether their hyper-kinetic offense has flaws that can’t be exploited by bigger, tougher teams in the postseason.
8. Dallas Mavericks (20-9)
Rajon Rondo moves the needle in the right direction for Dallas, but not by a whole lot. The arduous process of working his unique skills into their offense is (for now) barely outweighed by the benefits his presence should bring.
9. Washington Wizards (19-7)
John Wall is, somewhat quietly, playing like a top-three NBA point guard. And as he’s buttressed by a scary, deep front court and Paul Pierce’s icy crunch-time veins, the Wiz look like a team no one wants to face.
10. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-10)
LeBron’s Cavaliers, like his Heat before them, have relied heavily upon their on/off switch. But this team hasn’t yet showed enough in their “on” moments to meet the hype about them over the summer. We’re still waiting to see what they’re really made of.
11. Los Angeles Clippers (19-9)
An underwhelming Clippers squad, their fans hope, is simply waiting for the spring to begin their charge into elite play. Chris Paul and Co. must still be salty about their tough loss to the Thunder in last year’s playoffs, waiting not so patiently for their moment of revenge.
12. San Antonio Spurs (18-11)
The Spurs have been sitting their veterans even more than usual, seeming almost disinterested in winning many games before 2015 is upon us. We’ll hold off on judging them properly until they start their push in earnest.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (13-15)
The Thunder have played well since getting Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook back, but they still face a steep, perilous climb through the Western Conference, with an extremely small margin for error.
14. Milwaukee Bucks (14-14)
Even without Jabari Parker, the Bucks are a dangerous, competitive team despite being so young. They’re likely not ready for playoff prominence yet, but fans in Wisconsin should be incredibly excited for the future.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (14-13)
Without the super-valuable Anthony Davis, the Pelicans might be ten spots lower on this list — or more. The playoffs are a long shot for this squad in the West, and New Orleans’ front office has a tough task ahead of them in convincing Davis they can put together a more fearsome roster around him.
16. Phoenix Suns (15-14)
The Suns are in NBA purgatory, with many believing they need to do something about their three-point-guard experiment, which appears to be failing as last year’s premier Sun, Goran Dragic, languishes without the ball in his hands often enough.
17. Miami Heat (13-15)
The battered Heat aren’t feeling so hot without LeBron James, and their future is in question with the health of Dwyane Wade looming like a stadium-sized question mark.
18. Sacramento Kings (12-16)
The Kings looked like they were on the up this year. Then, they got ahead of themselves and fired coach Mike Malone, putting their fans back into a state of panic, confusion, and malaise as they exposed their internal dysfunction.
19. Brooklyn Nets (11-15)
The Nets have just about all their players on the trade block, and why wouldn’t they? This collection isn’t inspiring anyone, flailing at the bottom of the weak Eastern Conference playoff picture.
20. Denver Nuggets (12-16)
The Nuggets, as much as any team in the sport, are without direction. And their best-case scenario (fringe playoff spoiler team in the West) hit a wall when they lost Danilo Galinari for the year.
21. Boston Celtics (10-15)
Without Rajon Rondo, the Celtics have fully turned the page past their era of Big Three championship contention. But the question still remains: What’s next?
22. Indiana Pacers (9-19)
The Pacers continue to be one of the league’s least watchable teams with a declining David West, no Paul George, no Lance Stephenson, and little prospects at getting any better this winter.
23. Charlotte Hornets (9-19)
The Hornets remain a disappointment as they try to find a trade suitor for Lance Stephenson and struggle to find anyone who can shoot the ball for them outside of the paint.
24. Utah Jazz (9-20)
The young Jazz are still in incubation. Among the NBA’s bottom third, however, they’ve got a lot more than most to be positive about with their exciting nucleus including Dante Exum and Rudy Gobert.
25. Orlando Magic (10-20)
The Magic might be just one season away from making noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs picture. Until then, though, they’ll have to settle for the unique title of “exciting losers” as they build up experience.
26. Detroit Pistons (5-23)
Waiving Josh Smith was the right decision for this team. But they’ve still got a lot more dicey choices to make before they’re impressing anyone.
27. Philadelphia 76ers (3-23)
Despite having the worst record in the league, the tankalicious Sixers are in possession of a rare quality at the NBA’s bottom: some direction.
28. New York Knicks (5-25)
Shutting down Carmelo Anthony is just what the Knicks should do this season. Fixing his body up for a year in which they can actually compete makes more sense than dragging him through this disasterpiece of a season.
29. Minnesota Timberwolves (5-21)
The Wolves might be a more inspiring team, with their bulk of enticing young talent including Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng, if they weren’t coached and managed by the out-of-touch Flip Saunders.
30. Los Angeles Lakers (8-19)
Kobe Bryant is losing his mind as he rages against the dying of his superstar light, and that’s about the only reason to watch this miserable team.
— John Wilmes
Nebraska fans must be asking themselves: Can Mike Riley start now?
The new Cornhuskers coach has many skills that will be welcome in Lincoln, but in the here and now, Riley's hex on the 2014 bowl opponent is of particular interest.
Despite a deficit in talent and resources, Oregon State tended to be a spoiler for USC in its glory days during the last 10 seasons. Three unranked, Riley-led teams upset three ranked USC squads in the last six meetings, including an upset of the No. 1 Trojans in 2007 and the No. 3 Trojans in 2006.
Alas, Riley is simply observing right now, leaving the team to interim coach Barney Cotton. The coaching change assures Nebraska that Bo Pelini won’t preside over a four-loss season, though that landmark is attainable for the seventh consecutive year.
If Cotton can lead Nebraska to a bowl win, the Cornhuskers will finish a season with fewer than four losses for the first time since 2003, another season in which an interim coach led the way in a Nebraska bowl game. That interim coach in a 10-3 season in 2003 was Bo Pelini.
On the other sideline, USC has a coach with plenty of familiarity with the Huskers in recent seasons. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian must feel like Nebraska is following him. While coach at Washington, Sarkisian faced Nebraska three times in a 12-month span, including a home-and-home and the 2010 Holiday Bowl. Nebraska was 2-1 in those matchups.
Nebraska vs. USC
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 8 p.m.
Spread: USC by 6 1/2
Nebraska’s Key to Victory: A return to form for Ameer Abdullah
Perhaps the layoff will help Abdullah because the Nebraska star tailback struggled in the final month of the season. While fighting through a knee sprain, Abdullah averaged 4.8 yards per carry in November and rushed for just one touchdown during the final month of the season. Before that, Abdullah averaged 6.9 yards per carry and tallied 17 touchdowns in the first eight games. The offense will all start with Abdullah — putting quarterback Tommy Armstrong into third-and-long situations against a pass rusher like Leonard Williams could be bad news for the Huskers.
USC’s Key to Victory: Keep Cody Kessler comfortable
Kessler is the nation’s second-most accurate passer, as far as completion percentage goes (70.7 percent). Yet he’s had a few games this season in which he has been under pressure. UCLA sacked him six times in a USC loss. Arizona State sacked him three times in a loss. Boston College sacked him five times in a loss. Given the opportunity, Kessler can pick apart a defense. The onus will be on the Cornhuskers pass rush to set the tone. Nebraska has a star pass rusher in Randy Gregory, who turned in an uneven season due to injury.
Though neither USC’s nor Nebraska’s season will be particularly memorable in the annals of each school’s history, this game will be notable for the first bowl matchup between two storied programs. USC is looking to continue its unbeaten streak against Nebraska, going 3-0-1 in home-and-homes in 1969-70 and 2006-07. The two teams in 2014 are evenly matched. The game may come down to which offensive playmakers are allowed to flourish — will Nebraska be able to feed the ball to Ameer Abdullah or will Cody Kessler be able to feed the ball to receiver Nelson Agholor?
Prediction: USC 35, Nebraska 24
The last Penn State bowl appearance was hardly an experience the Nittany Lions want to remember.
In 2011, Penn State went to Dallas to play in a bowl game televised on ESPNU in a crowded slot with more appealing matchups in the Capital One and Outback bowls. That the bowl was an afterthought was just fine.
Under interim coach Tom Bradley, Penn State lost 30-14 to Houston, ending a season in which the program was reeling from scandal.
This game will be different.
Penn State entered the season with the NCAA-mandated bowl ban still in place. That sanction ended Sept. 10, though the Nittany Lions needed until Nov. 15 to ensure they’d end 2014 in the postseason.
No, this isn’t the kind of bowl destination Penn State normally would be accustomed to visiting a decade ago, but the return should be an appealing matchup.
Penn State draws a Boston College team that finished 7-5, defeated USC and played Florida State and Clemson within less than a touchdown.
The two programs played every year from 1981-92 with Penn State winning all but two meetings during that stretch of the series. With Boston College winning a home-and-home in 2003-04 and the 1992 matchup, the Eagles have a three-game winning streak in the series.
Boston College vs. Penn State
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m.
Spread: Boston College by 2 1/2
Boston College’s Key to Victory: Unleash Tyler Murphy
The Eagles are at their best when quarterback Tyler Murphy is methodically moving them down the field. The Florida transfer rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and did just enough in the passing game to keep teams honest. He was interception-free in six of the final seven games, but the exception was as a doozy with four picks against Louisville. Facing the middle of the Penn State defense led by linebacker Mike Hull and tackle Anthony Zettel, though, will be tough.
Penn State’s Key to Victory: Continue the late-season run game momentum
This is not a great matchup for Penn State’s embattled offensive line. Boston College is eighth in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.1) and fourth in rushing yards per game (95.5). Don Brown’s defense features three down linemen and brings the blitz, so the Nittany Lions’ line will have their hands full in protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Penn State rushed for at least 160 yards in three of the last four games, albeit agains Indiana, Temple and Illinois. Even in that stretch, Penn State still gave up nine sacks. Against five winning teams in 2014, Penn State averaged 1.4 yards per carry and 43.4 rushing yards per game.
Normally a matchup between a 6-6 Big Ten team and a 7-5 ACC team wouldn’t carry a great deal of weight, but this game will be different. Penn State’s return to a bowl is one storyline, but a victory would give the Nittany Lions a winning season each year under NCAA sanctions, no insignificant feat. Boston College, a program that won eight bowl games in eight seasons at one point, is now riding a four-bowl losing streak. A win would give BC its first eight-win season since 2009 and first bowl victory since 2007. That said, finding ways to score will be a challenge. These two teams both rank in the top 12 in total defense and are allowing fewer than 21 points per game.
Prediction: Penn State 17, Boston College 13
Like many teams in the Independence Bowl, Miami and South Carolina don’t arrive in Shreveport with an abundance of enthusiasm.
Reaching this bowl game, more often than not, is the final stop in a season that didn’t go entirely as planned.
The Gamecocks and Hurricanes are in that position as they try to salvage one last bit of good news — not to mention a winning record — out of a lost season.
South Carolina started the season in the preseason top 10, but the Gamecocks would never look any better than that, losing 52-28 to Texas A&M in the opener. For the first time of Steve Spurrier’s tenure in South Carolina, the Gamecocks fell below — well below — expectations. Carolina finished the season with only one Power 5 win after Sept. 20.
Miami limps into Shreveport in similar fashion. The Hurricanes didn’t open the season ranked, but they were expected to make a run at the ACC Coastal Division. Those dreams evaporated as Miami was one of many victims of a second half Florida State comeback on Nov. 15. The Canes lost to Virginia and Pittsburgh to wrap up another middling season under Al Golden.
While this game might not be the top priority for the average college football fan, this will be a key game for momentum into 2015. The winner will be able to move on while the losing team will have a handful of questions.
For South Carolina, a loss brings into question how much energy Steve Spurrier has left before hitting the links for good. For Miami, a loss puts Al Golden onto hot seat lists entering next season.
Miami vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:30 p.m.
Spread: Miami by 3
Miami’s Key to Victory: Get Duke Johnson going
Johnson’s two lowest rushing totals this season occurred in the final two games of the season against Virginia (88 yards) and Pittsburgh (89). Before that, Johnson was on a hot streak, averaging 162.2 yards per game and 7.8 per carry in the six games prior. The Hurricanes went 4-2 during that streak, the only losses to teams that played in the ACC title game. It’s no surprise that when Johnson isn’t breaking off long runs, Miami has trouble sustaining drives. South Carolina will be ripe for the picking in this matchup. The Gamecocks gave up 284.2 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry against their last four SEC opponents and Clemson.
South Carolina’s Key to Victory: Limit Brad Kaaya
South Carolina’s defense has been a season-long problem. The same team that had Jadeveon Clowney last season has made life awfully easy on quarterbacks this year. Throw out gimmes against Furman and South Alabama, and South Carolina had only nine sacks all season and only one in the final five games. The Gamecocks also had only three interceptions against SEC opponents and Clemson. If South Carolina is to have any chance, the Gamecocks will need to make Miami freshman QB Brad Kaaya uncomfortable.
This is a classic example of the unpredictable December bowl game. Both teams flashed potential this season. One team beat Georgia and the other gave Florida State all it can handle. Yet both teams had enough glaring flaws to finish 6-6. And given that South Carolina and Miami are used to more exciting bowl destinations, one team or both could come out flat. Yet plenty of pride is on the line as both teams are looking to seal a winning record to salvage the season.
Prediction: South Carolina 24, Miami 17
Have you ever wondered which athlete or sports figure is tailor-made for the Christmas season? Well, we’ve made our list and checked it twice, although we’re still working on the naughty or nice part.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
Dionte Christmas (former NBA guard, now plays overseas)
Rakeem Christmas (F, Syracuse basketball)
Matt Holliday (OF, St. Louis Cardinals)
Doug Jolley (former NFL tight end 2002-06)
Nerlens Noel (C, Philadelphia 76ers)
Plenty of sports figures have color-coordinated names for the season…
A.J. Green (WR, Cincinnati Bengals)
Shawn Green (former MLB OF/1B 1993-2007)
"Mean Joe" Greene (NFL Hall of Famer)
Red Auerbach (legendary NBA coach)
Red Grange (NFL Hall of Famer)
Michael Redd (former NBA guard 2000-12)
Who’s ready to deck the halls?
Todd Berry (Louisiana-Monroe football head coach)
Jamey Carroll (former MLB infielder, 2002-13)
Pete Carroll (Seattle Seahawks head coach)
Jon Garland (former MLB pitcher 2000-11)
Royal Ivey (former NBA guard, 2004-13)
Holly Rowe (ESPN reporter)
Mike Tannenbaum (former New York Jets general manager)
Walking in a winter wonderland…
David Frost (PGA Champions Tour)
Scott Frost (Oregon offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach)
Frostee Rucker (DE, Arizona Cardinals)
Ron Slay (Tennessee basketball 1999-2003, now plays overseas)
Garth Snow (former NHL goalie 1993-2006, current New York Islanders general manager)
J.T. Snow (former MLB first baseman 1992-2006, '08)
Jay Cutler may hail from Santa Claus, Ind., but all these guys are missing is a white beard and a red suit…
Zac Claus (Nevada basketball assistant coach)
Casey Clausen (Tennessee quarterback 2000-03)
Jimmy Clausen (QB, Chicago Bears)
Ed Kringle (played on the PGA Tour in the 1950s)
Sure they can play football, but can they fly?
Dwight Dasher (Middle Tennessee quarterback 2007-10)
Kyle Rudolph (TE, Minnesota Vikings)
Casting call for the nativity scene…
David DeJesus (OF, Tampa Bay Rays)
Curtis Joseph (former NHL goalie 1988-2009)
Angel Pagan (OF, San Francisco Giants)
Russell Shepard (WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Mark Weisman (RB, Iowa football)
Now we feast…
Mia Hamm (women's soccer legend)
Felix Pie (former MLB OF, 2007-11, '13)
Antrel Rolle (DB, New York Giants)
And who better to wrap up our list...
Metta World Peace (former NBA forward, 1999-2014, now playing in China)
Arizona State missed a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game on the final weekend of the regular season by losing to rival Arizona. Duke missed a shot at the ACC Championship Game by losing two of its final three games after the Blue Devils controlled their own destiny as late as Week 13.
But the 81st edition of the Sun Bowl, the second-oldest bowl game in college football (Rose), offers a chance at 10 wins for two 9-3 programs. It would be just the second 10-win season for Duke in school history after accomplishing the feat for the first time last season, and its first bowl win since 1960.
Todd Graham has taken the Sun Devils to the postseason in all three seasons in Tempe but the school has won just one bowl game since 2005. It would also be a second consecutive season with double-digit wins for ASU for the first time since 1970-73.
This is Duke’s first appearance in the Sun Bowl while Arizona State is third all-time behind Texas Tech (9) and UTEP (8) with five Sun Bowl bids. One of those showings was the record-setting 0-0 tie with Catholic University in the 1940 Sun Bowl.
This will be the first-ever meeting between these two different types of Devils.
Arizona State vs. Duke
Kickoff: 2:00 p.m. ET (Dec. 27)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Arizona State -7.5
Arizona State’s Key to Victory: Quarterback stability
Late in the de facto Pac-12 South Division title game with Arizona, Graham startled some by switching from Taylor Kelly to Mike Bercovici. They both threw 22 passes for less than 150 yards and two touchdowns. It was a strange move that came in a critical moment, but following the loss, Graham reaffirmed Kelly would remain the starter for the bowl game. Both players are capable but the time off should allow Kelly to return to full strength after dealing with injuries all season long. He has looked sharp in bowl practice and has a significant edge in experience on Bercovici. But just because it’s Kelly’s final game in an ASU uniform doesn’t mean the big-armed backup won’t get some snaps.
Arizona State is facing the second-best defense, statistically, that it has faced all year behind only Stanford. Duke is 20th in pass efficiency defense and 20th in scoring defense nationally behind the play of a great secondary. How the veteran quarterbacks play will be the biggest key to an Arizona State victory.
Listen to the College Football Playoff Predictions podcast:
Duke's Key to Victory: Get Jamison Crowder the ball
Duke is solid on defense and should matchup well with Arizona State but will need to move the ball on offense to stay in the game. Quarterback Anthony Boone has been a solid leader but ranked near the bottom of the ACC in most passing statistics. Crowder is one of the most productive players in ACC history (276 career receptions, 5,402 all-purpose yards) and David Cutcliffe needs to find multiple ways to get his top playmaker the ball in his final game as a Blue Devil. Be it trick plays, deep shots or special teams, Crowder is the key for Duke’s offense.
The regular season ended with a bit of a whimper for both teams after a fantastic first two months of the season so getting up to play in El Paso could be difficult for both locker rooms. That said, both teams are extremely well coached by two veteran leaders in Cutcliffe and Graham, and Duke is still looking for its first bowl win in more than six decades. Arizona State has the talent edge and is the heavy favorite for a reason but the Blue Devils have a strength-on-strength matchup when the Sun Devils’ offense is on the field. D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong might be too much in this Devilish duel.
Prediction: Arizona State 31, Duke 27
On paper, the battle lines are clearly drawn when it comes to this season's Military Bowl matchup between Cincinnati and Virginia Tech. Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., will serve as the backdrop for a game featuring the classic contrast in styles – the Bearcats’ potent offense vs. the Hokies’ stingy defense.
Cincinnati (9-3) claimed its third conference title in four seasons, tying Memphis and UCF for the top spot in the American Athletic Conference at 7-1. Tommy Tuberville has led the Bearcats to back-to-back nine-win seasons, as this season’s team weathered an early three-game losing streak and has since reeled off seven straight victories.
This will be Cincinnati’s sixth straight bowl appearance. The Bearcats have gone 2-3 thus far, including a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl. This also makes it three straight seasons Cincinnati has faced an ACC team in its bowl game. The Bearcats played an ACC foe in each of the past two Belk Bowls – beating Duke in 2012 and losing to North Carolina last season.
Virginia Tech (6-6) meanwhile needed every win it could muster just to keep the nation’s second-longest bowl streak (22 seasons) alive. A perennial contender in the ACC under Frank Beamer, the Hokies picked up one of the biggest non-conference wins of the season when they upset Ohio State 35-21 in the Horseshoe in early September.
Unfortunately that high was followed by many lows, starting with a home loss to East Carolina, as Virginia Tech’s offense struggled to produce consistent points. A three-game losing streak in mid-October ended any thoughts of winning another Coastal Division title, but the cruelest blow of all came in late November in a 6-3 double overtime loss at Wake Forest.
Still, give credit to Beamer’s team for continuing its dominance over in-state rival Virginia, as the Hokies’ 24-20 home win not only secured the Commonwealth Cup for an 11th straight season, it also got them bowl eligible.
The Hokies are just 9-12 in bowl games under Beamer, including last season’s Sun Bowl loss to UCLA.
Including the 2009 Orange Bowl, Cincinnati and Virginia Tech have played each other 10 times. The series is split 5-5 with the Bearcats claiming the most recent victory – 27-24 over the Hokies in September 2012 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Cincinnati -3
Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Gunner-ing it on Offense
The Bearcats enter this game 26th in the nation in scoring at 35.4 points per game. Most of this damage has come through the air via the right arm of quarterback Gunner Kiel. An elite prospect that started his career at Notre Dame (after committing to Indiana and then LSU), Kiel has blossomed as a sophomore signal-caller. He’s tied for ninth nationally with 30 touchdown passes and has thrown for more than 3,000 yards. He’s done a good job of spreading the wealth, as six different Bearcats have caught 20 or more passes and eight have hauled in a touchdown. This approach could pay off against Virginia Tech’s defense, which has fared well against the pass. The Hokies are 14th in the nation in passing defense, holding opponents to a 47.6 percent completion rate (third). They haven’t picked off a bunch of passes (10 INTs) though and have been somewhat susceptible to the big play. Virginia Tech has allowed 17 passing plays of 30 or more yards and nine of 40-plus. Still, Cincinnati needs Kiel to continue to have success throwing the ball because the Bearcats’ running game has been inconsistent. Also, as good as the Hokies’ defense has been (20.4 ppg, 17th), the offense is averaging less than 24 points per game. The more success Kiel has throwing against the Hokies, the better for a Cincinnati defense that has had plenty of issues of its own.
Virginia Tech’s Key to Victory: Get Offensive
The only reason the Hokies are playing in their 22nd straight bowl game is because their defense was good enough to win six games. Actually, this defense was good enough to win even more games; it’s just that the offense had trouble scoring points. Even though Virginia Tech held opponents to just 20.4 points per game, the Hokies only outscored teams by 35 points, or less than three per game. Injuries took their toll on the running game, a facet that was a strength during Tech’s best seasons, and Texas Tech transfer quarterback Michael Brewer has struggled because of a combination of turnovers (14 INTs), a lack of proven playmakers on the outside and inconsistent pass protection (31 sacks allowed). If Virginia Tech’s defense does its part, which it has all season, then it stands to reason the offense won’t need to score that many points to put the Hokies in a position to win. Hopefully Brewer and the rest of the offense are using the time off and extra practices to iron out the kinks and find some sort of rhythm and cohesion. It’s not like the offense is expected to carry this team in the first place and it sure would be disheartening to see another stellar defensive performance from coordinator Bud Foster’s unit wasted on a stage like this.
Strictly from an offense vs. defense standpoint, Cincinnati’s O doesn’t seem to quite match up against Virginia Tech’s D. However, a big reason why the Hokies are 6-6 is because their offense has offered minimal support. How else can you explain how the same team that beat Ohio State on the road manages just one field goal in a double overtime loss to Wake Forest? Virginia Tech is certainly no stranger to this stage, playing in its 22nd straight bowl game, but postseason success (9-12) has been tough to come by for Frank Beamer’s team. The Hokies’ D is nasty, but their offense is atrocious and I think Tommy Tuberville’s Bearcats have just enough balance to beat a one-dimensional team.
Prediction: Cincinnati 23, Virginia Tech 17
Hosts Braden Gall and Steven Lassan go in-depth to break down both national semifinal games.
Alabama vs. Ohio State: Does Urban Meyer or Nick Saban have the advantage on the sidelines? Can Cardale Jones handle the Bama defense? Can the Buckeyes defensive line disrupt the Bama offense? Which fan base wins the week off-the-field in New Orleans?
Oregon vs. Florida State: Which QB is better in Pasadena? Which defense is more likely to get stops? Can Marcus Mariota carry his team to victory? Does playing close games all year help or hurt FSU?
The guys cover all of this and make National Championship predictions on this special Playoff Predictions edition of the Cover 2 Podcast.
"You know him," Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott said to reporters Monday — and there was no doubt about who he meant by him. "It's real difficult. He's such a competitor. He wants to go out there and play every minute that he can. The mind is willing, but sometimes the body is not.”
Kobe Bryant, according to his coach, is going to be trying out a new concept in the eighteenth year of his storied NBA career: rest. After showing severe signs of fatigue in a 108-101 loss to the Sacramento Kings on December 21 — in which the 36-year-old legend shot 8-for-30 and committed nine turnovers — it’s become clear that Bryant simply can’t play the way he used to.
This isn’t the only time we’ve seen Kobe playing less than spectacular ball, though. For fans of Bryant’s well-deserved spot in the gallery of basketball greatness, any sort of closer look at the Black Mamba’s recent performance has revealed the mustache on the Mona Lisa:
Still lots of noise, but the sample size keeps getting bigger: pic.twitter.com/OLMNbcxcRo— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) December 22, 2014
"We'll formulate a plan that suits him so when he is on the court, he can go out and play at full strength instead of trying to will his way through these games," Scott went on. "He's such a competitor that he tries to will his way through it no matter how his body feels. I want him to get to the point where his body feels a lot better than it does right now.
"I'm not going to sacrifice his well being for W’s. I have to look out for Kobe to make sure I make it through this season without killing him and playing him too much. There might be some decisions I make that he won't be real happy with. I'll have to live with that. But for me, it's always going to be my players' best interest.”
With or without Bryant, the Lakers are destined to keep losing big in the stacked Western Conference. And as the losses pile up, the games themselves will rarely be in the spotlight — the sideshow of Kobe accepting the dimming of his star has long been the central hooping event in Tinseltown.
— John Wilmes