Articles By Braden Gall
Gambling is sports. It makes meaningless games infinitely more important to fans.
However, Monday night's national championship game doesn’t need any added juice to lure in viewers from other fan bases. All of college football will watch Oregon and Ohio State do battle.
I don’t need to place a bet on the game to enjoy it. But for national title games, like the Super Bowl, prop bets can be an added dimension compared to the traditional point spreads or over/under.
Here are some of the most intriguing Ducks-Buckeyes prop bets and final picks for the more traditional gamblers.
Ohio State (+7) vs. Oregon
The Ducks have the experience edge and Marcus Mariota. Ohio State has the coaching and talent edge and will be playing the disrespect card once again. These two teams are evenly matched and the game could go either way. However, Urban Meyer is 5-0 straight up as an underdog since getting to Columbus. I’ll take Oregon to win, but OSU to cover. Prediction: Ohio State +7
Ohio State vs. Oregon: Over/Under 75
Only one BCS title game out of 16 went over 75 points and that was the 79-point Texas-USC showdown in 2005. Two other times — in 2004 (74) and 1999 (75) — has the title game gone over the 70-point mark. But it hasn’t happened since ’05, and the average total for the championship game since is 49.5. These are two of the highest-scoring teams in the nation with a combined per game average of 92.2, but title games are traditionally played tighter than usual. I’d take the under as both could score in the 30s and the bet would still win. Predictions: Under
Oregon total points: O/U 41
I’d take the under because of Ohio State’s defensive line and developing linebackers. Oregon may still win the game but may have to battle all game long against this nasty front seven. Prediction: Under
Ohio State total points: O/U 34
I’d take the over here. Ohio State can score, as it just posted 59 against Wisconsin and 42 against Alabama. The Ducks' defense has given up tons of yards this season and the Buckeyes should be able to move the ball. Prediction: Over
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Marcus Mariota rushing yards: O/U 51.5
Seven times in 14 games has Mariota gone over 50 yards rushing this season with four of those coming in the last six games. When pressured (which will happen) and when in big games, go with the best player on the field doing whatever it takes to move the sticks. Predictions: Over
First downs: Ohio State (+4) vs. Oregon
Take the Buckeyes and the “points” here. Even if Oregon wins, the odds are the Ducks will be ripping off large chunks of yards. Ohio State, meanwhile, will look to control the clock more from the start. Take OSU and the four first downs. Prediction: OSU +4
Team to get first penalty: Ohio St (even) or Oregon (-130)
If there is one area Ohio State has a significant advantage in it is the yellow flags. The Ducks are 119th in the nation in penalties per game (8.1) — well ahead of Ohio State (5.6). Hence, the $130 bet to win $100. I’d still take the Ducks here. Prediction: Oregon
Cardale Jones longest completion: O/U 45.5
The Ducks are 50th nationally in allowing pass plays of more than 40 yards and Jones’ best skill seems to be the deep ball. He’s had a 47-yard completion against Bama and a 44-yarder against UW in just two career starts. I’d say OSU will hit at least one big one. Prediction: Over
Cardale Jones TDs + INTs: O/U 2.5
Definitely take the over here. There is a good chance he'll record at least one of each. And in what many believe will be a higher scoring game, a good chance he’ll get two of each. I’d take the over and feel great about it from a guy with tons of ability, lots of weapons and little experience. Prediction: Over
Longest TD scored (both): O/U 63.5
Oregon and Ohio State both rank in the top 10 nationally this fall in plays of 60 yards or more. Each team posted eight plays of 60-plus yards, giving this game a good chance of seeing multiple big plays. Prediction: Over
Team to score longest TD of the game: Ohio St (+140) or Oregon (-170)
Take the Buckeyes all day here. As I just pointed out, Ohio State is just as prone to big plays as Oregon and the Ducks' defense has given up more yards and big plays than OSU by a wide margin. Take the odds and run. Prediction: Ohio State
Ezekiel Elliott rushing yards: O/U 120.5
This is the biggest prop bet in terms of production on the board for a reason. Ohio State will run the ball like crazy and Oregon hasn’t shown it can stop a power-rushing attack all year. Elliott has been over 120 yards in three straight games and the Ducks are 51st in the nation in rushing defense. Prediction: Over
The first score will be (for fun):
- all odds provided by @ToddFuhrman @BovadaLV and Westgate Las Vegas Sports Book.
The most important, bizarre, interesting and entertaining stats you need to know about the 2015 College Football National Championship game:
1939: First NCAA basketball tournament
Why is the first-ever NCAA basketball tournament relevant to the first-ever college football tournament? Because they both featured the same two teams. Oregon and Ohio State met in the 1939 NCAA Tournament final in the first-ever NCAA tourney. The Ducks topped the Bucks 46-33 for the championship in the 16-team, two-region tourney.
11,654: Difference in Marcus Mariota's and Cardale Jones' career yards
Cardale Jones has started two games in two seasons at Ohio State. He has 1,007 total yards of offense in his entire career — 876 this season and 131 in 2013. That’s only 11,654 yards behind Marcus Mariota’s career total of 12,661 yards. Jones has 621 career passing yards and 386 career rushing yards with seven total touchdowns. Mariota has 10,463 yards passing, 2,198 yards rushing and 132 total touchdowns.
460.34: Cardale Jones' QB rating on third and long
Jones was spectacular on third down against Alabama. More specifically, he has been excellent on third and long for Ohio State. On third and six yards or less, Jones hasn’t completed a pass all season (0-for-5) but on third and seven yards or more, Jones has a passer rating of 460.34. He’s 7-for-10 with 186 yards and two touchdowns without an INT.
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7.2: Ohio State’s average recruiting ranking the last five years
Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes have been building their roster with an SEC blueprint. With an average national class ranking of 7.2, Ohio State has the fourth-best roster in the nation in 2014 (tied with LSU) behind only Alabama, Florida State and Florida. Meyer has signed three consecutive top-five classes since arriving following the 2011 season, giving OSU the “combine” advantage over Oregon.
15.6: Oregon’s average recruiting ranking the last five years
The Ducks' average recruiting ranking over the last five seasons is 15.6 nationally. That is good for 14th. Oregon falls behind the five listed above and (in order) USC, Texas, Auburn, Georgia, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Michigan and Tennessee. Oregon hasn’t had a class ranked better than 12th in the last five cycles and Mark Helfrich has landed the No. 21 (2014) and No. 19 (2013) classes respectively.
92.2: Oregon, Ohio State combined points per game
Offense shouldn’t be an issue for either team in the season’s final game. Oregon is second in the nation in scoring at 47.2 points per game while Ohio State is fifth in the nation at 45.0. No team in the nation scored more touchdowns this year than these two teams. Oregon leads the country with 88 touchdowns and OSU is tied for second (Marshall) with 84 touchdowns.
56,435,000: Viewers for the Playoff semifinals
According to ESPN, the two College Football Playoff semifinals drew the two largest cable audiences in history. The Rose Bowl set a cable record with 28,164,000 viewers, based on a 14.8 rating. That record was broken later that night by the Sugar Bowl with 28,271,000 million viewers, based on a 15.2 rating.
21.7: Highest-rated BCS title game
It should come as no surprise that Texas-USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl ending the ’05 season was the highest-rated BCS title game. In fact, it wasn’t really close. No other game ever reached an 18 rating. Six different title games landed a 17 rating: Oklahoma-Florida State (17.8), Florida State-Virginia Tech (17.5), Florida-Ohio State (17.4), Alabama-Texas (17.2), Ohio State-Miami (17.2) and Tennessee-Florida State (17.2).
119th: Oregon's national ranking in penalties
One area of weakness for the Ducks has been their discipline on the field. Oregon ranks 119th nationally in both penalties per game (8.1) and penalty yards per game (72.8). The Buckeyes aren’t elite in this category but are significantly better than the Ducks, ranking 47th in penalty yards per game (48.6) and penalties per game (5.6).
Nov. 23, 2013: Last time Oregon lost the turnover battle
Turnovers are the name of the game in football and few teams take care of the football and create turnovers better than the Ducks. Oregon was the only team in the nation that never lost the turnover battle this season. In fact, the last time the Ducks had a negative in the TO column was Nov. 23, 2013 when it lost to Arizona in the desert (-3). Oregon leads the nation with just 10 giveaways and is 10th nationally with 30 takeaways. Both the Ducks and Bucks forced seven turnovers in their last two games and both are +5 in their last two.
4.76: Ohio State’s yards per play allowed against Power 5 teams
The Buckeyes were 18th nationally this year with a tidy 4.86 yards per play allowed. But against Power 5 teams, Ohio State was even better at 4.76 yards per play — good for seventh nationally. The Ducks allowed 5.44 yards per play against Power 5 teams (40th) but have tightened up of late, giving up just 4.49 yards per play in their last four games.
6: Times Urban Meyer has been an underdog at Ohio State
Oregon is favored by a touchdown over Ohio State. It marks just the sixth time since arriving in Columbus that Urban Meyer has been an underdog, including the past three games. What happened in all five previous games? Ohio State has won outright every time, beating Michigan State (-2) and Wisconsin (-1) in 2012 and Michigan State (-3.5), Wisconsin (-4) and Alabama (-7.5) this season. Six also is the number of Top 15 teams Oregon will have played after facing OSU.
192.3: Rushing yards OSU gained over Alabama’s average allowed
The Crimson Tide entered last week’s Playoff game leading the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 88.7 yards per game on the ground. Behind Jones and Ezekiel Elliott, the Buckeyes rushed for 281 yards — or 192.3 more yards than Alabama normally allows. For what it's worth, the Ducks are 51st in the nation in rush defense at 156.1 yards allowed per game.
Hosts Braden Gall, David Fox and Steven Lassan go in-depth to break down college football's national championship game.
Fox recounts his trip to Pasadena, what the Rose Bowl is all about and his lonely New Year's Eve. Gall breaks down NOLA on New Year's and his favorite moments from the Sugar Bowl.
How do Ohio State and Oregon stack up against each other? The guys go position-by-position to analyze both teams to find strengths and weaknesses for both. Who has the coaching edge? Is Marcus Mariota simply too good to beat?
Each host offers up in-depth analysis and a final prediction for the season's final game.
Ohio State won the BCS National Championship in 2002 in dramatic fashion over heavily-favored Miami.
An unbeaten, Charles Woodson-led Michigan team split a national championship with Nebraska in 1997.
But, quickly, name the last time the Big Ten won a national title in football before the ’97 Wolverines? That would be the undefeated 1968 Ohio State Buckeyes coached by Woody Hayes.
Following two titles in six years, it's been 11 more years of nothing but national disappointment for the Big Ten. So Ohio State is playing for more than just a championship on Jan. 12 against Oregon. It’s playing for an entire conference. Clearly, the value of a victory for the Big Ten in the championship game cannot be overstated.
“It was a big day for the Big Ten,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the Buckeyes win over Alabama. “We’ve had some struggles over the years but our talent level is up and our coaching is up.”
The Big Ten was the least successful conference during the BCS Era. It had the fewest programs play in the title game (one) and had the fewest championships (one) of any of the Power 5 conferences. Even the defunct Big East had two different teams play in the BCS title game (Virginia Tech, Miami twice).
Michigan is on its fourth coach in nine years. Penn State is on its third coach in four years after the worst scandal in college football history. Wisconsin has lost two coaches in three years for supposedly “lesser” jobs in other power conferences. Nebraska is more known for a fake twitter account or their former coach’s sharp tongue than competing for championships.
A few bowl upset wins for the league were exciting and welcome but were merely a brief moment of respite. Big Ten fans should not be excited about the future of their league because Baylor had a field goal blocked or Auburn’s kicker missed by six inches.
The Big Ten wasn’t underrated this year. It was terrible. It lost every major non-conference matchup with the exception of Indiana’s win over Missouri. The ballyhooed bowl season still included embarrassing B1G showings against middle of the pack teams like Tennessee, Stanford and those same Mizzou Tigers.
But all of that — a decade of championship irrelevance, coaching turmoil and disrespect — was erased in a matter of days. The Big Ten should be ecstatic about its future because of what the Ohio State Buckeyes did in New Orleans and Jim Harbaugh’s return to Ann Arbor.
Beating Alabama wasn’t just another postseason for Ohio State. It was knocking off the most dominant team in the sport deep in the heart of SEC country when no one believed it to be possible.
“You definitely represent your conference,” Buckeyes defensive end Adolphus Washington said. “You always hear about the competition down South in the SEC being so much better than up North. It gave us a chance to show what the Big Ten can do against the SEC.”
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Landing Harbaugh wasn’t just another hire. He immediately adds juice to a league in desperate need of headlines and credibility. He’s instantly one of the top two coaches in the league and one of the top dozen sideline generals in all of college football. With James Franklin settling in at Penn State and Mark Dantonio already clicking on all cylinders at Michigan State, the Big Ten East is set to become one of the power divisions in college football.
With Harbuagh, the Big Ten becomes must-see TV once again.
“It’s great to have him coaching in the Big Ten,” Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple said of Michigan’s new head coach. “It’s great for the rivalry and it’s great for the sport.
Scoring Harbaugh and beating Alabama can set two foundations for the Big Ten's future. Last week was the first step of many if the league wants to return to national prominence. The next step comes on Jan. 12 in the title game against Oregon, making a strong showing in Arlington that much more important.
“The Big Ten takes a lot of scrutiny from other leagues," Apple said. "They think we aren’t as talented. So this is a great platform to show the world that we can play with anybody."
Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa sees the national title game as not only an opportunity for Ohio State to reestablish itself as a national power but also a statement on the league.
“So many people are talking about the Big Ten not being relevant," Bosa said. "It would be nice to silence some haters.”
There’s a reason ESPN has become the sports goliath that it is today.
They were the first and best in the business to do what they do. It began on Sept. 6, 1979 with the original run of their signature nightly sportscast that kept fans informed about what was happening in sports. This well before the eruption of the Internet, blog-o-sphere, social media or niche television networks.
For those of us born in the early '80s (like myself), SportsCenter was as big a part of my childhood as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I could follow my favorite teams, stories and personalities from all over the nation in one place. I could watch Knicks and Mets highlights every night whether I lived in Dallas, Atlanta or Austin. But what took SportsCenter from small cable network newscast to broadcasting behemoth was the creative, funny and unique personalities that, as Ron Burgundy would say, read the news.
With that in mind, from the viewer's perspective, here are the Top 25 SportsCenter anchors of all-time:
1. Keith Olbermann (1992-97)
After a decade with CNN, Olbermann joined ESPN’s SportsCenter in 1992 quickly becoming a marquee personality. By 1995, he had won the Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster. After things had soured internally at ESPN, and with an eye always toward the political spectrum, Olbermann left SportsCenter for MSNBC in 1997. He also worked for Fox Sports Net and NBC Nightly News. The cult-hit sitcom Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin, is based on Olbermann’s time spent with Patrick on the set of SportsCenter. Despite his bizarre and eccentric personality, ESPN likely isn’t what it is today without the impact of the combination of Patrick and Olbermann. He is credited with the advent of the phrase “This is SportsCenter” which has been used in cross-promotion and advertising for nearly two decades.
2. Dan Patrick (1989-06)
Not many jobs in any broadcasting field last for nearly 20 years and Patrick was the one of the best. Signature phrases "en fuego" (which actually started as "el fuego") and "The Whiff" helped grow the idea that SportsCenter was as much entertainment as it was news. He and his cohort Keith Olbermann should be largely credited with the initial growth of ESPN as the World Wide Leader. Others brought creativity and entertainment to sports broadcasting but Patrick and "KO" perfected the art and changed the way fans consume highlights forever. Not many sportscasters have 16 motion pictures and two national radio shows on their resume. Patrick has set the bar in the sports broadcasting industry.
3. Chris Berman (1979-present)
When he was good, few have ever been as entertaining and likable as Berman. Signature catch phrases and nicknames made him one of the preeminent SportsCenter anchors during the time of biggest growth for ESPN. His work on NFL Primetime and the Home Run Derby makes him one of the most distinctive personalities in ESPN history. However, his longevity might be his biggest weakness as 30 years in the business has left his shtick a bit stale. At his best (the '90s), he was one of the greats. And at his worst (the '00s), he can be nails on a chalkboard.
4. Bob Ley (1979-present)
The classy stalwart has been with the network since its inception in 1979, making him one of (if not the) longest tenured ESPN employees in the building. Over the course of his prestigious career, Ley has claimed eight sports Emmys (Sports Journalism) and three Cable ACE awards (Sports Information Series) and has been the long-time host of the acclaimed investigative program Outside the Lines. He is credited with breaking the story of Pete Rose being banned from baseball.
5. Stuart Scott (1993-2015)
His influence on sports fans and the media was vast and interwoven with the very sports he covered. He added a vocabulary with a never before seen flair — “booyah” and “cooler than the other side of the pillow” — that changed the way broadcasters covered the sport. But most importantly, he was a role model, influence and road-paver for young African-American journalists across the country. And he did it with class, humor, courage and originality. He will be missed.
6. Greg Gumbel (1979-88)
There is little Mr. Gumbel has yet to accomplish in his illustrious broadcasting career. He has done play-by-play for the NCAA Tournament, NBA, MLB, Winter Olympics, college baseball and NFL. He has hosted shows about every sport on NBC and CBS as well as ABC. But it all started back in 1979 when he started his career at ESPN. He was a reporter, anchor and play-by-play man at a time when many doubted the future of SportsCenter. Gumbel’s no-nonsense approach has made him a model and iconic broadcaster who influenced generations of rising journalists and TV personalities.
7. Scott Van Pelt (2001-present)
The signature bald head of Van Pelt has become a staple of the ESPN television and radio broadcasts. He began working at the Golf Channel and has continued his work as one of the top host/analysts at all the major tournaments each season. Much like Patrick, Mayne and Olbermann, SVP’s comedic talents on SportsCenter helped him land an ESPN Radio gig as well as a variety of video game jobs (EA Sports).
8. Kenny Mayne (1994-present)
Few television personalities have ever had a dryer sense of humor than Mayne. The Washington native and junior college quarterback debuted on SportSmash in 1994 before moving over to the big network and developing into one of the funnier broadcasters in sports. His extensive and creative home runs calls in particular have withstood the test of time. He then developed “The Mayne Event” for NFL Sunday mornings and is still currently involved with his own feature “Wider World of Sports” as well as horse racing.
9. Linda Cohn (1992-present)
In 1987, Cohn made her first big mark in the business by becoming the first full-time national female sports anchor in U.S. radio history. She has withstood the test of time, hosting SportsCenter for over 20 years. Along the way, she was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and given the Women’s Sports Journalism Award. She also authored her own biography and has paved the way for women everywhere to break into the sports broadcasting business — or, as she puts it, “The Boys’ Club.”
10. Rece Davis (1995-present)
Laurece “Rece” Davis graduated from Alabama in 1968 and worked his way to ESPN2 by 1995. The consummate professional, Davis can play both host and analyst roles as well as anyone in the business. His work on College Football Live, Gameday Final and College Gameday make him one of the best in the business. He is always gracious with his time and is one of the few who genuinely loves the sports he covers.
11. Robin Roberts (1990-04)
The smooth-talking Roberts has been a staple of national television for over two decades. With quality catch-phrases and her up-tempo personality, Roberts developed into one of the best SportsCenter anchors of all-time. She won three Emmys for her work at ESPN and was given the Mel Greenberg Media Award in 2001. It eventually landed her on ABC’s signature morning program Good Morning America. Her very public bout (and victory) with cancer is just one reason millions have grown to love the Mississippi native.
12. Brian Kenny (1997-11)
A baseball and boxing junkie, Kenny won an Emmy at ESPN and was named the network’s Volunteer of the Year in 2007. He also was named SI’s Media Personality of the Year in 2004 and Boxing Broadcaster of the Year in 2005.
13. John Anderson (1999-present)
Hailing from one of the most prestigious journalism departments in the nation at Missouri, Anderson has been one of the best new generation anchors at ESPN. He won the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year in 2012 and has crossed over into mainstream as the co-host of ABC's Wipeout.
14. Craig Kilborn (1993-96)
Many give credit to Kilborn, Patrick and Olbermann for bringing comedy to the SportsCenter set. He went on to host The Daily Show on Comedy Central and The Late, Late Show on CBS. He also famously appeared in Old School.
15. John Buccigross (1996-present)
The hockey aficionado has won Emmys for his work on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight as well as NHL Tonight. He has written for the Web site (as well as a book) and hosted for ESPN for nearly 20 years.
16. Dave Revsine (1999-07)
An even-keel broadcaster is as professional as they come. A Northwestern grad, Revsine hosted a variety of shows for ESPN and did play-by-play. In 2007, he left ESPN to become the lead studio host for the Big Ten Network when the channel launched.
17. Charley Steiner (1987-01)
The jolly, bearded anchor always seemed to have a good time on the air and always seemed to be involved in the funnier SC moments (Carl Lewis?). He eventually worked his way onto ESPN’s national baseball radio broadcasts as well before moving on to the Yankees' radio team in 2002.
18. Rich Eisen (1996-03)
The affable NFL Network lead host began his broadcasting career at KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif. He landed at ESPN in 1996 and built a name for himself with baseball impersonations and quality reporting. His podcast (The Rich Eisen Podcast) is one of the most listened to on the Web (over 7 mill. downloads).
19. Mike Tirico (1991-1997)
One of the smoothest sportscasters in the business today has arguably the best job in the business calling Monday Night Football. However, he got started on SC in the early 90s. He is calm, cool and collected at all times and it makes for an enjoyable broadcast nearly everytime.
20. Steve Levy (1993-present)
A quality and likable broadcaster, Levy has been around the SportsCenter desk for two decades. His famous “bulging disk” slip-up is one of the all-time great moments in ESPN history. He also earned the nickname “Mr. Overtime” for his work as a hockey broadcaster.2
21. Tim Brando (1986-94)
Brando has been a broadcasting giant for nearly 30 years. He has worked for CBS and, now, SiriusXM College Sports Nation and FOX Sports, but it all began nationally at ESPN. He worked on the NCAA basketball championships and the beginning of the great College Gameday as well as anchoring SportsCenter for nearly a decade.
22. Neil Everett (2000-present)
The West Coaster worked at Hawaii Pacific University for 15 years before getting back into broadcasting. His signature deep, gravelly voice and Island vocabulary makes him one of the better “new” anchors.
23. Suzy Kolber (1993-96, 1999-present)
She has been around and lasted as long as anyone in the business. Like Roberts and Cohn just before her, Kolber is a bit of a pioneer in the male-dominated industry. She also gave American sports fans one of the greatest TV moments of all-time.
24. Kevin Frazier (2002-04)
His time was brief at ESPN, but “K-Fray” has long been one of the business’ most respected personalities. He is now the host of The Insider as well as college football coverage on FX and Fox.
25. Sage Steele (2007-present)
One of the most affable hosts in the business earned her stripes as a SC anchor and it delivered her a big-time gig. Steele recently has taken over as the lead chair for ESPN's NBA coverage.
NEW ORLEANS — Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have squared off with a right to play for the national championship before, but no one could have forecast what took place in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.
In the first instant classic of the playoff era, Ohio State defeated the favored Crimson Tide 42-35 to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 12 against Oregon.
The action-packed semifinal was a game of runs, big plays, dramatic swings, elite coaching and two rabid fan bases in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
And it proved why college football has been salivating for a playoff for decades.
With just over three minutes to play in the first half, Alabama had a 21-6 lead. Ohio State made crucial mistakes. Quarterback Cardale Jones looked flustered and shaky and the offense had missed opportunities to put points on the board.
But offensive coordinator Tom Herman shook up his gameplan and allowed Jones to attack the Crimson Tide secondary. The 250-pound gunslinger found a rhythm at the end of the first half, and with the help of a trick play, rallied the Buckeyes with big throws and emphatic runs.
"I never would have thought we would have been in this position," Jones said. "We weren't supposed to be in this position. We just beat the No. 1 team in the world."
Ohio State rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a 34-21 lead late in the third quarter. As expected, Alabama never went away, cutting the lead to six with 1:01 left in the third and then against to seven points with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter.
When Blake Sims' Hail Mary attempt landed into the waiting arms of Tyvis Powerll as time expired, the Scarlet and Gray half of the Superdome erupted into a celebration befitting of the Big Easy on New Year's Day.
Regardless of who won, college football was the real winner Thursday. The performance from both teams validated the College Football Playoff in just its first year of action.
Earlier in the day on the other side of the country, the other semifinal was less dramatic with Oregon defeating Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl but no less significant. The Ducks' win ended Florida State's 29-game win streak and bid to win a second national title.
And the best part? One more game to determine a national champion.
"It's awesome. It's perfect," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the game. "This is the first year and everyone is already talking about eight. The reality is you will always have someone left out. But this works. Today we had phenomenal football games. I think it's worked."
The former BCS system likely would have placed the undefeated, defending champions (Florida State) against the one-loss No. 1-rated SEC champs (Alabama) into a one-game playoff. Now both teams are eliminated.
Instead of Florida State-Alabama, Arlington will play host to two teams left for dead in the first month of the season.
The experts certainly weren't predicting an Oregon-Ohio State battle. In the system's first year, the sport has already witnessed two of the sport's most historic games. In a battle of two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in the most gorgeous of settings, Oregon ended Florida State's dominance. Meanwhile, Ohio State did something few believed possible.
College football gets to do it all again next week in Texas.
To no one's surprise, Oregon is a touchdown favorite over Ohio State to win the season's final game in Arlington. So let the drama and prognostication begin again.
"Underdogs again?" freshman linebacker and Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP Darron Lee said. "When will they ever learn?"
NEW ORLEANS — The 2015 Sugar Bowl was a game of runs.
Huge momentum swings and big plays on both sides of the ball allowed Ohio State to overcome a 21-6 deficit with 28 unanswered points of its own.
Then, like the Buckeyes have done all season long, they persevered and overcame adversity to outlast the No. 1 team in the nation in impressive fashion.
Even after taking a two-touchdown lead with just 3:24 left in the game on an 85-yard Ezekiel Elliott run — the longest run allowed by Alabama all season — Ohio State still allowed the Crimson Tide a chance at a game-tying Hail Mary on the final play of the game.
When the final gun sounded, the undisputed king of the North had come into the heart of SEC country and toppled the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide to advance to the national championship game in Arlington on Jan. 12.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Ohio State 42, Alabama 35
Player of the game: Cardale Jones
He didn't win the Offensive MVP — that went to Ezekiel Elliott — but there is little doubt that the most important player on the field was Ohio State's 250-pound quarterback. The sophomore making just his second career start had his share of jitters, but Jones eventually settled down and torched the vaunted Alabama defense. Jones finished with 243 yards passing, 43 yards rushing on 17 carries and one touchdown. More importantly, Jones was electric on third downs, completing big passes and scrambling for first downs all game long.
Turning point: Steve Miller's 41-yard INT return for a TD
Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller wouldn't normally be dropping into pass coverage, but Buckeyes defensive coordinator Luke Fickell called the perfect play at the perfect time. The result was a Blake Sims interception returned 41 yards by Steve Miller for a touchdown that capped a 28-point OSU run with just 3:21 left in the fourth quarter. The two-touchdown lead would hold up.
Unsung hero: Jacoby Boren, Billy Price, Pat Elflein
The interior offensive line for Ohio State was outstanding. Facing off against the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, most believed the Buckeyes would struggle to run the football. But the trio of interior blockers powered the OSU rushing attack. The Buckeyes rushed for 281 yards — 107 more yards than Bama had allowed in any game this season (Auburn, 174).
Needed more from: Blake Sims
Sims entered the game as the unquestioned leader of the offense. He was calm, cool and collected in the face of pressure all season long. But he stared down receivers and made critical mistakes in critical situations. His three interceptions eventually cost Alabama a chance to get back into the game late in the fourth quarter.
Critical call: Evan Spencer-to-Michael Thomas reverse pass
Tom Herman and Urban Meyer emptied the playbook late in the first half when they called a reverse pass from the Ohio State 13-yard line. With 12 seconds left in the first half and trailing by eight points, Evan Spencer took the reverse and heaved a bullet to the front corner of the endzone where Michael Thomas made one of the most spectacular catches of the season just over the outstretched fingertips of the Crimson Tide defender. The play cut the halftime lead to one point.
Stat that matters: 10-of-18
Cardale Jones had his moments where he struggled but third down wasn't one of them. Ohio State was outstanding on the game's most critical down, especially in long situations. The Buckeyes converted on 10-of-18 third downs while Alabama went just 2-of-13 on the all-important down.
NEW ORLEANS — Alabama players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Ohio State. What have they been saying?
Scouting Ohio State
Nick Saban, HC
"They're very well coached, which is nothing different from any other team that we've faced that Urban Meyer has coached, because he does a fantastic job with his players and coaches to put an outstanding product on the field. There are some similarities with what they do, especially offensively in terms of what they did when they were at the University of Florida, what he did."
Scouting Cardale Jones
Landon Collins, S
"Basically with the offensive, we've got a new quarterback and basically we're going to try to confuse him and do our best ability to do that and just break him down, break him down with what they like to do from the last game because it's a different quarterback. He's a more passing type quarterback that we see and has a tremendous arm. So once he tries to get the ball out there, try to get it to receivers they're going to try to do something spectacular."
"I watch the film, his tendencies, what his motions is, and stuff like that. It's a disadvantage to only have one film. But we've got a lot of plays on him. And that's the best thing, because I mean we only had like 30 plays, you can't really pick up stuff on, and the teams come out, they get a lot of reps and easy to get ready for oncoming games. We picked up on a few things. And they haven't changed the offense, the way how we looked at it."
Scouting Ohio State's defense
Blake Sims, QB
"Their defensive line reminds me of Missouri. They've got great defensive linemen that they're good at all spots. And I think that that was a good team to compare them to. They're a great team. They play with a lot of passion. And they want to win games. They play together. Very fundamental, sound. And they do what their coach tells them to do."
Jalston Fowler, FB
"They like to move these guys around a lot. I mean, they like to stand them up, give them different looks. It's crazy how they work their defense around that guy. But you gotta always know where he's at because he's one of the main priorities, one of the top guys on the defensive line."
Nick Saban, HC
"Up front on defense, they're very physical and what makes defensive players good is they're hard to block. And they certainly have some guys up front that are hard to block and they played very well and have been difficult to score against. Create a lot of negative plays for people, and it's going to be very challenging for us up front with our offensive line to do a good job of executing against what they do."
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think the two inside players, the two defensive tackles, are issues because they play so hard and they get off your centers and guards. And their two inside linebackers are very physical and their field linebacker can really run. And they leave him in there against three wides a lot and because they have the confidence that he can cover. So this is a very, very good defense. One that really if you look out, if you look all year, outside of Michigan State, which a lot of those yards are at the end of the game, people aren't really moving the ball against these guys very much at all."
Scouting Joey Bosa
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think first off Bosa is an issue. Very long, strong player, relentless. Effort player. So we have to know where he is. They do a really good job of moving him around. I think that's missed. People talk about his numbers and what a good player he is. He's a great player but they do a great job of moving him so it's difficult. He's inside. He's right. He's left. He's off the ball. He's on the ball. So I feel like what they've done with him on defense is kind of what people do on offensive guys, skilled guy. They move him around, make it hard to find and they've done a great job with that. I think they play very physical."
Scouting Ohio State's secondary
Amari Cooper, WR
"Their cornerbacks are both really fast. 12 is extremely fast. Probably like a legit 4.3 guy. They never let the receivers they play against get too much separation from them. So they're both really solid corners. I think their secondaries are pretty fast, the corners are pretty fast. And their safeties are really good tacklers, their safeties are 2 and 3 on the team in tackles. So, they're really solid defensive backs."
"Overall we feel they're a really sound defense. We feel like the players on their defense are really confident in their scheme. We feel like they're comfortable in that scheme. They don't really change around their defense at all. They do the same things, because that's what they're comfortable doing. And they're really what word can I use? They're just used to running that defense and they do it really well."
NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Alabama. What have they been saying?
Scouting Alabama's offense
Urban Meyer, HC
"You always try to, as part of the game plan and preparation, expose a weakness. And that's difficult with Alabama whether it be punt rush, whether it be kickoff coverage, and then obviously offense/defense. you're trying to find that player or part of that defense or offense that's not very good and you go after it. Alabama is the kind of team it's hard to find that."
Curtis Grant, LB
“They’re a dynamic offense. They’ve got two great backs and obviously they have a great receiver. We’re going to try our best to make them one-dimensional.”
Joey Bosa, DE
"Big talented guys. Athletic. Big, big dudes. And we haven't really matched up with someone like this before, this athletic, this big, but like I said yesterday, I don't think they've seen someone - a D line as consistent as us and as physical as we're going to be. It's going to be interesting to see."
Michael Bennett, DT
"They have a fantastic O line that is very big and actually very athletic. And that's a hard combination to achieve at O line. They prefer the zone offense. They have the guys to run a power offense when they feel like it and they try to every now and then but they like to zone because they have those big athletic bodies up front that can displace people and be on the runs so their running backs can find holes.
Joshua Perry, LB
“I think the key is that you can’t focus too much on stopping [Amari ] Cooper and doing the things that they do in their passing game, because you’ll lose focus on the run and they can get you on that."
Doran Grant, CB
“They are different offensively. They are more balanced and like to run the ball a lot, obviously, but they can spread the ball around more than they have in the past.”
Luke Fickell, DC
"They've got weapons all over the place. That's the thing, that's the thing that gets overlooked sometimes is the offensive line. That's where the games start and that's where they've been so successful over obviously the last seven, eight years."
Scouting Amari Cooper and Blake Sims
Luke Fickell, DC
"Obviously Amari Cooper gets most of the attention. The reality is we haven't seen a guy especially in our league that would warrant as much attention as he does. It's not just the catch to me; it's the runs after the catch. For a guy that cannot only have the deep ball, home run shots, but he can take an out screen and turn it into a touchdown long distance. He does the intangible things. He's going to block and do some things that sometimes you don't see the first rounders or the truly top, top dogs do.
Doran Grant, CB
“He’s a great player. We’ve seen a lot of film on him. He’s a good route runner and has good speed. He’s a very, very good ball-catcher.”
Curtis Grant, LB
“He’s one of those quarterbacks that can keep plays alive. He can beat you with his arm when you’re not paying attention. If you give him a little bit of space, he can make you miss and run the ball to keep the play alive. You’ve got to be able to contain him.”
Scouting Alabama's defense
Taylor Decker, OT
“It is without a doubt the best defensive line we will face all season. It will probably be the best defense we will face. Incredible depth, they rotate all kinds of guys in there. On film, there are four defensive ends I will play against personally. They are really good athletes, big, strong guys that can move. They aren’t just space fillers. That is going to be a challenge as far as the offensive line is concerned, because it is the best we have faced so far."
Cardale Jones, QB
“By far, this will be the best defense we’ve played against all year, the most physical defense we’ve played all year, and the fastest defense we’ve played all year. They’ve got some unbelievable guys on defense that we do our best to simulate and get that look. That’s going to be a challenge for not just me, but the offense. Speed, size, the strength, the physicality. This is going to be the most physical defense we've ever played against. We've got to be ready for that."
Ezekial Elliott, RB
"They’re a great team. They have a big front seven. You don’t really get much movement off the line of scrimmage. The key to our offense is getting the running game going so we can take shots down field, so establishing the running game is going to be very important.”
“They are a very big, physical team. Their d-line, their line backers are just big guys and so they are a lot bigger than the guys we play. Their line backers are all 250, interior d-linemen all 300 pounds, so getting some momentum early in the game, getting movement off the line of scrimmage is going to be important.”
Jeff Heuerman, TE
“They are a very good defense. They know what they want to do and they do it very well. They have a very good secondary. They don’t do a whole lot of crazy things schematically. They know what they want to do and they do it well and execute. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Technically, this is the 26th annual TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Formerly known as the Copper Bowl (1989-96), the Insight Bowl (1997-2011) and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (2012-13)
Washington will represent the Pac-12, which has the highest winning percentage in bowl history with seven wins in eight tries (87.5%). Oklahoma State will represent the Big 12, which has the most wins (10) and appearances in the Cactus Bowl (15).
The Huskies and Cowboys have played twice in history, splitting a home-and-home in 1980 (Stillwater) and 1985 (Seattle) with, strangely enough, the home team losing both times.
The Cowboys won their only appearance in the game in 2007 over Indiana, while Washington has never been to Tempe for this game.
After seven years of missing the postseason, Chris Petersen has kept alive a now five-game bowl streak in his first year at Washington. This season marks the ninth consecutive bowl game for Mike Gundy in 10 years at the helm in Stillwater.
Washington vs. Oklahoma State
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -5.5
Washington’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage
On defense, a dominant Washington frontline must protect a young secondary, while an elite set of linebackers wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage. On offense, the Huskies must continue their second-half surge on the ground. Washington topped 200 yards rushing in four of their last five games and posted 188 in the easy win over Washington State. Dwayne Washington has been the spearhead for the improvement, topping 100 yards in three straight and reaching paydirt in four straight. If Washington can win the battle up front on both sides of the ball, it could be a long day for the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State's Key to Victory: Keep Mason Rudolph upright and efficient
Oklahoma State's freshman signal-caller Mason Rudolph is one of the big reasons the Pokes ended 2014 with a flurry instead of disappointment. Rudolph had his issues getting acclimated to big-time college football — 53.3% completion rate, three INTs in two starts — but has been productive as well. On the road against two of the Big 12's best (Baylor and Oklahoma), he threw for 554 yards and four touchdowns. Against a Huskies defense that led the Pac-12 in takeaways (27) and is third nationally in sacks (49), keeping Rudolph upright and protected is the only way Oklahoma State can get the win. That's a tall order considering OSU allowed the most sacks of any team in the Big 12.
Both teams capped a bumpy season with a critical victory in their respective rivalry games, adding some energy to the postseason meeting. But the Cowboys are genuinely lucky to still be playing, as this is one of the weaker OSU teams Gundy has coached since arriving in Stillwater. There is hope in the form of Rudolph, but the Cowboys are overmatched from a talent perspective and will be without its top offensive weapon after Tyreek Hill was dismissed from the team. The UW defense could dominate the line of scrimmage, so if the offense can produce just an average performance, the Huskies should get a ninth win this year.
Prediction: Washington 27, Oklahoma State 17
After three years without a trip to a bowl game and four straight seasons with seven losses, Tennessee finally returns to the postseason with a marquee Big Ten-SEC showdown. Butch Jones will try to avoid a fifth straight seven-loss season in his first bowl as the Vols headman.
Despite plenty of up-and-down seasons under Kirk Ferentz, this is Iowa's 12th bowl trip in its last 14 seasons. Ferentz won three straight bowls from 2008-10 but hasn't won a season finale since.
The Gator Bowl is one of the longest-running college football events in the sport, dating back to the first edition in 1946. The Vols are 3-2 in five trips to the Gator Bowl, now known as simply the TaxSlayer Bowl, and the Hawkeyes are 0-1, losing to Florida in the 1983 edition.
The Vols and Hawkeyes have split two previous meetings. Iowa topped Tennessee 28-22 in the 1982 Peach Bowl, while the Big Orange knocked off the Hawkeyes 23-22 in the 1987 Kickoff Classic in New Jersey.
Iowa vs. Tennessee
Kickoff: 3:20 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -3.5
Iowa’s Key to Victory: Control the trenches
The Hawkeyes should have an advantage up front on both sides of the ball. Tennessee ranks No. 122 in the nation in sacks allowed (42.0) and No. 103 in rushing (135 ypg), so Iowa's veteran defensive line should be in for a good game. On the flip side, in what should be a slightly more even matchup, Iowa's O-Line is led by All-American Brandon Scherff but has struggled against quality competition of late. Over the final four games, Iowa rushed for 304 yards in the win over Illinois but couldn't get going on the ground in three losses to Minnesota (84 yards), Wisconsin (101) and Nebraska (142). Victory for Iowa will be determined in the trenches.
Tennessee's Key to Victory: Turn loose Astro Dobbs
When Tennessee was at its best on offense this year, it featured a dynamic dual-threat quarterback igniting every aspect of the playbook. Joshua Dobbs has the ability to negate a pass rush with his legs and open up the playbook with his knack for playing outside of the pocket. He finished with 393 yards rushing, 1,077 yards passing and 14 total touchdowns in just four starts to end the year. A rested Jalen Hurd should help ease the pressure on Dobbs, but the onus of offensive production falls on Dobbs with a depleted receiving corps and an inexperienced O-Line around him.
Both defenses should fare well in this matchup but it may be due more to ineffective offense than anything else. Special teams will eventually determine the outcome of what appears to be an evenly matched and potentially sloppy bowl contest. The difference could be motivation, which is always extremely difficult to pinpoint in bowl games. The Vols have been hungry for a postseason trip and haven't won a bowl game since 2007. The Hawkeyes have a clear experience edge, while the Vols have a slight talent edge. The motivational edge should fall to the SEC squad.
Prediction: Tennessee 24, Iowa 23
NEW ORLEANS — Blake Sims is a living, breathing American fairy tale and the storybook ending is just four quarters from its final chapter.
In modern college football, Alabama's starting quarterback is the exception, not the rule. Sims is more seasoned philosophy professor than student athlete finishing his first season in the starting lineup.
He's someone America should root for and look up to.
Sims came to Alabama as a highly-recruited "athlete" in the Class of 2010, lured to Tuscaloosa from Gainesville (Ga.) High School by then offensive coordinator Jim McElwain and Nick Saban. Since arriving on campus, Sims has changed positions three times and is working under his third offensive coordinator.
He played running back and wide receiver on the Crimson Tide scout team before settling in as the scout-team quarterback. He sat quietly behind two-time champion and Heisman finalist AJ McCarron. He deftly handled the arrival of highly-coveted and publicized transfer quarterback Jacob Coker from Florida State — the supposed savior of Life After McCarron.
Through it all, Sims has been nothing but a team player, quietly confident that if given the chance, he'd be ready to perform.
"I have plenty of guys ask me how did I do it," Sims said. "I tell them you have to have a positive mindset, you have to be patient, never take a day off and when you get your opportunity, you have to take full advantage."
It's an impressive attitude in an age where transferring is the name of the game at the quarterback position. When Nick Saban hired Lane Kiffin and signed Coker, Sims was an afterthought. Yet, here he is in New Orleans after leading his team to an SEC championship, a No. 1 ranking and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
"I'm extremely excited for all of the offensive players but especially for Blake Sims," Kiffin said. "He's had so many opportunities to quit or transfer every year of not playing, but he's an example of fighting through adversity.
"When we brought in Coker, he told me, 'Don't worry about me, I'll do whatever you want.' To see that attitude pay off, which is so unusual these days, has been great to see," Kiffin continued. "I think it should be a really good lesson. You don't just leave because its not going your way."
Sims didn't leave and his hard work and humble attitude has paid off in spades.
He was the most efficient passer in the SEC with a rating of 161.92, good for seventh nationally — well ahead of future pros like Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty and Jameis Winston. He set the Alabama single-season passing record with 3,250 yards. He added 321 yards rushing, setting the Bama total offense record (3,571). He accounted for 33 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.
Sims is two average games away from becoming just the sixth player in SEC history to post 4,000 total yards of offense in a season.
"He's one of the most humble players on the team," Alabama offensive lineman Austin Shepherd said. "Calm, cool and collected. I don't think I've seen him nervous in the huddle yet."
The current news cycle is dominated by negative headlines. Domestic violence or postgame brawls or high-level cover-ups. But under center for Alabama in the Sugar Bowl will be the personification of a humble American success story.
Win or lose, Blake Sims is the type of role model everyone can support.
Even Ohio State fans.
NEW ORLEANS - When Urban Meyer arrived at Ohio State, he vowed to bring an SEC blueprint to Columbus.
After three seasons in the Big Ten, Meyer's blueprint has the Buckeyes one win away from the national championship game.
But what exactly is an "SEC blueprint?" The Buckeyes boasted a raucous 100,000-seat crowd, massive athletic department budget and state of the art facilities well before Meyer showed up in town. In fact, lots of schools outside of the infamous SEC have these things.
What truly separates the conference that claims eight of the last nine national titles from the rest of college football is recruiting and developing elite defensive lines. Just ask Tom Brady and the nearly perfect 2007 New England Patriots about how a dominant defensive line can stop even the mightiest of offenses.
With the help of Big Ten lifer Larry Johnson Sr., Meyer assembled arguably the best defensive line in the nation. Ohio State lured the former Penn State defensive line coach to Columbus this year, and, on Thursday night in the Sugar Bowl, will attempt to administer to the SEC a heavy dose of its own medicine by stuffing the run and pressuring the quarterback.
Thanks to Johnson's leadership and guidance, the fearsome foursome of Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller give Ohio State the necessary pieces to finish what the '06 and '07 Buckeyes couldn't.
"We've progressed so much as a D-Line and it's all thanks to Coach Johnson," Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa said. "It says a lot about how he's brought us closer together. We are much closer as a unit and play much harder for each other. That's the biggest difference."
Bosa, a 6-foot-5, 278-pound sophomore defensive end from Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas, dominated the Big Ten, leading the league in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (20.0) by a wide margin. But he came "really close" to wearing a much different shade of red this week in New Orleans.
"I was actually about to commit to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I was so young and it was getting into my head, so I just took my time and went through the process," Bosa reminisced about his recruitment. He instead landed in Columbus and now leads a collection of elite D-Liners that will have to stop the Crimson Tide's vaunted rushing attack to win a national title.
Winning that type of recruiting battle for a highly-coveted prospect from deep within SEC territory is what defines Meyer's gameplan for building a champion. In fact, all four starting defensive linemen were elite prospects with long offer sheets from all across the nation.
Tackles Michael Bennett, a 6-foot-2, 288-pound senior, and Adolphus Washington, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound junior, anchor the middle while Steve Miller, a 6-foot-3, 255-pound senior, plays opposite of Bosa. According to 247Sports, Bennett was the No. 6 defensive tackle prospect in the nation in 2011, Washington was the No. 2 weakside defensive end in the nation in '12 and Miller was the No. 4 weakside end in the nation in '11.
All the talented group needed was a little push from a guy who's been around the game longer than Joey Bosa has been alive.
"During spring ball, Coach Johnson asked why we don't ever celebrate together," Washington said. "As spring ball went along, you could see it on film that everyone was so much more hyped for the next guy than for themselves because Coach Johnson and Coach Meyer put a big emphasis on it.
"Be happier and willing to do more for the next person than for yourself. That brought us together more as a team and defensive line. At the end of the day, you need all four of us to get the job done," finished Washington.
Get the job done they have. The foursome helped Ohio State finish sixth nationally and tops in the Big Ten in sacks (40.0). The Buckeyes also led the league in tackles for a loss as one of only eight teams in the nation to post at least 100 tackles for a loss.
"They are one of the best defensive lines we've seen," said Alabama offensive tackle Austin Shepherd. "All four of their defensive linemen are great players. On the outside, they have two guys who can really get up the field and put pressure on the quarterback. On the inside, they've got two guys that can wreak havoc."
When talent comes together with coaching, great things can happen. It appears that is what this deep collection of elite prospects and Coach Johnson has accomplished. This unit believes in one another but has also taken to coaching and it reminds Bama of the what it normally sees in the SEC.
"They're very technically sound and don't make many mistakes," the Tide's star running back T.J. Yeldon said. "They remind me of Florida, Arkansas and ourselves because they don't make any mistakes."
Talented, motivated, well-coached, disciplined and experienced sounds like a good recipe for success against a team that has played in three of the last five national championship games.
"We see Ohio State as a great defense," Alabama veteran center Ryan Kelly said. "We've been studying them for a couple of weeks and they look a lot like the teams we play in the SEC. They have a lot of great athletes and their defensive line coach has done a tremendous job."
Meyer landed in the Big Ten knowing he needed to win the line of scrimmage if he wanted to return Ohio State to the top of college football. He's recruited at an elite level, hired one of the top coaches in the business to develop that talent and is now faced with the exact challenge most college football fans have been waiting for since he announced his return to a collegiate sideline.
The world will find out Thursday night if his blueprint will work.
For two teams that have played just three times in history, there is some sneaky good history between Auburn and Wisconsin in bowl games.
The series is tied 1-1-1 all-time. A loaded Wisconsin offense pulled off a huge upset over No. 7 Auburn 24-10 in the 2006 Capital One Bowl. The Tigers controversially topped the Badgers in the Music City Bowl 28-14 to end the 2003 season and catapult Auburn to an unbeaten '04 campaign. The two played to a 7-7 tie in Madison in 1931.
This will be Auburn's second berth in the Outback Bowl. It won a classic overtime thriller against Northwestern to end the '09 season.
After Gary Andersen left for Oregon State, Barry Alvarez returns to the Big Red sideline for the second time since his retirement following the '05 upset of Auburn. It marks the 13th consecutive year that Wisconsin has spent the holiday season in a bowl game. Alvarez also coached the Badgers in the Rose Bowl loss to Stanford when Bret Bielema departed for Arkansas in 2012.
This is Wisconsin's fourth appearance in the Outback Bowl, but the Badgers have yet to get a win. Wisconsin lost to Georgia following the 1997 and 2004 seasons and was defeated by Tennessee to end the 2007 campaign.
Auburn vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: Noon (Jan. 1)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Auburn -6.5
Auburn’s Key to Victory: Stack the box
The Tigers have had defensive issues this year, to say the least — just pop in a tape of the Alabama or South Carolina game. Against conference foes, Auburn finished 10th in the SEC in rushing defense (183.9 ypg), including 289 yards and 227 yards allowed to Georgia and Alabama, respectively. Wisconsin is as one-dimensional as any team in the nation, so stacking the box in an effort to slow Doak Walker Award winner Melvin Gordon is a likely strategy. Alvarez claims Gordon is the best Wisconsin running back of all-time, and the junior will have a chance to prove it in his final collegiate game against the Tigers. Auburn will try to stop Gordon with an interim defensive coordinator, as veteran assistant Charlie Harbison will call the signals after the departure of Ellis Johnson. Former Florida coach Will Muschamp will be Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2015.
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Wisconsin's Key to Victory: Complete forward passes
This has been much easier said than done at Wisconsin this year. And needless to say, the Badgers have to score to keep up with Auburn. The Badgers are 118th in passing offense (150.8 ypg), 98th in pass efficiency offense (117.93), 96th with 14 passing touchdowns and own just a 14:13 TD:INT ratio. Stave has been anything but productive. He threw 26 incompletions and three interceptions against Ohio State, has completed just 53.6% of his passes all year and has just two touchdown passes in his last three games. Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement are fantastic weapons on the ground, but unless Stave can at least create the illusion of a passing threat, the Tigers will sell out to stop the run.
Stopping the run will be the game plan for both teams as Wisconsin and Auburn are fourth (314 ypg) and 12th (258.5 ypg) nationally in rushing offense, respectively. Unlike Auburn, the Badgers have been strong against the run all season — at least, until facing Ohio State. The Tigers will be the best offense UW has faced all season, as Gus Malzahn's balanced spread attack is sure to gash a Badgers unit that gave up 301 yards rushing, 558 total yards and 59 points in the Big Ten title game.
Prediction: Auburn 41, Wisconsin 24
NEW ORLEANS – For Amari Cooper, the superlatives come almost as quickly as he glides through the secondary.
"Coop is an amazing player," Alabama offensive lineman Austin Shepard said. "I don't how you can stop him."
His quarterback, Blake Sims, agrees: "Any quarterback in the nation would love to have him. I'm glad to have him."
He is such a dynamic player that he even helps the Alabama defense get better every day.
"Going against Cooper in practice of one of the reasons I'm a good player today," Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. "I credit him for my progress over the last year, because going against him is like playing the best guy in the country."
Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell understands the challenge the Buckeyes face with No. 9 in crimson is more than just covering Cooper the receiver. He's not just worried about Cooper the guy who can "take a five-yard out route 80 yards," but he's concerned about Cooper the running back, Cooper the blocker and Cooper the leader as well.
"His balance in what he does makes him a complete player," Fickell said of Cooper. "It's not just his ability to catch the ball, it's also his ability to come out of the backfield, crack [block] on a safety to spring a running back, catch the deep ball and his ability to break tackles. All of those things are what make that guy special."
Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant is likely to draw the unenviable task of covering the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder in the Sugar Bowl.
"I'm looking forward to it," Grant said. "He's a great wide receiver. Why wouldn't you want to go up against a great wide receiver. Especially, in a big game like this. I take it as a great compliment from my coaching staff to put me in that position to make plays. You've got to be technique sound and ready to play every snap."
What everyone is getting at in a roundabout way is that Amari Cooper is the greatest SEC receiver of all time. No, that's not hyperbole. In fact, the normally subjective discussion is pretty cut and dry.
The soft-spoken Alabama superstar has accomplished everything a college athlete could possibly dream of achieving. Cooper won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best wide receiver, claimed the SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors, is a two-time SEC champion, a unanimous All-American and a BCS national champion.
Cooper is also the only SEC wide receiver to finish in the top six in Heisman balloting since Auburn's Jimmy Phillips finished sixth in 1957 and is the first wide receiver to be named SEC Player of the Year since LSU's Wendell Davis in 1987. Phillips caught 15 passes for 357 yards and 4 touchdowns that season while Davis caught 72 passes for 993 yards and seven touchdowns in '87.
The Tide pass-catcher already owns the single-season and career Alabama record for receptions, yards and touchdowns — the holy triumvirate of statistical records for receivers. But he's close to doing the same thing for the SEC record book as well.
His 115 receptions this season broke Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews' single-season SEC record (112) and he enters the Sugar Bowl just 84 yards shy of breaking LSU's Josh Reed's single-season SEC receiving yards record (1,740). Reed also won an SEC title and the Biletnikoff Award in 2001 as well while Matthews is the SEC's all-time leader in receptions (262) and both are considered among the SEC's greatest wideouts of all-time.
But Reed and Matthews, along with others like Georgia's A.J. Green, Alabama's Julio Jones or South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, can't come close to the astonishing resume Cooper has produced.
No player in the history of the SEC has produced more receiving yards than Cooper's 3,759 or caught more passes in the SEC title game (12). With 17 more receptions, Cooper would move into second place all-time in SEC history in receptions (he's third currently). With two more touchdowns, Cooper would tie Chris Doering for No. 1 all-time in SEC history with 31 career touchdown receptions. With four more touchdowns, he would tie Reidel Anthony's SEC single-season record of 18 touchdown catches.
Keep in mind, Cooper is finishing just his third season at Alabama.
He's got the records, he's got the individual awards, he's got the championships and he's got the first-round NFL talent. But he knows his career in Tuscaloosa is far from over and that it's been much more than simply a stepping stone to what is an almost guaranteed successful NFL career.
"Anytime you have a goal and you don’t accomplish it, you feel like there’s something that you did wrong in the process of getting there. We’re just trying to do everything right in the process,” Cooper said. "I’ve always kept in mind, team first. You have one goal and you want to win a national championship, so that’s always been in the back of my mind.
"Right now, the playoff game hasn’t really hit me, but I think later on, in the future we’ll be able to sit back and say we were one of the first teams in the college football playoffs. It’ll be something we can sit back and be proud of."
Cooper may not recognize the greatness he's achieved yet but clearly knows what is at stake this week in New Orleans. But two more wins would make him one of the greatest wide receiver in the history of the sport regardless of conference. And that legacy isn't lost on the young pass catcher.
"I hope receivers want to come to Alabama based on the season I've had," Cooper said.
NEW ORLEANS - The Sugar Bowl will go one of two ways for Ohio State's 250-pound sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones.
His inexperience will cost the Buckeyes a shot at the national championship. Or, his international-man-of-mystery status will surprise Alabama coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and a defense that has no idea what to expect from a player with only one game of film.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer probably wants something in between. He wants Jones protecting the football, dumping it off to a cavalcade of talented offensive weapons and stepping back into the offensive shadows. But that won't be good enough to defeat the No. 1 team in the nation.
To pull off one of the biggest upsets in national championship history, Meyer knows he will have to take risks with his unproven quarterback.
The Bucks head coach must turn Jones' weakness into a strength. Flip his inexperience and underexposure into an advantage. After all, the biggest unknown for two head coaches who seemingly know everything about one another is No. 12 in Scarlet and Gray. The unpredictable nature of the Buckeyes quarterback situation might be Ohio State's best chance to upset the heavily favored and much more experienced Crimson Tide.
It appears Smart and Co. agree across the board.
"You don't know how he's going to react in certain situations," Smart said. "We haven't seen enough tape to know."
This is where Meyer and Ohio State coordinator Tom Herman have an opportunity against one of the great defensive coaching tandems in the country. Jones' skillet is somewhat of known commodity for Saban and Smart. He's massive, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 250 pounds, and he's got a huge arm and isn't likely to run around much. But beyond that, there is nothing concrete Saban or Smart can prepare for when it comes to the opposing signal caller. The playbook is somewhat of a blank canvas and Ohio State needs to empty the tool box on offense to win.
"He's a mystery," Alabama defensive back Nick Perry said. "We really don't know exactly what he can do or what kind of offense they're going to have come game time, so we're just preparing for everything and anything."
One thing the Buckeyes know that the Tide is sure to find out is that Jones isn't lacking in confidence. His path from middle-of-the-pack recruit from famed Cleveland (Ohio) Glenville to starting in the first college football playoff is evidence.
Listed at just 215 pounds coming out of high school, Jones enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy and added 35 pounds in one year. He became the No. 1 prep school quarterback prospect in the nation and signed with Ohio State in Meyer's first class in Columbus. He didn't attempt a pass in 2012 as he redshirted and only attempted two passes in 2013. It would have been easy for a player of his talent to consider going elsewhere as Heisman candidates Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett showed that there was little room for his 250-pound frame on the field. Jones could quarterback Ohio State to a national championship and enter next season as the third-string quarterback.
But Jones got his chance with the Big Ten Championship hanging in the balance and he delivered in a big way. He completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions while leading his team to a 59-0 stomping of the Badgers.
"I think the confidence that he showed in himself, the confidence that we had in him as a staff and then for him to go out and put forth the performance he did really just reinforced it," Herman said. "The confidence was put to the test and he answered the test."
His ability to step into the huddle and execute has not only won over his coaches but also his teammates as well.
“I definitely think he is going to be ready for any and all situations that he is going to face in the game," Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker said. "I think he is getting really comfortable with his checks and reads. He's gotten all kinds of reps since training camp and I think the way he performed in the Big Ten Championship Game is a testament to how he has taken those reps seriously throughout the season.”
The compusure in a high-pressure situation against Wisconsin, a game not only for the Big Ten title, but also an opportunity to seal the final playoff bid, also spoke to the Alabama defense.
"[Jones] is very unflappable and not affected easily," Smart said. "He does a good job in the pocket and really threw the deep ball well in the Big Ten championship game. He's done everything he's been asked to do and done it at a really high level."
Added Alabama's middle linebacker and defensive leader Trey DePriest: "We saw what he did against Wisconsin. How he handled himself. Coming into the Big Ten championship and showing that type of composure and putting up the numbers that he did was impressive."
There is no doubt Jones was impressive against Wisconsin. But he was thrust into the fire without any time to think against a team that was significantly outmatched. Facing the No. 1 team in the nation and its elite defense on the floor of the Superdome with the entire universe watching and a national championship on the line is a totally different animal all together.
Will the month off help Jones and Ohio State, giving Herman and Meyer time to concoct a bizarre secret strategy that will allow OSU to shock the college football world? Or is four weeks enough time for a four-time national championship coaching guru to devise a gameplan complex enough to confuse a player who has attempted 19 career passes?
Smart knows the lay-off and the unknown commodity under center could help Ohio State.
"It's who takes advantage of that time better. It could pay off for either one of us," he said.
Cardale Jones gets it, too.
“Nick Saban and Alabama’s coaches have seen it all. We’re not trying to fool anybody here. We’re trying to come out and play football," Jones said. "It’s humbling, because this is a point in my career that I always wanted to be at. Personally, this is the biggest game, hands down. It’s a one-game season, the first ever college football playoff. This is the game that goes to the national championship, so it is the biggest game.”
It's not just another Sugar Bowl.
In fact, Urban Meyer and the Ohio State Buckeyes don't even use the words Sugar Bowl. It's (finally) all about the playoffs for everyone involved.
College football fans couldn't have asked for a juicer matchup in the second of two inaugural College Football Playoff games on New Year's Day.
Meyer and his Buckeyes head South deep into SEC country to face the czar of the nation's best conference in Nick Saban and Alabama. It marks the fourth meeting between the two likely Hall of Fame coaches — the third of which will act as a national semifinal.
Meyer's Gators topped an unbeaten Alabama team in the 2008 SEC title game en route to a national title. Saban's Tide came back the next year and knocked off an unbeaten Florida team in 2009 SEC title game en route to their first national championship since 1992.
These two teams may not be as evenly matched those two meetings but that won't effect the hype leading up to massive showdown in New Orleans.
The Big Ten champs and the SEC champs will duke it out in the Superdome for the right to play in the National Championship game.
Alabama vs. Ohio State
Kickoff: 8:30 p.m. ET (Jan. 1)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Cardale Jones handling the pressure
It's no secret which player likely holds the key to victory in this epic North-South showdown. Ohio State's third-string-turned backup-turned starting quarterback Cardale Jones must manage the game, protect the football and make plays on third down for Ohio State to win the game. He's got some developing playmakers around him in the form of do-everything dynamo Jalin Marshall and workhorse back Ezekiel Elliott. Everyone on the Buckeyes offense must play perfectly to put the strong-armed, 250-pound signal caller in the right spots to succeed. And even then, it still comes down to the guy making his second career start to make the right play.
2. Can Ohio State's D-Line win the line of scrimmage?
One of the few areas Ohio State could have an advantage is up front along the defensive line. This isn't a vintage Saban O-Line and the Buckeyes boast arguably the best defensive line in the country. Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington must control the line of scrimmage, stop the run and pressure Jones for OSU to have a chance to win. While this isn't the most talented group of blockers Saban has had at Bama, the Tide still led the SEC in sacks allowed (13.0) and rushed for 209.5 yards per game this fall. Bosa and company have to play disruptive football right from the first whistle.
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3. What do you do with Amari Cooper?
If the Bucks defensive line is up to the task, the next question for Meyer and staff is what to do with Amari Cooper. Bracket coverage? Double team? Safety help? Press-man or zone? There are a lot of ways to attack a player of Cooper's caliber but he is capable of beating them all. So if Meyer decides to sellout on defense to stop No. 9, it falls to Lane Kiffin to use other weapons. Unfortunately for Ohio State, those other weapons are extremely capable. DeAndrew White, OJ Howard and Christion Jones have proven to be effective when forced into action.
Ohio State is technically 1-9 all-time against the SEC in bowl games and is 0-3 all-time against Alabama. If Urban Meyer wants to reverse those trends, two things must happen: Cardale Jones must play efficient football and his defensive line needs to win the battle up front. If OSU can do those two things, the game is narrowed to a few big plays. If those big plays come from Lane Kiffin and Blake Sims, then Alabama will win. If those big plays from Ezekiel Elliott or Jalin Marshall, then Ohio State has a shot. However, if the Buckeyes lose the battle along the line of scrimmage on defense and Jones makes mistakes, the Tide will roll in a big way.
Prediction: Alabama 37, Ohio St 24
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
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.
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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
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.
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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
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.
Dear Tennessee Titans fans,
You don’t want Jay Cutler as your starting quarterback.
When a general manager or head coach evaluates an NFL quarterback, be it through free agency, trades or the NFL Draft, a dozen different qualifications must be addressed.
With the exception of a strong arm, Cutler doesn’t have a single one.
Physically, Cutler has the arm strength (1) that NFL teams have always desired. But other than that, he has been hurt frequently (2) throughout his career and no longer has the mobility (3) he displayed in college. Cutler hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2010, missing six games in 2011, five games in 2013 and the second half of the most important game of his entire life (more on this later).
From an accuracy standpoint (4), Cutler has been average his entire career. His career 61.7% completion rate is 12th among all active passers, behind Matt Schaub and Ryan Tannehill. His poor precision is better illustrated with his inability to protect the football (5). Cutler is leading the NFL with 18 interceptions and leads the NFL with 12 fumbles this season. He’s thrown multiple interceptions in seven of his 14 starts this year.
Only once since his rookie season has Cutler thrown fewer than 12 interceptions in a season and has led the league twice in the category. He has a career 3.4% interception ratio (interceptions/attempt) — which 68th in NFL history behind Joey Harrington, Josh Freeman, Charlie Batch, Chad Henne and David Carr. His career TD:INT ratio is 1.4.
By comparison, his archrival Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL all-time with a career 3.9 TD:INT ratio, a career 105.8 QB-rating and a career 1.7% interception ratio. For the record, Rodgers has thrown more than 11 interceptions once in his entire career.
That said, turnovers can be overcome if you produce (6) at a Brett Favre-type level, but Cutler isn’t doing that either.
In the modern era of passing football, throwing for 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns has become a normally accessible benchmark of success. Over the last four years (including 2014), a quarterback topped 4,000 yards 38 times. Basically, the top third of the NFL throws for at least 4,000 yards each season. Jay Cutler has topped 4,000 yards in a season once ('08) and has never thrown more than 28 touchdowns in a season.
It's not like he's devoid of supporting playmakers either. Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett make the Titans roster look more like a Sun Belt team than an NFL squad.
From a leadership standpoint (7), various players from around the NFL have been outspoken about his influence in the locker room or huddle. They “don’t like Cutler as a teammate.” He pouts constantly, publicly berates teammates and has arguably the worst body language of any quarterback of this generation.
He’s terrible with the media (8), and has had an interesting off-the-field track record (9) — mostly dating back to his college days (search: phone booth). Let’s be honest, he’s the second most famous member of his own marriage (to Kristin Cavallari). He’s simply doesn’t qualify as a “face of the franchise.”
Again, most of these deficiencies will be overlooked if a QB can “just win baby.” But Cutler is anything but a winner (10). In nine seasons as a starter, Cutler has posted a winning record just three times and he’s never won more than 10 games in a year. He was 17-20 as the starter in Denver, is 44-37 in Chicago and is 61-57 overall as an NFL starter. Matthew Stafford has won at least 10 games as many times as Cutler (twice) and he’s played only four full seasons as a starter… FOR THE LIONS!
More important than winning in the regular season is winning in the postseason (11). Cutler has led his team to the postseason once in his nine-year career and never took his college team (Vanderbilt) to a bowl game — he was 11-35 as a starter in college. He did win his first playoff game at home against Seattle in 2010 before losing to Green Bay at home in the 2010 NFL Championship game.
In the most important game of his entire career, he completed six passes for 80 yards, no touchdowns and one interception in the embarrassing loss to their archrival with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. He missed most of the second half with an injury as teammates questioned his toughness.
How about what it will take to acquire (12) Cutler? To obtain this mediocre signal caller, a team would have to give up some package of draft picks — which might not be too hefty a price considering Cutler’s lack of production — and then would be on the hook for a huge contract. Cutler hits the cap between $16-17 million per year for the next four seasons before it rises to over $20 million in 2019-20. Cutler would be 38 when his contract runs out in 2020.
If the Bears were to cut Cutler, then at least there is some logic in signing the player, but trading for him with his current contract seems idiotic.
So why are Titans fans seemingly obsessed with bringing in Cutler?
He has a strong arm, is available and is better than Zach Mettenberger? He played his college football in Nashville and has a famous wife?
Sure, he’s more experienced and proven than Mettenbeger by a wide margin. But really, the Titans rookie QB is just a dramatically cheaper version of Cutler — a big armed passer with an “interesting attitude” who isn’t all that accurate and hasn’t really won much of anything. At least, Mettenberger has upside.
It’s no sure thing, but why not draft a rookie superstar with huge upside — Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston — and package him with Cutler 2.0 (aka, Mettenberger) and go to battle in 2014?
No, Nashville, you don’t want Jay Cutler in a Titans uniform.
My advice for picking bowls?
Don't do it. Stay as far away from these exhibitions as you can. Trying to pinpoint motivation, focus and the holidays at the end of a long, grueling season is virtually impossible.
I finished the regular season 56-53-1 against the spread. Unimpressive but in the black nonetheless during the most unpredictable season since '07. This isn't the regular season though, so these are more like suggestions than iron-clad locks.
Nevada (-1) vs. UL Lafayette
New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 20, 11 a.m., New Orleans
The Cajuns are extremely familiar with this situation and have been very successful. ULL has is 3-0 under Mark Hudspeth with each win coming in the New Orleans Bowl. Stopping Cody Fajardo isn't easy but Lafayette will find a way. The Pick: ULL +1
Utah St (-10.5) vs. UTEP
New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 20, 2:20 p.m., Albuquerque
This is one of the largest spreads in any bowl game and that should give you pause. The Miners have been excellent against the number all season (8-3-1) and should be motivated in their first bowl appearance since 2010. Utah State is getting healthier but got smoked by Boise State 50-19 its last time out. The Pick: UTEP +10
Utah (-2.5) vs. Colorado St
Las Vegas Bowl
Dec. 20, 3:30 p.m., Las Vegas
Both teams have been excellent against the spread, going 8-4 this year. Colorado State has lots of weapons but no head coach. This will be close but Utah's front seven should make enough plays to slow down the Rams' talented offensive trio. The Pick: Utah -2.5
W. Michigan (-1) vs. Air Force
Dec. 20, 5:45 p.m., Boise
It should come as no surprise that this game is a total crap shoot. On one side there's a unique offense that is much tougher to stop at the mid-major levels. On the other is one of the best teams in the nation against the spread (10-2) and three weeks to prepare. Good luck. The Pick: Air Force +1
South Alabama (-2.5) vs. Bowling Green
Dec. 20, 9:15 p.m., Montgomery
Bowling Green is 4-8-1 against the spread this season and has lost three straight. Meanwhile, South Alabama has lost four out of five. Both teams are well coached and are evenly matched, so I'll take the team playing in its first-ever bowl game. The Pick: South Alabama -2.5
BYU (+1.5) vs. Memphis
Miami Beach Bowl
Dec. 22, 2 p.m., Miami
This is the most intriguing early bowl matchup of the year. Both teams are very well coached and play physical defense. BYU would be the pick if Taysom Hill was playing but the Stormin' Mormon won't be back until 2015. Take Memphis to be motivated to get its first bowl win since 2005 in its first bowl appearance since 2008. The Pick: Memphis -1.5
Marshall (-10) vs. N. Illinois
Boca Raton Bowl
Dec. 23, 6 p.m., Boca Raton
Just like the New Mexico Bowl, big spreads in bowl games should be played with caution. Frankly, the Huskies are good enough to win the game outright. The Herd will be tough to beat but that is too many points for a program that knows all about the postseason and has been challenged this year. The Pick: N. Illinois +10
Navy (+2.5) vs. San Diego St
Dec. 23, 9:30 p.m., San Diego
This is a solid Navy team that has won three straight and rolled up efficient offensive numbers all season long. The Aztecs are playing well but won't be able to stop the Middies' triple-option attack. The Pick: Navy +2.5
C. Michigan (+3) vs. W. Kentucky
Dec. 24, Noon, Nassau
Finally, a pre-Christmas bowl game I'd like to cover. The Hilltoppers have played a much tougher slate and have won four straight, including scoring 67 points on previously unbeaten Marshall. In its last five wins (six games), WKY has scored at least 45 points four times. The Pick: Western Kentucky -3
Fresno St (+2) vs. Rice
Dec. 24, 8 p.m., Honolulu
The competition got stiff in the final few weeks for Rice and it gave up huge numbers to Marshall (41) and Louisiana Tech (76) in losses. Fresno State wants to get back to .500 and played very well in a loss to Boise State in the MWC title game. The Pick: Fresno St +2