Articles By David Fox
LOS ANGELES — The coaches in the College Football Playoff will say over and over again that they’re not looking ahead to the national championship game.
At least one part of the operation has to look ahead if they expect to win a championship.
The winners of the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl likely will start planning for the national championship game on Jan. 2 on the way back to campus.
The only way they can do that is thanks to undergraduate assistants and unpaid interns who will load their iPads and laptops with broken-down game film.
“We already have Ohio State and Alabama broken down because when you get back you've got to hit the ground running,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We have to prepare for that. If it doesn't, it doesn't and we'll have great film to study in the offseason.”
If being an intern on a college football coaching staff feels like a thankless job, think of the staffers who will break down film of a team that loses Thursday. Or worse, breaking down film for a coach who gives his concession speech at the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl.
The film that does make it to the team planes on Friday, though, will be a welcome sight.
“The interns have to look ahead a little bit,” said Oregon graduate assistant Nate Costa, a former Ducks quarterback who now manages the scout team. “The only thing we’ll do for potential opponents is have interns break down the film, you’ve got to insert gains, yardages, blitzes, formations. That has to be assembled by the interns.”
This is new ground for the College Football Playoff era. Certainly, teams in conference championship game situation have to break down and evaluate game film of a team on shorter notice, but those are teams that may have played earlier in the season or at least in recent years.
In the college basketball tournament, for example, staffers begin scouting second round opponents before the first round even begins. But that’s a situation with one full day between elimination games. There will be 11 days between the Rose and Sugar bowls and the national championship game.
But college coaches are nothing if not paranoid about preparation. All 11 of those days have to be spent on preparation.
And in terms of scouting for the full-time coaching staff, not a second more.
“I remember just thinking how would this work,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Now that we’re here, there’s no conversation whatsoever about the next one. You can’t. It’s not fair to our players and certainly when you’re playing a team like Alabama, that’s all hands on deck, to find a way to get this one done.”
LOS ANGELES — Jameis Winston is right.
The Florida State quarterback is saying all the right things about his matchup with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The game will feature the last two Heisman winners on opposite sidelines, only the third time Heisman winners have faced each other in a bowl game.
As expected, neither Winston nor Mariota are talking it up as the superstar showdown the rest of us know it is.
“I'm not facing him; I'm facing his defense,” Winston said. “It's going to be a Florida State team versus Oregon team not Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota.”
Let’s entertain that notion a bit more seriously and not as a cliche.
Winston and Mariota will be facing two defenses led by coordinators who were position coaches this time last year.
That’s the reason we should be excited. Not simply because Winston and Mariota will put two Heisman winners on the field for the first time since 2009.
The Rose Bowl will be a national semifinal matching up two Heisman winners against two first-year coordinators. Neither defense is ranked in the top 50 nationally in yards per game. Oregon is down a star cornerback. Florida State is a shadow of the defense that ranked third nationally last season.
In other words, all the conditions are ripe for Mariota and Winston to put on a show, the nation's most efficent quarterback against the nation's most clutch.
Fans should be grateful. Where the Sugar Bowl semifinal seems to be a game driven by coaches and conferences, the Rose Bowl will be driven by quarterbacks.
One has never lost a collegiate game. One has thrown two interceptions all year and four last year, ludicrous numbers for 2015.
For a few hours on New Year's Day, both programs hope to strip away some of the narratives about the two. The arguments about these two quarterbacks are either lazy (the narrative of Mariota’s squeaky clean image vs. Winston’s troublesome off-field track record) or soon will become tiresome by the NFL Combine (should Winston fall in the draft? Is Mariota a system quarterback?).
In some ways, even the coaches are just sending in a play and watching what happens.
“I've quit questioning what he does on the field and why he does it,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even when he does it wrong, he can come off and tell you exactly what he saw, what happened, and why it happened. I'll bet it's (right) a 98 percent rate, when he comes off, he can process so much information. His intelligence level is off the charts.”
The future, beyond Jan. 1 and potentially a national championship game, isn’t a topic either are ready to entertain.
Will Mariota and Winston be great NFL quarterbacks? Maybe. Maybe not. Is Mariota too nice? Is he the dreaded system quarterback who will struggle to translate his game to the pro level?
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is resigned, for now, to say that it will either happen or it won’t.
“I know with both the quarterbacks in this game, they can play at any level,” Helfrich said. “Both those guys, they're completely different, totally different guys from a style standpoint, but both will have tremendous NFL careers if they end up in the right spot. If they don't, things can go different ways.”
In the present, it’s going to be a good show, one that even Winston is going to try to stop and enjoy.
“I think it's going to be a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity to see us play and me personally I'm going to be on the sideline watching Marcus myself,” he said. “I think it's going to be a fun game.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Cornerback Troy Hill on Jameis Winston leading second-half comebacks:
“I don't know what it is about that man, but he cleans it up in the second half and something about him that makes him a winner. They all come together whenever they down, they never get down on themselves, a lot of teams when they lose they put their heads down or when they are losing they put their heads up and give up, but that's different with that team, I feel like they fight harder when they're down.”
Safety Erick Dargan on Jameis Winston:
“He can throw anywhere on the field, you know, whether it's deep, short, middle, side, the ball is going all over. You can't just say, he only likes to throw to the right; no, he's throwing all over. And another thing, he's running, he's moving the pocket. He's not an easy guy to tackle. He's big and he's physical.
“A lot of quarterbacks throw interceptions too and they don't want to throw the ball, and you can tell they don't want to throw the ball. With Jameis he's like, ‘I don't care. I'm still going to throw the ball. My team needs me.’ As a football player you have to respect that and honor that.”
Linebacker Tony Washington on Florida State’s offensive scheme:
“These guys are more traditional NFL pro style offense. It's a little bit different. But I think with the amount we've been practicing, we can get acclimated to it, used to it. ... Similar to stuff like Michigan State. But I think they run it differently. Stanford has a lot of power downhill runs, three tight end, seven offensive linemen type deals. And I don't think Florida State runs that as much. A little different formations and stuff like that. But just keep working we'll be in good shape.”
Linebacker Derrick Malone on Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary:
“He understands coverages in the sense of where he needs to go and the separations and the positions and he has sharp hands so he goes up and gets the ball and he's a dominant tight end so we got to make sure we lock him up.”
Cornerback Troy Hill on Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene:
“They put him all over the place, X, Y, and then slot and at the third receiver in that slot, motion him around a lot. They do a lot with them and they try to get him the ball because he's a playmaker so I feel like that's how we have to key in on him, and O'Leary, I feel that's what we really need to work on.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost on Florida State’s secondary:
“They are not extremely complicated. They just do what they do well with really good players. They are fast. I really think (safety) Jalen Ramse is a special player. He's disruptive in a lot of ways. (P.J.) Williams is a fast scrubber corner. And the other three guys in the secondary, you can't overlook them because they are really talented, too. Across the board, it's as athletic a group as we've played.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Marcus Mariota’s vision:
“He has great vision. He sees the field. He does a good job of buying time in the pocket and that doesn't mean just scrambling. It just means buying time where he can see downfield, where a guy gets open. He's a very intelligent football player.”
Linebacker Terrance Smith on containing Marcus Mariota:
“One of the biggest keys to the game is containing Mariota, keeping him in the pocket. It starts up front with the D‑line. The D‑line has to keep their rush lanes and just kind of collapse the pocket and not allow him to break outside of the tackles and pull the ball down and run which is what he's good at doing. Just keeping him inside the tackle box and just collapsing the pocket on him, that where it really starts and having somebody at the second level who can come up and make a play, that's really the key.”
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Oregon’s receivers:
“They are explosive and they make plays, but when they are asked to do things in the perimeter, I mean, they get after you. They block you. Sometimes you see guys that make a lot of big plays that necessarily don't block the perimeter as well.”
Defensive end Mario Williams on Oregon’s offensive line:
“Some of the guys are better than others, but as a unit they work great with each other. They're probably the most athletic and conditioned O-line we will be going against this year because they do the hurry up so much, so definitely as a unit they work great with each other.”
Running back Karlos Williams on Oregon’s ability to contain the run:
“They're tough, long, athletic, outside, they can train a lot. They do a very good job defending the run, and that's something that we haven't seen a lot this year. We have been able to get around the edge, quite a bit this year with Dalvin (Cook) and (Mario) Pender. Also with Jameis here we get around the edge, Rashad, stuff like that. We have been able to be a dominant edge team, containment team, but these guys are very good on the edge. Their backers play well, and (Derrick Malone) and (Joe Walker) play downhill, very tough downhill guys, make a lot of plays, very fast, tough, physical guys.
Quarterback coach Randy Sanders on the absence of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu:
“Him not being there, no question will diminish a little bit of their defense, but it's not like the player they're putting in behind him is not good. You don't get to a position to play in a game like this without having good players, and they've got more than one. So we know whoever comes in will be a good player.”
The Athlon Sports team has been dispatched to the New Orleans and Pasadena to cover the first college football semifinal. We'll survey the scene and storylines and then delve into our picks for New Year's Day.
David Fox is at the Rose Bowl trying to determine which star quarterback will have the big day and which team can more successfully play the underdog role. Braden Gall is at the Sugar Bowl where Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Ohio State defensive line may be able to upstage the powerhouse coaches.
LOS ANGELES — The 2014 season was the year of the freshman running back.
The Rose Bowl features two of the best rookie backs in Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who both emerged during the second half of the season to help their teams to the national semifinal.
The flip side is the upperclassman running backs asked to shelve their egos and do something else so Freeman and Cook can thrive.
Oregon’s Byron Marshall and Florida State’s Karlos Williams entered the season with some fanfare — not as much as their quarterback teammates, but fanfare nonetheless.
On Thursday, they’ll play in the Rose Bowl as not even the most feared running backs on their own teams.
Marshall started 2014 as the only returning 1,000-yard rusher in the Pac-12, but by the end of fall camp, running backs coach Gary Campbell called him into his office to pull him off the running back position.
The season-ending injury to Bralon Addison left Oregon without its top three receivers from a year ago. With incoming freshman Royce Freeman joining the team, Marshall’s carries would be limited.
Oregon needed him to learn the slot receiver position. Starting from square one. And he needed to do it fast.
“I couldn't read the defense for the life of me,” Marshall said.
By the end of September, Marshall learned how to read coverages enough to say he felt like a natural at the position. Now, he calls his position an “athlete,” a position that’s common for recruits who could play a number of spots for a number of teams.
He says it not to be arrogant, but it’s the truth: How many players can say they led a team in rushing one year and in receiving the next?
After rushing for 1,038 yards last season, Marshall caught 61 passes for 814 yards with five touchdowns and still managed to rush for 383 yards and 7.7 yards per carry in 2014.
“I don't have to stare at the defense before the play to know what they are,” Marshall said. “I can give a quick look and say they're in cover one, I should run my route this one, or they're in cover way, I should run my route this way. It just came natural after a couple games.”
At 5-10, 205 pounds, Marshall won’t be a burner at the position. Nor does he need to be. His counterpart at receiver, freshman Devon Allen, is on the Oregon track team and can fill that role. Marshall just needs to be a steady target in the slot and an occassional tailback.
“(Marshall’s) ability as a runner is what makes him so effective as a receiver,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's such a dynamic playmaker that he has a chance to score every time he touches it.”
On the Florida State sideline, Williams wasn’t quite so fortunate to have a role waiting for him to fill after Cook started to emerge during the second half of the season.
Williams entered the season as a fringe Heisman contender after rushing for 730 yards and eight yards per carry behind 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman.
The dreams of any awards faded as the season went along. Williams lost out in the numbers game and missed two games due to injury. He’s become something of a short-yardage back to complement Cook’s home run ability. Williams finished the season with 10 touchdowns but only 4.4 yards per carry.
“I always expected to be one of the best in the country,” Williams said. “It's kind of surprising because we didn't really know. Nobody knew what kind of season each one of us was going to have.”
Instead, he and Marshall arrived at the Rose Bowl expected to contribute in their new roles and take a backseat in some ways to younger, more dynamic talent.
And along the way, they had to show they embraced their altered roles, not just on the field, but as mentors and cheerleaders for freshmen.
“It's amazing to be able to watch young guys explode, and I remember when I was a freshman I was a big‑time kick returner,” Williams said. “I (was) able to take control of the game, be able to change the game and make plays. It makes me really, really proud.”
LOS ANGELES — Troy Hill and Chris Seisay aren’t the first names anyone conjures when it comes to Oregon football.
They’re cornerbacks, and they’re not even the star cornerback for the Ducks.
Yet Hill and Seisay may be the most important players early in the Rose Bowl national semifinal against Florida State.
Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston says he’d test stud NFL corner Richard Sherman given the chance, so what does that mean for the second-, third- and fourth-best corners at Oregon?
“They’ll probably test me early with the first couple of passes,” Seisay told Athlon Sports. “But I’m going to be ready for the ball at all times.”
Oregon secondary coach John Neal says he takes comfort in Oregon bouncing back from injuries in the past. Just this season, receiver Bralon Addison and offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone were hurt before the season started. Tackle Jake Fisher missed the loss to Arizona.
The Ducks won the Sun Bowl in 2007 with Justin Roper at quarterback after Dennis Dixon was hurt. They’ve absorbed running back injuries.
But those are all on offense, and none of those injuries occurred when the stakes are as high as they are now. The season-ending injury to three-time All-Pac-12 cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is different.
Losing an All-America-caliber corner weeks before facing a Heisman-winning quarterback is no one’s idea of an optimal situation.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt (Winston will target the backup corners), but they’ll test our entire defense,” Neal told Athlon Sports. “Their quarterback is fearless. Who is he going to test? He’s going to test his best option.”
If there’s any consolation, Seisay has been thrown into the fray before — on shorter notice and when the redshirt freshman had less experience.
Against Michigan State in the second week of the season, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook and MSU’s bigger receivers picked on the 5-9 corner Dior Mathis. At halftime, Neal sent the 6-1 Seisay out for a better matchup.
Cook completed 17-of-25 passes for 218 yards before halftime and 12-of-22 for 125 yards after.
“There can’t be any drop when you come into the game,” Seisay said.
That performance, though, guarantees nothing. Seisay earned a start the following week against Wyoming and was promptly burned for an early touchdown.
In other words, there’s experience here, but who knows what will be the outcome in the Rose Bowl.
The senior Hill, who started this season opposite Ekpre-Olomu, has 57 tackles and 16 pass breakups. Seisay and Mathis have been in the rotation all season, facing a deep group of Pac-12 quarterbacks.
And as much as Ekpre-Olomu leaves a void in terms of skill and lockdown ability, his absence leaves just as big a hole in leadership.
“That's family, especially in that secondary,” Hill said. “He's our leader, our brother.”
And now Oregon is down a brother and expects the remaining defensive backs to be targeted early and often.
“They’ll play the best games of their lives,” Neal said. “How good that will be, we’ll find out.”
Football nerds unite.
Just think, less than a decade ago, Baylor and Michigan State were teams worthy of laughs in their respective conferences. Baylor was a bottom feeder in the Big 12, and Michigan State’s various foibles made the Spartans an also-ran in the Big Ten.
Thanks to a great offensive mind and a great defensive mind, Baylor and Michigan State have conference titles under their belts.
Now, we get the best of both in a bowl game.
Art Briles revamped Baylor with an up-tempo, pass-happy offense, turning the Bears into a two-time Big 12 champion. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio built a classic Big Ten program at Michigan State with a grinding offense and stifling defense leading the way to a Rose Bowl last season.
Both teams hoped to reach the College Football Playoff this season, but the Cotton Bowl nonetheless is a fantastic matchup for those who want to see one of the top new age offensive minds going up against old school Big Ten defense.
Baylor vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m.
Spread: Baylor by 3
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan State’s defensive statement
The likely storyline for the Cotton Bowl is probably the test for Baylor’s offense against a stout Michigan State defense. True, Baylor can continue to establish itself as a legitimate national power if it can solve a traditionally powerful Michigan State defense. But the reverse is true, too. The 2014 edition of Michigan State has something to prove as well. The Spartans allowed the most yards per game (293.5) and yards per play (4.8) since 2010. Oregon and Ohio State both thrashed the Spartans’ D for their two losses of the year. Michigan State played only one other top 60 offense (Indiana) this season, making that a pretty hollow 10 wins for Sparty this season. Baylor, the No. 1 team in the country in total offense, presents a perfect chance for redemption.
2. Baylor’s run defense
Baylor may quietly have an edge in run defense compared the Michigan State’s run game. The Bears allowed 2.9 yards per carry, fourth-best in the country. Michigan State ranked 28th at 5.1 yards per carry. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford rushed for 1,360 yards and backup Nick Hill added 596 for a combined total of 28 touchdowns. Behind senior linebacker Bryce Hager, Baylor allowed only 2.5 yards per carry in the first half this season — a telling stat considering how many lopsided games Baylor played. Michigan State will try to set up the run, but Baylor might not allow it.
3. Who wants to be here?
Through the lens of history, Baylor and Michigan State in a New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl should be a time for celebration. Yet both teams have the excuses to go through the motions in a bowl game. Baylor was one of two teams left out of the final spot for the College Football Playoff along with TCU, so a Cotton Bowl may seem like a consolation prize even if the Bears are playing in this game since winning the Southwest Conference in 1980.
One of the great aspects of this game is that neither team has faced an opponent quite like the other. The stylistic differences between the Big 12 and the Big Ten couldn’t be more stark. The cliche about New Year’s bowls used to be the comparison of Big Ten power vs. SEC speed. That’s changed. Baylor hasn’t played many teams like Michigan State, but the Spartans at least have the advantage of playing Oregon earlier in the season.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Baylor 28
The Orlando-based bowl game with the New Year’s afternoon timeslot is back to its traditional name, but it’s a long way from its traditional matchup.
The Citrus Bowl — returning to that name for the first time since 2002 — still has a Big Ten-SEC matchup, even if the game features teams entering new postseason territory.
Minnesota is playing in a Florida bowl game for the first time since 2000 when the Gophers reached the Micron PC Bowl (now the Russell Athletic Bowl, also in Orlando).
Missouri’s wait has been even longer. The Tigers are playing a Florida Bowl for the first time since 1981 when Mizzou reached the Tangerine Bowl (the precursor to the Citrus/Capital One Bowl).
A number of factors played a role in these two unlikely teams facing each other in a prime slot on New Year’s Day. Conference realignment put Missouri in the SEC’s bowl lineup. Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss reaching the College Football Playoff bowls made the SEC East champs the most attractive team for the Citrus.
And lackluster seasons from Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan allowed overachieving Minnesota to slide into a bowl slot normally reserve for the Big Ten’s power programs.
Make no mistake, these teams earned their spots in a big-time bowl. Missouri overcame early losses to Georgia and Indiana to win the SEC East for 22 overall wins in the last two years. Minnesota defeated rivals Iowa and Michigan, plus Nebraska, to come within one game of a Big Ten division title.
Minnesota vs. Missouri
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 1 p.m.
Spread: Missouri by 5
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Run, run, run
Missouri’s defense is led by its standout pass rush, anchored by defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden (21 combined sacks). A stout rushing attack can take Missouri off its game. What is the common thread among Missouri’s three losses? Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Arkansas also challenged Missouri with its run game in a loss. In three losses, Missouri opponents are averaging 231 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 10 total rushing touchdowns compared to 106.6 yards, 3.3 yards per carry and seven total TDs in 10 wins. Neutralizing the pass rush with the run game also freed up opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.9 percent of their passes in Mizzou’s three losses. Behind tailback David Cobb, Minnesota has a run game that could take Missouri’s defense out of its comfort zone.
Missouri’s Key to Victory: Maty Mauk
Mauk completed fewer than half of his passes against Alabama in the SEC title game, but he still hit a pair of deep passes to give the Crimson Tide pause in the third quarter (Alabama still won by 29). Mauk may never have a great completion rate thanks to his risky nature, but he can’t turn the ball over if Missouri is going to win. Mauk threw eight interceptions in Missouri’s first six games but calmed down during the second half of the season. As the Tigers finished the year on a 6-1 run, Mauk threw only three picks. Minnesota has a solid secondary that finished the season with 11 picks among six DBs. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is a ball hawk who could cause headaches for Mauk.
At the start of the season, this game seemed more like an optimistic Texas Bowl pairing. At some point, we’ll just trust coaches Gary Pinkel and Jerry Kill to exceed expectations. Instead, Missouri and Minnesota were factors in their respective conference races and ended up in a coveted Jan. 1 bowl spot. On paper, Missouri as the SEC’s representative would seem to have the edge, but Minnesota’s offensive scheme could even the odds against the Tigers’ pass rush.
Prediction: Missouri 28, Minnesota 21
LOS ANGELES — If it’s possible to save a season for a team that went undefeated, then Dalvin Cook is on the short list of players who accomplished such a feat.
Cook is the home run threat who turned the momentum in two of the toughest tests for FSU this season. He was the official MVP of the ACC championship game and an unofficial MVP of October and November for Florida State.
When Florida State meets Oregon in the Rose Bowl, the most Oregon-like player in the game won’t play for the Ducks.
The most explosive player in the Rose Bowl will be Cook.
“If we get that guy the ball 40 times a game, he'd have Melvin Gordon numbers,” quarterback Jameis Winston said.
That hasn’t been necessary just yet. First, Florida State has a Heisman winner at quarterback, a Mackey winner at tight end and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver starting at wideout.
Besides, Cook is breaking off yards in chunks. He has 12 carries of 20 yards or more this season. That figure ranks 23rd nationally, remarkable considering he didn’t become a fixture of the Florida State offense until mid-October.
“He adds a whole other element of speed to the game,” Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone said. “He's a fast guy and he's able to catch the ball and outrun you ... Scary stuff. He'll run to the sideline and try to outrun you."
There was a time Cook didn’t fit perfectly into Florida State’s plans.
Cook, a five-star recruit, didn’t even play in Florida State’s opener against Oklahoma State.
What held him back was no different than what hinders most freshman running backs — pass blocking and knowing his reads. He also had a fumbling problem at one point this year.
“Trust your eyes as a coach, watch him in practice, how he competes every day. Not just when he makes a big run, but how does he pick up the blitz?” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even if it's a four‑yard run, the reads he made. Does he understand the blocking schemes? All those kind of things. We just had to feel for that in time.”
Cook delivered at first with 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in a 38-20 win over Syracuse on Oct. 11 when veteran Karlos Williams was injured.
The true breakout, though, was two games later.
On Oct. 30 at Louisville, Florida State trailed the Cardinals 21-0 at one point. The Seminoles began their comeback with a fumble recovery in the end zone by tight end Nick O’Leary and a 68-yard TD pass from Winston.
Cook, though, was the hero of the game. His 40-yard touchdown run pulled FSU to within three in the third quarter. His 38-yard TD run with 3:46 to go gave Florida State its first and final lead of the game in a 42-31 win.
In Florida State’s other closest call this season, Cook rushed for a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Miami and the game-winning 26-yard score in the final 3:05 in the 30-26 win over the Hurricanes.
“My time came,” Cook said. “I waited and embraced the moment.”
Cook finished the regular season with a combined 321 yards on 55 carries against Florida and Georgia Tech. He added seven receptions for 71 yards.
The push has given him 905 rushing yards this season, a freshman record for Florida State. He’s within striking distance of 1,000 yards, remarkable for a few reasons.
Florida State didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher from the time Warrick Dunn left in 1996 until Devonta Freeman did it in 2013. Karlos Williams, who averaged more than eight yards per carry and rushed for 11 touchdowns last season, seemed to be next in line.
By the end of the season, Cook had become a feature back, not something Florida State has utilized to a great degree in the last decade. Cook’s 31 carries against Georgia Tech was the most for a Florida State tailback since Greg Jones in 2002.
The senior Williams and sophomore Mario Pender, though, eventually had to defer to the rookie.
“When (Cook) has the ball in his hands, he knows how to tote that rock and that's very hard to find,” Winston said. “We’ve got some other backs, Karlos and Mario Pender that can do the same and they allowed Dalvin to come in and take the shine, so I’ve got to give it to them.”
LOS ANGELES — From afar, the scene around Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at Rose Bowl media day isn’t all that different. The quarterbacks of college football playoff teams and Heisman winners both merit throngs of attention.
In fact, they occupied the same podium in the same corner an hour apart in an LA hotel ballroom.
As the 2014 Heisman winner, Mariota has spent the weeks since the end of the regular season in the postseason award parade. The spotlight hasn’t really left Mariota.
And while Winston may be the most visible player in the sport today, it hasn’t been because he’s sought media attention in recent months.
He’s the most visible because he’s the quarterback of an undefeated team (again) and the most dramatic team in the country. He’s the most visible player due to the off-field legal and student conduct saga that has clouded his career since midway through the 2013 season.
But Winston has been insulated. His meetings with the media have been few and short. His statements have been prepared. His first meeting with Mariota wasn’t at the Heisman ceremony, where he could have attended as a previous winner; it was as both teams arrived in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl.
Winston wrapped up his third day of extended interviews with the media Monday at the Rose Bowl, but it won’t be the end of the interviews, especially if Winston elects to leave school early to enter the NFL draft after the season.
Days before arriving in Los Angeles for Rose Bowl preparation, Winston was cleared of violating the student code of conduct following allegations of a sexual assault of an FSU student in December 2012. Prior to that, criminal charges were not filed against Winston, although Florida State’s and the Tallahassee Police Department’s handling of the case has been called into question.
In his longest interview sessions since the ACC preseason media day, Winston isn’t necessarily relieved, animated or apologetic.
He’s more or less resigned that the perception from outside of Florida State will remain in limbo.
“I can't get people to like me,” Winston said. “What they read or what they may see, it's them. I can't control anyone's opinion. Like I say, my family, this football family, everyone associated with us, they know me and people that have met me and actually talked to me, they know who I am.”
If Winston didn’t understand that being a Heisman winner and facing the allegations he faced put him into a spotlight earlier this season, he does now.
During the offseason, Winston was caught on camera stealing crab legs from a grocery store. In September, Winston was suspended when students on social media documented his use of “offensive and vulgar” language about women in the student union, a suspension extended from a half to the duration of the Clemson game when he failed to give an accurate account of the incident to school officials.
Since then, Winston has tried to lay low. While his teammates may be able to celebrate a win on the town in Tallahassee, Winston says he tries to stay away.
“Obviously I know that I'm under a microscope,” Winston said. “That's why I stay in Tallahassee. I've just got to sit in because people will tweet about you for walking down the street backwards. You've just got to chill. ... I love being around my teammates, and the only time I can be around them is in the locker room. I can't celebrate with them, can't do nothing with them, but it comes with the territory.”
Even though Winston has been absent from the team, the support hasn’t wavered, both players and coaches said.
“There were definitely times that it took some of his time away from football,” quarterback coach Randy Sanders said. “But at the same time it made him become more efficient. In a lot of ways coming to practice, playing the games, being in meetings, being around the guys, a lot of ways it made him appreciate the team and appreciate football even more.”
Of course, the reason Winston is in demand isn’t just because he hasn’t spoken publicly much this season or that he’s a lightning rod in the sport.
It’s because his team is still playing on the biggest stage.
“Why would I be down on myself when I'm a blessed man?” Winston said. “I have a great team. We haven't lost in two years. So (the media) always look(s) at the negative things in life but I look at the positive things in life. I'm so blessed. I have a young brother, I have both my parents, my grandma is still living, I have a little sister and I gotta do right for them. It's more than football sometimes. People can criticize me and say whatever they want to say about me, but I'm a blessed guy.”
LOS ANGELES — Clint Trickett even had his own father in the dark regarding the concussions that ended his football career.
As Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett prepared for the Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon, Trickett also was keeping in touch daily with his son who was in the process of retiring from football due to concussions.
Clint Trickett, West Virginia’s starting quarterback for most of the last two seasons and a former FSU backup, revealed last week that he had sustained five concussions in the last 14 months.
The final concussion in a 26-20 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 20 was the last of his football career. Instead of joining his teammates on the field in the Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M on Monday, Clint Trickett will begin to pursue a career in coaching.
“I’ll mess with a shoulder, I’ll mess with a knee, I’ll mess with an elbow, but I’m not going to mess with a head,” Rick Trickett told Athlon Sports from Florida State’s Rose Bowl media day Monday.
Perhaps most chilling for the father was the revelation that Clint Trickett had hidden two of the five concussions from West Virginia trainers and his father.
Rick Trickett noted that Clint had suffered from migraines, so that may have contributed to uncertainty regarding Clint’s headaches. However, Rick said he should have known his son sustained a concussion in a 31-30 loss to TCU on Nov. 1.
“I didn’t know about the one at TCU. I should have picked up on it,” Rick Trickett said. “Then he told me about it after Kansas State. He tries to be a tough guy. Obviously, I would have got on him about that.”
Instead, Clint Trickett got an early start to his coaching career. He served as an unofficial quarterbacks coach while West Virginia staffers were out recruiting. Rick Trickett said he would have liked Clint to go through the NFL free agent process, even though the options would have been limited for a 186-pound quarterback without a concussion history.
“He’s not the biggest guy in the world and he wasn’t going to be able to play in the bowl game anyway,” Rick Trickett said. “He wants to coach. He got a taste of it. He kind of took to it, liked it.”
Mississippi State and Georgia Tech picked a good year to have their best seasons in recent history.
For sure, the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets could be left wanting more. Mississippi State was in the playoff race until the final weeks of the season, and a loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl spoiled a bit of the Bulldogs’ season. And Georgia Tech had a shot at Florida State in the ACC title game, but like so many others it was all for naught.
Yet these teams are both in the Orange Bowl, no small feat for a matchup that would seem more likely in the Music City Bowl than in Miami.
This was also the kind of matchup that may have never happened under the BCS. Second-place ACC teams generally don’t make the premier bowl games. And by virtue of losing to an equally worthy Ole Miss, Mississippi State may have seen its bowl standing diminish in the old system.
Without a two-teams-per-conference restriction and the ACC’s automatic bid, Mississippi State and Georgia Tech will meet in an odd Orange Bowl matchup. The Yellow Jackets were last here in 2009, losing 24-14 to Iowa in their only appearance in a major bowl since the 2000 Peach Bowl. Mississippi State is making its highest profile bowl appearance since defeating Clemson 17-7 in the 1999 Peach Bowl.
Instead, the cowbells will be ringing in Sun Life Stadium while Georgia Tech fans do whatever they can to put the din out of their minds.
Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State
Kickoff: Dec. 31, 8 p.m.
Spread: Mississippi State by 7
Three Things to Watch
1. The state of State’s backfield
Mississippi State had one of the best starting backfields in the SEC for stretches this season, but there was enough inconsistency here to merit some concern. Quarterback Dak Prescott threw eight interceptions during a stretch of four SEC games from Oct. 11-Nov. 15, culminating with three picks against Alabama. He was more efficient in the final two games with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Running back Josh Robinson also tailed off near the end of the season, averaging 48.2 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry in the final five compared to 125.3 per game and 7.2 in the first seven. Robinson didn’t rush for a touchdown in any of Mississippi State’s final four games.
2. Georgia Tech’s passing game
This is no secret: Georgia Tech isn’t going to pass very often. Jordan Thomas averaged 13.4 pass attempts per game and only once topped 20 passes. Perhaps making the pass less dangerous is a key injury. Leading receiver DeAndre Smelter (35 receptions, 715 yards, seven touchdowns) is out after suffering a torn ACL before the ACC title game. Darren Waller became Thomas’ favorite target against Florida State with five catches when no one else had more than one. Georgia Tech uses its passing game to catch teams creeping up on the option, so losing a guy who averages more than 20 yards per catch is a significant loss.
3. Stopping the option
Georgia Tech is 1-5 in bowl games under Paul Johnson, and no doubt at least one part of that poor record is that teams have time to prepare for the option. Will the odds be even against Mississippi State? Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins was hired to the same position at Florida and in a bit of an odd move, he won’t coach in the bowl game for the Bulldogs. And this was a defense that had its lapses already this season, allowing more than 500 yards to UAB, Texas A&M, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
Both teams enter the bowl game coming off a loss, but Georgia Tech is the hotter team playing in Miami. The Yellow Jackets won its final four ACC games handedly, including a 28-6 rout of Clemson, and a dramatic victory over rival Georgia in overtime on the road. Mississippi State’s 9-0 start was spoiled by road losses to Alabama and Ole Miss in two of the last three games (lowly Vanderbilt was the win). Still, Mississippi State has the healthier team and the top difference maker in Prescott.
Prediction: Mississippi State 35, Georgia Tech 24
Understandably, the theme of 2014 will be the first College Football Playoff.
The new postseason format represented a seismic shift in the sport, and even if the playoff expands beyond four teams, college football won’t be the same again.
Thanks to 2014, the record books won’t be the same either.
The single game rushing record that stood for 15 years fell — twice. So did the single-game passing record. Same with school records both offensively and defensively.
Make no mistake, the 2014 season will be memorable for reasons beyond the first final four in the sport.
Here are the 20 individual performances we’ll remember most.
1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska 59-24
Records in college football fall seemingly every couple of weeks. School records, conference records, streaks, passing and receiving numbers. Every now and then, though, some records are more special than others. TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 406 yards against UTEP in a game in 1999. For all of the offensive explosions in the ensuing 15 years, no one broke that mark. When Melvin Gordon did it, he needed only three quarters and against a storied program to boot. Gordon rushed for 408 yards and four touchdowns on only 25 carries in three quarters against Nebraska. Though Gordon never touched Barry Sanders’ single season rushing record — which seemed a possibility for a time — Gordon put together a game and a season for the ages.
2. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Nov. 22 vs. Kansas
LaDainian Tomlinson’s rushing record got its learner’s permit. Gordon’s record never got a stroller. A week after Gordon broke LT’s single-game record, a freshman from Oklahoma broke Gordon’s. Perine became the first back to rush for 200 yards in each half against an opponent with a new record of 427 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries against Kansas. Perine’s game will stand as the record, but his nine more carries against a lesser opponent will keep him as No. 2 to Gordon in the eye test.
3. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State
Mariota’s Heisman moment occurred early, though he added plenty more as the season went along. After falling behind 27-18 to the reigning Big Ten champions, Mariota took over in the second half for 28 unanswered points in a 46-27 win. Mariota completed 17-of-28 passes for 318 yards with three touchdowns, numbers that don’t often occur against the Spartans’ defense. Mariota put up the second-highest passing total against Michigan State since 2010 and the fourth-highest efficiency rating.
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Sept. 20 vs. LSU
Although LSU did not have a vintage season, wins over the Tigers, especially on the road at night still carry considerable weight. In a 34-29 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated, Prescott led Mississippi State to a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter that put the Bulldogs on the national scene and the quarterback in the Heisman race. Prescott completed 15-of-24 passes for 268 yards with two touchdowns while rushing for 105 yards and a score on 22 carries.
5. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Nov. 8 vs. Michigan State
When Ohio State looks back at its 2014 season, the win over Michigan State will be the turning point. Before Nov. 8, the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech seemed too much to overcome for a playoff bid, and J.T. Barrett was still a precocious redshirt freshman who had done an admirable job stepping in for Braxton Miller. Barrett, though, became a Heisman candidate and Ohio State became a playoff possibility after a 49-37 win in East Lansing. Barrett completed 16-of-26 passes for 300 yards with three touchdowns for the third-best efficiency rating against the Spartans’ D since 2010. Barrett also rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
6. Amari Cooper, Alabama
Nov. 29 vs. Auburn
How much of a sure thing was Amari Cooper in 2014? Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin started celebrating his touchdown before he even caught the pass. That’s how automatic Cooper is in single coverage. In an unprecedented Iron Bowl shootout, Cooper caught 13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns, including the 75-yard score that spurred Kiffin’s celebration.
7. Bryce Petty, Baylor
Oct. 11 vs. TCU
Hard to believe, but at one point this season, Bryce Petty looked like a shadow of last season’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. That changed with a shootout with TCU, a shootout that became one-sided after Baylor scored 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 61-58 win. Petty completed 28-of-55 passes for 510 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions and led Baylor to the highest yardage total (782) against a Gary Patterson-coached team.
8. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Nov. 15 vs. Miami 30-26
Could the best performance by a Florida State player in 2014 have come from a safety? In our eyes, yes. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey was Florida State’s top playmaker in a 30-26 win over Miami, the closest the Seminoles came to losing this season. Ramsey had a forced fumble, an interception, a tackle for a loss and four pass breakups in the 30-26 win. Perhaps most important, his blocked extra point in the fourth quarter came in handy as Miami tried to drive in the fourth quarter for a game-winning TD rather than a game-tying field goal.
9. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Aug. 30 vs. Clemson
Gurley’s season may be more remembered for the misfortune that surrounded him this season — the suspension related to NCAA rules and the torn ACL. Yet when he played, Gurley was arguably the top player in the country, or at least the top player East of Eugene. Gurley flashed that in the opener with 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries in a 45-21 win. By adding a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Gurley set a personal best with 293 all-purpose yards, a mark he nearly matched with 285 yards on Sept. 27 against Tennessee.
10. Scooby Wright, Arizona
Nov. 28 vs. Arizona State
Like many players on this list, Scooby Wright has a number of performances in the discussion for his best of the year. Our pick is the linebacker’s effort in a 42-35 win over Arizona State that, thanks to UCLA’s loss to Stanford, clinched a trip to the Pac-12 title game. Wright finished that game with 13 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.
11. Cardale Jones, Ohio State
Dec. 6 vs. Wisconsin
Other performances were more prolific and more dramatic, but arguably no performance was more important that Cardale Jones’ first start. The chair of the selection committee indicated that Jones’ performance against Wisconsin in place of injured starter J.T. Barrett would be watched closely for playoff consideration. Jones was near perfect, completing 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game to clinch a playoff spot for the Buckeyes.
12. Connor Halliday, Washington State
Oct. 4 vs. Cal
Here’s a scary thought: Connor Halliday played only eight games from start to finish and still had three of the top eight single-game passing totals this season. None was more prolific this season — or any season in college football history — than his record 734 passing yards and six touchdowns in a 60-59 loss to Cal.
13. Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
Nov. 1 vs. South Carolina
Tennessee fans will be forever grateful for Josh Dobbs being the quarterback who finally got the Volunteers over the hump. After many close calls and bizarre finishes, Tennessee was finally on the winning end in a 45-42 overtime win over South Carolina. Dobbs completed 23-of-40 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns against the Gamecocks. He led scoring drives of 75 and 85 yards in the final 1:50 to send the game to overtime.
14. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Oct. 25 vs. Rutgers
It takes a significant effort for a Nebraska running back to set new school records. Abdullah did that in a 42-24 win over Rutgers with 341 all-purpose yards, a school record and the fifth-highest total of the season. Abdullah rushed for 225 yards on only 19 carries and returned a kickoff 76 yards. Abdullah rushed for touchdowns of 53, 48 and 23 yards in the rout.
15. Shaq Thompson, Washington
Sept. 13 vs. Illinois
Before Thompson became a full-time running back, he was content to score touchdowns on the defensive side of the ball. He still rushed for 16 yards in this game, but he added a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 52-yard fumble return for a score in the 31-7 win.
16. Clint Trickett, West Virginia
Sept. 13 vs. Maryland
West Virginia had trouble staying in the conversation of Big 12 turnarounds with what happened at TCU this season, but the Mountaineers' return to the postseason was impressive, too. Trickett got things started by completing 37-of-49 passes for 511 yards with an interception in a 40-37 win over Maryland.
17. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Dec. 5 vs. Arizona
Mariota wrapped up his Heisman campaign with the kind of performance that’s pretty much the norm for him. In a 51-13 win over Arizona, avenging the Ducks’ only loss of the season, Mariota completed 25-of-38 passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns, and, of course, no interceptions. He also rushed for three touchdowns.
18. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M
Aug. 28 vs. South Carolina
The Aggies flipped the script on the SEC before the first Saturday of the season. Kenny Hill was the star of September, completing 44-of-60 passes for 511 yards with three touchdowns in a 52-28 rout of South Carolina. Alas, he and A&M didn’t stay on top all year.
19. Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky
Nov. 28 vs. Marshall
Credit goes to Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm for the guts to go for 2 in the first overtime, but credit Brandon Doughty for converting in a 67-66 win over Marshall to spoil the Thundering Herd’s undefeated season. Doughty went toe-to-toe with Rakeem Cato, completing 34-of-50 passes for 481 yards with eight touchdown passes and two interceptions.
20. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Nov. 22 vs Ohio State
Indiana would have had yet another forgettable season if not for a herculean effort from Tevin Coleman, who topped 2,000 rushing yards this season. His finest performance may have been his 228 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries against Ohio State. Without its first-string quarterback, Indiana still gave Ohio State all it could handle thanks to Coleman before the Buckeyes pulled away for a 42-27 win.
The 39 bowl games on this year’s roster may be too many for some.
That’s fine. For some of us, that’s not enough. Not just because if the insatiable need for December and January college football. Bowl games — especially bad bowl games — offer a wide variety of ridiculous bowl names, wild destinations and “what were you thinking” ideas.
Bowl games have come and gone over the years. Some were successful, including the Bluebonnet Bowl, All-American Bowl and Freedom Bowl. Some were cool ideas like the Bacardi Bowl. And some were doomed from the start — a bowl game in Dayton? Really?
Here are 15 bowl games you won't see in December and January.
Site: Honolulu (Aloha Stadium)
Technically, this is a defunct bowl, though a bowl game returned to Hawaii two years later for the imaginatively named Hawaii Bowl. The Aloha Bowl was played on Christmas Day for the final 14 games of its run and often featured ranked teams from major conferences. The Hawaii Bowl, on the other hand, is traditionally played on Christmas Eve and features Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC teams. Edge: Aloha Bowl.
All-American Bowl/Hall of Fame Classic
Site: Birmingham, Ala. (Legion Field)
A second-tier bowl game for more than a decade, Birmingham eventually abandoned the All-American Bowl to host the SEC Championship Game, which moved to Atlanta two years later. A shame: This Birmingham game ended in 1990 before Pittsburgh ever had a chance to play in it.
Site: Dayton, Ohio (Welcome Stadium)
As the hometown of the Wright brothers and the site of where they designed their flying machine, Dayton considers its the birthplace of aviation (the University of Dayton mascot is the Flyers). The Aviation Bowl, though, never really took flight, and New Mexico’s 28-12 win over Western Michigan in 1961 was the only bowl game in Dayton. Only 3,694 people attended the game.
Site: Havana, Cuba (Tropical Stadium)
The first Bahamas Bowl was played in 2014, but that won’t be the first bowl game played in the tropics. Not by a long shot. Auburn’s first bowl game was in pre-Castro Cuba on New Year’s Day 1937 in a 7-7 tie with Villanova. The Bacardi Bowl is the accepted name, but the game also went by the Rhumba Bowl or Cigar Bowl.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium/Astrodome)
An equivalent to the Holiday or Alamo bowls, the Bluebonnet Bowl had the longest history of a now-defunct bowl, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Bluebonnet usually had a Texas team or a Southwest Conference team on one side. One exception: This Missouri-Georgia Tech meeting in 1962 called by legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray:
Site: Louisville, Ky. (Fairgrounds Stadium)
Fairgrounds Stadium is now an eyesore from the Interstate in Louisville, especially compared to the Cardinals’ new facility. Not only did Louisville play football here, it hosted Oklahoma State’s 1958 bowl win over Florida State. The game was attended by a mere 7,000 people, but it’s more notable for being the first national television appearance for Howard Cosell.
Site: Fresno, Calif. (Bulldog Stadium)
The game gave us one of the great bowl sponsors in the California Raisin Advisory Board. The claymation dancing and singing raisins were more memorable than any of the bowl matchups between the WAC and the MAC. The California Raisin Bowl is not to be confused with simply the Raisin Bowl, also held in Fresno from 1945-49.
Site: Anaheim, Calif. (Anaheim Stadium)
The Freedom Bowl featured a fair amount of star power in its decade of existence, including MVP performances from Chuck Long, Ty Detmer, Marshall Faulk and Tedy Bruschi.
Garden State Bowl
Site: East Rutherford, N.J. (Giants Stadium)
The Garden State Bowl learned what the NFL may figure out in 2014: Postseason games in December and January are to be avoided. Rutgers and Temple played in the first two games here before embarking on lengthy bowl droughts. After four games, Giants Stadium became the site of the popular and much more successful (and warmer) Kickoff Classic, a game that ran in late August from 1983-2002.
Site: New York (Yankee Stadium)
The matchup between Nebraska and Miami in the 1962 game would be much more interesting decades later, but this game preceded Miami’s first national title by 21 years and featured Bob Devaney in only his first season as Nebraska’s coach. Still, the Gotham Bowl is such a great name. Unfortunately, the words “Gotham” and “football” probably shouldn’t go together. Thanks, Christopher Nolan.
Great Lakes Bowl
Site: Cleveland, Ohio
This bowl was probably doomed from the get-go because “bowl destination” and “lake effect snow” don’t go together. The game featured only one matchup between major teams, but at least it was historically notable as the first bowl appearance and bowl win by then-Kentucky coach Bear Bryant in 1947.
Site: Toronto (Rogers Centre)
In addition to being the first bowl game off American soil in 70 years, the International Bowl carries the distinction of being one of the first in an unfortunate trend of placing lower-tier bowl games in between New Year’s Day and BCS championship game. The demise of the Big East, 4-0 in this game against the MAC, and low attendance contributed to the demise of the game.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium)
Florida has oranges and tangerines, and Georgia has peaches. Makes sense for Texas to have the Oil Bowl, right?
Site: Phoenix (Montgomery Stadium)
This game featured North Texas and Arizona State back when they were teachers’ colleges and when Drake, Dayton and Xavier went to bowl games. Not sure how it ended up a New Year’s Day bowl game. Like the Cherry Bowl, the Salad Bowl is virtually un-Google-able on the first try.
Silicon Valley Classic
Site: San Jose, Calif. (Spartan Stadium)
Back in the early 2000s, many games ended up with a dot com sponsor — galleryfurniture.com, EV1.net, Insight.com. Only one claimed all of Silicon Valley. The game went bust after the dot com bubble burst.
Nebraska fans must be asking themselves: Can Mike Riley start now?
The new Cornhuskers coach has many skills that will be welcome in Lincoln, but in the here and now, Riley's hex on the 2014 bowl opponent is of particular interest.
Despite a deficit in talent and resources, Oregon State tended to be a spoiler for USC in its glory days during the last 10 seasons. Three unranked, Riley-led teams upset three ranked USC squads in the last six meetings, including an upset of the No. 1 Trojans in 2007 and the No. 3 Trojans in 2006.
Alas, Riley is simply observing right now, leaving the team to interim coach Barney Cotton. The coaching change assures Nebraska that Bo Pelini won’t preside over a four-loss season, though that landmark is attainable for the seventh consecutive year.
If Cotton can lead Nebraska to a bowl win, the Cornhuskers will finish a season with fewer than four losses for the first time since 2003, another season in which an interim coach led the way in a Nebraska bowl game. That interim coach in a 10-3 season in 2003 was Bo Pelini.
On the other sideline, USC has a coach with plenty of familiarity with the Huskers in recent seasons. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian must feel like Nebraska is following him. While coach at Washington, Sarkisian faced Nebraska three times in a 12-month span, including a home-and-home and the 2010 Holiday Bowl. Nebraska was 2-1 in those matchups.
Nebraska vs. USC
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 8 p.m.
Spread: USC by 6 1/2
Nebraska’s Key to Victory: A return to form for Ameer Abdullah
Perhaps the layoff will help Abdullah because the Nebraska star tailback struggled in the final month of the season. While fighting through a knee sprain, Abdullah averaged 4.8 yards per carry in November and rushed for just one touchdown during the final month of the season. Before that, Abdullah averaged 6.9 yards per carry and tallied 17 touchdowns in the first eight games. The offense will all start with Abdullah — putting quarterback Tommy Armstrong into third-and-long situations against a pass rusher like Leonard Williams could be bad news for the Huskers.
USC’s Key to Victory: Keep Cody Kessler comfortable
Kessler is the nation’s second-most accurate passer, as far as completion percentage goes (70.7 percent). Yet he’s had a few games this season in which he has been under pressure. UCLA sacked him six times in a USC loss. Arizona State sacked him three times in a loss. Boston College sacked him five times in a loss. Given the opportunity, Kessler can pick apart a defense. The onus will be on the Cornhuskers pass rush to set the tone. Nebraska has a star pass rusher in Randy Gregory, who turned in an uneven season due to injury.
Though neither USC’s nor Nebraska’s season will be particularly memorable in the annals of each school’s history, this game will be notable for the first bowl matchup between two storied programs. USC is looking to continue its unbeaten streak against Nebraska, going 3-0-1 in home-and-homes in 1969-70 and 2006-07. The two teams in 2014 are evenly matched. The game may come down to which offensive playmakers are allowed to flourish — will Nebraska be able to feed the ball to Ameer Abdullah or will Cody Kessler be able to feed the ball to receiver Nelson Agholor?
Prediction: USC 35, Nebraska 24
The last Penn State bowl appearance was hardly an experience the Nittany Lions want to remember.
In 2011, Penn State went to Dallas to play in a bowl game televised on ESPNU in a crowded slot with more appealing matchups in the Capital One and Outback bowls. That the bowl was an afterthought was just fine.
Under interim coach Tom Bradley, Penn State lost 30-14 to Houston, ending a season in which the program was reeling from scandal.
This game will be different.
Penn State entered the season with the NCAA-mandated bowl ban still in place. That sanction ended Sept. 10, though the Nittany Lions needed until Nov. 15 to ensure they’d end 2014 in the postseason.
No, this isn’t the kind of bowl destination Penn State normally would be accustomed to visiting a decade ago, but the return should be an appealing matchup.
Penn State draws a Boston College team that finished 7-5, defeated USC and played Florida State and Clemson within less than a touchdown.
The two programs played every year from 1981-92 with Penn State winning all but two meetings during that stretch of the series. With Boston College winning a home-and-home in 2003-04 and the 1992 matchup, the Eagles have a three-game winning streak in the series.
Boston College vs. Penn State
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m.
Spread: Boston College by 2 1/2
Boston College’s Key to Victory: Unleash Tyler Murphy
The Eagles are at their best when quarterback Tyler Murphy is methodically moving them down the field. The Florida transfer rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and did just enough in the passing game to keep teams honest. He was interception-free in six of the final seven games, but the exception was as a doozy with four picks against Louisville. Facing the middle of the Penn State defense led by linebacker Mike Hull and tackle Anthony Zettel, though, will be tough.
Penn State’s Key to Victory: Continue the late-season run game momentum
This is not a great matchup for Penn State’s embattled offensive line. Boston College is eighth in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.1) and fourth in rushing yards per game (95.5). Don Brown’s defense features three down linemen and brings the blitz, so the Nittany Lions’ line will have their hands full in protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Penn State rushed for at least 160 yards in three of the last four games, albeit agains Indiana, Temple and Illinois. Even in that stretch, Penn State still gave up nine sacks. Against five winning teams in 2014, Penn State averaged 1.4 yards per carry and 43.4 rushing yards per game.
Normally a matchup between a 6-6 Big Ten team and a 7-5 ACC team wouldn’t carry a great deal of weight, but this game will be different. Penn State’s return to a bowl is one storyline, but a victory would give the Nittany Lions a winning season each year under NCAA sanctions, no insignificant feat. Boston College, a program that won eight bowl games in eight seasons at one point, is now riding a four-bowl losing streak. A win would give BC its first eight-win season since 2009 and first bowl victory since 2007. That said, finding ways to score will be a challenge. These two teams both rank in the top 12 in total defense and are allowing fewer than 21 points per game.
Prediction: Penn State 17, Boston College 13
Like many teams in the Independence Bowl, Miami and South Carolina don’t arrive in Shreveport with an abundance of enthusiasm.
Reaching this bowl game, more often than not, is the final stop in a season that didn’t go entirely as planned.
The Gamecocks and Hurricanes are in that position as they try to salvage one last bit of good news — not to mention a winning record — out of a lost season.
South Carolina started the season in the preseason top 10, but the Gamecocks would never look any better than that, losing 52-28 to Texas A&M in the opener. For the first time of Steve Spurrier’s tenure in South Carolina, the Gamecocks fell below — well below — expectations. Carolina finished the season with only one Power 5 win after Sept. 20.
Miami limps into Shreveport in similar fashion. The Hurricanes didn’t open the season ranked, but they were expected to make a run at the ACC Coastal Division. Those dreams evaporated as Miami was one of many victims of a second half Florida State comeback on Nov. 15. The Canes lost to Virginia and Pittsburgh to wrap up another middling season under Al Golden.
While this game might not be the top priority for the average college football fan, this will be a key game for momentum into 2015. The winner will be able to move on while the losing team will have a handful of questions.
For South Carolina, a loss brings into question how much energy Steve Spurrier has left before hitting the links for good. For Miami, a loss puts Al Golden onto hot seat lists entering next season.
Miami vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:30 p.m.
Spread: Miami by 3
Miami’s Key to Victory: Get Duke Johnson going
Johnson’s two lowest rushing totals this season occurred in the final two games of the season against Virginia (88 yards) and Pittsburgh (89). Before that, Johnson was on a hot streak, averaging 162.2 yards per game and 7.8 per carry in the six games prior. The Hurricanes went 4-2 during that streak, the only losses to teams that played in the ACC title game. It’s no surprise that when Johnson isn’t breaking off long runs, Miami has trouble sustaining drives. South Carolina will be ripe for the picking in this matchup. The Gamecocks gave up 284.2 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry against their last four SEC opponents and Clemson.
South Carolina’s Key to Victory: Limit Brad Kaaya
South Carolina’s defense has been a season-long problem. The same team that had Jadeveon Clowney last season has made life awfully easy on quarterbacks this year. Throw out gimmes against Furman and South Alabama, and South Carolina had only nine sacks all season and only one in the final five games. The Gamecocks also had only three interceptions against SEC opponents and Clemson. If South Carolina is to have any chance, the Gamecocks will need to make Miami freshman QB Brad Kaaya uncomfortable.
This is a classic example of the unpredictable December bowl game. Both teams flashed potential this season. One team beat Georgia and the other gave Florida State all it can handle. Yet both teams had enough glaring flaws to finish 6-6. And given that South Carolina and Miami are used to more exciting bowl destinations, one team or both could come out flat. Yet plenty of pride is on the line as both teams are looking to seal a winning record to salvage the season.
Prediction: South Carolina 24, Miami 17
Bowl season at West Point may as well be a short game week.
Thanks to Navy’s unique schedule and bowl arrangement, the Midshipmen won’t have the normal off hours to sit back, stretch and enjoy bowl swag.
After defeating Army on Dec. 13, Navy will have 10 days between its regular season finale and its bowl, tied for the quickest turnaround between a regular season game and a bowl in college football history. In recent years, Navy has played its annual game with Army a week after the conference championship games. Only this season, that game has run right up to to Navy’s contracted bowl.
Navy is also squeezing finals into its hectic schedule, including exams on the Wednesday and Thursday before the Army game and the Monday through Thursday after.
In all, Navy will spend only three full days in San Diego before the bowl game on Dec. 23.
Meanwhile, opponent San Diego State completed its regular season on Nov. 29, giving the Aztecs more than three weeks since its last game — not to mention shorter travel.
Navy vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Dec. 23, 8:30 p.m.
Spread: San Diego State by 3
Navy’s Key to Victory: Keenan Reynolds
Navy will be in good shape if its quarterback is the best player on the field, and that generally means Keenan Reynolds is finding the end zone. Reynolds carries the career (64) and single-season (31 in 2013) records for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback despite missing two games this season. And if Reynolds is running, Navy’s probably winning. Reynolds has attempted 10 or more passes in four games this season; the Midshipmen have lost all four. San Diego State has a solid defense, ranking second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per carry (3.8).
San Diego State’s Key to Victory: Stop the fullback ... despite playing shorthanded
San Diego State coach Rocky Long made clear what he believes is the key to slowing Navy in the flexbone, and it’s not the 1,000-yard quarterback with 21 touchdowns. “If the fullback gets going, everything else works,” Long said. “You have to make him only get three yards a carry.” Navy fullback Noah Copeland is averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season. Only four teams have held him to fewer than four yards per carry, and Navy is 2-2 in those games. San Diego State will have to defend the fullback and the option without tackle Alex Barrett, the Aztecs’ top defensive lineman.
The layoff for San Diego State and lack thereof for Navy makes for an interesting storyline, and the Aztecs’ injury situation will be worth watching. That said, this game may come down to which team is able to sustain drives. With the option, Navy will get its rushing yards. So will San Diego State. The Aztecs have the top rusher in the Mountain West in Donnell Pumphrey (1,755 yards, 19 touchdowns). He’ll be running behind a line that should have a size advantage against Navy’s front. That may be the difference for San Diego State.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Navy 20
In an honest moment, UCLA coach Steve Alford might roll his eyes at Kentucky’s current dilemma heading into Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
The Wildcats lost junior forward Alex Poythress for the remainder of the season a week ago to a torn ACL. The injury means Kentucky coach John Calipari must either find a 10th man to play in his unconventional platoon system or simply deal with a nine-man rotation filled with McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects.
Alford only wishes he could sympathize with that problem.
Kentucky’s opponent Saturday has a five-man rotation and little else. In UCLA’s last game, an 87-74 loss to Gonzaga, Alford played four of his starters for at least 35 minutes. The fifth starter played 25 minutes, and only one other player logged more than six minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky could still conceivably change its entire lineup wholesale. Since this is Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country, the Wildcats’ substitution patterns in the face of the Poythress injury are noteworthy.
“We'll platoon nine, and we're going to have time to see if (sophomore forward) Derek Willis or (sophomore guard) Dom Hawkins deserve to be in the rotation of 10,” Calipari said. “I'm not going to take minutes away from any player just to platoon. That's not the idea. We were platooning for one reason — to try to take care of 10 players.”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
David Fox: Kentucky 74-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 83-68
Mitch Light: Kentucky 78-54
Jake Rose: Kentucky 82-64
The Poythress injury is the first major test of Calipari’s unorthodox platoon system in which he has white and blue squads for liberal and sometime wholesale substitutions.
While the loss of a starter — and an experienced and versatile defender at that — Calipari has to find a way to fill the minutes. Certainly, he has the bodies to do it, but he’ll have to juggle the egos of talented players along the way.
The truth is, the true platoon system has faded a bit in recent games. In a 58-38 win over Providence on Nov. 30, Kentucky made eight five-man substitutions, including the first four substitutions of the game.
That may have been the end of Kentucky's platoon system.
In the following four games, Calipari has subbed all five on the court only six times. That said, the first substitutions against Texas, Eastern Kentucky and Columbia was a five-man change.
Against North Carolina, Kentucky’s first game without Poythress, the Wildcats subbed four at the first timeout and followed more conventional substitution patterns for the remainder of the game. Calipari subbed four seven times against the Tar Heels and never subbed an entire lineup.
The Poythress injury is a curve ball, but the kind of change that was bound to happen to Kentucky’s best-laid plans. An injury, a player or two not keeping up with the pack or anything else could have turned a 10-man platoon into a more conventional, yet still deep, rotation.
“We did talk in terms of, 'Hey, if we get to the point where eight of those guys or seven have separated from the rest, it'll be pretty cut-and-dried that it's done on the court and it's proven on the court and those guys will play.'” Calipari said. “So I'm not married to anything.”
Oregon is finally off the board.
The Ducks have been knocking on the door of their first Heisman winner for years, and in 2014 they made their New York Athletic Club breakthrough count.
Marcus Mariota won the first Heisman Trophy in University of Oregon history, and he did it by a landslide. He received 90.92 percent of possible points, the third-highest total in Heisman history, and 788 of 890 first-place votes.
Mariota’s Heisman winning season wasn’t just a product of a single remarkable season — though a single remarkable season it was.
Oregon is proof that winning the Heisman is darn difficult. The Ducks have had finalists who where great running backs but at a time when quarterbacks are winning the award (LaMichael James). They’ve had quarterbacks as frontrunners until late-season injuries (Dennis Dixon and Mariota himself). They had a worthy candidate when they were the new team on the block (Joey Harrington).
Yet Oregon won 638 games in its history before winning its first Heisman trophy. That wasn’t the most in college football history, not even close. Championship programs like Tennessee, Clemson and Washington are still waiting to add a Heisman to the trophy case.
Which program will be the next to win its first Heisman? Here are the top 10 programs in terms of wins but no Heisman winners and an outlook in the short term for their prospects.
All-time wins: 810
Closest calls: Peyton Manning (runner-up in 1997), Heath Shuler (runner-up in 1993), Johnny Majors (runner-up in 1956), Hank Lauricella (runner-up in 1951)
Outlook: The Volunteers’ chances of breaking through are much better than they were a couple of years ago. Right now, the Volunteers have a pair of offensive playmakers, quarterback Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd, that will probably show up on the fringes of someone’s list next season.
2. West Virginia
All-time wins: 719
Closest calls: Pat White (sixth in 2007, seventh in 2008), Steve Slaton (fourth in 2006), Major Harris (third in 1989, fifth in 1988)
Outlook: Dana Holgorsen’s system always will be friendly to quarterbacks and receivers, but his quarterback (Clint Trickett) and receiver (Kevin White) will be gone next season. Unless running back Rushel Shell has something up his sleeve, 2015 may be a rebuilding season for star power in Morgantown.
3. Virginia Tech
All-time wins: 711
Closest calls: Mike Vick (third in 1999)
Outlook: These are perilous times for Virginia Tech offensive players. The quarterbacks are turnover-prone (Michael Brewer has one more year of eligibility), and no Hokies running back has topped 700 yards since David Wilson in 2011.
4. Georgia Tech
All-time wins: 710
Closest calls: Joe Hamilton (runner-up in 1999)
Outlook: What kind of confluence of events would have to occur to produce a Heisman contender from Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech? The Yellow Jackets would probably have to win around 10 games (as has happened in 2014 and 2009) and the player would have to be enough of the focal point of the offense to make a run. Think of the ACC version of Navy’s Ricky Dobbs or Kareem Reynolds.
All-time wins: 695
Closest calls: Steve Emtman (fourth in 1991)
Outlook: Shaq Thompson would be an ideal name to watch after the two-way star rushed for 456 yards and accounted for four defensive touchdowns. That is, if he wasn’t a junior who may be headed to the NFL Draft. Sophomore quarterback Cyler Miles quietly finished the season with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions in his first year under Chris Petersen. Miles will end up on someone’s sleeper list.
All-time wins: 692
Closest calls: Darren McFadden (runner-up in 2006 and 2007)
Outlook: McFadden was in the SEC at the wrong time. He was the unquestioned No. 1 running back in the SEC but played amid the Tim Tebow phenomenon. Now, Bret Bielema is recreating Wisconsin’s offense in Fayetteville and could have two 1,000-yard rushers returning in 2015. Presumably a Montee Ball or Melvin Gordon-like season in the SEC would swing Heisman voters.
All-time wins: 688
Closest calls: C.J. Spiller (sixth in 2009)
Outlook: After a string of worthy contenders — Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller and Tajh Boyd — Clemson has another on layaway for next season in rising sophomore Deshaun Watson. Two drawbacks, though: He’ll miss the bowl game while recovering from a torn ACL, and Clemson will be without the Chad Morris, whose offense allowed those three Heisman contenders to flourish.
8. Miami (Ohio)
All-time wins: 670
Closest calls: None
Outlook: Ben Roethlisberger finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 2003 with as many first-place votes as Matt Leinart that year. The chances of a MAC school producing a Heisman winner are slim — though Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch was a finalist last year. Miami needs to find a way to get into a bowl before thinking about awards.
9. North Carolina
All-time wins: 667
Closest calls: Charles Justice (runner-up in 1948 and 1949)
Outlook: In theory, Larry Fedora has an offense that should allow skill position players to flourish. In theory.
10. Michigan State
All-time wins: 669
Closest calls: Lorenzo White (fourth in 1985 and 1987), Sherman Lewis (third in 1963)
Outlook: Connor Cook will probably enter 2015 as one of the top 20 contenders should he return to school. Michigan State quarterbacks are barely cracking 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns — Kirk Cousins topped out at 3,316. This isn’t a system designed to crank out ridiculously prolific quarterbacks, and road-grading running backs have trouble winning the Heisman.
All-time wins: 655
Closest calls: Chase Daniel (fourth in 2007), Paul Christman (third in 1939)
Outlook: One of these days, Gary Pinkel is going to produce a Heisman-winning quarterback, given his track record at the position. Maty Mauk, however, will need to make quite the leap from completing 53 percent of his passes and throwing 11 picks if he’s going to be the guy.
All-time wins: 647
Closest calls: Chuck Muncie (runner-up in 1975), Paul Larson (fifth in 1954), Jack Jensen (fourth in 1948)
Outlook: Jared Goff passed for 3,973 yards with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. If Cal contends for the Pac-12 South in short order, maybe...
All-time wins: 645
Closest calls: Eli Manning (third in 2003), Archie Manning (third in 1970, fourth in 1969), Jake Gibbs (third in 1960)
Outlook: Ole Miss managed to lock up coach Hugh Freeze for a few more years. That’s as big a prize as any in Oxford.
All-time wins: 596
Closest calls: Drew Brees (third in 2000, fourth in 1999), Jim Everett (sixth in 1985), Mark Hermann (fourth in 1980, eighth in 1979), Mike Phipps (second in 1969) Leroy Keyes (second in 1968, third in 1967), Bob Griese (second in 1966, eighth in 1965)
Outlook: Hard to believe Purdue has had that many top-three Heisman contenders and hasn’t been able to get over the hump. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
All-time wins: 589
Closest calls: Scooby Wright (ninth in 2014)
Outlook: Rich Rodriguez has had two players — Wright and running back Ka’Deem Carey — finish in the top 10 since he arrived at Arizona. Given his track record at West Virginia, that may only be a start. Wright will be a preseason All-American in 2015, but rising sophomore Anu Solomon may be the guy on watch lists.
All-time wins: 588
Closest calls: Jake Plummer (third in 1996)
Outlook: Even if wide receiver Jaelen Strong heads to the draft, versatile running back D.J. Foster will be worth a look.
All-time wins: 531
Closest calls: Dak Prescott (eighth in 2014)
Outlook: Prescott spent most of 2014 as a viable Heisman contender before fading late in the season, and he still has a year of eligibility remaining.
All-time wins: 504
Closest calls: Collin Klein (third in 2012), Darren Sproles (fifth in 2003), Michael Bishop (second in 1998)
Outlook: Quarterback Jake Waters and wide receiver Tyler Lockett are seniors, so Bill Snyder is starting from square one.
All-time wins: 487
Closest calls: None
Outlook: The combination of Bobby Petrino and ACC affiliation should be a boon for Louisville Heisman hopefuls. Brian Brohm, Michael Bush and Teddy Bridgewater have been viable candidates in years past but the Big East/American gave them little room for error.
In an alternate reality, North Carolina fans had to enjoy a team in pale blue making a run at Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Alas, that game was three days too early, and the school was Columbia rather than the Tar Heels.
Columbia jumped to an early 11-0 lead on Kentucky on Wednesday, and though the Wildcats defeated the Ivy Leaguers 56-46, the game was a clear wake-up call for Kentucky. The Wildcats are a near-unanimous No. 1 team whose defensive play may be the best in recent history.
Yet Columbia reminded John Calipari that he has a team full of 18-22-year-olds who may be concerned with their December plans rather than the game at hand.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, that kind of game occurred Wednesday instead of Saturday.
The Tar Heels have been uneven this season and could use a strong performance against Kentucky to bolster their case heading into the ACC season. North Carolina has already lost 60-55 at home to Iowa and 74-66 on a neutral floor to Butler, two losses that a Tar Heels team with Final Four aspirations shouldn’t be taking.
After this game, neither team will have much of an opportunity for rest. Kentucky faces UCLA and North Carolina faces Ohio State in Chicago on Dec. 20 in the CBS Sports Classic before the Wildcats return from the holiday to visit Louisville on Dec. 27.
North Carolina at Kentucky
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Time: Saturday, noon
What’s on the line for Kentucky
Another big game, another chance for Kentucky to prove its case as the clear national championship favorites. Slow starts against teams like Buffalo and Columbia notwithstanding, Kentucky has been outstanding on the national stage. The Wildcats have defeated their three major-conference opponents (Kansas, Providence and Texas) by a combined margin of 64 points.
What’s on the line for North Carolina
Texas walked away from a 63-51 loss on Dec. 5 feeling OK about its performance at Kentucky, especially with a backup point guard. North Carolina fans may be tougher to assuage, but the Tar Heels can’t look at this game as pass/fail based on the scoreboard. An upset would be great, but if North Carolina can find a way to challenge Kentucky consistently into the second half, that should count as a good sign for the Heels.
You’ll tune in to watch: Another dominant defensive effort from Kentucky
Kentucky is holding teams to 30.7 percent shooting from 2-point range. To put that in perspective, that figure would rank 90th in the country — in 3-point defense. The Wildcats, by the way, already rank 14th in that category, holding teams to 25.4 percent shooting from long range. The Wildcats are outstanding at every defensive position. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are good bigs, but North Carolina may be in trouble.
Pivotal player: Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison
If we’re going to pick on Kentucky, the 3-point line would be a good place to start. Kentucky is 6-of-42 from 3-point range in the last three games. Andrew Harrison, specifically, has struggled, going 0-for-5 from long range against Columbia in the last game. Just as troubling, Harrison also went 1-of-7 from 2-point range in that game. Calipari said Harrison was seeking foul calls that never came. How will Harrison adjust, both from long range and in getting to the rim?
Biggest question: Can Marcus Paige make enough shots to challenge Kentucky?
With Kentucky’s size, maybe opponents have to start thinking like a mid-major and light the Wildcats up from 3-point range. That’s what Columbia did for a time, starting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Paige is North Carolina’s only major threat from long range, but he’ll have to do better than 34 percent from beyond the arc for North Carolina to have a shot at Kentucky. Paige is 4-of-19 from 3-point range in his last three games.
David Fox: Kentucky 71-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 81-65
Mitch Light: Kentucky 77-60
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 64-60
College football award season can be fun.
This is a time for appreciating the game — conference players of the year, coaches of the year, the Heisman, Doak Walker, Biletnikoff, Outland and so on.
For every team and player enjoying a banner year, there’s another who will be going home or a bowl game disappointed.
Not all of our disappointments are equal. Some let us down because these teams could have and should have achieved more. Some simply denied us to see a college football season at its best.
The Big 12 in 2014, indeed, turned out to be a two-team race. Just one of them turned out not to be Oklahoma. Athlon tabbed the Sooners at No. 4 in the preseason top 25, and OU went on to have its worst season since Bob Stoops’ first year in 1999. The 5-4 record included no wins against the league’s top three teams (Baylor, TCU and Kansas State) and a loss to Oklahoma State in which the Sooners led until the final five minutes. Aside from a win over Texas and Samaje Perine’s single-game rushing record, this was a forgettable season for the Sooners. Kudos to everyone who warned of overrating OU due to rout of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season.
The Hokies had about a week to feel good about the season. With an active pass rush and tough quarterback play, Virginia Tech had the look of an ACC contender with a 14-point win at Ohio State. Then the losses started to pile up — first to East Carolina at home, then Georgia Tech at home. Virginia Tech kept its 22-year bowl streak intact but needed a touchdown drive in the final two minutes against Virginia to do it (because it lost 6-3 in overtime to Wake Forest a week earlier). With a 12-12 record in the ACC the last three seasons, Frank Beamer is in for a long offseason.
The Irish emerged from an offseason academic scandal to start 6-0 with wins against Michigan and Stanford that seemed more impressive at the time than they did at the end of the season. Everett Golson began the season as a Heisman contender but ended the year as a turnover-prone liability. The Irish ended the season on a four-game losing streak and a 49-14 loss to USC.
The Gamecocks’ season was a debacle from the start. South Carolina lost 52-28 at home to Texas A&M to start the season, and the defensive never recovered. At 6-6, South Carolina finished the regular season with more losses than any other preseason top 10 team. What’s even more startling is that the season could have been worse: South Carolina needed a late blocked punt to beat Florida in overtime and played sloppy enough against Vanderbilt to give us the press conference of the year. Oh, and the Gamecocks lost to Clemson.
Where has Andrew Luck gone? Or at least Stepfan Taylor. The Cardinal sat out the Pac-12 North this season, falling out of the race by Nov. 1. Stanford had one of the nation’s best defenses, but its offense didn’t find an identity until the final two games of the season against Cal and UCLA. Stanford finished 7-5 for its worst regular season mark since the second year under Jim Harbaugh in 2008.
Other teams fired coaches. Other teams might have had worse seasons, but programs like Michigan have no excuse to miss bowl games, never mind missing three bowl games in seven years. Besides losing to rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, the Wolverines found room for one of their worst three-game losing streaks in school history (Utah, Minnesota and Rutgers). If the losing wasn’t enough, Michigan took heat for mishandling the concussion to backup quarterback Shane Morris and saw one of its team leaders, Frank Clark, arrested for domestic violence.
Group of 5 teams in crunch time
Nothing against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Broncos had the path cleared for them throughout the course of the season. East Carolina looked like it had wrapped up a major bowl bid by the end of September thanks to wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Instead, East Carolina finished the season with three losses in AAC play. Marshall lost its bid to an undefeated season in a wild 67-66 overtime defeat to Western Kentucky on Nov. 28.
Try telling Georgia Southern and UAB there are too many bowl games. These two programs would love to play in any pre-Christmas bowl game, no matter the destination. Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt was one of three teams to go undefeated in its conference — the other two are in the College Football Playoff — but because the Eagles are transitioning from FCS, they are ineligible for a bowl. And after UAB announced it would shut down the football program, the Blazers became untouchable to bowl organizers despite being bowl eligible for the second time in school history.
Injuries to Chuckie Keeton and Taysom Hill
At the start of the season, the state of Utah had some of the best star power at quarterback of any state. BYU’s Taysom Hill was en route to a career year when he sustained a broken leg on Oct. 3 against Utah State. The Cougars were 4-0 before his injury and 4-4 after. Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton returned from a torn ACL but re-injured the knee in the third game of the season against Wake Forest. The Aggies still won nine games, but the game missed two of its more dynamic quarterbacks for most of the season.
June Jones quitting in September
SMU would have been awful with Jones for a full season, but his departure after losses to Baylor and North Texas by a combined score of 88-3 didn’t help the Mustangs this season. SMU was one of the least competitive teams in college football this season, scoring more than 10 points just once before November.
Nebraska is new to being a team people watch during the college basketball season, so let us offer a word of advice:
Don’t lose at home to teams no one knew was a part of Division I basketball.
The Cornhuskers, a surprise NCAA Tournament team last season, lost 74-73 on Wednesday to Incarnate Word, a Catholic institution in San Antonio that just joined Division I this season.
That game itself was a shock, but combine it with Nebraska’s earlier losses, and the season is an all-out flop.
If anything, that loss takes some of the heat off Michigan, a team that’s also become used to high-level basketball before losing to NJIT and Eastern Michigan in back-to-back games.
Michigan’s puzzling start
What is going on with Michigan? The Wolverines defeated Oregon and Syracuse and played a thriller with Villanova. Yet they’ve also picked up two bad losses, and by bad we mean bad. Thanks to Michigan, NJIT has more wins on Big Ten courts (one) than conference affiliations. After that, the Wolverines scored 42 points in a second consecutive home loss to Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines have no inside presence, which hasn’t always been a problem for John Beilein-coached teams, but they’re being exposed by it now.
The Gators lost a slew of veterans from a team that reached the Final Four last season and three Elite Eights before that. Even though there was bound to be a void, the Gators appeared to have enough pieces and emerging sophomores returning to make a run. The road has been bumpy so far as the Gators have already lost four games, one more than they lost all of last season. Billy Donovan took an incomplete roster to the competitive Battle 4 Atlantis and few teams win at Kansas, where the Gators blew an early lead. The Gators will need continued improvement from point guard Kasey Hill if they’re going to challenge for No. 2 in the SEC.
A five-star, NBA Draft prospect simply not playing as a freshman in college basketball is indeed a rarity. Oubre may get into the rotation in Big 12 play and may still be a fine player and prospect, but for now, he’s having trouble cracking the rotation. Oubre is averaging 8.3 minutes per game and isn’t doing a ton to justify more playing time.
The Tigers knew they’d enter the season weak at the guard position, but the situation is worse than anticipated. Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson is out of shape and not ready to run a team after a yearlong layoff. Avery Woodson, Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell and Johnson have combined for 27 assists to 43 turnovers. That ineffectiveness has led to losses to Wichita State, Baylor and Stephen F. Austin.
The idea of teams winning the national championship one year and going to the NIT the next is not uncommon, and UConn seems to be sliding that way. The Huskies have lost three in a row to West Virginia, Texas without Isaiah Taylor and finally Yale at home. The Huskies are still learning to play without Shabazz Napier, and guard Ryan Boatright and NC State transfer Rodney Purvis have been injured. But these games early carry extra weight as the American schedule will due UConn no favors.
The upstart Mustangs lost three of their first five, but there are plenty of opportunities to turn this around. Defeating UC Santa Barbara, a solid mid-major, is a good start, and Michigan will be vulnerable on Dec. 20. The Mustangs have played the entire season without point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and won’t have veteran big man Markus Kennedy back until the second semester.
The backcourt losses over the years have taken their toll on Syracuse, which continued its offensive struggles from the end of last season into 2014-15. The Orange are shooting 21 percent from 3-point range, the fourth-worst average in the country. After starting 25-0 a year ago, Syracuse has lost to Cal, Michigan and St. John’s.
Nebraska was on this list before losing to Incarnate Word on Wednesday. That’s how the standards have changed at Nebraska. There was a time when the Cornhuskers losing to a solid Atlantic 10 team on the road (Rhode Island) or even Creighton at home wouldn’t have been a big deal. Tim Miles has elevated the program to a point where those are signs for concern. Miles essentially has a two-man team between Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. That’s not going to be enough in the Big Ten.
Even if it was with a bizarre finish, LSU’s win over West Virginia in Morgantown was a good sign for the Tigers. Still, LSU has too much talent and experience to be losing to teams like Old Dominion and Clemson. Those will hurt if LSU can’t get its act together in the SEC schedule.
The Wildcats were a solid, if unspectacular, NCAA Tournament team last season. With some of their best player sophomores this season, K-State was a fringe top 25 team. That’s long gone now. Kansas State has already dropped games to Long Beach State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee (and Arizona, but that was expected). The Wildcats have been surprisingly bad on the defensive end this season.
Less than a full month into the college basketball season, and we’ve already had a handful of major statements.
Kentucky, Duke and Arizona are as good as advertised. Maybe better. Texas, Louisville and Wisconsin are doing exactly what they should be at this point in the year. Gonzaga is better than many expected. Same with Utah or Butler.
Of course, no one remembers a team for what it did in November or December in college basketball, but these games are important.
If nothing else, they set the tone for the season, establish favorites and put storylines in motion. For a handful of teams, these early games will come in handy for the selection committee. Win a big game in November and perhaps you don’t need to be perfect in February.
Here's what we think are the most important statements as we near the end of the first month of the season.
John Calipari’s blue platoon (the starters) and white platoon (the best group of sixth men in the country) was met with skepticism to start the season, but Kentucky is sticking with it for good reason. Wednesday’s slow start against Columbia notwithstanding, the Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country. The Wildcats won’t keep up their pace in conference play even if the numbers remain staggering: Kentucky has the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating and defensive effective field goal rate going back to 2002 on KenPom.com
This is scary: A group that went into Madison and defeated a veteran Wisconsin team 80-70 is only going to get better. If a freshman-led team can shoot 65 percent at the Kohl Center in only their eighth game, what will these rookies be able to do in March? Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones have all taken their turn as the stars for Duke this season while veterans Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon have settled into their roles.
Gonzaga as a national player
The Bulldogs may have Mark Few’s best team or at least a team that ranks up with the 2013 team that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country or the 2006 team led by Adam Morrison. Gonzaga lost 66-63 in overtime at Arizona in its biggest game of the year, but there’s no shame in losing to another Final Four contender on the road in a game that came down to free throws (or lack thereof at the end). Gonzaga is one of the most balanced offensive teams in the country with five players averaging double figures and a sixth averaging 8.5. points per game.
Since we mentioned Gonzaga’s hot start, we should mention the team that just defeated the Bulldogs. Arizona, which won the Maui Invitational, clamped down on Gonzaga on the defensive end to erase a six-point deficit in the second half. Four Bulldogs players scored in double figures. But none scored more than 15 and the Zags averaged 0.94 points per possession. The most efficient defense from a year ago might be headed that way again.
Big East depth
Even if the pace of the league has cooled since November, this still looks like a respectable multi-bid league. Villanova is undefeated with wins over VCU, Michigan and Illinois. St. John’s defeated Syracuse for its first win in the Carrier Dome in more than 15 years. Despite an uncertain coaching situation, Butler has defeated North Carolina and Georgetown and has only one loss this season (to Oklahoma on a neutral floor). All hope isn’t lost for Creighton without Doug McDermott as the Bluejays have wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska, the latter on the road. Even DePaul is 6-1 with a win over Stanford.
Utah’s breakout moment
Utah lost seven Pac-12 games by seven points or less last season, including three in overtime. Larry Krystkowiak’s team has been poised for a breakout, and it finally happened late into the night on Dec. 3. Against a Wichita State team that has almost always won the close games in recent years, the Utes got the breaks to defeat the Shockers 69-68 in overtime. Utah could be the No. 2 team in the Pac-12.
The Cavaliers haven’t picked up an eye-popping win. And with a style of play that ranks 330th or worse in possession length on both sides of the court, nothing Virginia does will be eye-popping. Instead, consider what the Cavaliers did in back-to-back true road games against solid Maryland and VCU teams. Virginia held the two teams to a combined 1.02 points per possession, 45 percent shooting from 2-point range and 31 percent from 3.
Jerian Grant’s return
Notre Dame is back in postseason contention with Jerian Grant back in the lineup after missing most of last season following an academic issue. Clearly, the Irish are a different team with their star guard. Grant is averaging 19 points per game during the 9-1 start. In Notre Dame’s best performance of the season, Grant was 9-of-17 with 27 points in an overtime win over Michigan State.
Wichita State hasn’t had a challenger in the Missouri Valley since Creighton left. Northern Iowa hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2010. Could both change this season? The Panthers have only two top-100 wins (Stephen F. Austin and Richmond) but Ben Jacobson’s team is 9-0. With a junior- and senior-laden team, Jacobson is ready for another run, but the true tests will come in the next two weeks against VCU and Iowa.
(Note: The initial posting of this piece Thursday morning included Iowa State’s Bryce Dejean-Jones in this spot. He was removed after news broke of his arrest Thursday.)
Ten teams remain undefeated, and one of them went winless in conference play last season. Gary Patterson isn’t the only coach engineering a major turnaround in Fort Worth. TCU is 9-0, meaning that the Horned Frogs’ next win will eclipse last year’s total (9-22). Trent Johnson’s team doesn’t have any great wins — Ole Miss and Mississippi State are the only wins over KenPom top 100 teams — but the Frogs have a chance to be 13-0 when they open Big 12 play at home against West Virginia in Jan. 3.