Articles By David Fox
One of the defining moments of college football since the turn of the century was Vince Young leading Texas to a Rose Bowl victory and a national championship over USC following the 2005 season.
In 2014, both teams involved in that legendary game will have new coaches.
USC is already on its second full-time coach since then. After a dramatic back-and-forth with reports indicating Mack Brown had resigned and had not resigned, Brown eventually retired Dec. 14.
Brown’s departure means two of the top jobs in college football will have opened following the 2013 season. The coaching carousel causes us to reevaluate the most desirable jobs in college football.
This year, there’s not much of a reason to recalibrate. Texas remains the top job in college football, not just the top job to open this season. USC is not far off.
We’ve given every job in the coaching carousel a grade, all the way from Texas to Eastern Michigan. The only question is where the Texas and USC dominoes will settle.
The 2013-14 Football Coaching Carousel: Ranking Every Job
Out: Mack Brown, retired (158-47 in 16 seasons)
In: Charlie Strong, Louisville coach
Mack Brown rebuilt the Texas program into a national contender after the failed tenures of David McWilliams and John Mackovic. The Longhorns won at least 10 games in nine consecutive seasons at one point under Brown, but that run yielded one national championship and only two Big 12 titles. The new coach will be under pressure to bring — in Brown’s words — “some new energy” to the program. This is perhaps the best job in college football in every sense. Texas has the best recruiting base in college football thanks to the state’s rich high school football tradition. This season, as many as 11 starting quarterbacks in the NFL went to Texas high schools. The problem for Texas was that none of them played in Austin. The Longhorns are flush with big-money donors, and despite strides by Texas A&M and others, Texas has the largest fanbase in the state. Even though the Longhorn Network is difficult to find, no other college program can claim its own ESPN-backed television network (BYU is the only other school with a TV network). How good is this job? Nick Saban’s name was speculated for the job, and it wasn’t crazy to think the Alabama coach would leave.
How good is the Texas job? A-plus
Out: Lane Kiffin, fired (28-15 in three-plus seasons)
In: Steve Sarkisian, Washington coach
USC is only five seasons removed from Pete Carroll’s last top-three finish and Rose Bowl victory and three seasons removed from going 10-2 in 2011. Many programs can claim tradition, but recruits can still remember when USC was college football royalty. The Trojans are also slated to unveil a renovation of Heritage Hall early in 2014. New coach Steve Sarkisian must navigate one more season of scholarship limitations while facing a tougher Pac-12 with Oregon and Stanford at national powerhouse status and UCLA, Arizona State and Washington on the rise. Still, there’s no reason USC can’t be back in national title contention each year.
How good is the USC job? A-plus
Out: Steve Sarkisian, hired at USC (34-29 in five seasons)
In: Chris Petersen, Boise State coach
Washington was in ruins when Sarkisian took over in 2009. A year earlier, the Huskies had gone 0-12 and were eight years removed from their last conference title. Washington still hasn’t reached the Rose Bowl since the 2000 season, but this is a program in position to reclaim former glory. Sarkisian improved the talent base by leaps and bounds in five seasons, and Washingotn recently completed a $280 million renovation of Husky Stadium. The state of Washington isn’t the best for prospects in Pac-12 territory, but it has produced Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Bishop Sankey, Jake Locker and — this is relevant to the ex-Boise coach — Kellen Moore.
How good is the Washington job? A-minus
4. Penn State
Out: Bill O’Brien, hired by the Houston Texans (15-9 in two seasons)
In: James Franklin, Vanderbilt head coach
In the long run, Penn State is one of the top jobs in college football. Lengthy tradition, a massive stadium with a rabid fan base and a state with good, but dwindling, talent plus access to Ohio and Maryland/D.C. prospects all make this one of the premier jobs in the Big Ten. It’s just going to take at least five years to get back to that spot due to the deep NCAA sanctions stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The NCAA has loosened some of the recruiting restrictions, but Penn State won’t have a full complement of 85 scholarships until 2016, the same year the Nittany Lions will be eligible for a bowl. Between a wave of transfers in 2012 and limited signing classes, the new coach will have a depleted roster for his first two seasons, if not more. Bill O’Brien also ran into the old adage that it’s tough to follow a coaching legend, and no shadow looms larger than that of Joe Paterno, in spite of the scandal that tarnished his legacy. The new coach, however, will inherit budding star quarterback Christian Hackenberg for at least two seasons. That alone may help Penn State weather some of the leanest years under sanctions.
How good is the Penn State job? B-plus
Out: Charlie Strong, hired by Texas (37-15 in four seasons)
In: Bobby Petrino, Western Kentucky coach
The new Louisville coach won’t inherit a cushy position, despite the Cardinals’ 23-3 record the last two seasons. Louisville moves into the ACC — into a division with Florida State and Clemson, no less — without star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Otherwise, an experienced team returns. Louisville has proven it can built teams that are a factor in the national conversation while playing a Conference USA, Big East and American schedule. How Louisville holds up against the ACC, which will include regular games against Notre Dame, will be in question. To compete in the ACC, the Louisville coach must have an aggressive recruiting strategy to supplement in-state prospects. Both Bobby Petrino and Strong flourished due to a substantial presence in the state of Florida. Tom Jurich is regarded as one if the best athletic directors in the country, and he’s given his coaches the infrastructure they need to thrive, including stadium and facility upgrades.
How good is the Louisville job? B-minus
Out: James Franklin, hired at Penn State (24-15 in three seasons)
In: Derek Mason, Stanford defensive coordinator
Franklin left Vanderbilt as the school’s best coach since Dan McGugin, who coached all but one season from 1904-34. Franklin’s run, which included a pair of nine-win seasons, will be tough to replicate, but Vanderbilt also has committed to competing in the SEC in recent years. An indoor practice facility, locker room upgrades and — most important — a financial commitment to a coaching staff all have lifted the Commodores job from the depths of the SEC. Don’t mistake this for a top-half job in the SEC or the next Stanford: Academic hurdles, a shallow recruiting base in Tennessee and limited fan support still make this one of the tougher jobs in the league. However, now Vanderbilt will expect regular bowl appearances.
How good is the Vanderbilt job? C-plus
7. Boise State
Out: Chris Petersen, hired at Washington (92-12 in eight seasons)
In: Bryan Harsin, Arkansas State coach
Petersen turned Boise State from a nice story out West to a bona fide national championship contender. Boise State twice went undefeated and finished in the top 10 four times under Petersen. The Broncos have a clear identity as innovators on offense and unearthing gems in recruiting, in California and as far away as the Netherlands. The Mountain West may cut into Boise State’s ability to put up gaudy records on a yearly basis, but there’s no reason the Broncos can’t be the flagship program in the league.
How good is the Boise State job? C-plus
8. Wake Forest
Out: Jim Grobe, retired (77-82 in 13 seasons)
In: Dave Clawson, Bowling Green coach
Wake Forest is a tough enough job as it is, a private school competing in a division with Florida State, Clemson and, starting in 2014, Louisville. Clawson will have to follow the beloved Jim Grobe, who won the ACC in 2006 and tied D.C. Walker for the most wins in school history. Grobe proved what it takes be competitive at Wake — an unconventional offense and unconventional thinking (i.e. near-universal redshirting).
How good is the Wake Forest job? C-minus
Out: Paul Pasqualoni, fired (10-18 in two-plus seasons)
In: Bob Diaco, Notre Dame defensive coordinator
The talent base in the Northeast is scant, especially after Penn State, Syracuse, Rutgers and Boston College take the top players in the area. The American Athletic Conference may be the seventh-best league in the country. The stadium is 25 miles from campus. That’s enough to make Maryland look like a dream job.
How good is the Connecticut job? C-minus
10. Arkansas State
Out: Bryan Harsin, hired at Boise State (7-5 in one season)
In: Blake Anderson, North Carolina offensive coordinator
Welcome to the nation’s best stepping stone job as the last three coaches have gone on to Ole Miss, Auburn and Boise State all after one year apiece on the job. The three one-and-done coaches have turned Arkansas State into a consistent factor in the Sun Belt, but one has to wonder the toll so much turnover has caused for the program.
How good is the Arkansas State job? C-minus
11. Bowling Green
Out: Dave Clawson, hired at Wake Forest (32-31 in five seasons)
In: Dino Babers, Eastern Illinois coach
Like most schools in the MAC, Bowling Green is only as good its head coach. Bowling Green isn’t quite Northern Illinois or Toledo in the MAC, but it’s not Eastern Michigan. All but one coach since the 1964, and each of the last four coaches, left Bowling Green with a winning record.
How good is the Bowling Green job? C-minus
12. Western Kentucky
Out: Bobby Petrino, hired at Louisville (8-4 in one season)
In: Jeff Brohm, Western Kentucky offensive coordinator
A former Division I-AA power, Western Kentucky needed a few seasons to become a competitive program in the Sun Belt. An astute hire of Willie Taggart and taking advantage of Petrino’s baggage has given the Hilltoppers three consecutive winning season. Western Kentucky reached only one bowl game in that span, due to the Sun Belt’s lack of bowl arrangement. That changes as the Hilltoppers join Conference USA in 2014.
How good is the Western Kentucky job? D
Out: Dave Christensen, fired (27-35 in five seasons)
In: Craig Bohl, North Dakota State coach
Wyoming isn’t going to compete with Fresno State or Boise State in the Mountain West, but the Cowboys aren’t in need of a rebuild like Utah State did when Gary Andersen took over. Laramie has a small but passionate fan base, if not a lot of major college football prospects.
How good is the Wyoming job? D
Out: Carl Pelini, fired (9-15 in one-plus season)
In: Charlie Partridge, Arkansas defensive line coach
FAU has a brand new stadium near the beach and the closest college football program to the talent-rich area in West Palm Beach, Belle Glade and Pahokee. And its nearest rival, FIU, can’t seem to get its act together. The right coach can make this a Conference USA contender.
How good is the FAU job? D
15. Miami (Ohio)
Out: Don Treadwell, fired (8-12 in two-plus seasons)
In: Chuck Martin, Notre Dame offensive coordinator
Miami has arguably the greatest tradition of any MAC program as the cradle of coaches (Bo Schembechler, John Pont, Dick Crum, Randy Walker and Terry Hoeppner all coached here). Throw out the 2010 MAC championship season, and Miami is 19-65 since 2006. The struggles are baffling.
How good is the Miami (Ohio) job? D
Out: Rich Ellerson, fired (20-41 in five seasons)
In: Jeff Monken, Georgia Southern coach
Ellerson appeared to be a slam dunk hire for Army. He was successful at Cal Poly running the triple option. He was successful early, leading Army to a 7-6 season and a bowl game in the second year. Army, though, is lagging behind the other service academies. Ellerson went 1-9 against Navy and Air Force. Like the Navy and Air Force, the Army coach needs schemes that can even the odds against more talented teams. All three service academies have restrictions, but Army has the toughest road of the three to get players.
How good is the Army job? D
17. Georgia Southern
Out: Jeff Monken, hired at Army (38-16 in four seasons)
In: Willie Fritz, Sam Houston State coach
Paul Johnson led Georgia Southern to two FCS/Division I-AA national championships, and Monken returned the Eagles to contender status. Georgia Southern will be in the FBS in 2014 and will be eligible for a Sun Belt title in 2015 along with Appalachian State. With a long history in the lower division, Georgia Southern could have similar success to another former FCS champion, Western Kentucky, in transitioning to the Sun Belt.
How good is the Georgia Southern job: D
Out: Garrick McGee, hired as Louisville offensive coordinator (5-19 in two seasons)
In: Bill Clark, Jacksonville State coach
UAB has not had a winning season since reaching the only bowl game in school history in 2004. In theory, team in the heart of Birmingham in football-crazy Alabama should put together a respectable program, but fan support is lacking and facilities aren’t up to par even for Conference USA. A move to build an on-campus stadium has been a non-starter.
How good is the UAB job? F
19. Eastern Michigan
Out: Ron English, fired (12-48 in five seasons)
In: Chris Creighton, Drake coach
Athlon rated Eastern Michigan as the toughest job in college football in a 2010 feature. Little has changed. UMass, Idaho and New Mexico State may be the only FBS jobs less desirable, and that’s a big if.
How good is the Eastern Michigan job? F
Out: Charley Molnar, fired (2-22 in two seasons)
In: Mark Whipple, Cleveland Browns quarterback coach
UMass is on the short list of the worst jobs in major college football. After one season at the FBS level, the UMass faculty senate voiced misgivings about the move up from the FCS. That’s not without valid reasons: UMass won only one MAC game in each of its first two seasons, and attendance was sparse. Building a competitive program with a limited recruiting footprint and fan and booster support will be extremely difficult.
How good is the UMass job? F
In the first season of the BCS in 1998, the Fiesta Bowl was just a glimmer in the eyes of Baylor and UCF.
In 1998, Baylor was just starting its Big 12 doormat phase, going 2-9. UCF fared much better that year, going 9-2 with quarterback Daunte Culpepper. But the Knights — still the Golden Knights back then — were new to college football’s upper division and hadn’t even joined a conference.
Now, in the final year of the BCS, Baylor and UCF will meet in the Fiesta Bowl, the highlights (so far) for the programs Art Briles and George O’Leary, respectively, have built.
Led by first-year quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor led the nation in total offense at 623.8 yards per game, but the Bears rarely marched down the field in the classic sense. Baylor led the nation in plays longer than 30 yards and regularly scored in a minute or less.
UCF may have a quarterback who can keep up. Blake Bortles averaged 273.3 passing yards per game with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, regularly showing the ability to make the key play under pressure.
While the Fiesta Bowl won’t be the most watched game, both teams hope to use this as a springboard to building regular contenders for major prizes.
“We don't feel like we're at the mountaintop, though,” Briles said. “We're still striving to be a respectable program year in and year out, to be a formidable opponent every time someone steps on the field against us, and that'll never change.”
Baylor vs. UCF
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Baylor by 16.5
Three Things to Watch
Baylor’s healthy returns
Baylor finished the season with a handful of key injuries, particularly on offense. Running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin returned in time for the final two games against TCU and Texas after missing the loss to Oklahoma State. Tevin Reese, Baylor’s top wide receiver before missing nearly the entirety of the final five games, is expected to be back. The Bears’ top linebacker, Bryce Hager, is questionable. Left tackle Spencer Drango doesn’t have as clean a bill of health as his teammates after undergoing back surgery, but this game will still the be the healthiest Baylor has been since Oct. 26.
UCF’s change of leadership on defense
UCF had a steady defense for most of the season, ranking ninth in red zone defense, 13th in rush defense and 17th in pass efficiency defense. All of that is the good news. The bad news is the departure of the leader of that defense. Rhode Island hired UCF defensive coordinator Jim Fleming has head coach. That’s not an ideal situation ahead of facing the nation’s top offense.
Baylor’s run game
Not coincidentally, Baylor’s only loss this season was the only game when the Bears failed to get a steady rushing attack. Throw out the Oklahoma State loss and Baylor averages 280 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. With Seastrunk and Martin healthy again, Baylor’s offense doesn’t need to rely quite as heavily on Bryce Petty, tough that’s not an awful strategy. UCF ranked 13th in the country in fewest rushing yards per game (116.5) but 36th in yards per carry (3.9).
Key Player: Blake Bortles, UCF
Bortles has become something of a folk hero for his ability to make the impossible play or unlikely comeback — for starters, UCF trailed by three touchdowns in the third quarter at Louisville before winning 38-35. Bortles has been at his best this season under pressure, either on the scoreboard or facing a pass rush. Baylor will counter with playmaking defensive backs Ahmad Dixon and K.J. Morton. It’s not a stretch to say if UCF is going to overcome its underdog status, Bortles will need to be the key player early and often.
The Fiesta Bowl features the least amount of recognition for the casual fan who is used to tuning into Jan. 1 bowl games featuring national powers. What the name lacks in traditional programs, it should make up for it in enthusiasm. Where teams like Alabama and Ohio State might be disappointed to be in a BCS game rather than the title game, both Baylor and UCF ought to be thrilled to be making their first BCS appearances. Baylor is the big-time favorite here with its imposing offense and wins over Texas and Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. UCF won nail-biters against lesser teams like Memphis, Temple, USF and SMU, but the Knights beat Penn State and Louisville on the road and gave South Carolina fits in the Gamecocks’ visit to Orlando. UCF may have the advantage in a close game after the Knights went 7-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but Baylor has a way of making sure games don’t stay close for long.
Prediction: Baylor 48, UCF 28
Bob Stoops perhaps has good reason to be critical of the BCS, as he was this time last season when Northern Illinois reached the Orange Bowl instead of his Sooners.
At the same time, though, the BCS era hasn’t been more kind to a coach than Stoops.
The Oklahoma coach has spent more time in the BCS top 10 than any other coach during the era. His 70 weeks in the top 10 is 12 more than his Red River rival Mack Brown even though the outgoing Texas coach had been employed at his current stop two seasons longer than Stoops.
As the BCS bowls begin tomorrow, Athlon decided to look back at some of the most successful coaches of the BCS era, which began in 1998 and will end next season with the College Football Playoff.
Certainly, the process to determine rankings were flawed and were a work in progress in the early years of the BCS. They existed almost exclusively to set up a No. 1 vs. No. 2 national championship game. The yearly BCS rankings ended with the regular season and never took into account postseason bowl games.
Still, the BCS rankings were the college football standard for 15 years, and for our purposes, they produced more meaningful rankings since they didn't appear until mid-October when voters and computers had more data to evaluate.
We dug into the BCS record book to compile the coaches who spent the most time in the BCS top 10, a measure of consistency and contention for championships or at least major bowl games.
We also took a look at the coaches who spent the most weeks ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the BCS standings, meaning the coach had a plausible chance to play for a national title in a given year.
The names atop the list aren’t all that surprising: Stoops has been at the same powerhouse program for nearly the entirety of the BCS era, he’s reached the most BCS games of any coach (nine), and he’s been a part of four national championship games.
Stoops hasn’t taken a detour in the NFL like Nick Saban, Steve Spurrier or Pete Carroll did. He didn’t start the BCS era at a lower-tier job as Urban Meyer did. He didn’t spent most of the BCS era as an assistant as Chip Kelly did.
But Stoops' 70 weeks in the BCS top 10 is astounding compared to Brown (58), Saban (52), Jim Tressel (52) and Carroll (51), the only other coaches in the BCS top 10 more than 50 times. Of the 124 BCS rankings all-time, Stoops and Oklahoma have been in the top 10 more than 65.3 percent of the time.
Stoops, though, hasn’t been in position for a national championship as much as Saban. Saban has spent 34 weeks ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 during the BCS era, at least once at all three of his major-conference stops at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama.
|Most weeks in the BCS top 10||Wks||Most Weeks Ranked No. 1-2||Wks|
|Bob Stoops, Oklahoma||70||Nick Saban, LSU/Alabama||34|
|Mack Brown, Texas||58||Bob Stoops, Oklahoma||30|
|Nick Saban, Mich. St./LSU/Alabama||52||Pete Carroll, USC||21|
|Jim Tressel, Ohio State||52||Jim Tressel, Ohio State||20|
|Pete Carroll, USC||51||Larry Coker, Miami||16|
|Les Miles, LSU||45||Bobby Bowden, Florida State||12|
|Steve Spurrier, Florida/S. Carolina||41||Mack Brown, Texas||12|
|Urban Meyer, Utah/Florida/Ohio St.||41||Les Miles, LSU||11|
|Mark Richt, Georgia||40||Urban Meyer, Florida/Ohio St.||10|
|Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech||38||Chip Kelly, Oregon||9|
|Larry Coker, Miami||35||Phillip Fulmer, Tennessee||8|
|Chip Kelly, Oregon||35||Gene Chizik, Auburn||7|
|Bobby Bowden, Florida State||32||Jimbo Fisher, Florida State||7|
|Bill Snyder, Kansas State||32||Frank Solich, Nebraska||7|
Here are a few other things we learned breaking down coaches in the BCS rankings:
• Stoops is second to Saban with 30 weeks ranked No. 1 or No. 2, but Oklahoma has been in the national championship scenario in only three rankings since the end of the 2004 season.
• Only Saban (LSU and Alabama) and Meyer (Florida and Ohio State) have been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 with two separate teams. They’re also the only two coaches to lead three teams to the top 10 in the BCS — Saban did it with Michigan State, Meyer also did it with Utah.
• Including Saban and Meyer, eight coaches have led two separate teams to the BCS top 10: Brian Kelly (Cincinnati and Notre Dame), Bobby Petrino (Louisville and Arkansas), Steve Spurrier (Florida and South Carolina), Kevin Sumlin (Houston and Texas A&M), Dennis Erickson (Oregon State and Arizona State) and Ty Willingham (Stanford and Notre Dame).
• Two teams have reached the BCS top 10 under four different coaches: Miami (Butch Davis, Larry Coker, Randy Shannon and Al Golden) and Notre Dame (Bob Davie, Willingham, Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly).
• Three teams have been ranked No. 1 or No. 2 under three different coaches: Florida (Spurrier, Meyer and Will Muschamp), Ohio State (John Cooper, Jim Tressel and Meyer) and Oregon (Mike Bellotti, Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich).
• Who has had the most “hollow” time in the BCS top 10? That would be Georgia’s Mark Richt. The Bulldogs coach has spent 40 weeks in the top 10 but none of those weeks ranked in the top two. The next most with that designation is Chris Petersen while at Boise State (30 weeks).
• Of the coaches who spent at least a week ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 during the BCS era, the most weeks spent there without reaching a title game belong to Michigan’s Lloyd Carr (five weeks, all in 2006) and UCLA’s Bob Toledo (five weeks, all in 1998). Every other coach to spend at least five weeks ranked No.1 or No. 2 reached a national championship game.
• The most consecutive weeks in the BCS top 10 belongs to Carroll, who spent 38 weeks a row in the top 10 from Nov. 4, 2002 to Dec. 3, 2006. Saban has the longest active streak, in the top 10 for 24 consecutive weeks since 2011.
• Florida State’s string of 14 top-five finishes in the AP poll from 1987-2000 is one of the great feats in college football history, but FSU had been out of the top two of the BCS since the final rankings of 2000 ... that is, until reaching the No. 2 spot in the final rankings this season.
• How weird was the 2007 season? The following coaches were ranked No. 1 or No. 2 for at least a week: Jeff Jagodzinski, Mark Mangino, Gary Pinkel, Mike Bellotti, Jim Leavitt and Rich Rodriguez. It was the only time any of those coaches were ranked in the top two during the BCS era.
The Holiday Bowl will be an exercise in differing fortunes for both teams.
Think back to Oct. 19: Texas Tech was 7-0 and ranked 10th in the first BCS standings. At the same time, Arizona State was nowhere to be found in the rankings. The Sun Devils responded to a 37-34 loss to Notre Dame in Arlington to win back-to-back games against Colorado and Washington, but they hadn’t worked their way back into the national conversation.
Since then Texas Tech hasn’t won a game, and Arizona State rode a seven-game win streak to the Pac-12 championship game.
Despite a second lopsided loss to Stanford to deny Arizona State the Rose Bowl, the Sun Devils have reason for optimism for the future of the program.
Coach Todd Graham, 18-8 with the Sun Devils and 13-5 in the Pac-12, has reaffirmed his commitment to Arizona State. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell accepted a promotion to deputy head coach after his name surfaced in connection to the Arkansas State head coaching and Florida offensive coordinator openings.
With good reason, Arizona State fans might not feel perfectly comfortable with the stability of the coaching staff until Texas hires a coach not named Todd Graham.
But for now, Arizona State is looking to cap its breakthrough season with a victory over hapless Texas Tech.
Arizona State vs. Texas Tech
Kickoff: Dec. 30, 10:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arizona State by 14
Three Things to Watch
Marion Grice’s status
Arizona State is hopeful top rusher Marion Grice will return from a lower left leg injury to face Texas Tech after missing the last two games of the regular season. D.J. Foster filled in nicely for Grice against Arizona (124 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries), but he was held to 62 yards on eight carries against Stanford, with 51 of those yards coming on one carry. Texas Tech allowed an average of 294 rushing yards and 21 rushing touchdowns in the Red Raiders’ five-game losing streak. Grice, who accounted for 1,434 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns, would be a major advantage.
This game will be stocked with standout linebackers. Arizona State finished 12th nationally in tackles for a loss thanks in part to Chris Young (16.5) and Carl Bradford (18). Texas Tech’s All-Big 12 left tackle Le’Raven Clark will have enough to keep him occupied with Texas Tech’s supply of edge rushers. Despite Texas Tech’s defensive struggles late in the season, linebacker Will Smith was a consistent performer with 106 stops and 8.5 tackles for a loss.
Texas Tech’s quarterbacks
The Red Raiders haven’t had a settled quarterback situation since the preseason, partly due to injury. Kliff Kingsbury will be down a man with Baker Mayfield electing to transfer — Mayfield and fellow freshman Davis Webb passed for an identical 2,315 yards. Webb was marginally more effective statistically (7.6 yards per attempt, 16 touchdown passes both exceeded Mayfield’s numbers), but the question is if Michael Brewer, the projected starter back in spring, will make an appearance.
Key Player: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
Amaro’s production tailed off late in the season when he faced Kansas State, Baylor and Texas, but the 6-5, 260-pound tight end is a matchup nightmare whether he lines up out wide or on the line. Facing the stout Arizona State defense could be a key game for the draft-eligible junior.
The Holiday Bowl has one of the biggest point spreads of any bowl game thanks to matching one of the hottest teams in the country with the bowl team in the biggest slump. Both seasons have to consider the year a success, though. Texas Tech validated the hire of the youthful Kliff Kingsbury with a 7-5 season while Arizona State reached the Pac-12 title game. Both teams will be hoping for momentum next season, so the Holiday Bowl could provide a key springboard.
Prediction: Arizona State 38, Texas Tech 21
Conference play for many leagues will begin this week, meaning most teams have had plenty of time to take stock of where they stand.
The non-conference schedule has established, more or less, the contenders for the top teams in the NCAA Tournament field, the teams that can continue their momentum and expect a spot in the bracket and those that still need a fair amount of work to do between now and Selection Sunday.
In other words, this is the perfect time to project the teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Our first NCAA Tournament projections tended to have a more egalitarian approach when it comes to the non-major conferences. This may change in the coming weeks as teams in the Atlantic 10, Mountain West or even the American see their schedules diluted by the lower halves of their respective leagues.
For now, all teams included have done enough in their non-conference schedules to warrant a spot in the field of 68.
NCAA Tournament Projections: Dec. 30
Top-four seed material: Syracuse, Duke
Feeling good: North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Florida State
Barely in: Virginia
On the outs: Maryland, Notre Dame
Notes: Undefeated Syracuse picked up a top-10 win with a defeat of Villanova on Saturday. Duke’s two losses came against KenPom.com top 10 teams Kansas and Arizona. ... No team has better non-conference wins than North Carolina’s victories over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, but the knack for baffling losses persists. ... Florida State keeps getting better. Noles are 0-2 against the Big Ten but picked up key win over UMass on Saturday. ... Virginia will be on the bubble with a loss to Tennessee on Monday. ... Tough to see Notre Dame thriving without Jerian Grant, but not impossible.
Top-four seed material: Louisville, Memphis
Feeling good: Connecticut, Cincinnati
Barely in: SMU
Notes: No shame in losing to Kentucky and North Carolina away from home, but Louisville’s best non-conference win is Southern Miss. ... Memphis’ win over Oklahoma State and close call with Florida signals good things. ... Cincinnati’s ugly win over Pittsburgh erases some sting from losses to New Mexico and Xavier. ... SMU’s first three conference games (at Cincinnati, Connecticut, at Louisville) are huge.
Atlantic 10 (4)
Feeling good: UMass, VCU
Barely in: Saint Louis, George Washington
On the outs: Dayton
Notes: UMass had a quality non-conference schedule in its 11-1 start, but the Lobos will count on LSU, New Mexico, BYU and Florida State to be NCAA contenders. ... VCU went 3-1 against ACC teams. ... Beating Vanderbilt on the road Monday will be a boon for Saint Louis. ... Dayton’s win over Gonzaga is great, but losses to Illinois State and USC make it look like fool’s gold. ... George Washington has wins over Creighton and Maryland.
Big 12 (5)
Top-four seed material: Oklahoma State, Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor
Barely in: Texas, Kansas State
On the outs: Oklahoma
Notes: Kansas’ brutal schedule is starting to yield good wins again (New Mexico, Georgetown). The Jayhawks return to Lawrence against Toledo and San Diego State. ... Iowa State is the Big 12’s last undefeated team with nice wins over Michigan, Iowa and Boise State. ... Baylor’s win over Kentucky looks even better after Wildcats win over Louisville. ... Oklahoma’s best non-conference win is over Alabama. The Sooners will figure out where they stand by opening Big 12 play against Texas, Kansas and Iowa State. ... Texas’ win over schizophrenic North Carolina was key for Rick Barnes. ... Kansas State’s December wins over Ole Miss and Gonzaga signal a team getting better.
Big East (4)
Top-four seed material: Villanova
Feeling good: Creighton, Marquette, Xavier
On the outs: Butler, Providence
Notes: Villanova still looks like the class of the Big East despite giving up an early lead against Syracuse. ... Creighton’s only losses are on neutral courts to San Diego State and George Washington. ... Marquette hasn’t lost to a bad opponent, but the Eagles need a nice Big East record. .... Xavier’s resume needs work, but defeating Cincinnati, Alabama and Wake Forest in consecutive games was a start. ... Butler has surprised, but that non-conference schedule is lacking.
Big Ten (6)
Top-four seed material: Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State
Feeling good: Iowa
Barely in: Michigan, Indiana
On the outs: Minnesota, Illinois
Notes: Notre Dame’s epic collapse kept Ohio State undefeated, but Buckeyes have one win over a KenPom.com top-50 team (Marquette). ... Wisconsin also opens Big Ten play undefeated. .... Michigan State is battling through bumps and bruises but still beat Texas easily on Dec. 17. ... No shame in Iowa’s losses to Villanova in Iowa State, but wins over Notre Dame and Xavier may fade in stature. ... Michigan fans have reason for concern with Mitch McGary going in for back surgery. ... Minnesota’s win over Florida State will keep the Gophers worth watching.
Missouri Valley (1)
Top-four seed material: Wichita State
On the outs: Indiana State
Notes: After navigating a non-conference schedule including BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and Alabama, Wichita State may flirt with an undefeated season. ... Indiana State has a road win over Notre Dame and split games against Belmont to put the Sycamores on the bubble.
Mountain West (3)
Top-four seed material: San Diego State
Feeling good: New Mexico
Barely in: Boise State
On the outs: UNLV, Utah State
Notes: San Diego State will hope Creighton and Marquette go toe-to-toe for the Big East title. The Aztecs defeated both, and they face Kansas in Lawrence on Sunday. ... New Mexico also has a win over Marquette, plus a win over Cincinnati and a split with rival New Mexico State. ... Boise State held Iowa State to a season-low 70 points in a loss in the Diamond Head Classic.
Top-four seed material: Arizona, Oregon
Feeling good: Colorado, UCLA, Arizona State
Barely in: Stanford
On the outs: Cal, Utah
Notes: Undefeated Arizona has wins over Duke and Michigan away from home. ... Oregon can only get stronger with Dominic Artis returning to the lineup as transfers gain chemistry. ... Colorado has a good win over Kansas, its only losses are to Oklahoma State and Baylor away from Boulder. ... UCLA pulled away from Alabama to avoid a not-so-pretty loss at home. ... Arizona State is among a handful of teams hoping wins over Marquette and UNLV will still be respectable in March. ... Stanford had an OK pre-Christmas stretch with win at UConn and three-point loss to Michigan.
Top-four seed material: Florida, Kentucky
Feeling good: Missouri, LSU
Barely in: Tennessee
On the outs: Arkansas, Ole Miss
Notes: Kentucky finally got the signature win it needed against Louisville. ... Florida has no bad losses and wins over Kansas, Memphis and Florida State. ... Missouri’s only loss is by 1 to Illinois. ... Arkansas’ schedule will be lacking unless SMU, Minnesota and Clemson turn out to be good wins. ... Tennessee’s home game against Virginia on Monday will be critical.
West Coast (1)
Feeling good: Gonzaga
On the outs: Saint Mary’s, Pacific, BYU
Notes: Gonzaga played a lackluster non-conference schedule by the Bulldogs’ standards and still lost to Dayton in Maui plus Kansas State. ... Saint Mary’s started 9-0 but lost to South Carolina, Hawaii and George Mason in the Diamond Head Classic.
One-bid leagues (21)
America East: Stony Brook
Atlantic Sun: Florida Gulf Coast
Big Sky: Montana
Big South: Charleston Southern
Big West: UC Santa Barbara
Conference USA: Southern Miss
Horizon: Green Bay
MEAC: Norfolk State
Ohio Valley: Belmont
Patriot: Boston University
Southland: Stephen F. Austin
Summit: North Dakota State
Sun Belt: Western Kentucky
SWAC: Texas Southern
WAC: New Mexico State
Nothing says the New Year quite like a good end of the year list.
For this college football countdown to end 2013, we look back at the best individual performances from the calendar year — from the New Year’s Day bowl games to today.
We’ve taken a handful of factors into account: Statistical and clutch production, importance of the game and quality of opponent. The year saw many record-breaking performances, but not all will be included here. And, yes, football’s a team game and so on, but these individual single-game performances wowed everyone.
Year in Review: The best single-game performances of 2013
1. Tre Mason vs. Missouri in the SEC Championship Game (Dec. 7)
This single game turned Auburn’s Tre Mason into a Heisman Trophy finalist with good reason. Mason shattered the SEC title game rushing record with 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries in a 59-42 win over Missouri to seal Auburn’s trip to the national title game. Of the six 300-yard rushing performances this season, none was against a defense as highly regarded as Missouri’s (ranked second in the SEC in rush defense).
2. Eddie Lacy vs. Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game (Jan. 7)
Alabama extended the SEC’s national title streak to seven with an overwhelming performance against the stout Notre Dame defense. Heisman runner up Manti Te’o would never look as out of place on the field as he did against Alabama’s Eddie Lacy. The running back rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries while adding a TD catch in the 42-14 win.
3. Jameis Winston vs. Clemson (Oct. 19)
Pinpointing the signature performance for Florida State’s Heisman winner could be tough — he was 25 of 27 in his debut against Pittsburgh and threw five touchdown passes against Maryland. In the end, it’s tough to argue with his season-high 444 passing yards in the 51-14 rout of Clemson on the road. His 22-of-32 performance with three touchdown passes and a rushing score secured Florida State as a national title contender and Winston as a Heisman frontrunner.
4. Johnny Manziel vs. Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl (Jan. 4)
Heisman winners have had a checkered history in bowl games, but not the one for Texas A&M in a 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Manziel demolished former conference foe Oklahoma by completing 22 of 34 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns and an interception to go with 229 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. His pair of TDs allowed him to join the 20 rushing and 20 passing touchdown club with Auburn’s Cam Newton, Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick and Florida’s Tim Tebow.
5. Myles Jack vs. Washington (Nov. 15)
Two-way players continue to be a rarity, but with UCLA’s Myles Jack only a freshman, the possibilities for his future are boundless. Jack emerged in the middle of November by rushing for 59 yards and four touchdowns in 13 carries against Washington in the same game in which he contributed five tackles and a pass breakup from his linebacker spot in the 41-31 win.
6. Jadeveon Clowney vs. Michigan in the Outback Bowl (Jan. 1)
The game for South Carolina defensive end will be remembered largely for the single play, a thundering tackle behind the line that knocked the helmet from Vincent Smith’s head and the ball from his hands. The turnover was a game-turning play in a 33-28 win over Michigan that set a tone Clowney couldn’t possibly live up to during what is presumably his final season in college. He finished the game with four tackles and two tackles for a loss.
7. Clint Chelf vs. Baylor (Nov. 23)
The Oklahoma State quarterback who began the season as a starter, lost the job after six passes and regained it midseason, stunned Baylor with a flawless performance in a 49-17 win. Chelf completed 19 of 25 passes for 370 yards with three touchdown passes and a rushing TD. Chelf completed 12 of 13 passes in the first half alone.
8. Jordan Lynch vs. Ball State (Nov. 13)
Lynch twice rushed for 300 yards in a game this season on the way to becoming the all-time leading rusher for quarterbacks, but both games came against two of the worst teams in the MAC. Instead, the 48-27 win over Ball State is more representative of why Lynch became a Heisman finalist. Lynch completed 26 of 32 passes for 345 yards with two touchdowns and rushed for 123 yards and two scores on 20 carries against the Cardinals.
9. AJ McCarron vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 14)
The Alabama quarterback continued to prove he was up to the task of competing in a shootout by completing 20 of 29 passes for 334 yards with four touchdowns in the 49-42 win in College Station.
10. Mike Evans vs. Alabama (Sept. 14)
In one of the Texas A&M receiver’s two 200-yard games this season, Evans caught seven passes for 279 yards with a touchdown. Johnny Manziel found him early and often in the game, but his 95-yard TD catch in the fourth quarter narrowed A&M’s deficit to a touchdown in the 49-42 loss.
11. Ka’Deem Carey vs. Oregon (Nov. 23)
If an argument can be made that the wrong two running backs went to New York for the Heisman ceremony, this game by Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey may be it. He stunned Oregon for 206 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries in a 42-16 win over the Ducks. A loss in a rout and a loss to an unranked team shocked the Ducks, but Carey was nothing if not automatic: He rushed for at least 119 yards in every game he played this season.
12. Carlos Hyde vs. Michigan (Nov. 30)
Ohio State needed Carlos Hyde’s power running to lead the way on several occasions this season but he may have been most critical in the 42-41 win over Michigan on the road. Hyde capped a 12-0 regular season with 226 rushing yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in the win.
13. Khalil Mack vs. Ohio State (Aug. 31)
Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack was a one-man wrecking crew in a 40-20 loss to Ohio State that nevertheless put a scare into the Buckeyes as late as the third quarter. Mack, an NFL prospect, finished with nine tackles, 2.5 sacks and 45-yard interception for a touchdown.
14. Taysom Hill vs. Texas (Sept. 7)
In the game that likely sealed the end of the Mack Brown era at Texas, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill led the most overwhelming rushing performance against the Texas defense in Longhorns history. Hill rushed for 259 of BYU’s 550 yards on the ground in the 40-21 win.
15. Jeremy Gallon vs. Indiana (Oct. 19)
Indiana’s defense was a mess this season, but Michigan needed every single one of Jeremy Gallon’s 369 receiving yards and two touchdowns to beat the Hoosiers 63-47. Gallon’s mark was second in FBS history and only 36 behind the record set by Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 1998.
16. Aaron Murray vs. South Carolina (Sept. 7)
Before an overwhelming rash of injuries, Georgia looked like the class of the SEC East in September. Murray rebounded from the loss to Clemson with clutch performance in the 41-30 win over South Carolina the following week. Murray was 17 of 23 for 309 yards with four touchdown passes in the win.
17. Tajh Boyd vs. Georgia (Aug. 31)
Back in September, Clemson had the profile of a national title contender, largely due to the performance of quarterback Tajh Boyd against Georgia. The Tigers quarterback completed 18 of 30 passes for 270 yards with three touchdowns to go with 42 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground in the 38-35 win.
18. Aaron Donald vs. Syracuse (Nov. 23)
In the game that clinched the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi awards for Aaron Donald, the Pittsburgh defensive tackle had nine tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a blocked extra point ... in a one-point win over Syracuse.
19. Andre Williams vs. Maryland (Nov. 23)
Boston College’s Andre Williams had rushed for 339 yards a week earlier against NC State, but rushing for 263 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries in a road game against Maryland sealed him as a Heisman finalist.
20. Tyler Lockett vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 23)
Kansas State’s receiver cracked the 200-yard receiving mark in the first half alone, thanks to TD catches of 48, 30 and 90 yards in the second quarter. Lockett finished with 278 yards and three touchdowns on 12 catches in the 41-31 loss. He averaged 32.4 yards per kickoff return to finish with 440 all-purpose yards.
21. Ty Montgomery vs. Washington (Oct. 5)
Ty Montgomery’s all-purpose ability saved Stanford on multiple occasions this season, none more than against Washington. Montgomery returned the opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and caught 39-yard TD pass in the second quarter to beat the Huskies 31-28. Montgomery finished with 290 all-purpose yards.
22. Jameis Winston vs. Boston College (Sept. 28)
Florida State’s 48-34 win at Boston College remains the Seminoles’ closest game of the season. Winston turned in highlight reel plays as he was 17 of 27 for 330 yards with four touchdowns. He also rushed for season highs of 14 carries and 67 yards in this game.
23. Derek Carr vs. Boise State (Sept. 20)
The Fresno State quarterback would have other more prolific games this season (500-yard passing efforts against New Mexico and San Jose State), but none was more important to Fresno State’s season as the 41-40 win over Boise State in September. Carr completed 39 of 60 passes for 460 yards and four touchdowns in Fresno State’s first win over Boise State since 2005.
24. David Fales vs. Fresno State (Nov. 29)
Derek Carr finally met his match at quarterback in San Jose State’s David Fales. The Spartans spoiled Fresno State’s bid for a BCS game thanks to Fales completing 37 of 45 passes for 547 yards and six touchdowns, plus a rushing touchdown, in a wild 62-52 win.
25. Trent Murphy vs. Oregon State (Oct. 26)
Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy may have been the most underrated defensive player in the country, but not for Oregon State. Murphy disrupted the Oregon State passing game with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3.5 tackles for a loss and a blocked extra point in the 20-12 win.
Suffice to say, Kansas State and Michigan probably didn’t expect to meet in the same bowl game this season.
Michigan started the season with aspirations of winning the Big Ten Legends division with budding star Devin Gardner at quarterback. The Wolverines’ quarterback dazzled with his play at times, but he could also be infuriating with turnovers. Michigan fell out of Big Ten contention by November, finishing 3-5 in the league.
Meanwhile, Kansas State entered 2013 in a rebuilding year after Collin Klein led the Wildcats to the Big 12 title last year. A season-opening loss to North Dakota State appeared to signal a long year for the Wildcats. By midseason, Kansas State became one of the toughest outs in the Big 12, winning five of its last six.
So as Kansas State arrives at the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl as a major victory, Michigan arrives after a let down of a season.
The next question is if those opposing emotions play a role in Tempe.
Kansas State vs. Michigan
Kickoff: Dec. 28, 10:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Kansas State by 3.5
Three Things to Watch
Ryan Mueller vs. Taylor Lewan
The meeting of Kansas State star defensive end Mueller and Michigan first-round prospect at left tackle in Lewan may be the most important matchup of the game. Mueller, a former walk-on, emerged this season with 11.5 sacks and six pass deflections. He’ll try to pressure Michigan quarterback Shane Morris into mistakes, but he’ll have to go through the 6-8, 315-pound Lewan to do it.
If Michigan State’s Jeremy Gallon and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett are getting the ball, this game could turn into a shootout. Lockett finished with 71 catches for 1,146 yards and eight touchdowns despite missing two games this season. He has two 200-yard receiving games this season, neither against teams to pad stats (he did it against Texas and Oklahoma). Gallon has a 369-yard game under his belt this season against Indiana. Beyond Gallon, Michigan has plenty of talent on offense, including tight end Devin Funchess, provided Morris can get them the ball. Kansas State’s defense, though, will get a boost from the return of veteran safety Ty Zimmerman, who missed the last two games with an apparent ankle injury.
Kansas State’s quarterback rotation
Kansas State has been the rare team to make a two-man rotation at quarterback work. Jake Waters is the more complete quarterback, especially as a passer, but Daniel Sams has been difficult to stop all season with 784 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns to go with 452 passing yards. Sams only played one series in the finale against Kansas, a development coach Bill Snyder said was mistake.
Key Player: Shane Morris, Michigan
Devin Gardner suffered a foot injury in Michigan’s 42-41 loss to Ohio State, and the junior will sit out the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Kansas State. Gardner’s play was inconsistent at times in 2013, but he was the Wolverines’ best option under center and will be missed against the Wildcats. Morris will take Gardner’s place in the lineup, and the true freshman has thrown just nine passes this year. Michigan’s offense will change with Morris under center, but the freshman needs more help from the supporting cast. Morris doesn’t have to win this game on his own. But with little margin for error, any mistake Morris makes will be magnified.
The first meeting between Kansas State and Michigan could be one of the more unpredictable bowl games of 2013-14, especially if both teams are in top form. Michigan finally played to its potential on offense and gave Ohio State all it could handle in the last week of the regular season. Kansas State can match that kind of production if John Hubert is steadily moving the chains and Tyler Lockett hits the big play. But there’s a reason both teams are playing in Dec. 28 bowl game.
Prediction: Kansas State 31, Michigan 24
The Rose Bowl this game is not. The Texas Bowl between Minnesota and Syracuse barely has the buzz of the bowl game in Shreveport.
Both teams finished 4-4 in their respective conferences, but that should be a small victory itself.
Minnesota was one of the stories of the season in the Big Ten as the Gophers went 4-3 in the Big Ten under acting coach Tracy Claeys, including wins over Nebraska and Penn State. Claeys has been in charge since Oct. 5 when head coach Jerry Kill stepped aside to treat epilepsy.
Meanwhile, Syracuse quietly defeated three bowl teams, including two in conference. Little was expected of the Orange as Syracuse moved into the ACC under a first-year coach.
Minnesota vs. Syracuse
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Minnesota by 4
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Control the run game
It’s no secret what Minnesota is going to do on offense: The Gophers attempted only 237 passes this season, 92 fewer than Wisconsin for the fewest in the Big Ten. Behind an improved offensive line and running back David Cobb, Minnesota’s run game powered the four-game winning streak in October and November. When it ran into superb defenses from Wisconsin and Michigan State, though, Minnesota averaged only 2.8 yards per carry and scored one offensive touchdown. The good news for the Gophers: Syracuse isn’t Michigan State or Wisconsin. The Orange also may be without leading tackler Durell Eskridge in the secondary.
Syracuse’s Key to Victory: Continuing the momentum under Terrel Hunt
Syracuse had a quick hook with Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen, who began the season at quarterback. Terrel Hunt started the third game of the season and flourished against Wagner and Tulane. He struggled against the better teams in the ACC but regained his form late in the year. The sophomore completed 47 of 71 passes for 429 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in the final two games against Pittsburgh and Boston College.
Key player: Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota
The Gophers 6-6, 311-pound nose tackle has been a wrecking crew all season with 11 tackles for a loss and an interception. He’ll be matched up with Syracuse’s second-team ACC center Macky MacPherson in a meeting of strength on strength. Hageman will have a major size advantage over the 6-2, 290-pound MacPherson, so Hageman should expect double teams.
Syracuse will be out to prove its 6-6 season wasn’t one of smoke and mirrors. Two of the Orange’s signature wins came against teams (Maryland, Boston College) shorthanded on offense due to injury. Syracuse is also plenty tested against the Big Ten, but those have tests have resulted in futility. Syracuse is 0-4 the last two seasons against Big Ten teams, including a 17-10 loss to Minnesota in 2012. Minnesota, meanwhile, will have the best defensive player on the field (Hageman) and the best unit of any team on the field (its run game). Minnesota has all the advantages to achieve its first nine-win season since 2004, a total that would match the total wins in Kill’s first two seasons.
Prediction: Minnesota 35, Syracuse 28
The Louisville-Kentucky matchup will still have the Bluegrass State at a fever pitch, but Big Blue Nation and Cardinals fans may be holding back just a little bit.
Both sides have enough questions about their own teams to feel too confident about taking shots at a rival. (But, then again, this is Louisville-Kentucky. Anything goes.)
Kentucky, with three losses, is probably more concerned than Louisville at this stage of the season. Although none of UK's defeats were at home, Baylor and North Carolina are sitting near the end of the top 25. The talent remains clear, but the chemistry is still a work in progress.
For comparison's sake, Kentucky’s national title team in 2012 lost twice all year, once on a buzzer beater at Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final. Kentucky hopes 2010-11 is a better corollary. The Wildcats lost twice in the non-conference but lost to SEC also-rans on the road ... all that before reaching the Final Four.
Louisville fans have received less negative feedback about their team, but the Cardinals haven’t really given them much opportunity to get frustrated. Like Kentucky, Louisville lost to North Carolina, but Louisville has faced only one other team in the top 100 on KenPom.com (Southern Miss).
With four losses between the two teams, the rivalry game lacks the high rankings expected back in the preseason, but the significance hasn’t diminished.
Conference play begins in the coming weeks, meaning Kentucky and Louisville are both seeking their last chance for a major non-conference win.
Related: Stories from those on both sides of Louisville-Kentucky
Louisville at Kentucky
Time: Saturday, 4 p.m. Eastern
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Jones has been outstanding for most of the season in taking over for veteran point guard Peyton Siva, but he’s hit a bit of a hiccup in the last three weeks. Jones averaged 14.9 points as of Dec. 7 while causing havoc in the defensive end. The junior college transfer suffered a wrist injury on his shooting hand to miss one game before struggling to a degree in his last two games. Jones still contributed six assists, five steals and no assists against FIU on Sept. 21. He may be back to form with a week to rest. Louisville coach Rick Pitino may find out Saturday if Jones is the top flight-point guard the Cards need to defend their national title.
Top Matchup: Kentucky’s Julius Randle vs. Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell
Even on a team filled with talent at every position, Kentucky hasn’t proven it can win if Randle is having difficulty. The forward went 3 of 9 in the loss to North Carolina and 5 of 10 in the loss to Baylor. He came back to score 29 points with 10 rebounds against an overmatched Belmont frontcourt. Just as important, Randle had only one turnover against Belmont in a season in which he’s averaged 3.3.
Key Stat: 66.5 percent. Combined free throw shooting for both teams
Despite leading the nation in free throw attempts per game, Kentucky is averaging 67.5 percent on free throws, an Achilles heel at times this season. Louisville has been even worse at 65.5 percent. Even Russ Smith has been struggling from the line, shooting seven percentage points lower than last year’s mark. This will be worth watching in the event of a close game.
Louisville’s Key Storyline: Russ Smith's and Chris Jones’ defensive pressure
Kentucky point guard Andrew Harrison hasn’t been quite the second coming of other John Calipari point guards — though many of the Calipari greats have struggled early. Harrison faces another quality Louisville pressure defense as Smith and Jones have led a Cardinals team that forces turnovers on 26.3 percent of possessions (second after VCU). The U of L duo hasn’t been tested since facing North Carolina.
Kentucky’s Key Storyline: Chemistry
If you’re the kind of person who likes to keep tabs on chemistry and body language, Kentucky will give you a field day. Frustration has been clear for Kentucky as Calipari has been trying to coax this team into chemistry. Randle responded to the call from Calipari in the win over Belmont on Saturday, but the young Wildcats may encounter more adversity against Louisville even than a close call against the Bruins.
The end of the year is a time of reflection.
In that spirit, think back to the highlight of the first day of college football season. On that Thursday in August, Ole Miss defeated Vanderbilt 39-35 in a game that featured two lead changes in the final two minutes.
The game, it turned out, was a perfect preface to the SEC season, even if neither the Rebels nor the Commodores would be the most dramatic team of the year. They weren’t even the most dramatic SEC team of the first month (that would be Georgia).
The 2013 season will be remembered as the Auburn made magic. Our countdown of the top 10 moments of 2013 starts on the Plains. College football fans love to debate anything and everything, but there’s little room for argument here.
Top 10 College Football Moments of the 2013 season
1. Auburn’s Kick Six
It will go down as perhaps the most memorable play in the history of college football: Chris Davis’ 109-yard return of a missed field goal as time expired that gave Auburn a 34–28 win over rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The victory secured the SEC West title for the Tigers, who are now playing for the BCS National Championship.
2. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare
In any other season, this would be the play of the year. Georgia scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter at Auburn to take a 38-37 lead, but Auburn wasn’t finished. Nick Marshall heaved a desperation pass that bounced off the hands of Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and into the waiting arms of Auburn receiver Ricardo Louis, who scored the game-winning 73-yard touchdown.
3. Nebraska’s Hail Mary to beat Northwestern
A tumultuous season in Lincoln delivered at least one highlight when Ron Kellogg III, a reserve quarterback, tossed a Hail Mary to beat Northwestern 27–24 on Nov. 2. Kellogg’s heave as time expired deflected off a host of players ahead of the goal line into the hands of Jordan Westerkamp in the end zone for a 49-yard touchdown.
4. Ed Orgeron’s big win over Stanford
Ed Orgeron made it OK to root for USC again, especially when the interim coach helped set up a celebration at the Coliseum after the Trojans ended Stanford’s national title hopes with a 20–17 win. Andre Heidari kicked a 47-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining for the Trojans’ victory.
5. Jameis Winston bursts onto the scene against Boston College
Before the Boston College game Sept. 28, Jameis Winston was a freshman phenom. He left as a true Heisman contender. With the game tied in the waning seconds of the first half, Winston escaped the rush to hit Kenny Shaw for a 55-yard touchdown pass.
6. Aaron Murray’s two-step
Before Auburn, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was the king of late-game drama in the SEC. Murray finally got over his big-game bugaboo with a win over South Carolina on Sept. 7 and followed it with a back-and-forth fourth quarter in a 44–41 win over LSU two games later. Alas, Georgia’s injury bug finally caught up to him in November.
7. Texas A&M challenges Alabama again
In the most anticipated game of September, Alabama fell behind by two touchdowns, scored the next 35 points and ended up clinging to a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter. The offensive explosion in College Station signaled a new kind of season in the SEC.
8. Baylor clinches the Big 12
Oklahoma State’s Bedlam loss earlier in the day turned Texas-Baylor into a Big 12 championship game. The Bears returned to their early season form just in time to beat the Longhorns 30–10 to cap an 11–1 season and Baylor’s first outright conference title since 1980.
9. Duke beats North Carolina for 10-win season
It’s not often that the Duke-North Carolina game has football implications, but the Blue Devils’ 27–25 win in Chapel Hill sealed one of the best seasons in Duke history. Coach David Cutcliffe led the Blue Devils to the ACC title game and the first 10-win season for the program.
10. The SEC championship track meet
A season that began with SEC teams running up and down the field ended with the highest-scoring SEC Championship Game in history when Auburn and Missouri combined for 101 points and seven lead changes. Tre Mason rushed for 304 yards to lead Auburn to the national championship game and himself to the Heisman ceremony.
Mack Brown’s final Red River win. It hadn’t become official yet, but this year’s Red River Rivalry certainly seemed to be Mack Brown’s last even at the time. The Longhorns made it memorable with a 36-20 win that was rarely in doubt.
Minnesota wins for Jerry Kill. With their coach sidelined as he took steps to treat epilepsy, the Gophers put together a banner season. The biggest win came Oct. 26 with a 34-23 over then-No. 24 Nebraska.
UCF swipes undefeated season from Louisville. Louisville’s bid to play for a national title ended when UCF’s Blake Bortles threw a touchdown pass with 23 seconds left to win 38-35. Both teams finished with one loss, but UCF was the one that earned a BCS bid, the first in school history.
Penn State’s wild finish to beat Michigan. Freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg solidified his spot as future star with a sensational game-tying drive against Michigan. After both teams exchanged missed kicks, Penn State won 43-40 in the fourth overtime.
Oklahoma’s Bedlam win. One of the most lopsided rivalries in college football will remain that way despite Oklahoma State’s major strides over the years. Blake Bell, a former starter and the third quarterback in the game for OU, led the game-winning drive in the final 19 seconds for a 33-24 win to spoil Oklahoma State’s bid for a Big 12 title.
A visit to Motown is just fine for Bowling Green and Pittsburgh.
No, Detroit isn’t everyone’s ideal day-after-Christmas destination, but the two teams playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl have reason to be pleased with their bowl trip.
For Bowling Green, the Falcons are here after upsetting undefeated Northern Illinois in the MAC Championship Game, a run good enough to garner a new head coaching job for Dave Clawson at Wake Forest. The Falcons will attempt to win their first bowl game since 2004 under interim coach Adam Scheier before new coach Dino Babers takes over.
This bowl bid isn't too shabby for Pittsburgh, either. After three consecutive seasons ending in Birmingham, Pittsburgh is finally on its way to a new bowl destination and under the same coach, Paul Chryst, for consecutive seasons. The Panthers reached bowl games in 2010 and 2011 under interim coaches.
In Detroit, Pittsburgh will look to cap an inconsistent first season in the ACC. Although the Panthers defeated Duke on Sept. 21 and Notre Dame on Nov. 9, the Panthers haven’t won back-to-back games since the end of September (and they won’t have an opportunity to rectify that in Detroit after losing the regular season finale to Miami).
Meanwhile, Bowling Green has used the top defense in the MAC to win its last five games. The Falcons intercepted two Jordan Lynch passes in the MAC title game as Northern Illinois scored a season-low 27 points.
Bowling Green vs. Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Dec. 26, 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Bowling Green by 3.5
Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Contain the Pittsburgh passing game
Led by senior All-MAC safety BooBoo Gates, Bowling Green finished in the top 10 nationally in pass efficiency defense, yards allowed per pass and passing yards per game. Pittsburgh has an above average passing game, led by an excellent duo of receivers in freshman Tyler Boyd, who topped the 1,000-yard mark in his first season, and veteran Devin Street. Rutgers transfer Tom Savage can get them the ball ... provided he stays upright. His jersey has changed, but Savage again has been one of the most sacked quarterbacks in the country. Opponents have sacked Savage 41 times this season. Adding to that total will be a key for Bowling Green.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Win on third down and in the red zone
Northern Illinois had the unblemished record and the Heisman finalist, but it’s not tough to see why Bowling Green ended up winning the MAC. In addition to having the MAC’s best defense, Bowling Green led the league in third down offense and red zone defense and finished second in third down defense. In other words, Bowling Green made the critical plays to make up for a lack of star power. Pittsburgh has enough holes where the Panthers need to make these margin plays to secure a win.
Key player: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Don’t overthink it: Donald will be the best player on the field. By winning the Outland, Nagurski, Bednarik and Lombardi, the defensive tackle is the most decorated defensive player since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh. Bowling Green quarterback Matt Johnson was brilliant against Northern Illinois, but the Falcons’ run game has been the constant during the five-game winning streak (5.2 yards per carry in that span). Donald could play a key role in shutting down both facets of the offense.
Bowling Green has the hot hand for sure. The Falcons knocked off their top competition in the MAC East on the road (Buffalo) and then an undefeated team in Detroit (Northern Illinois) in the last two weeks of the season. Pittsburgh has the edge in overall talent, particularly any time Aaron Donald is on the field. With a strong defense, Bowling Green has done enough in the final month of the season to show it’s capable of defeating a mid-level ACC team.
Prediction: Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 21
The 35 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.
15 Defunct College Football Bowl Games We Miss
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 will be played next season, 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.
The Pac-12 finally returned to national prominence last season with five NCAA bids, placing two teams in the Sweet 16.
This season may be even better. The Pac-12 and the Big Ten are the only conferences with two undefeated teams, and Arizona and Oregon didn’t get there cheaply.
Arizona has defeated San Diego State and Michigan on the road and Duke at Madison Square Garden. A short-handed Oregon team has wins over Georgetown, Ole Miss and Illinois.
That said, the Pac-12 is far from a two-team league: Colorado has won 10 in a row since losing to Baylor on the first day of the season, a run that included a 75-72 win over Kansas. UCLA has shown it will be a tough out in Steve Alford's first season.
Other teams still have work to do, but even if the Pac-12 doesn’t top its five bids from a year ago, the league may have the most Final Four potential since 2007.
Early Season Report Card: Pac-12
Bubble watch: Arizona State, Stanford
Best win: Arizona 72, Duke 66
Worst loss: Coppin State 78, Oregon State 73
Power rankings so far
6. Arizona State
11. Oregon State
12. Washington State
Important non-conference games remaining:
Colorado vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 21)
Stanford vs. Michigan (Dec. 21)
Cal at Creighton (Dec. 22)
Arizona is the top team but too balanced to pick a true league-wide MVP. Oregon is balanced, too, with six players averaging double figures, but the Houston transfer stands apart at 19.3 points per game. Young helped the Ducks weather the suspensions of Dominic Artis and Ben Carter, who returned to face UC Irvine on Tuesday, with 14 points against Illinois, 19 against Ole Miss and 24 against Georgetown.
Top freshman: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
As expected, Gordon has done a bit of everything for Arizona this season, averaging 12.1 points and 8.2 rebounds. Unlike Kansas with Andrew Wiggins or Kentucky with Julius Randle, Arizona can afford Gordon to have an off night (2 of 10 with eight rebounds in a win over UNLV). But Gordon can also shoulder the load (14 points, five rebounds against Michigan, 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists against Duke).
Surprise player: Delon Wright, Utah
The junior college transfer was expected to play a major role in the Utah backcourt, but he and the underrated Jordan Loveridge may turn Utah into one of the surprise teams in the Pac-12. Wright has been a stat sheet stuffer with 16 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.0 rebounds. Utah’s 9-1 start has been against weak competition, but Saturday’s 81-64 win over BYU (and a two-point loss at Boise State) suggests there might some legitimacy here.
Early season flop: Washington
Athlon picked Washington ninth in the Pac-12 in the preseason, so the 6-4 start isn’t all that alarming. Still, Lorenzo Romar may be heading to his first losing season in conference since 2007-08. The Huskies have lost to every quality team they’ve faced (Indiana, Boston College and San Diego State) plus UC Irvine.
Lingering concerns: Which coaches can save their jobs?
The Pac-12 was notable at the start of the season for the number of coaches who began the season fighting to remain employed — Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins, Arizona State’s Herb Sendek, Washington State’s Ken Bone and Oregon State’s Craig Robinson. Dawkins and Sendek have their teams in NCAA Tournament contention, a good sign if it’s March Madness or bust for both. Washington State and Oregon State may have trouble picking up wins against the top portion of the league.
Best NCAA resume: Arizona
The Wildcats have vaulted to the No. 1 spot in the polls with good reason: An 11-0 start with wins over Duke on a neutral floor and San Diego State and Michigan on the road. This is the kind of resume that garners a No. 1 seed in March.
Could there be room for a third or fourth team in the two-team race for the Big 12 title?
The return of Marcus Smart to Oklahoma State and the arrival of Andrew Wiggins at Kansas appeared to set up those two programs atop the Big 12 this season.
One thing is clear in the Big 12 so far: It won’t be that easy. Fred Hoiberg is again working his magic at Iowa State where transfers and an up-tempo offense have the Cyclones undefeated. After a win over Kentucky, Baylor is back on the upswing after an NIT appearance last season.
And even Texas, a program all but ignored in the preseason, shows it might be back where it belongs in the mix after a win in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Wednesday.
Early Season Report Card: Big 12
Bubble watch: Texas
Best win: Kansas 94, Duke 83
Worst loss: Longwood 82, TCU 79
Power rankings so far
1. Oklahoma State
3. Iowa State
6. West Virginia
8. Kansas State
9. Texas Tech
Important non-conference games remaining
Oklahoma State vs. Colorado (Dec. 21)
Georgetown at Kansas (Dec. 21)
Kansas State vs. Gonzaga (Dec. 21)
San Diego State at Kansas (Jan. 5)
This is why Smart returned for his sophomore season. After the way Smart began the year, it’s clear the NBA Draft will be there when he’s finished. The Cowboys point guard has been even better this season, averaging 18 points per game (up from 15.4 per game) despite playing fewer minutes. Smart’s 39 points with four rebounds, four assists and five steals against Memphis on Nov. 19 is one of the top individual performances of the season so far.
Top freshman: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Fellow Kansas five-star freshman Joel Embiid has received more run recently thanks to his ahead-of-the-curve offensive game for a rookie big man. But Wiggins is still the top freshman of the league and one of the best in the country. The recruiting experts warned us not to expect Wiggins to put up Kevin Durant-like numbers, but Wiggins still averages 15.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Top newcomer: DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
Thanks to Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang, Iowa State doesn’t need DeAndre Kane to be quite the focal point of the offense as Marshall did. Kane averaged 13.6 shots from the field in 37.1 minutes per game with the Thundering Herd. He’s averaging 9.5 shots in 28.4 minutes at Iowa State. The supporting cast and diminished work load have improved his efficiency numbers while he’s maintained 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists for a legitimate Big 12 contender.
Surprise player: Jonathan Holmes, Texas
Could Rick Barnes avoid the same fate as Mack Brown? That may be the case after Texas’ 86-83 win over North Carolina on the road legitimized a 10-1 start. Holmes, Texas’ lone upperclassman, entered the season with 45 starts and 6.8 points per game. After 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks against the Tar Heels, Holmes is averaging 13.1 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Early season flop: Tarik Black, Kansas
The transfer from Memphis was expected to be major contributor at Kansas, especially given Black’s status as a veteran on a young team. With the development of Joel Embiid, Black has had trouble cracking the regular rotation: Two minutes against New Mexico, six against Florida, three against Colorado and eight Villanova.
Lingering concerns: Kansas’ point guard issues
Point guard was a liability for Kansas last season and has been a question mark in the early going this year. The situation had become dire enough where Bill Self elected to start freshman Frank Mason on a road swing against Colorado and Florida over veteran Naadir Tharpe. Mason will probably be the point guard long term, but Tharpe returned to the starting role in Saturday’s win over New Mexico when he had nine assists and four turnovers.
Best NCAA resume: Iowa State
This is a tough one: Oklahoma State’s top win is over Memphis at home when less than two weeks later the Cowboys lost to the same Memphis team on a neutral floor. Kansas has two good wins over Duke and New Mexico, but losses to Villanova, Colorado and Florida. Baylor has a standout win over Kentucky, one loss to Syracuse and two wins over Division II teams. Let’s give the nod to Iowa State, the only undefeated team in the league. The Cyclones are 2-0 against two Big Ten teams likely to play in the Tournament (Michigan and Iowa) and have a road win over BYU.
Suffice to say, the SEC has not shaken out the way anyone would have predicted in mid-December.
Missouri is the last undefeated team in the league, and Kentucky has the same amount of losses as Vanderbilt and Auburn. Granted, not every loss or undefeated season is created equal. But Kentucky’s losses in two of the last three games have fans in Lexington wondering what’s going on with Big Blue.
In lauding Kentucky’s great freshman class, maybe we forgot the freshman part as the Wildcats are finding their way through the season.
Kentucky headlines will dominate in the SEC as long the Wildcats have John Calipari on board, but Florida is looking every bit the contender Kentucky was expected to be, especially after Wednesday’s wins over Memphis and Kansas. Missouri hasn’t had the same breakout performance, but the Tigers keep absorbing big personnel losses and chugging along under Frank Haith.
Early Season Report Card: SEC
Bubble watch: LSU, Ole Miss, Tennessee
Best win: Florida 67, Kansas 61
Worst loss: Northwestern State 111, Auburn 92
Power rankings so far
6. Ole Miss
8. Texas A&M
12. South Carolina
13. Mississippi State
Important non-conference games remaining:
Missouri vs. Illinois (Dec. 21)
Louisville at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
Dayton at Ole Miss (Jan. 4)
Tuesday’s game against Memphis was a chance for Casey Prather to further his case for SEC player of the year, a major upset not only in a league with Kentucky but also on his own roster. Between suspensions, academic casualties and injuries, Florida hasn’t played with its full roster for most of the season, but Prather has been the steadying influence for the Gators around the basket. By averaging 18.7 points, Prather has pulled off the rare senior breakout by topping his 181 points as a junior in his 10th game as a senior.
Top freshman: Julius Randle, Kentucky
Matched up against James Michael McAdoo, Randle struggled with 11 points and five rebounds in an 82-77 loss to North Carolina on Saturday, but he is still one of the most athletically overwhelming players in the country only 11 games into his career. Randle is averaging 17.2 points and 11.4 rebounds. We’re not backing off Randle's potential.
Top newcomer: Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
Missouri expected to rely heavily on Clarkson to replace point guard Phil Pressey. The Tulsa transfer has delivered as much as Frank Haith expected and probably more. Clarkson averaged 16.5 points in his final season at Tulsa but has averaged 19.4 during Mizzou’s undefeated start. Clarkson is producing, but a Pressey clone he is not. Freshman Wes Clark may be the better distributor, and Clarkson isn’t much of an outside scoring threat. But Clarkson has shot 56.9 percent from inside the 3-point line.
Surprise player: Michael Qualls, Arkansas
Qualls showed flashes of his athleticism as a freshman, but his name was tough to find in the preseason for Arkansas. After averaging 15.6 minutes last season, Qualls is averaging 14.8 points per game as a sophomore.
Early season flop: Alabama
Athlon projected this year’s Alabama team to go to the NIT, but even that’s looking iffy. The Crimson Tide has lost to Duke, Wichita State and Oklahoma (not so bad), but losses to Drexel and USF will put the pressure on Anthony Grant. At 5-5 and games upcoming against Xavier, UCLA and Robert Morris, Alabama could enter conference play with a losing record.
Lingering concerns: Is Kentucky ready to contend for the title?
The ludicrous talk of Kentucky going 40-0 was dispensed with a Nov. 12 loss to Michigan State. The Wildcats, though, have more questions after losing to the top three teams on their schedule so far (Baylor and North Carolina). Kentucky is one of maybe three teams capable of winning the SEC, but are the Wildcats better than Florida? Not right now. Jason King of Bleacher Report spelled out the issues plaguing Kentucky right now from lack of leadership to an underachieving point guard and problems on the wing and the perimeter.
Best NCAA resume: Florida
Florida lost in Madison with a skeleton crew of a roster in the second game of the season and to Connecticut on the road on a last-second shot by Shabazz Napier. Neither Wisconsin nor UConn have lost this season. Along the way, Florida has defeated three teams ranked in the top 40 on KenPom.com — Florida State, Kansas and Memphis. And there’s a case that Florida will be getting even better when freshman Chris Walker is eligible.
Let’s get this out of the way: The greatest conference in college basketball history the ACC is not. ... yet.
Don’t blame the powerhouses, though. Even though North Carolina has two losses it would like to forget, the Tar Heels have three wins as good as anyone in the country. Meanwhile, Syracuse and Duke are contending for the ACC and probably more thanks to the play of key freshmen — Jabari Parker at Duke and Tyler Ennis at Syracuse.
The rest of the ACC has some work to do. After the top three, the league’s other teams are works in progress. We’ve seen signs of encouragement from teams like Pittsburgh, Virginia, Notre Dame and Florida State, but not enough to think any of them can challenge the league’s top three.
Early Season Report Card: ACC
Bubble watch: Florida State, Maryland, Notre Dame, Virginia
Best win: North Carolina 76, Michigan State 65
Worst loss: St Francis (NY) 66, Miami 62
Power rankings so far
3. North Carolina
6. Florida State
7. Notre Dame
8. NC State
10. Georgia Tech
12. Wake Forest
13. Boston College
14. Virginia Tech
Important non-conference games remaining:
Duke vs. UCLA (Dec. 19)
Virginia Tech vs. VCU (Dec. 21)
Florida State vs. UMass (Dec. 21)
Villanova at Syracuse (Dec. 28)
Parker has head-to-head losses to fellow top freshmen Andrew Wiggins at Kansas and Aaron Gordon at Arizona on neutral courts, but it’s hard to be too critical about the Duke forward. Parker has been Duke’s go-to player from the start, averaging 22 points (second in the ACC) and 7.6 rebounds (fourth) per game. He’ll be in the No. 1 overall draft pick and national player of the year discussions all season.
Top freshman (non-Jabari Parker division): Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Ennis was a five-star freshman, too, but he may be in danger of being lost amid talk of Parker and other rookies. All Ennis has done is step in as a freshman to lead an undefeated team while compiling 50 assists to 11 turnovers.
Top newcomer: Rodney Hood, Duke
Duke’s other ridiculously versatile wing, Hood is averaging 18.9 points and five rebounds. His season will be overlooked due to the presence of Parker, but Hood’s mid-range game has been lethal as he’s improved from shooting 50.6 percent from 2-point range in his final year at Mississippi State to 61.6 at Duke.
Surprise player: Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Paige is every bit the MVP contender in the league as C.J. Fair or Parker. Might as well call him the MVP of the Bluegrass State as he was the top player on the court in wins over Louisville (32 points) and Kentucky (21 of his 23 points came in the second half). Paige’s development from an average point guard to the top player for the Heels has been staggering. On a team that had been reeling from the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, who was reinstated Wednesday, Paige ended up picking up the slack.
Early season flop: Boston College
With returning veterans, Boston College looked like a team that could work its way onto the NCAA bubble. By early December, Boston College looks like it will be ACC Tournament or bust. The Eagles lost virtually every notable non-conference game (Providence, UMass, Toledo, UConn, Purdue, USC).
Lingering concerns: Where will the ACC find depth?
Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse are as good as any top three teams in any league, but where will the ACC find its second tier? Pittsburgh started 9-0 before scoring only 43 points in its first real test against Cincinnati (in fairness, Cincinnati scored only 44). Notre Dame has lost to Indiana State and North Dakota State at home, and that’s before facing teams in a new league. Virginia has lost to VCU, Wisconsin and Green Bay as Joe Harris has slumped to 11.3 points per game. Florida State may be the team to watch as the Seminoles’ big men are starting to emerge. Florida State’s three losses include an overtime loss to Michigan and one-point defeat in Gainesville.
Best NCAA resume: North Carolina
The losses to Belmont and UAB were baffling, and Wednesday's loss to Texas suggests Carolina's Jekyll and Hyde act isn't finished. No team has three better wins than Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville — three of Athlon’s top four teams. With McDonald returning and marked improvement by James Michael McAdoo and Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina may be closer to winning the ACC than landing on the bubble.
Who says there’s a lull in the college football season? The coaching carousel gets new life with the Texas job. Braden Gall and David Fox talk about their top three realistic candidates for the job.
It’s also time for a bit of reading as our hosts react to columns on Mack Brown as Mr. Football and the Nickelback of college football coaching. Lastly, a moderately successful game of word association for the early bowl games.
Contact us with questions, comments and debate topics at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @AthlonSports, @BradenGall and @DavidFox615.
The Mountain West has had a legitimate claim on being the top conference out West in recent years. That’s not going to happen this season.
With the Pac-12 making its long-awaited comeback and turnover at key programs in the Mountain West, the MW may have trouble just holding off the West Coast for league bragging rights.
Even so, the two teams at the top of the league are as good as ever. San Diego State and New Mexico have had standout non-conference seasons, fueled by unexpected breakouts by Xavier Thames and Cameron Bairstow. Boise State doesn’t have a marquee win yet, but the Broncos have one of their best rosters in program history.
Other programs have work to do — both in the short term and long term.
Early Season Report Card: Mountain West
Bubble watch: Boise State
Best win: New Mexico 86, Creighton 80
Worst loss: Cal State Bakersfield 74, Nevada 66
Power rankings so far
1. San Diego State
2. New Mexico
3. Boise State
4. Utah State
6. Colorado State
7. Fresno State
10. San Jose State
11. Air Force
Important non-conference games remaining
New Mexico vs. Marquette (Dec. 21)
San Diego State at Kansas (Jan. 5)
A secondary scorer on teams featuring Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley, the point guard Thames has come into his own as a senior. His opportunities have increased, but his efficiency numbers explain why Thames has gone from barely averaging double figures to averaging 17.4 points. Thames has gone from shooting 35.1 percent from the field to 44.9 and from 35.6 percent from 3 to 51.4. Thames scored 29 points against Marquette and 26 against Creighton in San Diego State’s breakout performance in the Wooden Legacy tournament.
Top freshmen: Matt Shrigley and Dakarai Allen, San Diego State
Standout signing classes for San Diego State and UNLV are a year away, so the best candidates are the Aztecs duo off the bench. The forward Shrigley and the guard Allen are averaging a combined 12 points per game.
Top newcomer: J.J. Avila, Colorado State
A transfer from Navy, Avila is a major reason Colorado State may keep its head above water despite an exodus of seniors from last year’s 26-win team. Avila is averaging 19.2 points while shooting 50.7 percent from the field. The 6-7 junior leads his team in assists (3.4) and is second in rebounds (6.1)
Surprise player: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico
New Mexico already has Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk, the foundation of the Lobos’ Mountain West champion team last season. Bairstow has given first-year coach Craig Neal a big three. Bairstow is leading the Lobos in scoring at 20.7 points per game, more than twice his average from a year ago.
Early season flop: UNLV
Few teams can lose a No. 1 overall draft pick without much of a dropoff, but UNLV is flirting with missing the NCAA Tournament. Home losses to UCSB, Arizona State and Illinois are particularly concerning, especially for a team that underachieved a year ago. There’s still talent here, led by Khem Birch, but the Runnin’ Rebels are last in the Mountain West in offensive efficiency on KenPom.com.
Lingering concerns: The depth of the league
The Mountain West produced a league-record five NCAA teams last season but won’t come close to that number this season. San Diego State is a virtual lock for the Tourney, and Boise State a legitimate hopeful. New Mexico looks like a strong contender even if the Lobos lost at home to New Mexico State on Tuesday. After that, the league has few certainties. The bottom half of the league is dead weight. UNLV is 4-4, and Colorado State is rebuilding. Utah State might have the potential to surprise in league play, but the Aggies lost in the non-conference schedule to BYU and Pacific from the West Coast Conference. Three NCAA bids may be the maximum here.
Best NCAA resume: San Diego State
Steve Fisher keeps losing key players (Kawhi Leonard, Jamaal Franklin, Chase Tapley) and continues to put Mountain West contenders on the court. San Diego State did most of its heavy lifting against Creighton and Marquette in the Wooden Legacy, played in Anaheim, Calif. But don’t forget the Aztecs gave Arizona a game on Nov. 14, a showing that’s more impressive in retrospect. Kansas doesn’t lose in Lawrence often, but San Diego State’s trip there on Jan. 5 is awfully interesting.
Photo courtesy of Ernie Anderson/San Diego State athletics.
A handful of Big Ten teams are still striving for an identity at this stage of the season, meaning the league may not have a quite the depth top-flight teams as it did last season.
The Big Ten, though, may be the most watchable league in the country again.
Even in losses, Michigan and Iowa managed to entertain during the weekend. Michigan gave No. 1 Arizona all it could handle, and Iowa lost in the waning seconds on the road against Iowa State in the biggest game for the rivalry since 1987.
And that’s not even getting to undefeated Wisconsin and Ohio State and preseason top-four team Michigan State. Even a team like Penn State will be dangerous with the high-scoring duo of Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill.
By the time the conference season comes around, Indiana, Iowa and Michigan will hope they’re ready to take their place as Big Ten title contenders with the top three in the league.
If that happens, the Big Ten won't be far off last season's pace.
Early Season Report Card: Big Ten
Bubble watch: Indiana, Illinois, Michigan
Best win: Michigan State 78, Kentucky 74
Worst loss: Illinois State 68, Northwestern 64
Power rankings so far
2. Ohio State
3. Michigan State
9. Penn State
Important non-conference games remaining
Ohio State vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21)
Michigan State at Texas (Dec. 21)
Michigan vs. Stanford (Dec. 21)
Illinois vs. Missouri (Dec. 21)
Purdue at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
Compared to other leagues, the Big Ten doesn’t have a clear MVP (especially when you’ve already decided to list Frank Kaminsky, Noah Vonleh and Rayvonte Rice elsewhere). Appling is as good a candidate as anyone. Tom Izzo hasn’t hesitated to put more pressure on Appling this season as Gary Harris missed two games this season with an ankle injury and Adreian Payne has dealt with a foot injury. Appling has career highs in scoring (16.9 points per game), assists (5.1) and shooting (54.7 percent). With Harris out, Appling scored 21 to escape Oakland 67-63 to avoid an upset.
Top freshman: Noah Vonleh, Indiana
Vonleh leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 9.6 per game, but his offensive game will need to take the next step if Indiana is going to be a strong NCAA Tournament contender out of the Big Ten. Vonleh is a combined 6 of 11 from the field in the Hoosiers’ three losses to Connecticut, Syracuse and Notre Dame this season.
Top newcomer: Rayvonte Rice, Illinois
Rice has stepped into a team that replaced guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson. The junior from Champaign, Ill., who started his career at Drake is averaging 17.7 points and shooting 49.7 from the field. Rice scored 25 points and added 10 rebounds and four steals in Illinois’ signature win of the season at UNLV. Illinois hasn’t fared as well in other games outside of Champaign (Oregon, Georgia Tech), but Rice has given the Illini a major leg up in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year.
Surprise player: Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
The seven-foot junior shocked everyone with a 43-point effort against North Dakota in the fourth game of the season after averaging 4.2 points last season. Kaminsky has done enough for the undefeated Wisconsin to prove that game wasn’t a fluke. Kaminsky is averaging 14.7 points in the Badgers’ other 11 games this season. Bo Ryan has a knack for finding his big man, and it seems Kaminksy is the guy this season.
Early season flop: Michigan
Michigan lost its national player of the year point guard and replaced him with a freshman. It’s probably not fair to call Michigan a flop. A two-point loss to Charlotte on a neutral court is the worst offense here, and the Wolverines put up a spirited effort in a 72-70 loss to AP No. 1 Arizona on Saturday. That’s a sign that things may be coming together for Michigan. Saturday was especially encouraging for Glenn Robinson III, who was 8 of 9 from the field with 20 points against the Wildcats. Robinson and Mitch McGary are still adjusting to playing without Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr, but freshman point guard Derrick Walton has to be able to deliver more than the 14 minutes he did against Arizona.
Lingering concerns: How good is Ohio State?
Ohio State is 10-0 and ranked second by KenPom.com, but we know little about the Buckeyes. Ohio State has played once outside of Columbus, demolishing Marquette 52-35. The second-best win on the schedule is against Maryland. Even an upcoming non-conference game against Notre Dame has lost luster. Ohio State won’t really be tested until the Buckeyes face Michigan State and Iowa in back-to-back games on Jan. 7 and Jan. 12. By then, Ohio State will hope to have a go-to scorer.
Best NCAA resume: Wisconsin
Never doubt Bo Ryan. The Badgers’ coach who has never finished lower than fourth may have a Big Ten championship team on his hands. The Badgers don’t have a lot of dead weight on their 12-0 schedule so far. Wisconsin has defeated Florida and Marquette at home, Virginia on the road and St. John’s, Saint Louis and West Virginia on neutral courts.
One shot from a point guard in a slump has helped change the perception of the new Big East.
Ryan Arcidiacono has been in a shooting funk before Villanova coach Jay Wright drew up a play for him in the waning seconds against Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Arcidiacono hit the 3 to beat Kansas, moving Villanova to the final against Iowa.
The pair of wins is the shining moment this season for a Big East still finding its way. The league will have its share of NCAA Tournament teams, but no team in the league has a single win as good as as the pair Villanova picked up in the Bahamas.
We can’t call the league a disappointment, though. Doug McDermott remains an All-America candidate. Georgetown remains in contention despite the departure of Greg Whittington. Xavier is poised to make a run in the NCAA Tournament despite missing the postseason a year ago. Preseason favorite Marquette has four losses, but those have come against four quality teams, including two who remain undefeated.
Early Season Report Card: Big East
Bubble watch: Marquette, Butler
Best win: Villanova 63, Kansas 59
Worst loss: Fairleigh Dickinson 58, Seton Hall 54
Power rankings so far
7. St. John’s
10. Seton Hall
Important non-conference games remaining
Georgetown at Kansas (Dec. 21)
Xavier at Alabama (Dec. 21)
Marquette vs. New Mexico (Dec. 21)
Cal at Creighton (Dec. 22)
Villanova at Providence (Dec. 28)
In the year of superstar freshmen, Doug McDermott remains one of the few upperclassmen in National Player of the Year contention. McDermott has done what he’s done throughout his career, averaging a Big East-best 25.3 points per game. A couple of question marks though: McDermott is averaging a career-low — but still very good — 50.3 percent form the floor. And George Washington may have given McDermott’s new Big East completion some ideas on limiting the Creighton forward. McDermott had trouble finding his shot in a 2-of-12 performance against the Colonials.
Top freshman: Myles Davis, Xavier
The Big East is not a league flush with high-profile freshmen. The top-scoring freshman in the league ranks 24th and plays for DePaul. Davis, though, has become a key rotation player for Xavier with a knack for the big shot. The 6-2 guard hit two 3-pointers in overtime to avoid a bad loss to Bowling Green in addition to a 3-pointer during the decisive run against Cincinnati. Davis is averaging 9.5 points in 22 minutes off the bench for the Musketeers.
Top newcomer: Joshua Smith, Georgetown
Smith so far is delivering on his talent in a way that rarely happened at UCLA. He’s playing fewer than 20 minutes per game, but he’s averaging a career-high 13.6 points. He’s still huge (6-10, 350 pounds), so his pace will be worth monitoring once the Hoyas get into conference play.
Surprise player: James Bell, Villanova
Villanova is usually at its best with big-time point guards, but this season, the Wildcats are led by their wings. No one has been a bigger revelation than Bell. A bit player last year, Bell is averaging 16.1 points per game. After scoring 20 points with nine rebounds against Iowa on Nov. 30, Bell was named the MVP of Villanova’s breakout performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Early season flop: Marquette
The preseason conference favorite has started 6-4 with only one decent win (George Washington). Marquette doesn’t have any awful losses according to the rankings, but it’s tough to forget the utter futility of a 52-35 loss at Ohio State. The Eagles are missing Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan, but Marquette also ranks ninth in the Big East in 3-point shooting (30.1 percent) and free-throw shooting (64.5 percent).
Lingering concerns: Besides Villanova, who has big wins?
Villanova is one of the surprise teams of the season after knocking off Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis, but the rest of the Big East is short on marquee wins despite ample opportunities. Georgetown has defeated VCU (but lost to Northeastern), Creighton has defeated Arizona State, and Xavier has defeated Tennessee and Cincinnati (but lost to the Volunteers on a neutral court weeks later). Our guess is that a Big East team or two will get burned by this by selection Sunday.
Best NCAA resume: Villanova
Villanova used wins over Louisville and Syracuse during the Big East season to seal an NCAA bid. The Wildcats this season have picked up two wins over ranked teams on neutral courts (Kansas, Iowa) and three Big 5 wins (Penn, St Joe’s, La Salle) during a 10-0 start. Villanova will have a shot at a major road win when it faces Syracuse on Dec. 28 during a stretch of four of five games on the road.
Thanks to the Heisman Trust, media folks and other voters had to wait until the day after the ceremony to reveal their ballots.
Not that it added to any of the suspense Saturday night: Jameis Winston’s coronation as the Heisman winner has been clear for weeks. Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota played themselves out of serious contention. The running back trio of Auburn’s Tre Mason, Boston College’s Andre Williams and Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey played themselves onto ballots in the final weeks.
All of that, and an investigation into a sexual battery allegation that yielded no charges, did not hinder Winston’s Heisman campaign. The Florida State quarterback turned in one of the most lopsided Heisman wins in the award's history. Winston had the seventh-largest margin of victory and ninth-most first-place votes, according to Chris Huston of HeismanPundit.com.
While the Heisman ceremony gave us little drama, we did learn a bit beyond Winston’s win.
Three Things We Learned from the 2013 Heisman Voting
Forget preseason Heisman lists. Midseason Heisman lists are meaningless, too. The 2014 Heisman watch has already begun, but the last four years should teach us not to give such lists much credence. Athlon isn’t exempt. Our preseason magazine will have a Heisman watch, of course. The Heisman watch is a fun discussion, and that’s about it. Of the last four Heisman winners, only Baylor’s Robert Griffin III even played the season before. Winston’s win gives us two redshirt freshmen and a junior college transfer to win the Heisman in the last four years. Preseason favorites AJ McCarron (second), Jordan Lynch (third), Johnny Manziel (fifth) and Braxton Miller (ninth) all made appearances, but the rest of the field was nowhere to be found on a list in August or September. Sixth-place finisher Tre Mason from Auburn hadn't even built enough clout to be a Doak Walker finalist before a 304-yard performance in the SEC championship game. That alone put him 277 points ahead of Bryce Petty, who was on everyone’s short list in October. Even Boston College’s Andre Williams used a monster November to finish ahead of defending winner Johnny Manziel. In future seasons, it wouldn't be inconceivable for a contender to appear on the scene and win the award in a span of two or three games in November.
Regional biases are still a big deal. Jameis Winston won every region by a significant margin, but the voters were provincial in picking the second and third spots on their ballots. Only the Far West didn’t show a regional bias with Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey finishing sixth. Elsewhere, the voters favored candidates in their backyard. Jordan Lynch was second in the Midwest. Johnny Manziel west second in the Southwest. Andre Williams was second in the Northeast. The Mid-Atlantic had AJ McCarron second, but ACC country also had Williams third. In the South, McCarron, Tre Mason and Johnny Manziel all lined up behind Winston.
Playing in front of a captive audience matters. On the surface, the Heisman resumes for Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch and Fresno State’s Derek Carr weren’t all that different. Both contenders had eye-popping statistics — Lynch’s 1,881 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns, Carr’s 4,866 passing yards and 48 touchdowns. Both lost their chance at BCS games late in the season. And both came into the season with notable fanfare. So how did Lynch finish third and Carr finish eighth? Lynch’s last four games were all primetime ESPN2 broadcasts on a Tuesday, two Wednesdays and a Friday. Lynch’s previous five games were only televised locally. Meanwhile, Fresno State had four kickoffs after 10 p.m. Eastern, all on Saturdays, in the final six games. Carr led his team to a Mountain West title on a game featured on CBS ... in a game that ended well after midnight Eastern. Lynch’s exposure late in the season in wins over Ball State, Toledo and Western Michigan, vaulted the NIU quarterback to third in the voting.
At first, the question for Kentucky’s trip to North Carolina on Saturday is: How did we get here?
The Wildcats and the Tar Heels have four losses between them. Kentucky’s two losses, even on neutral courts to major teams, are probably two more than fans hoped they’d see at this stage of the season. North Carolina’s two losses aren’t that surprising as a number. That the losses came to Belmont and UAB and not Louisville and Michigan State is shocking.
The more important question for John Calipari and Roy Williams is what happens next. Kentucky has this game, plus the all-important game against Louisville on Dec. 28. Calipari may have the best collection of freshmen in basketball history, but they’re still freshmen trying to find their way.
Williams has had similar lineup issues, exacerbated by the absence of projected starters P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. When his lineup is on, North Carolina can beat anyone. When Williams’ lineup is off, well, that’s how Carolina ended up as the nation’s biggest question mark.
Kentucky at North Carolina Game Preview
Time: Saturday, 5:15 p.m. Eastern
Site: Dean Smith Center, Chapel Hill, N.C.
One of four freshmen in the rookie of the year debate in college basketball, Randle has a double-double in all but two games this season, one of which was Kentucky’s loss to Baylor on Friday. Randle is averaging 17.8 points and 12 rebounds per game. Appointment viewing.
Top Matchup: Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein vs. North Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks
North Carolina’s freshman big man started to play like a big-time freshman in wins over UNC Greensboro and Michigan State. Meeks also had 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the win over Louisville on Nov. 24. Meeks will be facing Cauley-Stein, who has the advantage of a year of experience and three inches. The Kentucky forward has also flirted with triple-double numbers at times this season in the post, but Meeks is also gives North Carolina a leg up in transition as an excellent outlet passer.
Key Stat: 1-to-1. Andrew Harrison’s assist-to-turnover ratio in the last four games
Harrison has 12 assists and 12 turnovers in the last three games, and that includes a six assist, one turnover performance against Baylor. Kentucky, with all its youth, is still learning how to play together. The proof is in the point guard play.
Kentucky’s Key Storyline: James Young’s outside shot
The Kentucky wing Young has been on a hot streak in the last three games, hitting 11 of 22 shots from 3-point range. This comes after Kentucky shot 31.5 percent from 3 in the first seven games. Teams haven’t been shy about taking 3s against the Tar Heels this season — Belmont made 15 of 37 — so Young’s shot will be worth watching.
North Carolina’s Key Storyline: James Michael McAdoo’s slump
The North Carolina forward has been playing out of position at small forward at times, a factor that’s surely played a role in his slump recently. McAdoo was 4 of 8 for 13 points against UNC Greensboro, but he was 9 of 35 in the three games prior against Michigan State, UAB and Louisville. Facing Julius Randle probably isn’t conducive to breaking out of a funk.
It’s finals week for many schools across the country, so this has been a relatively quiet few days for many of the top freshmen.
Aaron Gordon doesn’t need to be the No. 1 player for Arizona, but he does play for the No. 1 team in the country this week.
Elsewhere, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle continue to play well but their teams as a whole are struggling. Kansas lost twice last week on the road, and Kentucky split games against Baylor and Boise State.
Despite the results, our top five remianed unchanged from last week. The action was in the bottom half where Zach LaVine — again despite a loss to Missouri — showed why he's going to be one of the more fun players to watch in the Pac-12. And we made a swith on Kentucky's second freshman in the rankings with James Young taking the place of Aaron Harrison after a standout week.
College Basketball Freshman Power Rankings: Dec. 13
1. Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Arizona remains undefeated and reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time since 2002-03 as Gordon has averaged 11.9 points and 8.5 rebounds. Gordon doesn’t need to be a superstar for Arizona to win, as was on display when Gordon went 2 of 10 from the field with eight rebounds in the win over UNLV on Saturday. He came back to score 11 of points on 5 of 12 shooting Wednesday against New Mexico State.
2. Jabari Parker, Duke
Duke is amid a nine-day layoff since beating Michigan on Dec. 3. Parker remains the second-ranked freshman in offensive efficiency by KenPom. He was 0 of 7 from 3-point range and 14 of 35 from the field in his last two games against Michigan and Arizona.
3. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Kentucky endured its second loss in two years to Baylor last Friday and its second loss of the season before bouncing back to beat Mountain West contender Boise State 70-55 on Tuesday. Randle scored 16 and 17, respectively. He’s a physically imposing matchup, but he also had four assists against Baylor. The big games for the Kentucky freshman class continue in the coming weeks against North Carolina (Saturday) and Louisville (Dec. 28).
4. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
Wiggins returned from his Battle 4 Atlantis struggles to scored 22 with five rebounds against Colorado and 26 points with 11 rebounds against Florida, both on the road. Wiggins needs help though. Kansas’ young roster lost both games ... and the Jayhawks still have New Mexico, Georgetown and San Diego State before conference play begins.
5. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
Syracuse remains among the ranks of the undefeated thanks to the play of its freshman point guard. Ennis has 44 assists and nine turnovers this season. His next game is a non-conference game with St. John’s (thanks, realignment!) at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
6. Zach LaVine, UCLA
USC hired the Dunk City coach, but UCLA’s LaVine has put on the dunk show in Los Angeles so far this season. The Bruins’ lost 80-71 to Missouri on Saturday, but LaVine finished with 13 points. In the process, though, LaVine showed why he’s going to be must-watch viewing. LaVine is also among the national leaders with a 72.8 effective field goal rate.
7. James Young, Kentucky
Outside shooting had been a liability for Kentucky earlier this season, but Young has become a top 3-point threat in recent games. Against Providence, Baylor and Boise State, Young was 11 of 22 from beyond the arc. Young averaged 17.7 points in the last three games.
8. Noah Vonleh, Indiana
Vonleh returned to form on the glass with 10 rebounds against Oakland and 11 rebounds against North Florida last week before facing Notre Dame on Saturday.
9. Austin Nichols, Memphis
Memphis has played once since beating Oklahoma State in the Old Spice Classic, easily defeating Northwestern State on Saturday. Nichols is averaging 11.7 points and 5.9 rebounds for the Tigers.
10. Eric Mika, BYU
Mike has scored in double figures in every game this season other than the opener and picked up his first career double-double against North Texas on Dec. 3. The Cougars forward scored 18 points and added eight rebounds in a wild 105-96 loss at UMass.
Out this week:
Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
Joel Embiid, Kansas
The Atlantic 10 was one of the biggest losers in conference realignment. Losing Xavier, Temple and Butler robbed the league of three of its most high-profile and well-respected programs.
The A-10 may not have the stature it once did, but not all is lost at the top of the conference.
Thanks to surprising starts for Dayton and George Washington, the Atlantic 10 has scored early season wins over Gonzaga, New Mexico, Creighton and Virginia. At least five teams will enter conference play with hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament.
The story of the league, though, is UMass. The Minutemen, who haven’t reached the NCAa Tournament since 1998, are off to an 8-0 start and entered the AP top 25 for the first time in 15 years behind the play of dynamic point guard Chaz Williams.
Early Season Report Card: Atlantic 10
Bubble watch: Saint Louis
Best win: Dayton 84, Gonzaga 79
Worst loss: New Hampshire 84, Duquesne 83
Power rankings so far:
4. George Washington
5. Saint Louis
7. St. Joe’s
8. La Salle
9. George Mason
10. St. Bonaventure
12. Rhode Island
Important non-conference games remaining:
La Salle at Villanova (Dec. 15)
UMass vs. Florida State (Dec. 21)
Providence at UMass (Dec. 28)
Dayton at Ole Miss (Jan. 4)
The 5-9 senior is finally starting to get national attention as UMass has jumped to an 8-0 start. Williams’ moxie was on full display Dec. 7 when the point guard scored 32 points and added 15 assists in a 105-96 win over BYU. Williams wasn’t afraid to mix it up with 6-10 BYU forward Eric Mika along the way. Surrounded by a veteran supporting cast, Williams is averaging a career-high 17.5 points and 7.6 assists.
Top freshman: DeAndre Bembry, St. Joseph’s
Fordham freshman Jon Severe leads the Atlantic 10 in scoring at 19.4 points per game, but our nod still goes to Bembry. The 6-6, 200-pound guard Bembry has heated up in Philadelphia Big 5 play with 12 points and nine rebounds against Temple and 17 points against Villanova. Bembry also scored 20 against Creighton. Now, all St. Joe’s needs are wins.
Top newcomer: Jordan Sibert, Dayton
Sibert has stepped in to fill the void left by departed guard Kevin Dillard. Sibert never found his way into the regular rotation at Ohio State, but he’s averaging a team-best 13.6 points per game for Dayton. The junior wing led the way in the Flyers’ 84-79 upset of Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational with 23 points on 8 of 11 shooting.
Surprise player: Maurice Creek, George Washington
Like Sibert, Maurice Creek is another Big Ten-to-Atlantic 10 transfer leading his team in scoring. But Creek has to take the award for the biggest surprise. He signed with Indiana in 2009 in a class with Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford before injuries derailed his career. He’s found a home at George Washington where he’s led the Colonials to a surprising 9-1 start with wins over Maryland and Creighton.
Early season flop: La Salle
No one really expected La Salle to look like a Sweet 16 team this season, but the Explorers don’t look like a team ready to compete for the Atlantic 10 title after losses to Manhattan, Penn State, Providence and Northern Iowa.
Lingering concerns: VCU
VCU is an Atlantic 10 contender and probably an NCAA Tournament team, but the ceiling may be a bit lower than in years past. The Rams are still forcing turnovers at a high rate (second to Louisville in opponent turnovers per possession), but VCU’s offensive numbers are down. The Rams rank 66th on Kenpom in offensive efficiency when they tend to rank in the top 25. They’re also converting only 65.3 percent of free throws. VCU’s two losses are to Florida State in a blowout and by four to Georgetown.
Best NCAA resume: UMass
Few teams in the Atlantic 10 can be considered an NCAA lock at this point of the year. The bottom portion of the league is going to be a drag on conference RPI, and losses to teams like Fordham, Rhode Island and Duquesne would fall into the “bad losses” column. UMass doesn’t have a win as good as Gonzaga (Dayton) or Creighton (George Washington), but the Minutemen have four wins over top-50 teams on Kenpom (New Mexico, Clemson, BYU and LSU).
Our hosts duke it out over a two-team and four-team playoff. Is it possible the BCS wasn’t all bad if it worked perfectly in a year like this?
We can’t ignore the chatter around the Texas job, whether it’s vacant yet or not. Should Nick Saban really consider leaving Alabama to coach the Longhorns?
And then finally, we get into some takeaways from the season. Our hosts go through each major conference and finish the sentence ... “2013 was the year that ...”
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