Articles By David Fox
Perhaps no team needed a coach or quarterback who can roll with the punches quite like Oregon.
While Ohio State has coped with injuries at the most visible position, Oregon has spent all season dealing with absences chipping away at its roster. The Ducks’ roster lost its first pieces in the preseason, and the trend continued into the week before the national championship game.
The failed drug test from wide receiver Darren Carrington means Oregon will be without four receivers and tight ends from its post-spring depth chart, not to mention 2013 starting left tackle Tyler Johnstone.
If Oregon looks like a team that doesn’t seem to be rattled by these key absences, pay attention to the demeanor of the two men at the Ducks’ key leadership positions at head coach and quarterback.
For sure, Ohio State has the same steady hand. So did Alabama, Florida State and any other team in contention for the semifinals at the end of the season.
As it does nearly everywhere else in its program, Oregon does this a little differently.
Mark Helfrich is unlike most coaches at power programs. He’s not a control freak like Nick Saban. He’s not someone who seems like he’ll burn out like Urban Meyer once did. Though he’s been repeatedly questioned about the fortitude of his team, he’s not as defensive as Jimbo Fisher has been at times this season.
And most important, he doesn’t share the kind of acerbic tone that marked his predecessor Chip Kelly.
He doesn’t have the tightly wound demeanor that seems to be a prerequisite to lead a national championship contender in 2015.
When a reporter asked Ohio State coach Urban Meyer how the Buckeyes’ would stop Oregon’s tempo offense, Helfrich interjected: “Be specific, please.” Earlier this season — in the controlled environment of a postgame press conference — a middle school student reporter explained that at his Catholic school there are three important things: “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota.” Helfrich, of course, rolled with it.
Imagine Saban in such an exchange.
Helfrich is a normal guy in an abnormal profession. You wonder what it might take to tick this guy off.
But this can be deceiving.
"His personality has a tendency to hide how fierce a competitor he is,” said Jim Palazzolo, Helfrich’s college coach at NAIA Southern Oregon. “He just seems to be able to internalize that and maintain his sense of humor, his glibness. He’s very, very consistent.”
Consistency is the same hallmark of Helfrich’s quarterback and not just because Marcus Mariota completes nearly 70 percent of his passes and rarely throws an interception.
Mariota is nearly as prolific as his Heisman predecessors. His image, though, isn’t as easy to define. Whether by their sideline demeanors or outward leadership (or flirtations with controversy), the last four Heisman winners — Jameis Winston, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton — all had a distinct personas.
They enjoyed being superstars. For Mariota, it seems like a bother. Before the Rose Bowl — to say nothing of Saturday’s championship media day — he seemed exhausted from the media circuit. After the season, he went from the awards ceremony in Orlando, to the Heisman ceremony and the Late Show with David Letterman in New York. After a break for Christmas in his home state of Hawaii, he went to three straight days in front of cameras for Rose Bowl prep.
He looked miserable.
“I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you I was looking forward to this being done,” Mariota said in his final media session before the semifinal win over Florida State.
On the field, Mariota was the same steady had he’d been all year, even though he lost his fastest receiver, Devon Allen, on the opening kickoff.
The stoicism is by design.
When he was the quarterback at the Saint Louis School in Honolulu, Mariota was the type who’d drop his head and unhook his chin strap after a bad play. Playing high school games under a Jumbotron, though, will give a young quarterback a quick lesson in body language.
“We played Aloha Stadium, so we had all the cameras,” said Darnell Arceneaux, Mariota’s high school coach who is now quarterbacks coach at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “We said, if you make a bad play or we have a three and out or the receiver drops it, the camera goes on two people, the head coach and the quarterback. When your teammates see you on that Jumbotron, that’s contagious.”
Arceneaux watched Mariota throw an interception against Florida State, not long after another would-be pick bounced off the hands of Seminoles safety Jalen Ramsey. Mariota never lost his cool.
“In that Rose Bowl, he throws that pick and you didn’t see that chin strap or that head go down,” Arceneaux said. “You saw a kid who let one get away and he worked through it.”
Indeed, Oregon has a coach-quarterback combination that’s not the norm for top contenders, not that it was ever unquestioned
Though he left Southern Oregon in 1995, Palazzolo never left the region. He’s a loan officer in Medford, Ore., and he heard the doubts about Helfric taking over Kelly’s program. Oregon had been on an upward trajectory ever since Rich Brooks led the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in 1994. Kelly took Oregon to its first national title game and made the Ducks a perennial contender.
Helfrich, an internal hire who might not have been a top candidate for any other top program in the country, was not viewed as the guy who would be able to lead the Ducks to the next step, a national championship.
“Chip was larger than life,” Palazzolo said. “He was progressive and new wave and his personality was distinct. That would be the nicest way to put it. There was a lot of speculation on who would replace Chip.”
The doubts persisted as Oregon finished 7-2 in the Pac-12 last season, losing a shot at the Pac-12 title with a 26-20 loss to Stanford and a rare loss to a major underdog in Arizona.
Did 2014 mark major growth for Helfrich as a coach? The results say that might be the case, but having Mariota healthy for an entire season doesn’t hurt. Still, players say Helfrich is a little more comfortable in his own shoes.
For all of his offensive wizardry, Kelly was distant. Helfrich’s softer hand is a welcome change.
“Not saying Coach Kelly didn't love his players, but Coach Helfrich’s door is always open," Mariota said. "He's always the guy that's asking how your family is doing, how you're doing.”
Oregon is a program without yelling, offensive coordinator Scott Frost says. He says players have more fun in the Oregon program
And maybe that’s the way it’s going to need to be done for some programs.
Coaches and players are pulled in more directions than ever before. With every misstep on and off the field documented, scrutiny is at an all-time high. Not every key player will be as — and this is not a bad thing — dull as Mariota.
The coach and quarterback who remains steady and rolls with the punches may be at an advantage.
“His personality lent itself to making that transition,” Palazzolo said. “The pressure was there, it was transparent. Somehow he was able to internalize all that stuff. I don’t think he felt like he was overcoming anything. He just had to put his own blueprint on this thing.”
This has been the week of close calls.
Since Jan. 3, Kentucky and Virginia have both needed an overtime game to preserve undefeated records. Duke needed a late rally against Wake Forest to preserve its unblemished record. And those are just the three remaining undefeated teams.
Ohio State, Iowa State and Kansas both needed some late heroics this week to pick up key conference wins.
That should be a clear sign that all the unpredictable results that come with conference play should be on the way in the coming weeks.
Kentucky, Virginia and Duke survived, but will be they be so lucky this weekend or next?
Jan. 10-11 Weekend Preview and Predictions
All times Eastern
Cincinnati at Connecticut
Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN2
The Bearcats remain an American Athletic Conference contender despite the absence of coach Mick Cronin, who is out for the remainder of the season due to health issues. Cincinnati are 4-1 without him, including a key win over presumptive AAC favorite SMU last week. Don’t expect anything pretty between two teams ranked in the top 25 of defensive efficiency and 86th and 96th in offensive efficiency on KenPom.
Prediction: UConn 52-47
Ohio State at Indiana
Saturday, noon, ESPN
If don’t already know D’Angelo Russell, maybe it’s time to fix that. The Ohio State guard is the best freshman north of Lexington and he’s quickly rounding into form. He’s shooting 21-of-46 and averaging 20.7 points per game in three Big Ten games so far. He could feast upon a bad defensive Indiana team. The Hoosiers could have the offense to keep up, but they’re a game removed from a a 50-point, 0.82 point-per-possession effort against Michigan State.
Prediction: Ohio State 78-66
Kentucky at Texas A&M
Saturday, 1 p.m. CBS
The Wildcats got their first real test of the season in an 89-86 win over Ole Miss in overtime at home. The impenetrable Kentucky defense allowed the Rebels to average 1.15 points per possession and shoot 47.6 percent from two-point range. On paper, the Wildcats shouldn’t have much trouble with an offensively- challenged Texas A&M team, but how Kentucky responds to a road trip after a home scare should be telling.
Prediction: Kentucky 67-52
Louisville at North Carolina
Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN
The Tar Heels’ momentum was halted with a 71-70 home loss to Notre Dame on Monday, and now North Carolina is in need of a signature moment this season. The Heels’ best wins are over UCLA and Florida in the Bahamas — that’s not going to cut it for an ACC contender. The Heels have been a surprisingly good defensive team this season, particularly defending the 3-point line (26.1 percent). Meanwhile, Louisville can’t find any consistency from long range.
Prediction: North Carolina 63-58
Baylor at TCU
Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2
Maybe that football rivalry and the end-of-year playoff debate will add a little juice to the first basketball meeting of 2015. Putting that aside, this is a key game for surprising Baylor. The Bears started the season 11-1 but have since dropped their first two Big 12 games. That should be an uneasy feeling for a Baylor team that started hot last season before dropping eight of its first 10 conference games. At 13-2, TCU isn’t the easy out it once was in Big 12 play, but the Horned Frogs are having trouble staying competitive in the second half of two Big 12 games so far.
Prediction: Baylor 64-57
DePaul at Villanova
Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Well, hello there, DePaul. The long-suffering Blue Demons should take a screen grab of those Big East standings as DePaul sits at 3-0 in the league. The Blue Devils’ next conference win, whenever it happens, will clinch their best Big East season since 2007-08. DePaul aren’t likely to beat Villanova, and it’s probable Oliver Purnell’s team is playing a bit over its head so far in conference play — DePaul lost six in a row just before league play began. Still, let’s take a moment to appreciate that DePaul is going to play meaningful basketball this season.
Prediction: Villanova 76-63
Texas at Oklahoma State
Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPNU
A critical momentum game for both teams. Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor has been back for two games, but the Longhorns were embarrassed at home by Oklahoma on Monday. The Sooners beat Texas 70-49 and led by as much as 28 points in the second half. Oklahoma State’s rally at Iowa State on Tuesday fell short, and now the Cowboys will try to get a good showing at home before a two-game road trip against Kansas and Oklahoma.
Prediction: Texas 63-61
Virginia at Notre Dame
Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Bet you didn’t expect this to be the game of the week or one of the most intriguing ACC games of the season. Undefeated Virginia visits South Bend for a showdown between high-scoring Notre Dame and the Cavaliers’ stifling defense. The Irish are coming off a game in which they scored a season-low 71 points — and won on the road at North Carolina. The Cavaliers have allowed more than 70 points in regulation once all season (Dec. 30 to Davidson).
Prediction: Virginia 68-65
Iowa State at West Virginia
Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
After a loss to South Carolina and a close call at home with Oklahoma State, Iowa State is entering a key stretch against three consecutive KenPom top 20 teams, two of which on the road (at West Virginia, at Baylor, Kansas). In theory, Iowa State should be getting stronger with 6-9 Marquette transfer Jameel McKay joining the team in the last four games. Meanwhile, West Virginia is one bizarre finish — a 74-73 loss to LSU — from being undefeated. The Mountaineers’ full-court press will be a test for an Iowa State team that traditionally had one of the best offenses in the country under Fred Hoiberg.
Prediction: West Virginia 65-61
Duke at NC State
Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS
Maybe Wake Forest had a good game plan. Maybe Duke’s getting a little bored. Either way, the Blue Devils needed a late flurry from Quinn Cook to put away the Demon Deacons 73-65 on Wednesday. Freshman star Jahlil Okafor struggled with only 12 points and five turnovers in Duke’s third consecutive game against a sub-top-100 team. That trend is about to change against NC State and then Miami, Louisville and Pittsburgh.
Prediction: Duke 75-65
From three yards and a cloud of dust, as Woody Hayes might say, to three plays per minute.
Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but when Ohio State is in the conversation to be one of the fastest national champions in college football history, the message is clear: The hurry-up, no-huddle is as mainstream as can be.
If Oregon wins the national championship, the Ducks will be the most up-tempo team to win the national title since at least the BCS era.
That’s not a surprise to anyone who follows college football closely.
This, though, is the revelation: If Ohio State wins the national title, the Buckeyes might end up one of the fastest champions since the start of the BCS era, too.
Ohio State still has a way to go to catch up to Oregon in tempo, but the Ducks and Buckeyes are running track meets compared to national champions since 1998.
“(Tempo is) an advantage for the offense,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer told reporters in Columbus earlier this week. “And if you don't take it, then that's fine. But even Alabama is moving in that direction, and is it full speed all the time? We're not, but certainly that gives us an advantage at times.”
Ohio State might not be the full-time tempo team like Oregon is, but either way, the Buckeyes or Ducks will be the first national champion since the BCS era to run 1,000 plays in a season. And that doesn’t have anything to do with playing a 15th game. Both easily crossed that threshold in the semifinals, their 14th game of the season.
Both teams average more than 72 plays per game — Oregon at 74.8 and Ohio State at 72.5. Only five BCS/AP champions in 16 years averaged more than 70 plays per game — 1999 Florida State (74.5), 2000 Oklahoma (71.9), 2004 USC, 2005 Texas (72.4) and 2007 LSU (71).*
*if that LSU team looks out of place, there’s a good reason for it. The “undefeated in regulation Tigers” played a total of six overtime periods in two games that season.
The plays per minute metric may be even more telling. Oregon averages nearly 2.8 plays per minute, which would be a BCS record by a wide margin.
Ohio State averages over 2.3 plays per minute. As it stands, the Buckeyes would be the fourth-fastest team to win a title since 1998.
|Pace of Play and National Championships|
|Year||Team||Games||Plays||Plays per Game||Plays per Minute|
*complete data unavailable
What’s that you say? Auburn-Oregon in 2010 was already the signal that tempo offense had arrived?
Maybe for Oregon. Even with Gus Malzahn running the offense, Auburn ran at a pace not that different from what came earlier in BCS championship history.
Under Chip Kelly, the Ducks averaged 78.8 plays per game and 2.9 plays per minute. Had the Ducks won that game, they would have been the most up-tempo champion by a mile.
Instead, Auburn won. And while Malzahn’s scheme and tempo set the tone for a new era in the SEC, that Tigers team was not as fast as either team in Dallas.
That Cam Newton-led Auburn team ran 67.7 plays per game, well below the 70-play threshold. The Tigers that season averaged 2.31 plays per minute, well behind Oregon’s pace this season and a smidgen behind Ohio State.
Perhaps that’s not the most startling of storylines until you examine where Ohio State and Urban Meyer started.
Meyer’s 2006 and 2008 championship teams at Florida were two of the four slowest champions of the BCS era in terms of plays per game. Ohio State’s 2002 title team ranks 11th of 17 champions in plays per game during that span.
“At Florida, there's a misunderstanding that we were a big tempo team,” Meyer said. “We weren't.”
All things change, and the tempo at Ohio State is among them. Meyer’s last two Buckeyes teams have averaged more than 71 plays per game and 2.28 plays per minute. As recently as 2008, Ohio State averaged 62.1 plays per game and fewer than two plays per minute.
In other words, the Buckeyes have gone from old school to new school in six seasons.
The irony is that Oregon isn’t running at its breakneck pace on every snap. The Ducks’ 2.76 plays per minute this season is their lowest since 2009.
Will this be the wave of the future? Oregon coach Mark Helfrich isn’t quite sure, though the change won’t come from the Ducks.
On Monday night in Arlington, one team’s national championship window might be opening while the other one might be closing.
First, don’t overreact. Both Oregon and Ohio State have proven their staying power on the big stage. The Ducks and Buckeyes will make College Football Playoff appearances in the years to come.
For Ohio State, the return trip might be a little sooner.
Of the 33 players who started at least one game for Ohio State this season, 13 of them came from the signing class of 2013. Six of those sophomores or redshirt freshmen started in the Sugar Bowl.
Contrast that with Oregon. True, the Ducks have a total of 14 freshmen, sophomores and redshirt freshmen who played regular snaps this season. But the Ducks are also relying heavily on the most veteran of veteran players.
Oregon started eight fifth-year seniors during the course of the season, including one who signed in the final class under Mike Bellotti two coaches ago. Six starters for Oregon in the Rose Bowl were fifth-year seniors.
There are many ways to build a national championship team, and few illustrate that better than Oregon and Ohio State in the title game this season. One is relying on young talent, the other on veterans. One is more likely to nab top-100 recruits, one has done a better job of developing three-star talent. And both tend to stay on their own sides of the Mississippi River to recruit.
Athlon Sports looked at every player who started a game for Oregon and Ohio State this season, giving us the 36 Ducks and 33 Buckeyes who have led the way for both teams to reach the final game of the 2014 college football season.
Here’s a look at how Oregon and Ohio State built contenders.
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Youth vs. Experience
|Signing Class||Ohio State (33 starters)||Oregon (36 starters)|
• On its face, Oregon’s 13 first- and second-year players would seem to put the Ducks on even footing with Ohio State’s 14 first- and second-year players. A deeper look proves otherwise. The Buckeyes’ last two signing classes produced standout defensive end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and running back Ezekiel Elliott — not to mention injured quarterback J.T. Barrett. Oregon’s last two signing classes produced running back Royce Freeman, wide receiver Devon Allen and starting guard Cameron Hunt among others.
• There’s no doubt Ohio State is Urban Meyer’s team. Take a look at the last three signing classes for Ohio State. Two-thirds (22 of 33) of all the players to start a game this season signed under Urban Meyer.
• Oregon’s team is a little more evenly distributed by signing class, not a surprise since the program has seen little upheaval on the coaching staff despite Mark Helfrich taking over for Chip Kelly in 2013.
• The Ducks, though, have an abundance of fifth-year seniors. Oregon started six fifth-year seniors in the Rose Bowl: safety Erick Dargan, center Hroniss Grasu, cornerback Troy Hill, wide receiver Keanon Lowe, linebacker Tony Washington and offensive guard Hamani Stevens. Stevens will be the oldest player in the game. He signed at Oregon in 2008 before leaving for a two-year religious mission.
Where are the five-star recruits?
|Star Ranking*||Ohio State||Oregon|
*according to 247Sports Composite
• Both teams pull their share of top recruits, so it’s a bit of a shock to see only a combined five five-star prospects getting significant snaps for Oregon and Ohio State. Maybe that has something to do with the lack of the recruiting-mad SEC in the title game.
• That said, all of the five-star prospects in this game are playing major roles: Ohio State safety Vonn Bell, defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and linebacker Curtis Grant are all starters. Oregon defensive tackle Arik Armstead is a starter. The lone exception is running back Thomas Tyner, who led Oregon in rushing in the Rose Bowl.
• Another unexpected twist: The best recruit for either team in the last five recruiting cycles isn’t on the roster. Ohio State defensive end Noah Spence, the No. 5 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012, was declared permanently ineligible earlier this season amid positive drug tests. Meanwhile, the most decorated player in the game, Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, was a three-star prospect.
• Oregon did an exceptional job of locating and developing three-star talent. Besides Mariota, Oregon’s best three offensive linemen (Grasu, Stevens and Jake Fisher) were three-star prospects as were the Ducks’ three starting linebackers.
• And let’s not paint with too broad a brush: Ohio State unearthed some good three stars itself in linebacker Darron Lee and quarterback Cardale Jones.
• Between the two of them, Oregon and Ohio State started only two junior college prospects all season and only one of them (Oregon linebacker Joe Walker) started in the semifinals. Ohio State signed two players out of high school but needed to wait for them to return from a prep school. They were worth the wait — the prep school Buckeyes were Cardale Jones and wide receiver Michael Thomas.
From coast to coast
|High Schools by State|
|Ohio (22)||California (16)|
|Oregon (6)||Florida (2)|
|Arizona (4)||Texas (2)|
|Hawaii (2)||Colorado, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey (1 each)|
|California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Virginia (1 each)|
• Few surprises here. Ohio State grabbed a majority of its key players from in-state with 22 Ohioans starting games for the Buckeyes this season. No other state pulled more than two. Oregon pulled 15 starters from the state of California, primarily from the Los Angeles metro area.
• Ohio State has one starter who went to high school in the West in Michael Thomas of Woodland Hills, Calif. Ohio State recruited him twice, once from his California high school and once from prep school in Virginia. Oregon, meanwhile, has four key players it recruited from a Big Ten state.
• The hometown crowd might not be too fired up about this: The game will feature more players from the state of Hawaii than the state of Texas. Oregon has two starters from Honolulu in Mariota and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. Ohio State started two players from Texas this season — quarterback J.T. Barrett and receiver Dontre Wilson.
LOS ANGELES — If there was a time this season to give up on Oregon playing for a national championship, odds are the Ducks’ offensive line was involved.
First, left tackle Tyler Johnstone, an NFL draft prospect, was lost for the season to a torn ACL before the season ever started. Oregon moved veteran Jake Fisher from right to left tackle, but optimism for that move was short-lived.
Then, Fisher went down with a leg injury after three games. So did reserve Andre Yruretagoyena. Oregon responded with its two worst games of the season, giving up seven sacks in a narrow win over Washington State and five sacks in a loss to Arizona.
Oddly enough, the loss seemed to enhance Oregon’s chances for the playoff once Fisher returned to the lineup. When Fisher was healthy, Oregon was unstoppable. It didn’t hurt that Arizona finished the regular season with 10 wins and a Pac-12 South title.
In Pasadena, though, there was reason for doubt again. Veteran center Hroniss Grasu had missed three final three games of the regular season. He, too, recovered in time.
Grasu and Fisher were both in fine form for the Rose Bowl, a game in which Oregon neutralized a Florida State defensive front stocked with pro potential.
“It's been patchwork all year,” Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said from Rose Bowl preparation. “Guys that were called on that didn't expect to play have done a great job.”
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Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards were reasons the Seminoles won the eye test in Pasadena. The final eye test, though, was in Oregon’s favor.
Goldman and Edwards were non-factors in the Playoff semifinal. Against the Ducks’ line, the duo didn’t have a single tackle, forced fumble or tipped pass.
In other words, they were absent from the final stat sheet. Marcus Mariota was never sacked, and the Ducks rushed for a total of 301 yards and five touchdowns. Oregon didn’t even move backward on a run play until backup quarterback Jeff Luckie was in the game in the fourth quarter.
Now, all the Oregon offensive line has to do for the Ducks to win the national championship is post similar results against one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
Florida State front has pro prospects, for certain, but Ohio State’s line is better. This is a group that had three sacks against Alabama’s Blake Sims and contributed to three interceptions in the semifinal. A game before that, it held Melvin Gordon to 76 yards and no runs of longer than 13 yards in the Big Ten title game.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota may be the top player on either team, but no collection of players may be more impressive than Ohio State’s defensive front.
One of the key matchups in the game will be between defensive end Joey Bosa, a unanimous All-America selection, against Fisher, who was slated to spend the season at right tackle until August.
This kind of a matchup isn’t likely to faze Fisher.
“Jake is a dog,” running back/wide receiver Byron Marshall said. “He doesn't take nothing from nobody, and I can appreciate that about him. If he gets pissed off, then it's good. Honestly, I like him mad. He gets to talking out there, and you can just see in his eyes that he's just ready.”
Oddly enough, Fisher, from Traverse City, Mich., committed to Michigan before the Wolverines fired coach Rich Rodriguez. Fisher now has a chance to beat Michigan State and Ohio State in the same season — but for Oregon.
While Fisher will continue to receive most of the accolades for Oregon’s offensive line thanks to the team’s performance when he’s in the lineup, he’s not the only difference-maker here.
A four-year starter and three-time All-Pac-12 selection, Grasu is one of the nation’s top centers. And although he missed the final three games of the regular season, he returned to pave through Goldman and the Semionles’ front line. Guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt are on a streak of 39 consecutive starts combined. When Grasu was out, Stevens was the one who moved from left guard to center.
And even tough Fisher’s injury exposed Oregon at the time, it provided freshman Tyrell Crosby with valuable experience. He’s started the last five games at right tackle. That includes no sacks allowed against Arizona or Florida State, a long way from his early starts against Washington State at Arizona.
“He was a freshman and trying to pick up the tempo of a college game,” Marshall said. “We were able to get that experience, help control the line that much more, and just helped us bust runs.”
What started as a patchwork is now a strength, perhaps enough of one to lead Oregon to its first national championship.
“Early on, when they were thrown in, they've had struggles, but those guys have really matured and developed as the year's gone along,” Frost said. “We've got more guys healthy right now than we've had almost the entire season.”
Sometimes, it’s nice to be proven wrong.
No one wants to watch a coach lose a job, but it’s a fact of life in college basketball that programs are paying for performance. Fail to perform a few years in a row and someone will pay the price, usually the head coach.
And most of the of the time, the trajectory of a program and a coach’s job is clear. Too many NITs, too many missed postseasons and the writing is on the wall for the coach’s last shot to save himself and his career.
That’s why it’s so remarkable to watch a coach turn a program, to watch a fired coach walking walk right into a contract extension. The pressure must be enormous and the buy-in may be tenuous.
But it happens again and again. Check any hot seat list from any given year and there’s likely a coach there who kept his job. For example, who at the start of last season though Rick Barnes was on his last legs at Texas?
A loss to Oklahoma on Monday notwithstanding, Barnes is doing just fine at Texas in 2014-15.
Who could be this year’s version of Rick Barnes? Here are a few candidates who might make the turn from coach in trouble to coach of the year this season.
Mark Turgeon, Maryland
All signs pointed to a mess of a season for Mark Turgeon, who entered the Big Ten losing five members of last year’s rotation to transfers. Instead, the Terrapins are at or near the top of the heap at No. 2 behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Maryland started 14-1 with wins over Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Michigan State and Minnesota. The only loss is to Virginia. The Terps' offense has caught up to the defense with the highest offensive efficiency (31st) on KenPom in Turgeon’s four seasons at Maryland. Moreover, he’s done this with only eight games from Dez Wells. Four-star freshman guard Melo Trimble is averaging 16.2 points per game, and guard/forward Jake Layman has emerged as a 55 percent shooter, up from 40 percent last season.
Travis Ford, Oklahoma State
Ford was pointed to a no-win scenario in 2014-15. The Cowboys were already coming off a season that came unraveled despite the presence of Marcus Smart and Markel Brown. Oklahoma State is 11-2, one game off from last year’s mark of 12-1 at this point. Le’Bryan Nash and Phil Forte are still here, and Anthony Hickey’s career has been revived after his transfer from LSU. Some of those wins don’t look as good as they normally would (Memphis, Missouri, Kansas State), and there are plenty of questions on how the Pokes will perform in a deep Big 12 again. Still, Ford appeared to be headed to another long season. The Cowboys at least will be competitive.
Steve Lavin, St. John’s
Lavin has had trouble matching the NCAA appearance in 2011. Granted, not all of that record the last three seasons is due to his coaching. In the two years since he returned from a bout with prostate cancer, St. John’s is 18-18 in the Big East with two NIT appearances. Could the Johnnies be pulling out of that slump? They started 11-1 with a wins over Syracuse and Minnesota and the lone loss coming to Gonzaga. St. John’s is 0-2 in the Big East and may start with a third consecutive loss to Villanova on Tuesday. It’s worth noting, however, that a four-point loss to Butler came without second-leading scorer Rysheed Jordan.
Kevin Willard, Seton Hall
A former Rick Pitino aide, Willard looked like he had Seton Hall on the road to relevance with an NIT appearance in his second season in 2012. That came crashing down with 3-15 Big East mark in 2013 and a 6-12 mark last year. Willard’s fifth season with the Pirates may shape up to be his best and not entirely due to the arrival of highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead, though he's a big part of it. Seton Hall is 12-2 with a pair of wins over St. John’s and Villanova to start Big East play. Both have come without Whitehead, who missed the last three games with a stress fracture in his right foot. The Pirates have cracked the top 20 in the AP poll for the first time since 2001, Tommy Amaker’s final season.
Lorenzo Romar, Washington
Romar is a survivor, that’s for sure. He’s been at Washington for more than a decade and he’s rebuilt the the Huskies twice during his tenure. He may be on his away to another renaissance in Seattle after three consecutive years without an NCAA Tournament appearance. The Huskies started 11-0 with wins over San Diego State and Oklahoma. Nigel Williams-Goss remains one of the nation’s most underrated point guards, and Fresno State center Robert Upshaw solidified the interior defense with 4.6 blocks per game. The last three games spoiled an otherwise stellar start with an 0-2 start to Pac-12 play and a loss to Stony Brook. Still, no one expected much out of this Huskies team.
Trent Johnson, TCU
Johnson might not have been on the hot seat entering the season, given the uphill climb TCU has in the Big 12. Going 2-34 in the conference in the first two seasons, though, isn’t a great omen for job security. TCU started the season on a 13-game winning streak. The Horned Frogs did zero heavy lifting during that win streak. Six games were against sub-300 opponents compared to one against a top-100 opponent (Ole Miss). Still, TCU ranked 234th on KenPom last season and won only nine games. The Frogs will take it.
Still in limbo...
Tom Crean, Indiana
The scene in Indiana has calmed from a few months ago when a series of off-court incidents left Crean with a depleted roster. An NCAA Tournament bid isn’t completely out of the question as the Hoosiers have wins over SMU, Pittsburgh, Butler (on a neutral floor) and Nebraska (on the road) on the resume. Indiana is going to score a bunch, take a ton of 3s and not play a much defense. That’s a recipe to at least keep things interesting down the stretch.
Mike Anderson, Arkansas
Arkansas’ fate in the SEC will be intriguing as always. The Razorbacks are 11-2 but their best win is over SMU and the losses came to Iowa State in a blowout and Clemson. If the Razorbacks can’t win enough against teams not named Kentucky in the SEC to make the NCAA Tournament, Anderson will be in some trouble.
Anthony Grant, Alabama
The Crimson Tide might be feeling a bit better had Alabama found a way to hold a lead against Wichita State on Dec. 16. Instead, the Tide lost 53-52 and enter SEC play without a top 50 win. Unfortunately for Grant, once considered one of the up-and-comers in the sport, this situation is all too common.
Bowl season has a funny way of changing uninteresting September matchups into must-see TV.
That Western Michigan-Air Force game in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl might not have been on anyone’s radar on the second Saturday in September, but by virtue of being a bowl, the game deserves at least a bit of attention.
The Birmingham Bowl might be the opposite.
In September, East Carolina-Florida would be a compelling early season matchup — the offensive-minded American Athletic Conference upstart facing a defensively stout, yet vulnerable, SEC team.
As a bowl game in the no-man’s land between New Year’s Day and the championship game, though, it’s decidedly lower tier, and both teams share some of the blame.
Florida is between two coaching regimes. While interim coach D.J. Durkin leads Florida into the bowl, new coach Jim McElwain is filling his staff and looking to 2015. Two Gators have already declared for the NFL Draft.
Like Florida, East Carolina had an uneven season. The Pirates seemed destined for a major bowl spot back in September when they picked up two wins against ACC teams. Those dreams faded with back-to-back losses against Temple and Cincinnati on the road to start November. The Pirates added a 32-30 loss to UCF on a Hail Mary to wrap up the regular season.
If both teams play to their potential, though, this could be a compelling game. East Carolina has a reputation as a giant-killer against ACC teams, but the Pirates can’t say the same against the SEC. The game will pair ECU’s Air Raid against a solid Florida pass defense, highlighted by the matchup between receiver Justin Hardy and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Florida should be out to set the tone for 2015 behind sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, who led the Gators’ late-season spurt.
East Carolina vs. Florida
Kickoff: Jan. 3, Noon ET
Spread: Florida by 7
East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Solve the Florida secondary
The bread-and-butter to the Pirates’ offense is easy to figure out: East Carolina comes from the Mike Leach/Air Raid school of offense. Using that approach, East Carolina defeated Virginia Tech (427 passing yards, three touchdowns) and North Carolina (446 yards, four touchdowns, one interceptions) in September. Consistency, though, was lacking. Quarterback Shane Carden still finished third in the nation in passing yards per game and in the top 30 in efficiency. Wide receiver Justin Hardy will finish his career with more receptions than anyone in college football history. ECU, though, will need to return to its early season form against a stout Florida secondary led by sophomore corner Vernon Hargreaves III. The Gators are one game removed from intercepting Jameis Winston four times and finishing fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Florida’s Key to Victory: Keep the eye on the prize
The Gators will have all the excuses to snooze through the game in Birmingham. Florida will be playing under an interim coach while it waits for Jim McElwain to take over. Running back Matt Jones and defensive end Dante Fowler already have announced intentions to go to the NFL Draft. And the Gators will be facing their first non-power conference program in a bowl since facing Miami (Ohio) in the 1973 Tangerine Bowl. Florida should have a substantial talent edge — particularly on defense — but we’ve seen the script in a bowl game before. The last time Florida played in a bowl with an interim coach was 10 years ago after Ron Zook was fired. Charlie Strong led an uninterested team to the Peach Bowl where the Gators lost 27-10 to Miami.
East Carolina has earned a reputation as a spoiler the last two seasons, going 4-1 against ACC programs. The Pirates, though, haven’t defeated an SEC opponent since South Carolina in 1999, going 0-5 in that span. Florida would be ripe for the picking in the Birmingham Bowl. That said, East Carolina tailed off at the end of the season, losing three games in AAC play once it became the clubhouse leader for a major bowl appearance. For all of it struggles, Florida hit a stride on offense late in the season once the Gators changed quarterbacks from junior Jeff Driskel to freshman Treon Harris. Which edition of these two streaky teams shows up in Alabama will determine the course of the game.
Prediction: East Carolina 28, Florida 21
PASADENA, Calif. — Credit to Jameis Winston for being a true believer.
The Florida State quarterback kept talking about trying to mount a comeback in a game that finished 59-20, a game that featured a 34-0 run thanks to four turnovers in four possessions.
He described the game as “unfortunate.”
“We were never stopped at all,” Winston said. He talked about Florida State beating itself.
Sure, that’s confidence. And what else should Winston be expected to say after a loss like that?
It’s also lunacy.
Oregon is good. Oregon is national championship good. Oregon is championship good down to every last man, it seems.
A message for the Ducks' championship foe Ohio State: Don’t believe Winston. Nothing about a 59-20 rout was a fluke or some series of lucky bounces or even one player getting a lucky on broken coverage.
Oregon set Rose Bowl records for total yards (639) and scoring. The Ducks scored the most points against a Florida State team since 1985 when Auburn’s Bo Jackson was the one doing the damage.
And put in greater context, what the Ducks did to Florida State was more staggering.
This was a game in which Marcus Mariota threw an interception, something that happened only twice all season. He nearly threw two picks with one pass bouncing out of the hands of Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey.
Mariota wasn’t sharp early, but giving him a short field five times is begging for embarrassment. Oregon obliged Florida State's request.
Mariota completed 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns all of it after his top deep threat left the game with a knee injury sustained on the opening kickoff.
Oregon's offense didn't sustain even a hiccup without Devon Allen.
A running back who didn’t play the last three games rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
A receiver who didn’t have a catch in four games this year caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
A tight end who caught four passes all year ended up catching six for 73 yards.
These sorts of things don’t happen by chance. They happen because Oregon has built a program with enough depth so that Thomas Tyner, Darren Carrington and Evan Baylis can contribute on the biggest stage on a moment's notice.
“Those guys did vital stuff without the ball, which was vital for our success,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We had to win on the perimeter both in the run game and bubble game and all that stuff goes into it.”
And then there were the turnovers. Two fumbles were clawed out of the hands of Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Others came on pressure of Winston.
And again, Oregon had an built-in excuse if the Ducks had major lapses defensively. Starting cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was lost to a torn ACL during practice back in Eugene. No doubt, it was a blow from a personnel perspective and leadership perspective.
Without their best defensive player, the Ducks gained five turnovers, scoring 34 total points off takeaways. Oregon’s lone squandered opportunity off a turnover was a blocked extra point.
That’s dominance. Winning a game under less than ideal circumstances is the sort of thing national champions do. Oregon did it by 39 points.
“We were just ready for the fight,” linebacker Tony Washington said. “And we came out on top.”
PASADENA, Calif. — Jimbo Fisher likes to say the first 39 games were the key to the next 29.
That may be true, with the first three seasons setting the stage for an astounding 29-game run in which the Seminoles didn’t lose a game.
If Fisher’s first 39 was the key to this era of Seminoles football, the next 12 games will be the key to Fisher’s program.
The Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl in spectacular fashion, ending their bid to win another national championship. Florida State will soon learn of its place atop the college football world slipped away in the same way Jameis Winston slipped at the Oregon 28 yard line and spit the ball up into the hands of Tony Washington. The linebacker ran it back 58 yards for a backbreaking touchdown.
In that moment, Florida State’s chances of pulling the wild second-half comeback, as the Seminoles had done all season, were over.
“It was a great run,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It was an extremely great run. Hopefully, we can put together another one.”
Florida State heads back to Tallahassee not planning for a national championship game. The Seminoles instead begin the process of looking to a 2015 season in which they stand to lose key personnel, both seniors and draft-eligible sophomore and juniors.
In the next 12 games, Florida State will learn if this was simply the Jameis Winston era or the re-start of an era of Seminoles’ dominance.
Can Florida State do what programs like Alabama do, in replacing first-round talent on a year-to-year basis? Or even Oregon, which perennially has replaced offensive personnel and head coaches and remained the West’s top program.
In Fisher’s first 39 games as head coach, Florida State was 29-10 overall and 18-6 in the ACC. That’s great for most programs, but for FSU, it was enough to label the Noles as something of an underachiever.
The 29-game win streak began with a 21-15 against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game on Dec. 1, 2012, but the era will be remembered for Winston.
“He’s one of the great players in not only college football (today), but in college football history to me,” Fisher said.
For all the baggage that comes with Winston, this one fact is staggering: Thursday was the first time he left a college football field after a loss.
It may be the only time.
Winston said he’s looking forward to next season, pausing ever so briefly before amending his comment with “playing baseball.” Is that indication he may stay in college football? It's foolish to take anyone's draft statements on the last day of the season at face value.
He’s probably a first-round draft pick, and despite the team-wide collapse in the Rose Bowl, Winston showed why he’ll be considered for the No. 1 overall pick — for starters, converting a third-and-21 with a 23-yard pass.
Even if for some unexpected reason Winston stays at Florida State, the Seminoles will incur significant losses.
Four offensive line starters are seniors. So is Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary and prolific and underrated receiver Rashad Greene. Defensive linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could leave early.
The momentum was going to change in 2015 if Florida State lost by 39 in the semifinal or if the Seminoles won the national championship.
The question now is if Fisher has the pieces to sustain the program that’s become accustomed to being on top again.
Teams that stay on top stack elite recruiting class on top of elite recruiting class. In that way, Florida State is there with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world.
The Seminoles have the No. 5 class in the 2015 247Sports Composite. If that holds, FSU will have four top-five classes in the last five recruiting cycles. The exception was a class ranked 10th.
Recruiting rankings can lie, though. Florida State would be better served looking at the current roster.
Safety Jalen Ramsey was arguably the best player on the defense, a disruptor at Florida State’s critical “star” position. He’ll be a junior next season.
Left tackle Roderick Johnson is a 6-foot-7, 330-pound future All-American. He’s a freshman.
And finally there’s Dalvin Cook, perhaps the best sign for the program, though it didn’t always seem that way in the Rose Bowl.
He fumbled twice, stripped by Oregon defenders. The Ducks scored twice off his fumbles, the catalyst for 34 unanswered points.
So many times this season, Cook was Florida State’s most clutch runner. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the first Seminoles freshman to do so.
But he’s a freshman and he made two critical gaffes that played a part in ending Florida State’s season. FSU could have protected him. Cook could have protected himself and snuck out of the locker room without comment.
Cook remained in the locker room talking to reporters after the game. He answered each question and left.
Next stop: 2015, ready or not.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the Rose Bowl lacked for drama, but there was hardly time to spend time pondering a lopsided final score in the first College Football Playoff semifinal.
Oregon’s unraveling of Florida State was so quick and sudden, there wasn’t much time to think about it.
A five-point third quarter lead ballooned to a 39-point rout in 11 minutes and 31 seconds of game time.
Oregon defeated Florida State 59-20 to advance to the national championship game in Dallas on Jan. 12. The Ducks will face the winner of the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State.
Florida State, meanwhile, saw the end of its 29-game winning streak in spectacular fashion in what may be the final game for Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Oregon 59, Florida State 20
Player of the game: Marcus Mariota
Fumbles were the determining factor of Florida State’s loss, but Mariota was the one who capitalized on turnovers. He had an uneven first half, throwing an interception and nearly throwing another that was dropped by Jalen Ramsey. Mariota took over with short field and led 34 unanswered points until he was lifted in the fourth quarter. The Heisman winner completed 26-of-36 passes for 337 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Turning point: Winston’s fumble with 1:36 left in the third quarter
The fumble was bizarre as Winston scrambled around trying to make a play after his team gave up two quick scores. Winston slipped on the turf and gave up an unforced fumble. Linebacker Tony Washington took it back 91 yards for a touchdown to give Oregon a 45-20 lead. There would be no more Florida State comebacks after that.
Unsung hero: Evan Baylis
Oregon’s senior tight end caught four passes all season. With wide receiver Devon Allen sidelined just before the game, Baylis helped fill the void as the Ducks’ second-leading receiver. He finished with six catches for 73 yards.
Needed more from: Dalvin Cook
That’s a tough thing to say about a player who rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries, but even before Cook fumbled twice in the second half, Florida State needed him more. Now, part of that is on Jimbo Fisher. Cook was slicing through the Oregon defense but Fisher twice pulled him in the red zone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence Florida State twice settled for field goals.
Critical call: Darren Carrington’s 57-yard touchdown catch
Oregon’s freshman receiver got a break when Tyler Hunter slipped on the turf helping him to a 57-yard touchdown in the third quarter to take a 32-20 lead. The play call, though, was perfect. Cornerback P.J. Williams crept up to the line to defend a receiver who caught a short pass seven yards a play earlier. Mariota instead went to the next level to catch Carrington in one-on-one coverage.
Stat that matters: 34
Oregon outscored Florida State 34-0 on turnovers as the Seminoles collapsed in the second half with three fumbles and an interception on four consecutive possessions.
PASADENA — For college football fans of a certain age or fans from a certain part of the country, the Rose Bowl holds special significance.
It was college football’s first postseason game. Back when bowl games could be counted on two hands, the Rose Bowl was the greatest prize.
For fans in the Midwest or the North, the Rose Bowl was a brief escape from winter, even if they were watching on television.
The next generation, though, probably views the Rose Bowl with more cynicism. It’s now one of 39 bowl games. Tradition is tossed out a little more readily than it once was, even the Big Ten and Pac-12’s grip on the Granddaddy of them All.
You can't even watch the game with a TV antenna. It's on basic cable now.
As the bowl system gave way to the BCS and now the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl is having an identity crisis the other bowls have not.
During the BCS era, the game hosted a Big Ten and Pac-12 team 10 times in 16 years and not necessarily champions of the respective leagues.
At one point, the game and conferences were so gripped by the tradition, the Rose Bowl invited a 13th-ranked, three-loss Illinois team simply because it could. That team lost 49-17 to USC.
The game invited TCU for the 2011 game only because the BCS contract required it to. The Frogs defeated the Big Ten champion Wisconsin 21-19.
And now in the first year of the playoff, the Rose Bowl is encountering the unthinkable. Florida State is returning tickets. The Rose Bowl wasn’t a sellout in the days before the game.
Chris Fowler, ESPN’s venerable play-by-play broadcaster, isn’t quite sure what kind of game he’s calling on Jan. 1
“This is a different-feeling game, and we’re wrestling with that as a production,” Fowler told Athlon Sports. “Do you present it as ‘the Rose Bowl’ and how much do you focus on that fact that is the first semifinal game staged at the Rose Bowl.
“It’s going to feel unlike any other Rose Bowl that’s ever been played. When it’s over, there’s confetti and a trophy, but very quickly the winning team will begin to look forward to an even bigger game in 11 days.”
The Rose Bowl isn’t what it once was. This is good.
As a child in Cookeville, Tenn., Mack Brown watched the Rose Bowl with his family. As a coach at Tulane, North Carolina and Texas, he thought he’d never have a chance to coach there.
No matter, he thought, the Rose Bowl was all hype.
Then Texas went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 2005 as the Longhorns replaced the Pac-10 champion USC who were playing for a BCS title in the Orange Bowl.
Before the game, Brown called former USC coach John Robinson to ask about the game.
“He said it’s the coolest thing in the world,” Brown said. “Not many coaches get to do it. Not many players get to play in the Rose Bowl. (He said) ‘I want you to walk out there pregame and look out there in those rolling hills and the sun’s going down and I want you to say ‘this is really cool.’ Then go coach to win the game.’ He was right.”
If a Tennessee-born coach at Texas can go to the Rose Bowl and marvel in it, then the Rose Bowl will survive, even if the game isn’t a sellout in 2015.
The idea of a Big Ten champion facing a Pac-12 champion in the Rose Bowl is all but gone. Moments like last seasons, when Michigan State reached its first Rose Bowl since 1987 and won its first game in Pasadena since then, will be exceedingly rare in the new system.
Big Ten and Pac-12 teams stating season goals of reaching the Rose Bowl won’t have the same ring. In two out of three years, the game will be a consolation prize.
In the playoff, the Rose Bowl will host a national semifinal once every three years. In the other two years, the Rose Bowl will have a Big Ten and Pac-12 team by contract, but one or both of the conference champions from those leagues likely will be in the Playoff.
“If you grew up with it you miss seeing that Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup,” said Kirk Herbstreit, who will be Fowler’s broadcast partner for the Rose Bowl. “If you’re a traditionalist, to get to that playoff, you had to give up a little bit. You lose some of the tradition but you open up the doors for others to appreciate what the bowl game is.”
The idea of a team returning tickets to the Rose Bowl is surprising, but not every team is Florida State or Oregon.
The Seminoles were in Pasadena just last season for the final BCS title game. It’s tough to blame fans who aren’t interested or able to make back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl. Or if they’d rather hold out for the national championship game in Dallas.
The Ducks have been here three times since the 2009 season.
SEC fans might react to a Rose Bowl semifinal with more enthusiasm. Or Notre Dame fans. Or Baylor fans. Or Boise State fans.
Conference contracts can change. Sunsets can’t.
Four of the New Year’s Six bowl games — the Fiesta, Sugar, Peach and Cotton — are played in domes. One of the exceptions, the Orange Bowl, is played in a sterile, enclosed NFL stadium.
That leaves the Rose Bowl as the only major college football bowl game that stands as a tourist destination unto itself.
“I’ve always said the setting is like a Hollywood set,” Fowler said. “The field is immaculate, something about the quality of the light, the way the stadium sits below the San Gabriel Mountains. It lends itself to great drama.”
Rick Neuheisel calls himself a Rose Bowl enthusiast. He played in the game twice for UCLA. He went once as an assistant with Bruins. He went a fourth time as a head coach for Washington.
Perhaps inadvertently, he gets to the crux of why the end of one tradition for the Rose Bowl may ultimately a positive for college football.
The game is no longer the exclusive destination of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams and hasn't been for nearly 20 years. It’s open to everyone. The pool of teams that can play in the Rose Bowl is wider, and therefore more the experience is more unique.
And every three years, the drama, by virtue of being a playoff game, will be magnified.
“I think it’s cool when one of those (nontraditional) teams gets to come, they finally get it and why the Big Ten and Pac-12 have held such a tight grip on it,” Neuheisel said. “You don’t want to give that experience up for anything.”
PASADENA, Calif. — If all goes well, the honeymoon could be in Dallas. After all, the wedding reception will be the Rose Bowl.
Steve Twomey and Lisa DeFluri didn’t plan for a big wedding when they packed up their Honda Pilot and drove from Eugene, Ore., to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
Just a little ceremony with Steve’s mother and stepfather in the parking lot at the Rose Bowl. Lisa’s mom watched via FaceTime on an iPhone perched on the rear windshield wiper.
Steve’s stepfather, Randy, officiated — he’s a retired firefighter who “did the online credentials.”
The 25-year-old Oregon fans, though, drew a crowd as they exchanged vows under a green and yellow altar at a tailgate in the Rose Bowl, just hours before their beloved Ducks faced Florida State in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
The seventh-grade sweethearts, school teachers both, started to plan on a football-themed wedding, first at the San Francisco 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Those plans were scrapped, and they started talking about a beach wedding in Santa Cruz, Calif.
After selection Sunday on Dec. 7, the subject of the Rose Bowl came up and the couple thought, why not? Steve grew up an Oregon fan in Washington (his mom also was a fan) and fondly remembers "the Joey Harrington days." Lisa liked the helmets and quickly converted when they watched games on the couch together.
Since there wasn’t an official wedding photographer, we took a few shots for the bride and groom:
Just watched a couple get married at a Rose Bowl tailgate. really. pic.twitter.com/vG4RhEvHp3— David Fox (@DavidFox615) January 1, 2015
Reading vows. He mentioned their cat. -df pic.twitter.com/KmwNdGDZ13— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
Marking the occasion... pic.twitter.com/DPn4QxVfKZ— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
And the wedding cake. pic.twitter.com/K6MOSmhka0— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
LOS ANGELES — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher probably didn’t mean anything derisive in the way he described Oregon and how it's become an attractive destination.
The reasons are clear why it’s cooler to be a Duck in 2014 than it was in 1994 — it’s the offense, it’s the uniforms, it’s the Nike-fueled facilities. It’s not necessarily because kids from Texas and California can’t wait to live in a dorm in Eugene, Ore.
But Fisher probably wouldn’t use the word “niche” to describe Nebraska, Tennessee or Notre Dame — other programs that have to recruit nationally.
“What you have to create is a niche,” Fisher said. “For people who want to come from long distances to come to a university, why are they coming there? There's something that you have that someone else, if you're bypassing all these places, could it be facilities? Could it be uniforms? They also win a lot of football games.”
But Oregon hasn’t won the game.
The Ducks have been on a steady rise since Rich Brooks took Oregon to the Rose Bowl two decades ago but a national championship is still unchecked on the to-do list.
Oregon doesn’t have the most wins in college football history without a national title to show for it (that would be West Virginia at 719 wins).
But in the last 20 years, they’ve reached major bowl games with four different coaches. They’ve won Rose Bowls. They’ve won the Pac-12. They added the school’s first Heisman Trophy when Marcus Mariota did it less than a month ago.
They’ve even been involved in a recruiting scandal.
In other words, Oregon has done all the things the nation’s powerhouse programs do except win a national title.
The Ducks enter the College Football Playoff as the only team without a national championship. During the BCS era, the other three teams in this year's playoff combined for five.
It’s strange to say Oregon’s program needs validation. The Ducks are indeed one of the powers of college football, the top program right now in the West.
But even second-year coach Mark Helfrich acknowledges perception might change if Oregon can win two more games this season.
“It would validate things externally a lot more than I think internally,” Helfrich said.
Anyone who remembers the pre-Brooks era in Eugene would probably agree that the program is plenty validated. Oregon has done something remarkable in the last 20 years. Think about the powerhouses in college football — programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and a handful of others.
All of those programs have a history that stretches back to the eras of leather helmets and single wing football.
Oregon didn’t start trying in earnest to field a perennial contender until the 1990s.
The Rose Bowl will feature a team trying to repeat as national champions and a team seeking its first national title. Recent history suggests that Florida State has the easier task.
Since the last time a program won its first national championship in school history (Florida, 1996), a team won back-to-back championships twice (Alabama, USC).
It's funny, then, that Florida State was once in Oregon’s shoes.
Before the Seminoles won their first national title in 1993, the Seminoles were close to a national title but couldn’t quite reach the summit. Bobby Bowden led six consecutive teams to the top four in the AP poll before finishing No. 1 in ’93.
“There’s pressure,” said quarterback Danny Kanell, who was a sophomore on the ’93 title team. “I remember being there with Bobby Bowden, and he got knocked for not being able to win the big game or being able to win the championship. There was a big sigh of relief for him and the program.”
Kanell is hearing the same things about Oregon that he heard about FSU.
“Right now people are saying they can win the Pac-12, they can run around, they can look good in their uniforms, they can put up a lot of points, but they can’t hang with the big boys, big physical teams like Florida State has,” he said.
That perception changes with a trophy.
If Oregon wins a national championship, the Ducks won’t have to answer for being a finesse team (yes, that still happens). Instead, they’ll be a true power player.
“It separates you from everyone who hasn’t,” former Texas coach Mack Brown said. “The day after we won the national championship, I asked Coach (Darrell) Royal what does this mean. It means you’ve done something that very few people do. It means when you speak, people will listen to you differently than they did before. They will look at you differently than they did before. And for the fans, the expectations will be higher.”
The Ducks are already one of the nation’s most unique powerhouses. They rarely change leadership or philosophies on a whim. Ever coach since Brooks has been an internal hire. Assistants tend to stay for decades rather than jumping from job to jobs.
Helfrich hardly carries himself like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Fisher. The job doesn't seem to consume him. He's almost a normal guy, for a college football coach.
So what will change for Oregon if they win a national championship, whether this year or in another season?
"I'm sure a lot, and I'm sure not much,” Helfrich said. “I think nationally, hopefully, the perspective of not only our team but our conference would elevate, and the SEC has had that right to puff out their chest and with very good reason for the past several years, but we think we're doing a lot of the right things on this side of the country.”
LOS ANGELES — The coaches in the College Football Playoff will say over and over again that they’re not looking ahead to the national championship game.
At least one part of the operation has to look ahead if they expect to win a championship.
The winners of the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl likely will start planning for the national championship game on Jan. 2 on the way back to campus.
The only way they can do that is thanks to undergraduate assistants and unpaid interns who will load their iPads and laptops with broken-down game film.
“We already have Ohio State and Alabama broken down because when you get back you've got to hit the ground running,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We have to prepare for that. If it doesn't, it doesn't and we'll have great film to study in the offseason.”
If being an intern on a college football coaching staff feels like a thankless job, think of the staffers who will break down film of a team that loses Thursday. Or worse, breaking down film for a coach who gives his concession speech at the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl.
The film that does make it to the team planes on Friday, though, will be a welcome sight.
“The interns have to look ahead a little bit,” said Oregon graduate assistant Nate Costa, a former Ducks quarterback who now manages the scout team. “The only thing we’ll do for potential opponents is have interns break down the film, you’ve got to insert gains, yardages, blitzes, formations. That has to be assembled by the interns.”
This is new ground for the College Football Playoff era. Certainly, teams in conference championship game situation have to break down and evaluate game film of a team on shorter notice, but those are teams that may have played earlier in the season or at least in recent years.
In the college basketball tournament, for example, staffers begin scouting second round opponents before the first round even begins. But that’s a situation with one full day between elimination games. There will be 11 days between the Rose and Sugar bowls and the national championship game.
But college coaches are nothing if not paranoid about preparation. All 11 of those days have to be spent on preparation.
And in terms of scouting for the full-time coaching staff, not a second more.
“I remember just thinking how would this work,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Now that we’re here, there’s no conversation whatsoever about the next one. You can’t. It’s not fair to our players and certainly when you’re playing a team like Alabama, that’s all hands on deck, to find a way to get this one done.”
LOS ANGELES — Jameis Winston is right.
The Florida State quarterback is saying all the right things about his matchup with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The game will feature the last two Heisman winners on opposite sidelines, only the third time Heisman winners have faced each other in a bowl game.
As expected, neither Winston nor Mariota are talking it up as the superstar showdown the rest of us know it is.
“I'm not facing him; I'm facing his defense,” Winston said. “It's going to be a Florida State team versus Oregon team not Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota.”
Let’s entertain that notion a bit more seriously and not as a cliche.
Winston and Mariota will be facing two defenses led by coordinators who were position coaches this time last year.
That’s the reason we should be excited. Not simply because Winston and Mariota will put two Heisman winners on the field for the first time since 2009.
The Rose Bowl will be a national semifinal matching up two Heisman winners against two first-year coordinators. Neither defense is ranked in the top 50 nationally in yards per game. Oregon is down a star cornerback. Florida State is a shadow of the defense that ranked third nationally last season.
In other words, all the conditions are ripe for Mariota and Winston to put on a show, the nation's most efficent quarterback against the nation's most clutch.
Fans should be grateful. Where the Sugar Bowl semifinal seems to be a game driven by coaches and conferences, the Rose Bowl will be driven by quarterbacks.
One has never lost a collegiate game. One has thrown two interceptions all year and four last year, ludicrous numbers for 2015.
For a few hours on New Year's Day, both programs hope to strip away some of the narratives about the two. The arguments about these two quarterbacks are either lazy (the narrative of Mariota’s squeaky clean image vs. Winston’s troublesome off-field track record) or soon will become tiresome by the NFL Combine (should Winston fall in the draft? Is Mariota a system quarterback?).
In some ways, even the coaches are just sending in a play and watching what happens.
“I've quit questioning what he does on the field and why he does it,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even when he does it wrong, he can come off and tell you exactly what he saw, what happened, and why it happened. I'll bet it's (right) a 98 percent rate, when he comes off, he can process so much information. His intelligence level is off the charts.”
The future, beyond Jan. 1 and potentially a national championship game, isn’t a topic either are ready to entertain.
Will Mariota and Winston be great NFL quarterbacks? Maybe. Maybe not. Is Mariota too nice? Is he the dreaded system quarterback who will struggle to translate his game to the pro level?
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is resigned, for now, to say that it will either happen or it won’t.
“I know with both the quarterbacks in this game, they can play at any level,” Helfrich said. “Both those guys, they're completely different, totally different guys from a style standpoint, but both will have tremendous NFL careers if they end up in the right spot. If they don't, things can go different ways.”
In the present, it’s going to be a good show, one that even Winston is going to try to stop and enjoy.
“I think it's going to be a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity to see us play and me personally I'm going to be on the sideline watching Marcus myself,” he said. “I think it's going to be a fun game.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Cornerback Troy Hill on Jameis Winston leading second-half comebacks:
“I don't know what it is about that man, but he cleans it up in the second half and something about him that makes him a winner. They all come together whenever they down, they never get down on themselves, a lot of teams when they lose they put their heads down or when they are losing they put their heads up and give up, but that's different with that team, I feel like they fight harder when they're down.”
Safety Erick Dargan on Jameis Winston:
“He can throw anywhere on the field, you know, whether it's deep, short, middle, side, the ball is going all over. You can't just say, he only likes to throw to the right; no, he's throwing all over. And another thing, he's running, he's moving the pocket. He's not an easy guy to tackle. He's big and he's physical.
“A lot of quarterbacks throw interceptions too and they don't want to throw the ball, and you can tell they don't want to throw the ball. With Jameis he's like, ‘I don't care. I'm still going to throw the ball. My team needs me.’ As a football player you have to respect that and honor that.”
Linebacker Tony Washington on Florida State’s offensive scheme:
“These guys are more traditional NFL pro style offense. It's a little bit different. But I think with the amount we've been practicing, we can get acclimated to it, used to it. ... Similar to stuff like Michigan State. But I think they run it differently. Stanford has a lot of power downhill runs, three tight end, seven offensive linemen type deals. And I don't think Florida State runs that as much. A little different formations and stuff like that. But just keep working we'll be in good shape.”
Linebacker Derrick Malone on Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary:
“He understands coverages in the sense of where he needs to go and the separations and the positions and he has sharp hands so he goes up and gets the ball and he's a dominant tight end so we got to make sure we lock him up.”
Cornerback Troy Hill on Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene:
“They put him all over the place, X, Y, and then slot and at the third receiver in that slot, motion him around a lot. They do a lot with them and they try to get him the ball because he's a playmaker so I feel like that's how we have to key in on him, and O'Leary, I feel that's what we really need to work on.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost on Florida State’s secondary:
“They are not extremely complicated. They just do what they do well with really good players. They are fast. I really think (safety) Jalen Ramse is a special player. He's disruptive in a lot of ways. (P.J.) Williams is a fast scrubber corner. And the other three guys in the secondary, you can't overlook them because they are really talented, too. Across the board, it's as athletic a group as we've played.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Marcus Mariota’s vision:
“He has great vision. He sees the field. He does a good job of buying time in the pocket and that doesn't mean just scrambling. It just means buying time where he can see downfield, where a guy gets open. He's a very intelligent football player.”
Linebacker Terrance Smith on containing Marcus Mariota:
“One of the biggest keys to the game is containing Mariota, keeping him in the pocket. It starts up front with the D‑line. The D‑line has to keep their rush lanes and just kind of collapse the pocket and not allow him to break outside of the tackles and pull the ball down and run which is what he's good at doing. Just keeping him inside the tackle box and just collapsing the pocket on him, that where it really starts and having somebody at the second level who can come up and make a play, that's really the key.”
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Oregon’s receivers:
“They are explosive and they make plays, but when they are asked to do things in the perimeter, I mean, they get after you. They block you. Sometimes you see guys that make a lot of big plays that necessarily don't block the perimeter as well.”
Defensive end Mario Williams on Oregon’s offensive line:
“Some of the guys are better than others, but as a unit they work great with each other. They're probably the most athletic and conditioned O-line we will be going against this year because they do the hurry up so much, so definitely as a unit they work great with each other.”
Running back Karlos Williams on Oregon’s ability to contain the run:
“They're tough, long, athletic, outside, they can train a lot. They do a very good job defending the run, and that's something that we haven't seen a lot this year. We have been able to get around the edge, quite a bit this year with Dalvin (Cook) and (Mario) Pender. Also with Jameis here we get around the edge, Rashad, stuff like that. We have been able to be a dominant edge team, containment team, but these guys are very good on the edge. Their backers play well, and (Derrick Malone) and (Joe Walker) play downhill, very tough downhill guys, make a lot of plays, very fast, tough, physical guys.
Quarterback coach Randy Sanders on the absence of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu:
“Him not being there, no question will diminish a little bit of their defense, but it's not like the player they're putting in behind him is not good. You don't get to a position to play in a game like this without having good players, and they've got more than one. So we know whoever comes in will be a good player.”
The Athlon Sports team has been dispatched to the New Orleans and Pasadena to cover the first college football semifinal. We'll survey the scene and storylines and then delve into our picks for New Year's Day.
David Fox is at the Rose Bowl trying to determine which star quarterback will have the big day and which team can more successfully play the underdog role. Braden Gall is at the Sugar Bowl where Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Ohio State defensive line may be able to upstage the powerhouse coaches.
LOS ANGELES — The 2014 season was the year of the freshman running back.
The Rose Bowl features two of the best rookie backs in Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who both emerged during the second half of the season to help their teams to the national semifinal.
The flip side is the upperclassman running backs asked to shelve their egos and do something else so Freeman and Cook can thrive.
Oregon’s Byron Marshall and Florida State’s Karlos Williams entered the season with some fanfare — not as much as their quarterback teammates, but fanfare nonetheless.
On Thursday, they’ll play in the Rose Bowl as not even the most feared running backs on their own teams.
Marshall started 2014 as the only returning 1,000-yard rusher in the Pac-12, but by the end of fall camp, running backs coach Gary Campbell called him into his office to pull him off the running back position.
The season-ending injury to Bralon Addison left Oregon without its top three receivers from a year ago. With incoming freshman Royce Freeman joining the team, Marshall’s carries would be limited.
Oregon needed him to learn the slot receiver position. Starting from square one. And he needed to do it fast.
“I couldn't read the defense for the life of me,” Marshall said.
By the end of September, Marshall learned how to read coverages enough to say he felt like a natural at the position. Now, he calls his position an “athlete,” a position that’s common for recruits who could play a number of spots for a number of teams.
He says it not to be arrogant, but it’s the truth: How many players can say they led a team in rushing one year and in receiving the next?
After rushing for 1,038 yards last season, Marshall caught 61 passes for 814 yards with five touchdowns and still managed to rush for 383 yards and 7.7 yards per carry in 2014.
“I don't have to stare at the defense before the play to know what they are,” Marshall said. “I can give a quick look and say they're in cover one, I should run my route this one, or they're in cover way, I should run my route this way. It just came natural after a couple games.”
At 5-10, 205 pounds, Marshall won’t be a burner at the position. Nor does he need to be. His counterpart at receiver, freshman Devon Allen, is on the Oregon track team and can fill that role. Marshall just needs to be a steady target in the slot and an occassional tailback.
“(Marshall’s) ability as a runner is what makes him so effective as a receiver,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's such a dynamic playmaker that he has a chance to score every time he touches it.”
On the Florida State sideline, Williams wasn’t quite so fortunate to have a role waiting for him to fill after Cook started to emerge during the second half of the season.
Williams entered the season as a fringe Heisman contender after rushing for 730 yards and eight yards per carry behind 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman.
The dreams of any awards faded as the season went along. Williams lost out in the numbers game and missed two games due to injury. He’s become something of a short-yardage back to complement Cook’s home run ability. Williams finished the season with 10 touchdowns but only 4.4 yards per carry.
“I always expected to be one of the best in the country,” Williams said. “It's kind of surprising because we didn't really know. Nobody knew what kind of season each one of us was going to have.”
Instead, he and Marshall arrived at the Rose Bowl expected to contribute in their new roles and take a backseat in some ways to younger, more dynamic talent.
And along the way, they had to show they embraced their altered roles, not just on the field, but as mentors and cheerleaders for freshmen.
“It's amazing to be able to watch young guys explode, and I remember when I was a freshman I was a big‑time kick returner,” Williams said. “I (was) able to take control of the game, be able to change the game and make plays. It makes me really, really proud.”
LOS ANGELES — Troy Hill and Chris Seisay aren’t the first names anyone conjures when it comes to Oregon football.
They’re cornerbacks, and they’re not even the star cornerback for the Ducks.
Yet Hill and Seisay may be the most important players early in the Rose Bowl national semifinal against Florida State.
Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston says he’d test stud NFL corner Richard Sherman given the chance, so what does that mean for the second-, third- and fourth-best corners at Oregon?
“They’ll probably test me early with the first couple of passes,” Seisay told Athlon Sports. “But I’m going to be ready for the ball at all times.”
Oregon secondary coach John Neal says he takes comfort in Oregon bouncing back from injuries in the past. Just this season, receiver Bralon Addison and offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone were hurt before the season started. Tackle Jake Fisher missed the loss to Arizona.
The Ducks won the Sun Bowl in 2007 with Justin Roper at quarterback after Dennis Dixon was hurt. They’ve absorbed running back injuries.
But those are all on offense, and none of those injuries occurred when the stakes are as high as they are now. The season-ending injury to three-time All-Pac-12 cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu is different.
Losing an All-America-caliber corner weeks before facing a Heisman-winning quarterback is no one’s idea of an optimal situation.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt (Winston will target the backup corners), but they’ll test our entire defense,” Neal told Athlon Sports. “Their quarterback is fearless. Who is he going to test? He’s going to test his best option.”
If there’s any consolation, Seisay has been thrown into the fray before — on shorter notice and when the redshirt freshman had less experience.
Against Michigan State in the second week of the season, Spartans quarterback Connor Cook and MSU’s bigger receivers picked on the 5-9 corner Dior Mathis. At halftime, Neal sent the 6-1 Seisay out for a better matchup.
Cook completed 17-of-25 passes for 218 yards before halftime and 12-of-22 for 125 yards after.
“There can’t be any drop when you come into the game,” Seisay said.
That performance, though, guarantees nothing. Seisay earned a start the following week against Wyoming and was promptly burned for an early touchdown.
In other words, there’s experience here, but who knows what will be the outcome in the Rose Bowl.
The senior Hill, who started this season opposite Ekpre-Olomu, has 57 tackles and 16 pass breakups. Seisay and Mathis have been in the rotation all season, facing a deep group of Pac-12 quarterbacks.
And as much as Ekpre-Olomu leaves a void in terms of skill and lockdown ability, his absence leaves just as big a hole in leadership.
“That's family, especially in that secondary,” Hill said. “He's our leader, our brother.”
And now Oregon is down a brother and expects the remaining defensive backs to be targeted early and often.
“They’ll play the best games of their lives,” Neal said. “How good that will be, we’ll find out.”
Football nerds unite.
Just think, less than a decade ago, Baylor and Michigan State were teams worthy of laughs in their respective conferences. Baylor was a bottom feeder in the Big 12, and Michigan State’s various foibles made the Spartans an also-ran in the Big Ten.
Thanks to a great offensive mind and a great defensive mind, Baylor and Michigan State have conference titles under their belts.
Now, we get the best of both in a bowl game.
Art Briles revamped Baylor with an up-tempo, pass-happy offense, turning the Bears into a two-time Big 12 champion. Meanwhile, Mark Dantonio built a classic Big Ten program at Michigan State with a grinding offense and stifling defense leading the way to a Rose Bowl last season.
Both teams hoped to reach the College Football Playoff this season, but the Cotton Bowl nonetheless is a fantastic matchup for those who want to see one of the top new age offensive minds going up against old school Big Ten defense.
Baylor vs. Michigan State
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 12:30 p.m.
Spread: Baylor by 3
Three Things to Watch
1. Michigan State’s defensive statement
The likely storyline for the Cotton Bowl is probably the test for Baylor’s offense against a stout Michigan State defense. True, Baylor can continue to establish itself as a legitimate national power if it can solve a traditionally powerful Michigan State defense. But the reverse is true, too. The 2014 edition of Michigan State has something to prove as well. The Spartans allowed the most yards per game (293.5) and yards per play (4.8) since 2010. Oregon and Ohio State both thrashed the Spartans’ D for their two losses of the year. Michigan State played only one other top 60 offense (Indiana) this season, making that a pretty hollow 10 wins for Sparty this season. Baylor, the No. 1 team in the country in total offense, presents a perfect chance for redemption.
2. Baylor’s run defense
Baylor may quietly have an edge in run defense compared the Michigan State’s run game. The Bears allowed 2.9 yards per carry, fourth-best in the country. Michigan State ranked 28th at 5.1 yards per carry. Michigan State's Jeremy Langford rushed for 1,360 yards and backup Nick Hill added 596 for a combined total of 28 touchdowns. Behind senior linebacker Bryce Hager, Baylor allowed only 2.5 yards per carry in the first half this season — a telling stat considering how many lopsided games Baylor played. Michigan State will try to set up the run, but Baylor might not allow it.
3. Who wants to be here?
Through the lens of history, Baylor and Michigan State in a New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl should be a time for celebration. Yet both teams have the excuses to go through the motions in a bowl game. Baylor was one of two teams left out of the final spot for the College Football Playoff along with TCU, so a Cotton Bowl may seem like a consolation prize even if the Bears are playing in this game since winning the Southwest Conference in 1980.
One of the great aspects of this game is that neither team has faced an opponent quite like the other. The stylistic differences between the Big 12 and the Big Ten couldn’t be more stark. The cliche about New Year’s bowls used to be the comparison of Big Ten power vs. SEC speed. That’s changed. Baylor hasn’t played many teams like Michigan State, but the Spartans at least have the advantage of playing Oregon earlier in the season.
Prediction: Michigan State 31, Baylor 28
The Orlando-based bowl game with the New Year’s afternoon timeslot is back to its traditional name, but it’s a long way from its traditional matchup.
The Citrus Bowl — returning to that name for the first time since 2002 — still has a Big Ten-SEC matchup, even if the game features teams entering new postseason territory.
Minnesota is playing in a Florida bowl game for the first time since 2000 when the Gophers reached the Micron PC Bowl (now the Russell Athletic Bowl, also in Orlando).
Missouri’s wait has been even longer. The Tigers are playing a Florida Bowl for the first time since 1981 when Mizzou reached the Tangerine Bowl (the precursor to the Citrus/Capital One Bowl).
A number of factors played a role in these two unlikely teams facing each other in a prime slot on New Year’s Day. Conference realignment put Missouri in the SEC’s bowl lineup. Alabama, Mississippi State and Ole Miss reaching the College Football Playoff bowls made the SEC East champs the most attractive team for the Citrus.
And lackluster seasons from Nebraska, Penn State and Michigan allowed overachieving Minnesota to slide into a bowl slot normally reserve for the Big Ten’s power programs.
Make no mistake, these teams earned their spots in a big-time bowl. Missouri overcame early losses to Georgia and Indiana to win the SEC East for 22 overall wins in the last two years. Minnesota defeated rivals Iowa and Michigan, plus Nebraska, to come within one game of a Big Ten division title.
Minnesota vs. Missouri
Kickoff: Jan. 1, 1 p.m.
Spread: Missouri by 5
Minnesota’s Key to Victory: Run, run, run
Missouri’s defense is led by its standout pass rush, anchored by defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden (21 combined sacks). A stout rushing attack can take Missouri off its game. What is the common thread among Missouri’s three losses? Indiana’s Tevin Coleman, Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Arkansas also challenged Missouri with its run game in a loss. In three losses, Missouri opponents are averaging 231 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry and 10 total rushing touchdowns compared to 106.6 yards, 3.3 yards per carry and seven total TDs in 10 wins. Neutralizing the pass rush with the run game also freed up opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.9 percent of their passes in Mizzou’s three losses. Behind tailback David Cobb, Minnesota has a run game that could take Missouri’s defense out of its comfort zone.
Missouri’s Key to Victory: Maty Mauk
Mauk completed fewer than half of his passes against Alabama in the SEC title game, but he still hit a pair of deep passes to give the Crimson Tide pause in the third quarter (Alabama still won by 29). Mauk may never have a great completion rate thanks to his risky nature, but he can’t turn the ball over if Missouri is going to win. Mauk threw eight interceptions in Missouri’s first six games but calmed down during the second half of the season. As the Tigers finished the year on a 6-1 run, Mauk threw only three picks. Minnesota has a solid secondary that finished the season with 11 picks among six DBs. Cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is a ball hawk who could cause headaches for Mauk.
At the start of the season, this game seemed more like an optimistic Texas Bowl pairing. At some point, we’ll just trust coaches Gary Pinkel and Jerry Kill to exceed expectations. Instead, Missouri and Minnesota were factors in their respective conference races and ended up in a coveted Jan. 1 bowl spot. On paper, Missouri as the SEC’s representative would seem to have the edge, but Minnesota’s offensive scheme could even the odds against the Tigers’ pass rush.
Prediction: Missouri 28, Minnesota 21
LOS ANGELES — If it’s possible to save a season for a team that went undefeated, then Dalvin Cook is on the short list of players who accomplished such a feat.
Cook is the home run threat who turned the momentum in two of the toughest tests for FSU this season. He was the official MVP of the ACC championship game and an unofficial MVP of October and November for Florida State.
When Florida State meets Oregon in the Rose Bowl, the most Oregon-like player in the game won’t play for the Ducks.
The most explosive player in the Rose Bowl will be Cook.
“If we get that guy the ball 40 times a game, he'd have Melvin Gordon numbers,” quarterback Jameis Winston said.
That hasn’t been necessary just yet. First, Florida State has a Heisman winner at quarterback, a Mackey winner at tight end and a two-time 1,000-yard receiver starting at wideout.
Besides, Cook is breaking off yards in chunks. He has 12 carries of 20 yards or more this season. That figure ranks 23rd nationally, remarkable considering he didn’t become a fixture of the Florida State offense until mid-October.
“He adds a whole other element of speed to the game,” Oregon linebacker Derrick Malone said. “He's a fast guy and he's able to catch the ball and outrun you ... Scary stuff. He'll run to the sideline and try to outrun you."
There was a time Cook didn’t fit perfectly into Florida State’s plans.
Cook, a five-star recruit, didn’t even play in Florida State’s opener against Oklahoma State.
What held him back was no different than what hinders most freshman running backs — pass blocking and knowing his reads. He also had a fumbling problem at one point this year.
“Trust your eyes as a coach, watch him in practice, how he competes every day. Not just when he makes a big run, but how does he pick up the blitz?” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even if it's a four‑yard run, the reads he made. Does he understand the blocking schemes? All those kind of things. We just had to feel for that in time.”
Cook delivered at first with 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in a 38-20 win over Syracuse on Oct. 11 when veteran Karlos Williams was injured.
The true breakout, though, was two games later.
On Oct. 30 at Louisville, Florida State trailed the Cardinals 21-0 at one point. The Seminoles began their comeback with a fumble recovery in the end zone by tight end Nick O’Leary and a 68-yard TD pass from Winston.
Cook, though, was the hero of the game. His 40-yard touchdown run pulled FSU to within three in the third quarter. His 38-yard TD run with 3:46 to go gave Florida State its first and final lead of the game in a 42-31 win.
In Florida State’s other closest call this season, Cook rushed for a 44-yard touchdown in the second quarter against Miami and the game-winning 26-yard score in the final 3:05 in the 30-26 win over the Hurricanes.
“My time came,” Cook said. “I waited and embraced the moment.”
Cook finished the regular season with a combined 321 yards on 55 carries against Florida and Georgia Tech. He added seven receptions for 71 yards.
The push has given him 905 rushing yards this season, a freshman record for Florida State. He’s within striking distance of 1,000 yards, remarkable for a few reasons.
Florida State didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher from the time Warrick Dunn left in 1996 until Devonta Freeman did it in 2013. Karlos Williams, who averaged more than eight yards per carry and rushed for 11 touchdowns last season, seemed to be next in line.
By the end of the season, Cook had become a feature back, not something Florida State has utilized to a great degree in the last decade. Cook’s 31 carries against Georgia Tech was the most for a Florida State tailback since Greg Jones in 2002.
The senior Williams and sophomore Mario Pender, though, eventually had to defer to the rookie.
“When (Cook) has the ball in his hands, he knows how to tote that rock and that's very hard to find,” Winston said. “We’ve got some other backs, Karlos and Mario Pender that can do the same and they allowed Dalvin to come in and take the shine, so I’ve got to give it to them.”
LOS ANGELES — From afar, the scene around Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota at Rose Bowl media day isn’t all that different. The quarterbacks of college football playoff teams and Heisman winners both merit throngs of attention.
In fact, they occupied the same podium in the same corner an hour apart in an LA hotel ballroom.
As the 2014 Heisman winner, Mariota has spent the weeks since the end of the regular season in the postseason award parade. The spotlight hasn’t really left Mariota.
And while Winston may be the most visible player in the sport today, it hasn’t been because he’s sought media attention in recent months.
He’s the most visible because he’s the quarterback of an undefeated team (again) and the most dramatic team in the country. He’s the most visible player due to the off-field legal and student conduct saga that has clouded his career since midway through the 2013 season.
But Winston has been insulated. His meetings with the media have been few and short. His statements have been prepared. His first meeting with Mariota wasn’t at the Heisman ceremony, where he could have attended as a previous winner; it was as both teams arrived in Los Angeles for the Rose Bowl.
Winston wrapped up his third day of extended interviews with the media Monday at the Rose Bowl, but it won’t be the end of the interviews, especially if Winston elects to leave school early to enter the NFL draft after the season.
Days before arriving in Los Angeles for Rose Bowl preparation, Winston was cleared of violating the student code of conduct following allegations of a sexual assault of an FSU student in December 2012. Prior to that, criminal charges were not filed against Winston, although Florida State’s and the Tallahassee Police Department’s handling of the case has been called into question.
In his longest interview sessions since the ACC preseason media day, Winston isn’t necessarily relieved, animated or apologetic.
He’s more or less resigned that the perception from outside of Florida State will remain in limbo.
“I can't get people to like me,” Winston said. “What they read or what they may see, it's them. I can't control anyone's opinion. Like I say, my family, this football family, everyone associated with us, they know me and people that have met me and actually talked to me, they know who I am.”
If Winston didn’t understand that being a Heisman winner and facing the allegations he faced put him into a spotlight earlier this season, he does now.
During the offseason, Winston was caught on camera stealing crab legs from a grocery store. In September, Winston was suspended when students on social media documented his use of “offensive and vulgar” language about women in the student union, a suspension extended from a half to the duration of the Clemson game when he failed to give an accurate account of the incident to school officials.
Since then, Winston has tried to lay low. While his teammates may be able to celebrate a win on the town in Tallahassee, Winston says he tries to stay away.
“Obviously I know that I'm under a microscope,” Winston said. “That's why I stay in Tallahassee. I've just got to sit in because people will tweet about you for walking down the street backwards. You've just got to chill. ... I love being around my teammates, and the only time I can be around them is in the locker room. I can't celebrate with them, can't do nothing with them, but it comes with the territory.”
Even though Winston has been absent from the team, the support hasn’t wavered, both players and coaches said.
“There were definitely times that it took some of his time away from football,” quarterback coach Randy Sanders said. “But at the same time it made him become more efficient. In a lot of ways coming to practice, playing the games, being in meetings, being around the guys, a lot of ways it made him appreciate the team and appreciate football even more.”
Of course, the reason Winston is in demand isn’t just because he hasn’t spoken publicly much this season or that he’s a lightning rod in the sport.
It’s because his team is still playing on the biggest stage.
“Why would I be down on myself when I'm a blessed man?” Winston said. “I have a great team. We haven't lost in two years. So (the media) always look(s) at the negative things in life but I look at the positive things in life. I'm so blessed. I have a young brother, I have both my parents, my grandma is still living, I have a little sister and I gotta do right for them. It's more than football sometimes. People can criticize me and say whatever they want to say about me, but I'm a blessed guy.”
LOS ANGELES — Clint Trickett even had his own father in the dark regarding the concussions that ended his football career.
As Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett prepared for the Rose Bowl and College Football Playoff semifinal against Oregon, Trickett also was keeping in touch daily with his son who was in the process of retiring from football due to concussions.
Clint Trickett, West Virginia’s starting quarterback for most of the last two seasons and a former FSU backup, revealed last week that he had sustained five concussions in the last 14 months.
The final concussion in a 26-20 loss to Kansas State on Nov. 20 was the last of his football career. Instead of joining his teammates on the field in the Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M on Monday, Clint Trickett will begin to pursue a career in coaching.
“I’ll mess with a shoulder, I’ll mess with a knee, I’ll mess with an elbow, but I’m not going to mess with a head,” Rick Trickett told Athlon Sports from Florida State’s Rose Bowl media day Monday.
Perhaps most chilling for the father was the revelation that Clint Trickett had hidden two of the five concussions from West Virginia trainers and his father.
Rick Trickett noted that Clint had suffered from migraines, so that may have contributed to uncertainty regarding Clint’s headaches. However, Rick said he should have known his son sustained a concussion in a 31-30 loss to TCU on Nov. 1.
“I didn’t know about the one at TCU. I should have picked up on it,” Rick Trickett said. “Then he told me about it after Kansas State. He tries to be a tough guy. Obviously, I would have got on him about that.”
Instead, Clint Trickett got an early start to his coaching career. He served as an unofficial quarterbacks coach while West Virginia staffers were out recruiting. Rick Trickett said he would have liked Clint to go through the NFL free agent process, even though the options would have been limited for a 186-pound quarterback without a concussion history.
“He’s not the biggest guy in the world and he wasn’t going to be able to play in the bowl game anyway,” Rick Trickett said. “He wants to coach. He got a taste of it. He kind of took to it, liked it.”