Articles By David Fox
Understandably, the theme of 2014 will be the first College Football Playoff.
The new postseason format represented a seismic shift in the sport, and even if the playoff expands beyond four teams, college football won’t be the same again.
Thanks to 2014, the record books won’t be the same either.
The single game rushing record that stood for 15 years fell — twice. So did the single-game passing record. Same with school records both offensively and defensively.
Make no mistake, the 2014 season will be memorable for reasons beyond the first final four in the sport.
Here are the 20 individual performances we’ll remember most.
1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Nov. 15 vs. Nebraska 59-24
Records in college football fall seemingly every couple of weeks. School records, conference records, streaks, passing and receiving numbers. Every now and then, though, some records are more special than others. TCU’s LaDainian Tomlinson rushed for 406 yards against UTEP in a game in 1999. For all of the offensive explosions in the ensuing 15 years, no one broke that mark. When Melvin Gordon did it, he needed only three quarters and against a storied program to boot. Gordon rushed for 408 yards and four touchdowns on only 25 carries in three quarters against Nebraska. Though Gordon never touched Barry Sanders’ single season rushing record — which seemed a possibility for a time — Gordon put together a game and a season for the ages.
2. Samaje Perine, Oklahoma
Nov. 22 vs. Kansas
LaDainian Tomlinson’s rushing record got its learner’s permit. Gordon’s record never got a stroller. A week after Gordon broke LT’s single-game record, a freshman from Oklahoma broke Gordon’s. Perine became the first back to rush for 200 yards in each half against an opponent with a new record of 427 yards and five touchdowns on 34 carries against Kansas. Perine’s game will stand as the record, but his nine more carries against a lesser opponent will keep him as No. 2 to Gordon in the eye test.
3. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Sept. 6 vs. Michigan State
Mariota’s Heisman moment occurred early, though he added plenty more as the season went along. After falling behind 27-18 to the reigning Big Ten champions, Mariota took over in the second half for 28 unanswered points in a 46-27 win. Mariota completed 17-of-28 passes for 318 yards with three touchdowns, numbers that don’t often occur against the Spartans’ defense. Mariota put up the second-highest passing total against Michigan State since 2010 and the fourth-highest efficiency rating.
4. Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Sept. 20 vs. LSU
Although LSU did not have a vintage season, wins over the Tigers, especially on the road at night still carry considerable weight. In a 34-29 win that wasn’t as close as the score indicated, Prescott led Mississippi State to a 24-point lead in the fourth quarter that put the Bulldogs on the national scene and the quarterback in the Heisman race. Prescott completed 15-of-24 passes for 268 yards with two touchdowns while rushing for 105 yards and a score on 22 carries.
5. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Nov. 8 vs. Michigan State
When Ohio State looks back at its 2014 season, the win over Michigan State will be the turning point. Before Nov. 8, the Buckeyes’ loss to Virginia Tech seemed too much to overcome for a playoff bid, and J.T. Barrett was still a precocious redshirt freshman who had done an admirable job stepping in for Braxton Miller. Barrett, though, became a Heisman candidate and Ohio State became a playoff possibility after a 49-37 win in East Lansing. Barrett completed 16-of-26 passes for 300 yards with three touchdowns for the third-best efficiency rating against the Spartans’ D since 2010. Barrett also rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.
6. Amari Cooper, Alabama
Nov. 29 vs. Auburn
How much of a sure thing was Amari Cooper in 2014? Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin started celebrating his touchdown before he even caught the pass. That’s how automatic Cooper is in single coverage. In an unprecedented Iron Bowl shootout, Cooper caught 13 passes for 224 yards and three touchdowns, including the 75-yard score that spurred Kiffin’s celebration.
7. Bryce Petty, Baylor
Oct. 11 vs. TCU
Hard to believe, but at one point this season, Bryce Petty looked like a shadow of last season’s Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. That changed with a shootout with TCU, a shootout that became one-sided after Baylor scored 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 61-58 win. Petty completed 28-of-55 passes for 510 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions and led Baylor to the highest yardage total (782) against a Gary Patterson-coached team.
8. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
Nov. 15 vs. Miami 30-26
Could the best performance by a Florida State player in 2014 have come from a safety? In our eyes, yes. Sophomore Jalen Ramsey was Florida State’s top playmaker in a 30-26 win over Miami, the closest the Seminoles came to losing this season. Ramsey had a forced fumble, an interception, a tackle for a loss and four pass breakups in the 30-26 win. Perhaps most important, his blocked extra point in the fourth quarter came in handy as Miami tried to drive in the fourth quarter for a game-winning TD rather than a game-tying field goal.
9. Todd Gurley, Georgia
Aug. 30 vs. Clemson
Gurley’s season may be more remembered for the misfortune that surrounded him this season — the suspension related to NCAA rules and the torn ACL. Yet when he played, Gurley was arguably the top player in the country, or at least the top player East of Eugene. Gurley flashed that in the opener with 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries in a 45-21 win. By adding a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, Gurley set a personal best with 293 all-purpose yards, a mark he nearly matched with 285 yards on Sept. 27 against Tennessee.
10. Scooby Wright, Arizona
Nov. 28 vs. Arizona State
Like many players on this list, Scooby Wright has a number of performances in the discussion for his best of the year. Our pick is the linebacker’s effort in a 42-35 win over Arizona State that, thanks to UCLA’s loss to Stanford, clinched a trip to the Pac-12 title game. Wright finished that game with 13 tackles, five tackles for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.
11. Cardale Jones, Ohio State
Dec. 6 vs. Wisconsin
Other performances were more prolific and more dramatic, but arguably no performance was more important that Cardale Jones’ first start. The chair of the selection committee indicated that Jones’ performance against Wisconsin in place of injured starter J.T. Barrett would be watched closely for playoff consideration. Jones was near perfect, completing 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game to clinch a playoff spot for the Buckeyes.
12. Connor Halliday, Washington State
Oct. 4 vs. Cal
Here’s a scary thought: Connor Halliday played only eight games from start to finish and still had three of the top eight single-game passing totals this season. None was more prolific this season — or any season in college football history — than his record 734 passing yards and six touchdowns in a 60-59 loss to Cal.
13. Josh Dobbs, Tennessee
Nov. 1 vs. South Carolina
Tennessee fans will be forever grateful for Josh Dobbs being the quarterback who finally got the Volunteers over the hump. After many close calls and bizarre finishes, Tennessee was finally on the winning end in a 45-42 overtime win over South Carolina. Dobbs completed 23-of-40 passes for 301 yards with two touchdowns and an interception while rushing for 166 yards and three touchdowns against the Gamecocks. He led scoring drives of 75 and 85 yards in the final 1:50 to send the game to overtime.
14. Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Oct. 25 vs. Rutgers
It takes a significant effort for a Nebraska running back to set new school records. Abdullah did that in a 42-24 win over Rutgers with 341 all-purpose yards, a school record and the fifth-highest total of the season. Abdullah rushed for 225 yards on only 19 carries and returned a kickoff 76 yards. Abdullah rushed for touchdowns of 53, 48 and 23 yards in the rout.
15. Shaq Thompson, Washington
Sept. 13 vs. Illinois
Before Thompson became a full-time running back, he was content to score touchdowns on the defensive side of the ball. He still rushed for 16 yards in this game, but he added a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown and a 52-yard fumble return for a score in the 31-7 win.
16. Clint Trickett, West Virginia
Sept. 13 vs. Maryland
West Virginia had trouble staying in the conversation of Big 12 turnarounds with what happened at TCU this season, but the Mountaineers' return to the postseason was impressive, too. Trickett got things started by completing 37-of-49 passes for 511 yards with an interception in a 40-37 win over Maryland.
17. Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Dec. 5 vs. Arizona
Mariota wrapped up his Heisman campaign with the kind of performance that’s pretty much the norm for him. In a 51-13 win over Arizona, avenging the Ducks’ only loss of the season, Mariota completed 25-of-38 passes for 313 yards, two touchdowns, and, of course, no interceptions. He also rushed for three touchdowns.
18. Kenny Hill, Texas A&M
Aug. 28 vs. South Carolina
The Aggies flipped the script on the SEC before the first Saturday of the season. Kenny Hill was the star of September, completing 44-of-60 passes for 511 yards with three touchdowns in a 52-28 rout of South Carolina. Alas, he and A&M didn’t stay on top all year.
19. Brandon Doughty, Western Kentucky
Nov. 28 vs. Marshall
Credit goes to Western Kentucky coach Jeff Brohm for the guts to go for 2 in the first overtime, but credit Brandon Doughty for converting in a 67-66 win over Marshall to spoil the Thundering Herd’s undefeated season. Doughty went toe-to-toe with Rakeem Cato, completing 34-of-50 passes for 481 yards with eight touchdown passes and two interceptions.
20. Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Nov. 22 vs Ohio State
Indiana would have had yet another forgettable season if not for a herculean effort from Tevin Coleman, who topped 2,000 rushing yards this season. His finest performance may have been his 228 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries against Ohio State. Without its first-string quarterback, Indiana still gave Ohio State all it could handle thanks to Coleman before the Buckeyes pulled away for a 42-27 win.
The 39 bowl games on this year’s roster may be too many for some.
That’s fine. For some of us, that’s not enough. Not just because if the insatiable need for December and January college football. Bowl games — especially bad bowl games — offer a wide variety of ridiculous bowl names, wild destinations and “what were you thinking” ideas.
Bowl games have come and gone over the years. Some were successful, including the Bluebonnet Bowl, All-American Bowl and Freedom Bowl. Some were cool ideas like the Bacardi Bowl. And some were doomed from the start — a bowl game in Dayton? Really?
Here are 15 bowl games you won't see in December and January.
Site: Honolulu (Aloha Stadium)
Technically, this is a defunct bowl, though a bowl game returned to Hawaii two years later for the imaginatively named Hawaii Bowl. The Aloha Bowl was played on Christmas Day for the final 14 games of its run and often featured ranked teams from major conferences. The Hawaii Bowl, on the other hand, is traditionally played on Christmas Eve and features Conference USA, Mountain West and WAC teams. Edge: Aloha Bowl.
All-American Bowl/Hall of Fame Classic
Site: Birmingham, Ala. (Legion Field)
A second-tier bowl game for more than a decade, Birmingham eventually abandoned the All-American Bowl to host the SEC Championship Game, which moved to Atlanta two years later. A shame: This Birmingham game ended in 1990 before Pittsburgh ever had a chance to play in it.
Site: Dayton, Ohio (Welcome Stadium)
As the hometown of the Wright brothers and the site of where they designed their flying machine, Dayton considers its the birthplace of aviation (the University of Dayton mascot is the Flyers). The Aviation Bowl, though, never really took flight, and New Mexico’s 28-12 win over Western Michigan in 1961 was the only bowl game in Dayton. Only 3,694 people attended the game.
Site: Havana, Cuba (Tropical Stadium)
The first Bahamas Bowl was played in 2014, but that won’t be the first bowl game played in the tropics. Not by a long shot. Auburn’s first bowl game was in pre-Castro Cuba on New Year’s Day 1937 in a 7-7 tie with Villanova. The Bacardi Bowl is the accepted name, but the game also went by the Rhumba Bowl or Cigar Bowl.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium/Astrodome)
An equivalent to the Holiday or Alamo bowls, the Bluebonnet Bowl had the longest history of a now-defunct bowl, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Bluebonnet usually had a Texas team or a Southwest Conference team on one side. One exception: This Missouri-Georgia Tech meeting in 1962 called by legendary Cubs announcer Harry Caray:
Site: Louisville, Ky. (Fairgrounds Stadium)
Fairgrounds Stadium is now an eyesore from the Interstate in Louisville, especially compared to the Cardinals’ new facility. Not only did Louisville play football here, it hosted Oklahoma State’s 1958 bowl win over Florida State. The game was attended by a mere 7,000 people, but it’s more notable for being the first national television appearance for Howard Cosell.
Site: Fresno, Calif. (Bulldog Stadium)
The game gave us one of the great bowl sponsors in the California Raisin Advisory Board. The claymation dancing and singing raisins were more memorable than any of the bowl matchups between the WAC and the MAC. The California Raisin Bowl is not to be confused with simply the Raisin Bowl, also held in Fresno from 1945-49.
Site: Anaheim, Calif. (Anaheim Stadium)
The Freedom Bowl featured a fair amount of star power in its decade of existence, including MVP performances from Chuck Long, Ty Detmer, Marshall Faulk and Tedy Bruschi.
Garden State Bowl
Site: East Rutherford, N.J. (Giants Stadium)
The Garden State Bowl learned what the NFL may figure out in 2014: Postseason games in December and January are to be avoided. Rutgers and Temple played in the first two games here before embarking on lengthy bowl droughts. After four games, Giants Stadium became the site of the popular and much more successful (and warmer) Kickoff Classic, a game that ran in late August from 1983-2002.
Site: New York (Yankee Stadium)
The matchup between Nebraska and Miami in the 1962 game would be much more interesting decades later, but this game preceded Miami’s first national title by 21 years and featured Bob Devaney in only his first season as Nebraska’s coach. Still, the Gotham Bowl is such a great name. Unfortunately, the words “Gotham” and “football” probably shouldn’t go together. Thanks, Christopher Nolan.
Great Lakes Bowl
Site: Cleveland, Ohio
This bowl was probably doomed from the get-go because “bowl destination” and “lake effect snow” don’t go together. The game featured only one matchup between major teams, but at least it was historically notable as the first bowl appearance and bowl win by then-Kentucky coach Bear Bryant in 1947.
Site: Toronto (Rogers Centre)
In addition to being the first bowl game off American soil in 70 years, the International Bowl carries the distinction of being one of the first in an unfortunate trend of placing lower-tier bowl games in between New Year’s Day and BCS championship game. The demise of the Big East, 4-0 in this game against the MAC, and low attendance contributed to the demise of the game.
Site: Houston (Rice Stadium)
Florida has oranges and tangerines, and Georgia has peaches. Makes sense for Texas to have the Oil Bowl, right?
Site: Phoenix (Montgomery Stadium)
This game featured North Texas and Arizona State back when they were teachers’ colleges and when Drake, Dayton and Xavier went to bowl games. Not sure how it ended up a New Year’s Day bowl game. Like the Cherry Bowl, the Salad Bowl is virtually un-Google-able on the first try.
Silicon Valley Classic
Site: San Jose, Calif. (Spartan Stadium)
Back in the early 2000s, many games ended up with a dot com sponsor — galleryfurniture.com, EV1.net, Insight.com. Only one claimed all of Silicon Valley. The game went bust after the dot com bubble burst.
Nebraska fans must be asking themselves: Can Mike Riley start now?
The new Cornhuskers coach has many skills that will be welcome in Lincoln, but in the here and now, Riley's hex on the 2014 bowl opponent is of particular interest.
Despite a deficit in talent and resources, Oregon State tended to be a spoiler for USC in its glory days during the last 10 seasons. Three unranked, Riley-led teams upset three ranked USC squads in the last six meetings, including an upset of the No. 1 Trojans in 2007 and the No. 3 Trojans in 2006.
Alas, Riley is simply observing right now, leaving the team to interim coach Barney Cotton. The coaching change assures Nebraska that Bo Pelini won’t preside over a four-loss season, though that landmark is attainable for the seventh consecutive year.
If Cotton can lead Nebraska to a bowl win, the Cornhuskers will finish a season with fewer than four losses for the first time since 2003, another season in which an interim coach led the way in a Nebraska bowl game. That interim coach in a 10-3 season in 2003 was Bo Pelini.
On the other sideline, USC has a coach with plenty of familiarity with the Huskers in recent seasons. First-year coach Steve Sarkisian must feel like Nebraska is following him. While coach at Washington, Sarkisian faced Nebraska three times in a 12-month span, including a home-and-home and the 2010 Holiday Bowl. Nebraska was 2-1 in those matchups.
Nebraska vs. USC
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 8 p.m.
Spread: USC by 6 1/2
Nebraska’s Key to Victory: A return to form for Ameer Abdullah
Perhaps the layoff will help Abdullah because the Nebraska star tailback struggled in the final month of the season. While fighting through a knee sprain, Abdullah averaged 4.8 yards per carry in November and rushed for just one touchdown during the final month of the season. Before that, Abdullah averaged 6.9 yards per carry and tallied 17 touchdowns in the first eight games. The offense will all start with Abdullah — putting quarterback Tommy Armstrong into third-and-long situations against a pass rusher like Leonard Williams could be bad news for the Huskers.
USC’s Key to Victory: Keep Cody Kessler comfortable
Kessler is the nation’s second-most accurate passer, as far as completion percentage goes (70.7 percent). Yet he’s had a few games this season in which he has been under pressure. UCLA sacked him six times in a USC loss. Arizona State sacked him three times in a loss. Boston College sacked him five times in a loss. Given the opportunity, Kessler can pick apart a defense. The onus will be on the Cornhuskers pass rush to set the tone. Nebraska has a star pass rusher in Randy Gregory, who turned in an uneven season due to injury.
Though neither USC’s nor Nebraska’s season will be particularly memorable in the annals of each school’s history, this game will be notable for the first bowl matchup between two storied programs. USC is looking to continue its unbeaten streak against Nebraska, going 3-0-1 in home-and-homes in 1969-70 and 2006-07. The two teams in 2014 are evenly matched. The game may come down to which offensive playmakers are allowed to flourish — will Nebraska be able to feed the ball to Ameer Abdullah or will Cody Kessler be able to feed the ball to receiver Nelson Agholor?
Prediction: USC 35, Nebraska 24
The last Penn State bowl appearance was hardly an experience the Nittany Lions want to remember.
In 2011, Penn State went to Dallas to play in a bowl game televised on ESPNU in a crowded slot with more appealing matchups in the Capital One and Outback bowls. That the bowl was an afterthought was just fine.
Under interim coach Tom Bradley, Penn State lost 30-14 to Houston, ending a season in which the program was reeling from scandal.
This game will be different.
Penn State entered the season with the NCAA-mandated bowl ban still in place. That sanction ended Sept. 10, though the Nittany Lions needed until Nov. 15 to ensure they’d end 2014 in the postseason.
No, this isn’t the kind of bowl destination Penn State normally would be accustomed to visiting a decade ago, but the return should be an appealing matchup.
Penn State draws a Boston College team that finished 7-5, defeated USC and played Florida State and Clemson within less than a touchdown.
The two programs played every year from 1981-92 with Penn State winning all but two meetings during that stretch of the series. With Boston College winning a home-and-home in 2003-04 and the 1992 matchup, the Eagles have a three-game winning streak in the series.
Boston College vs. Penn State
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 4:30 p.m.
Spread: Boston College by 2 1/2
Boston College’s Key to Victory: Unleash Tyler Murphy
The Eagles are at their best when quarterback Tyler Murphy is methodically moving them down the field. The Florida transfer rushed for 1,074 yards and 10 touchdowns this season and did just enough in the passing game to keep teams honest. He was interception-free in six of the final seven games, but the exception was as a doozy with four picks against Louisville. Facing the middle of the Penn State defense led by linebacker Mike Hull and tackle Anthony Zettel, though, will be tough.
Penn State’s Key to Victory: Continue the late-season run game momentum
This is not a great matchup for Penn State’s embattled offensive line. Boston College is eighth in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.1) and fourth in rushing yards per game (95.5). Don Brown’s defense features three down linemen and brings the blitz, so the Nittany Lions’ line will have their hands full in protecting quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Penn State rushed for at least 160 yards in three of the last four games, albeit agains Indiana, Temple and Illinois. Even in that stretch, Penn State still gave up nine sacks. Against five winning teams in 2014, Penn State averaged 1.4 yards per carry and 43.4 rushing yards per game.
Normally a matchup between a 6-6 Big Ten team and a 7-5 ACC team wouldn’t carry a great deal of weight, but this game will be different. Penn State’s return to a bowl is one storyline, but a victory would give the Nittany Lions a winning season each year under NCAA sanctions, no insignificant feat. Boston College, a program that won eight bowl games in eight seasons at one point, is now riding a four-bowl losing streak. A win would give BC its first eight-win season since 2009 and first bowl victory since 2007. That said, finding ways to score will be a challenge. These two teams both rank in the top 12 in total defense and are allowing fewer than 21 points per game.
Prediction: Penn State 17, Boston College 13
Like many teams in the Independence Bowl, Miami and South Carolina don’t arrive in Shreveport with an abundance of enthusiasm.
Reaching this bowl game, more often than not, is the final stop in a season that didn’t go entirely as planned.
The Gamecocks and Hurricanes are in that position as they try to salvage one last bit of good news — not to mention a winning record — out of a lost season.
South Carolina started the season in the preseason top 10, but the Gamecocks would never look any better than that, losing 52-28 to Texas A&M in the opener. For the first time of Steve Spurrier’s tenure in South Carolina, the Gamecocks fell below — well below — expectations. Carolina finished the season with only one Power 5 win after Sept. 20.
Miami limps into Shreveport in similar fashion. The Hurricanes didn’t open the season ranked, but they were expected to make a run at the ACC Coastal Division. Those dreams evaporated as Miami was one of many victims of a second half Florida State comeback on Nov. 15. The Canes lost to Virginia and Pittsburgh to wrap up another middling season under Al Golden.
While this game might not be the top priority for the average college football fan, this will be a key game for momentum into 2015. The winner will be able to move on while the losing team will have a handful of questions.
For South Carolina, a loss brings into question how much energy Steve Spurrier has left before hitting the links for good. For Miami, a loss puts Al Golden onto hot seat lists entering next season.
Miami vs. South Carolina
Kickoff: Dec. 27, 3:30 p.m.
Spread: Miami by 3
Miami’s Key to Victory: Get Duke Johnson going
Johnson’s two lowest rushing totals this season occurred in the final two games of the season against Virginia (88 yards) and Pittsburgh (89). Before that, Johnson was on a hot streak, averaging 162.2 yards per game and 7.8 per carry in the six games prior. The Hurricanes went 4-2 during that streak, the only losses to teams that played in the ACC title game. It’s no surprise that when Johnson isn’t breaking off long runs, Miami has trouble sustaining drives. South Carolina will be ripe for the picking in this matchup. The Gamecocks gave up 284.2 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry against their last four SEC opponents and Clemson.
South Carolina’s Key to Victory: Limit Brad Kaaya
South Carolina’s defense has been a season-long problem. The same team that had Jadeveon Clowney last season has made life awfully easy on quarterbacks this year. Throw out gimmes against Furman and South Alabama, and South Carolina had only nine sacks all season and only one in the final five games. The Gamecocks also had only three interceptions against SEC opponents and Clemson. If South Carolina is to have any chance, the Gamecocks will need to make Miami freshman QB Brad Kaaya uncomfortable.
This is a classic example of the unpredictable December bowl game. Both teams flashed potential this season. One team beat Georgia and the other gave Florida State all it can handle. Yet both teams had enough glaring flaws to finish 6-6. And given that South Carolina and Miami are used to more exciting bowl destinations, one team or both could come out flat. Yet plenty of pride is on the line as both teams are looking to seal a winning record to salvage the season.
Prediction: South Carolina 24, Miami 17
Bowl season at West Point may as well be a short game week.
Thanks to Navy’s unique schedule and bowl arrangement, the Midshipmen won’t have the normal off hours to sit back, stretch and enjoy bowl swag.
After defeating Army on Dec. 13, Navy will have 10 days between its regular season finale and its bowl, tied for the quickest turnaround between a regular season game and a bowl in college football history. In recent years, Navy has played its annual game with Army a week after the conference championship games. Only this season, that game has run right up to to Navy’s contracted bowl.
Navy is also squeezing finals into its hectic schedule, including exams on the Wednesday and Thursday before the Army game and the Monday through Thursday after.
In all, Navy will spend only three full days in San Diego before the bowl game on Dec. 23.
Meanwhile, opponent San Diego State completed its regular season on Nov. 29, giving the Aztecs more than three weeks since its last game — not to mention shorter travel.
Navy vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Dec. 23, 8:30 p.m.
Spread: San Diego State by 3
Navy’s Key to Victory: Keenan Reynolds
Navy will be in good shape if its quarterback is the best player on the field, and that generally means Keenan Reynolds is finding the end zone. Reynolds carries the career (64) and single-season (31 in 2013) records for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback despite missing two games this season. And if Reynolds is running, Navy’s probably winning. Reynolds has attempted 10 or more passes in four games this season; the Midshipmen have lost all four. San Diego State has a solid defense, ranking second in the Mountain West in yards allowed per carry (3.8).
San Diego State’s Key to Victory: Stop the fullback ... despite playing shorthanded
San Diego State coach Rocky Long made clear what he believes is the key to slowing Navy in the flexbone, and it’s not the 1,000-yard quarterback with 21 touchdowns. “If the fullback gets going, everything else works,” Long said. “You have to make him only get three yards a carry.” Navy fullback Noah Copeland is averaging 7.6 yards per carry this season. Only four teams have held him to fewer than four yards per carry, and Navy is 2-2 in those games. San Diego State will have to defend the fullback and the option without tackle Alex Barrett, the Aztecs’ top defensive lineman.
The layoff for San Diego State and lack thereof for Navy makes for an interesting storyline, and the Aztecs’ injury situation will be worth watching. That said, this game may come down to which team is able to sustain drives. With the option, Navy will get its rushing yards. So will San Diego State. The Aztecs have the top rusher in the Mountain West in Donnell Pumphrey (1,755 yards, 19 touchdowns). He’ll be running behind a line that should have a size advantage against Navy’s front. That may be the difference for San Diego State.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Navy 20
In an honest moment, UCLA coach Steve Alford might roll his eyes at Kentucky’s current dilemma heading into Saturday’s CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.
The Wildcats lost junior forward Alex Poythress for the remainder of the season a week ago to a torn ACL. The injury means Kentucky coach John Calipari must either find a 10th man to play in his unconventional platoon system or simply deal with a nine-man rotation filled with McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA prospects.
Alford only wishes he could sympathize with that problem.
Kentucky’s opponent Saturday has a five-man rotation and little else. In UCLA’s last game, an 87-74 loss to Gonzaga, Alford played four of his starters for at least 35 minutes. The fifth starter played 25 minutes, and only one other player logged more than six minutes.
Meanwhile, Kentucky could still conceivably change its entire lineup wholesale. Since this is Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country, the Wildcats’ substitution patterns in the face of the Poythress injury are noteworthy.
“We'll platoon nine, and we're going to have time to see if (sophomore forward) Derek Willis or (sophomore guard) Dom Hawkins deserve to be in the rotation of 10,” Calipari said. “I'm not going to take minutes away from any player just to platoon. That's not the idea. We were platooning for one reason — to try to take care of 10 players.”
Kentucky vs. UCLA
Site: United Center, Chicago
Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET
David Fox: Kentucky 74-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 83-68
Mitch Light: Kentucky 78-54
Jake Rose: Kentucky 82-64
The Poythress injury is the first major test of Calipari’s unorthodox platoon system in which he has white and blue squads for liberal and sometime wholesale substitutions.
While the loss of a starter — and an experienced and versatile defender at that — Calipari has to find a way to fill the minutes. Certainly, he has the bodies to do it, but he’ll have to juggle the egos of talented players along the way.
The truth is, the true platoon system has faded a bit in recent games. In a 58-38 win over Providence on Nov. 30, Kentucky made eight five-man substitutions, including the first four substitutions of the game.
That may have been the end of Kentucky's platoon system.
In the following four games, Calipari has subbed all five on the court only six times. That said, the first substitutions against Texas, Eastern Kentucky and Columbia was a five-man change.
Against North Carolina, Kentucky’s first game without Poythress, the Wildcats subbed four at the first timeout and followed more conventional substitution patterns for the remainder of the game. Calipari subbed four seven times against the Tar Heels and never subbed an entire lineup.
The Poythress injury is a curve ball, but the kind of change that was bound to happen to Kentucky’s best-laid plans. An injury, a player or two not keeping up with the pack or anything else could have turned a 10-man platoon into a more conventional, yet still deep, rotation.
“We did talk in terms of, 'Hey, if we get to the point where eight of those guys or seven have separated from the rest, it'll be pretty cut-and-dried that it's done on the court and it's proven on the court and those guys will play.'” Calipari said. “So I'm not married to anything.”
Oregon is finally off the board.
The Ducks have been knocking on the door of their first Heisman winner for years, and in 2014 they made their New York Athletic Club breakthrough count.
Marcus Mariota won the first Heisman Trophy in University of Oregon history, and he did it by a landslide. He received 90.92 percent of possible points, the third-highest total in Heisman history, and 788 of 890 first-place votes.
Mariota’s Heisman winning season wasn’t just a product of a single remarkable season — though a single remarkable season it was.
Oregon is proof that winning the Heisman is darn difficult. The Ducks have had finalists who where great running backs but at a time when quarterbacks are winning the award (LaMichael James). They’ve had quarterbacks as frontrunners until late-season injuries (Dennis Dixon and Mariota himself). They had a worthy candidate when they were the new team on the block (Joey Harrington).
Yet Oregon won 638 games in its history before winning its first Heisman trophy. That wasn’t the most in college football history, not even close. Championship programs like Tennessee, Clemson and Washington are still waiting to add a Heisman to the trophy case.
Which program will be the next to win its first Heisman? Here are the top 10 programs in terms of wins but no Heisman winners and an outlook in the short term for their prospects.
All-time wins: 810
Closest calls: Peyton Manning (runner-up in 1997), Heath Shuler (runner-up in 1993), Johnny Majors (runner-up in 1956), Hank Lauricella (runner-up in 1951)
Outlook: The Volunteers’ chances of breaking through are much better than they were a couple of years ago. Right now, the Volunteers have a pair of offensive playmakers, quarterback Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd, that will probably show up on the fringes of someone’s list next season.
2. West Virginia
All-time wins: 719
Closest calls: Pat White (sixth in 2007, seventh in 2008), Steve Slaton (fourth in 2006), Major Harris (third in 1989, fifth in 1988)
Outlook: Dana Holgorsen’s system always will be friendly to quarterbacks and receivers, but his quarterback (Clint Trickett) and receiver (Kevin White) will be gone next season. Unless running back Rushel Shell has something up his sleeve, 2015 may be a rebuilding season for star power in Morgantown.
3. Virginia Tech
All-time wins: 711
Closest calls: Mike Vick (third in 1999)
Outlook: These are perilous times for Virginia Tech offensive players. The quarterbacks are turnover-prone (Michael Brewer has one more year of eligibility), and no Hokies running back has topped 700 yards since David Wilson in 2011.
4. Georgia Tech
All-time wins: 710
Closest calls: Joe Hamilton (runner-up in 1999)
Outlook: What kind of confluence of events would have to occur to produce a Heisman contender from Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech? The Yellow Jackets would probably have to win around 10 games (as has happened in 2014 and 2009) and the player would have to be enough of the focal point of the offense to make a run. Think of the ACC version of Navy’s Ricky Dobbs or Kareem Reynolds.
All-time wins: 695
Closest calls: Steve Emtman (fourth in 1991)
Outlook: Shaq Thompson would be an ideal name to watch after the two-way star rushed for 456 yards and accounted for four defensive touchdowns. That is, if he wasn’t a junior who may be headed to the NFL Draft. Sophomore quarterback Cyler Miles quietly finished the season with 16 touchdowns and three interceptions in his first year under Chris Petersen. Miles will end up on someone’s sleeper list.
All-time wins: 692
Closest calls: Darren McFadden (runner-up in 2006 and 2007)
Outlook: McFadden was in the SEC at the wrong time. He was the unquestioned No. 1 running back in the SEC but played amid the Tim Tebow phenomenon. Now, Bret Bielema is recreating Wisconsin’s offense in Fayetteville and could have two 1,000-yard rushers returning in 2015. Presumably a Montee Ball or Melvin Gordon-like season in the SEC would swing Heisman voters.
All-time wins: 688
Closest calls: C.J. Spiller (sixth in 2009)
Outlook: After a string of worthy contenders — Sammy Watkins, C.J. Spiller and Tajh Boyd — Clemson has another on layaway for next season in rising sophomore Deshaun Watson. Two drawbacks, though: He’ll miss the bowl game while recovering from a torn ACL, and Clemson will be without the Chad Morris, whose offense allowed those three Heisman contenders to flourish.
8. Miami (Ohio)
All-time wins: 670
Closest calls: None
Outlook: Ben Roethlisberger finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 2003 with as many first-place votes as Matt Leinart that year. The chances of a MAC school producing a Heisman winner are slim — though Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch was a finalist last year. Miami needs to find a way to get into a bowl before thinking about awards.
9. North Carolina
All-time wins: 667
Closest calls: Charles Justice (runner-up in 1948 and 1949)
Outlook: In theory, Larry Fedora has an offense that should allow skill position players to flourish. In theory.
10. Michigan State
All-time wins: 669
Closest calls: Lorenzo White (fourth in 1985 and 1987), Sherman Lewis (third in 1963)
Outlook: Connor Cook will probably enter 2015 as one of the top 20 contenders should he return to school. Michigan State quarterbacks are barely cracking 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns — Kirk Cousins topped out at 3,316. This isn’t a system designed to crank out ridiculously prolific quarterbacks, and road-grading running backs have trouble winning the Heisman.
All-time wins: 655
Closest calls: Chase Daniel (fourth in 2007), Paul Christman (third in 1939)
Outlook: One of these days, Gary Pinkel is going to produce a Heisman-winning quarterback, given his track record at the position. Maty Mauk, however, will need to make quite the leap from completing 53 percent of his passes and throwing 11 picks if he’s going to be the guy.
All-time wins: 647
Closest calls: Chuck Muncie (runner-up in 1975), Paul Larson (fifth in 1954), Jack Jensen (fourth in 1948)
Outlook: Jared Goff passed for 3,973 yards with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. If Cal contends for the Pac-12 South in short order, maybe...
All-time wins: 645
Closest calls: Eli Manning (third in 2003), Archie Manning (third in 1970, fourth in 1969), Jake Gibbs (third in 1960)
Outlook: Ole Miss managed to lock up coach Hugh Freeze for a few more years. That’s as big a prize as any in Oxford.
All-time wins: 596
Closest calls: Drew Brees (third in 2000, fourth in 1999), Jim Everett (sixth in 1985), Mark Hermann (fourth in 1980, eighth in 1979), Mike Phipps (second in 1969) Leroy Keyes (second in 1968, third in 1967), Bob Griese (second in 1966, eighth in 1965)
Outlook: Hard to believe Purdue has had that many top-three Heisman contenders and hasn’t been able to get over the hump. That’s not going to change anytime soon.
All-time wins: 589
Closest calls: Scooby Wright (ninth in 2014)
Outlook: Rich Rodriguez has had two players — Wright and running back Ka’Deem Carey — finish in the top 10 since he arrived at Arizona. Given his track record at West Virginia, that may only be a start. Wright will be a preseason All-American in 2015, but rising sophomore Anu Solomon may be the guy on watch lists.
All-time wins: 588
Closest calls: Jake Plummer (third in 1996)
Outlook: Even if wide receiver Jaelen Strong heads to the draft, versatile running back D.J. Foster will be worth a look.
All-time wins: 531
Closest calls: Dak Prescott (eighth in 2014)
Outlook: Prescott spent most of 2014 as a viable Heisman contender before fading late in the season, and he still has a year of eligibility remaining.
All-time wins: 504
Closest calls: Collin Klein (third in 2012), Darren Sproles (fifth in 2003), Michael Bishop (second in 1998)
Outlook: Quarterback Jake Waters and wide receiver Tyler Lockett are seniors, so Bill Snyder is starting from square one.
All-time wins: 487
Closest calls: None
Outlook: The combination of Bobby Petrino and ACC affiliation should be a boon for Louisville Heisman hopefuls. Brian Brohm, Michael Bush and Teddy Bridgewater have been viable candidates in years past but the Big East/American gave them little room for error.
In an alternate reality, North Carolina fans had to enjoy a team in pale blue making a run at Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Alas, that game was three days too early, and the school was Columbia rather than the Tar Heels.
Columbia jumped to an early 11-0 lead on Kentucky on Wednesday, and though the Wildcats defeated the Ivy Leaguers 56-46, the game was a clear wake-up call for Kentucky. The Wildcats are a near-unanimous No. 1 team whose defensive play may be the best in recent history.
Yet Columbia reminded John Calipari that he has a team full of 18-22-year-olds who may be concerned with their December plans rather than the game at hand.
Unfortunately for North Carolina, that kind of game occurred Wednesday instead of Saturday.
The Tar Heels have been uneven this season and could use a strong performance against Kentucky to bolster their case heading into the ACC season. North Carolina has already lost 60-55 at home to Iowa and 74-66 on a neutral floor to Butler, two losses that a Tar Heels team with Final Four aspirations shouldn’t be taking.
After this game, neither team will have much of an opportunity for rest. Kentucky faces UCLA and North Carolina faces Ohio State in Chicago on Dec. 20 in the CBS Sports Classic before the Wildcats return from the holiday to visit Louisville on Dec. 27.
North Carolina at Kentucky
Site: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Time: Saturday, noon
What’s on the line for Kentucky
Another big game, another chance for Kentucky to prove its case as the clear national championship favorites. Slow starts against teams like Buffalo and Columbia notwithstanding, Kentucky has been outstanding on the national stage. The Wildcats have defeated their three major-conference opponents (Kansas, Providence and Texas) by a combined margin of 64 points.
What’s on the line for North Carolina
Texas walked away from a 63-51 loss on Dec. 5 feeling OK about its performance at Kentucky, especially with a backup point guard. North Carolina fans may be tougher to assuage, but the Tar Heels can’t look at this game as pass/fail based on the scoreboard. An upset would be great, but if North Carolina can find a way to challenge Kentucky consistently into the second half, that should count as a good sign for the Heels.
You’ll tune in to watch: Another dominant defensive effort from Kentucky
Kentucky is holding teams to 30.7 percent shooting from 2-point range. To put that in perspective, that figure would rank 90th in the country — in 3-point defense. The Wildcats, by the way, already rank 14th in that category, holding teams to 25.4 percent shooting from long range. The Wildcats are outstanding at every defensive position. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks are good bigs, but North Carolina may be in trouble.
Pivotal player: Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison
If we’re going to pick on Kentucky, the 3-point line would be a good place to start. Kentucky is 6-of-42 from 3-point range in the last three games. Andrew Harrison, specifically, has struggled, going 0-for-5 from long range against Columbia in the last game. Just as troubling, Harrison also went 1-of-7 from 2-point range in that game. Calipari said Harrison was seeking foul calls that never came. How will Harrison adjust, both from long range and in getting to the rim?
Biggest question: Can Marcus Paige make enough shots to challenge Kentucky?
With Kentucky’s size, maybe opponents have to start thinking like a mid-major and light the Wildcats up from 3-point range. That’s what Columbia did for a time, starting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. Paige is North Carolina’s only major threat from long range, but he’ll have to do better than 34 percent from beyond the arc for North Carolina to have a shot at Kentucky. Paige is 4-of-19 from 3-point range in his last three games.
David Fox: Kentucky 71-58
Braden Gall: Kentucky 81-65
Mitch Light: Kentucky 77-60
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 64-60
College football award season can be fun.
This is a time for appreciating the game — conference players of the year, coaches of the year, the Heisman, Doak Walker, Biletnikoff, Outland and so on.
For every team and player enjoying a banner year, there’s another who will be going home or a bowl game disappointed.
Not all of our disappointments are equal. Some let us down because these teams could have and should have achieved more. Some simply denied us to see a college football season at its best.
The Big 12 in 2014, indeed, turned out to be a two-team race. Just one of them turned out not to be Oklahoma. Athlon tabbed the Sooners at No. 4 in the preseason top 25, and OU went on to have its worst season since Bob Stoops’ first year in 1999. The 5-4 record included no wins against the league’s top three teams (Baylor, TCU and Kansas State) and a loss to Oklahoma State in which the Sooners led until the final five minutes. Aside from a win over Texas and Samaje Perine’s single-game rushing record, this was a forgettable season for the Sooners. Kudos to everyone who warned of overrating OU due to rout of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last season.
The Hokies had about a week to feel good about the season. With an active pass rush and tough quarterback play, Virginia Tech had the look of an ACC contender with a 14-point win at Ohio State. Then the losses started to pile up — first to East Carolina at home, then Georgia Tech at home. Virginia Tech kept its 22-year bowl streak intact but needed a touchdown drive in the final two minutes against Virginia to do it (because it lost 6-3 in overtime to Wake Forest a week earlier). With a 12-12 record in the ACC the last three seasons, Frank Beamer is in for a long offseason.
The Irish emerged from an offseason academic scandal to start 6-0 with wins against Michigan and Stanford that seemed more impressive at the time than they did at the end of the season. Everett Golson began the season as a Heisman contender but ended the year as a turnover-prone liability. The Irish ended the season on a four-game losing streak and a 49-14 loss to USC.
The Gamecocks’ season was a debacle from the start. South Carolina lost 52-28 at home to Texas A&M to start the season, and the defensive never recovered. At 6-6, South Carolina finished the regular season with more losses than any other preseason top 10 team. What’s even more startling is that the season could have been worse: South Carolina needed a late blocked punt to beat Florida in overtime and played sloppy enough against Vanderbilt to give us the press conference of the year. Oh, and the Gamecocks lost to Clemson.
Where has Andrew Luck gone? Or at least Stepfan Taylor. The Cardinal sat out the Pac-12 North this season, falling out of the race by Nov. 1. Stanford had one of the nation’s best defenses, but its offense didn’t find an identity until the final two games of the season against Cal and UCLA. Stanford finished 7-5 for its worst regular season mark since the second year under Jim Harbaugh in 2008.
Other teams fired coaches. Other teams might have had worse seasons, but programs like Michigan have no excuse to miss bowl games, never mind missing three bowl games in seven years. Besides losing to rivals Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State, the Wolverines found room for one of their worst three-game losing streaks in school history (Utah, Minnesota and Rutgers). If the losing wasn’t enough, Michigan took heat for mishandling the concussion to backup quarterback Shane Morris and saw one of its team leaders, Frank Clark, arrested for domestic violence.
Group of 5 teams in crunch time
Nothing against Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl, but the Broncos had the path cleared for them throughout the course of the season. East Carolina looked like it had wrapped up a major bowl bid by the end of September thanks to wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Instead, East Carolina finished the season with three losses in AAC play. Marshall lost its bid to an undefeated season in a wild 67-66 overtime defeat to Western Kentucky on Nov. 28.
Try telling Georgia Southern and UAB there are too many bowl games. These two programs would love to play in any pre-Christmas bowl game, no matter the destination. Georgia Southern of the Sun Belt was one of three teams to go undefeated in its conference — the other two are in the College Football Playoff — but because the Eagles are transitioning from FCS, they are ineligible for a bowl. And after UAB announced it would shut down the football program, the Blazers became untouchable to bowl organizers despite being bowl eligible for the second time in school history.
Injuries to Chuckie Keeton and Taysom Hill
At the start of the season, the state of Utah had some of the best star power at quarterback of any state. BYU’s Taysom Hill was en route to a career year when he sustained a broken leg on Oct. 3 against Utah State. The Cougars were 4-0 before his injury and 4-4 after. Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton returned from a torn ACL but re-injured the knee in the third game of the season against Wake Forest. The Aggies still won nine games, but the game missed two of its more dynamic quarterbacks for most of the season.
June Jones quitting in September
SMU would have been awful with Jones for a full season, but his departure after losses to Baylor and North Texas by a combined score of 88-3 didn’t help the Mustangs this season. SMU was one of the least competitive teams in college football this season, scoring more than 10 points just once before November.
Nebraska is new to being a team people watch during the college basketball season, so let us offer a word of advice:
Don’t lose at home to teams no one knew was a part of Division I basketball.
The Cornhuskers, a surprise NCAA Tournament team last season, lost 74-73 on Wednesday to Incarnate Word, a Catholic institution in San Antonio that just joined Division I this season.
That game itself was a shock, but combine it with Nebraska’s earlier losses, and the season is an all-out flop.
If anything, that loss takes some of the heat off Michigan, a team that’s also become used to high-level basketball before losing to NJIT and Eastern Michigan in back-to-back games.
Michigan’s puzzling start
What is going on with Michigan? The Wolverines defeated Oregon and Syracuse and played a thriller with Villanova. Yet they’ve also picked up two bad losses, and by bad we mean bad. Thanks to Michigan, NJIT has more wins on Big Ten courts (one) than conference affiliations. After that, the Wolverines scored 42 points in a second consecutive home loss to Eastern Michigan. The Wolverines have no inside presence, which hasn’t always been a problem for John Beilein-coached teams, but they’re being exposed by it now.
The Gators lost a slew of veterans from a team that reached the Final Four last season and three Elite Eights before that. Even though there was bound to be a void, the Gators appeared to have enough pieces and emerging sophomores returning to make a run. The road has been bumpy so far as the Gators have already lost four games, one more than they lost all of last season. Billy Donovan took an incomplete roster to the competitive Battle 4 Atlantis and few teams win at Kansas, where the Gators blew an early lead. The Gators will need continued improvement from point guard Kasey Hill if they’re going to challenge for No. 2 in the SEC.
A five-star, NBA Draft prospect simply not playing as a freshman in college basketball is indeed a rarity. Oubre may get into the rotation in Big 12 play and may still be a fine player and prospect, but for now, he’s having trouble cracking the rotation. Oubre is averaging 8.3 minutes per game and isn’t doing a ton to justify more playing time.
The Tigers knew they’d enter the season weak at the guard position, but the situation is worse than anticipated. Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson is out of shape and not ready to run a team after a yearlong layoff. Avery Woodson, Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell and Johnson have combined for 27 assists to 43 turnovers. That ineffectiveness has led to losses to Wichita State, Baylor and Stephen F. Austin.
The idea of teams winning the national championship one year and going to the NIT the next is not uncommon, and UConn seems to be sliding that way. The Huskies have lost three in a row to West Virginia, Texas without Isaiah Taylor and finally Yale at home. The Huskies are still learning to play without Shabazz Napier, and guard Ryan Boatright and NC State transfer Rodney Purvis have been injured. But these games early carry extra weight as the American schedule will due UConn no favors.
The upstart Mustangs lost three of their first five, but there are plenty of opportunities to turn this around. Defeating UC Santa Barbara, a solid mid-major, is a good start, and Michigan will be vulnerable on Dec. 20. The Mustangs have played the entire season without point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and won’t have veteran big man Markus Kennedy back until the second semester.
The backcourt losses over the years have taken their toll on Syracuse, which continued its offensive struggles from the end of last season into 2014-15. The Orange are shooting 21 percent from 3-point range, the fourth-worst average in the country. After starting 25-0 a year ago, Syracuse has lost to Cal, Michigan and St. John’s.
Nebraska was on this list before losing to Incarnate Word on Wednesday. That’s how the standards have changed at Nebraska. There was a time when the Cornhuskers losing to a solid Atlantic 10 team on the road (Rhode Island) or even Creighton at home wouldn’t have been a big deal. Tim Miles has elevated the program to a point where those are signs for concern. Miles essentially has a two-man team between Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. That’s not going to be enough in the Big Ten.
Even if it was with a bizarre finish, LSU’s win over West Virginia in Morgantown was a good sign for the Tigers. Still, LSU has too much talent and experience to be losing to teams like Old Dominion and Clemson. Those will hurt if LSU can’t get its act together in the SEC schedule.
The Wildcats were a solid, if unspectacular, NCAA Tournament team last season. With some of their best player sophomores this season, K-State was a fringe top 25 team. That’s long gone now. Kansas State has already dropped games to Long Beach State, Pittsburgh and Tennessee (and Arizona, but that was expected). The Wildcats have been surprisingly bad on the defensive end this season.
Less than a full month into the college basketball season, and we’ve already had a handful of major statements.
Kentucky, Duke and Arizona are as good as advertised. Maybe better. Texas, Louisville and Wisconsin are doing exactly what they should be at this point in the year. Gonzaga is better than many expected. Same with Utah or Butler.
Of course, no one remembers a team for what it did in November or December in college basketball, but these games are important.
If nothing else, they set the tone for the season, establish favorites and put storylines in motion. For a handful of teams, these early games will come in handy for the selection committee. Win a big game in November and perhaps you don’t need to be perfect in February.
Here's what we think are the most important statements as we near the end of the first month of the season.
John Calipari’s blue platoon (the starters) and white platoon (the best group of sixth men in the country) was met with skepticism to start the season, but Kentucky is sticking with it for good reason. Wednesday’s slow start against Columbia notwithstanding, the Wildcats are the best defensive team in the country. The Wildcats won’t keep up their pace in conference play even if the numbers remain staggering: Kentucky has the best adjusted defensive efficiency rating and defensive effective field goal rate going back to 2002 on KenPom.com
This is scary: A group that went into Madison and defeated a veteran Wisconsin team 80-70 is only going to get better. If a freshman-led team can shoot 65 percent at the Kohl Center in only their eighth game, what will these rookies be able to do in March? Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones have all taken their turn as the stars for Duke this season while veterans Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon have settled into their roles.
Gonzaga as a national player
The Bulldogs may have Mark Few’s best team or at least a team that ranks up with the 2013 team that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the country or the 2006 team led by Adam Morrison. Gonzaga lost 66-63 in overtime at Arizona in its biggest game of the year, but there’s no shame in losing to another Final Four contender on the road in a game that came down to free throws (or lack thereof at the end). Gonzaga is one of the most balanced offensive teams in the country with five players averaging double figures and a sixth averaging 8.5. points per game.
Since we mentioned Gonzaga’s hot start, we should mention the team that just defeated the Bulldogs. Arizona, which won the Maui Invitational, clamped down on Gonzaga on the defensive end to erase a six-point deficit in the second half. Four Bulldogs players scored in double figures. But none scored more than 15 and the Zags averaged 0.94 points per possession. The most efficient defense from a year ago might be headed that way again.
Big East depth
Even if the pace of the league has cooled since November, this still looks like a respectable multi-bid league. Villanova is undefeated with wins over VCU, Michigan and Illinois. St. John’s defeated Syracuse for its first win in the Carrier Dome in more than 15 years. Despite an uncertain coaching situation, Butler has defeated North Carolina and Georgetown and has only one loss this season (to Oklahoma on a neutral floor). All hope isn’t lost for Creighton without Doug McDermott as the Bluejays have wins over Oklahoma and Nebraska, the latter on the road. Even DePaul is 6-1 with a win over Stanford.
Utah’s breakout moment
Utah lost seven Pac-12 games by seven points or less last season, including three in overtime. Larry Krystkowiak’s team has been poised for a breakout, and it finally happened late into the night on Dec. 3. Against a Wichita State team that has almost always won the close games in recent years, the Utes got the breaks to defeat the Shockers 69-68 in overtime. Utah could be the No. 2 team in the Pac-12.
The Cavaliers haven’t picked up an eye-popping win. And with a style of play that ranks 330th or worse in possession length on both sides of the court, nothing Virginia does will be eye-popping. Instead, consider what the Cavaliers did in back-to-back true road games against solid Maryland and VCU teams. Virginia held the two teams to a combined 1.02 points per possession, 45 percent shooting from 2-point range and 31 percent from 3.
Jerian Grant’s return
Notre Dame is back in postseason contention with Jerian Grant back in the lineup after missing most of last season following an academic issue. Clearly, the Irish are a different team with their star guard. Grant is averaging 19 points per game during the 9-1 start. In Notre Dame’s best performance of the season, Grant was 9-of-17 with 27 points in an overtime win over Michigan State.
Wichita State hasn’t had a challenger in the Missouri Valley since Creighton left. Northern Iowa hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2010. Could both change this season? The Panthers have only two top-100 wins (Stephen F. Austin and Richmond) but Ben Jacobson’s team is 9-0. With a junior- and senior-laden team, Jacobson is ready for another run, but the true tests will come in the next two weeks against VCU and Iowa.
(Note: The initial posting of this piece Thursday morning included Iowa State’s Bryce Dejean-Jones in this spot. He was removed after news broke of his arrest Thursday.)
Ten teams remain undefeated, and one of them went winless in conference play last season. Gary Patterson isn’t the only coach engineering a major turnaround in Fort Worth. TCU is 9-0, meaning that the Horned Frogs’ next win will eclipse last year’s total (9-22). Trent Johnson’s team doesn’t have any great wins — Ole Miss and Mississippi State are the only wins over KenPom top 100 teams — but the Frogs have a chance to be 13-0 when they open Big 12 play at home against West Virginia in Jan. 3.
Before a team hoists a national championship trophy, before one outstanding player hoists the Heisman Trophy, a handful of other hardware will be awarded over the coming days.
Part of college football’s rich tradition is the dozens of individual and positional awards to be distributed over the coming days and weeks.
Most of these will be during ESPN’s College Football Awards show on Thursday, Dec. 11., at 7 p.m.
Here are the finalists, the winners and our picks for each of the major awards.
Most Outstanding Player
Amari Cooper, Alabama
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Player of the Year
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Defensive Player of the Year
Vic Beasley, Clemson
Joey Bosa, Ohio State
Scooby Wright, Arizona
Top defensive player
Malcolm Brown, Texas
Landon Collins, Alabama
Senquez Golson, Ole Miss
Gerod Holliman, Louisville
Scooby Wright, Arizona
Eddie Robinson Award
Coach of the year
Art Briles, Baylor
Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
Justin Fuente, Memphis
Bryan Harsin, Boise State
Mark Helfrich, Oregon
Urban Meyer, Alabama
Gary Patterson, TCU
Nick Saban, Alabama
Maxwell Coach of the Year
Mark Helfrich, Oregon
Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Johnny Unitas Golden Arm
Top senior quarterback
Brett Hundley, UCLA
Cody Kessler, USC
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Bryce Petty, Baylor
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Davey O’Brien Award
Trevone Boykin, TCU
Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Dak Prescott, Mississippi State
Doak Walker Award
Top running back
Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska
Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Melvin Gordon, Nebraska
Top wide receiver
Amari Cooper, Alabama
Rashard Higgins, Colorado State
Kevin White, West Virginia
Top tight end
Nick O’Leary, Florida State
Clive Walford, Miami
Maxx Williams, Minnesota
Top interior lineman
Malcolm Brown, Texas
Reese Dismukes, Auburn
Brandon Scherff, Iowa
Jack Allen, Mississippi State
David Andrews, Georgia
Reese Dismukes, Abuburn
B.J. Finney, Kansas State
Andy Gallik, Boston College
Hroniss Grasu, Oregon
Vic Beasley, Clemson
Joey Bosa, Ohio State
Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington
Scooby Wright, Arizona
Erik Kendricks, UCLA
Hau’oli Kikaha, Washington
Denzel Perryman, Miami
Jake Ryan, Michigan
Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame
Top defensive back
Landon Collins, Alabama
Gerod Holliman, Louisville
Lou Groza Award
Robert Aguayo, Florida State
Brad Craddock, Maryland
Josh Lambert, West Virginia
Ray Guy Award
Tom Hackett, Utah
Austin Rekhow, Idaho
J.K. Scott, Alabama
Top assistant coach
Scott Frost, Oregon
Tom Herman, Ohio State
Lane Kiffin, Alabama
Doug Meacham, TCU
Dave Steckel, Missouri
By a handful of measures, the Big Ten had a successful season. The league produced a College Football Playoff team, a Heisman finalist, one of the top defensive players in the country and one of the nation’s biggest surprise teams.
The conference just took an interesting path to reach the finished product.
Writing off the league in Week 2 couldn’t have been more foolhardy, but at the time, the hopes for the Big Ten were dim.
By then, the power programs all lost non-conference games — Ohio State to Virginia Tech, Michigan to Notre Dame, Michigan State to Oregon and Wisconsin to LSU. Some teams recovered (Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan State). Some did not (Michigan). Minnesota lost early to TCU, too, but the Horned Frogs turned out to be better than we anticipated. So did the Gophers.
If seasons are judged by playoff appearances and Heisman contenders, the Big Ten recovered from that week. J.T. Barrett emerged as a star, and Ohio State never lost again. Melvin Gordon was largely absent from the second half against LSU, but he went on to set the national single-game rushing record (for a week) and then broke the Big Ten rushing record held by Ron Dayne.
League newcomers Maryland and Rutgers will finish the season in bowl games. So will Illinois, which saved the job of coach Tim Beckman. So will Penn State, which saw its bowl ban lifted.
But power programs in this league finished where they started the season — looking for answers. Michigan is out of a bowl and still looking for a coach. Nebraska is in a bowl but has one eye on the Mike Riley era.
2014 Season Awards and All-Conference Teams:
2014 Big Ten Season Awards
Coach of the Year: Jerry Kill, Minnesota
Minnesota’s trophy case is more full than it’s been in years as the Gophers won both the Little Brown Jug (Michigan) and Floyd of Rosedale (Iowa) in the same season for the first time since 1967. The Gophers, picked by Athlon to finish fifth in the West, came within one game on the last day of the season of playing in the Big Ten championship game. With an 8-4 finish, Kill has led Minnesota to back-to-back eight-win seasons for the first time in more than a decade.
Offensive Player of the Year: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
This can go to no one else. It’s hard to think what Wisconsin would be without Gordon. The junior put himself into Wisconsin running back lore — not an easy task given the tradition — by rushing for a then-FBS record 408 yards against Nebraska and breaking Ron Dayne’s Big Ten rushing record. Gordon’s 2,336 rushing yards is the fourth-highest total in FBS history.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joey Bosa, Ohio State
Bosa built upon a standout freshman season to become the most disruptive defensive player in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-5, 278-pound defensive end from St. Thomas Aquinas finished in the top five nationally with 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss. His four forced fumbles this season contributed to 30 Ohio State points.
Newcomer of the Year: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Minnesota
Boddy-Calhoun is a junior college transfer and a player making a return from injury. The wait was worth it as the Gophers cornerback finished the season with four interceptions and eight pass breakups.
Freshman of the Year: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Unless you’re a die-hard Ohio State fan, you probably didn’t know much, if anything, about J.T. Barrett before Aug. 20. That’s when Braxton Miller was lost for the season and Barrett went from unknown to the quarterback of a College Football Playoff contender. The redshirt freshman struggled in his second career start, a home loss to 6-6 Virginia Tech, but led the Buckeyes to an unblemished Big Ten season. His 45 total touchdowns was an Ohio State record and more than Johnny Manziel, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston during their redshirt freshman seasons.
Coordinator of the Year: Tom Herman, Ohio State
Ohio State entered the season with one sure bet on offense, and that cornerstone, Braxton Miller, never started a game. The 39-year-old coordinator prepped J.T. Barrett to take an unexpected starting role for the season, set the stage for a 1,400-yard season from running back Ezekiel Elliott and then won a Big Ten championship game with another backup quarterback in Cardale Jones. Simply put, Ohio State isn’t in they playoff if the Buckeyes quarterbacks aren’t in position or prepared to flourish on short notice.
Breakout Player of the Year: Tevin Coleman, Indiana
Coleman had a heck of a time overcoming not only Melvin Gordon in publicity or a 1-7 season by Indiana in the Big Ten. Becoming only the third 2,000-yard running back since 2008 was enough to put him on the fringe of the Heisman hunt. At one point, Coleman had rushed for a touchdown in 15 consecutive games dating back to the 2013 opener against Indiana State. Coleman finished with 2,036 yards, more than double his total from a year earlier.
Big Ten 2014 All-Conference Team
|First Team||Second Team|
QB J.T. Barrett
QB Connor Cook
RB Melvin Gordon
RB Ameer Abdullah
RB Tevin Coleman
RB David Cobb
WR Tony Lippett
WR Devin Smith
WR Leonte Carroo
WR Mike Dudek
TE Maxx Williams
TE Josiah Price
OT Brandon Scherff
OT Jack Conklin
OT Rob Havenstein
OT Taylor Decker
OG Kyle Costigan
OG Pat Elflein
OG Zac Epping
OG Travis Jackson
C Jack Allen
C Dan Voltz
DE Joey Bosa
DE Randy Gregory
DE Shilique Calhoun
DE Andre Monroe
DT Anthony Zettel
DT Carl Davis
DT Michael Bennett
DT Maliek Collins
LB Mike Hull
LB Derek Landisch
LB Vince Biegel
LB Taiwan Jones
LB Jake Ryan
LB Damien Wilson
CB William Likely
CB Doran Grant
CB Trae Waynes
CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun
S Kurtis Drummond
S Nate Gerry
S Michael Caputo
S Frankie Williams
K Brad Craddock
K Sam Ficken
P Peter Mortell
P Cameron Johnston
KR Jalen Myrick
KR R.J. Shelton
PR De'Mornay Pierson-El
PR Jalin Marshall
For a playoff system that produced a mere three games and four teams in championship contention, the first College Football Playoff left us plenty to dissect.
In the name of transparency (and publicity and TV ratings), the selection committee released a weekly top 25 starting in Week 10 and sent committee chair Jeff Long out to field questions on camera and off about the process.
Whether all this weekly information was necessary is still up for debate, but the run-up to the final selection show at least pulled back the curtain on the thought process of the committee as a whole, even if we may never know the thoughts of each of the 12 members.
What we learned from the selection committee varied from week to week, even moreso in the final week when the committee was tasked with picking one team out of the pool of three for the final spot of the playoff.
Here’s what we think the most important lessons were this season:
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Recent results mattered most
We’re not ready to say definitively that the Big 12 is going to be hurt in the playoff because it doesn’t have a championship game. What we can say is that Ohio State’s 59-0 rout of a top-15 Wisconsin team on a neutral field in the last game of the season put the Buckeyes over the top. None of the teams in the playoff lost later than Oct. 4 (Alabama to Ole Miss). The top two teams left out lost on Oct. 11 (TCU to Baylor) and Oct. 18 (Baylor to West Virginia). Ohio State lost early, allowing the Buckeyes to show significant improvement after a Week 2 loss to Virginia Tech.
The committee paid attention to personnel
This was an early lesson: Oregon opened the rankings at No. 5 and never fell any lower despite a home loss to Arizona. At the time, the Wildcats didn’t look like a team that would win 10 games and win the Pac-12 South. Instead, the lesson was that the committee evaluated Oregon with a healthy offensive line down the stretch was much better than the Ducks team that faced Arizona without tackle Jake Fisher. Perhaps more telling is the performance of Ohio State and their two backup quarterbacks. The Buckeyes were allowed to show improvement from week to week under J.T. Barrett since his disastrous performance in his second career start. When Barrett went down, the committee essentially told backup Cardale Jones it would be watching his performance in the Big Ten title game in particular.
The weekly rankings were not predictive
The weekly top 25 from the selection committee that started on Oct. 28 was probably necessary for transparency’s sake and at least proved that this selection committee took its job seriously and could ably speak on each pertinent team. Yet when it came down to the the first six rankings and the final top 25 on Dec. 7, we couldn’t say it helped us predict the final playoff picture. TCU dropped from No. 3 to No. 6 in a week, and Ohio State moved into the semifinal. That’s all fine. One flaw from the BCS era was the pollsters’ devotion to previous rankings. While it’s nice to know the committee is more flexible, we’re not sure if the weekly rankings were a great use of time.
The committee is making this up as it goes along
Again, this is a new process, so perhaps this is to be expected. But the phrase “game control” entered the college football lexicon because Jeff Long uttered it on a Tuesday night. An explanation noting that teams got a leg up because of beating “previously ranked” teams got some run in the media for a time. An imperfect process gave us imperfect answers.
Undefeated doesn’t trump all
Florida State finished the season as the nation’s only undefeated team and was the only unbeaten in a power conference after Nov. 9. Yet the Seminoles never ranked No. 1 in a weekly playoff ranking. The way the Seminoles played the season with a series of second-half comebacks against ACC foes and Florida contributed to his, but this also signaled that the selection committee wouldn’t elevate a team simply because of a zero in the loss column. The idea of an undefeated major conference team spending five weeks ranked behind at least one one-loss would have been a foreign concept during the BCS era.
The rankings changed the polls
Who knows if this would have happened anyway, but the pollsters seemed to follow the lead of the playoff rankings in elevating a one-loss team ahead of the the Seminoles. Florida State was No. 2 in the AP poll for seven non-consecutive weeks this season. The first portion of that, the Seminoles were behind undefeated Mississippi State and the second behind one-loss Alabama.
The Group of 5 is in trouble
Speaking of undefeated, let’s talk about Marshall, which spent all but the last two weeks of the season undefeated. The Thundering Herd never entered the playoff rankings until Nov. 25 at No. 24. By then, Marshall already spent six weeks in the AP poll. Boise State spent only the final three weeks in the playoff top 25. That’s not a hindrance to getting to a major bowl game — a Group of 5 team only needs to be the highest ranked league champ to get to a major bowl game. But it does illustrate how much trouble a team from outside of the Power 5 is going to have getting to the playoff.
Name recognition matters
Even after Virginia Tech lost 6-3 in overtime to Wake Forest, the committee didn’t seem to view Ohio State’s 14-point home loss to the Hokies as a bad loss. Long refuted as such when asked about that result two weeks before the final ranking.
In the end, head-to-head mattered
One of the criticisms of the committee for weeks was that TCU remained ahead of Baylor despite the Bears’ 61-58 win over the Horned Frogs. Once the season ended — and the bodies of work were complete — Baylor was one spot ahead of TCU. That got neither into the playoff, but at least head-to-head was the defining factor in the final poll.
The committee has to do a better job of explaining schedule strength
All too often, the committee justified its rankings using its own top 25 as a guide — as in Team A beat two teams in the top 25 and lost to a team in the top 10. Using the rankings themselves to explain the rankings may come back to bite the selection committee.
Art Briles is one of the nation’s brightest football coaches. He’s done more with less at Baylor because of smarts and hard work.
He’s changed Baylor from a Big 12 afterthought into a two-time league champ because of astute recruiting and player development and an innovative offensive system.
That’s why Baylor missing out on the College Football Playoff can be so frustrating.
Baylor the overachiever, so adept at maximizing its potential, misused some of its most valuable resources.
In the eyes of the 2014 College Football Playoff selection committee, no resource was more important than games. All four teams in the playoff played 13. The top two teams left out had 12.
And Baylor squandered a quarter of its most valuable resource on Buffalo, SMU and Northwestern State.
In the end, Baylor was able to overtake TCU, a team the Bears defeated head-to-head in October, but not a team that played a 13th game Saturday.
Laugh at the outsized role TCU’s win over Minnesota played in the rankings, but Baylor has to believe that if the Bears defeated Minnesota 30-7 instead of TCU, Baylor would be packing its bags for New Orleans to face Alabama.
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From the onset, members of the selection committee avoided talk of sending messages to football programs hoping to get into the playoff.
This is all about picking the four best teams, they say, not telling athletic directors how to go about their business.
No matter what, though, the committee would send an implicit message on selection Sunday.
The message Sunday was directed squarely at the Big 12: Teams in this league need to do something about their schedules.
“I can’t answer what’s best for the Big 12 conference,” said selection committee chair Jeff Long, who is also the athletic director at Arkansas. “That’s not for us to decide. That’s for the Big 12 to decide, what they think is in their best interests.”
With four playoff spots and five power conferences, one was bound to be left out of the national championship picture. This year, it was the only league without a conference championship game.
Is the message that conference championship games are a necessity? Should the Big 12 start scouring the American or Mountain West for its next two teams?
Long won’t tell the Big 12 what to do, but his explanation of why Ohio State is playing for a title instead of TCU or Baylor is telling.
“(The 13th game) had an effect,” Long said. “It was an additional game that we could see Ohio State prove their strength. It was significant. I can’t say that it wasn’t.”
Adding a conference championship game, either by expansion or by being granted an NCAA waiver to have a title game with 10 teams, isn’t the only answer.
By selecting Ohio State, the committee in part indicated a team doesn’t necessarily have to schedule a great Power 5 team and it doesn’t necessarily have to win under the right circumstances.
In the second week of the season, Ohio State lost at home to a Virginia Tech team that finished 3-5 in the ACC. In earlier comments, Long indicated the selection committee didn’t see such a loss as being as devastating as it seemed to be.
On selection Sunday, that was made even more clear. Ohio State had the worst loss of any team in playoff contention and still made the field. The Big Ten championship game gave Ohio State yet another opportunity to atone for that loss.
When the Big 12 elected to stand pat at 10 teams, the league had to know it was taking a risk by standing on a island as the only league without a title game.
It’s too early, though, to assume the Big 12 has to crawl to BYU or Boise State or Cincinnati or UCF or Memphis for expansion. The criteria for the basketball selection committee ebbs and flows with each season. The criteria for this specific football committee seemed to change for week to week.
What kept Baylor or TCU out of the playoff in 2014 might not be an eliminator in 2015.
A major upheaval and another round of conference realignment isn’t necessary just yet. Effort should be the first step.
Why not try scheduling BYU or Cincinnati before adding them to the conference? Facing UCF or Boise State might not be a signature non-conference win, but they won’t be the schedule deadweight of an FCS team, either.
And that doesn’t scratch the surface of more prominent programs that might be willing to play a game in Texas, neutral site or otherwise, for recruiting purposes.
Even Kansas State, a program whose trademark is easy non-conference games, found a way to get Auburn to visit Manhattan.
“This is going to be a wake-up call,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN’s Rece Davis on air Sunday. “You don’t want to get left out of the postseason because of a weakness in your non-conference schedule.”
Big 12 teams have three opportunities each season to not take the easy way out on a non-conference game.
On Sunday, it was clear those opportunities can’t be wasted.
The NFL and Major League Baseball playoffs have their wild cards. The College Football Playoff does, too. If not in name, Ohio State is the wild card in practice.
The Buckeyes were the last team in the four-team field, and the most controversial. Ohio State’s 59-0 win over Wisconsin the Big Ten Championship put the Buckeyes over the top ahead of TCU and Baylor. Personnel-wise, Ohio State is also a wild card. The Buckeyes have played only one game with the quarterback who will start the Sugar Bowl.
Intentionally or not, the selection committee provided plenty of fodder for pre-game storylines in pairing Ohio State with Alabama. The Buckeyes will face a representative from the conference that denied the Buckeyes the 2006 and 2007 BCS championship. Meanwhile, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will face his biggest on-field nemesis from his days at Florida (Nick Saban) and his biggest off-field pest (Lane Kiffin).
Now that the bracket is set and the storylines are established, it’s time to wonder if Ohio State can win this thing. Here are five reasons why they might.
5 Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Cardale Jones
This is counterintuitive but perhaps crazy enough to work against Alabama. If Cardale Jones really is as good as his performance against Wisconsin indicates, Ohio State will be in good shape at the quarterback position despite all the odds. Jones completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns against a top-five defense in Wisconsin. And that’s essentially all the game film Nick Saban and his staff will have to dissect. We know Jones has a big arm (15.1 yards per attempt against the Badgers) and one of the best deep threats in the field in Devin Smith (26.6 yards per reception). A dropback passer also is a different look for Meyer against Saban, who faced Tim Tebow in their two SEC championship matchups.
2. Joey Bosa
Perhaps one statistical surprise among the four teams in the field: Only one of them ranked in the top 20 in sacks this season. Led by Joey Bosa, Ohio State is that team at more than three sacks per game. Bosa may be the most disruptive defensive player on any of the four playoff teams with 13.5 sacks (fourth nationally) and 20 tackles for a loss (tied for fifth).
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3. Ezekiel Elliott
Meyer went his entire career without a 1,000-yard running back before Carlos Hyde did it last season. Now, Meyer has had two in two seasons. Elliott will make Jones’ job much easier if he can continue his hot streak into the playoff. Elliott rushed for 220 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against Wisconsin, nearly tripling Melvin Gordon’s output in that game. Elliott is averaging nearly nine yards per carry in his last three games.
4. A ball-hawking defense
Every offense in the playoff can throw the ball, so making defensive plays in the passing game is going to be a major factor. In that case, Ohio State has a nice track record. Ohio State finished the season ranked fourth nationally with 21 interceptions, including seven in the last four games. Only three teams didn’t throw a pick against Ohio State. Then again, that might be a concern. The top quarterback Ohio State faced all season was Michigan State’s Connor Cook, who completed 25-of-45 passes for 358 yards with two touchdowns and no picks.
5. Urban Meyer
Facing Saban in the semifinal evens the odds a bit, but few coaches have as good a track record as Meyer in championship or elimination-type games (Saban is one of them). Meyer is 5-2 in BCS championship games or conference title games in which a trip to the title game, or in the case, the playoff, are on the line. Again, Saban’s record is pretty unimpeachable itself, but Meyer’s is close. The matchup includes a 1-1 record in SEC championship games between Florida and Alabama, games that were in effect national semifinals.
When the guy who correctly predicts presidential races down to the electoral vote is thrown off the scent, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that following the weekly College Football Playoff horse race is not the best use of time.
As the season wrapped up Saturday night, Nate Silver posted that FiveThirtyEight’s statistical model pegged TCU as 91.1 percent likely to earn a playoff spot, a more solid prediction than even undefeated Florida State.
Nevertheless, Silver wrote he believed Florida State was more safe than the model indicated and TCU less so. Silver’s gut turned out to be more on point than the statistical model.
By Sunday morning, Ohio State was in and TCU was out. A victory for the 8.9 percent chance.
Let’s not be harsh on Silver, though. This the same person whose statistical models predict presidential and congressional races with regular accuracy. He gets a mulligan on trying to predict a process that has no precedent.
The playoff selection committee threw everyone off in the final rankings. Certainly, there was a sense that Ohio State, on the strength of a 59-0 win over Wisconsin and a Big Ten title, could move from No. 5 to No. 4 even though TCU defeated Iowa State 55-3. It also remained plausible Baylor, facing the top opponent of any of the three in No. 9 Kansas State, could move ahead of TCU.
But anyone Saturday night saying they were certain Ohio State would end up in the playoff was simply guessing.
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For six weeks, the selection committee met, deliberated, ranked a top 25 and explained why each team fit in each spot. Each week, TCU ranked ahead of both Ohio State and Baylor.
Ohio State slowly gained on the top four, and Baylor inched closer and closer to the team it defeated on Oct. 11. All the while, though, TCU maintained the upper hand.
In the only ranking that matters, Ohio State moved to No. 4 followed by Baylor and TCU in a complete about-face to the earlier top 25.
Not that the movement is unjustifiable — Ohio State played in one more game than the two teams from the Big 12, and that game ended in a 59-0 rout on a neutral field over a top 20 team that entered the game as a four-point favorite.
And hours after the committee released the top six, it revealed another significant change in its rankings: Mississippi State finished No. 7 and Michigan State finished No. 8. A week earlier, the Spartans were two spots ahead of the Bulldogs.
This flip-flop occurred despite neither team playing in the final week. Moreover, the two teams that defeated Michigan State (Oregon and Ohio State) went on to win conference titles in the final week of the season compared to the one for Mississippi State (Alabama).
That move may not seen substantial, but it allowed Mississippi State to take a spot in the Orange Bowl, the bowl destination anticipated for Michigan State. The Spartans instead will go to the Cotton Bowl.
Now, unless you’re a Michigan State fan who already booked travel to Miami, this isn’t a big deal. It simply underscores that the weekly reveal of the rankings and the weekly meetings were little more than TV programming.
The weekly top 25 in the end offered little insight into what the selection committee actually would do when it came time to fill out a bracket and send teams to bowls.
The process displayed transparency but only to a point. Committee chair Jeff Long ably spoke to the media each week and justify one ranking or another. At the same time, Long dodged any mention of which of the 12 voices held the most sway, if any, or which committee members dissented.
And in the end, the weekly rankings did little to predict how the final rankings would end up.
The weekly rankings deserve skepticism for this exact reason. The entire process left Long explaining why a team that was ranked third five days ago and won 55-3 in the last week of the season ended up sixth.
And this is what we wanted, too, even if no one said it. The polls had a formula and generally stuck to it late in the season: Keep winning and you won’t move down — even if you beat 2-10 Iowa State while the teams behind you picked up comfortable wins over top-20 teams. Wrote Silver:
In other words, the committee appears to engage in a more thorough reassessment of the teams with its final rankings. For better or worse, it’s more concerned about getting the “right” answer in the end than in being consistent from week to week.
The question now is if the committee will go through the same process of producing what now seem to be meaningless weekly rankings.
That is for the bureaucracy to decide.
“I think that the committee will look at this year, look at this season, look at how the entire process went,” Long said. “We will discuss it as a committee and we will discuss it with the management committee and we’ll probably make some recommendations, but it’s up to the management committee how the process will change and if those weekly rankings will change.”
The process could remain the same. Perhaps the committee will release fewer rankings. Maybe it will follow the basketball committee’s lead and simply let the bracket speak for itself.
In any case, we’ll all watch. Just don’t expect us to take it too seriously.
The saying goes that the backup quarterback is the most popular person in football.
At Ohio State, that may be no exaggeration.
Quarterback injuries have been the norm for Urban Meyer in Columbus, but lucky for the Buckeyes, the next man up has been more than prepared.
At one point, Cardale Jones spent time as the third-string quarterback. Braxton Miller was the starter until he went down with a shoulder injury to give way to redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. With a broken ankle, Barrett gave way for Jones, the third backup quarterback to enter a game because of injury for Ohio State the last two seasons.
This, though, was different. On Saturday, Ohio State started the day ranked No. 5 in the playoff rankings and would face a top-five defense in the Big Ten championship game.
A win, and especially strong play from Jones, would strengthen Ohio State's cause for the playoff.
Jones responded with a dominant performance in a 59-0 rout of Wisconsin. In his first career start, Jones completed 12-of-17 passes for 257 yards with three touchdowns and no turnovers against the Badgers to earn Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors.
Wisconsin started the day ranked fifth in fewest yards per play (4.4) and 17th in yards per pass attempt.
Those numbers will take a hit after facing Ohio State.
Under Jones, Ohio State averaged 10 yards per play, and the quarterback averaged 17.1 yards per attempt against the Badgers.
National Defensive Player of the Week: Michael Bennett, Ohio State
If you picked an Ohio State player to have nearly three times as many rushing yards as Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon on Saturday, you could have won a few bets. Certainly, part of that is on the Buckeyes’ Ezekiel Elliott (220 yards), but some is on defensive tackle Michael Bennett and the Ohio State defense. Bennett finished with four tackles for a loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles as Ohio State held Gordon to 76 yards on 26 carries. For the first time all season, Gordon failed to produce a 20-yard carry. He topped out with his longest run going for 13 yards.
National Freshman of the Week: Dalvin Cook, Florida State
Jameis Winston played perhaps his best game of the season in the ACC championship, but he was in danger of being upstaged by a freshman tailback. Cook rushed for 177 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown for the best Florida State rushing day in 39 games. On one possession in the first and second quarters against Georgia Tech, Cook had all seven touches on a 75-yard touchdown drive. Later, he had the key 10-yard run on third-and-7 in the fourth quarter that sealed the 37-35 win for Florida State.
National Coordinator of the Week: Don Pellum, Oregon
In short, Oregon has two weaknesses as it tries to win the school’s first national championship: Arizona and its own defense. The Ducks solved both in the Pac-12 championship on Friday in a 51-13 win over Arizona. Pellum’s defense had arguably its best game of the season. Arizona amassed only 224 yards and 3.7 yards per play against the Ducks. Of Arizona’s 113 passing yards, 69 came on a single touchdown on a broken coverage. Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon was injured during the course of the game, but Wildcats quarterbacks combined to go 9-of-26 with an interception.
With a 55-3 win over Iowa State, TCU didn’t give the College Football Playoff selection committee any reason to drop the Horned Frogs out of the top four.
Now, the Horned Frogs will wait to find out of that’s enough.
TCU entered the week ranked No. 3 in the selection committee rankings. In theory, a rout of Iowa State, a team that finished winless in conference play, should keep TCU in a playoff scenario.
Yet TCU knows it won’t have the last word.
No. 6 Baylor, which defeated TCU 61-58 and outgained the Horned Frogs by nearly 300 yards on Oct. 11, has an opportunity for a statement win against No. 9 Kansas State.
Patterson: "I don’t know what happens tomorrow, but the bottom line is we’ve done everything we can do …. Now we’ll just wait and watch.”— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) December 6, 2014
TCU will have a share of the Big 12 title and a better non-conference win (Minnesota) compared to Baylor. The word “share” is key. The Big 12 will not declare a champion in the event of a tie and will present co-champions to the committee as TCU and either Baylor or Kansas State will finish with one Big 12 loss apiece.
In nearly every other tiebreaker situation, head-to-head would be the first determining factor. One of the criteria used by the selection committee will be conference championships. By naming co-champions, the Big 12 is putting the onus on the selection committee to pick the team with the better body of work.
In a week in which Baylor hired a public relations firm, TCU coach Gary Patterson said he won’t state his case any more than his team already had.
Gary Patterson on if TCU belongs in: "I don't see why they shouldn't consider us. This team has done everything we asked them to do..."— Chuck Carlton (@ChuckCarltonDMN) December 6, 2014
TCU could have crossed the 60-point barrier Saturday against Iowa State but elected to take two knees from the Iowa State 25.
In any event, TCU has engineered a remarkable turnaround. The Horned Frogs are 11-1 overall and 8-1 in the Big 12 only a year removed from going 4-8. The Frogs have won two more Big 12 games this season than they did during the first two seasons in the league (6-12).
Quarterback Trevone Boykin, who spent time at receiver last season, may have put the finishing touches on his bid to be a Heisman finalist by going 30-of-41 for 460 yards with four touchdowns and an interception against the Cyclones.
Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon are the favorites for the award with Alabama’s Amari Cooper making a bid for New York.
By the evening, though, all TCU eyes will be on Baylor.
Here’s how the two teams stacked up entering Saturday
|TCU vs. Baylor|
|Head-to-Head||Lost 61-58||Won 61-58|
|Loss||at No. 6 Baylor 61-58||at West Virginia 41-27|
|Best non-Big 12 win||Minnesota 30-7||at Buffalo 63-21|
|Offensive Yards/Play*||6.7 (First)||6.0 (Fifth)|
|Defensive Yards/Play*||5.7 (Sixth)||5.7 (Fifth)|
|Scoring Differential*||Plus-153 (19.1 per game)||Plus-134 (16.8 per game)|
|Yard Differential*||Plus-766 (95.8 per game)||Plus-1,084 (134.5 per game)|
|*Big 12 games only|
Mike Riley has had many opportunities to move during his second stint as Oregon State’s coach. USC took a look at their former coordinator. So did Alabama, where Riley played for Bear Bryant.
After 11 seasons since his return to Corvallis, Riley made the move to Nebraska to replace Bo Pelini.
So what kind of program is awaiting Riley in Lincoln, and what are the prospects for his early tenure?
Here’s a look:
Offense (4): T Zach Sterup, T Alex Lewis, QB Tommy Armstrong, WR Jordan Westerkamp
Defense (7): E Greg McMullen, T Vincent Valentine, T Maliek Collins, E Randy Gregory, LB David Santos, S Nate Gerry, CB Daniel Davie
Riley will have a challenge ahead of him on offense as the Cornhuskers must replace three cornerstones of their offense in running back Ameer Abdullah, wide receiver Kenny Bell and offensive lineman Jake Cotton. Imani Cross should be poised to become the feature back, but he’s never had more than 85 carries in a season. On defense, junior defensive end Randy Gregory will be a candidate to go early to the NFL Draft.
|247Sports Composite Rankings|
|Year||National Rank||Big Ten Rank|
How does a program win nine or 10 games every season without breaking through as a national player? Those recruiting numbers tell part of the story — a top half recruiting class in the Big Ten but rarely cracking the national top 25. Mike Riley was hired in part because of his ability to locate and develop talent from all over the country. Nebraska is in a precarious recruiting position now that it is detached from its traditional Big 12/Big 8 base, and Lincoln is not the easiest place for prospects to reach. Nebraska’s roster features 12 players from Texas and seven from Ohio. One or both of those numbers may need to be higher for the Huskers to compete on a national level.
Oregon State and Nebraska both run what might be termed a pro-style, but both have elements of the spread. Riley’s best teams have generally been balanced with a productive tailback — think of Steven Jackson, Yvenson Bernard and Jacquizz Rodgers. That system may be ideal for Nebraska, yet Oregon State was in the top three in pass attempts in the Pac-12 in three of the last four seasons. Both teams have run a base 4-3. Oregon State has developed solid defensive linemen over the years, something Nebraska has had in spades. If Riley brings defensive coordinator Mark Banker with him to Lincoln — it’s reasonable to assume he’ll be a contender to succeed Riley — the system may translate nicely to the personnel.
Nebraska’s players were vocal in support of Pelini when he was fired. Even before the change, the Cornhuskers stressed the Pelini they knew was not the same as his gruff public persona. Still, the move from Pelini to the affable Riley is about as dramatic a shift in personality as any.
What does the competition look like?
The Big Ten West should continue to be the weaker of the two divisions. With or without Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin does what it does with the run game and defense year in and year out. Iowa will lose a couple of key players (Brandon Scherff and Carl Davis) but expects to be a veteran team. Minnesota moves on without David Cobb next season. Next season’s schedule features Miami on the road and BYU at home in the non-conference, but its toughest Big Ten games (Wisconsin and Michigan State) are at home. And lucky for Riley, no Oregon or Stanford.
Florida didn’t have a ton of time in the spotlight with its hire of Colorado State coach Jim McElwain as Nebraska announced a hire of Mike Riley just as McElwain was becoming official.
After a few weeks, that won’t matter. Winning the day or winning the press conference isn’t nearly as important as winning over fans in that first season.
Winning early, though, will be tough. After all, Florida wouldn’t have made a coaching change if this program were running at full strength.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the situation McElwain has assumed at Florida for 2015.
Offense (4): T D.J. Humphries, G Trip Thurman, WR Demarcus Robinson, WR Latroy Pittman
Defense (8): T Jon Bullard, E Bryan Cox Jr., LB Neiron Ball, LB Antonio Morrison, S Keanu Neal, S Marcus Maye, CB Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Brian Poole
The tally above counts neither freshman quarterback Treon Harris, who has started the last five games for the Gators, nor five-star freshman cornerback Jalen Tabor, who has started five games total. The eight returning starters — even without end Dante Fowler, who announced he’d enter the NFL Draft — is a clear boon for McElwain in Year One. Florida led the SEC in fewest yards per play last season at 4.45, and only LSU allowed fewer yards per game. The back end of the defense, especially will be a strength. Leading rusher Matt Jones also will leave early for the NFL Draft, according to a report from GatorCountry.com.
This is where McElwain needs to put in some immediate work. A signing class ranked 14th in the SEC and 61st nationally is unheard of for Florida. The Gators are in on a number of highly touted defensive line recruits, but McElwain will need to make quick inroads in the state. For Alabama, McElwain recruited safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Dee Hart (who later transferred to Colorado State) from the Orlando area.
|247 Composite Ranking|
At first glance, trading one Nick Saban guy (Muschamp) for another (McElwain) wouldn’t seem to bring much of a schematic change. On defense, that may be the case, especially if McElwain retains defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, secondary coach Travaris Robinson and/or others from Muschamp’s defensive staff, as reported by FootballScoop.com. McElwain ran a 3-4 at Colorado State, similar to Muschamp, and for what it’s worth, both coaches nicknamed their linebacker/end hybrid a “buck.” The most intriguing scheme shift will be on offense. The mobile Harris entrenched himself in under Kurt Roper while McElwain featured a classic dropback passer.
The SEC loves to tout its full stadiums and raucous game day atmosphere. That hasn’t been the case at Florida. The Gators drew an average of 85,834 fans per game in 2014. It’s tough to sell The Swamp as homefield advantage when it’s filled well below capacity.
What does the competition look like?
The SEC East should continue to lag behind the West in 2015, but that doesn’t mean the division is for the taking. Missouri has won the division two years in a row and will return a talented, if erratic, quarterback. Georgia loses a senior quarterback and a handful of seniors on defense but will return running back Nick Chubb. Tennessee is a young team on the rise that could be a sleeper in the division. Florida’s crossover games will be Ole Miss at home and LSU on the road, and the only challenging non-conference game will be Florida State at home.
Change is a constant in college football, particularly in the coaching profession.
In decades past, a coach could ascend to the top jobs — and some of the mid-level posts — in the sport and stay year after year. Think of Bear Bryant, Vince Dooley, Bo Schembechler or Hayden Fry.
Those days are more or less over. In the last four seasons alone, Texas, USC, Oregon, Auburn and Tennessee have hired new coaches. Penn State has hired two. Florida is on its second coaching search in the last five seasons.
While the names change, some of the best jobs in the sport do not. Florida is as good a job for this new coach as it was for Will Muschamp, Urban Meyer or Ron Zook. Kansas remains a challenge for any coach, an insurmountable one for many.
Which jobs are the best in this year’s version of the coaching carousel? Here’s our take on the potential for each program making a change this season.
Out: Will Muschamp (28-20 in four seasons)
In: Jim McElwain, Colorado State head coach
Pros: With three national championships since 1996 and eight SEC titles since 1991, Florida is one of the nation’s elite-of-the-elite jobs. The Gators are the flagship university and only SEC representative in one of the nation’s big three recruiting states. Moreover, Florida has been able to spot recruit into the Southeast, the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast regularly over the years. Athletic director Jeremy Foley is one of the nation’s top administrators who will give his football coach every opportunity to succeed.
Cons: If we’re going to nitpick at the Florida job, it could be the facilities. The Gators last had a stadium/facility upgrade in 2008 and remain one of the few top programs without an indoor practice facility or standalone football building. Foley shrugs off the perception that Florida lags in facilities. “We’re not into bells and whistles,” he says. Style is also a factor at Florida. The Gators have won three national championships since 1996, but the coaches who have succeeded the most, Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, have run innovative offenses.
How good is the Florida job? A-plus
Out: Brady Hoke (31-20 in four seasons)
In: Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco 49ers coach
Pros: No team in the history of college football has won more games than Michigan. Along with Ohio State, Michigan is on the short list of programs in the Big Ten with the potential of being a consistent player on a national stage, even that hasn’t occurred for the Wolverines in nearly a decade. The population drain in the Midwest is a concern for many regional programs, but even Hoke was able to secure two top-10 national signing classes.
Cons: Michigan went with the nontraditional hire (for them) in Rich Rodriguez and then the Michigan Man in Hoke. Both were fired in four years or less. The Wolverines are in a crossroads similar to when Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly or when Alabama hired Nick Saban, and the man making the hire holds the interim athletic director tag.
How good is the Michigan job? A-plus
Out: Bo Pelini (66-27 in seven seasons)
In: Mike Riley, Oregon State head coach
Pros: The Cornhuskers are one of the college football’s most legendary programs with 865 wins (fourth all time) and five national championships. Resources, facilities and fan support are all among the best in the country. The new coach also takes over a program that’s in better shape than the typical program that just fired a coach — seven consecutive seasons with at least nine wins indicates a solid foundation.
Cons: We mentioned the seven consecutive seasons of nine or 10 wins. Well, that got the last coach fired. The next coach will be expected to take the next step for Big Ten championships and national title contention. National recruiting is a must. Lincoln isn’t the easiest destination to reach in college football, and Nebraska has been cut off from the state of Texas thanks to conference realignment.
How good is the Nebraska job? A-minus
Out: Gary Andersen (19-7 in two seasons)
In: Paul Chryst, Pittsburgh head coach
Pros: The Badgers have been regular contenders in the Big Ten in the 11-team league, in the Leaders division and now the West division. The Badgers aren’t in the same tier as Ohio State or Michigan in the Big Ten, but they’ve been able to go toe-to-toe with any program in the league. Camp Randall is as raucous atmosphere as any in the conference. Wisconsin has an identity of ground-and-pound football thanks to a local recruiting base that produces plenty of offensive linemen.
Cons: The last two coaches have turned their success at Wisconsin into the Arkansas and Oregon State job. Is that simply a coincident or a red flag? The Big Ten is getting tougher with Urban Meyer and James Franklin becoming entrenched and new coaches at Nebraska and Michigan.
How good is the Wisconsin job? B-plus
Out: Paul Chryst (19-19 in three seasons)
In: Pat Narduzzi, Michigan State defensive coordinator
Pros: Pittsburgh is a program with the potential to be an above-average program in the ACC, but for various reasons, the Panthers have been largely mediocre for more than 30 years. Western Pennsylvania should be good recruiting ground, especially if the coach can dip into Ohio and pick off players in Florida, Texas or New Jersey. Pittsburgh has a Heisman winner and a national championship in its history.
Cons: The glory days of Pittsburgh college football in the 70s and 80s won’t resonate much with recruits in 2014. Although ACC membership is an asset, the recruiting environment for Pitt is as competitive as ever with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and James Franklin at Penn State. This program is also reeling from two head coaches in the last four seasons. That development in part cost athletic director Steve Pederson his job.
How good is the Pittsburgh job? C-plus
6. Oregon State
Out: Mike Riley (93-80 in 14 seasons)
In: Gary Andersen, Wisconsin head coach
Pros: Make no mistake, this is a tough job, but clearly the administration knows this. Riley had his ups and downs with the program, but rarely did the program seem to panic. For a coach looking to take one of the tougher jobs in the Pac-12, that dose of reality will be an asset.
Cons: Why is this a tough job? Just look at the other program in state. Corvallis is an outpost in the college football landscape, which puts Oregon State at a disadvantage compared to most other Pac-12 jobs. While Oregon just moved into a state-of-the-art, eye-catching facility, Oregon State is moving incrementally to complete the first major stadium upgrades since 2005. Riley did an excellent job of unearthing and developing talent that at times could challenge the best in the league. The next coach may find out how tall a task that is.
How good is the Oregon State job? C
Out: Charlie Weis (6-22 in three seasons)
In: David Beatty, Texas A&M wide receivers coach
Pros: Kansas has a clear ceiling in the Big 12, but the Jayhawks have proven they can have a respectable program. Mark Mangino took Kansas to four bowl games during his eight-year tenure with fortunate scheduling helping KU to a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory in 2007. Glen Mason led KU to four winning seasons in his final six seasons in the ‘90s.
Cons: The new coach walks into a rough situation with back-to-back disastrous hires. Weis’ reliance on junior college and four-year transfers will leave the new coach plugging holes right away. The Big 12’s only true basketball school, Kansas is the No. 2 football program in a state without a ton of high school prospects.
How good is the Kansas job? C-minus
Out: Tony Levine (21-17 in three seasons)
In: Tom Herman, Ohio State offensive coordinator
Pros: Based on the recruiting base, Houston should be one of the better jobs in the American, along with UCF, Cincinnati or SMU. With a new football stadium in 2014 and a new basketball facility on the way, the program is signaling that it intends to be a consistent player. Houston also has a long-established identity for wide-open offensive football, going to back to the run-and-shoot under Heisman winner Andre Ware and David Klingler through spread offenses under Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin.
Cons: Houston is one of the better jobs outside of the Power Five, but that brings with it a clear ceiling. Firing a coach after back-to-back winning seasons is also a sign that simply being above average won’t cut it for Houston.
How good is the Houston job? C-minus
Out: June Jones (36-43 in seven seasons)
In: Chad Morris, Clemson offensive coordinator
Pros: There’s little reason SMU can’t be the best team in the American Athletic Conference, but we could have said something similar of SMU’s final seasons in Conference USA. The Mustangs will never have first choice of football prospects in the Lone Star State, but getting the second or third crack at Texas guys who want to play college football in Dallas should be the foundation of a winning program.
Cons: With four consecutive bowl bids from 2009-12, Jones ended SMU’s postseason drought that dated back to the death penalty in 1987. Yet it’s tough to say SMU is in better shape than when he arrived. The winless Mustangs are perhaps the worst team in the FBS in 2014. Digging out of this hole won’t be easy.
How good is the SMU job? C-minus
10. Colorado State
Out: Jim McElwain (22-16 in three seasons)
In: Mike Bobo, Georgia offensive coordinator
Pros: This is a spot where a coach can stay and thrive (Sonny Lubick) or use as a stepping stone (McElwain). In general, Colorado State should be one of the better jobs in the Mountain West with room to improve with a new on-campus stadium potentially on the way.
Cons: Recruiting the state of Colorado isn’t enough to sustain even a Mountain West program, especially as Boulder becomes a more desirable destination. The Mountain division of the MWC likely will be the tougher road with Boise State, Nevada and Utah State.
How good is the Colorado State job? C-minus
Out: Bill Blankenship (24-27 in four seasons)
In: Philip Montgomery, Baylor offensive coordinator
Pros: From 2003-12, Tulsa reached eight bowl games and twice won the Conference USA title under three different coaches. That indicates a program with a solid foundation. In conference musical chairs, Tulsa’s move to the American allows the Golden Hurricane to stay ahead of some of its former Conference USA brethren.
Cons: Tulsa slipped to 5-19 in the final two seasons under Blankenship, which is closer to where Tulsa has been for much of its history before Steve Kragthorpe became the coach in 2003. Tulsa also has one of the smallest enrollments of any school in the FBS.
How good is the Tulsa job? C-minus
Out: Larry Blakeney (178-112-1 in 24 seasons)
In: Neal Brown, Kentucky offensive coordinator
Pros: Troy was once the top program in the Sun Belt, winning at least a share of league titles every year from 2006-10. The league has thinned out a bit with programs like North Texas, FAU, FIU and Western Kentucky moving into Conference USA, but Troy can continue to be one of the league’s top programs.
Cons: Following the top coach in program history is always tough, and Blakeney was that for Troy. Serving as coach since 1991, Blakeney successfully led Troy in its transition from the Division II to the FBS. The Troy job also can’t claim to be the only FBS program in the Southern portion of the state with South Alabama joining the Sun Belt in 2012.
How good is the Troy job? D
13. Central Michigan
Out: Dan Enos (26-33 in five seasons)
Pros: Central Michigan can be one of the top programs in the MAC even if it plays in a division with Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ball State. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones used the position to move to Cincinnati and power programs from there.
Cons: The sitting head coach coming off a bowl game left to be a coordinator in the SEC in late January. Perhaps that says more about Enos, who never had a record better than 7-6 and wasn’t likely to follow in the footsteps of Kelly and Jones to a bigger head coaching position. The new coach will be in a precarious situation, taking over this close to National Signing Day. With NIU and Toledo entrenched near the top of the division and Western Michigan on the rise, Central Michigan could soon slip further.
How good is the Central Michigan job: D
Out: Bobby Hauck (15-49 in five seasons)
In: Tony Sanchez, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High coach
Pros: UNLV is only two years removed from a winning season and a rare bowl appearance. Las Vegas has a handful of top college prospects each season, but most of that is at Bishop Gordon and none of it goes to UNLV.
Cons: In the last 30 seasons, UNLV has won two or fewer games 11 times and reached three bowl games. The Mountain West can be a selling point, but this is traditionally one of the bottom 10 or 20 teams in the country in a given year. Facilites and finances are also major concerns.
How good is the UNLV job? D
Out: Jeff Quinn (20-36 in five seasons)
In: Lance Leipold, Wisconsin-Whitewater (Division III) head coach
Pros: The Bulls are only two seasons removed from going 8-5 and reaching the MAC title game behind first-round NFL Draft pick Khalil Mack.
Cons: That 8-5 season in 2013 is one of only two winning seasons for Buffalo since the Bulls joined the MAC in 1999.
How good is the Buffalo job? F
When Ohio State clinched the Big Ten East weeks ago, the Buckeyes probably thought they’d spend a week worrying about how to stop Melvin Gordon or whichever running back the Big Ten West sent to Indianapolis.
If only this week were that easy.
Instead, Ohio State is dealing with a range of emotional and personnel obstacles ranging from tragedy to misfortune.
On Nov. 25, the Big Ten declared defensive end Noah Spence, a one-time five-star prospect, permanently ineligible stemming from his second positive drug test for ecstasy back in September. The conference classifies the drug as a “performance enhancer.” Spence hadn’t played all season.
Then, early in the fourth quarter of Ohio State’s 42-28 win over Michigan, quarterback J.T. Barrett was lost for the remainder of the season when he suffered a broken leg on a tackle during a run. Barrett had gone from an untested backup to Braxton Miller in the preseason to a Heisman contender.
And on Sunday, the Buckeyes learned of the most tragic news. Walk-on defensive lineman Kosta Karageorge, who had gone missing for four days, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Teammates remembered Karageorge’s energy and positivity, though he spoke to his family of his concerns from a history of concussions from his football and wrestling careers.
“We knew he had a lot of concussions, but we didn’t know he was depressed or anything like that,” Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett said. “He was the most positive out of anybody, which goes to show there was no way to notice it until someone speaks up. Kosta was always positive, always thankful, so appreciative of everything football gave him.”
Yet in the face of this, Ohio State remains a College Football Playoff contender. The selection committee ranked the Buckeyes fifth in the most recent top 25, indicating the injury to Barrett was not an automatic eliminator for Ohio State’s national championship aspirations.
While selection committee chair Jeff Long did not say the Big Ten title game was a one-game body for work for this new version of Ohio State, it’s clear the Buckeyes, and specifically new quarterback Cardale Jones, has little room for error if Ohio State has any chance of moving into the top four.
In any other circumstance, room for error would be understandable.
“Every red flag is up, every excuse is out there to not play well, to not win a game, to lose a game,” Meyer said. “You have some really good built-in excuses. To overcome the incredible tragedy that happened last night, this is a real challenge. We're going to watch it very closely. I can tell you this: (this is an) extremely close team that does a lot of things together and cares about each other.”
Championship Week Previews and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Pac-12 | SEC
Ohio State vs. Wisconsin
Kickoff: 8:17 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Spread: Wisconsin -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Cardale Jones
Does Ohio State’s Big Ten championship hopes rest on Jones? That’s not a stretch. The Buckeyes went undefeated in the Big Ten because J.T. Barrett became a Heisman contender through the course of the season. Even if this isn’t a one-player offense — Ezekiel Elliott topped 100 yards and six yards per carry in three of his last four games — Barrett is as close to irreplaceable as any player on a top team. Teammates have raved about Jones’ arm strength and opponents have noted how difficult it will be to corral the 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore. But experience is a factor for a quarterback who hasn’t attempted 20 passes during his career.
2. Wisconsin’s third quarter
How is this for halftime adjustments: Wisconsin averages 9.6 yards per carry in the third quarter. No team in the country averages even eight in any quarter. The Badgers are led in every quarter by the Big Ten single-season rushing leader Melvin Gordon, but especially in the third quarter. Gordon averages 11.3 yards per carry in the third, and 40.5 percent of his rushing yards have come right after halftime. The Badgers have needed these third-quarter bursts thanks to lackluster first quarters. Wisconsin hasn’t scored a first-quarter touchdown in three games. Meanwhile, the third quarter is the worst for the Ohio State rush defense. The Buckeyes are allowing 4.83 yards per carry in the third quarter, their worst for any frame.
Listen to the Championship Week predictions podcast:
3. Joey Bosa vs. Wisconsin’s offensive line
The traditionally great Wisconsin offensive line, with two All-Big Ten performers on the right side, goes up against the Big Ten defensive player of the year from Ohio State. All of Wisconsin’s offensive line weighs more than 310 pounds and all but center Dan Voltz stands 6-5 or taller. The 6-5, 278-pound Bosa will be tough to contain, though. He has 20 tackles for a loss, 13.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this season. If Gordon is going to get to the second level and if Wisconsin’s quarterbacks are to have any prayer, the offensive line must neutralize Bosa.
Through three Big Ten championship games, Wisconsin has won two of them, one of which during Gordon’s breakout game in a 70-31 upset of Nebraska. Ohio State has the most surprising loss in the game’s short history with last year’s 34-24 loss to Michigan State to deny the Buckeyes a trip to the national title game. As far as conference championship games go, the Big Ten has delivered in terms of surprises. What constitutes a surprise in this game, though, remains a question. No. 5 Ohio State is the underdog thanks to the injury to Barrett and a defense that has struggled in the last three games. Wisconsin, though, has a flawed passing game to go with its standout defense and Gordon-led run game.
Big Ten Championship Predictions
|David Fox||Braden Gall||Steven Lassan||Mitch Light|
|Wisconsin (-4) vs. Ohio State||OSU 35-31||Wisc 27-24||Wisc 27-24||Wisc 28-21|
For a challenge between the strongest major conference from top to bottom a year ago (the Big 12) against the most top heavy (the SEC), this year’s event has surprisingly interesting matchups.
The headliner, Texas’ trip to Kentucky, matches two teams with Final Four aspirations and star-studded frontcourts. Arkansas and Iowa State should meet in an entertaining up-and-down affair. The matchup in Morgantown features one overachieving team (West Virginia) with one still struggling to find its way (LSU).
Of course, there are a few clunkers. Missouri-Oklahoma and Baylor-Vanderbilt would be more interesting in other seasons. Perhaps Florida-Kansas could use a Gators team that’s not stumbling into Lawrence.
For the Big 12, the challenge is a chance to establish the kind of depth that allowed the league to send seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament. For the SEC, the challenge is an opportunity to undo some of those embarrassing losses from the first three weeks of the season.
Auburn at Texas Tech
9 p.m., SEC Network
Bruce Pearl and Tubby Smith won two games apiece when the former was at Tennessee and the latter was at Kentucky. Both are building from the ground up at their new jobs. Texas Tech is projected to finish last in the Big 12 but took LSU to overtime earlier this season. Auburn hopes to get a boost by the return of Antoine Mason from an ankle injury. Mason, a transfer from Niagara, is the nation’s top returning scorer this season.
LSU at West Virginia
7 p.m., ESPN2
West Virginia is off to a surprising start at 7-0 this season, headlined by a 78-68 win over Connecticut on Nov. 23. The Mountaineers, in the NIT a year ago, lead the nation in forcing turnovers on 32.4 percent of possessions, according to KenPom.com. LSU is one of the nation’s most disappointing teams early in the season. Johnny Jones has an NCAA-caliber roster, but the Tigers have lost to Old Dominion and Clemson.
Baylor at Vanderbilt
7 p.m., ESPNU
Baylor’s chances to win at Memorial Gym will improve if point guard Kenny Chery is healthy. He’s missed the last three games, including a 64-54 loss to Illinois in which Baylor had nine assists and 15 turnovers. Vanderbilt will have a size advantage with 6-10 sophomore Damian Jones against an uncharacteristically small Baylor lineup.
Arkansas at Iowa State
9 p.m., ESPN2
This has potential to be the most entertaining game of the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. The two teams are averaging a combined 170 points per game and both are in the top 25 in tempo, according to KenPom.com. After being on the NCAA fringe for a few years under Mike Anderson, Arkansas will look to pick up a key non-conference win while Iowa State will look to come back from a 72-63 loss to Maryland on Nov. 25.
TCU at Ole Miss
9 p.m., ESPNU
TCU won’t win the Big 12, but it could win the state of Mississippi. The Horned Frogs have defeated Mississippi Valley State and Mississippi State already this season. The Rebels, though, will be the toughest of the three. Ole Miss, like most SEC schools, has taken a bad non-conference loss (Charleston Southern), but came back to defeat Creighton and Cincinnati in a Thanksgiving tournament.
Texas at Kentucky
7 p.m., ESPN
We’ve been burned before saying this, so tread lightly when we say the following: Texas is legit. The Longhorns entered the season with the most experience in the Big 12, and they’re playing like it. Texas defeated Iowa and Cal in Madison Square Garden, and most impressively, the Longhorns defeated Connecticut on the road without point guard Isaiah Taylor. Winning in Lexington against this squad without Taylor (broke wrist) will be a tougher task. With its deep cast of bigs, Kentucky will be a tough matchup in an area that’s usually an advantage for Texas with Jonathan Holmes, Myles Turner and Cameron Ridley.
Florida at Kansas
9 p.m., ESPN
Kansas has rebounded since Kentucky dominated the matchup in Indianapolis. The Jayhawks handled Rhode Island, Tennessee and Michigan State in the Orlando Classic during the Thanksgiving weekend. Worth watching will be the use of the Jayhawks’ freshmen. Cliff Alexander has yet to start, and Kelly Oubre isn’t even cracking 10 minutes per game. Florida didn’t have nearly as much success in its holiday tournament, losing to Georgetown and North Carolina in the Battle 4 Atlantis. Injuries and suspensions have shortened Billy Donovan’s bench, but while last year’s Florida team found a way to win shorthanded, this team is struggling.
Missouri at Oklahoma
9:30 p.m., ESPNU
Oklahoma was billed as a sleeper contender in the Big 12, especially after Houston transfer TaShawn Thomas was declared eligible. The Sooners have yet to look the part, especially on the offensive end of the floor by shooting less than 40 percent from the floor in losses to Wisconsin and Creighton. That said, the Sooners should cruise at home against a rebuilding Missouri team that was outclassed by Arizona and Purdue in Maui.
Oklahoma State at South Carolina
Oklahoma State’s Le’Bryan Nash (18.3 points per game) and Phil Forte (17.2) are doing just fine without Marcus Smart and Markel Brown, thank you very much. The Cowboys are 6-0 but have yet to play a true road game. Meanwhile, the rebuilding job at South Carolina is still a slow go. The Gamecocks have already lost to Charlotte and Akron.
Kansas State at Tennessee
3:15 p.m., ESPN2
Kansas State needs a confidence boost in a major way. Bruce Weber’s squad was projected as an NCAA team, but the Wildcats have already lost to Long Beach State on the road and by 33 to Pittsburgh in the Maui Invitational. Those are not the kinds of things top-half Big 12 teams should be doing. An NCAA investigation stemming from Donnie Tyndall’s days at Southern Miss is looming over the Volunteers as they’re simply struggling to put a competitive team on the court.
Athlon Sports Staff Picks
|Game||David Fox||Braden Gall||Mitch Light||Nathan Rush|
|Auburn at Texas Tech||Texas Tech||Auburn||Auburn||Auburn|
|LSU at West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia||West Virginia|
|Baylor at Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt||Baylor||Vanderbilt||Vanderbilt|
|Arkansas at Iowa State||Iowa State||Arkansas||Iowa State||Iowa State|
|TCU at Ole Miss||Ole Miss||TCU||Ole Miss||Ole Miss|
|Texas at Kentucky||Kentucky||Kentucky||Kentucky||Kentucky|
|Florida at Kansas||Kansas||Kansas||Kansas||Kansas|
|Missouri at Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Oklahoma||Oklahoma|
|Oklahoma State at South Carolina||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||South Carolina||Oklahoma State|
|Kansas State at Tennessee||Kansas State||Kansas State||Kansas State||Kansas State|
|Final Tally||Big 12 7-3||Big 12 7-3||Tie 5-5||Big 12 6-4|