Articles By Steven Lassan
Alabama earned its fourth national championship in seven seasons under Nick Saban, edging Clemson 45-40 in a back-and-forth, entertaining battle in Glendale, Ariz. on Monday night. After several blowouts in bowl season and in the New Year’s Six matchups, the national title game for the 2015 season lived up to the hype and was one of the best matchups of the year. The Crimson Tide and Tigers exchanged punches and scores throughout all four quarters, with the two teams combining for 1,023 overall yards in the game and 40 points in the fourth quarter.
Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and eventually sealed the victory for the Crimson Tide with a one-yard plunge with just over a minute remaining. The second half was 30 minutes of momentum swings for both teams. Clemson led 24-21 late in the third quarter and had Alabama on its heels after stopping the Crimson Tide’s offense on the next drive. However, Alabama’s defense held the Tigers’ explosive attack and a timely onside kick call early in the fourth quarter eventually moved the momentum and lead on the scoreboard for good in favor of the Crimson Tide.
Five Takeaways from Alabama’s CFB National Championship Win
1. Alabama’s Special Teams Were…Special
The best coaching decision of the night belongs to Alabama’s Nick Saban. After tying the game at 24 with just over 10 minutes left, Saban called for an onside kick. The call was executed perfectly by kicker Adam Griffith and defensive back Marlon Humphrey caught the short kick, allowing the Crimson Tide to gain a possession on Clemson. The following possession? A touchdown gave the Crimson Tide the lead (for good) at 31-24. Punter JK Scott averaged 42.4 yards per punt return and his height on kicks limited Clemson to just 22 punt return yards. Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, extending Alabama’s lead to 38-27. Special teams are often overlooked, but the Crimson Tide’s played a huge role in this game.
2. Big Plays by QB Jake Coker and TE O.J. Howard
Alabama tight end O.J. Howard has all of the physical gifts to be a prominent force in the passing game for the Crimson Tide. However, Howard entered Monday night’s matchup with just 33 catches for 394 yards. The junior took advantage of a few critical breakdowns in the Clemson secondary and hauled in five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Coker’s final stat line (16 of 25 for 335 yards) was solid, but the senior had an uneven performance. However, Coker connected with Howard on three passing plays of at least 50 yards and made a key 38-yard completion to ArDarius Stewart.
3. Solid Performance for the Heisman Trophy Winner
Another game, another workmanlike effort for Alabama running back Derrick Henry. The Heisman Trophy winner recorded 158 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, including a 50-yard score in the first quarter. Henry also reached paydirt on a one-yard run with less than two minutes remaining, which extended Alabama’s lead to 45-33 and essentially clinched the national title for this team.
4. The Best Player on Monday Night was QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama won the national championship, but Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had the top individual performance. The Heisman Trophy finalist provided plenty of headaches for the Crimson Tide defense, completing 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns and added 73 yards on the ground. Some of Watson’s best plays weren’t recorded in the stat column. When pressure collapsed the pocket, Watson was able to create just enough room for throwing lanes and avoid sacks. He should be the favorite to win the Heisman in 2016.
5. Clemson More Than Held its Own in the Trenches
The battle in the trenches was a key focal point headed into Monday night’s game. Alabama’s defensive line was the best in the nation during the regular season, and the offensive line improved over the second half. However, it was Clemson’s defensive line that won the battle on Monday night. The Tigers sacked quarterback Jake Coker five times and limited running back Derrick Henry to 4.4 yards per carry. End Kevin Dodd wreaked havoc all night around the line of scrimmage, recording seven tackles (five for a loss) and three sacks.
CFB National Championship Awards
Offensive MVP: O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Even though Clemson came up short on the scoreboard, a strong case could be made quarterback Deshaun Watson deserves this award. However, let’s hand the hardware to Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who caught five passes for 208 yards and three scores. Howard also delivered a clutch catch for the Crimson Tide, taking a short pass and rumbling 63 yards on 2nd and 12 with just over five minutes to go.
Defensive MVP: Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama
Eddie Jackson was the official pick at the game, but let’s give a tip of the cap to Evans as the Athlon Sports Defensive MVP of the national championship. The sophomore recorded three tackles (two for a loss) and two sacks. Evans’ two sacks were the only ones recorded by Alabama against Clemson’s high-powered attack.
Special Teams MVP: Kenyan Drake, RB/Adam Griffith, K, Alabama
Alabama’s special teams played a huge role in the victory over the Tigers. Punter JK Scott averaged 42.4 yards per punt, but it’s Drake and Griffith splitting this award after delivering clutch plays in the second half. Griffith perfectly executed an onside kick in the fourth quarter, allowing the Crimson Tide to take a 31-24 lead with just over 10 minutes to go in the final period. Drake also followed with a clutch play in the fourth quarter, returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, edging Alabama’s lead to 38-27. Drake finished with 196 yards on five kickoff returns.
The champion of the 2015 college football season will be crowned on Monday night in Glendale, Ariz. as Clemson and Alabama meet in University of Phoenix Stadium with a national title at stake. It’s no secret the superstars and a few x-factors for both teams have to deliver in order to hoist the championship trophy. The Crimson Tide’s defense will be geared to stop the Tigers’ explosive offense, which is led by quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman. When Alabama has the ball, Clemson wants to limit running back Derrick Henry’s damage on first and second downs, forcing quarterback Jake Coker to win this game through the air.
Winning games at any point of the season always starts with individual matchups. Whether it’s an offensive lineman against a defensive end or a cornerback against receiver, matchups are a critical aspect to the outcome. Which matchups might determine the winner on Monday night? Here are five to watch when college football’s national championship starts just after 8:30 p.m. ET.
5 Must-See Player Matchups in Clemson vs. Alabama
Alabama OT Cam Robinson vs. Clemson DE Kevin Dodd/Shaq Lawson
Robinson has been a key piece of Alabama’s offensive line since he stepped on campus in 2014. The Louisiana native has started all 28 games in his career at left tackle and finished 2015 by earning first-team All-SEC honors. Robinson faced a tough defensive line (Michigan State) in the Cotton Bowl, and the sophomore could be matched against Clemson’s All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson on Monday night. However, how healthy is Lawson after a knee injury against Oklahoma? If Lawson is limited, the defensive end position needs more out of Dodd, Richard Yeargin and Austin Bryant. Can Robinson keep the Tigers’ athletic pass rush away from quarterback Jake Coker?
Clemson OT Mitch Hyatt vs. Alabama Defensive Line
Clemson’s offensive line was a question mark entering 2015, but this group emerged as one of the best units in the ACC. The Tigers only allowed 16 sacks in 14 games and cleared the way for quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman to each eclipse 1,000 rushing yards. Hyatt – a true freshman – has been a critical piece of the success for the Tigers in the trenches. However, Monday night is easily the toughest test for Hyatt this year. Alabama’s defensive front is loaded with talent, including three potential first-round picks in Jarran Reed, Jonathan Allen and A’Shawn Robinson. Hyatt and the Clemson offensive line need to keep Watson upright in the pocket in order to win on Monday night.
Alabama LB Reggie Ragland vs. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
When Clemson’s offense has the ball, this unit wants to go fast, press the tempo and prevent the Alabama defense from subbing in fresh bodies. The Crimson Tide owns the nation’s best front seven, including standout linebacker Reggie Ragland. The senior is the leader is the leader for this unit and plays a critical role in getting all of the defenders aligned before each snap. Additionally, Ragland’s ability to make sure tackles at the line of scrimmage will be critical to limit Watson’s yardage at the line of scrimmage on running plays. If Clemson presses the tempo and Alabama is unable to sub, Ragland’s presence is an asset for coach Nick Saban in keeping the defense aligned against the high-powered attack.
Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander vs. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
Alexander is one of the nation’s best cornerbacks and is rarely tested by opposing quarterbacks. Ridley is Alabama’s top weapon in the passing game, catching 83 passes for 1,031 yards and seven scores this season. If Alexander blankets Ridley, the Crimson Tide need receivers ArDarius Stewart and Richard Mullaney and tight end O.J. Howard to step up as prominent options for quarterback Jake Coker.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry vs. Clemson LB B.J. Goodson
Pencil in any Clemson player outside of the front four in this space. When Henry is able to hit the second level of the defense, the Tigers have to limit the damage and prevent big plays from Alabama’s ground attack. The 6-foot-3, 242-pound back has the size, power and speed to wear on a defense. The three-yard runs in the first quarter often become 10-yard gains in the second half. Depth is an issue for the Tigers and was a big reason why this defense gave up its share of big plays. Goodson and fellow linebacker Ben Boulware were two of the best in the ACC at their position in 2015. Goodson led the team with 98 tackles, recorded 14 for a loss and forced one fumble. Will the senior contain Henry around the line of scrimmage and prevent the Heisman Trophy winner from breaking into the secondary early and often on Monday night?
The 2015 college football season is down to its final game, as Clemson and Alabama are set to meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the national championship. The Tigers handled Oklahoma 37-17 in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 31 to clinch a spot in this game, while the Crimson Tide thoroughly dominated Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.
These two programs are separated by over 300 miles, but there are plenty of similarities and one big connection. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was a walk-on receiver at Alabama from 1990-92 and later worked as an assistant with the program under Gene Stallings (1996) and again under Mike DuBose (1997-00). Swinney has shaped Clemson into one of the nation’s top 10-15 programs, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive seasons. The bar at Clemson has been raised under Swinney’s direction, and a win on Monday night would give this program its first national championship since 1981. The Tigers are college football’s lone unbeaten, headlined by an explosive offense and an athletic, shutdown defense.
College Football Podcast: Alabama vs. Clemson Preview
Playing for national championships, recording double-digit victory totals and winning SEC titles has become the norm at Alabama under Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide set the standard for the rest of college football, claiming at least 10 victories in each of the last eight seasons. Additionally, Alabama is 3-0 in national championship appearances under Saban and is the only team to claim back-to-back playoff appearances. The Crimson Tide’s path to the national championship game featured an early loss to Ole Miss this season, but Alabama rallied by winning its next 11 games – with only one result coming by 13 points or less.
Alabama leads Clemson 12-3 in the all-time series between these two teams. The last matchup between the Tigers and Crimson Tide took place in 2008, as Nick Saban’s team won 34-10 in a neutral site game in Atlanta to open the season.
National Championship: Alabama vs. Clemson
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Alabama’s Defense Against Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Mobile quarterbacks and spread, up-tempo offenses have provided the most trouble for Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart. The Crimson Tide have made a few tweaks in recent years, and this unit is more adept at matching spread offenses. But Monday night will be the biggest litmus test for this unit from the 2015 season. Quarterback Deshaun Watson and one of the nation’s best offensive lines lead Clemson’s explosive offense. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year and added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott limited Watson’s rushing attempts early in the year but asked more of the sophomore in the second half of 2015. Watson rushed for 100 or more yards in five out of Clemson’s last six games and finished the year with a healthy 5.5 yards per carry mark. In the 37-17 win over Oklahoma, Watson’s accuracy (51.6) was off, and the sophomore managed only 187 passing yards. It’s no secret Watson is the driving force behind this team. If he struggles, Clemson has no chance to win on Monday night. While the Tigers’ offense is the toughest Alabama will face this year, there’s also an important counter point – Clemson hasn’t faced a defense like the one the Crimson Tide bring to Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11. Alabama has limited opponents to 4.09 yards per play, 13.4 points a game, ranks first with 50 sacks generated and only one team (Ole Miss) scored more than 25 points. Watson’s rushing yardage and ability to keep plays alive with his legs are two of the keys to watch on Monday night. If Watson is stuffed on running plays and Alabama’s defense has a couple of sacks, Clemson is likely to be facing a deficit on the scoreboard. But if Watson has success on the ground, that’s a huge advantage in favor of the Tigers.
2. The Battle in the Trenches
While all of the attention in Monday night’s game is likely to follow Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama running back Derrick Henry, this matchup will be won or lost in the trenches. Both units for Clemson and Alabama – offensive and defensive lines – are among the best in the nation. Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall but emerged as a strength behind true freshman left tackle Mitch Hyatt. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and averaged 4.9 yards per rush. Alabama’s defensive line is the best in college football, so this will be a monumental challenge for Clemson’s front five. A’Shawn Robinson is the headliner for the Crimson Tide’s front seven, while ends Jonathan Allen (12 sacks) and Jarran Reed are capable of wrecking plenty of havoc. Linebacker Tim Williams (10 sacks) is another asset for Smart and Saban in the pass-rush department. This unit is capable of generating pressure or controlling opposing team’s ground attack with just its defensive line and linebackers.
When Alabama has the ball, it will face a similar challenge against Clemson’s defensive front. The Tigers are loaded with athleticism and speed in the trenches, headlined by end Shaq Lawson and tackle Carlos Watkins. But this unit is a bit of a mystery for Monday night’s game. Lawson is dealing with a knee injury and may not be at full strength. If Lawson can’t play or is at less than full strength, it’s a huge blow for a defense that limited opponents to 3.6 yards per carry and generated 43 sacks in 2015. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly, and this group showed steady improvement over the course of the season. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Alabama altered its usual approach and came out throwing to alleviate the pressure on running back Derrick Henry. Quarterback Jake Coker responded with one of his best efforts of the season, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Can the Crimson Tide’s offensive line protect Coker and successfully open up holes for Henry to run through against a tough Clemson front seven?
3. The Playmakers
Some of college football’s top skill players will be on display in the national championship. Alabama running back Derrick Henry was relatively quiet (75 yards) in the Cotton Bowl, but the low production was largely by design on the strength of Michigan State’s front seven. The Heisman Trophy winner faces another talented front on Monday night and will look to get back on track by recording another huge performance to close out the season. Receiver Calvin Ridley is quarterback Jake Coker’s go-to option in the passing game, but he will be matched against Clemson’s shutdown cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Will Ridley break free of the secondary for any big plays?
When Clemson has the ball, this offense has its own set of playmakers at running back and receiver. Wayne Gallman might be one of the nation’s most underrated running backs. In 13 games, Gallman has rushed for 1,482 yards and 12 scores and gashed Oklahoma for 150 yards in the Orange Bowl. Receiver Artavis Scott plays a key role in establishing the screen game for Clemson’s offense, and the sophomore has recorded 89 catches for 868 yards this year. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Alabama devote most of its attention in the secondary to stopping Scott and forcing the other receivers to make plays. Will the game’s biggest plays come from the players in this group? Or will a few unsung heroes make the biggest difference on Monday night?
Three Under-the-Radar Numbers to Know
Turnover Margin: Alabama +9, Clemson -1
Third-Down Defense: Clemson No. 2 nationally, Alabama No. 5
Plays of 30+ Yards or More Allowed: Alabama: 16, Clemson: 26
Position-by-Position Breakdown of Alabama vs. Clemson
The national championship isn’t a new experience for Alabama and coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are looking for their fourth title in seven seasons and are considered by the Vegas odds to be a touchdown favorite. Clemson has won plenty of big games during coach Dabo Swinney’s tenure, but this is the program’s biggest stage and toughest opponent from the 2015 season. In order to beat Alabama, the Tigers need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage, press the tempo, allow quarterback Deshaun Watson to make plays with his legs, and force the Crimson Tide to win by going to the air and not grinding it out with running back Derrick Henry. Also, Clemson can’t afford to lose the turnover battle or consistently take field goals instead of touchdowns once it reaches the red zone. Alabama’s gameplan for Monday night is simple. Win the battle at the line of scrimmage, contain Watson and get Henry on track to open up downfield shots for Coker and Ridley. Will Clemson claim its first title since 1981? Or will the Crimson Tide add another title to the trophy case in Tuscaloosa?
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Calvin Ridley, WR|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Calvin Ridley, WR|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Tim Williams, DL/LB|
|Derrick Henry, RB|
|Deshaun Watson, QB|
Alabama and Clemson will meet on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. to decide the 2015-16 college football national championship. Both teams earned convincing wins in the playoffs, setting the stage for an intriguing matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium. There’s no shortage of star power for the Tigers and Crimson Tide in this game. Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, with Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finishing third. In addition to Henry and Watson, players like Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, cornerback Mackensie Alexander and Alabama lineman A’Shawn Robinson are just a few of the superstars taking the field on Monday night.
While Henry, Watson and the other All-America or all-conference players from Alabama and Clemson are critical to the outlook of either team’s chances of winning the national title, there are always a few x-factors that deliver a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine 10 potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 11.
10 X-Factors for the 2016 College Football National Championship
Jake Coker, QB, Alabama
With Michigan State’s strength in the trenches and a gameplan to stop running back Derrick Henry in the Cotton Bowl, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker. The Crimson Tide came out throwing against the Spartans, and Coker responded by completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. The performance in the Cotton Bowl continued a string of solid performances by Coker. He’s tossed zero interceptions over the last four games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in 10 straight contests. Considering the strength of Clemson’s defense in the front seven and its ability to stop the run, Alabama might have to throw or open up the offense more than it prefers. Can Coker pick up where he left off in the Cotton Bowl?
Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama
It’s no secret the focus of Alabama’s backfield is with Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. But the Crimson Tide’s stable of running backs isn’t just a one-man show. Drake has the ability to be the lightning to Henry’s thunder. The senior averaged 5.4 yards per carry this season, recording 407 yards and a touchdown on 76 attempts. Drake was also a valuable weapon out of the backfield, catching 27 balls for 255 yards and a score. In the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State, Drake recorded 60 rushing yards on four carries and caught three passes. Don’t be surprised if Kiffin finds a way to get Drake more involved against the Tigers.
Cyrus Jones, CB, Alabama
The secondary was Alabama’s biggest concern this preseason, but the defensive backfield finished fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense (up from 30th in 2014) and limited opposing quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage in SEC games. Jones earned Cotton Bowl Most Outstanding Defensive Player honors after recording three tackles and one interception against Michigan State. Additionally, he scored on a 57-yard punt return in the third quarter. Not only is Jones critical to the success of Alabama’s pass defense, but his ability to change the game with one return is an underrated storyline to watch on Monday night.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, Howard is one of the most physically gifted tight ends in the nation. However, Howard only has 33 catches for 394 yards this season and has yet to reach the end zone. Could that change on Monday night? After two games – Auburn and Florida – with zero receptions, Howard recorded three for 59 yards against Michigan State. While Howard’s blocking is valuable, the junior should have opportunities to attack the middle of the field against Clemson.
Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
Clemson’s offensive line returned only one starter this fall and entered the year as a question mark. The emergence of Hyatt at left tackle was a big reason why this group was one of the best in the nation by the end of 2015. The true freshman started all 14 games at left tackle for Clemson’s high-powered offense and helped to lead the way for a line that allowed only 16 sacks in 14 contests. Hyatt more than held his own in 2015, but Monday night’s matchup against Alabama in the national championship will be his toughest assignment this season. Will Hyatt win the battles against A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen and keep quarterback Deshaun Watson upright in the pocket?
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
If quarterback Jake Coker is the biggest x-factor for Alabama, Lawson is the No. 1 pick for Clemson. The junior was among the nation’s best at defensive end this season, recording 10.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for a loss. However, just how healthy is Lawson? The junior suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma and may not recover to full strength by Monday night. If Lawson plays, how effective can he be against a stout Alabama offensive line? And if Lawson is limited or can’t play, will Kevin Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin match his production?
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
Mobile quarterbacks seem to provide the most headaches for Nick Saban and Kirby Smart’s defenses at Alabama. While Smart and Saban have made a few tweaks to combat spread offenses, containing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is a tough assignment for the Crimson Tide defense. In addition to throwing for 3,699 yards and 31 scores this year, Watson added 1,032 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. The sophomore recorded at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Will Alabama utilize a spy to contain Watson in the pocket? The Crimson Tide should be able to generate pressure with its defensive line, allowing the linebackers to make plays in space or devote attention to keeping Watson from hitting the edges. Ragland is one of college football’s top linebackers, and as the anchor in the middle, he will play a key role in getting Alabama’s defense aligned against Clemson’s spread attack.
Hunter Renfrow, WR, Clemson
Clemson’s receiving corps suffered a setback when big-play threat Deon Cain (17.1 ypc) was suspended for the Orange Bowl and national championship. With Cain sidelined, the Tigers needed some of other options to step up and take some of the pressure off of leading receiver Artavis Scott. Renfrow delivered a clutch performance against Oklahoma, catching four passes for 59 yards and one touchdown. With Scott expected to draw a lot of attention from the Crimson Tide secondary, Renfrow should see more opportunities on Monday night.
JK Scott, P, Alabama
Scott is one of the nation’s top punters and a weapon on special teams for Alabama in the battle for field position. The sophomore averaged 44.4 yards per kick in 2015, placed 22 of his 63 punts inside of the 20 and boomed 20 kicks for 50 yards or more. Scott averaged 46.5 yards per punt on six tries against Michigan State, placing four of those inside of the 20. If Scott is able to consistently pin Clemson’s offense in bad field position, that’s a huge advantage for Alabama.
Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
Mackensie Alexander is one of the top cornerbacks in the nation, and the sophomore could be matched on Alabama freshman receiver Calvin Ridley on Monday night. If Alexander takes on Ridley, that leaves Tankersley against ArDarius Stewart or Richard Mullaney. While the Crimson Tide needs to get the ball in Ridley’s hands, don’t expect quarterback Jake Coker to test Alexander too often. Instead, Coker could utilize Stewart and Mullaney more, attacking Tankersley and the other Clemson cornerbacks. According to CFBFilmRoom.com, Tankersley allowed four completions on seven targets against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
College football’s 2016 season is still several months away, but it’s never too early to predict next year’s top 25 teams. It’s no secret a lot will change in terms of the personnel, coaching or outlooks for teams once all of the key returners or departures are settled for all 128 teams.
Needless to say, expect several tweaks to this top 25 ranking between January and August or before the 2016 officially starts.
Here is Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams in college football for 2016, followed by 10 other teams to watch this offseason:
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2016
The Crimson Tide have their share of personnel losses and question marks to address, but talent certainly isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa. Star running back Derrick Henry is expected to leave for the NFL, while quarterback Jake Coker and center Ryan Kelly expire their eligibility after the national championship. Coordinator Lane Kiffin will start the process of reloading on offense with two talented running backs in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, as well as receiver Calvin Ridley and left tackle Cam Robinson. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett is expected to take the reins at quarterback. The losses on defense will be heavy, but there’s enough talent and depth returning for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to keep this unit among the best in the nation. The schedule features road trips to Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee, as well as a neutral site game against USC to open the 2016 season.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy in 2016, and the junior has a strong supporting cast in place, including left tackle Mitch Hyatt and standout receiver Artavis Scott. The receiving corps should receive a boost with the return of Mike Williams (57 receptions in 2014), who missed nearly all of 2015 due to a neck injury. Coordinator Brent Venables has holes to fill on defense, but this unit remained one of the best in the nation despite losing a handful of key contributors from the 2014 group. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and end Shaq Lawson are expected to leave for the NFL, while the linebacking corps must replace standout B.J. Goodson. One huge road block to a repeat for the ACC title – a road date at Florida State.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
The Sooners showed marked improvement in 2015, rebounding from an 8-5 record in 2014 to a playoff spot and an 11-2 mark overall. The eight-win season in 2014 sparked the need for change in Norman, as coach Bob Stoops hired four new assistant coaches, including offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley. The addition of Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield paid big dividends for the Sooners. Oklahoma’s offense led the Big 12 (conference-only matchups) in points per game (47.2) and yards per play (7.04) in 2015. Receiver Sterling Shepard and center Ty Darlington are the biggest losses on offense, but running back Samaje Perine, receiver Dede Westbrook and freshmen linemen Orlando Brown and Dru Samia join Mayfield as key returners on offense. The question marks are bigger on defense, as linebacker Eric Striker and end Charles Tapper expired their eligibility, and cornerback Zack Sanchez and linebacker Dominique Alexander declared early for the NFL Draft. The path to the playoffs won’t be easy. Oklahoma plays Houston and Ohio State in non-conference matchups and have road trips to TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia in league play.
4. Ohio State
The Buckeyes were one of the teams hit the hardest by early departures to the NFL Draft. In addition to defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, offensive lineman Taylor Decker and linebacker Joshua Perry expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State lost nine players to the next level, including end Joey Bosa, linebacker Darron Lee and running back Ezekiel Elliott. The rebuilding effort for coach Urban Meyer starts at quarterback, as J.T. Barrett finished the year on a high note (19 of 31 for 211 yards against Notre Dame). Barrett will be the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback next season, but Meyer has to reload at the skill positions and on the offensive line. Linebacker Raekwon McMillan and end Sam Hubbard should be the new standouts for a defense under the direction of new co-coordinator Greg Schiano. A road trip to Oklahoma and back-to-back matchups against Michigan State (Nov. 19) and Michigan (Nov. 26) will play a huge role in just how high the rebuilt Buckeyes can climb in the playoff picture.
5. Florida State
2015 was a rebuilding year for Florida State, yet the Seminoles won 10 games and played in a New Year’s Six Bowl (Peach). Under coach Jimbo Fisher, Florida State has won at least 10 games in five out of the last six seasons and is poised to push Clemson in the ACC next year. Nearly everyone is back on offense for Fisher, including Heisman Trophy candidate and running back Dalvin Cook. The junior will be running behind an offensive line that should improve over the offseason and is anchored by left tackle Roderick Johnson. Finding a quarterback is Fisher’s top priority, as Sean Maguire will compete with sophomore J.J. Cosentino and freshmen Malik Henry and Deondre Francois for the starting job. After giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2014, the Seminoles’ defense showed marked improvement in 2015. Florida State ranked second in the ACC by holding opponents to 4.68 yards per play, second in scoring defense (17.5 ppg) and generated 32 sacks (up from 17 in 2014). This unit has a few key players to replace – tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample, linebackers Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup – and cornerback Jalen Ramsey left early for the NFL. A huge schedule advantage for Florida State in 2015 – Clemson, North Carolina and Florida all visit Tallahassee next season.
6. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish were one of the teams hit the hardest by the injury bug in 2015. 38 different players earned a start for coach Brian Kelly’s team, with starting quarterback Malik Zaire lost for the season after Week 2. While the injuries were a huge hit to Notre Dame’s playoff hopes in 2015, the added depth and experience should help this team in 2016. Zaire will compete with DeShone Kizer for the starting nod at quarterback, while Tarean Folston returns from injury to team with Josh Adams at running back. The biggest losses on offense will be at receiver (Will Fuller) and on the offensive line (Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin). The overall performance of the defense has to improve after giving up 5.5 yards per play in 2015, but tackle Sheldon Day is gone and the status of linebacker Jaylon Smith is uncertain after a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Wolverines took a step forward in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, winning double-digit games (10) for the first time since 2011. And despite a few personnel losses, Michigan is positioned for a run at the Big Ten title in 2016. Finding a quarterback to replace Jake Rudock is the No. 1 priority for Harbaugh, but the offense returns leading rusher De’Veon Smith, and the top three receiving options – wide receivers Jehu Chesson and Amara Darboh and tight end Jake Butt. New defensive coordinator Don Brown was one of the top assistant hires for 2016 and inherits a group that finished third in the Big Ten in scoring defense (16.4 ppg). The Wolverines are stocked up front and in the secondary, but the linebacking corps loses all three starters from 2015. Michigan’s road schedule in conference play is brutal, as trips to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State await next season.
The Volunteers will open 2016 as the clear favorite in the SEC East. Coach Butch Jones has brought steady improvement over the last three years, increasing the team’s win total by two in each of the last two seasons after a 5-7 debut in 2013. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd headline an offense that averaged 31.3 points per game in SEC contests in 2015. An area of focus and development for coordinator Mike DeBord this offseason is generating more big plays in the passing game after recording only five of 40 yards or more in 2015. The Volunteers return their deepest and most talented defense under Jones in 2016. Only three senior starters – tackle Owen Williams and safeties Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil – depart from the starting 11 from the Outback Bowl. End Derek Barnett, linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cameron Sutton anchor the defense next season. The schedule is manageable, but Alabama visits Knoxville and the Volunteers play at Georgia in early October.
LSU isn’t hurting for talent, but coach Les Miles’ team still has question marks on offense. Running back Leonard Fournette returns for another run at the Heisman Trophy and is expected to be the focal point of the offense once again. The receiving corps is anchored by Travin Dural and rising star Malachi Dupre, and the offensive line is in good shape despite losing standout tackle Vadal Alexander. However, the Tigers won’t push Alabama in the SEC West if quarterback Brandon Harris doesn’t take the next step in his development. Dave Aranda is one of the top assistant hires for 2016, and the new defensive signal-caller inherits talent on each level of the defense, including end Arden Key and safety Jamal Adams.
Injuries derailed Baylor’s playoff hopes in 2015, and despite a few key losses in personnel, coach Art Briles’ team could be the biggest threat to Oklahoma for the Big 12 title. Quarterbacks Seth Russell (neck) and Jarrett Stidham (leg) are expected to return to full strength in 2016, but standout receiver Corey Coleman and four starters on the line must be replaced. The improvement of Baylor’s defense is an underrated part of Briles’ tenure, and coordinator Phil Bennett will have a busy offseason searching for replacements at end (Shawn Oakman and Jamal Palmer) and cornerback (Xavien Howard). Even with new faces stepping into key roles, Baylor won’t take a huge step back in the win column in 2016.
11. Michigan State
Coach Mark Dantonio is losing several key pieces from the 2015 edition that won the Big Ten Championship and earned a playoff spot in the Cotton Bowl against Alabama. While the Spartans are due to take a step back in the win column, Dantonio has this program on solid ground and a quick rebuild is in store. Tyler O’Connor and Damion Terry will battle this offseason to replace Connor Cook at quarterback, while Dantonio must find replacements for receiver Aaron Burbridge and center Jack Allen. End Shilique Calhoun and linebacker Darien Harris will be missed on defense, but tackle Malik McDowell is back, and linebacker Ed Davis returns after missing all of 2015 due to injury.
The Pac-12 will be an interesting league to watch in 2016. The expected frontrunners for both divisions feature big question marks, so this conference could be on the outside of the four-team playoff picture once again. Even though the Cardinal is losing a handful of key players, coach David Shaw’s program has earned the benefit of the doubt after winning at least 11 games in four out of the last five years. Running back Christian McCaffrey returns after a historic 2015 season, but he will be taking handoffs from a new quarterback and an offensive line featuring three new starters. The defense has some retooling to do up front, at linebacker with the loss of linebacker Blake Martinez, and the secondary must replace safety Kodi Whitfield and cornerback Ronnie Harris.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels have increased their win total in each of the last three seasons after a 7-6 record in coach Hugh Freeze’s first year (2012). Can Ole Miss take the next step and win the SEC West in 2016? For Freeze to elevate this program into the SEC Championship game next season, he needs a big year from quarterback Chad Kelly. The junior college transfer is one of the few proven quarterbacks in the SEC for 2016, but he won’t have standout receiver Laquon Treadwell or left tackle Laremy Tunsil in the supporting cast next year. The defense loses tackle Robert Nkemdiche and defensive backs Mike Hilton and Trae Elston but returns end Marquis Haynes (10 sacks) and safety Tony Conner. Freeze has recruited well, so there is promising young talent in place to fill some of the personnel voids.
14. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys finished 2015 on a three-game losing streak, but coach Mike Gundy’s team has momentum from a 10-win campaign and a good chunk of its depth chart returns in 2016. Quarterback Mason Rudolph headlines the offense, with big-play threat James Washington (20.5 ypc) returning as the go-to target. The top priorities in offseason workouts for Gundy will be improving the offensive line and jumpstarting a rushing attack that averaged only 3.6 yards per carry in 2015. End Emmanuel Ogbah is expected to leave for the NFL, and top cornerback Kevin Peterson expired his eligibility after the Sugar Bowl. While Ogbah and Peterson will be missed, coordinator Glenn Spencer has a solid core to build around this spring. Oklahoma State’s path to a Big 12 title is on the road in 2016, as trips to Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State and Baylor dot the schedule next fall.
The second year of coach Tom Herman’s H-Town Takeover in Houston could be just as successful as the 2015 version. The Cougars capped an impressive debut under Herman with a 13-1 record and a victory over Florida State in the Peach Bowl. A strong core returns for Herman to build around in 2016, including quarterback Greg Ward (281.1 total yards per game in 2015), receiver Chance Allen and offensive lineman Will Noble. The defense loses a handful of key contributors – linebacker Elandon Roberts, safeties Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart and cornerback William Jackson III – but coordinator Todd Orlando should keep this unit performing at a high level. Houston also has a huge showcase in next season’s opener – a trip to NRG Stadium in Houston to take on Oklahoma.
Related: College Football’s Awards for 2015
The Trojans will be one of the nation’s most intriguing teams in 2016. New coach Clay Helton begins his first full season as the program’s head coach, and USC returns enough talent to win the Pac-12 South once again. Max Browne and Sam Darnold will battle this offseason to replace Cody Kessler at quarterback, but the offense can lean on running back Ronald Jones II and Justin Davis and a solid offensive line until the passing attack develops behind a new signal-caller. Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will be one of the best in the nation in 2016. The defense is Helton’s biggest concern, especially in the front seven where Delvon Simmons (DT), Antwaun Woods (NT) and linebacker Su’a Cravens depart. The secondary is anchored by standout cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and rising star Iman Marshall. A brutal schedule is on tap for USC next season, starting with a neutral site affair against Alabama in Week 1 and includes road dates at Stanford, Utah, Arizona, Washington and UCLA. Additionally, USC hosts Notre Dame, Oregon and Arizona State next year.
Kirk Ferentz 3.0 was nearly enough for Iowa to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015. The Hawkeyes won’t fly under the radar in 2016, as Iowa should open next season as the favorite in the Big Ten’s West Division. Quarterback C.J. Beathard had a breakout season in 2015 and returns to anchor the offense. Replacing running back Jordan Canzeri, receiver Tevaun Smith and offensive linemen Jordan Walsh and Austin Blythe top the priority list for coordinator Greg Davis this spring. The Hawkeyes finished fifth in the Big Ten in scoring defense and received a boost with the announcement top cornerback Desmond King would return for his senior year. All-Big Ten defensive end Drew Ott was limited to six games due to injury and applied for an additional year of eligibility. The schedule is also a huge advantage for Iowa, as Wisconsin, Michigan and Nebraska all visit Iowa City in 2016.
18. North Carolina
In addition to the ACC Coastal title, the Tar Heels are coming off their first double-digit win total for the first time since 1997. The momentum for coach Larry Fedora should continue in 2016, as North Carolina is the early favorite to win the Coastal once again. Mitch Trubisky will replace Marquise Williams at quarterback, and running back Elijah Hood is poised to build off a strong sophomore campaign (1,463 yards). The biggest losses on offense will be guard Landon Turner and receiver Quinshad Davis. The defense showed marked improvement in Gene Chizik’s first season and returns largely intact next fall. North Carolina’s schedule features a few intriguing games, including a road trip to Florida State and a neutral site matchup against Georgia in Week 1.
Looking for a sleeper pick to win the Pac-12 in 2016? Take a look at Chris Petersen’s Huskies. Washington was slated for a rebuilding year in 2015, and this team finished with at three-game winning streak to get to 7-6 overall. The biggest reason for optimism in 2016 is the return of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin after impressive freshman seasons, while the defense returns nearly intact after leading the Pac-12 in scoring (18.8 points per game allowed) and the fewest yards per play (4.9). The Huskies visit Oregon next year but Stanford, USC and Arizona State visit Seattle.
It’s a new era in Athens, as Mark Richt is out after 15 seasons on the Georgia sideline. New coach Kirby Smart knows his way around the SEC as a former Georgia player and assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama since 2007. The first order of business for Smart and new play-caller Jim Chaney is to address an offense that averaged only 22.9 points per game in SEC contests. Five-star recruit Jacob Eason could be the immediate answer at quarterback, while running back Nick Chubb is slated to return in 2016 from a serious knee injury. Smart’s specialty is defense, and the first-year coach inherits a group that limited opponents to 16.9 points per game in 2015. There’s a solid core of talent in place for Smart on defense, but the linebacking corps loses Jake Ganus, Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd.
The Horned Frogs were a trendy pick to reach the College Football Playoff in 2015, but injuries and roster turnover on defense prevented a run at the Big 12 title. However, playing time for young players in 2015 should help with the transition in 2016. Coach Gary Patterson’s team will have its share of question marks this offseason, starting at quarterback with Trevone Boykin’s replacement. Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is the frontrunner to replace Boykin, but the Horned Frogs lose four starters on the offensive line and receiver Josh Doctson is out of eligibility. Defense should be a strength for TCU in 2016 with the return of cornerback Ranthony Texada, linebacker Sammy Douglas and end James McFarland from injury, along with returning seniors Josh Carraway (DE), Aaron Curry (DT) and safety Denzel Johnson. The schedule features a favorable home slate, including games against Arkansas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
The Cardinals finished 2015 by winning six out of their last seven games and the arrow is clearly pointing up for coach Bobby Petrino’s team for 2016. Quarterback Lamar Jackson capped a solid freshman season with 453 total yards in the Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M and is poised for even bigger things next fall. The Cardinals also return every key receiving threat from 2015, running back Brandon Radcliff and left tackle Geron Christian (started all 13 games as a true freshman last season). The defense has been a strength for Petrino over the last two years and will be one of the best in the ACC once again. Linemen Sheldon Rankins and Pio Vatuvei and linebacker James Burgess are the biggest losses for coordinator Todd Grantham. A strong core is in place for Grantham 2016, which includes linebacker Keith Kelsey, tackle DeAngelo Brown and defensive backs Shaq Wiggins and Josh Harvey-Clemons. The Cardinals have to play Clemson and Houston on the road next year, but Florida State and rival Kentucky visit Louisville.
23. Washington State
The Cougars opened 2015 with a disappointing loss to Portland State but ended with nine wins, a Sun Bowl victory over Miami and optimism for 2016. Coach Mike Leach’s team will be a factor in the North Division next season, as quarterback Luke Falk returns and receiver Gabe Marks is back to anchor a deep receiving corps. The biggest concern on offense is the loss of two linemen, including standout left tackle Joe Dahl. Washington State’s defense took a step forward under first-year coordinator Alex Grinch by holding opponents to 27.7 points per game in 2015. This unit needs to retool a bit in the front seven, but cornerback Darrien Molton and safety Shalom Luani are key pieces for Grinch to build around next fall. The Cougars have a favorable schedule in conference action by missing USC in crossover play and visits by UCLA, Arizona, Washington and Oregon to Pullman.
The Ducks are one of the hardest teams to slot in an early top 25 for 2016. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team still has a cast of talented skill players in place, including running back Royce Freeman and receiver Darren Carrington. However, the line loses standouts in tackle Tyler Johnstone and center Matt Hegarty, and the quarterback position is up for grabs, with Montana State transfer Dakota Prukop the favorite to replace Vernon Adams. Oregon’s defense is in need of repair after giving up 6.03 yards per play in 2015. Play-caller Don Pellum was demoted to linebackers coach, and the new coordinator inherits a group losing standout end DeForest Buckner and linebackers Tyson Coleman, Joe Walker and Rodney Hardrick. But the Ducks catch a break in scheduling, as Stanford and Washington visit Eugene in 2016.
Jim McElwain’s first season at Florida was a successful one due to the SEC East title, but the Gators struggled on offense at the end of 2015 and lose a handful of key contributors on defense. Needless to say, McElwain has his work cut out for him this spring. Finding a quarterback is McElwain’s biggest priority, and Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio is a name to watch in the battle to start under center. Receiver Antonio Callaway will be even better as a sophomore, but running back Kelvin Taylor is leaving early for the NFL Draft. Improving the offensive line is also a necessity for McElwain after this unit allowed 45 sacks in 2015. The strength of last season’s team was its defense, but lineman Jon Bullard, linebacker Antonio Morrison and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III leave big shoes to fill.
10 Teams to Watch
Quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins (assuming he leaves for the NFL) and tight end Hunter Henry will be difficult to replace. However, coach Bret Bielema has established a solid foundation in Fayetteville to prevent a significant drop-off in 2016.
The Tigers were one of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2015. Can coach Gus Malzahn get this program back on track? There’s a lot of talent, but Auburn won’t push for a spot in the top 25 without an answer at quarterback.
The Broncos took a step back in coach Bryan Harsin’s second year, but there’s a lot to like about this team in 2016. Quarterback Brett Rypien and running back Jeremy McNichols return to anchor an explosive offense, and the schedule is favorable with Washington State, Colorado State and Utah State traveling to Boise State.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Hurricanes sneak into some preseason top 25 lists with new coach Mark Richt at the controls. Richt will have plenty of talent to work with, including junior quarterback Brad Kaaya and running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby.
Wildcats were anchored by a standout defense in 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team needs more from the offense to contend in the Big Ten West next year.
Willie Taggart has South Florida trending in the right direction after an 8-5 mark in 2015. The Bulls return quarterback Quinton Flowers and running back Marlon Mack, while the defense looks to take another step forward under coordinator Tom Allen.
Is 2016 a make-or-break year for Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M? Landing Trevor Knight as a graduate transfer at quarterback helps to alleviate some of the concern under center, but the Aggies have to take another step forward on defense and find the right answers on the offensive line.
The 8-5 mark by UCLA in 2015 was its lowest win total under coach Jim Mora. However, the Bruins should be USC’s biggest obstacle to a Pac-12 South title next fall. Running back Paul Perkins is gone and the offensive line has a few concerns, but quarterback Josh Rosen is back after a standout freshman season. The defense has holes to fill with the departure of linebacker Myles Jack and tackle Kenny Clark to the NFL.
Justin Fuente was one of the top coaching hires of college football’s coaching carousel, and his background on offense should pay dividends for a program that’s struggled on that side of the ball in recent years. The defense remains in Bud Foster’s hands, but the line must be overhauled in 2016.
The Badgers quietly won 10 games in 2015, with two of their losses – Northwestern and Iowa – coming by six points or less. And the other loss? Alabama. Running back Corey Clement returns next fall, and the defense returns one of the top linebacker units in college football. However, coordinator Dave Aranda will be missed, a new quarterback must be found, and the secondary loses standouts Darius Hillary and Michael Caputo.
Alabama has set the standard for the rest of college football to aim for in recent seasons, as the Crimson Tide have won three national championships under coach Nick Saban and were the only team to make the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons. Saban is a perfect 3-0 in National Championship contests at Alabama and is considered the favorite by Vegas to win on Jan. 11 over Clemson in Glendale, Ariz. Even though the Crimson Tide have inked the No. 1 recruiting class in five consecutive years, it’s not just about assembling talent for Saban and this coaching staff. Alabama thrives at roster and player development, which has translated into eight straight seasons of at least 10 wins.
The 2015 version of the Crimson Tide isn’t much different than Saban’s previous teams. Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart have assembled a suffocating defense, and the offense leans heavily on running back Derrick Henry and a standout offensive line. Alabama suffered a 43-37 loss against Ole Miss in mid-September and finished the year by winning 11 consecutive games, including 10 of those matchups by 13 points or more. Why will the Crimson Tide beat the Tigers? Here are five reasons to believe in Saban’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Beat Clemson for the National Title
1. Alabama’s Defense is the Best in the Nation
Defense wins championships. That’s an old cliché mentioned when discussing playoff or championship games, but there is some truth in that statement. Saban and Smart have developed a factory of elite defenses at Tuscaloosa, and the 2015 version ranks among the best in college football over the last five years. Alabama’s defense led the nation in fewest points allowed per game (13.4) and ranks second nationally in yards per play allowed (4.09). The dominance extends after a deeper look at the stat sheet. The Crimson Tide led the nation with 50 sacks, ranked fifth in third-down defense, have allowed only 11 touchdowns on 25 red zone trips, forced 26 turnovers and rank first nationally in rush defense. Even though Ole Miss (40.8 ppg) ranks higher on the scoring offense stat sheet, Clemson’s explosive attack (38.4 ppg) will be the toughest challenge for Alabama’s defense in 2015. Mobile quarterbacks have provided the most problems for the Crimson Tide defense in recent years, but Smart and Saban made a few tweaks, which allowed this unit to be more effective against spread offenses. Additionally, the secondary climbed from No. 30 nationally in pass efficiency defense (2014) to No. 4 in 2015. Even if the Tigers land a few big plays, the Alabama defense still has the necessary personnel, depth, talent and scheme to keep Clemson’s dynamic offense in check.
2. Battle in the Trenches
Alabama’s defense is loaded with NFL talent at each level, starting in the trenches with tackle A’Shawn Robinson and ends Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen. Robinson sets the tone up front with his ability to win the battle at the point of attack, allowing a standout group of linebackers opportunities to make plays around the line of scrimmage. Allen led the team with 12 sacks, while Reed registered eight quarterback hurries and is another 300-pound athletic force up front. The talent extends to the linebacking corps, as senior Reggie Ragland is one of the best in the nation at this position, and Tim Williams finished second on the team with 10.5 sacks. Dillon Lee and Denzel Devall are two other key cogs in this unit, while Reuben Foster (64 stops) is known for his big hits. Clemson’s offensive line was its biggest question mark on offense to open 2015, but this unit emerged as a strength by January. While the line has played well since a few early-season struggles, this unit has not faced a defense with the overall depth, talent and athleticism the Crimson Tide will bring to Glendale, Ariz. It's not just the defense playing with a stacked depth chart in terms of talent in the trenches. When Alabama is on offense, expect its line to challenge Clemson’s standout defensive front. Center Ryan Kelly and left tackle Cam Robinson are two of the nation’s best at their respective positions, and redshirt freshman Ross Pierschbacher has started all 14 games at left guard. The Tigers overwhelmed Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl with their talent in the trenches. However, Alabama is stocked up front and capable of beating Clemson for the edge at the line of scrimmage.
3. Alabama QB Jake Coker is Ready to Step Up
Coker’s performance in Alabama’s win over Michigan State was one of the biggest storylines in the College Football Playoff. With the Spartans expected to focus on stopping running back Derrick Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin asked more of Coker in the Cotton Bowl. The senior delivered with a sharp performance, completing 25 of 30 throws for 286 yards and two scores. Coker’s 286 passing yards were a season high and continued a run of improvement for the Mobile native. The senior has tossed only one interception over the last six games and completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each contest during that span. With an elite defense and ground attack at his disposal, Coker doesn’t have to carry the Alabama offense. However, the senior needs to limit mistakes and deliver the ball to a solid group of playmakers at receiver in space. Clemson’s secondary is sixth nationally in pass efficiency defense, while the front seven helps the Tigers rank 18th nationally against the run. With Clemson having the necessary talent up front to slow Henry’s production on the ground, Coker may need to replicate his production from the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 11. Judging by his recent performance, the senior is up to the task.
4. Alabama RB Derrick Henry
Henry wasn’t a complete afterthought in the 38-0 win over Michigan State, but the Heisman Trophy winner only recorded 75 yards and two scores on 20 carries. Additionally, the 3.75 average on attempts was the second-lowest total of the season for the junior. While those statistics are notable, the opponent had a lot to do with Henry’s workload, production and focus on the gameplan for Alabama. With the Spartans gearing up to stop Henry, the Crimson Tide focused more on opening up the passing attack. Clemson is expected to use a similar approach on Jan. 11, as the Tigers own one of the nation’s best front sevens and limited opponents to 124.4 rushing yards per game in 2015. But a deeper look at those totals suggests Henry and the Alabama offensive line could find success. The Tigers allowed 197 rushing yards to Florida State, 242 to Syracuse, 181 to North Carolina and 142 to South Carolina. Clemson also allowed 4.6 yards per carry in the fourth quarter and may not have standout end Shaq Lawson available due to injury. Henry may not find much success early, but two-yard carries could become eight-yard rushes in the fourth quarter. The junior stepped up in Alabama’s clutch situations or when the offense needed to grind out the clock late in games, and it’s a safe assumption Henry will play a key role in the Crimson Tide’s hopes of winning on Jan. 11.
5. The Nick Saban Advantage
Ohio State’s Urban Meyer isn’t far behind, but Alabama’s Nick Saban should sit at the top of any list ranking the best coaches in college football. In a one-game scenario with a national championship on the line, it’s tough to pick against Saban and this Crimson Tide coaching staff. Saban has won at least 11 games in each of the last five seasons and went 7-1 in SEC play each year during that span. While last year’s loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff was a surprise, Alabama went 3-0 in appearances in the BCS National Championship under Saban. In addition to Saban, the Crimson Tide’s staff is loaded with experience in the assistant ranks. Lane Kiffin was a shrewd hire for Saban, adding a few spread, up-tempo elements to the offense, and his gameplan against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl was flawless. The national championship matchup versus Clemson is Smart’s final game at Alabama, as he will take over at Georgia as the head coach on a full-time basis after this contest. While Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has emerged as one of the top 10-15 coaches in the nation, and coordinator Brent Venables is one of the best assistants in college football, the edge in coaching goes to Alabama and Saban. With a quick turnaround to the national championship game, as well as getting the players focused on the Jan. 11 contest, the experience, development of gameplans and track record of Saban is a huge asset for the Crimson Tide. If a team needs to win one game in any scenario, there's not a better coach to have on its side than Saban.
Clemson is 60 minutes away from the second national championship in program history. Under coach Dabo Swinney’s direction, Clemson has emerged as one of the nation’s top programs, winning at least 10 games in each of the last five years. 2015 has been a historic season for coach Dabo Swinney’s squad. The Tigers are college football’s only remaining unbeaten team, won the ACC title, handled Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and bring a 17-game winning streak to Glendale, Ariz. for the national title matchup against Alabama. Swinney’s team has thrived behind an explosive offense and quarterback Deshaun Watson, while the defense quickly reloaded behind standout coordinator Brent Venables.
While Clemson has won a lot of big games under Swinney’s watch, the national championship matchup against Alabama is the biggest stage this program has experienced in recent years and the toughest game on its 2015-16 schedule. Why will the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide? Here are five reasons to believe in Swinney’s team on Jan. 11.
5 Reasons Why Clemson Will Beat Alabama for the National Title
1. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson
Alabama running back Derrick Henry won the Heisman Trophy, but a strong case could be made Watson is the best or most valuable player in the nation. Watson showcased his potential as a true freshman in 2014, throwing for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns in eight games. However, Watson was limited due to injuries, including a torn ACL suffered in late November against Georgia Tech. The sophomore showed no ill-effects from last season’s injuries and emerged as the nation’s best quarterback in 2015. Watson threw for 3,699 yards and 31 scores and recorded 1,032 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns in 2015. The sophomore became more of a factor in the ground attack over the second half of the season, recording at least 100 rushing yards in five out of the last six games. Watson is the type of quarterback that has provided the most headaches for Alabama’s defense in recent years. The Crimson Tide have lost seven games over the last five seasons, and there’s a familiar pattern among the quarterbacks – Jordan Jefferson, Johnny Manziel, Trevor Knight, Nick Marshall, Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace and Chad Kelly – mobility or the ability to extend plays with their legs. Not only is Watson a sharp passer, but the sophomore’s legs and ability to extend plays will be a huge asset and provide plenty of headaches for Alabama’s defense.
2. Clemson’s Offensive Line Can Handle Alabama’s Defensive Front
Despite returning only one starter on the offensive line, Clemson’s front five has been one of the best in college football this year. The Tigers allowed only 16 sacks in 14 games and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.99 yards per carry. This unit had its share of ups and downs early but showed steady improvement over the course of the season. True freshman Mitch Hyatt started all 14 games and joined guard Eric Mac Lain and center Jay Guillermo as the anchors for this group. In the Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma, quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked just once and the offense recorded 312 rushing yards. Alabama’s defensive front is the best in the nation and will present a tougher challenge than the one the Tigers played in the Orange Bowl against Oklahoma. However, with the development of Clemson’s offensive line throughout the year, combined with Watson’s mobility, the Tigers have the pieces in place to match the play of the Crimson Tide in the trenches.
3. Clemson’s Defensive Line Can Create Problems for the Alabama OL
As mentioned in the previous section, Alabama’s defensive line and linebacker units form the nation’s best front seven. However, Clemson isn’t too far down the list of best defensive fronts in college football. Under the watch of coordinator Brent Venables and defensive line assistants Dan Brooks and Marion Hobby, the Tigers quickly reloaded up front after losing several key pieces at the end of the 2014 campaign. Gone from last season’s front that led the nation with 131 tackles for loss were ends Corey Crawford, Tavaris Barnes and Vic Beasley and tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. Despite the personnel losses, this unit hasn’t missed a beat. End Shaq Lawson was the unit’s top performer, recording 10.5 sacks and earning second-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports. However, Lawson isn’t the only standout for this defense in the trenches. Junior Kevin Dodd (18.5 TFL, 9 sacks) is another threat off the edge, while the interior is in great shape with Carlos Watkins, D.J. Reader and Christian Wilkins. B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware are two standouts in the linebacking corps, and both players are active around the line of scrimmage. Lawson suffered a knee injury against Oklahoma, and his status is uncertain for Jan. 11. Even if Lawson is sidelined, Dodd, Austin Bryant and Richard Yeargin are capable of creating plenty of havoc against Alabama’s offensive line and slowing running back Derrick Henry. Clemson ranks 18th nationally against the run and first in tackles for loss (117).
4. Playmakers at Running Back and Wide Receiver
With speed and athleticism at running back and receiver, Clemson’s skill talent can put a lot of pressure on Alabama’s defense. Wayne Gallman might be the nation’s most underrated running back, recording 1,482 yards and 12 scores on 269 carries this season. Gallman has the speed to attack the edges, while also bringing an element of power to attack the middle of the field. Zac Brooks and C.J. Fuller will spell Gallman at running back. The receiving corps won’t have Deon Cain available due to suspension, but Artavis Scott (89 catches) is the team’s go-to option. Scott’s ability to make plays off screen passes helps to set up the deep balls to Charone Peake (14.0 ypc) and Germone Hopper (15.1 ypc). Tight end Jordan Leggett (35 catches) is another valuable weapon for Watson, and freshman Hunter Renfrow (15.5 ypc) is a security blanket over the middle. In order to beat Alabama’s defense, offenses have to spread the field and attack a secondary that ranked ninth in the SEC by giving up 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more. That's exactly the type of ability Clemson's group of skill players will bring to Glendale, Ariz. and Alabama's defense on Jan. 11.
5. Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander
Alabama’s receiving corps faced question marks to open the season after the loss of the top three options – Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones – from 2014. However, this group has improved over the course of the season, significantly helped by the emergence of freshman Calvin Ridley. In 14 games, Ridley has grabbed 83 receptions for 1,031 yards and seven scores. Additionally, ArDarius Stewart (61 grabs) and Richard Mullaney (37 catches) stepped up in 2015 and made key receptions in the Cotton Bowl win over Michigan State. Tight end O.J. Howard (33 receptions) is another weapon Clemson will have to account for on Jan. 11. Clemson’s secondary has surrendered a few big plays (16 of 30 yards or more), but this unit features a lockdown All-America cornerback in Mackensie Alexander, while safety Jayron Kearse (second team) and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (third team) earned All-ACC honors. Expect to see Alexander matched on Ridley on Jan. 11, which forces Alabama to rely more on Stewart and Mullaney. If Alexander contains Ridley, that’s a huge advantage in Clemson’s favor in the national championship.
Alabama is 60 minutes from another national championship after a thorough and dominant 38-0 victory over Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. With the Spartans geared up to stop running back Derrick Henry, coach Nick Saban and coordinator Lane Kiffin put the game in the hands of quarterback Jake Coker. The senior responded with an efficient and effective effort, completing 25 of 30 passes for 286 yards and two scores. Receiver Calvin Ridley caught eight of Coker’s passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama’s defense allowed only 239 yards and forced two turnovers in a dominant effort.
Miss the Alabama victory on Thursday night? Here are five plays that sum up the Crimson Tide’s easy win:
1. Alabama QB Jake Coker connects with WR Calvin Ridley to set up the first touchdown:
2. Alabama's Cyrus Jones scores on a 57-yard punt return to lead 24-0:
3. Alabama RB Derrick Henry stiff arms Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun:
4. Alabama QB Jake Coker finds WR Calvin Ridley on a 50-yard touchdown pass:
When Jake Coker throws to Calvin Ridley, good things happen. https://t.co/1Tw2yTEC6R— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 1, 2016
5. Alabama LB Dillon Lee snags a nifty interception to end a late Michigan State drive:
Clemson booked a trip to the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. with a 37-17 victory over Oklahoma on Thursday night. The Tigers won the battle at the line of scrimmage, got huge performances from quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, and overcame a few problems in the red zone in the first half to score a convincing victory in the Orange Bowl.
Miss the Clemson victory on Thursday night? Here are five plays that sum up the Tigers’ impressive win:
1. Quarterback Deshaun Watson connects with Hunter Renfrow for a 35-yard touchdown:
Idk why so many people slept on Clemson. pic.twitter.com/DP1LDYsNNl— Jasmine Watkins (@JasmineLWatkins) December 31, 2015
2. Quarterback Deshaun Watson scores on a five-yard touchdown run:
It's like he stops, thinks, and says "I'm Deshaun Watson, I'll take this." pic.twitter.com/8TTH6HnmFD— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) December 31, 2015
3. Linebacker Ben Boulware intercepts Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield in the fourth quarter:
4. Quarterback Deshaun Watson somehow escapes the Oklahoma rush in the first half:
5. Fake punt helps spark Clemson in the first half:
And finally: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after a fourth-quarter touchdown:
Oregon and TCU bring their high-powered offenses to San Antonio, Texas on Saturday night for a showdown in the 2016 Alamo Bowl. This bowl was one of the most anticipated matchups of the postseason but lost some of its appeal on Thursday morning. TCU starting quarterback Trevone Boykin was arrested after an incident in San Antonio and is suspended for Saturday's contest. The Ducks and Horned Frogs average over 40 points a game, but Boykin's absence is a huge setback for TCU.
Oregon was expected to take a small step back in the post-Marcus Mariota era, and the Ducks’ 2015 campaign and Pac-12 North title hopes suffered an early blow when Eastern Washington transfer quarterback Vernon Adams was injured in the opener. Adams eventually returned to full strength and guided the Ducks to six consecutive wins to close out 2015. With Adams back at 100 percent, Oregon’s up-tempo attack was firing on all cylinders, as the Ducks scored at least 38 points in five out of their last six games. Coach Mark Helfrich’s team will have a full and healthy arsenal of weapons available for this game, but the play-calling duties will be altered with coordinator Scott Frost accepting the head coach job at UCF. Helfrich and receivers coach Matt Lubick will handle the play-calling duties on Saturday night.
With quarterback Trevone Boykin and an explosive offense in place, TCU was picked by some as a national title contender this preseason. The Horned Frogs started 8-0 but injuries and the roster turnover on defense was eventually too much for coach Gary Patterson’s team to overcome. TCU went 2-2 over its last two games, which included a one-point defeat to Oklahoma without Boykin under center, as well as a 28-21 victory over Baylor in a monsoon on Nov. 27. While TCU failed to make a push for a playoff spot, there’s still plenty for Patterson’s team to play for, including an 11-win season and a chance to finish in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll. With Boykin suspended, it's up to backups Foster Sawyer and Bram Kohlhausen to finish the season out on a high note for the Horned Frogs.
This is only the third meeting on the gridiron between TCU and Oregon. The overall series is tied at one victory apiece, and the last meeting between the Ducks and Horned Frogs took place in 1978.
Alamo Bowl: TCU vs. Oregon
San Antonio, Texas
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 2 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: TCU - 1
Three Things to Watch
1. Vernon Adams vs. TCU's Quarterbacks
Outside of the Orange Bowl duel between Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, there wasn't a better or more anticipated quarterback showdown in a postseason game than the one in San Antonio between Oregon’s Vernon Adams and TCU’s Trevone Boykin. However, the outlook on this matchup changed significantly with Boykin's suspension. Despite missing three games due to injury and playing sparingly against Utah, Adams finished with 2,446 passing yards and 25 scores and completed at least 73 percent of his throws in each of Oregon’s last three games. The Eastern Washington transfer was only on campus for one season, but Adams has made a huge impression. The senior is adept at using his mobility to slide around the pocket and keep plays alive and generated 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more this season. Boykin was more of a true dual-threat quarterback, as he passed for 3,575 yards and 31 touchdowns and added 612 yards and nine scores on the ground in 2015. Senior Bram Kohlhausen and freshman Foster Sawyer both played in critical moments for TCU this season, and Kohlhausen is expected to start. The senior completed 27 of 43 passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns but doesn't have the mobility Boykin brought to the offense. How much of the offense will co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham alter with Kohlhausen and Sawyer taking snaps? Both quarterbacks are surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including 1,000-yard rushers at running back (Royce Freeman, Oregon and Aaron Green, TCU), solid offensive lines and big-play threats at receiver. Both defensive backfields had their share of breakdowns in the secondary this season and there will be opportunities for big plays from both offenses. All eyes in San Antonio, Texas will be on the quarterbacks, as Adams looks to finish the year on a high note, while Kohlhausen/Sawyer steps in for Boykin.
2. Getting Defensive
Even though Boykin is suspended, TCU should be able to move the ball on Oregon's defense. And with Adams under center for the Ducks, it's no secret the Horned Frogs will have their hands full on Saturday night. With both teams possessing a bevy of talented skill players, this matchup could be decided on which defense can make enough timely stops. It’s unlikely either defense will control the pace of the game, so getting stops in the red zone, on third downs and forcing turnovers is critical. TCU’s defense holds the edge in third down and red zone stops, while Oregon’s unit holds a slight advantage in forcing turnovers (21 to 18) and in sacks (36 to 28). The Ducks’ defensive efforts are led by standout lineman DeForest Buckner (16 TFL and 9.5 sacks), while the linebacking corps features the steady play of Joe Walker (82 tackles), Rodney Hardrick (72 stops) and Tyson Coleman (10 TFL). However, the secondary has been a problem spot for this team, ranking 95th nationally in pass efficiency defense. It’s up to Buckner and the linebacking corps to slow TCU running back Aaron Green and get to Kohlhausen/Sawyer in the pocket. When Oregon has the ball, TCU’s defensive front has to win the battle in the trenches, force the Ducks behind the chains and keep this offense from getting into its fast tempo.
3. TCU’s Receiving Corps and RB Aaron Green
There’s no doubt TCU is going to miss standout receiver Josh Doctson against Oregon. The senior caught 79 passes for 1,327 yards and 14 scores before suffering a season-ending wrist injury against Kansas. Boykin’s ankle injury and the weather against Baylor skewed the passing totals late in the season. However, it’s noteworthy TCU’s lowest passing performances all took place with Doctson out of the lineup. With a month to prepare, co-coordinators Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham should be able to shuffle the receivers and make the necessary adjustments to fortify Boykin’s supporting cast. But who will step up as TCU’s go-to receiver against Oregon’s struggling secondary? Of course, that question even tougher to answer with Boykin sidelined. Is freshman KaVontae Turpin (14.6 ypc) the top option? Or will the Horned Frogs feature Shaun Nixon or the speedy Kolby Listenbee more against the Ducks? Doctson’s production and presence will be tough to replace, but TCU has proven options. Will those receivers step up with the game on the line Saturday night? Without Boykin, Oregon's defense should expect to see a lot of running back Aaron Green. The senior rushed for 1,171 yards this season and faces a defense that ranked sixth in the Pac-12 against the run. The supporting cast for TCU is even more critical without Boykin at the controls.
Before Boykin's suspension, all signs pointed to an offensive shootout and one of the highest-scoring games of the postseason. However, with Boykin sidelined, those expectations should be tempered. With only two days to prepare Kohlhausen or Sawyer, TCU has a tough assignment ahead on Saturday night. The Horned Frogs need a huge effort from their defense and running back Aaron Green to knock off the Ducks. Oregon closed out the regular season as one of the hottest teams in college football. However, did the month off from game action cool Helfrich’s offense? Maybe a little. Even if TCU finds a way to slow Oregon's offense, it's asking a lot of Kohlhausen and Sawyer to replicate Boykin's production and overall impact on a defense. The Ducks' sluggish defense keeps the Horned Frogs in it, but Adams and Freeman eventually put this one away for Oregon in the second half.
Prediction: Oregon 45, TCU 30
The Fiesta Bowl couldn’t have asked for a better or more interesting matchup, as Ohio State and Notre Dame are set to tangle in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 1. The Buckeyes-Fighting Irish contest is one of the most intriguing bowl games on the postseason slate this year. Not only does this game feature two of the premier programs in college football, these two teams were just a couple of plays away from a different total in the win column and a berth in the College Football Playoff.
Injuries hit Notre Dame hard in 2015, as starting running back Tarean Folston was lost for the year after the opener against Texas, and No. 1 quarterback Malik Zaire suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 2 against Virginia. Injuries to Folston and Zaire weren’t the only ailments to hit coach Brian Kelly’s team, but those two were the biggest during the year that forced the coaching staff to shuffle things on offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer stepped up in Zaire’s absence, while C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams successfully handled the workload for Folston on the ground. Despite the injuries, the Fighting Irish were just a couple of plays away from a perfect season. Notre Dame lost 24-22 in a monsoon against Clemson on Oct. 3 and fell on a last-second field goal at Stanford on Nov. 28.
Ohio State entered the season as the overwhelming favorite to repeat, but all of the pieces never fell into place for coach Urban Meyer. Despite an offense that never seemed to be firing on all cylinders, the Buckeyes started 10-0 but stumbled in a 17-14 defeat against Michigan State on Nov. 21. Ohio State rebounded from the loss against the Spartans with a 42-13 win over rival Michigan in the regular season finale. While it’s hard to consider an 11-1 record a disappointment, the Buckeyes expected to be in Arizona on Jan. 11 playing for the national championship – not playing on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl. Will motivation be a concern for Meyer’s team?
Ohio State and Notre Dame have met only five times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes hold a 3-2 edge over the Fighting Irish and have won three consecutive matchups in this series. The last meeting between these two teams took place in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, with Ohio State earning a 34-20 victory.
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Notre Dame
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Ohio State -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Notre Dame’s Secondary and Ohio State’s Defensive Line
It seems odd to mention the secondary for Notre Dame and defensive line for Ohio State in the same sentence, but the last month has not been kind for either position. Defensive tackle Adolphus Washington was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl after an off-field incident, and fellow interior starter Tommy Schutt won’t play due to a foot injury. With Washington and Schutt sidelined, the Buckeyes will turn to sophomores Donovan Munger, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill, along with senior Joel Hale to anchor the interior. End Joey Bosa may see some snaps on the interior to alleviate the losses of Washington and Schutt. The Notre Dame secondary is also dealing with its share of issues, as starter KeiVarae Russell suffered a season-ending leg injury against Boston College, safety Max Redfield was sent home from the Fiesta Bowl due to a rules violation, and Devin Butler (Russell’s replacement) suffered a foot injury in bowl practices and won’t play on Jan. 1. Which team will feel its recent injuries and suspensions the most on Friday?
2. The Quarterbacks
With a month to prepare for this matchup, will Ohio State’s passing attack take a step forward? The Buckeyes ranked sixth in the Big Ten (conference-only games) by averaging 198.5 yards per game and recorded only seven passing scores during league contests. J.T. Barrett replaced Cardale Jones as the starting quarterback in four out of the final five games, but the offense still struggled to generate big plays through the air. Barrett is facing a patchwork Notre Dame secondary, so this matchup should be a prime opportunity for the sophomore to test the Fighting Irish downfield. On the other sideline, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is facing the best statistical defense this offense has played in 2015. Kizer threw for 2,596 yards and 19 scores and added 499 rushing yards and nine touchdowns after taking over for Zaire. The redshirt freshman was efficient (63.3%) and will have his share of big-play opportunities with Will Fuller (13 TDs), Chris Brown (44 catches) and Amir Carlisle (29 catches) on the outside. Not only is Ohio State’s talented secondary a concern for Kizer, but the Buckeyes will test a stout Notre Dame offensive line with one of the nation’s top defensive players in end Joey Bosa. Will Kizer play a flawless game and find opportunities for big plays against the stingy Ohio State pass defense?
3. Notre Dame’s Front Seven Against Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott
As mentioned above, Ohio State’s passing game had its share of ups and downs in 2015. And it’s no secret to Notre Dame’s defense what the Buckeyes want to do on offense – get the ball to running back Ezekiel Elliott. The junior rushed for 1,672 yards and 19 scores this season, recording 100 yards in 11 out of Ohio State’s 12 contests. Notre Dame’s defense ranked 64th nationally against the run this season, but it’s noteworthy this unit played two option teams, slightly skewing the overall numbers. While the statistics aren’t necessarily in the Fighting Irish’s favor, the front seven has two All-Americans in linebacker Jaylon Smith and tackle Sheldon Day and could have additional help with the return of tackle Jarron Jones (missed all of 2015 due to a knee injury). Stopping Elliott and forcing Ohio State into third-and-long and obvious pass situations will be critical for Notre Dame’s defense.
These two teams weren’t far from securing a playoff spot, and if both are motivated, this could be one of the better matchups of the postseason. Considering the preseason expectations, it’s fair to wonder about Ohio State’s motivation in this game. However, even if the Buckeyes have some lingering disappointment, coach Urban Meyer will have his team ready to play. The formula for Ohio State is simple – establish Elliott and utilize Barrett’s mobility for plays on the ground and to create opportunities through the air. Will Notre Dame stack the box and contain Elliott? When the Fighting Irish have the ball, the return of C.J. Prosise will help the offense test an Ohio State defense without its starting defensive tackles. However, this game could come down to whether or not Kizer and Fuller can hook up for a few big plays against a tough secondary. Turnover margin is also critical. Notre Dame was minus-five in that department in 2015, while Ohio State was just plus-two. Barrett, Elliott and Bosa each contribute a big play in the fourth quarter, allowing the Buckeyes to cap the season with a close victory in the Fiesta Bowl.
Prediction: Ohio State 31, Notre Dame 27
The highly anticipated 2015-16 College Football Playoff kicks off on Thursday afternoon in Miami with Clemson and Oklahoma meeting in a national semifinal in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers finished the regular season at 13-0 and are the only unbeaten team in college football. The Sooners overcame a loss to Texas in early October to earn the final spot in the four-team playoff, finishing the year as one of the hottest teams in the nation on a seven-game winning streak.
Coach Dabo Swinney has raised the bar at Clemson in recent seasons, winning at least 10 games in five consecutive years. The Tigers returned only five starters from last season’s team, yet finished with a school-record 13 victories and two wins is all that separates the program from its first national championship since 1981. Clemson’s rebuilt defense limited opponents to 4.7 yards per play, and the offense averaged 38.5 points per game behind Heisman finalist and quarterback Deshaun Watson. En route to their 13-0 record, the Tigers scored key victories against Notre Dame (24-22), Florida State (23-13) and North Carolina (45-37).
Oklahoma has been a model of consistency and success under coach Bob Stoops, but the Sooners hit an interesting point in Stoops’ tenure after an 8-5 record in 2014. Maintaining success at a high level for a long period of time isn’t easy for any coach. However, Stoops shuffled his coaching staff, and the found a spark on offense behind new coordinator Lincoln Riley and transfer quarterback Baker Mayfield. A loss to Texas in mid-October cast doubt on Oklahoma’s Big 12 title hopes, but the Sooners rebounded in November with huge wins over Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State.
Oklahoma and Clemson have played four previous times on the gridiron. The series is tied at two victories apiece for each team, while the last two matchups took place in bowl games. The Tigers have won the last two meetings against the Sooners.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Oklahoma
Miami Gardens, Fla.
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oklahoma -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Baker Mayfield vs. Deshaun Watson
The Orange Bowl should feature one of the best quarterback duels of any postseason game this year. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield emerged as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in his debut in Norman, throwing for 3,389 yards and 35 scores and rushing for 420 yards and seven touchdowns. Mayfield was the perfect triggerman for new coordinator Lincoln Riley’s spread attack, and his ability to escape the rush and avoid sacks was especially critical for an offense with an inexperienced line. Watson made an immediate impact for Clemson in eight games last season, but his true freshman campaign was derailed by injuries. Under the co-coordinator tandem of Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott, Watson has elevated his game even higher as a sophomore. He threw for 3,512 yards and 30 scores this season and ranked second on the team with 887 rushing yards. Watson’s rushing ability was utilized even more late in the year, as he recorded four 100-yard games on the ground over Clemson’s last five contests. There are similarities between the two quarterbacks and how they will approach this matchup. Both players need to use their legs to create plays when things break down in the pocket and take advantage of opportunities downfield to a deep group of skill players in the receiving corps. Both quarterbacks were efficient and limited their overall mistakes in 2015. Will that continue on Thursday night? How will Oklahoma contain Watson’s rushing ability? And when the Sooners are on offense, can Mayfield avoid the initial Clemson pass rush to connect with receiver Sterling Shepard on big plays downfield?
2. Clemson’s Defensive Line Against Oklahoma’s Offensive Line
Despite losing a handful of key contributors on last year’s unit, Clemson’s defense didn’t suffer too much on the stat sheet in 2015. The Tigers ranked third in the ACC by holding opponents to 20.2 points per game and second in the conference in yards per play allowed (4.68). Under the watchful eye of coordinator (and former Oklahoma assistant) Brent Venables, the front seven was a big reason why Clemson’s defense was among the best in the nation. The Tigers generated 38 sacks and 108 tackles for a loss and forced a healthy 23 turnovers in 13 contests. Wreaking havoc at the line of scrimmage starts with the front four, and Venables quickly restocked the cupboard after losing a handful of key players. Junior Shaq Lawson (9.5 sacks) is the top performer, but tackle Carlos Watkins was one of the ACC’s top interior players this season. The Sooners returned only one starter on the offensive line this fall and struggled to find consistency early in the year. However, this unit paved the way for Oklahoma to average at least 4.4 yards per carry in each of the final seven games. The insertion of true freshman Dru Samia into the starting lineup added stability to the right side of the line, while left tackle Orlando Brown got more comfortable over the course of the season. After giving up 36 sacks in 12 contests, Oklahoma needs more from this unit against Clemson. Can the Sooners keep Mayfield upright in the pocket and clear rushing lanes for running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon?
3. The Running Backs
While all of the pregame attention is focused on the quarterbacks – Deshaun Watson and Baker Mayfield – and the talent at receiver – Clemson’s Artavis Scott and Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard – don’t forget about the running backs in this matchup. Clemson’s Wayne Gallman pounded his way for 1,332 yards and 10 scores this season, while Oklahoma’s one-two combination of Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon combined for 2,040 yards. Quarterback play is going to be critical to the outcome of this game on Thursday, but both teams have to establish a presence on the ground. Clemson has been tougher against the run this year, and it’s imperative the Sooners avoid consistently getting into third-and-long situations. Establishing balance is going to be critical for both teams.
Don’t read anything into last year’s game. These are two different teams and plenty of new faces have emerged since last season’s meeting in the Russell Athletic Bowl. On paper, the Orange Bowl matchup is relatively even. Both offenses hope to push the tempo and rely on their quarterback’s mobility to take advantage of big plays when things break down in the pocket, but this game still comes down to the battle in the trenches and the overall play of the defenses. Clemson’s defense has been better than Oklahoma’s this year and has the edge up front on the defensive line. However, the Tigers aren’t deep on defense, and the depth could be an issue if the Sooners establish the run with Perine and Mixon. In addition to being an even contest, the Orange Bowl should be one of the best bowl games of the 2015-16 postseason. If Oklahoma picks up where it left off in the regular season, coach Bob Stoops’ team should be positioned for a trip to the national championship. However, knocking off a month’s worth of rust will be a challenge early. Clemson starts fast, but the Sooners rally in the second half to win a tight, back-and-forth matchup.
Prediction: Oklahoma 38, Clemson 34
It’s a small part of every college football bowl game, but the field paintings or logos and end zone designs are usually tailored to the teams and bowl experience.
The Alamo Bowl is raising the bar for future bowl games, as the game unveiled unique and awesome end zone designs for TCU and Oregon on Tuesday.
Check out these unique designs for TCU and Oregon for Saturday’s Alamo Bowl matchup:
A heavyweight, physical battle is set to unfold in Arlington, Texas on Dec. 31, as Alabama and Michigan State meet in a playoff semifinal in the Cotton Bowl for a trip to the College Football National Championship. 60 minutes and a victory is all that separates the Spartans and Crimson Tide from a chance at the national title in Glendale, Ariz. on Jan. 11.
There are a lot of similarities in the path to the Cotton Bowl and the overall style of play between Alabama and Michigan State. The Crimson Tide had to overcome an early loss to Ole Miss in 2015, while the Spartans rebounded from a controversial defeat at Nebraska on Nov. 7 to win the Big Ten title over Iowa on Dec. 5. Both offenses are capable of spreading the field with their passing attack, but the basic approach for Michigan State and Alabama consists of leaning heavily on defense and running the ball. Additionally, there’s also the Nick Saban connection between these two programs. Saban worked as Michigan State’s head coach from 1995-99 and left East Lansing for LSU prior to the Citrus Bowl in 1999.
The disrespect card is used by many teams in bowl season, and there will be a chip on Michigan State’s shoulders on Thursday night. Even though both teams are 12-1 and claimed a title in two of the best conferences this season, Alabama is a double-digit favorite. The Spartans thrived as the underdog this year in a road trip to Ohio State, and coach Mark Dantonio can use the spread and lack of faith in Michigan State by experts as a way to motivate his team.
Alabama and Michigan State have only one previous meeting on the gridiron. The Crimson Tide defeated the Spartans 49-7 in the 2011 Capital One Bowl. These two teams were scheduled to play in 2016 and 2017 during the regular season, but the series was canceled in 2013 by Alabama due to the uncertainty of how many league games the SEC would play in future years.
Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Alabama
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -10
Three Things to Watch
1. Battle in the Trenches
Some of the nation’s best offensive and defensive linemen will be on the field in Thursday night’s game. Michigan State’s offensive line was picked in the preseason as one of the best in the nation. The Spartans were forced to shuffle this unit due to injuries to left tackle Jack Conklin, right tackle Kodi Kieler and center Jack Allen. Despite the injuries, Michigan State’s offensive line allowed only 17 sacks. On the other side of the ball, the Spartans boast a ferocious pass rush behind end Shilique Calhoun, and tackle Malik McDowell emerged as a star in the second half of the season. While Michigan State’s defensive line is one of the best in college football, Alabama’s should rank No. 1 on any list. The Crimson Tide limited opponents to just 74 rushing yards per game and registered 46 sacks. The strength of the defensive front rests with lineman A’Shawn Robinson, and there’s talent at the end spots coming in the form of Jonathan Allen (10 sacks) and Jarran Reed. On the offensive side of the ball, Alabama’s line had its share of ups and downs early but finished the year playing at a high level. Sophomore tackle Cam Robinson and senior Ryan Kelly are the headliners up front for coach Nick Saban. The battle between Michigan State’s offensive line versus Alabama’s defensive front should be an epic matchup between two of the nation’s best units. Can the Spartans protect quarterback Connor Cook and open up rushing lanes for running back LJ Scott? And when Michigan State is on defense, can the nation’s ninth-ranked run defense find a way to slow down Alabama running back Derrick Henry? Expect the battle in the trenches to have a huge role in the outcome of Thursday night’s game.
2. Michigan State QB Connor Cook
Even though Michigan State’s offensive line is one of the best in the nation, it seems unlikely the Spartans can simply line up and run the ball on Alabama’s front seven. Only one team (Georgia) managed more than 140 rushing yards against the Crimson Tide in 2015. Michigan State has three capable options at running back, starting with talented freshman LJ Scott (691 yards), but yardage could be tough to find. With tough sledding expected on the ground, the Spartans need a big performance from quarterback Connor Cook. The senior suffered a shoulder injury against Maryland and missed the following week’s matchup against Ohio State. The extra time to prepare should help Cook’s shoulder return to full strength. Avoiding long-yardage situations and getting rid of the ball quickly to avoid the pass rush are two critical areas to watch on Thursday night. Will the Spartans throw on early downs to stay out of third-and-long situations? Alabama’s secondary is loaded with promising talent, but good quarterbacks had success against this unit. Michigan State’s hopes of winning could come down to how well Cook plays, as the senior quarterback is the x-factor in the Cotton Bowl.
3. Alabama’s Passing Attack
Alabama should review Ohio State’s gameplan for its November matchup against Michigan State and quickly realize what not to do against this defense. The Spartans are stout in the trenches, limiting opponents to just 113.1 rushing yards per game. However, while it’s no secret the Crimson Tide’s offense flows through Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back, the junior has to get his share of touches, even if yardage and big-play opportunities are tough to come by in the first half. Could Alabama use a throw to run approach similar to the one Michigan State is expected to use? Quarterback Jake Coker played better over the second half of the season and tossed only one interception in his last five games. In addition to Coker’s improvement, Alabama’s passing attack received a boost from the emergence of freshman receiver Calvin Ridley (75 catches). Even though the Crimson Tide needs production from Henry, coordinator Lane Kiffin needs to spread the field and allow Coker to take advantage of opportunities in Michigan State’s secondary. The Spartans “No Fly Zone” wasn’t as dominant in 2015 as it was in previous seasons, giving up 19 plays of 30 yards or more and ranking 69th in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit will have reinforcements for the Cotton Bowl, as starting safety RJ Williamson is back after missing the last eight games due to injury. Henry will get his opportunities, but Kiffin would be wise to allow Coker to spread the field, hitting on easy throws to keep Alabama out of third-and-long situations. And it wouldn't be a surprise to see Coker and Ridley attempt to connect on a few deep shots in the first half. The Crimson Tide cannot afford to follow the same blueprint Ohio State used against Michigan State and fail to test the Spartans’ secondary downfield or feed Henry 25-30 times on Thursday night.
The first thing that stands out in the Michigan State-Alabama matchup is the similarities between these two teams. Both programs want to establish the run, win the battle at the line of scrimmage and lean on their defense. Expect the Spartans to load the box and stop running back Derrick Henry, forcing quarterback Jake Coker to win this game with his arm. When Michigan State has the ball, Alabama wants to force the Spartans to take to the air in third-and-long situations and not control the battle at the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide has an edge in overall talent, but the Spartans can use the underdog and no respect angle as motivation. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook makes several clutch throws to star receiver Aaron Burbridge to keep the Spartans in it, but Alabama has too much talent and its defense eventually puts the clamps on the Spartans in the second half to clinch a spot in the national championship.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Michigan State 20
The New Year’s Six bowl slate kicks off on Dec. 31 with an intriguing matchup between Florida State and Houston in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Seminoles and Cougars start a huge day for college football fans on Thursday, as playoff games in the Cotton Bowl and Orange Bowl begin later that afternoon.
First-year coach Tom Herman guided Houston to a 12-1 mark during the regular season and the nod as the top team from the Group of 5 conferences. Herman was one of the top hires last offseason and quickly showed why he is one of the rising stars in the coaching ranks. The Cougars improved their win total by four games from 2014 to 2015, defeated two Power 5 opponents in Louisville and Vanderbilt and claimed the American Athletic Conference title with a 24-13 victory over Temple. Herman’s background on offense was also showcased in 2015, as quarterback Greg Ward was a breakout star, and the Cougars averaged 40.6 points per game.
Florida State was expected to take a small step back in the win column after a significant amount of roster turnover after the 2014 season. The Seminoles had 11 players selected in the 2015 NFL Draft and returned only 10 starters from last year’s team. Despite the overall youth on both sides of the ball and uneven quarterback play at times, coach Jimbo Fisher guided Florida State to its fourth consecutive season of at least 10 wins. The Seminoles lost only two games in the regular season – a crazy, last-second defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech and a 23-13 loss at Clemson on Nov. 7. The future looks bright for Fisher’s team in 2016, and a win over Houston would only add to the hype of what could be another playoff run next season.
Florida State and Houston have met 16 previous times, with the Cougars owning a 12-2-2 series edge over the Seminoles. However, these two teams have not played since 1978.
Peach Bowl: Florida State vs. Houston (Atlanta, Ga.)
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 31 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Florida State -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Running back was one of the nation’s deepest positions for talent this season, and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook was an Athlon Sports first-team All-American after rushing for 1,658 yards and 18 scores in 11 games. Cook’s totals are even more impressive when you consider injuries to his hamstring and ankle forced him to miss one game and limited his workload in October. The sophomore is the catalyst for Florida State’s offense and Houston’s chances of knocking off the Seminoles revolve around its ability to keep Cook in check. The Cougars led the American Athletic Conference in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 116 rushing yards per game. Six Houston defenders earned all-conference honors this season, including linebackers Elandon Roberts (132 stops) and Steven Taylor (nine sacks) and defensive lineman B.J. Singleton (20 tackles). No team has finished a matchup against Houston this season averaging more than 3.9 yards per carry. The Cougars have been stingy on the ground all year, but Florida State’s young and improving offensive line, combined with the explosiveness and speed of running back Dalvin Cook will be their toughest assignment of the 2015 season.
2. Stopping Houston QB Greg Ward
Houston suffered its lone loss (UConn) of the 2015 season in the only game quarterback Greg Ward was unable to start due to injury. Ward showed signs of promise in 2014 but has thrived under Herman’s coaching this year. The junior completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 2,590 yards and 16 touchdowns and led the team with 1,041 rushing yards and 19 scores in the regular season. But Ward isn’t a one-man show on offense. The Cougars’ ground attack is anchored by running backs Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson, and receiver Demarcus Ayers (89 catches) is a big-play threat on the outside. How will Florida State defend Ward? Will the Seminoles keep a spy around the line of scrimmage to force Ward to stay in the pocket? Florida State’s defense showed marked improvement on the stat sheet this season, lowering its yards per play mark allowed from 5.5 in 2014 to 4.7 in 2015. A big reason for the improvement on defense was the development of the defensive line, which figures to be a handful against a Houston offensive line that experienced its share of injuries and allowed 26 sacks this season.
3. Standout Defensive Backs
The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl might feature one of the postseason’s best collections of talent in the defensive backfield. Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey is one of the nation’s best at his position, and the junior is joined by a standout freshman at safety (Derwin James) and an underrated cornerback (Marquez White) on the other side. Houston’s secondary ranked No. 68 nationally in pass efficiency defense this season, but the Cougars boast three all-conference selections. Safety Trevon Stewart recorded 72 tackles and two interceptions this season, while cornerback William Jackson III picked off three passes and broke up 21 throws in his direction. How will the standout defensive backs affect the passing attack for both teams? Florida State has connected on only 14 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season, but Sean Maguire has settled into the starting job over the final five games. Maguire has been careful with the ball (two picks on 145 attempts) and that play has to continue against an opportunistic Houston secondary (17 picks). When Maguire throws, expect Kermit Whitfield and Travis Rudolph to be the primary targets. Houston isn’t as deep as Florida State at receiver, and the Cougars need Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar to win one-on-one battles, especially if Demarcus Ayers is held in check by Ramsey or White.
This is a dangerous matchup for Florida State. Houston has nothing to lose in this game, and the pressure is on the Seminoles to avoid an upset loss. From a matchup standpoint, Florida State has several advantages. The Seminoles’ defensive front should create a few headaches for Houston’s offensive line, and the speed and athleticism on defense should help to contain quarterback Greg Ward. Florida State’s offensive line is young, but this unit has cleared rushing lanes for running back Dalvin Cook all season. The Cougars need to keep Cook in check and force the Seminoles to win this game with Maguire’s arm. Also, the turnover margin will be critical to monitor. Houston is one of the best in the nation at plus-17, while Florida State is plus-four. The edge in talent rests with the Seminoles, but the Cougars keep this one close deep into the fourth quarter. Cook and Maguire make just enough plays for Florida State to earn its 11th win of 2015 and build momentum for a promising 2016 campaign.
Prediction: Florida State 31, Houston 24
(Credit to @UHCougarFB/Stephen Pinchback for the top photo of QB Greg Ward)
College football 2015-16 bowl season has almost reached its halfway point. With 20 games in the books, 21 contests remain, including the New Year’s Six matchups and the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. The first portion of the bowl slate produced a handful of entertaining games, including the Miami Beach Bowl between WKU and South Florida, the Georgia Southern-Bowling Green meeting in the GoDaddy Bowl, and Virginia Tech sending coach Frank Beamer out a winner in a high-scoring affair versus Tulsa in the Independence Bowl. While the bowl season is off to an entertaining start, some of the nation’s top teams have yet to take the field, so the best of the postseason has yet to come.
With 21 bowl games left, Athlon Sports has updated its bowl picks for the remainder of the postseason. With injuries and transfers affecting a few teams, some of the predictions from the staff have changed since mid-December. Here’s an updated picks grid from the Athlon Sports staff for the remaining bowl matchups
Predictions for Dec. 29-Jan. 2 Bowl Games and National Title
Every college football season is a new opportunity for the freshmen players on 128 FBS teams to make a statement. While each year always produces a handful of freshmen standouts, it seems more first-year players are making an impact at a high level. 2015 is a good barometer for that statement, as three of the four College Football Playoff teams feature a freshman on the Athlon Sports first-team All-Freshman squad this season.
UCLA’s Josh Rosen headlines the first-team selections at quarterback, while running backs Mike Warren (Iowa State), Saquon Barkley (Penn State) and receivers Calvin Ridley (Alabama) and Christian Kirk (Texas A&M) round out some of the nation’s high-profile freshmen on offense. The defensive line and secondary positions are loaded with talent in the freshmen ranks, including Florida State safety Derwin James, Michigan defensive back Jabrill Peppers and Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Compiling the all-freshman team at the end of the regular season is no easy task. Several worthy players missed the cut, as we tried to combine stats, competition level talent and playing time to piece together the all-freshman teams for 2015.
2015 Awards and All-Conference Teams
College Football's 2015 Postseason All-Freshman Team
QB Brent Stockstill
QB DeShone Kizer
RB Myles Gaskin
RB Qadree Ollison
RB Joe Mixon
RB Ronald Jones III
WR Penny Hart
WR Deon Cain
WR Tre'Quan Smith
WR Eddie Daugherty
WR Courtland Sutton
WR Antonio Callaway
AP Britain Covey
AP Nyheim Hines
TE David Njoku
TE C.J. Conrad
OL Geron Christian
OL Blake Hance
OL Dalton Risner
OL Patrick Vahe
OL Michael Dieter
OL Will Noble
OL Martez Ivey
OL Trey Adams
OL Maea Teuhema
OL Chance Hall
DE Jaylon Ferguson
DE Josh Sweat
DE Sam Hubbard
DE CeCe Jefferson
DT Daylon Mack
DL JoJo Wicker
DT Hercules Mata'afa
DL Trenton Thompson
LB T.J. Edwards
LB Dedrick Young
LB Dakota Allen
LB Ty Summers
LB Darrin Kirkland
LB Troy Reeder
DB Iman Marshall
DB Carlton Davis
DB Kareem Orr
DB Adonis Alexander
DB Marlon Humphrey
DB Chris Westry
DB Kevin Toliver II
DB Darrien Molton
K Justin Yoon
K Clayton Hatfield
P Corey Fatony
P Jake Hartbarger
KR Michael Walker
KR KaVontae Turpin
PR Antonio Callaway
PR Britain Covey
The last of college football’s pre-Christmas bowl games kicks off on Thursday, Dec. 24, as Cincinnati and San Diego State make the trek to Honolulu for an intriguing matchup in the Hawaii Bowl. The Aztecs are making their sixth consecutive postseason appearance, which is more than the program had combined from 1969-2009. The Bearcats have been a frequent visitor to the postseason since 2000, earning 13 trips to bowl games in that span.
Cincinnati was picked as one of the frontrunners to win the American Athletic Conference this preseason, but the Bearcats stumbled to 7-5, snapping a streak of four consecutive seasons with at least nine wins. Turnovers were a huge problem for coach Tommy Tuberville’s team, as Cincinnati recorded a minus-16 margin in 12 games. The defense was a concern entering the year, and the Bearcats surrendered 5.8 yards per play and 30.3 points per game. Despite the problems on defense and in the turnover department, Cincinnati wasn’t far from winning a few of its biggest games this season. The Bearcats lost by eight to Temple, by seven to Memphis and by three to Houston.
With a win over Cincinnati on Dec. 24, San Diego State would tie a school record for the most victories in a season (11). The Aztecs started 1-3 but finished 2015 by winning nine consecutive games, including the Mountain West Championship over Air Force. The victory over the Falcons secured San Diego State’s first outright conference championship since 1986 and the program’s first double-digit win season since 1977.
San Diego State and Cincinnati have only one previous matchup in program history. The Bearcats defeated the Aztecs 52-23 in 2007. This is the first time either team has played in a postseason bowl game in Hawaii.
Hawaii Bowl: Cincinnati vs. San Diego State
Honolulu, Hawaii – Aloha Stadium
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: San Diego State -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. San Diego State RB Donnel Pumphrey
San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey might be one of the nation’s most underrated players. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound junior rushed for 1,554 yards and 16 scores this season and is the focal point for the Aztecs’ offense. Pumphrey also leads the team with 27 catches and tied for first among Mountain West running backs with four runs of 50 yards or more this year. The junior isn’t the only option at running back for this offense, as Chase Price (940 yards) and Rashaad Penny (351 yards) are capable of spelling Pumphrey when he needs a break. Also, fullback Dakota Gordon is a 5-foot-10 power blocker and a key cog in a rushing attack that also boasts two all-conference linemen in guard Nico Siragusa and tackle Pearce Slater. Establishing the run is critical for San Diego State, as this offense isn’t built to come from behind. The Aztecs average 48 rushing attempts per game, compared to just 19 pass attempts. Starting quarterback Maxwell Smith suffered an ACL tear against Nevada on Nov. 28 and did not play in the win over Air Force on Dec. 5. Smith is delaying surgery in an attempt to play in the bowl, but all signs point to freshman Christian Chapman (9 of 14, 203 yards against Air Force) making his second start. Smith’s injury only adds to the pressure on Pumphrey and the San Diego State ground attack. Stopping the run has been an issue for Cincinnati this season, as the Bearcats ranked ninth in the American Athletic Conference, surrendering 190.8 yards per game. Additionally, this defense gave up at least 200 yards on the ground in four of the last five games.
2. Cincinnati QB Hayden Moore
Cincinnati’s quarterback position has experienced its share of twists and turns in the 2015 season. Gunner Kiel opened the season as the starter, but Hayden Moore received more playing time after Kiel was injured against Memphis and finished the regular season with two starts. Kiel was the better quarterback in 2015, throwing for 2,777 yards and 19 touchdowns. However, Kiel won’t make the trip to due a personal matter, leaving Moore as Cincinnati’s starter on Thursday night. The freshman had his bright spots (4 TDs against Memphis) but also tossed eight picks on 195 attempts. Moore has a tough assignment against San Diego State’s 3-3-5 defense, which wreaked havoc on Mountain West quarterbacks in 2015. The Aztecs allowed only 4.68 yards per play, gave up 17.2 points per game, generated 33 sacks and forced 31 takeaways. The Bearcats have a deep receiving corps, but San Diego State’s secondary is anchored by the Mountain West’s Defensive Player of the Year Damontae Kazee and all-conference selection J.J. Whittaker. Can Moore avoid turnovers and connect on a few big plays against the stingy Aztec secondary?
San Diego State doesn’t have a huge margin for error in this game. The Aztecs should be able to establish the run against Cincinnati, but coach Rocky Long’s offense cannot afford to fall behind the chains or on the scoreboard. San Diego State’s passing game is not built to rally from a large deficit. On the other sideline, Cincinnati is capable of putting up points in a hurry. Of course, scoring points and establishing drives also depends on holding onto the ball. The Bearcats ranked No. 124 nationally with a minus-16 in turnover margin this season. San Diego State finished the regular season ranked first nationally in turnover margin, losing only 12 turnovers all year. If the turnover margin totals hold true on Thursday night, Cincinnati is going to have a tough time earning the victory over the Aztecs.
This is a classic matchup of a high-powered offense (Cincinnati) versus a stingy defense (San Diego State). Which style of play will establish control of this game early in the first half? If the Aztecs get the ground game on track, win the time of possession battle and force a few turnovers, coach Rocky Long’s team should earn its 11th win of the season. The Bearcats have the edge in offensive firepower and need to push the tempo early to get San Diego State out of its comfort zone. The Mountain West has lost its last eight trips to this bowl. That losing streak ends on Christmas Eve, as the Aztecs cap one of the best seasons in school history with a close victory over the Bearcats.
Prediction: San Diego State 27, Cincinnati 24
(Credit to SDSU athletic media relations for top photo of RB Donnel Pumphrey)
College football’s bowl season always seems to be a good spot for teams to unveil a new alternate helmet or uniform.
Duke is one of the first teams to unveil a new design for the postseason, as the Blue Devils will wear a white helmet and alternate logo for their matchup against Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl.
The alternate logo features a Blue Devil mascot and is a design from the 1966-69 seasons.
Check out Duke’s awesome alternate helmet for the Pinstripe Bowl:
The 2015 GoDaddy Bowl matchup between Bowling Green and Georgia Southern features contrasting, yet exciting styles of play and two teams looking to finish the season on a high note with an interim coach on the sidelines. Last year’s GoDaddy Bowl featured 107 points between Toledo and Arkansas State, and another high-scoring game should be anticipated on Wednesday night when the Falcons and Eagles meet in Mobile, Ala.
The Falcons used an explosive passing attack to finish the regular season with a 10-3 record, a MAC Championship and wins over Purdue and Maryland in non-conference action. However, coach Dino Babers left for Syracuse after the MAC title game, leaving defensive coordinator Brian Ward as the team’s interim coach. Ward is joining Babers’ staff at Syracuse following Wednesday night’s game. Texas Tech assistant Mike Jinks was tapped to replace Babers and will take over full-time control of the team following the GoDaddy Bowl.
Led by a prolific rushing attack, Georgia Southern has been on a fast track through the FBS ranks. Willie Fritz guided Georgia Southern to a 17-7 record over the last two seasons, but he accepted the head coaching job at Tulane in early December. Wednesday night’s appearance in the GoDaddy Bowl is the program’s first postseason contest at this level, and running backs coach Dell McGee will call the shots as the interim coach against the Falcons.
This is the first matchup between Georgia Southern and Bowling Green. The Falcons have made two previous appearances in the GoDaddy Bowl, including a 52-35 victory over Memphis in 2004.
GoDaddy Bowl: Georgia Southern (8-4) vs. Bowling Green (10-3)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Bowling Green -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Bowling Green’s Passing Attack
Even though Babers left for Syracuse, the Falcons won’t abandon their plan of attack on offense. Quarterback Matt Johnson is the catalyst behind a passing attack that ranks third nationally, averaging 376.1 yards per game through the air. Johnson threw for 43 scores and 4,700 yards this year and tossed only eight interceptions. The senior is surrounded by a deep group of skill players, including receivers Roger Lewis (82 catches), Gehrig Dieter, Ryan Burbrink and Ronnie Moore. Running back Travis Greene is a key piece of the passing attack (27 receptions), and the shifty and explosive senior rusher also has 1,220 rushing yards and 14 scores this season. Johnson is an effective distributor on short passes in this offense, but the Falcons aren’t afraid to take shots downfield. Bowling Green ranked fourth nationally by recording 47 plays of 30 or more yards. Can Georgia Southern’s pass defense find a way to contain Johnson and Bowling Green’s skill players? The Eagles allowed 19 passing touchdowns this season and 70th nationally in pass efficiency defense. In the regular season finale against Georgia State, Georgia Southern’s secondary surrendered 346 yards and three passing scores. With a pass rush that’s only generated 21 sacks in 2015, the Eagles’ defensive backfield may not have much help from its front four. Even if Georgia Southern gives up yardage to Johnson, it has to limit the big plays allowed. Simply, 10-yard completions can't become 50-yard touchdowns.
2. Georgia Southern’s Ground Game
The clear strength of Georgia Southern’s offense is its ground attack. Anchored by quarterback Kevin Ellison and running back Matt Breida, the Eagles average 355.6 rushing yards per game and 6.5 yards per carry. And to further illustrate how much this offense leans with its ground game, Georgia Southern averages 55 rushing plays per game, compared to just 11 passes. Fritz and his staff maintained the triple-option attack used under former coach Jeff Monken and implemented some spread-option principles over the last two seasons. Running back Matt Breida (1,540 yards and 16 scores) is the team’s leading rusher, but L.A. Ramsby (772 yards), Wesley Fields (607) and quarterbacks Kevin Ellison (642) and Favian Upshaw (384) also contribute to the ground game. Bowling Green ranked fifth in the MAC this season by limiting opponents to 161.6 yards per game. However, this unit won’t have nose tackle Mike Minns for this game, as the junior was suspended in December after an off-field incident. Considering the firepower on Bowling Green’s sideline, Georgia Southern’s best defense might be its offense and a ball-control approach. Breida and Ellison should have their share of success, but the Falcons want to force this offense into third-and-long situations.
3. Turnover Margin and Third-Down Conversions
It’s no secret what both teams want to do. Georgia Southern wants to utilize its ground attack, limit the possessions by Bowling Green’s offense and keep third downs in manageable short-yardage situations. Quarterback Kevin Ellison wasn’t prolific as a passer this season and completed only 44 percent of his throws. It’s critical for the Falcons to force Georgia Southern into third-and-long situations and make Ellison and his receivers win one-on-one battles downfield. Also, turnover margin is critical for both teams. With both offenses expected to have their way against the defenses, stealing a possession or two with a turnover could be enough for one team to swing this game in its favor. Bowling Green excelled on third downs this season, converting 51.02 percent of its attempts and ranked as one of the best nationally in turnover margin (+14). Georgia Southern was plus-four in turnover margin and connected on 40.24 percent of third-down attempts. Close games usually come down to one or two small areas in the stat sheet. Keep an eye on how both teams perform on third-down attempts and the yardage needed to convert. Additionally, the turnover margin is critical. The Falcons can’t afford to allow the Eagles several long-scoring drives, while the offense has to avoid three-and-out situations.
If you like offense and contrasting styles of play, then the GoDaddy Bowl matchup is a must-see matchup. While Bowling Green and Georgia Southern are opposite in terms of approach, both teams are effective in lighting up the scoreboard. The Falcons want to push the tempo, score quickly and keep Georgia Southern in third-and-long situations on offense. The keys to victory for the Eagles are simple – establish the run, keep Bowling Green’s explosive offense on the sidelines, limit the big plays of Johnson and his receivers, while staying out of third-and-long situations. Which style of play will win out? If Georgia Southern gets its ground game on track, wins the battle up front and in time of possession, it’s a bad sign for the Falcons. If Bowling Green jumps to an early lead and forces the Eagles out of their comfort zone, that’s a huge edge in the favor of the Falcons. The guess here is both teams have their moments controlling the tempo and land a few big plays on offense. The difference should be Johnson and the explosive Bowling Green receivers, as the Falcons take to the air to score the game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Bowling Green 38, Georgia Southern 34
(Credit to BGSU athletics for top photo of QB Matt Johnson)
The Miami Beach Bowl features two of the nation’s top Group of 5 programs from 2015, and this Dec. 21 matchup between South Florida and WKU should be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls this season. This game also features a reunion between South Florida coach Willie Taggart and his old program. Taggart was a quarterback at WKU from 1994-98 and later worked as the program’s head coach from 2010-12.
After a 6-18 record and a spot on the hot seat after his first two seasons at South Florida, Taggart rebounded with an 8-4 campaign in 2015 and clearly has the program trending in the right direction. The Bulls have ranked near the top of the American Athletic Conference in recruiting since Taggart arrived and return most of their core for 2016. With the young talent in place, combined with wins in seven out of their last eight games, South Florida could use the Miami Beach Bowl as a springboard to an even better 2016 campaign.
While Taggart established the foundation for WKU’s success at the FBS level, second-year coach Jeff Brohm has elevated the program and emerged as one of the rising stars in the Group of 5 ranks. Brohm is 19-7 in two seasons with the Hilltoppers and guided WKU to its first season of double-digit (11) wins on the FBS level. The Hilltoppers also faired well against Power 5 competition, scoring a victory over Vanderbilt in the season opener, while holding their own against Indiana and LSU.
South Florida and WKU have met only six times on the gridiron. The Bulls own a 4-2 series edge, with the last matchup between these two programs taking place in 2010.
Miami Beach Bowl: WKU (11-2) vs. South Florida (8-4)
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET (Miami, Fla.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: WKU -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. WKU QB Brandon Doughty
WKU’s offense was one of the best in college football this season, averaging 44.2 points a game and a robust 7.19 yards per play. The success of the offense starts with quarterback Brandon Doughty – an Athlon Sports third-team All-American for 2015. The senior passed for 45 touchdowns and 4,594 yards this season and led the nation by completing 71.8 percent of his passes. Not only is Doughty efficient and careful with the ball, he’s also capable of attacking defenses downfield and producing big plays. In 13 games this season, Doughty connected on 37 passing plays of 30 yards or more. And Doughty has plenty of help in his supporting cast, as receivers Jared Dangerfield, Antwane Grant, Taywan Taylor and Nicholas Norris each caught over 45 passes this season. WKU was held under 30 points only twice this season. Can the Hilltoppers continue their high-scoring ways against a talented and athletic South Florida defense? The Bulls limited opponents to 21.1 points per game this season, forced 23 turnovers and generated 32 sacks. This defense is opportunistic and does a good job of limiting big plays. Coordinator Tom Allen was an underrated addition for Taggart’s staff in the offseason, and his defense will have its hands full trying to slow Doughty and an explosive WKU offense.
2. South Florida’s Rushing Attack
South Florida’s best defense against WKU’s high-powered offense could be its ground attack and running back Marlon Mack. The sophomore has recorded back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and rushed for 1,273 yards and eight touchdowns in 11 games this year. Mack enters the Miami Beach Bowl with four consecutive 100-yard performances and at least 100 yards in seven out of his last eight games. But Mack isn’t a one-man show on the ground. Backup running backs Darius Tice (448 yards) and D’Ernest Johnson (290) have been effective in limited action, while quarterback Quinton Flowers has chipped in 883 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on 175 carries this season. WKU’s run defense ranked fourth in Conference USA, surrendering 156 yards per game and 4.23 yards per carry. Led by first-team All-Conference USA linebacker Nick Holt, the Hilltoppers held their last five opponents under 200 rushing yards. Will South Florida establish control of the line of scrimmage and utilize the run to keep WKU’s offense on the sidelines?
3. Style of Play and Tempo
These two teams aren’t drastically different in terms of pace of play, but the tempo and overall flow of the game will be critical on Monday afternoon. WKU wants to push the tempo, as Brohm’s team is averaging 72.3 plays a game. South Florida used more hurry-up or no-huddle approaches in Taggart’s third season, with the emergence of quarterback Quinton Flowers helping to ease the transition in scheme. However, Flowers isn’t just a threat on the ground, as the sophomore threw for 21 touchdowns and 2,017 yards this season. With the ability to control the clock and utilize the ground attack, South Florida can slow down the overall pace and keep WKU’s offense on the sidelines. However, the Hilltoppers want to do exactly the opposite. With Doughty and the talented skill players in place, Brohm wants his offense to go fast and jump on South Florida early, forcing the Bulls to abandon their ground game. Which team will control the overall pace of the game from the opening snap?
Last year’s Miami Beach Bowl between Memphis and BYU was an exciting back-and-forth matchup that also featured plenty of postgame fireworks. And in its second season, this bowl landed another intriguing matchup that should be one of the better postseason games outside of the New Year’s Six or playoff slate. South Florida ended the season on a tear and has a few advantages in its favor. The Bulls should be able to establish the run, limiting the overall possessions for Doughty and his receivers. Additionally, South Florida’s opportunistic defense could create headaches for Doughty and keep the Hilltoppers behind the chains and in third-and-long situations. However, with Doughty playing his last game at WKU, the Hilltoppers will be motivated to send their prolific senior quarterback out with a victory. This game should be high in entertainment value, and the guess here is WKU scores late to edge the Bulls in Miami.
Prediction: WKU 34, South Florida 31
The Cure Bowl in Orlando, Fla. is one of two bowls making its debut in college football’s 41-game postseason slate, and the inaugural matchup features two teams – Georgia State and San Jose State – hungry to end the season on a high note. The Panthers made a surprising run to bowl eligibility with four consecutive wins to close the regular season, while the Spartans at 5-7 were able to reach the postseason thanks to their high APR.
Georgia State’s bowl appearance and a 6-6 record in 2015 cap a quick rise to the FBS ranks for this program. The Panthers transitioned to the FBS level in 2013 and finished 1-23 in their first two years. However, coach Trent Miles inherited a massive rebuilding project and has steadily upgraded the team’s depth and overall talent level, allowing Georgia State to finish 6-6 and earn the program’s first bowl trip. San Jose State is making its first postseason trip since 2012, and this game is an opportunity for coach Ron Caragher to build momentum for a critical 2016 season. The Spartans are 14-22 under Caragher’s direction but improved from 3-9 in 2014 to 5-7 in 2015. Caragher’s team was just a few plays away from a winning record, as San Jose State lost by one to BYU and by three at Nevada.
This is the first meeting between Georgia State and San Jose State.
Cure Bowl: Georgia State (6-6) vs. San Jose State (5-7)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Jose State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Georgia State’s Passing Attack
Georgia State quarterback Nick Arbuckle was underrated on the national scene, but the senior earned first-team All-Sun Belt honors and was named the conference’s student-athlete of the year. In 12 games this season, Arbuckle threw for 4,160 yards and 26 touchdowns and tossed only 11 picks on 457 pass attempts. The senior also has plenty of help at his disposal. Four players caught more than 35 passes, including freshman standout Penny Hart (70 catches), Robert Davis (60) and tight end Keith Rucker (13.4 ypc). The Panthers average only 103.1 rushing yards per game but showed better balance in the second half of the season. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski won’t be afraid to put the ball in the air, as Arbuckle has averaged 38 pass attempts a game this season and has eclipsed 300 or more yards in seven consecutive games. San Jose State’s secondary was projected to be one of the better groups in the Mountain West this season and ranked 38th nationally in pass efficiency defense. No opponent threw for more than 293 yards against this defense, with Jimmy Pruitt and Cleveland Wallace III anchoring the corner positions. Will Arbuckle pick up where he left off at the end of the regular season? San Jose State isn’t adept at getting to the quarterback (13 sacks in 2015), so there’s a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks to hold their coverage against a deadly passing attack.
2. San Jose State RB Tyler Ervin
Ervin was one of the nation’s top all-purpose threats this season, averaging 200.8 total yards per game. The senior did most of his damage on the ground (1,469 yards) but was second on the team with 44 catches and averaged 23.9 yards per kickoff return. Can Georgia State find a way to slow down Ervin? The Panthers ranked fourth in the Sun Belt against the run, allowing 179.8 yards per game. This unit played better in the second half of the season and limited Georgia Southern (No. 1 nationally in rush offense) to 135 rushing yards in the season finale. Linebacker Joseph Peterson anchors the front seven for coordinator Jesse Minter and was active around the line of scrimmage (106 tackles and 7.5 tackles for a loss). Keep an eye on the 100-yard mark. In five out of San Jose State’s seven losses, Ervin was held under 100 yards and did not reach 100 yards in three out of the last four games.
3. San Jose State QB Kenny Potter
San Jose State quarterback Kenny Potter didn’t garner the postseason recognition that Arbuckle accumulated, but the junior college transfer was solid in his first year on campus. Potter threw for 1,895 yards and 14 touchdowns and finished the season with 346 rushing yards and six scores. Additionally, the junior ended the regular season with back-to-back 300-yard passing games. The San Jose State passing attack suffered a setback with receiver Tyler Winston suffering a season-ending injury in late October. Tight end Billy Freeman (47 catches) has been Potter’s go-to weapon, but receivers Hansell Wilson and Tim Crawley will test a Georgia State secondary that allowed 18 passing scores in the regular season. Avoiding turnovers will be critical for Potter after San Jose State finished with a minus-five ratio. The Panthers played better on defense in the second half of the year and only allowed 10 plays of 40 yards or more after giving up 18 in 2014. The extra practice time should be beneficial to Potter, but the Spartans also need a mistake-free game in a contest that’s expected to be close.
This is a tough game to get a read on. Both teams average around 30 points a game and feature talented weapons on offense, so a low-scoring contest would be a surprise. Georgia State ended the year playing at its highest level of the season and the short layoff shouldn’t do too much to slow coach Trent Miles’ team. San Jose State’s balance on offense will be tough for the Panthers to contain, especially if running back Tyler Ervin gets on track in the first half. The good folks in Vegas like San Jose State as a slight favorite, but the guess here is Georgia State’s offense finds just enough room against the Spartans’ secondary to notch the wining score late in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia State 34, San Jose State 31
College football’s regular season concluded with Navy’s win over Army on Dec. 12, leaving 41 postseason games as all that’s left of the 2015 campaign. This year produced plenty of memorable endings and clutch performances, including Miami’s return for a game-winning score against Duke, Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal for a touchdown to beat Florida State, Michigan State’s fumble return as time expired to beat Notre Dame, and Arkansas’ fourth-and-25 conversion against Ole Miss.
While the bowl season is just days away, it’s time to take a look back at the regular season and a small peek at what’s ahead in 2016.
Athlon Sports concludes its slate of regular season honors with the 2015 national awards, as well as a look ahead at some of the rising stars, top coordinator hires, best freshmen and programs to watch in 2016:
2015 Awards and All-Conference Teams
College Football’s 2015 National Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Henry was the catalyst behind Alabama’s offense in 2015, rushing for 1,986 yards and 23 scores in 13 regular season games. The junior recorded at least 200 yards in four out of his final seven matchups, including 271 in a 29-13 victory over rival Auburn. Henry averaged a healthy 5.86 yards per carry and led the SEC with nine rushing plays of 30 yards or more.
2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
4. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
5. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
It’s a close call between Smith and Nassib for the defensive player of the year honor. The edge goes to Smith, as the junior recorded 113 tackles (nine for a loss), one sack, five pass breakups and one forced fumble. In addition to his lightning-quick athletic ability, Smith is instinctive and disruptive at the line of scrimmage.
2. Carl Nassib, DE, Penn State
3. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
4. Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
5. Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
National Coach of the Year: Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Kirk Ferentz version 3.0 was a huge hit in Iowa City. After a 19-19 record from 2012-14, Ferentz made a few tweaks and rallied the Hawkeyes to a 12-1 record and a Big Ten West Division title in 2015. Ferentz didn’t drastically alter his approach or make huge changes, but inserting C.J. Beathard as the full-time quarterback and being more aggressive with on-field calls were two changes that paid big dividends for Iowa. As a result, the Hawkeyes finished No. 5 in the final College Football Playoff rankings and are making their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1991.
2. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
3. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
4. Tom Herman, Houston
5. Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Coordinator of the Year: Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma
Riley was the perfect hire for an Oklahoma offense looking for a spark and a return to an Air Raid-style of attack. After a successful stint at East Carolina, Riley was hired by Bob Stoops after the 2014 season and guided the Sooners to an average of 47.2 points in Big 12-only matchups in 2015. Oklahoma averaged 6.95 yards per play and led the conference with nine plays of 60 yards or more.
2. Gene Chizik, Defensive Coordinator, North Carolina
3. Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
4. Don Brown, Defensive Coordinator, Boston College
5. Brent Venables, Defensive Coordinator, Clemson
Best All-Around in 2015: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey was the nation’s best all-purpose player in 2015. The sophomore led the Pac-12 with 1,847 rushing yards and recorded eight scores and caught 41 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns. McCaffrey showcased his big-play ability on special teams, averaging 28.9 yards per kickoff return and completed two of three pass attempts for 39 yards and two touchdowns this season. McCaffrey's 3,496 all-purpose yards set a new FBS single-season record.
2. Jabrill Peppers, DB/AP, Michigan
3. Adoree’ Jackson, DB/WR, USC
4. Charles Nelson, DB/WR, Oregon
5. Tanner McEvoy, DB/WR, Wisconsin
Best Freshman in 2015: Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
Not only was Peppers a standout performer for Michigan’s defense, but the redshirt freshman also emerged as an all-purpose threat by the end of the season. Peppers recorded 45 tackles (5.5 for a loss) and finished second on the team with 10 pass breakups. He also accumulated 417 return yards, eight receptions for 79 yards and 72 rush yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. Peppers will be an even bigger part of the gameplan for coach Jim Harbaugh in 2016.
2. Malik Jefferson, LB, Texas
3. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
4. Mitch Hyatt, OT, Clemson
5. Jordan Whitehead, S, Pittsburgh
6. Derwin James, S, Florida State
7. Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
8. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Best New Coach Hire for 2015: Tom Herman, Houston
Houston’s H-Town takeover is just beginning under Herman’s watch. The Cougars finished 12-1 with an American Athletic Conference title and earned the Group of 5 spot in the New Year’s Six bowl pairings. Additionally, Herman is putting the finishing touches on an outstanding recruiting class. Houston is a program on the rise and a team that should receive plenty of consideration to start 2016 in the preseason top 25.
2. Jim Harbaugh, Michigan
3. Jim McElwain, Florida
4. Pat Narduzzi, Pittsburgh
5. Philip Montgomery, Tulsa
Best Coordinator Hire for 2015: Gene Chizik, Defensive Coordinator, North Carolina
Since Oklahoma's Lincoln Riley is our coordinator of the year, let's spread the wealth and give this honor to Chizik. The former Auburn head coach brought immediate improvement to a defense that ranked near the bottom of the ACC in points and yards per play allowed in 2014. The Tar Heels limited opponents to just 22.6 points a contest and 5.3 yards per play this season. Additionally, this defense surrendered only 23 plays of 30 yards or more after giving up 41 in 2014.
2. Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, Oklahoma
3. Barry Odom, Defensive Coordinator, Missouri
4. Dan Enos, Offensive Coordinator, Arkansas
5. Geoff Collins, Defensive Coordinator, Florida
6. John Chavis, Defensive Coordinator, Texas A&M
7. Kendal Briles, Offensive Coordinator, Baylor
8. Alex Grinch, Defensive Coordinator, Washington State
9. Tom Allen, Defensive Coordinator, USF
10. Jeff Scott/Tony Elliott, Co-Offensive Coordinators, Clemson
Five Coaches on the Rise
1. Tom Herman, Houston
Herman was one of the nation’s best assistant coaches during his tenure at Ohio State (2012-14) and is arguably the top coach in the Group of 5 ranks after just one season at Houston. The Cougars went 12-1 in 2015 and claimed the American Athletic Conference title and a trip to the Peach Bowl.
2. Matt Rhule, Temple
Rhule generated plenty of interest from Power 5 programs this offseason, but the former Penn State linebacker will return to Temple in 2016. The Owls have won 18 games over the last three seasons, including a 10-3 mark in 2015 with an American Athletic Conference East Division title.
3. Willie Fritz, Tulane
Tulane’s hire of Willie Fritz is one of the best coaching moves of the 2015-16 carousel. Fritz has a track record of success, including a 40-15 record at Sam Houston State and a 17-7 mark at Georgia Southern.
4. Jeff Brohm, WKU
Brohm is one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Group of 5 ranks and led WKU to its best record (11-2 in 2015) since joining the FBS level. The Hilltoppers claimed the Conference USA title this season and ranked fourth nationally in scoring offense (44.2 ppg).
5. P.J. Fleck, Western Michigan
Fleck has guided Western Michigan to a 15-10 mark over the last two seasons and back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history.
Five Players on the Rise for 2016
1. Derwin James, S, Florida State
James saw an increased role as the season progressed for Florida State’s defense and should be one of the top defensive backs in the ACC next season. In 12 games as a true freshman, James recorded 77 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.
2. Sam Hubbard, DE, Ohio State
With Joey Bosa expected to leave for the NFL, the Buckeyes will be looking to reload on the edges. Hubbard recorded 5.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss in his redshirt freshman campaign.
3. LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State
The Spartans won’t have Connor Cook at quarterback next season, but the rushing attack is capable of carrying the offense for coach Mark Dantonio. Scott led the team with 691 yards and 11 touchdowns as a true freshman this season and scored the pivotal touchdown against Iowa to give Michigan State the Big Ten Championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff.
4. Ronald Jones II, RB, USC
Talented true freshman led USC with 940 yards and eight rushing touchdowns in 2015. New coach Clay Helton wants to utilize the ground game more next season. Jones should benefit from Helton's tweaks on offense with a 1,000-yard season.
5. Blake Barnett, QB, Alabama
Barnett will have to win the job, but all signs point to this redshirt freshman as the next star for coach Nick Saban.
Three Programs on the Rise for 2016
Coach Chris Petersen has the Huskies trending up in 2016, as the offense should take a step forward with the sophomore duo of quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin. The defense returns largely intact after holding opponents to just 17.8 points per game in 2015.
The Wolverines have to play Ohio State and Michigan State on the road, but coach Jim Harbaugh’s team can challenge for the Big Ten East title and a New Year’s Six bowl if it can find a quarterback.
The Hurricanes upgraded with the hire of Mark Richt, and the former Georgia coach will have an opportunity to work with quarterback Brad Kaaya in 2016. The defense needs work, but there’s enough talent for Miami to take a step forward in Richt’s first season.
With the completion of college football’s regular season, it’s time to take a look back and honor the best of the best and top performers from 2015. Whether it was on offense, defense or special teams, there was no shortage of clutch performances by players at every position.
The bowl season kicks off on Dec. 19 and continues until the national championship on Jan. 11 in Glendale, Ariz. While the teams are preparing for their final contests of the season, it’s time to unveil Athlon Sports’ first-, second- and third-team All-Americans.
As usual, it’s never easy assembling three All-America teams. There are plenty of standout performers that won’t make the cut, but we tried to blend talent, production and consistency to form the top three teams.
2015 Conference Awards
Athlon Sports 2015 All-America Team
QB Baker Mayfield
QB Brandon Doughty
RB Leonard Fournette
RB Royce Freeman
RB Ezekiel Elliott
RB Alex Collins
AP Tyler Ervin
San Jose State
AP Jaylen Samuels
WR Will Fuller
WR Laquon Treadwell
WR JuJu Smith-Schuster
WR Sterling Shepard
TE Jake Butt
TE Jordan Leggett
C Jack Allen
C Austin Blythe
OG Sebastian Tretola
OG Jordan Walsh
OG Dan Feeney
OG Pat Elflein
OT Ronnie Stanley
OT Vadal Alexander
OT Taylor Decker
OT Kyle Murphy
DE Shaq Lawson
DE Emmanuel Ogbah
DE DeForest Buckner
DE Myles Garrett
DT Sheldon Day
DT Robert Nkemdiche
DT Kenny Clark
DT Jon Bullard
LB Tyler Matakevich
LB Gionni Paul
LB Joe Schobert
LB Eric Striker
LB Su'a Cravens
LB Anthony Walker
CB Jourdan Lewis
CB Vernon Hargreaves III
CB Mackensie Alexander
CB Zack Sanchez
S Quin Blanding
CB Shawun Lurry
S Jayron Kearse
S Trae Elston
K Jake Elliott
K Daniel Carlson
P Drew Kaser
P Hayden Hunt
KR Evan Berry
KR Jakeem Grant
PR William Likely
PR Cameron Sutton
The Pac-12 won’t have a team in the College Football Playoff, but this league is the deepest in the nation, featuring 10 teams with a .500 record or better. Four teams from the Pac-12 finished in the top 25 of the playoff committee rankings, with Stanford the highest at No. 6, followed by Oregon at No. 15.
Stanford claimed the conference title with a victory over USC, giving the Cardinal at least 11 wins in four out of coach David Shaw’s five seasons. Oregon started 3-3 after an injury limited quarterback Vernon Adams in the first half of the year. However, the Ducks finished fast and ended the regular season with six consecutive victories. The North Division also featured two improving teams – Washington State and California – and a team on the rise in Washington. The South Division featured a crowded race at the top, but the Trojans claimed the division title after a win over UCLA on Nov. 28. Utah recorded with its best mark in conference play (6-3) since joining the Pac-12, while UCLA finished 8-4 behind true freshman quarterback Josh Rosen.
With the regular season completed and bowl season starting on Dec. 19, it’s time to recap and look back at the 2015 campaign. Athlon Sports offers its awards and honors the best players in the league with the first and second all-conference teams for the Pac-12:
Pac-12 2015 Season Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
McCaffrey was the nation’s best all-purpose player in 2015. The sophomore led the Pac-12 with 1,847 rushing yards and recorded eight scores and caught 41 passes for 540 yards and four touchdowns. McCaffrey showcased his big-play ability on special teams, averaging 28.9 yards per kickoff return and completed two of three pass attempts for 39 yards and two touchdowns this season. McCaffrey's 3,496 all-purpose yards set a new FBS single-season record.
Runner Up: Luke Falk, QB, Washington State/Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon
Defensive Player of the Year: DeForest Buckner, DL, Oregon
It’s a close call between Buckner and Utah linebacker Gionni Paul for the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. The edge goes to Buckner, as the senior dominated the line of scrimmage for the Ducks this season. Buckner recorded 9.5 sacks (second in the Pac-12), 16 tackles for a loss and 76 overall stops.
Runner Up: Gionni Paul, LB, Utah
Coach of the Year: Mike Leach, Washington State
Leach is the easy pick for coach of the year honors after Washington State made a five-game improvement in the win column this season. The Cougars finished 3-9 last year but made significant progress behind new quarterback Luke Falk and an improved defense under new first-year coordinator Alex Grinch. Leach guided the program to road wins at UCLA, Oregon and Arizona and fell just short of an upset (30-28) against Stanford.
Runner Up: David Shaw, Stanford
Freshman of the Year (Offensive): Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
UCLA’s offense has a promising outlook for the future with Rosen at the helm. The true freshman started all 12 games, threw for 3,350 yards and 20 touchdowns and averaged 279.2 yards per game. Rosen tossed only two picks over the last six games and passed for 399 yards in UCLA 40-24 victory over California on Oct. 22.
Runner Up: Myles Gaskin, RB, Washington
Freshman of the Year (Defensive): Cameron Smith, LB, USC
Smith was a standout performer for coach Clay Helton in 2015, and the true freshman is a building block for USC’s defense in 2016. Despite a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 13 against Colorado, the California native tied Su’a Cravens for the team lead in tackles (78) and registered three pass breakups and one sack. Smith turned in one of the top individual performances on defense for the Trojans in 2015, intercepting three passes and returning one for a touchdown against Utah on Oct. 24.
Runner Up: Kareem Orr, CB, Arizona State
Coordinator of the Year: Pete Kwiatkowski, Defensive Coordinator, Washington
Kwiatkowski is one of the Pac-12’s underrated coaches, as he’s developed one of the league’s top defenses in just two seasons in Seattle. The Huskies led the Pac-12 by limiting opponents to just 4.86 yards per play and 17.8 points per game in 2015. Washington’s defense improved in both statistical categories despite losing three standouts – Shaq Thompson, Danny Shelton and Hau’oli Kikaha – off last year’s group. Under Kwiatkowski’s direction, the Huskies have developed the top secondary in the Pac-12, as this unit allowed only nine passing scores all season.
Runner Up: Mike Bloomgren, OC, Stanford
Newcomer of the Year: Vernon Adams, QB, Oregon
Oregon’s 2015 season might have looked a little different if Adams managed to stay healthy all season. The Eastern Washington transfer was a dynamic addition to the Ducks’ high-powered attack, throwing for 2,446 yards and 25 touchdowns. The senior has a knack for producing big plays and connected on 20 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season. A finger injury limited Adams early in the year, but he returned at full strength by mid-October and guided Oregon’s offense to an average of 48.6 points per game over the final five contests.
Runner Up: Matt Hegarty, C, Oregon/Shalom Luani, DB, Washington State
Breakout Player: Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Falk’s four-game audition for the starting job at the end of the 2014 season showed the former walk-on was capable of handling the controls of Washington State’s high-powered offense. It’s probably safe to say Falk exceeded most of those preseason expectations, as he earned first-team Athlon Sports All-Pac-12 honors at quarterback and threw for 4,266 yards and 36 touchdowns. Falk’s emergence is a big reason why Washington State improved its win total by five games from 2014 to 2015.
Runner Up: Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
Pac-12 2015 Postseason All-Conference Team
QB Jared Goff
RB Paul Perkins
RB Myles Gaskin
AP Charles Nelson
WR Jordan Payton
WR Nelson Spruce
TE Thomas Duarte
C Josh Mitchell
OG Isaac Seumalo
OG Isaac Asiata
OT Conor McDermott
OT J.J. Dielman
DL Antwaun Woods
DL Aziz Shittu
DL Darryl Paulo
DL Destiny Vaeao
LB Salamo Fiso
LB Jared Norris
LB Travis Feeney
CB Chidobe Awuzie
CB Ronnie Harris
S William Parks
S Randall Goforth
K Andy Phillips
P Drew Riggleman
KR Tim White
PR Dante Pettis