Articles By Steven Lassan
College football’s 2015 season is still several months away. However, it’s never too early to take an early look at how the rankings for next season may look when the preseason polls and predictions are released.
Considering all that usually transpires in a college football offseason, this ranking of top 25 teams will change several times until kickoff next year. Whether it’s unexpected personnel changes or breakout players that emerge in the spring, it’s unlikely this top 25 ranking looks exactly the same in a month, three months or by next August.
With that in mind, here’s Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams for 2015.
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2015
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have a quarterback quandary to answer in 2015, but it’s a good problem for coach Urban Meyer to have. Will it be Braxton Miller under center after returning to full strength from shoulder surgery? Or will J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones fight for the starting job in offseason workouts? Regardless of which player takes the first snap, Ohio State’s depth chart is loaded with talent. Running back Ezekiel Elliott headlines a solid group of playmakers, and the offensive line is slated to return four starters, including standout left tackle Taylor Decker. End Joey Bosa should be among the nation’s best returning defenders next season, but defensive tackle Michael Bennett and cornerback Doran Grant must be replaced. A lot can change between now and September. However, at least on paper, there’s few potential roadblocks on Ohio State’s schedule in 2015.
Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide aren’t going to slip far in the rankings next year despite a few personnel losses. Receiver Amari Cooper is expected to depart for the NFL, and quarterback Blake Sims must be replaced, but Alabama is loaded with talent and the defense can carry this team to a SEC Championship. Florida State transfer Jake Coker could open spring practice as the favorite to replace Sims, and coordinator Lane Kiffin has to find some new pieces around the quarterback. Kiffin should be able to build around left tackle Cam Robinson and running back Derrick Henry next season, while the team can lean on a defense that should be the best in the SEC once again. There are personnel concerns with this team, and Alabama’s schedule will be challenging, as road trips to Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn won’t be easy.
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3. Florida State
Florida State’s preseason ranking and projection will largely be determined on how many and which players decide to leave for the NFL. If quarterback Jameis Winston (as expected) declares for the draft, the Seminoles will slide in this ranking by a couple of spots. But Winston isn’t the only early player that could leave Tallahassee early, as defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could all declare for the next level. Replacing Winston will be the biggest offseason storyline for coach Jimbo Fisher, with Sean Maguire considered the favorite to take the first snap in the spring. In addition to Winston’s departure, the Seminoles lose four starters on the offensive line and must replace standout receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. Despite the personnel losses, Florida State is still loaded with young talent and has one of the nation’s top coaches in Jimbo Fisher.
The Horned Frogs were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014. In 2015, TCU could be one of the preseason favorites to make the four-team playoff. What a difference a year makes. Coach Gary Patterson’s decision to hire Doug Meacham as the team’s play-caller paid huge dividends in 2014, as quarterback Trevone Boykin emerged as a Heisman candidate. Boykin could be even better in 2015 with another year to learn under Meacham, and the offense returns nearly all of its main contributors at the skill positions. Patterson will have some holes to address on defense, starting in the trenches with the departure of tackle Chucky Hunter and linebacker Paul Dawson and in the secondary with standout safety Sam Carter. TCU plays at Minnesota in the season opener but has a favorable schedule until the end of the year with back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Baylor.
Much like Florida State, Oregon’s preseason ranking and 2015 projection is cloudy until more is known about the future of quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner is expected to declare for the NFL, but if he returns, the Ducks could be ranked higher on this list. Even if Mariota declares, Oregon is still expected to be the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 North. The offense is loaded with skill talent, including running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, while the receiving corps returns Byron Marshall, Devon Allen and Charles Nelson. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, including standouts center Hroniss Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum will have holes to fill on each level, but the front seven could be the biggest concern if DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead leave for the NFL. Oregon has a challenging road slate in 2015, including trips to Michigan State, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington.
The Bears have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons and will be picked near the top of the Big 12 once again in 2015. Quarterback Bryce Petty departs, but the depth chart is stocked with talented arms, with Seth Russell holding an edge to take the first snap in spring practice. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Bears might have the Big 12’s top collection of skill talent in 2015. Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson are back at running back, and the receiving corps features weapons like Corey Coleman, KD Cannon and Jay Lee. And assuming left tackle Spencer Drango returns to Waco for his senior season, the Bears will have all five starters back on the offensive line. The defense has improved under the direction of coordinator Phil Bennett, and the Bears return a good chunk of talent for 2015. End Shawn Oakman could enter the NFL Draft, but defensive tackle Andrew Billings, linebacker Taylor Young and cornerback Xavien Howard are three All-Big 12 talents returning in 2015.
7. Michigan State
Under coach Mark Dantonio’s watch, the Spartans have won at least 10 games in four out of the last five seasons. And while Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten next year, Michigan State should be in contention for a spot in one of college football’s premier bowl games. Quarterback Connor Cook has already announced he will return to East Lansing for 2015, and the steady passer will be working with a new starter at running back and No. 1 receiver next year. The Spartans could lose defensive standouts Trae Waynes and end Shilique Calhoun to the NFL, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi is leaving East Lansing to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Narduzzi won't be easy to replace, but Dantonio has a good staff and should find the right answers to keep Michigan State's defense among the nation's best.
Even with quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates departing, Auburn’s offense is going to be just fine with Jeremy Johnson at the controls. In two seasons, Johnson is 57 of 78 for 858 yards and nine passing scores. In addition to the departure of Marshall, Artis-Payne and Coates, the Tigers have to replace center Reese Dismukes and guard Chad Slade. Coach Gus Malzahn hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp to fix the defense, and there’s hope for immediate improvement with a good chunk of the depth chart returning. End Carl Lawson missed all of 2014 due to a knee injury, and his return should help spark a pass rush that ranked near the bottom of the SEC. The Tigers open with a neutral site (Atlanta) game against Louisville and catch Georgia and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2015.
The Tigers will finish 2014 without a double-digit win total for the first time since 2009. However, the future is bright in Baton Rouge with a depth chart loaded with young talent. Running back Leonard Fournette should push for 1,000 yards in his second year on campus next season, and the rushing attack will have to carry the team once again. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will be expected to compete for the starting quarterback job again in the spring, and the receiving corps should improve with the development of young receivers like Travin Dural, Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse. The offensive line may have a facelift in the offseason, especially if Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins declare for the NFL. As usual, the defense should be strong for coach Les Miles. The Tigers could lose a couple of defenders early to the NFL, but rising stars like tackle Davon Godchaux, sophomore Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams will keep this unit among the best in the SEC.
Coach Steve Sarkisian’s first season had its share of ups and downs, but USC could be the favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2014. Quarterback Cody Kessler is expected to return for his senior year, and the California native should benefit from an offensive line that returns all five starters from the bowl game and the continued development of young receivers JuJu Smith, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Top receiver Nelson Agholor may leave early for the NFL, but if he returns for his senior season, Agholor would be one of the top receivers in the nation in 2015. Coordinator Justin Wilcox is expected to lose end Leonard Williams to the NFL, while linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Gerald Bowman and linebacker/end J.R. Tavai expire their eligibility after the Holiday Bowl. Another positive for USC in 2015 is the full allotment of scholarships to use in recruiting after being shorthanded due to NCAA sanctions in recent years.
With Florida dealing with a coaching transition and South Carolina having question marks on both sides of the ball, Georgia and Missouri should enter the spring as the favorites in the SEC East. The Bulldogs have their share of holes to fill, starting on offense where quarterback Hutson Mason, receiver Michael Bennett and center David Andrews will expire their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. Replacing a starting quarterback is never easy, and coach Mark Richt will be working with a new coordinator after Mike Bobo left for Colorado State. Running back Nick Chubb will be one of the best in the SEC next season. Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an impact in his first season as the defensive signal-caller in Athens, as Georgia lowered its yards per play allowed to 4.8 after giving up 5.4 in 2013. Pruitt should continue to mold the Bulldogs’ defense into one of the best in SEC next season but standout linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera must be replaced. The secondary was considered the biggest weakness for Georgia this year and should show improvement in 2015 with only one player expected to depart (Damian Swann) from the Belk Bowl two-deep. The Bulldogs play Auburn and Alabama in crossover games with the SEC West next season.
12. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are coming off their first double-digit win season since 1999, and coach Dan Mullen has this program trending up after spending time at No. 1 in 2014. Quarterback Dak Prescott is considering the NFL Draft, but if he returns to Starkville, the senior should be one of the nation’s top returning signal-callers in 2015. Prescott isn’t the only Bulldog pondering a jump to the next level, as running back Josh Robinson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney may also leave for the NFL. In addition to the early entries to the NFL, Mississippi State will have to replace receiver Jameon Lewis, three starters on the offensive line and six starters on defense.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels are coming off their first season of double-digit victories since 1999. And the arrow on coach Hugh Freeze’s team is pointing up, as this team has the pieces in place to finish among the top 10-15 nationally in 2015. Bo Wallace must be replaced at quarterback, but the new starter will benefit from the return at Laquon Treadwell at receiver. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is one of the best in the nation and is part of an offensive line that returns all five starters from the Peach Bowl depth chart. With the uncertainty at quarterback, the defense will have to carry Ole Miss – at least early on – in 2015. This unit allowed only 13.8 points per game in 12 regular season contests and should have one of the nation’s top defensive lines. However, there’s concern in the secondary with the departure of cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt.
14. Arizona State
With only eight returning starters in 2014, the Sun Devils were considered by some to be in rebuild mode. However, Arizona State finished 9-3 and came within a victory of playing for the conference title. Coach Todd Graham’s team will have some personnel losses to address with receiver Jaelen Strong leaving for the NFL, and Taylor Kelly expiring his eligibility. But the cupboard isn’t empty on either side of the ball. Mike Bercovici should be a solid replacement for Kelly at quarterback, three starters are back on the offensive line, and running back D.J. Foster is one of the nation’s top all-purpose players. Graham’s specialty is on defense, and this unit used an aggressive pass rush to rank near the top of the nation in tackles for loss and sacks. The defense returns nearly intact in 2015, with safety Damarious Randall and end Marcus Hardison the biggest losses for Graham to replace.
The defending Pac-12 South champions will be among the favorites to win the conference in 2015. Quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are only going to improve in their second season as starters, and the receiving corps is stocked with playmakers in Samajie Grant, DaVonte’ Neal and Cayleb Jones. The offensive line will be revamped with three new starters in 2015. Arizona’s defense has showed progress under coordinator Jeff Casteel, but there’s a few personnel concerns next season. Linebacker Scooby Wright will be a first-team All-America selection in 2015, but he will have to shoulder even more of the defensive spotlight with defensive backs Jourdon Grandon and Jared Tevis and linemen Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl. The talent level is on the rise in Tucson, and Rodriguez is clearly one of the best in the conference. Another double-digit win season is a strong possibility.
The Sooners were considered by most to be one of the biggest disappointments in college football this year. And after finishing the regular season at 8-4, coach Bob Stoops’ team will start 2015 lower in most preseason polls. Oklahoma will be a tough team to rank next season, as there’s reason to believe this team will rebound – and also plenty of room to doubt this squad. Quarterback Trevor Knight is expected to be pushed by Baker Mayfield for playing time in spring practice, but the strength of the offense resides in the backfield with Alex Ross, Samaje Perine and Keith Ford (and potentially Joe Mixon). Top receiver Sterling Shepard also returns, and pass targets could get deeper for the quarterback if Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham decides to eschew the NFL Draft. There’s talent at the skill positions, but the offense could be hampered by a line that loses four starters. The Sooners return a solid core on defense and will be helped by the return of linebacker Frank Shannon.
There’s an interesting contrast of personnel returning to Clemson in 2015. The Tigers are stocked with promising young talent on offense, but the defense is losing several key pieces. Quarterback Deshaun Watson decided to sit out the Russell Athletic Bowl and undergo ACL surgery to be ready in time for summer drills. Watson is one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback and is surrounded by freshmen standouts Wayne Gallman (RB) and Artavis Scott (WR). While talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Tigers, three starters on the offensive line must be replaced, and Chad Morris is no longer calling the plays. With Morris off to SMU, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted into the co-coordinator role. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be busy this spring, as the Tigers lose ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford, along with tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. In addition to the losses on the line, linebacker Stephone Anthony, cornerback Garry Peters and safety Robert Smith will expire their eligibility after the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Coach Gary Pinkel’s team has a good shot to earn its third consecutive SEC East title. Quarterback Maty Mauk returns but will be surrounded by a revamped group of skill talent, as receivers Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt, along with running back Marcus Murphy expire their eligibility after the Citrus Bowl. Mauk should be better in his second full season as Missouri’s starter, and he should benefit from the return of running back Russell Hansbrough and four starters on the line. Pinkel will probably ask more of his offense in 2015, especially with losses on defense expected to alter the depth chart. The line is set to lose tackle Matt Hoch and end Markus Golden, while end Shane Ray could leave early for the NFL. The linebacking corps should return intact, and three starters are back in the secondary. Coordinator Dave Steckel left to be the head coach at Missouri State, but Barry Odom (Memphis) was a good replacement.
19. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish stumbled to a 7-5 finish in the regular season after a 6-0 start. Injuries, turnovers and defensive problems were largely to blame for the second-half collapse, but there’s optimism for coach Brian Kelly’s team in 2015. Quarterback Everett Golson has do a better job of limiting turnovers after tossing 14 interceptions and eight lost fumbles in the regular season. Assuming Golson holds off Malik Zaire for the starting job, he will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including four starters on the offensive line, receiver Will Fuller (71 catches) and running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The Fighting Irish gave up 29.3 points per game during the regular season, and this unit has to improve for Notre Dame to get back into one of college football’s top bowl games. The good news for Kelly and coordinator Brian VanGorder is most of the personnel from 2014 will return, and top cornerback KeiVarae Russell is back from academic suspension. The Fighting Irish has a difficult schedule next season, featuring matchups against Texas, Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC, Stanford and Pittsburgh.
Paul Chryst is back in Madison, and the Badgers’ new head coach inherits a team that’s capable of winning the Big Ten’s West Division once again. Running back Melvin Gordon will be missed, but Corey Clement is the next star in the backfield for Wisconsin. In addition to Clement’s emergence, Chryst could help the development of the passing game, which is in need of receivers to emerge to help quarterback Joel Stave. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, and guard Kyle Costigan and tackle Rob Havenstein are big losses. Coordinator Dave Aranda kept the Wisconsin defense among the best in the Big Ten despite heavy personnel losses prior to 2014. The Badgers return most of its core, with linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, along with linemen Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring expiring their eligibility after the Outback Bowl. Wisconsin misses Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover play with the East Division.
The biggest offseason priority for coach Jim Mora and the UCLA coaching staff will be to find a replacement for quarterback Brett Hundley. Jerry Neuheisel led the Bruins to a victory over Texas this season, but the California native is expected to be pushed by Asiantii Woulard and incoming freshman Josh Rosen. While the quarterback spot is a concern, the rest of the depth chart returns largely intact. All five starters are slated to return on the offensive line, running back Paul Perkins is back after rushing for 1,000 yards and six receivers that caught at least 20 passes will return next season. Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich need to replace linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive back Anthony Jefferson and tackle Owa Odighizuwa. Late-season road trips to Utah and USC could decide how high UCLA climbs in the Pac-12 South next year.
22. Georgia Tech
Expect another year of uncertainty at the top of the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech – as the defending division champs – get a slight edge as the early favorite, but coach Paul Johnson’s team has to overcome a schedule that features conference games against Florida State and Clemson and road trips to Miami, Duke and Notre Dame. Quarterback Justin Thomas needs a couple of new options at running back with the departure of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon at running back. Guard Shaquille Mason will also be missed. Even with the losses on offense, Johnson’s option attack should continue to perform at a high level, while the defense should improve with only four seniors listed as starters on the Orange Bowl depth chart.
The brutal SEC West provides few breaks for Arkansas, so there may not be drastic improvement in the win column for coach Bret Bielema’s team. However, the Razorbacks are moving forward under Bielema and will once again be a tough out in the West. Quarterback Brandon Allen showed progress in his second year under center and needs more help from his receiving corps to take another step forward in 2015. Even with improvement in the passing game, Arkansas is going to lean on its ground attack. Jonathan Williams decided to return for his senior season, and the senior will team with Alex Collins to form one of the nation's top one-two punches at running back. And we can’t mention the ground attack without a tip of the cap to the offensive line, which figures to be among the best in the nation. First-year coordinator Robb Smith had the defense playing at a high level at the end of the season, and this unit will hope to improve without standout end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight.
24. Texas A&M
Young talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Kevin Sumlin. Quarterback Kyle Allen supplanted Kenny Hill as the team’s starting quarterback late in the season, and the Arizona native will have a deep group of receivers at his disposal in 2015. Of course, Allen’s position at the top of the depth chart isn’t a guarantee with the arrival of true freshman Kyler Murray. The left side of the offensive line must be revamped with tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard Jarvis Harrison expiring their eligibility after the Liberty Bowl. Regardless of the small concerns on offense, the Aggies won’t be able to climb higher in the SEC West without improvement on defense. Sumlin will have a new defensive signal-caller after Mark Snyder was fired, and this unit has to take a step forward after allowing 36.6 points per game in eight SEC contests. There are reasons for optimism on defense, starting with talented freshmen in end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and linebacker Otaro Alaka.
Jim McElwain inherits talent, but the first-year coach needs to find answers for an offense that averaged only 4.9 yards per play in SEC games. Quarterback Treon Harris should be better in his second season as the starter, but the offensive line is a concern with center Max Garcia out of eligibility and tackle D.J. Humphries set to leave for the NFL. The Gators should be solid on defense under the direction of coordinator Geoff Collins, and this unit should be the strength of the team until McElwain and coordinator Doug Nussmeier has time to stabilize the offense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will be one of the top returning defenders in the nation, but end Dante Fowler will be a huge loss on the defensive front. There's no shortage of talent in Gainesville. How quickly can McElwain get the Gators back on track? The East Division isn't loaded with national title contenders next season, so a quick turnaround is possible at Florida.
The Next Five
Charlie Strong clearly has Texas trending in the right direction. However, the Longhorns could lose standout defensive tackle Malcom Brown to the NFL, which would be a huge loss for a defense that is already slated to lose end Cedric Reed, linebacker Jordan Hicks and cornerback Quandre Diggs.
The Utes are coming off their best season since joining the Pac-12. Now, coach Kyle Whittingham hopes to propel Utah in 2015 to its first double-digit win mark since 2010. Quarterback Travis Wilson will be pushed by Kendal Thompson for snaps in the offseason, and running back Devontae Booker could leave for the NFL after recording 1,512 yards in 2014. The Utes had one of the nation’s top pass rushes, but end Nate Orchard and tackle Sese Ianu depart. Hunter Dimick will replace Orchard’s production at end, and the front seven should benefit with the return of linebacker Gionni Paul from a foot injury. Another positive for Utah: Perhaps the best special teams in the country with kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett.
Much like some of the other new coaches in the SEC, Butch Jones has his program headed in the right direction. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a good building block, but the Volunteers need more help in the trenches.
Bobby Petrino’s first season back at Louisville was a success, and the Cardinals should be a fringe top 25 team in 2015. Reggie Bonnafon is a promising quarterback, but the offense won’t have receiver DeVante Parker and running back Michael Dyer next season. Louisville’s defense was one of the best in the ACC in 2014. However, there is work for coordinator Todd Grantham to do next season, as safety Gerod Holliman and linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin depart.
The Golden Gophers were a win against Wisconsin away from playing for the Big Ten title. Coach Jerry Kill’s team should be in the mix for the division title once again in 2015. Running back David Cobb must be replaced, and quarterback Mitch Leidner has to improve as a passer if Minnesota wants to take the next step in the Big Ten.
11 Other Teams to Watch
The Broncos have some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team will be in the mix for the Mountain West title (and a top 25 spot) in 2015. The biggest losses are on offense with the departure of quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi.
A healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback and Jamaal Williams at running back should help BYU navigate a difficult schedule that features games against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri.
Is 2015 the year Miami takes a step forward under coach Al Golden? Quarterback Brad Kaaya is promising, but the Hurricanes lose running back Duke Johnson to the NFL.
Talent certainly isn't an issue in Ann Arbor. And new coach Jim Harbaugh should bring immediate improvement to a roster that underachieved in 2014. How much? Probably not enough to win the division. However, a top 25 finish isn't out of the question.
The Wolfpack closed 2014 by winning four out of their last five games, including a rivalry matchup against North Carolina and a bowl game against UCF. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett should be one of the ACC’s top returning offensive players for 2015.
The Cowboys returned only seven starters in 2014 and needed an upset win over Oklahoma to reach a bowl with a 6-6 mark. Oklahoma State should be better in 2015, especially if Mason Rudolph continues to improve at quarterback.
The Nittany Lions should be improved in coach James Franklin’s second season. Better depth and more scholarships will help, especially if the offensive lines takes a step forward and protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis must be replaced, but receiver Pharoh Cooper is one of the nation’s top all-around talents. The defense was a major issue in 2014 and must be fixed for the Gamecocks to rank among the nation’s top 25 teams in 2015.
After winning at least 11 games in each year from 2010-13, the Cardinal regressed to 7-5 in 2014. Will David Shaw find the right answers this offseason for an offense that averaged only 23.8 points in Pac-12 games this year? In addition to finding answers on offense, Shaw has to replace seven starters from a defense that limited opponents to 16 points per game in 2014.
Boise State and Utah State should be the top teams in the Mountain West next year. Despite significant injuries at quarterback, Coach Matt Wells has guided the Aggies to 19 wins over the last two seasons. The defense loses standout linebacker Zach Vigil, but Kyler Fackrell returns after missing nearly all of 2014 due to a knee injury.
The Hokies were a disappointment in 2014, but there’s hope for a turnaround in 2015. Getting cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy back to full strength will help on defense, and there’s a talented group of skill players returning on offense.
The Belk Bowl was one of the big winners in college football’s bowl tie-in shuffle prior to 2014, as the Charlotte, N.C. postseason game now features an annual matchup between the SEC (Georgia) and ACC (Louisville). The Bulldogs and Cardinals both finished the regular season at 9-3, and there’s a little familiarity between the two programs thanks to recent moves in the coaching carousel. Todd Grantham worked from 2010-13 as the Bulldogs’ defensive signal-caller but left to coach under Bobby Petrino prior to 2014. New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was one of the top coaching hires of the offseason, but the Bulldogs now have uncertainty on offense after offensive signal-caller Mike Bobo left to be the head coach at Colorado State.
Georgia was considered by most preseason prognosticators to be the favorite in the East Division. Despite an early loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs were in good shape to play in Atlanta after dismantling Missouri 34-0 in mid-October. However, a 38-20 loss to Florida in November put Georgia behind the Tigers – despite Richt’s team winning in Columbia – in the East pecking order. The story was slightly different at Louisville, as Bobby Petrino returned to his old stomping grounds to replace Charlie Strong, and the program recorded a solid 9-3 record in its first year in the ACC. There’s no shame in any of the Cardinals’ three losses, including a Thursday night defeat at the hands of Florida State and a 23-17 loss at Clemson.
This is the first meeting between Georgia and Louisville. The Bulldogs are just 1-3 in their last four bowl appearances. The Cardinals have experienced better luck in recent bowl games, as Louisville is 4-1 in its last five postseason trips.
Georgia vs. Louisville
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7
Georgia’s Key to Victory: Contain DeVante Parker
Louisville’s quarterback situation is a mystery. Will Gardner entered the year as the No. 1 option, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Boston College. True freshman Reggie Bonnafon saw significant snaps this year and replaced Gardner after his knee injury. However, Bonnafon also suffered a knee injury against Kentucky and it’s uncertain if he will play against Georgia. If Bonnafon doesn’t play, Kyle Bolin will get the start. Bolin completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three scores against Kentucky. Regardless of which quarterback starts, it’s critical Petrino finds ways to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker. The senior was limited to just five games due to injury but caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five scores. Parker averaged 30 yards per catch against Kentucky and topped 100 receiving yards in four out of his five appearances. Georgia’s secondary ranked second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, which was an impressive showing under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs had a couple of offseason personnel departures in the defensive backfield and leaned on a couple of freshmen to play major snaps in the secondary. Georgia recorded only 24 sacks this season, but this unit forced 26 turnovers. Louisville won’t have running back Michael Dyer, which forces Brandon Radcliff and Dominique Brown to shoulder more of the workload on the ground. If Georgia finds a way to limit Parker and keep Bonnafon and Bolin under pressure, Pruitt’s defense has the necessary pieces in the front seven to create havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Louisville’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
Even though Georgia will have a new play-caller for this bowl, don’t expect the formula for success or gameplan to change. The Bulldogs ranked second in the SEC with 255 rushing yards per game, and true freshman Nick Chubb leads the way for the backfield after a suspension and season-ending injury to starter Todd Gurley. Chubb posted 1,281 yards and 12 scores, and the freshman finished the year by recording seven consecutive 100-yard efforts. Georgia’s offense is built around its rushing attack, which helps to open play-action passes for quarterback Hutson Mason. The senior hasn’t posted huge numbers in 2014, but he’s been efficient (67.9 completion percentage) and tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. Louisville’s defense allowed only nine rushing scores and limited opponents to 2.9 yards per carry this season. Additionally, just one team (Florida State) managed to record more than four yards per carry against the Cardinals in 2014. Considering how familiar Grantham is with Georgia’s offense, it should help the Cardinals prepare for this matchup. However, the familiarity won’t matter if Louisville’s front seven is unable to slow down Chubb and backups Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas. Keeping the Bulldogs in long-yardage situations and limiting Chubb on early downs will be the Cardinals’ best formula for a victory. And if Louisville gets Georgia’s offense into obvious passing situations, it should help a pass rush that recorded 39 sacks during the regular season get to the quarterback.
As mentioned above, there’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville, and the question marks grew larger in the build up to the bowl with the announcement that running back Michael Dyer won’t play on Dec. 30. Whether it’s Bolin or Bonnafon under center, the Cardinals have to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker to take advantage of a young Bulldogs’ secondary. Georgia’s offense needs Chubb to lead the way against a solid defensive front for the Cardinals, allowing Mason and his receiving corps to take shots downfield on play-action passes. Both defenses could control the flow of this game and a high-scoring matchup would be a surprise. There’s a little more certainty with Georgia’s offense at quarterback and at running back as Chubb is one of the SEC’s most-explosive playmakers. The guess here is a close game, but the Bulldogs find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Louisville 24
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer recently underwent throat surgery and spent the Military Bowl victory against Cincinnati coaching from the press box. The Hokies used a couple of turnovers by the Cincinnati offense, along with 210 rushing yards to earn the victory and post a winning record (7-6.)
However, Beamer wasn’t limited in his post-game availability, as the 68-year-old coach broke out the dance moves to celebrate the victory.
Check out Beamer’s post-game dance:
Arkansas and Texas renew an old Southwest Conference rivalry in NRG Stadium on Dec. 29 for the ninth Texas Bowl matchup. Low expectations surrounded both teams entering the season, as the Razorbacks were considered by most to be a year away from bowl contention and the Longhorns had to rebuild under first-year coach Charlie Strong. But both teams overcame preseason personnel concerns to reach a bowl and finished the year playing arguably their best ball of the season.
Second-year coach Bret Bielema has Arkansas headed in the right direction, as the Razorbacks won three out of their final five games to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. Bielema came to Arkansas after a successful stint at Wisconsin, and the Illinois native is building the Razorbacks in a similar image to how he shaped the Badgers. Arkansas has established itself as a physical, run-first team, and the defense played well in the second half of the season. Texas won three out of its final four games in 2014 to get bowl eligible in Strong’s first year. As with any coaching change, there was plenty of attrition on the Longhorns’ roster, with Strong trying to reshape the overall image and discipline of the program. Injuries also hurt Texas’ roster, as quarterback David Ash retired from football due to concussions and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson was lost for the year with a knee injury.
Texas owns a 56-21 series edge over Arkansas. The Longhorns have won two in a row over the Razorbacks, but these two teams have not played since 2008. The last win by Arkansas took place in 2003.
Arkansas vs. Texas
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arkansas -6
Arkansas’ Key to Victory: The Offensive Line
The Razorbacks own college football’s biggest offensive line, which has been a key cog in the turnaround for this team in 2014. Dan Skipper is a mammoth left tackle at 6-foot-10 and 326 pounds, and the sophomore is surrounded by three other underclassmen in the trenches, along with standout senior Brey Cook. This unit allowed only 13 sacks during the regular season, while clearing the way for rushers to average 5.2 yards per carry. Two players eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for Bielema, with Jonathan Williams (1,085 yards) slightly ahead of Alex Collins (1,024) on the stat sheet. Texas ranked fifth in the Big 12 (league-only games) by allowing 155.7 rushing yards per game this season, and the defensive line is headlined by standout tackle Malcom Brown. The junior was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports this season. Brown isn’t the only standout on the line, as ends Cedric Reed (5.5 sacks) and Hassan Ridgeway (six sacks) are capable of giving Arkansas’ offensive line all it can handle. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage is critical for Bielema’s team. Quarterback Brandon Allen was efficient (18 TDs, 5 INTs), but the Razorbacks have only nine passing plays of 30 yards or more this season. Allen doesn’t have a deep group of receivers, and this team isn’t built to come from behind. Arkansas needs its offensive line to control the line of scrimmage and keep Brown, Ridgeway and Reed out of the backfield. If the line can clear holes for Collins and Williams, Allen will be able to stay out of obvious passing situations. It’s critical the Razorbacks stay in short-yardage situations, and when Allen has time to throw, the junior needs to continue to play mistake-free ball.
Texas’ Key to Victory: QB Tyrone Swoopes
Due to Ash’s retirement, Swoopes has been pressed into starting action this season. The sophomore has thrown for 2,352 yards and 13 scores but also has 10 interceptions and completed less than 53 percent of his passes in three out of the last five games. Swoopes rushed for 294 yards on 103 attempts this year, and his mobility could be a valuable asset against an Arkansas defense that was playing at a high level at the end of the season. First-year coordinator Robb Smith brought the defense along as the year progressed, and the Razorbacks pitched shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss, limited Missouri to 21 points and held Mississippi State to 17 points in November. The strength of Arkansas’ defense is up front. End Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon are two of the best at their position in the SEC, and linebacker Martrell Spaight emerged as one of the conference’s top linebackers this season. Swoopes should benefit from the extra time to prepare for the bowl game, especially after struggling in the regular season finale against TCU. The sophomore won’t have to win this game just on his right arm. The Texas’ rushing attack averaged 157 yards per game in Big 12 contests, with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray expected to take the pressure off of Swoopes. And when Swoopes has to throw, John Harris and Jaxon Shipley are the primary targets against an Arkansas secondary that allowed only one passing score over the last three games. If Swoopes plays mistake-free ball and uses his mobility to make plays when the pocket breaks down, Texas should have a good shot to knock off Arkansas.
These two teams are similar in terms of style. Arkansas and Texas prefer to lean on the run to setup the pass, and the defenses for both teams are a strength. The Razorbacks and Longhorns have each lost 22 turnovers this year, but Arkansas is +5 in margin, while Texas is -1. In a tight, low-scoring game, turnovers and mistakes will be magnified. There’s not much that separates these two teams. Winning the battle on the line of scrimmage is critical for both squads, as Arkansas hopes to use its massive offensive line to control the clock and establish Collins and Williams on the ground. For Texas, an active defensive front needs to get a good push to slow the Razorbacks’ rushing offense and generate pressure on Allen to force mistakes. Expect Arkansas to have just enough success on the ground to keep Allen out of obvious passing situations, and the junior quarterback outduels Swoopes to give Bielema a bowl victory in his second year.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Texas 20
The scoreboard in Memphis should be active on Dec. 29 when West Virginia and Texas A&M meet in the Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers and Aggies each average over 30 points per game, and there’s plenty of familiarity between the programs due to the coaching staffs. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and both programs run a variation of the Air Raid offense. Current Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital coached under Holgorsen at West Virginia from 2011-12.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 record in 2013. However, the Mountaineers showed marked improvement (and had better luck in the health department) this year, starting in the opener with a 33-23 loss to Alabama and a 41-27 win over Baylor in Morgantown. West Virginia lost three out of its final four games but getting back to the postseason was huge for the program. Texas A&M finished 7-5 in the Year One in the post-Johnny Manziel era. The Aggies started 5-0 but stumbled with five losses over their last seven games. Defense continues to be a problem for Texas A&M under coach Kevin Sumlin. However, the offense continued to thrive, averaging 34.4 points per game in 2014.
This is the first meeting between West Virginia and Texas A&M. The Mountaineers essentially replaced the Aggies in the Big 12 a couple of years ago during college football’s latest realignment period. West Virginia is making its first appearance in the Liberty Bowl since 1964. Texas A&M has not played in the Liberty Bowl since 1975.
West Virginia vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: West Virginia -3.5
West Virginia’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
A big reason for West Virginia’s turnaround in the win column in 2014 was the play of quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White. Trickett led the Big 12 with a 67.1 completion percentage and threw for 300 yards in each of his first seven games. However, Trickett was held in check over the second half of the season and tossed five interceptions over his final three starts. Trickett did not play in the finale against Iowa State due to a concussion, and Skyler Howard completed 21 of 40 passes for 285 yards and three scores in his first career start. Trickett was ruled out for the bowl game on Friday, leaving Howard as the clear No. 1 quarterback. The junior college recruit should have an opportunity for a huge day, as Texas A&M’s secondary ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 16 passing scores this year. The Aggies generated 33 sacks in 2014, so it’s critical West Virginia protects Howard and gives him time to find White and fellow playmaker Mario Alford (10 TDs). But the key to victory for the Mountaineers isn’t the passing offense. Texas A&M’s rush defense allowed 223.5 rushing yards per game this season, and West Virginia has the necessary pieces to take advantage of a struggling front seven. Guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski lead a steady offensive line, with Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood combining for 1,411 rushing yards this season. If the Mountaineers establish the run, it should slow the Texas A&M defensive front and allow West Virginia to control the pace of play.
Texas A&M’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s no secret Texas A&M is going to have success moving the ball on offense. The Mountaineers made improvement on this side of the ball under first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, but this unit allowed 26.2 points per game and gave up 5.3 yards per play. Opportunities will be there for quarterback Kyle Allen and a talented group of skill players. Allen finished the regular season by tossing 12 touchdowns to only six interceptions and completed 61.1 percent of his passes. The true freshman should benefit from the extra practices prior to the bowl. Three Texas A&M receivers caught at least 40 passes, including standout junior college recruit Josh Reynolds (16.2 ypc) and freshman Speedy Noil (44 catches). Trey Williams is the team’s leading rusher (474 yards) and averages a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. West Virginia’s defense allowed 162 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action, so there will be opportunities for Williams to hit big plays on the ground. However, regardless of Texas A&M’s success on offense, it’s critical for this team to win the turnover battle. West Virginia is -15 in turnover margin, while the Aggies are -7. Both teams have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, but the Mountaineers have been more generous in their giveaways. If Texas A&M scores 30 points and wins the turnover battle, it’s a good bet Sumlin’s team wins the Liberty Bowl.
With the familiarity between the two head coaches and ability of both teams to score around 30 points a game, this could be one of the most entertaining bowl matchups from outside of the New Year’s Six arrangement. The turnover battle is critical for both teams, as Texas A&M and West Virginia each recorded a negative margin in 2014. Whichever team wins the turnover battle and makes a few timely stops on defense will win. It’s a tossup, but the guess here is Howard fills in admirably for Howard, White shines in his last collegiate game, while Shell tops 100 yards on the ground for the Mountaineers to close out 2014 with a victory.
Prediction: West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 34
Avoiding the sights and sounds of Honolulu will be challenging for Fresno State and Rice, as the two programs meet for the first time since 2004 in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Bulldogs and Owls had to overcome their share of issues to reach the postseason, but both teams were rewarded with a trip to Hawaii to close out the year and an opportunity to build momentum for 2015.
Fresno State was 3-6 in mid-November, but the Bulldogs rallied to finish the regular season at 6-6. Coach Tim DeRuyter’s team lost to Boise State in the Mountain West Championship, yet getting to a bowl and winning three out of the last four games is a positive sign for a team that had to replace offensive standouts in quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams heading into 2014. Rice also started 2014 slow by losing its first three matchups of the season. However, the Owls played a tough schedule – Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Old Dominion – and coach David Bailiff’s team eventually settled and won six consecutive games before a loss at Marshall on Nov. 15. Rice has had to overcome injuries to two of its standout players, as defensive tackle Christian Covington had season-ending knee surgery in November, and receiver Jordan Taylor missed the first three games of 2014.
Fresno State and Rice have met six previous times. The Bulldogs have won all six matchups against the Owls. These two programs are former rivals from the Western Athletic Conference.
Fresno State vs. Rice
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Rice -2.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Protect QB Brian Burrell
Replacing Derek Carr at quarterback wasn’t expected to be easy, and Fresno State averaged only 233.8 passing yards per game after recording nearly 400 yards through the air per contest last season. Brian Burrell was left with big shoes to fill under center, and the junior experienced his share of ups and downs in 2014. Burrell finished the season with 2,576 yards and 22 passing scores and should have an opportunity to shine in the Hawaii Bowl against a struggling Rice secondary. The Owls ranked 10th in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and allowed 27 scores through the air this season. While the pass defense has been a problem for Rice, getting to the quarterback is not. The Owls tied for first in Conference USA with 35 sacks, and Fresno State’s offensive line allowed 36 sacks to opposing defenses in 2014. Ends Zach Patt and Brian Nordstrom (combined 16 sacks) led the charge off the edge, while six other players have at least two tackles for a loss. Burrell does have mobility (328 yards, 3 TDs), which should come in handy against a solid Rice defensive line. If Burrell has time to throw, he should hit on big plays, especially to receiver Josh Harper (86 receptions, 1,072 yards, 7 TDs). Also, running back Marteze Waller (6.2 ypc) is a big-play threat on the ground, and his presence could help slow the Rice pass rush.
Rice’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Partially due to its inability to establish a ground game against Marshall and Louisiana Tech, Rice lost two out of its last three games this season. The Owls were held to 34 rushing yards in a 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech and only 81 yards on 35 attempts against Marshall. There’s not a 1,000-yard rusher on this team, but Rice has three players capable of making plays on the ground. Running back Jowan Davis (910 yards) leads the team in rushing yardage, with the bigger Darik Dillard pacing the offense in rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Driphus Jackson is also a factor on the ground (360 yards), but the junior also has an opportunity to take advantage of a Fresno State secondary that ranks 116th nationally in pass efficiency defense. While the overall statistics leave plenty to be desired, the Bulldogs have held their last four opponents to only 23.2 points per game and generated 10 sacks over the final three contests. Balance on offense is critical for Rice’s victory hopes on Dec. 24. In three losses this season, the Owls attempted 34 or more passes. In Rice’s seven victories, passers never attempted more than 28 throws. Fresno State has made improvement on defense over the last few weeks of the season. Can the Bulldogs continue that into the postseason? Or will Rice’s balance and mistake-free game-plan be enough to maintain successful drives (and win) against Fresno State’s defense?
Fresno State’s last appearance in the Hawaii Bowl wasn’t a trip to remember. The Bulldogs lost 43-10 to SMU, and coach Tim DeRuyter is looking for his first bowl win at Fresno State after losing to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. Rice is 2-1 in its last three bowl matchups and is making its first trip to Hawaii since 2003. It’s hard to find a glaring edge for either of these two teams in this game. Conference supremacy doesn’t mean much in bowl games, but Fresno State played in a better league and had a more challenging non-conference slate. Does that mean anything for this game? Hard to say. However, the Bulldogs were playing better defense at the end of the year, and Burrell to Harper combination will be tough for Rice to stop.
Prediction: Fresno State 34, Rice 31
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl provided plenty of fireworks. The back-and-forth offensive battle ended with Memphis winning 55-48 in double overtime.
While this game might end up as one of the top bowl matchups of 2014-15, the Miami Beach Bowl – at least for some – won’t be remembered for the quality on-field play. Instead, the bowl is likely to be remembered for a postgame brawl that erupted after Memphis intercepted BYU quarterback Christian Stewart to clinch the victory.
Here are a few videos and clips of the postgame fight in Marlins Park:
Marshall and Northern Illinois were each on the cusp of an appearance in a bigger bowl game, but the two programs meet for the first time since 2001 in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. The Thundering Herd and Huskies were two of the nation’s top teams from the Group of 5 conferences and were in contention for a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games until Boise State was picked for that designation after it defeated Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. Marshall and Northern Illinois combined for 23 wins this season, and Tuesday night’s matchup is only the third bowl game (Rose, Sugar and Boca Raton) where both teams are conference champions.
Marshall cruised to an 11-0 start but lost by a point in overtime to Western Kentucky on the final weekend of action in November. Even though the loss to the Hilltoppers ended the Thundering Herd’s hopes of a perfect season, coach Doc Holliday’s team won 10 of their 13 games by at least 15 points and claimed their first conference title since 2002. Northern Illinois continued to dominate the MAC by recording its fifth season of at least 11 victories and won its third conference championship in four years by defeating Bowling Green 51-17.
Marshall and Northern Illinois have played in seven previous meetings. The Huskies own a 4-3 edge over the Thundering Herd, but these two programs have not played since 2001. Northern Illinois has won the last two matchups between these two teams.
Marshall vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Tuesday, Dec. 23)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Marshall -10
Marshall’s Key to Victory: QB Rakeem Cato
The keys to victory in the Boca Raton Bowl are essentially tied together. It might be too simplistic to just list Cato here, but the senior is the catalyst for Marshall’s offense and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Cato threw for 37 touchdowns and 3,622 yards this season and added 457 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior threw for 725 yards over his last two games and faces a stiff test against a Northern Illinois defense limiting opponents to 5.4 yards per play and 23.6 points per game. The Huskies also led the MAC with 30 sacks and forced 24 turnovers. Despite losing standout safety Jimmie Ward to the NFL, this defense remained stingy and no opponent over the last six games scored more than 24 points. Cato has done a good job of limiting mistakes all season, but in Marshall’s only loss of the year (Western Kentucky), he tossed four interceptions. Northern Illinois relies heavily on its ground attack to carry the offense and coming back from 14-0 or a 17-3 deficit could be difficult. Cato is surrounded by an array of weapons, including receivers Tommy Shuler, Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and tight end Eric Frohnapfel. In addition to the explosive passing offense, the Thundering Herd has balance with the emergence of converted tight end Devon Johnson at running back. Johnson rushed for 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Marshall’s offense is the best Northern Illinois has played this year. If Cato doesn’t turn the ball over and the offensive line gives their senior quarterback time to throw, the Thundering Herd can enforce their style of play and create plenty of problems for the Huskies defense.
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
As we mentioned above, the keys to the game go hand-in-hand. Northern Illinois has a tough assignment on defense trying to slow down the explosive Marshall offense. However, the Huskies can help their defense by establishing their style of play. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey doesn’t have a standout like Jordan Lynch at quarterback, but new starter Drew Hare threw for 17 touchdowns to only two picks and rushed for 850 yards and eight scores in 2014. Hare only had one game of more than 250 passing yards, and it’s clear the offensive identity of Carey’s team rests with the ground game. In addition to Hare, senior running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels and sophomore Joel Bouagnon will each play a significant role on the ground. Stingily led the team with 895 yards and 13 rushing scores this season and will challenge a Marshall defense that ranked ninth in Conference USA (league-only games) against the run. In nine C-USA contests, the Thundering Herd gave up 182.9 yards per game and allowed four yards per carry. Northern Illinois has to win the battle at the point of attack and keep Hare in third-and-short situations. The Huskies’ best shot at winning is to keep Marshall’s offense on the sidelines and allow their ground attack to control the pace of the game.
There’s no shortage of intrigue in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. Marshall and Northern Illinois are two of the nation’s top Group of 5 teams and this could be a high-scoring affair if both offenses get on track. The Thundering Herd would prefer to push the tempo and force the Huskies to get away from the ground attack. For Northern Illinois, it’s all about winning the battle on the line of scrimmage and finding a way to keep Cato and the Marshall offense on the sidelines. Expect both teams to have success in establishing their style of play, but the Thundering Herd’s offense is too much for the Huskies.
Prediction: Marshall 38, Northern Illinois 30
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl also features the first meeting in program history between Memphis and BYU. The Tigers were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014, improving from 3-9 in 2013 to 9-3 this season. Coach Justin Fuente has brought significant and immediate improvement to the Tigers, as this team shared the American Athletic Conference title after a 7-1 mark in league play this year. BYU finished its 10th season under coach Bronco Mendenhall with a solid 8-4 record. The Cougars are 4-1 in their last five bowl appearances.
The Miami Beach Bowl will be Memphis’ first postseason appearance since the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl. A key reason for the Tigers’ improvement in 2014 was the development of the offense behind sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch. After averaging only 4.7 yards per play in 2013, Memphis averaged 5.5 yards per play this season. Lynch threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,725 yards in 2014 and increased his completion percentage to 64 percent after a 58.2 mark last year. While Lynch has started all season for Memphis, it’s been a different situation for BYU. The Cougars lost quarterback Taysom Hill due to a season-ending leg injury against Utah State, which elevated backup Christian Stewart into the full-time role. Stewart has performed well in Hill’s absence, and his job was only made more challenging with the loss of running back Jamaal Williams to a season-ending knee injury against MTSU.
The Miami Beach Bowl is played at Marlins Park in Miami, Fla. The baseball stadium is built on the site of the old Orange Bowl.
Memphis vs. BYU
Kickoff: Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Memphis - 1
Memphis’ Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
An underrated cog in Memphis’ 9-3 record this season was its +12 in turnover margin. The Tigers forced 27 turnovers and only lost 15. The turnaround in margin was critical after Fuente’s team went -8 last year and finished 3-9 with a handful of close losses. BYU has a -2 turnover margin in 2014 and lost five turnovers over its final three games. Quarterback Christian Stewart has stepped into a difficult situation and played well, completing 58.7 percent of his passes, with 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions. While Stewart has limited mistakes, BYU has lost 14 fumbles this season, which is tied for 119th nationally. Without Williams toting the workload from the backfield, juniors Adam Hine and Nate Carter, senior Paul Lasike and sophomore Algernon Brown have been pressed into more playing time. The Cougars are still having success on the ground with Williams sidelined, as this team recorded 267 rushing yards against UNLV and 264 against Savannah State. Memphis limits opponents to 3.5 yards per carry and ranks second in the American Athletic Conference in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, this defense is active around the line of scrimmage and can get pressure with its front four. BYU has been vulnerable in pass protection, which should allow the Tigers to pressure Stewart, as well as get into the backfield on running plays. Both of those situations create good opportunities to force turnovers. And on offense, Memphis needs to continue limiting their mistakes (15 lost turnovers). Lynch has not tossed an interception in six games, and his efficient play will be valuable against a BYU secondary that has allowed 21 scores in 2014.
BYU’s Key to Victory: Give QB Christian Stewart Time to Throw
As we mentioned previously, Stewart assumed control of BYU’s offense after a season-ending injury to Taysom Hill. The Snow College transfer finished the year on a high note, throwing for 433 yards and five scores against California. Stewart is not as dynamic of a runner as Hill was, but the senior recorded 52 rushing yards against UCF, 47 against Nevada and 38 against UNLV. The mobility could come in handy against an active Memphis defense. Coordinator Barry Odom has transformed the Tigers into one of the nation’s top defenses this year, limiting opponents to 4.8 yards per play (12th nationally). The strength of Memphis’ defense resides in its front seven, as end Martin Ifedi and linebacker Tank Jakes earned first-team all-conference honors in 2014. Jakes led the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss, recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles, while Ifedi picked up 9.5 tackles for a loss and 29 tackles in eight appearances this season. Protecting Stewart and Hill has been a problem on the stat sheet for BYU, as the offensive line allowed 34 sacks in 12 games. Freshman center Tejan Koroma was a bright spot for this line, and it’s tough to place all of the sacks on the front five as mobile quarterbacks often extend the play and are sacked long after a clean pocket was established. If Stewart has time to throw, the receiving corps is capable of producing big plays. Senior Jordan Leslie (14 ypc), and Mitch Mathews (8 TDs, 840 yards) are the favorite targets, but Mitchell Juergens and tight end Devin Mahina are also key weapons for Stewart.
This should be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Memphis and BYU should have plenty of motivation to be in this game, and the Tigers are one of the nation’s most improved teams after going 3-9 last season. The Cougars managed to keep things going after injuries to Hill and Williams and finished the season on a four-game winning streak. Memphis has the edge on defense, but BYU also allows less than five yards per play. The growth and continued improvement of the Tigers’ offensive attack – led by quarterback Paxton Lynch and running back Brandon Hayes – is a big reason why Memphis shared the American Athletic Conference title. Expect a close one in Miami. The Tigers edge BYU to record its first 10-win season since 1938.
Prediction: Memphis 27, BYU 24
Two of the nation’s most improved teams – Air Force and Western Michigan – meet for the first time in program history in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Falcons and Broncos each improved their win total by seven games last season and scored some impressive wins in the process. Air Force beat Colorado State and Boise State – arguably the top two teams in the Mountain West – this year and claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after beating Army and Navy. The Broncos went 0-2 against Power 5 opponents but lost by one to Toledo and defeated MAC East champion Bowling Green 26-14 in mid-October.
Improvement on defense has spurred the seven-game jump in wins by Air Force this season. The Falcons allowed 40 points per game in 2013 but lowered that number to 24.2 in 2014. Western Michigan experienced a similar turnaround on defense, limiting opponents to 23.8 points per game after giving up 35.4 per contest last season. But the Broncos also took a step forward on offense, as the emergence of running back Jarvion Franklin and quarterback Zach Terrell propelled Western Michigan to lead the MAC with an average of 34.6 points per game.
This will be the 18th bowl matchup of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The bowl name has changed a couple of times since its inception in 1997, but the last two meetings in Boise were blowouts. Utah State dominated Toledo 41-15 in 2012, while San Diego State defeated Buffalo 49-24 last season.
Air Force vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: 5:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Air Force -1.5
Air Force’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
In Air Force’s 3-4 alignment, its three listed starters on the depth chart for the defensive line average 262 pounds. That’s a light defensive front compared to some of the other teams Western Michigan has played this year. The Broncos lean on their ground attack to setup the pass, and running back Jarvion Franklin emerged as one of the top freshmen in college football this season. Franklin recorded 1,525 yards and 24 scores on 294 attempts and earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors for his performance. Air Force may not measure up in terms of overall size up front, but the Falcons are active around the line of scrimmage and ranked second in the Mountain West against the run in 2014. Under the direction of coordinator Steve Russ, Air Force ranks third in the Mountain West with 77 tackles for a loss and finished the season on a high note by containing Colorado State’s offense to just 106 rushing yards on 32 attempts. The Broncos will try to establish the run from the opening snap, and it’s critical the Falcons win the battle on first and second down to force Western Michigan into third-and-long situations. Quarterback Zach Terrell completed 70 percent of his throws this season and tossed only 10 picks on 330 attempts. But how important is it for Franklin to have success? In all four of Western Michigan’s losses, Terrell attempted over 30 passes. In eight wins by the Broncos, Terrell attempted less than 30.
Western Michigan’s Key to Victory: Third-down Defense and Turnovers
Regardless of the time to prepare, playing a team that runs an option offense is no easy assignment. Western Michigan faces a tough task trying to slow down an Air Force offense that averages 272.2 yards per game and led the nation with 732 rushing attempts. The Falcons use a variety of rushers, with Jacobi Owens and quarterback Kale Pearson leading the team in yardage this year. However, Owens is out for the rest of the season due to injury, and Pearson did not play in the regular season finale. Pearson is expected to go against Western Michigan, while Devin Rushing, D.J. Johnson and Shayne Daveren will be counted upon more out of the backfield with Owens sidelined. Despite the injury to Owens, Air Force’s ground attack will test the Broncos rush defense, which ranks fourth in the MAC by allowing 142.7 yards per game. Western Michigan held six opponents under 100 rushing yards this season, but Northern Illinois gashed the defense for 196 yards, while Toledo recorded 234 yards on 36 attempts. Teams that had the right pieces up front and in the backfield had success against the Broncos. However, stopping the run isn’t necessarily the only task for Western Michigan, as this defense needs to get off the field on third downs and force turnovers. Pearson has been efficient when he’s asked to throw, but this offense isn’t built to rally from 14 or 17 points down on a consistent basis. When Air Force gets its ground attack established and continues to eat up the clock on third downs, it’s difficult for a defense to get off the field and get the ball back to its offense.
This matchup could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Both teams have plenty of motivation to cap a season of significant improvement with a win in Boise, while the overall matchup is fairly even between the Broncos and Falcons. Western Michigan should benefit from the extra time to prepare for Air Force’s option attack. However, it may take some time to adjust in game speed. Pearson and the Falcons’ rushers should have success, but the Broncos will also land a few punches behind the one-two punch of Franklin on the ground and Terrell through the air. Limiting big plays in the passing has been a challenge for Air Force this year, and Terrell has a dangerous outside threat in receiver Corey Davis (17.6 ypc). Expect a back-and-forth affair, with Air Force edging Western Michigan for the win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Air Force 31, Western Michigan 27
The last two New Mexico Bowls featured over 90 points in each game, but this year’s meeting between Utah State and UTEP is expected to have a decidedly different outlook. The Aggies own one of the top defenses in the Mountain West by limiting opponents to 20.8 points per game, while the Miners led Conference USA in time of possession and averaged 26.6 points in league play this year. After watching the offenses light up the scoreboard at University Stadium in recent bowl matchups, defense and running the ball should take center stage on Saturday.
For the second year in a row, Utah State coach Matt Wells has navigated significant injuries at the quarterback position. Chuckie Keeton suffered a torn ACL last season but returned in time for the opener against Tennessee. However, Keeton was later ruled out for the remainder of 2014 due to knee issues. Sophomore Darell Garretson replaced Keeton, but he suffered a season-ending wrist injury. Third-stringer Craig Harrison suffered a knee injury against UNLV, leaving true freshman Kent Myers as the No. 1 quarterback. Myers has performed well in six appearances, throwing for 798 yards and five scores. Despite the injuries at quarterback, Utah State won nine games for the second consecutive season in a row.
UTEP has experienced a quick turnaround under second-year coach Sean Kugler. The Miners went 2-10 in 2013 but improved to 7-5 and are back in a bowl for the first time since 2010. Kugler – a former UTEP offensive lineman – has built this program on a run-first offense. The Miners started 2-3 but finished the season by winning five out of their last seven games.
Utah State and UTEP have met only two times in previous seasons. The Aggies hold a 2-0 edge over the Miners, but this is the first matchup between these two programs since 1961.
UTEP vs. Utah State
Kickoff: 2:20 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Utah State -10
UTEP’s Key to Victory: Establish the Run and Limit Mistakes
UTEP quarterback Jameill Showers started his career at Texas A&M but transferred to El Paso after losing the starting job to Johnny Manziel. Showers has been efficient for Kugler’s offense in 2014, throwing 12 touchdowns to only five interceptions. The senior has only one passing score in his last four games and has not thrown for more than 210 yards in a contest this year. When Showers throws, his go-to target is Ian Hamilton (21.7 ypc), while tight end Eric Tomlinson (18 catches) is also a valuable threat in the passing game. UTEP ranks last in Conference USA in passing yards per game, but this offense has a clear identity. As a former offensive lineman, Kugler has shaped the Miners into one of the top running teams in C-USA. UTEP averaged 212.7 yards per game on the ground this season, with running back Aaron Jones (1,233 yards) leading the way. Jones will be joined by Nathan Jeffery (513 yards) and Showers (288 yards) as threats on the ground. Despite the success of the Miners on the ground this season, running room will be limited against Utah State’s defense. Anchored by standout linebacker Zach Vigil, the Aggies lead the Mountain West in rush defense. Utah State allows only 3.3 yards per carry and limited opponents to 20.8 points per game. Considering the strength of the Aggies up front, the Miners may need to throw early to help open up lanes for Jones and Jeffery. Another factor in UTEP’s victory hopes will be the turnover margin. The Miners recorded a +8 margin this season and need to be in the positive range on Saturday to have a shot at winning.
Utah State’s Key to Victory: QB Kent Myers
As we mentioned in the intro, Myers is Utah State’s fourth starting quarterback in 2014. The true freshman was expected to redshirt but ended up getting pressed into duty after injuries to Keeton, Harrison and Garretson. Myers hasn’t been overly prolific, but he’s done everything asked by the coaching staff. Myers has yet to top more than 186 passing yards in a game. However, he’s been efficient (only two interceptions on 107 attempts) and is completing 69.2 percent of his passes. Myers also has 235 yards and four scores on the ground. The true freshman isn’t the only weapon on Utah State’s offense, as freshman running back LaJuan Hunt averages five yards per carry and leads the team with 529 yards. Junior JoJo Natson is an all-purpose, dynamic playmaker, averaging 10.2 yards per rush, catching 49 passes and taking two punt returns back for a score. UTEP’s defense is allowing 6.3 yards per play this year and has been prone to allowing big plays (34 plays allowed of 30 yards or more). Myers deserves praise for stepping into a difficult situation and keeping Utah State’s offense performing at a high level. With an extended preparation time before the bowl, he could have his best performance of the season. However, it’s also critical the true freshman doesn’t try to do too much against a UTEP defense that limited C-USA opponents to 26 points per game (fourth in the conference). And with the Miners looking to keep this game a low-scoring affair, Utah State can’t afford to have any turnovers to give UTEP’s offense a short field.
Considering UTEP’s struggles last season, and Utah State’s injuries at quarterback in 2014, it’s a credit to both coaching staffs for their teams landing in the postseason and finishing with a winning record. The Miners need to keep this game a low-scoring affair and force a couple of mistakes from Utah State freshman quarterback Kent Myers to give their offense short fields to work from. UTEP’s rushing attack could be the key to the game. The Aggies were tough all season against the run but gave up 240 yards on the ground over their last three matchups. If Utah State stuffs the run and jumps out to an early lead, the Miners will have their hands full trying to rally. Expect UTEP to have some success on the ground, but the Aggies are the better team and finish the season with a win to post their second double-digit victory total in three years.
Prediction: Utah State 30, UTEP 17
Pittsburgh is looking for its fourth head coach in five seasons after Paul Chryst was hired to replace Gary Andersen at Wisconsin. Chryst’s move to the Big Ten comes as no surprise, as the third-year coach is a Madison native and worked on the Badgers’ staff in 2002 and again from 2005-11. In three seasons as Pittsburgh’s head coach, Chryst went 19-19 and guided the program to three bowl appearances.
The Panthers should have plenty of interested candidates, perhaps including Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, Ball State coach Pete Lembo and former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
Who might replace Chryst at Pittsburgh? Here are 11 names to watch.
11 Candidates to Replace Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh
Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Toledo
Campbell is one of the rising stars from coaches outside of a Power 5 conference. In three full seasons at Toledo, the Ohio native is 25-13. He also coached the 2011 Military Bowl after Tim Beckman left for Illinois and guided the Rockets to a 42-41 victory. Under Campbell’s watch, the Rockets are 18-6 in the MAC and claimed a share of the West Division title with a 7-1 mark in conference play this season. Prior to taking over as Toledo’s head coach, Campbell worked as an assistant with the Rockets for two years (2009-11) and at Bowling Green (2006-08). Campbell played at Mount Union and is one of the youngest college football coaches at 35 years old.
Rod Carey, Head Coach, Northern Illinois
Carey has continued to keep Northern Illinois at the top of the MAC with a 23-5 record in two full seasons as the head coach in DeKalb. The Wisconsin native was an assistant under Dave Doeren prior to his promotion to the head coach spot and also spent time working on staffs at North Dakota and Illinois State. Carey also coached the Huskies in the Orange Bowl against Florida State after Doeren left for NC State.
Bud Foster, Defensive Coordinator, Virginia Tech
Foster popped up in the mix during Pittsburgh’s last coaching search. Could the long-time Virginia Tech assistant show interest again in the job? Foster is one of the nation’s highest-paid assistants and has worked under Frank Beamer in Blacksburg since 1987. Under Foster’s direction, the Hokies have consistently ranked among the nation’s top defenses. However, the veteran assistant does not have any experience as a head coach. A longshot but worth mentioning since he was in the mix last time.
Justin Fuente, Head Coach, Memphis
Fuente should be one of the leading candidates for national coach of the year honors after guiding Memphis to a share of the American Athletic Conference title in 2014. The Tigers are 16-20 under Fuente’s watch, but the Oklahoma native inherited a mess after Larry Porter was fired after a 3-21 record in two years at Memphis. The Tigers also transitioned from Conference USA to the tougher American Athletic Conference, and Fuente’s team nearly won at UCLA earlier this season. Prior to taking over at Memphis, Fuente worked under Gary Patterson at TCU from 2007-11.
Doc Holliday, Head Coach, Marshall
Holliday is a native of West Virginia and played with the Mountaineers from 1976-78. Considering his ties to West Virginia, Holliday presents an interesting dynamic in the Pittsburgh coaching search. Would the Panthers want to hire a West Virginia guy? Regardless of his ties to Morgantown, Holliday is known as a good recruiter and was a long-time assistant prior to taking the job at Marshall. In five seasons with the Thundering Herd, Holliday is 39-25 and 22-5 over the last two years.
Pete Lembo, Head Coach, Ball State
Lembo is a native of New York and has been successful at three different stops as a head coach, including a five-year stint at Lehigh from 2001-05. During his five years at Lehigh, Lembo went 44-14 and the Mountain Hawks made two appearances in the FCS playoffs. From 2006-10, Lembo coached at Elon and went 35-22 in five seasons. He also led the Phoenix to a spot in the 2009 FCS playoffs and won at least seven games in three of those years. Lembo’s track record of success has continued at Ball State, guiding the Cardinals to a 19-7 mark from 2012-13 and back-to-back bowl appearances. Despite a 5-7 record this year, Lembo is considered one of the top coaches in the MAC.
Joe Moorhead, Head Coach, Fordham
Moorhead is a name Pittsburgh fans may remember from his stint as an assistant at UConn from 2009-11. And he's also a native of the Steel City. In three years at Fordham, Moorhead has guided the Rams to a 29-10 record and two FCS playoff appearances. Considering Moorhead is working at his alma mater and recently had his contract extended, he may not be interested in leaving Fordham. However, he’s been a successful FCS coach and would be a good fit at Pittsburgh.
Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi is regarded as one of the top assistant coaches in college football and is ready for his opportunity to run a Power 5 program. The Connecticut native has worked at Michigan State under Mark Dantonio since 2007. Under Narduzzi’s guidance, the Spartans have ranked among the nation’s best on defense. Michigan State limited opponents to just four yards per play in 2013 and ranked in the top four of the Big Ten in scoring defense in four consecutive seasons. Narduzzi also has experience as an assistant from stops at Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Rhode Island. Narduzzi should be high on Pittsburgh’s list.
Matt Rhule, Head Coach, Temple
Rhule is a coach with several years of experience in the state of Pennsylvania. He’s a native of State College and played under Joe Paterno at Penn State. Rhule’s coaching career started at Albright College in 1998 and continued with stops at Buffalo and UCLA before landing at Western Carolina from 2002-05. After a four-year stint with the Catamounts, Rhule coached under Al Golden at Temple from 2006-10 and remained on staff during Steve Addazio’s first season. Rhule left Philadelphia to coach with the Giants in 2012 but returned to Temple after Addazio was hired by Boston College. In two years with the Owls, Rhule’s record is 8-16, but the program made significant progress from 2013 to 2014. Temple was bowl eligible this season but did not receive a postseason bid after a 6-6 mark.
Greg Schiano, former Rutgers and Tampa Bay head coach
Schiano has been out of work since he was fired at the end of the 2013 NFL season at Tampa Bay. In two years with the Buccaneers, Schiano went 11-21, but he was a successful college coach at Rutgers from 2001-11. Under his watch, the Scarlet Knights went 68-67 and made six bowl appearances over the last seven years in his tenure. Schiano didn’t inherit much to work with when he was hired at Rutgers and needed a few years to build the talent base, which is why the Scarlet Knights went 8-27 through his first three seasons. Schiano’s recruiting connections in New Jersey could be a huge boost for Pittsburgh.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Shoop has emerged as one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators over the last four years and deserves consideration as one of the top assistant hires in 2014 after Penn State’s defense held opponents to 17.7 points per game this season. Prior to 2014, Shoop worked at Vanderbilt under James Franklin. The Commodores ranked fifth in the SEC in scoring defense in 2012 and sixth in the conference in fewest yards per play in 2013. Shoop also has stops as an assistant at William & Mary, UMass, Boston College, Army, Villanova, Yale and Northeastern. He also spent three years as Columbia’s head coach (2003-05).
Matt Wells, Head Coach, Utah State
Wells’ name has popped up on the radar for jobs at Tulsa and Oregon State this offseason, but he decided to remain at Utah State after interest from both programs. Wells coaches at his alma mater, so it’s not going to be easy for him to leave Utah State. Could a job at a Power 5 program interest the Oklahoma native? Wells spent time as an assistant at Navy, Tulsa, New Mexico and Louisville prior to joining Gary Andersen’s staff at Utah State in 2011. After Andersen left for Wisconsin, Wells was promoted to head coach and the Aggies are 18-9 under his watch. Wells’ record at Utah State is impressive considering the program has been dealing with significant injuries at quarterback the last two years and is starting a true freshman after its top three options were injured in 2014.
Oregon’s hopes of winning the college football national championship took a hit on Wednesday, as reports indicated top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a significant knee injury in practice.
Yahoo Sports reported Ekpre-Olomu’s injury occurred during Tuesday’s practice and there’s concern the top cornerback suffered a torn ACL. The senior is not expected to play in Oregon’s upcoming game against Florida State.
Ekpre-Olomu was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports and the Associated Press for 2014. The senior recorded 63 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups in 13 games this season.
Without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks are expected to ask more of Dior Mathis and Chris Seisay at cornerback.
Troy Hill is expected to slide into the No. 1 cornerback spot, and the senior has recorded 57 tackles, one interception and 16 pass breakups this season. Hill was a second-team All-Pac-12 selection this season.
Losing Ekpre-Olomu – one of the nation’s top defenders – is a significant loss for Oregon’s defense in the Rose Bowl against Florida State. The matchup between the Ducks and Seminoles was expected to be a high-scoring affair. Now, Oregon coordinator Don Pellum has to regroup with less than a month to prepare.
The Ducks struggled at times on defense this year but held opponents to 23.8 points per game in Pac-12 matchups this year. Pellum’s group also allowed 5.4 yards per play and ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in third-down defense.
Needless to say, those numbers (and struggles) will be magnified in the Rose Bowl without Ekpre-Olomu against Florida State’s explosive offense.
The Seminoles average 34.8 points per game and 6.4 yards per play. Quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman in 2013 but tossed 17 picks in 2014. Winston’s increase in interceptions was due to a variety of factors, including new targets at receiver and a struggling offensive line.
However, despite the increase in turnovers, Florida State’s offense has been operating at a high level and became even more dangerous over the second half of 2014 with the emergence of running back Dalvin Cook.
Ekpre-Olomu was expected to be aligned against top receiver Rashad Greene, who caught 93 passes for 1,306 yards and seven scores in 2014. Greene was also an Athlon Sports All-American in 2014 and is clearly the favorite target for Winston.
By no means does Ekpre-Olomu’s injury end Oregon’s national title hopes. With quarterback Marcus Mariota and an array of weapons on offense, the Ducks can outscore any team in the playoff. However, the Ducks are going to need stops at some point to beat Florida State. Can Pellum mix and match the right combinations in the secondary to slow down Winston and Greene? If not, the Ducks are going to be looking at a quick exit in the playoff.
Sources: #Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered what is believed to be a serious knee injury in practice yesterday. Concern it's a torn ACL.— Rand Getlin (@Rand_Getlin) December 17, 2014
College football’s regular season is complete, and all that’s left of the 2014 season is 39 bowl games, including the first four-team playoff format in FBS history. While the season is over and fans for some teams are already planning for next season, it’s never too early (or late) to look back at the year that was and honor some of the top players, teams and coaches.
Athlon concludes its slate of regular season honors with the 2014 national awards, as well as a look ahead at some of the rising stars, coaches on the hot seat and coordinators to watch in 2015.
College Football’s 2014 National Awards
Offensive Player of the Year: Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
Mariota was the best player in college football this season – and it wasn’t close. The junior passed for 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns and added 669 yards and 14 scores on the ground. Mariota was incredibly efficient, completing 68.3 percent of his passes and tossing only two interceptions on 372 attempts. The junior led the nation by averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt in 2014.
2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
4. Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana
5. Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
Defensive Player of the Year: Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
Wright’s breakout season was a key cog in Arizona’s Pac-12 South title. The sophomore recorded 153 tackles (28 for a loss), 14 sacks and forced six fumbles. Wright’s 28 tackles for loss and six forced fumbles led the nation, and the California native acquired plenty of hardware this offseason, winning the Lombari, Bednarik and Nagurski Awards.
2. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
3. Nate Orchard, DE, Utah
4. Malcom Brown, DT, Texas
5. Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
Breakout player: Tevin Coleman, RB, Indiana
Coleman led Indiana with 958 rushing yards last season and was expected to see an increase in production after playing in only nine games in 2013. However, Coleman easily shattered preseason expectations by rushing for 2,036 yards and 15 scores. The junior averaged 7.5 yards per carry and managed his production despite Indiana’s passing offense struggling after an injury to quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
2. Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
3. Gerod Holliman, S, Louisville
4. Martrell Spaight, LB, Arkansas
5. William Likely, CB, Maryland
Coach of the Year: Gary Patterson, TCU
Patterson pushed all of the right buttons to get TCU back on track after a 4-8 record in 2013. The hire of Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie as co-offensive coordinators paid big dividends for the offense, while the defense led the Big 12 in fewest points allowed. The Horned Frogs were just a play or two away from making the college football playoff, which is quite a turnaround for a program that went 6-12 in its first two years in the Big 12.
2. Justin Fuente, Memphis
3. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
5. Rich Rodriguez, Arizona
Coordinator of the Year: Tom Herman, Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Three. That’s how many starting quarterbacks Ohio State has cycled through since August, as Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in fall workouts, and redshirt freshman backup J.T. Barrett was lost for the year with a leg injury against Michigan. But under Herman’s direction, the Buckeyes never missed a beat on offense. Sophomore Cardale Jones made his first start in the Big Ten Championship and completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores, guiding Ohio State to a 59-0 win over Wisconsin. Despite the injuries at quarterback and four new starters on the offensive line, the Buckeyes averaged 45.2 points per game and averaged seven yards per play in 2014.
2. Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
3. Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
4. Dave Steckel, Defensive Coordinator, Missouri
5. Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Best New Coach Hire for 2014: Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern
With Georgia Southern transitioning from the FCS to FBS ranks, the Eagles were unable to play for a bowl. But that shouldn’t diminish Fritz’s first season, as the former Sam Houston State coach guided Georgia Southern to a 9-3 mark and nearly recorded wins over NC State and Georgia Tech. The Eagles were unbeaten in Sun Belt play and led the nation with an average of 379.9 rushing yards per game. Georgia Southern is a program with a strong track record on the FCS level, and under Fritz’s direction, the Eagles will be one of the top programs in the Sun Belt.
2. Bill Clark, UAB
3. Bobby Petrino, Louisville
4. Bryan Harsin, Boise State
5. Charlie Strong, Texas
Best Coordinator Hire for 2014: Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
Meacham and fellow co-coordinator Sonny Cumbie provide an instant fix for TCU’s offense. The Horned Frogs averaged only 25.1 points per game in 2013 and ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in yards per play. However, in Meacham’s first year, TCU emerged as one of the top offenses in the nation, and quarterback Trevone Boykin showed significant improvement after struggling under center in 2013. The Horned Frogs averaged 6.8 yards per play (ranked No. 1 in the Big 12) and 46.8 points per game. TCU’s improved offense is a big reason why this team had a chance at a playoff spot in 2014.
2. Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
3. Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
4. Lance Anderson, Defensive Coordinator, Stanford
5. Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Biggest Surprise: TCU
TCU entered the season with low expectations after a 4-8 mark last season. Combine the losing record with a new offensive coordinator, uncertain quarterback situation and only three starters returning on offense, it’s easy to see why the Horned Frogs were picked outside of the top 25 in most preseason polls. But TCU quickly showed why it was one of the nation’s most-improved squads, beating Oklahoma 37-33 in early October and nearly defeating Baylor (61-58) a week later. The Horned Frogs were expected to show improvement after last season’s 4-8 mark. However, finishing 11-1 with a chance to make the playoffs was quite a surprise for coach Gary Patterson’s team.
2. Mississippi State
4. Western Michigan
Biggest Disappointment: Oklahoma
Everything seemed to suggest Oklahoma was ready to emerge as a national title contender in 2014. The Sooners won 11 games in what most considered a rebuilding year (2013), defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and returned 14 starters with a chunk of those earning all-conference honors this preseason. Instead of building off last year’s 11-win season, Oklahoma slumped to 8-4 and lost three games at home. The Sooners finished fourth in the Big 12 with a 5-4 conference record and lost to rival Oklahoma State in the regular season finale. Oklahoma has the talent to rebound in 2015, but this team will enter next year with lower expectations after underachieving this season.
2. South Carolina
3. Virginia Tech
Best Freshman: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Barrett ensured Ohio State’s offense wouldn’t miss a beat with Braxton Miller sidelined in August with a shoulder injury. The redshirt freshman passed for 2,834 yards and 34 scores and rushed for 938 yards and 11 touchdowns prior to a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Barrett also earned fourth-team All-America honors by Athlon Sports for 2014.
2. Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma
3. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
4. Cam Robinson, OL, Alabama
5. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
Best All-Around in 2014: Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Thompson was the nation’s top two-way player in 2014, and not only was the junior one of Washington’s top defenders, but a case could be made he was also the team’s top offensive threat. Thompson ranked fourth on the team with 71 stops (two tackles for a loss), recorded one sack, one interception and forced three fumbles. On offense, Thompson rushed for 456 yards and two scores and averaged a healthy 7.5 yards per carry.
Most-Improved Player: Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU
Boykin went into the season as a question mark but exited as a Heisman candidate. The junior thrived under new co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie, passing for 3,714 yards and 30 scores. Boykin also completed 60.5 percent of his passes and added 642 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. The junior was named the Big 12’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Five Coaches on the Rise
1. Justin Fuente, Memphis
Fuente inherited a mess from former coach Larry Porter, but the Oklahoma native quickly transformed Memphis into a bowl team. The Tigers went 9-3 this year (Fuente’s third season) and claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference title.
2. Matt Wells, Utah State
Wells navigated a season-ending knee injury to quarterback Chuckie Keeton last year to make the Mountain West Championship and lost his top three passers this season to injuries. However, Utah State finished 9-4 overall and 6-2 in Mountain West play. Wells is 18-9 in two seasons in Logan.
3. Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern
Fritz guided Georgia Southern to a 9-3 mark and a perfect 8-0 record in Sun Belt play this year. Expect Fritz to keep the Eagles near the top of the Sun Belt in the coming seasons.
4. Bill Clark, UAB
Led UAB to a 6-6 mark in 2014, which was a three-game improvement from 2013. Clark is an excellent coach looking for work after UAB’s program was wrongfully discontinued.
5. Dino Babers, Bowling Green
Despite an injury to starting quarterback Matt Johnson, Babers guided Bowling Green to the MAC East title. In three season as a head coach (Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green), Babers has a 26-13 record.
Five Coordinators on the Rise
1. Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
Meacham’s has provided two programs (Houston and TCU) with a quick turnaround on offense. His next stop should be as a head coach on the FBS level.
2. Mike Norvell, Offensive Coordinator, Arizona State
Under Norvell’s direction, Arizona State’s offense has not finished lower than third in the Pac-12 in scoring.
3. Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
The Badgers returned only three starters on defense this year, yet held opponents to 20 points per game and 4.8 yards per play.
4. Scott Frost, Offensive Coordinator, Oregon
Frost has continued to build on Chip Kelly’s offense at Oregon, as the Ducks averaged 46.3 points per game in 2014.
5. Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
The Demon Deacons’ offense didn’t give their defense many breaks this season, but Elko developed a group that held opponents to 5.2 yards per play and ranked fifth in the ACC in sacks (conference-only games).
Five Coaches on the Hot Seat for 2015
1. Norm Chow, Hawaii
Hawaii is a tough job, and Chow is a native of Honolulu, so the veteran coach won’t be rushed out the door. However, the Warriors are just 8-29 under Chow’s watch and 4-20 in Mountain West play.
2. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
Injuries woes at quarterback hampered the Hoosiers in 2014, but Wilson has made progress during his four seasons in Bloomington. Indiana is one of the toughest jobs in the Big Ten and another 5-7 season could be enough for Wilson to return in 2016.
3. Ron Caragher, San Jose State
The Spartans have been trending in the wrong direction since Mike MacIntyre left for Colorado. Caragher went 6-6 in his debut but regressed to 3-9 in 2014. On a positive note, San Jose State returns a good chunk of its depth chart for 2015. With a good base of talent returning, the Spartans could take a step forward next year.
4. Mike London, Virginia
London saved his job by finishing 5-7 in 2014. The Cavaliers have recruited well, so talent isn’t an issue in Charlottesville. London needs to get Virginia back in the postseason next year.
5. Tim Beckman, Illinois
Similar to Mike London, Beckman saved his job with a successful 2014 campaign. Illinois went 6-6 and finished 3-5 in the Big Ten this year, elevating the program to its first bowl trip since 2011. Despite the 6-6 record, the Fighting Illini is just 12-24 under Beckman’s watch.
Five Players on the Rise in 2015
1. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
True freshman emerged as Florida State’s best running back over the second half of the season. Expect bigger and better things from Cook in 2015.
2. KD Cannon, WR, Baylor
Explosive playmaker averaged 16.7 yards per catch in 2014. The freshman should be an even bigger piece of Baylor’s passing offense next season.
3. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
Assuming Jameis Winston leaves for the NFL, Watson will be the top quarterback in the ACC next year.
4. Jeremy Johnson, QB, Auburn
Johnson has impressed in limited action, completing 28 of 37 passes for three touchdowns in 2014. Look for Johnson to assume the controls of coach Gus Malzahn’s high-powered offense.
5. Corey Clement, RB, Wisconsin
Melvin Gordon is off to the NFL after the Outback Bowl. Clement is Wisconsin’s next standout at running back.
Three Programs on the Rise for 2015
Bret Bielema has Arkansas trending in the right direction after the Razorbacks improved their total by three games from 2013 to 2014. Bielema’s team also lost to Alabama by just one point, by seven to Mississippi State and by seven in overtime against Texas A&M. This team was much closer to 8-4 or even 9-3 than some may realize.
The Volunteers are back in the postseason this year after a three-season absence. Coach Butch Jones is recruiting well and several young players made a significant contribution in 2014. That’s a positive sign for Tennessee in 2015 and beyond, as Jones should have the Volunteers around the top 25-30 teams in the nation next year.
New coach Tom Herman’s background on offense should pay dividends for the Cougars in 2015. Whether it’s Greg Ward or John O’Korn under center, Houston has the pieces to have one of the top offenses in the American Athletic Conference. And it’s not out of the question the Cougars contend for the conference title in 2015.
The impact of freshmen on a college football season seems to grow each year. There’s no shortage of talent in the freshmen ranks in 2014, with several making a splash on the national stage. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was considered one of the candidates to go to New York for the Heisman ceremony prior to his season-ending leg injury against Michigan. In addition to Barrett, Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine broke the single-game rushing record set by Melvin Gordon, while Royce Freeman was a key cog in Oregon’s Pac-12 Championship.
The overload of freshmen talent continued on defense with the emergence of Texas A&M defensive lineman Myles Garrett and Virginia safety Quin Blanding. Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett had a breakout year and is a key piece of coach Butch Jones’ rebuilding effort in Knoxville.
Compiling the all-freshman team is no easy task. Several worthy players missed the cut, as we tried to combine stats, talent and playing time to piece together the all-freshman teams for 2014.
College Football's 2014 Postseason All-Freshman Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense||Third-Team Offense|
|QB J.T. Barrett|
|QB Anu Solomon|
|QB Brad Kaaya|
|RB Samaje Perine|
|RB Jarvion Franklin|
|RB Leonard Fournette|
|RB Nick Chubb|
|RB Dalvin Cook|
|RB Justin Jackson|
|RB Royce Freeman|
|RB Nick Wilson|
|RB Larry Rose III|
|WR KD Cannon|
|WR Artavis Scott|
|WR DaeSean Hamilton|
|WR Mike Dudek|
|WR Devonte Boyd|
|WR Devon Allen|
|TE Bucky Hodges|
|TE Austin Hooper|
|TE Cam Serigne|
|OL Cam Robinson|
|OL Mason Cole|
|OL Viane Talamaivao|
|OL Rod Johnson|
|OL Jashon Robertson|
|OL Tyrell Crosby|
|OL Toa Lobendahn|
|OL Billy Price|
|OL Reggie Bain|
|OL Tejan Koroma|
|OL Andrew Nelson|
|OL Wyatt Teller|
OL Conor McDermott
|OL Ramsey Meyers|
|OL Brian Allen|
|AP Adoree Jackson|
|AP Speedy Noil|
|AP Jalin Marshall|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense||Third-Team Defense|
|DL Myles Garrett|
|DL Davon Godchaux|
|DL Javon Rolland-Jones|
|DL Derek Barnett|
|DL Lowell Lotulelei|
|DL Kemoko Turay|
|DL Marquis Haynes|
|DL Steven Richardson|
|DL Tashon Smallwood|
|DL KeShun Freeman|
|DL K.J. Smith|
|DL Malik McDowell|
|LB Lorenzo Carter|
|LB Jerod Fernandez|
|LB Peter Kalambayi|
|LB Darron Lee|
|LB Ja'Whaun Bentley|
|LB Nigel Bowden|
|LB Taylor Young|
|LB D.J. Calhoun|
|LB Armand Perry|
|LB Raekwon McMillan|
|DB Dravon Henry|
|DB Parry Nickerson|
|DB Eli Apple|
|DB Kamari Cotton-Moya|
|DB Marcus Allen|
|DB Budda Baker|
|DB Armani Watts|
|DB Jalen Tabor|
|DB Quin Blanding|
|DB Ranthony Texada|
|DB Nick Johnson|
|DB Jamal Adams|
|DB Mackensie Alexander|
|DB Sidney Jones|
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists||Third-Team Specialists|
|K Matthew McCrane|
|K Rafael Gaglianone|
|K Austin MacGinnis|
|P JK Scott|
|P Joe Davidson|
|P Will Gleeson|
|KR Stanley Williams|
|KR Darius Phillips|
|KR Evan Berry|
|PR De'Mornay Pierson-El|
|PR Charles Nelson|
PR Isaiah McKenzie
Auburn took the first step in fixing its struggling defense by hiring former Florida coach Will Muschamp as the team’s new coordinator. Muschamp was a hot commodity among teams looking for a new defensive signal-caller, and his arrival on the Plains should provide immediate improvement for a unit that allowed 32.8 points per game in SEC contests.
After struggling on defense over the last two years, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn had to find some answers this offseason. Dismissing Ellis Johnson as the team’s coordinator was the first step in necessary changes. Replacing a coordinator isn’t necessarily the only problem or an easy solution to transforming a defense into an elite SEC unit. However, the addition of Muschamp is going to pay off for Auburn in 2015.
After Malzahn managed to reel in Muschamp for his staff, the challenge of fixing Auburn’s defense has to start in bowl practices and has to continue onto the recruiting trail until Signing Day in early February. While Muschamp’s scheme, experience and teaching will help the defense take a step forward on the stat sheet, this unit still needs more talent and overall depth.
While Muschamp didn’t win enough games at Florida to keep his job in 2015, defense certainly wasn’t a problem.
The Gators ranked among the top six in the SEC in fewest points allowed from 2011-14 and ranked fourth nationally in 2012 by limiting opponents to just 4.35 yards per play.
Defenses Under Will Muschamp Since 2006
|Year||Team||Points Per Game Allowed||Yards Per Play Allowed|
Under Johnson’s watch, Auburn’s defense allowed 29.6 points per contest in SEC play and increased that mark to 32.8 allowed in 2014. The Tigers also gave up 6.4 yards per play over the last two seasons. Auburn also allowed 24 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014 and surrendered 35 in 2013. The Tigers managed to win the SEC despite a struggling defense in 2013 but allowed 42 points per game in four losses in 2014. Regardless of how explosive a team’s offense is, allowing over 40 points per game simply won’t get it done in the SEC.
It’s hard to fault Johnson for all of the problems on defense, as the Tigers didn’t have the depth or talent on this side of the ball to challenge some of the top groups in the SEC. Only two Auburn defenders were selected for honors on the coaches All-SEC team for 2014, and both players – Jonathan Jones and Jonathon Mincy – are defensive backs.
A big problem in 2014 was a pass rush that generated only 20 sacks. End Carl Lawson was slated to be one of the team’s impact defenders, but he missed all of 2014 due to an ACL injury.
Getting Lawson back will allow Muschamp to build an aggressive front seven, and Auburn had only three seniors listed as starters on the two-deep for the Iron Bowl matchup against Alabama.
Could Muschamp be the offseason’s biggest coordinator hire? It’s certainly possible. But for Auburn to challenge Alabama, Ole Miss or Alabama as the best defense in the SEC next season or in 2016, the Tigers have to get immediate contributions from freshmen or find a few junior college recruits that can make an instant impact.
Muschamp adds instant credibility to a defense that has struggled over the last two years. While the head coaching gig at Florida didn’t work out, look for Muschamp to find a few answers for Auburn, allowing the Tigers to take a step forward on defense in 2015.
With the conclusion of the regular season, it’s time to reflect on the college football season and honor the best of the best from 2014. There were plenty of outstanding individual and team performances this year, and of course, we can’t forget about the new four-team playoff, which added a new element of intrigue to the season.
As the college football world prepares for the bowl season, Athlon Sports handing out hardware to the nation’s best players from this year.
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 four teams.
Athlon Sports 2014 All-America Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense||Third-Team Offense||Fourth-Team Offense|
|QB Marcus Mariota|
|QB Trevone Boykin|
|QB Dak Prescott|
|QB J.T. Barrett|
|RB Tevin Coleman|
|RB James Conner|
|RB Jay Ajayi|
|RB David Cobb|
|RB Melvin Gordon|
|RB Ameer Abdullah|
|RB Duke Johnson|
|RB Samaje Perine|
|WR Amari Cooper|
|WR Tyler Lockett|
|WR Nelson Agholor|
|WR Tyler Boyd|
|WR Kevin White|
|WR Rashad Greene|
|WR Jaelen Strong|
|WR Justin Hardy|
|WR Rashard Higgins|
|AP Tyreek Hill|
|AP D.J. Foster|
|AP Marcus Murphy|
|TE Nick O'Leary|
|TE Clive Walford|
|TE Maxx Williams|
|TE Evan Engram|
C Reese Dismukes
|C Hroniss Grasu|
|C B.J. Finney|
|C Jack Allen|
|G Tre Jackson|
|G Arie Kouandjio|
|G Shaquille Mason|
|G Ben Beckwith|
|G A.J. Cann|
|G Laken Tomlinson|
|T Daryl Williams|
|T/C Cameron Erving|
|T Brandon Scherff|
|T Rob Havenstein|
|T Jake Fisher|
|T Andrus Peat|
|T Spencer Drango|
|T La'el Collins|
|T Laremy Tunsil|
|T Jack Conklin|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense||Third-Team|
|DE Joey Bosa|
|DE Shane Ray|
|DE Markus Golden|
|DE Nate Orchard|
|DE Leonard Williams|
DE Henry Anderson
|DE Shilique Calhoun|
|DT Malcom Brown|
|DE Vic Beasley|
|DT Eddie Goldman|
|DT Anthony Zettel|
|DT Danny Shelton|
|DT Michael Bennett|
|DT Grady Jarrett|
|DT Robert Nkemdiche|
|LB Scooby Wright|
|LB Paul Dawson|
|LB Benardrick McKinney|
|LB Zach Vigil|
|LB Hau'oli Kikaha|
|LB Denzel Perryman|
|LB Mike Hull|
|LB Jake Ryan|
|LB Eric Kendricks|
|LB Shaq Thompson|
|LB Jaylon Smith|
|LB Eric Striker|
|CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu|
|CB Trae Waynes|
|CB Kendall Fuller|
|CB William Likely|
|CB Senquez Golson|
|CB Zack Sanchez|
|CB Doran Grant|
|S Landon Collins|
|S Jalen Ramsey|
|S Kurtis Drummond|
|S Chris Hackett|
|S Gerod Holliman|
|S Cody Prewitt|
|S Su'a Cravens|
|S Darian Thompson|
|K Roberto Aguayo|
|K Brad Craddock|
|K Andy Phillips|
|K Josh Lambert|
|P Tom Hackett|
|P JK Scott|
P Austin Rehkow
|P Peter Mortell|
|KR J.J. Nelson|
|KR Alex Ross|
|KR Marcus Murphy|
|KR Ty Montgomery|
|PR Tyler Lockett|
|PR Kaelin Clay|
|PR De'Mornay Pierson-El|
|PR Quan Bray|
College football’s bowl season kicks off on Saturday, Dec. 20 and extends until Jan. 12 with the national championship in Arlington, Texas in the first year of the four-team playoff. With the bowl lineup set and confidence pools and pick’em contests set to start on Dec. 20, Athlon’s editors give their predictions for the bowl season.
Alabama is the consensus playoff champion, but there’s some disagreement on the Oregon-Florida State matchup. And there’s no shortage of variance on some of the smaller bowls, including the Liberty, Russell Athletic, Alamo and Hawaii.
Note: Number in parentheses indicates confidence in prediction. A No. 38 ranking indicates more confidence in the prediction, while a lower number indicates less confidence in a pick.
College Football's 2014-15 Bowl Predictions
|Heart of Dallas||(3)||(2)||(21)||(15)||(6)|
It’s the first year of the college football playoff, so there’s plenty of new surrounding the format, including a championship trophy and rings to the winning team.
Earlier this week, the college football championship playoff ring was unveiled. And the ring certainly isn’t missing in the wow factor department.
Check out the new rings coming to the champion of the college football playoff:
Wisconsin is surprisingly looking for a new head coach after Gary Andersen left Madison for Oregon State. Andersen went 19-7 in two years with the Badgers, including a 10-3 record and a Big Ten West Division title in 2014.
Wisconsin is a solid program with a track record of success and is the No. 2 job behind Nebraska in the West Division. Andersen isn’t leaving the cupboard bare in Madison, but star running back Melvin Gordon is set to depart for the NFL after the Outback Bowl game against Auburn.
At the start of the 2015 season, athletic director Barry Alvarez will have worked with his third head coach in four years.
14 Candidates to Replace Gary Andersen at Wisconsin
Steve Addazio, Head Coach, Boston College
Addazio has spent a good chunk of his coaching career in the Northeast, so he may not be too eager to leave Boston College. However, if Addazio wants to leave Chestnut Hill, the Connecticut native would be a good fit at Wisconsin. In two years with the Eagles, Addazio is 14-11 and went 8-8 in ACC play during that span. Prior to Boston College, Addazio went 13-11 in two years at Temple. Addazio is known as a run-first coach, and his style of play would work well at Wisconsin.
Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
Aranda is the best choice if athletic director Barry Alvarez wants to promote from within to replace Gary Andersen. Aranda was hired at Utah State by Andersen in 2012 and followed the coaching staff to Madison in 2013. Under Aranda’s watch, Wisconsin’s defense allowed 4.7 yards per play in 2013 and 4.8 in 2014. The Badgers also held opponents to 20 points per game in 2014. Aranda does not have any head coaching experience. Prior to Wisconsin, he worked as an assistant at Hawaii, Southern Utah and Houston.
Darrell Bevell, Offensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks
Bevell has ties to the Wisconsin program as a former quarterback under Barry Alvarez. The Arizona native has not worked on the collegiate level since 1999 but has worked his way up the ladder in the NFL and has called the plays for Seattle since 2011. Prior to joining the Seahawks, Bevell worked with the Vikings and the Packers. Bevell is familiar with the program and would be a solid fit in Madison. However, there would likely be an adjustment period as he gets acclimated back to college.
Craig Bohl, Head Coach, Wyoming
Bohl just completed his first season at Wyoming, recording a 4-8 overall record and a 2-6 mark in conference play. Although Bohl’s first season with the Cowboys was a struggle, it’s not a surprise considering Wyoming was picked near the bottom of the Mountain West’s Mountain Division. However, prior to Wyoming, Bohl led North Dakota State to a 104-32 record and three consecutive FCS national championships. The Nebraska native also spent time as an assistant at Nebraska, Duke, Rice and Wisconsin prior to taking the top job with the Bison in 2003. It’s a longshot, but Bohl is a better coach than his record showed in 2014 at Wyoming.
Matt Campbell, Head Coach, Toledo
Much like Wyoming’s Craig Bohl, Campbell is probably a longshot to replace Andersen in Madison. However, Campbell is a rising star in the coaching ranks and should be in the mix for jobs at the Power 5 level in the coming seasons. Campbell is 25-13 in three full years with the Rockets and has guided the program to two bowl appearances. He also coached the 2011 Military Bowl win over Air Force after Tim Beckman left for Illinois. Campbell is from Ohio and played his college ball at Mount Union.
Rod Carey, Head Coach, Northern Illinois
Carey is a Madison native and has Big Ten experience after a playing career at Indiana and a stop at Minnesota as a graduate assistant. Carey worked his way through the assistant ranks prior to taking over as Northern Illinois’ coach in 2011. He had stops at Illinois State and North Dakota as an offensive line coach and spent two years with the Huskies before he was promoted after Dave Doeren left for NC State. Carey is 23-5 in two full seasons with Northern Illinois. A longshot, but Carey has kept the Huskies among the top programs in the MAC.
Paul Chryst, Head Coach, Pittsburgh
If there’s a perfect fit for Wisconsin, it has to be Chryst. The current Pittsburgh coach is a Madison native, played quarterback at Wisconsin and coached with the Badgers in 2002 and 2005-11. Chryst is just 19-19 through three seasons with the Panthers but guided the program to three consecutive bowl appearances. The Madison native did not inherit the best of roster situations when he came to Pittsburgh, and the program seems to be trending up after finishing with a .500 mark in conference play after a 3-5 record in 2013. Chryst also runs Wisconsin’s style of play and would be an easy transition for the players after two years under Andersen.
Dave Doeren, Head Coach, NC State
If not Chryst, what about another former Wisconsin assistant? Doeren is two years into his tenure at NC State and guided the Wolfpack to a bowl in 2014 after a 3-9 mark in his first season. Prior to his stint at NC State, Doeren spent two years at Northern Illinois and went 23-4 from 2011-12. Doeren worked under former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema from 2006-10 as the team’s defensive coordinator and also has stops as an assistant at Kansas and Montana.
Justin Fuente, Head Coach, Memphis
Fuente is 16-20 in three seasons at Memphis, but his record is why it’s difficult to judge a coach just on wins and losses. The Tigers were among the nation’s worst programs prior to his arrival, and Fuente made steady gains from 2012-13. Memphis also made the transition from Conference USA to the American Athletic Conference, which increased the overall strength of schedule. The Tigers improved significantly in Fuente’s third year (2014), finishing 9-3 and claiming a share of the conference title with a 7-1 mark in American Athletic Conference play. Prior to Memphis, Fuente worked as an assistant under Gary Patterson at TCU.
Al Golden, Head Coach, Miami
Golden’s name popped up in the rumor mill the last time Wisconsin had an opening. Is he interested in leaving Miami after a 6-6 record in 2014? Golden is 28-21 in four seasons with the Hurricanes and went 27-34 in five years at Temple. Golden inherited a mess at Temple and led the Owls back to respectability and a 17-8 record in his last two seasons. Success at Miami hasn’t been experienced on a large scale for Golden, but the program also had to deal with a scandal that impacted recruiting. Golden is certainly familiar with the Big Ten, as he played at Penn State and spent one season with the Nittany Lions (2000) as the team’s linebacker coach.
Tom Herman, Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
It’s been a busy season for Herman. Not only has the Ohio native had to replace two starting quarterbacks due to injury, but he also won the Broyles Award for the nation’s top assistant. Herman is considered one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks and has experience from stops at Texas State, Rice and Iowa State prior to his three years with the Buckeyes. Herman does not have any head coaching experience.
Pete Lembo, Head Coach, Ball State
Lembo is coming off a 5-7 season at Ball State, but he’s still considered one of the top coaches in the MAC. In four years with the Cardinals, Lembo has a 30-20 record and guided the program to a 19-7 mark from 2012-13. Prior to taking over in Muncie, Lembo had stops as a head coach at Elon (2006-10) and Lehigh (44-14). Lembo was successful at both jobs, which included appearances in the FCS playoffs. There’s a clear track record of success with Lembo at three different programs. However, would the 5-7 mark in 2014 make him a tough sell to Wisconsin fans?
Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi is one of the top defensive minds in the nation and is always in the rumor mill for openings every offseason. The Ohio native is in no hurry to leave Michigan State, but if he’s ready to be a FBS head coach, Wisconsin would be a good landing spot. Narduzzi has coordinated some of the Big Ten’s top defenses since coming to East Lansing, as the Spartans allowed just 19.9 points per game in 2014, and Michigan State ranked first nationally by holding opponents to four yards per play in 2013. Prior to joining coach Mark Dantonio’s staff before the 2007 season, Narduzzi spent time as an assistant at Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio) and Northern Illinois.
Greg Schiano, Former Head Coach at Rutgers/Tampa Bay
Schiano has been out of work since he was dismissed with the Buccaneers after a 4-12 record in 2013. Prior to the two-year stint at Tampa Bay, Schiano was a successful coach in the collegiate ranks with a 68-67 record at Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights struggled mightily prior to his arrival but went to six bowl games over his final seven seasons. Schiano is also believed to be in the mix at Michigan.
The SEC’s trophy case is already full of championships during the BCS era, but the conference is set to once again welcome a handful of national award winners to its collection of previous talent. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper was one of the best players in the nation this year and is a lock for All-America honors after catching 115 passes. But Cooper isn’t the only Crimson Tide player likely to win awards, as coordinator Lane Kiffin was one of the top candidates for the Broyles Award that went to Ohio State offensive coordinator Tom Herman, and safety Landon Collins should be a first-team All-American.
Missouri is another one of the big winners in the award selections by Athlon Sports, as defensive end Shane Ray earns defensive player of the year honors. Ray and fellow end Markus Golden were both selected to the Athlon Sports first-team All-SEC squad.
Outside of the two division champs, Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen checks in as coach of the year, while South Carolina receiver Pharoh Cooper is the league’s top breakout player.
SEC 2014 Season Awards
Coach of the Year: Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Mullen elevated Mississippi State into the SEC and national title mix this season, guiding the program to a 10-2 mark with a second-place finish in the brutal West Division. The Bulldogs ranked No. 1 in the first college football playoff rankings and ranked inside of the top four until a loss to Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Mullen’s 10-2 mark was the best of his tenure in Starkville, and the Bulldogs are set to make their first appearance in the Orange Bowl since 1940 this season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Cooper was easily the best player in the SEC this season. The junior thrived under the watch of coordinator Lane Kiffin by catching 115 passes for 1,656 yards and 14 scores. Cooper averaged 14.4 yards per catch and nearly nine receptions per game (8.8.). The junior delivered in Alabama’s biggest games in 2014, including a huge performance (13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns) in the Iron Bowl win over Auburn and a 12-catch afternoon against Missouri in the SEC Championship.
Defensive Player of the Year: Shane Ray, DE, Missouri
Strong consideration for Alabama safety Landon Collins and Missouri defensive end Markus Golden are needed here, but Ray gets the edge as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. The junior led all SEC defenders with 12.5 sacks, including two in a critical road win at South Carolina in late September. Ray also led all SEC defenders with 21 tackles for a loss, recorded 61 tackles and forced two fumbles.
Newcomer of the Year: D’haquille Williams, WR, Auburn
A knee injury slowed Williams in November, but he finished the season with 45 catches for 730 yards and five scores. The junior college transfer recorded four 100-yard performances and caught two scores against Mississippi State. Williams teamed with Sammie Coates to give Auburn one of the nation’s most-talented duos at receiver in 2014.
Freshman of the Year: Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
It’s a tossup between Garrett, Georgia running back Nick Chubb and Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson. A slight edge goes to Garrett here, as it’s not easy being an impact defender as a true freshman in the SEC. Garrett was a bright spot for Texas A&M’s defense in 2014, recording 50 tackles (12.5 tackles for a loss), one pass breakup and 11 sacks in 11 games. Expect Garrett to be one of the leading candidates for All-America honors at defensive end in 2015.
Coordinator of the Year: Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Kiffin inherited plenty of talent, but the former USC coach was instrumental in the emergence of receiver Amari Cooper and the development of quarterback Blake Sims. Cooper was one of the nation’s top talents at receiver coming into 2014, but his numbers as a sophomore dipped after a promising freshman campaign. Under Kiffin’s watch, Cooper emerged as a Heisman finalist by catching 115 passes for 1,656 yards and 14 scores. Sims went into the preseason as a question mark, yet finished as a second-team All-SEC quarterback. Alabama averaged 6.4 yards per play and 34.2 points per contest in SEC games this season. The Crimson Tide also scored at least 40 points in each of their final three contests.
Breakout Player of the Year: Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina
Cooper caught only three passes for 54 yards last season, but big things were expected from the sophomore in 2014. And there’s no doubt Cooper delivered. The North Carolina native led all South Carolina receivers with 60 catches for 966 yards and eight scores. Cooper also rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns and recorded 78 punt return yards on 14 attempts. Cooper is expected to be one of the SEC’s top receivers and all-purpose threats returning for 2015.
SEC 2014 All-Conference Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense|
|QB Dak Prescott|
|QB Blake Sims|
|RB Cameron Artis-Payne|
|RB Josh Robinson|
|RB Nick Chubb|
|RB T.J. Yeldon|
|WR Amari Cooper|
|WR Laquon Treadwell|
|WR Pharoh Cooper|
|WR Bud Sasser|
|TE Evan Engram|
|TE Hunter Henry|
|C Reese Dismukes|
|C David Andrews|
|OG Arie Kouandjio|
|OG Vadal Alexander|
|OG A.J. Cann|
|OG Ben Beckwith|
|OT La'El Collins|
|OT Cam Robinson|
|OT Laremy Tunsil|
|OT Mitch Morse|
|AP Marcus Murphy|
|AP Speedy Noil|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense|
|DE Shane Ray|
|DE Dante Fowler|
|DE Markus Golden|
|DE Preston Smith|
|DE Myles Garrett|
|DE Derek Barnett|
|DT A'Shawn Robinson|
|DT Robert Nkemdiche|
|DL/LB Bud Dupree|
|LB Antonio Morrison|
|LB Benardrick McKinney|
|LB Trey DePriest|
|LB Martrell Spaight|
|LB Amarlo Herrera|
|CB Senquez Golson|
|CB Damian Swann|
|CB Vernon Hargreaves III|
|CB Jonathan Jones|
|S Landon Collins|
|S Braylon Webb|
|S Cody Prewitt|
|S Ronald Martin|
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists|
|K Austin MacGinnis|
|K Elliott Fry|
|P JK Scott|
|P Jamie Keehn|
|KR Marcus Murphy|
|KR Darrius Sims|
|PR Quan Bray|
|PR Andre Debose|
Florida State didn’t dominate its conference opponents in the fashion it did last season, but the Seminoles were still the best team in the league and feature nine first-team selections on Athlon’s All-ACC team for 2014.
Quarterback Jameis Winston tossed 17 interceptions but is still the conference’s most talented option under center. Winston earns first-team All-ACC honors at quarterback, with offensive teammates in receiver Rashad Greene (first), running back Dalvin Cook (second), tackle/center Cameron Erving (first) headlining the rest of the offensive selections.
Outside of Florida State, Clemson, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Miami and Pittsburgh were the big winners in Athlon’s postseason awards. Pittsburgh running back James Conner earns offensive player of the year honors, while Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley is the Athlon ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
ACC 2014 Season Awards
Coach of the Year: Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech
It’s a close call between Johnson and Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher for the ACC Coach of the Year award. Johnson gets a slight edge over Fisher, as Georgia Tech improved its win total by three games, beat rival Georgia and claimed the Coastal Division title. The Yellow Jackets also earned a spot in the Orange Bowl and recorded their first double-digit win total since 2009. Johnson’s track record at Georgia Tech doesn’t factor into the 2014 coach of the year honor, but it’s notable the Yellow Jackets have finished at least .500 or above in ACC play in each of the last seven seasons.
Offensive Player of the Year: James Conner, RB, Pittsburgh
Conner was the workhorse for coach Paul Chryst’s offense this season and overcame a late-season hip injury to lead Pittsburgh back to a bowl. The sophomore finished the year with 1,675 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Conner averaged a healthy 6.1 yards per carry on 277 attempts and recorded three games of at least 200 rushing yards. The Pennsylvania native ranked first among running backs in the ACC in carries, rushing yards and touchdowns. Conner's 24 rushing scores tied for third nationally.
Defensive Player of the Year: Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
It’s always tough to gauge statistics for defensive linemen since their impact goes beyond the box score. In Beasley’s case, it’s evident the senior is one of nation’s top ends by the film and on the stat sheet. The senior finished with only 29 tackles but recorded 18.5 for a loss and 11 sacks. Beasley also forced two fumbles and returned one recovered turnover for a 16-yard touchdown against NC State. The senior is considered one of the top defensive prospects for the 2015 NFL Draft.
Newcomer of the Year: Tyler Murphy, QB, Boston College
Murphy came to Boston College after four seasons at Florida and was immediately inserted as the starting quarterback in time for spring practice. Despite having just one offseason to get acclimated with his teammates and the program, Murphy was a driving force behind the Eagles’ 7-5 record. The senior finished third in the ACC with 1,074 rushing yards and recorded 10 touchdowns on 169 carries. Murphy also passed for 1,526 yards and 11 scores. The senior’s rushing ability was a valuable asset for coach Steve Addazio and nearly led Boston College to upset wins over Clemson and Florida State this year.
Freshman of the Year: Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
Florida State’s Dalvin Cook made a strong run at this award late in the year, but Kaaya gets the nod as Athlon’s ACC Freshman of the Year. The true freshman completed 202 of 345 passes for 2,962 yards and 25 touchdown passes. Kaaya led the ACC in quarterback rating (148.2) and averaged 14.6 yards per completion.
Coordinator of the Year: Todd Grantham, Defensive Coordinator, Louisville
Despite returning only four starters and changing schemes, Louisville’s defense ranked second in the ACC in fewest yards allowed per play (4.6) and held opponents to just 19.3 points in league play. The Cardinals generated 27 sacks in ACC games and finished second in the conference with 28 takeaways. Grantham’s defense also ranked first in the ACC against the run, while safety Gerod Holliman emerged as one of the top defensive breakout players in the conference by recording 14 interceptions and 37 tackles in 2014.
Breakout Player of the Year: Gerod Holliman, S, Louisville
Holliman had a breakout year under the watch of coordinator Todd Grantham. The junior recorded 37 tackles (three for a loss), one sack and led the nation with 14 interceptions in 12 games. On those 14 interceptions, Holliman recorded 245 return yards and returned one for a score against FIU. The junior also recorded one fumble for a loss and defeated 17 passes. Holliman is a first-team Athlon Sports All-ACC selection for 2014.
ACC 2014 All-Conference Team
|First-Team Offense||Second-Team Offense|
|QB Jameis Winston|
|QB Marquise Williams|
|RB James Conner|
|RB Dalvin Cook|
|RB Duke Johnson|
|RB Zach Laskey|
|WR Tyler Boyd|
|WR DeVante Parker|
|WR Rashad Greene|
|WR Artavis Scott|
|TE Nick O'Leary|
|TE Clive Walford|
|C Andy Gallik|
|C Shane McDermott|
|OG Tre Jackson|
|OG Shaquille Mason|
|OG Laken Tomlinson|
|OG Josue Matias|
OT T.J. Clemmings
|OT Jamon Brown|
|OT/C Cameron Erving|
|OT Ereck Flowers|
|AP Jamison Crowder|
|AP Shadrach Thornton (RB)|
|First-Team Defense||Second-Team Defense|
|DE Mario Edwards Jr.|
|DE Dadi Nicolas|
|DE Vic Beasley|
|DE Ken Ekanem|
|DT Eddie Goldman|
|DT Corey Marshall|
|DT Grady Jarrett|
|DT Adam Gotsis|
|LB Denzel Perryman|
|LB Lorenzo Mauldin|
|LB Stephone Anthony|
|LB Henry Coley|
LB David Helton
|LB Max Valles|
|CB Kendall Fuller|
|CB Kevin Johnson|
|CB P.J. Williams|
|CB D.J. White|
|S Jalen Ramsey|
|S Jeremy Cash|
|S Gerod Holliman|
|S Quin Blanding|
|First-Team Specialists||Second-Team Specialists|
|K Roberto Aguayo|
|K Ian Frye|
|P Will Baumann|
|P Alex Kinal|
|KR Darius Jennings|
|KR DeVon Edwards|
|PR Jamison Crowder|
|PR Tyler Boyd|
The annual matchup between Navy and Army is one of college football’s top – if not No. 1 – rivalry game.
On Monday, the Midshipmen unveiled an alternate uniform for Saturday’s game against the Black Knights.
These uniforms were inspired by the motto “Don’t Tread On Me” and are one of the best alternate jerseys college football has seen this year:
College football’s regular season is over and the postseason and playoff matchups are set. The bowl season kicks off in New Orleans on Dec. 20 and concludes with the national championship in Arlington, Texas. 39 bowl games are slated for this year's schedule, and the slate will increase to 40 in 2015.
Watching all 39 bowl games isn’t impossible, but it can be difficult prioritizing which matchups are must-see television around the holidays.
Athlon ranks and previews all of the matchups from the must-see to the ones you can avoid. From No. 1 to No. 39, here’s a look at the bowl matchups in terms of watchability and quality of game.
Ranking All 39 Bowl Games: Must-Watch to Must-See
1. College Football National Championship
Alabama/Ohio State vs. Oregon/Florida State
Jan. 12 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The new four-team playoff has added a new layer of intrigue to college football’s postseason format. Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State have a chance to advance to Arlington on Jan. 12 to play for the national championship. The Crimson Tide and the Ducks are the favorite to meet in Dallas, but it’s tough to count out the defending champions (Florida State) and a talented Ohio State team. Regardless of which teams make it to Arlington, this game is the No. 1 matchup to watch in the bowl season.
2. Rose Bowl – Oregon (12-1) vs. Florida State (13-0)
Jan. 1 – 5 p.m. ET, ESPN
Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston. Do we really need to add any additional reason to watch this game? Of course, there’s more at stake than impressing NFL scouts for the two quarterbacks, as a trip to Arlington for the national championship is on the line in the Rose Bowl. Florida State enters this matchup with a 29-game winning streak, while the Ducks cruised to a Pac-12 title after an early loss to Arizona in Eugene. With the offensive firepower on both sidelines, the defense that can make the most plays or generate the most stops will decide this matchup. Florida State has been hit hard by injuries on defense and battled youth on that side of the ball and faces its toughest test of the year against the Ducks. In addition to Mariota, Oregon has a 1,000-yard rusher in Royce Freeman and a handful of playmakers at receiver. This is the first meeting between these two programs – and it may end up being the most entertaining game of the postseason.
3. Sugar Bowl – Alabama (12-1) vs. Ohio State (12-1)
Jan. 1 – 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The first playoff game in the Rose Bowl is slightly more intriguing, but there are no shortage of storylines in New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl. Alabama hopes to add to Ohio State’s woes against SEC teams with a victory on Jan. 1. The Buckeyes are 1-5 in their last six bowl games against teams from the SEC, and coach Urban Meyer’s team is considered at least a touchdown underdog in the early lines from the Vegas oddsmakers. Quarterback Cardale Jones performed well in his first start in the Big Ten Championship, and Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman will have to work overtime to get the sophomore ready for all of the wrinkles coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will throw his way. But a bigger problem for Ohio State could be its defense, which has to find a way to slow down the Alabama ground attack, along with receiver Amari Cooper. This is only the fourth time Alabama and Ohio State met on the gridiron. And this is the first meeting between these two programs since 1995.
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4. Cotton Bowl – Michigan State (10-2) vs. Baylor (11-1)
Jan. 1 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Much like its in-conference brethren and in-state rival TCU, Baylor’s motivation will play a huge role in how the Cotton Bowl is decided. Will the Bears play hungry after being left out of the playoff? Or will coach Art Briles’ team struggle against one of the nation’s top defensive teams? Michigan State isn’t quite as dominant as it was last year on defense, but coordinator Pat Narduzzi kept this unit near the top of the nation in points allowed and fewest yards per play. And even with the strength of the Spartans on defense, stopping Baylor’s offense is a tough assignment. Michigan State needs to get pressure on quarterback Bryce Petty to disrupt the timing of the offense and limit the big plays from receivers Antwan Goodley, Corey Coleman and KD Cannon. And the Spartans can help themselves on offense by establishing running back Jeremy Langford and controlling the time of possession and pace of the game.
5. Peach Bowl – Ole Miss (9-3) vs. TCU (11-1)
Dec. 31 – 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Which TCU team will Ole Miss get in the Peach Bowl? Is it a squad angry about being left out of the four-team playoff? Or will the Horned Frogs struggle to find motivation? Either way, this game should be one of the better postseason matchups in 2014. The Rebels led the SEC in scoring defense (13.8 ppg) and forced turnovers (28). The pass defense was also stingy all season, limiting opponents to just eight passing scores in 12 games. TCU’s offense is one of the most-improved units in college football and averaged 46.8 points per game in the regular season. Quarterback Trevone Boykin threw for 30 touchdowns and added eight more scores on the ground. The matchup of TCU’s offense against the Ole Miss defense should be one of the better chess matches of the bowl season. When the Rebels have the ball, coach Hugh Freeze has to continue being creative due to injuries at receiver. Quarterback Bo Wallace has been up and down in his career but will have his opportunities for big plays against a TCU secondary that allowed 24 passing plays of 30 yards or more this year.
6. Outback Bowl – Wisconsin (10-3) vs. Auburn (8-4)
Jan. 1 – Noon ET, ESPN2
The Badgers and Tigers are two of the nation’s top rushing attacks and this Jan. 1 Big Ten-SEC showdown shouldn’t disappoint. Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon was held in check against Ohio State, but the junior still finished the regular season with 2,336 yards and 26 scores. And when Gordon needs a rest, backup Corey Clement is capable of providing some pop for the Wisconsin offense. Auburn has a different way of establishing its ground game, as running back Cameron Artis-Payne (1,482 yards) and quarterback Nick Marshall (780 yards) do most of their damage out of the shotgun and on read plays. Wisconsin’s offensive line should open up holes for Gordon against the Tigers’ struggling defense (4.1 ypc allowed, eighth in the SEC against the run), but how much can they get out of quarterback Joel Stave? If Auburn stacks the box, will Stave and his receivers have enough success to keep the Tigers honest?
7. Orange Bowl – Mississippi State (10-2) vs. Georgia Tech (10-3)
Dec. 31 – 8 p.m., ESPN
This Orange Bowl matchup is an unlikely pairing, but both Mississippi State and Georgia Tech have exceeded preseason expectations and meet for an interesting battle of styles in the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs soared to No. 1 in the first college football playoff standings behind quarterback Dak Prescott. Losses to Alabama and Ole Miss hurt Prescott’s Heisman hopes, but the junior is still one of the top signal-callers in college football. Prescott and running back Josh Robinson anchor an offense averaging 37.2 points per game in 2014 and will be a handful for Georgia Tech to stop after the Yellow Jackets allowed 6.2 yards per play this season. The option offense is tough to prepare for, and Georgia Tech’s passing has improved with quarterback Justin Thomas under center. Even though the Yellow Jackets are a difficult team to simulate in practice, Mississippi State has a month to prepare and ranked fourth in the SEC against the run.
8. Alamo Bowl – Kansas State (9-3) vs. UCLA (9-3)
Jan. 2 – 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
These two teams were on the doorstep of playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl, but late losses pushed UCLA and Kansas State just out of the mix. While both programs would prefer to be in the Cotton or Fiesta, their meeting in the Alamo Bowl should be one of the better matchups outside of the playoff games. UCLA hopes to rebound after a disappointing loss to Stanford in the regular season finale, and this game is expected to be the last for quarterback Brett Hundley in a Bruins’ uniform. Hundley tossed only five picks this season and completed 70.4 percent of his throws. Kansas State’s Jake Waters doesn’t get the national recognition of Hundley, but the senior threw for 3,163 yards and 20 scores and added 471 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Waters needs to get the ball to dynamic receiver Tyler Lockett, as UCLA’s secondary allowed 15 passing plays of 30 yards or more this season.
9. Fiesta Bowl – Boise State (11-2) vs. Arizona (10-3)
Dec. 31 – 4 p.m., ESPN
Boise State is one of the big winners from the new format, as the Broncos claim the Group of 5 bowl spot and draw an intriguing matchup against Arizona. The Wildcats were easily handled by Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, but coach Rich Rodriguez’s team didn’t fall far in the rankings. Both teams feature high-scoring offenses and defenses that are relatively similar in terms of points allowed (26.5 for Boise State and 27.5 for Arizona). The Broncos lean on running back Jay Ajayi (1,689 yards) to jumpstart the offense, and quarterback Grant Hedrick led the Mountain West in completion percentage (70.9). Arizona hopes the month off will allow quarterback Anu Solomon to return to full strength after the freshman dealt with an ankle injury late in the year. In addition to Solomon, running back Nick Wilson needs a rebound performance after he was held to 26 yards against Oregon. The Wildcats should have the edge in fan support with a short trip to Tucson to University of Phoenix Stadium. However, Boise State won’t be intimidated by the big stage and has two previous wins in the Fiesta Bowl.
10. Belk Bowl – Georgia (9-3) vs. Louisville (9-3)
Dec. 30 – 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Georgia and Louisville have never met on the gridiron, but there’s plenty of familiarity between the two programs. Todd Grantham spent four seasons as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator and joined coach Bobby Petrino’s staff at Louisville prior to the 2014 season. Grantham has helped to mold a Cardinals defense that quickly adapted to his 3-4 approach and limited opponents to 4.6 yards per play. Louisville’s defensive prowess will be put to the test on Dec. 30, as Georgia led the SEC by averaging 41.7 points per game. The Bulldogs lost running back Todd Gurley to a season-ending ACL tear against Auburn. However, freshman Nick Chubb has been outstanding over the second half of 2014, and quarterback Hutson Mason tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. The Cardinals led the ACC in rush defense but allowed three out of their last four opponents to record at least 150 rushing yards. There’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville after Reggie Bonnafon suffered a knee injury in the finale against Kentucky. If Bonnafon can’t start, Kyle Bolin will get his first start under center.
11. Music City Bowl – LSU (8-4) vs. Notre Dame (7-5)
Dec. 30 – 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Music City Bowl is one of the big winners in the new SEC vs. ACC/Big Ten tie-in system. Even though both programs are fringe top 25 teams this year, in terms of name value, it doesn’t get much better for the Nashville bowl to have LSU and Notre Dame. While the name value is critical to the bowls, the matchup on the field may not live up to the hype. The Fighting Irish has allowed at least 30 points in seven consecutive games, and the rush defense is giving up 161.7 yards per contest. That’s a bad sign against the Tigers, as coach Les Miles’ team averages 219.5 yards per game on the ground, led by true freshman Leonard Fournette. LSU has struggled with its passing attack all season, but it may not matter if Notre Dame’s defense struggles at the point of attack. The Fighting Irish also need quarterback Everett Golson to regain his early-season form, as the junior has tossed seven picks over the last four games.
12. Texas Bowl – Arkansas (6-6) vs. Texas (6-6)
Dec. 29 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
The combined records of Arkansas and Texas is just 12-12, but there’s plenty of intrigue and momentum behind both programs to propel this matchup into the must-see category for bowl season. The battle in the trenches is worth the price of admission, as the Razorbacks own one of the top offensive lines in the SEC, while the Longhorns counter with an active defensive front that features standout tackle Malcom Brown. Neither team is prolific with the forward pass, but Arkansas has made improvement in its passing offense with quarterback Brandon Allen’s second year under center. These two teams are old rivals from the Southwest Conference and a low-scoring, hard-hitting game in Houston should be anticipated. Regardless of the outcome of this matchup, the arrow for both programs is clearly pointed up headed in 2015.
13. Holiday Bowl – Nebraska (9-3) vs. USC (8-4)
Dec. 27 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
In terms of name value and brands, it doesn’t get much better than Nebraska and USC. The Holiday Bowl is known for high-scoring games, so there’s some potential for this matchup to be one of the must-see pre-Jan. 1 contests. However, there’s a lot of uncertainty for Nebraska, as the program is in transition from Bo Pelini to Mike Riley. Will the Cornhuskers be ready to play under interim coach Barney Cotton? The Trojans were up and down in 2014, losing three games by a touchdown or less and suffering a blowout at the hands of rival UCLA. USC’s offense is explosive (35.1 ppg) behind quarterback Cody Kessler and receiver Nelson Agholor. This is the Trojans’ first trip to the Holiday Bowl.
14. Liberty Bowl – Texas A&M (7-5) vs. West Virginia (7-5)
Dec. 29 – 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
If you like offense, this game should be high on the must-watch list for bowl season. West Virginia and Texas A&M run a version of the Air Raid offense, with both programs averaging over 30 points a game in 2014. The Aggies finished the season by losing their last two games, and the defensive struggles cost coordinator Mark Snyder his job. Mark Hagan will serve as the interim play-caller for this game. The Mountaineers should have quarterback Clint Trickett back under center after he missed the season finale due to a concussion. Trickett and receiver Kevin White will be a tough matchup for a Texas A&M defense that allowed 30 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014. But the Mountaineers will also have their hands full on defense, as the Aggies led the SEC with 306.4 passing yards per game. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen previously worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston.
15. Sun Bowl – Arizona State (9-3) vs. Duke (9-3)
Dec. 27 – 2 p.m. ET, CBS
Duke’s remarkable improvement under coach David Cutcliffe continued with a solid 9-3 record this season. The Blue Devils fell short of reaching the conference title game again, but the trip to El Paso is the program’s third consecutive bowl appearance. Cutcliffe has done a lot of good things for Duke football over the last seven years, but the Blue Devils are still looking for their first postseason win since 1961. Arizona State is a tough matchup for Duke, as the Sun Devils feature an attacking defense and an explosive offense. Quarterback Taylor Kelly never seemed to regain his mobility after a foot injury suffered in September, but the month off should help the senior return to full strength. The Sun Devils are loaded with talent at the skill positions, including standout receiver Jaelen Strong (75 catches) and running back D.J. Foster (1,648 total yards). And the Arizona State defense is aggressive around the line of scrimmage, recording 97 tackles for a loss in 12 games. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
16. Russell Athletic Bowl – Oklahoma (8-4) vs. Clemson (9-3)
Dec. 29 – 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Both Oklahoma and Clemson enter the bowl season with question marks surrounding their offense. The Sooners played the last three games without starting quarterback Trevor Knight, and it’s uncertain if the sophomore will return to the lineup by bowl season. In addition to Knight’s status, running back Samaje Perine suffered an ankle injury against Oklahoma State and it’s uncertain if he will be limited in any capacity prior to the game. On the Clemson side, the offense has new co-coordinators on offense after Chad Morris left for SMU. Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted to replace Morris, with Scott listed as the play-caller. Losing Morris is a blow to Clemson’s offense, but there’s no shortage of talent. Despite playing with a torn ACL, Watson threw for 269 yards and two scores against South Carolina. Watson is joined by fellow freshmen Wayne Gallman and Artavis Scott as key pieces in the offensive attack. The Tigers also boast one of the nation’s top defensive lines and recorded 44 sacks during the regular season. This game also features some familiarity between the two schools, as Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables worked at Oklahoma from 1999-2011.
17. Boca Raton Bowl – Marshall (12-1) vs. Northern Illinois (11-2)
Dec. 23, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Marshall and Northern Illinois missed out on the Group of 5 bowl spot that went to Boise State, but this meeting between conference champions in the Boca Raton Bowl is the most intriguing non-Power 5 postseason matchup. The Thundering Herd has a balanced attack on offense, led by standout senior quarterback Rakeem Cato and running back Devon Johnson. While Marshall’s offense garners most of the attention nationally, its defense led C-USA by limiting opponents to 4.7 yards per play. Northern Illinois has been a model of consistency as the MAC’s top program recently, recording at least 10 wins in each of the last five seasons. The Huskies led the MAC by averaging 252.9 rushing yards per game this year, but their defense has been opportunistic (30 sacks and 24 forced turnovers). This is the first meeting between Marshall and Northern Illinois since 2001.
18. Citrus Bowl – Missouri (10-3) vs. Minnesota (8-4)
Jan. 1 – 1 p.m. ET, ABC
This matchup features two of the nation’s most underrated coaches in Minnesota’s Jerry Kill and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel, and this is a good landing spot for two programs that are coming off successful seasons. The Tigers won the SEC’s East Division for the second consecutive year, while the Golden Gophers were a victory against Wisconsin away from playing Ohio State in Indianapolis. The battle in the trenches will be critical on Jan. 1, as Missouri’s defensive line is one of the best in the nation, and Minnesota wants to establish running back David Cobb to take the pressure off of quarterback Mitch Leidner. Cobb averages 129 yards per game, and it’s critical for the senior to get on track with Minnesota struggling to establish a consistent passing game. Missouri’s offense ranked 11th in the SEC by averaging 5.3 yards per play, but this unit plays to its strength (defense), doesn’t make a lot of mistakes (14 turnovers) and has playmakers at running back and receiver to help quarterback Maty Mauk.
19. Independence Bowl – Miami (6-6) vs. South Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
If anyone would have mentioned Miami and South Carolina meeting in a postseason game in August, it’s likely most would have predicted these two teams would matchup in a bowl in Orlando, Jacksonville or Charlotte. But Shreveport for the Independence Bowl? Likely very low in the list of guesses. It’s been a disappointing year for both programs, and motivation will play a key role in which team wins on Dec. 27. South Carolina’s rush defense (allowing 214.4 ypg) has been problematic all year and faces a tough assignment in stopping Miami running back Duke Johnson. The junior is likely playing in his last college game and finished with 1,520 yards and 10 scores in the regular season. True freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya led the ACC in quarterback rating (148.2) but could be without tight end Clive Walford due to a knee injury. The Hurricanes made strides on defense this year, and linebacker Denzel Perryman is one of the best in the nation. Miami’s improvement will be put to the test, as South Carolina averages 6.1 yards per play and features a 3,000-yard passer (Dylan Thompson) and a talented running back in Mike Davis.
20. Las Vegas Bowl – Utah (8-4) vs. Colorado State (10-2)
Dec. 20 – 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Two old Mountain West rivals meet in Las Vegas in perhaps the best matchup on the first Saturday of bowl action. Colorado State is under the direction of an interim coach in Dave Baldwin, as Jim McElwain left for Florida in early December. Utah capped its best season since joining the Pac-12 with an 8-4 record and lost two games by three points or less. The strength of coach Kyle Whittingham’s team is a strong defense, as end Nate Orchard anchors a pass rush that led the nation with 52 sacks in 2014. Colorado State will test Utah’s defense with a balanced attack. Running back Dee Hart (and Alabama transfer) averaged 6.7 yards per carry this year and recorded 16 rushing scores. Receiver Rashard Higgins (89 catches for 1,640 yards) had an All-America caliber season, and quarterback Garrett Grayson was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. These two programs have not met since 2010, and the Utes hold a 55-21-1 series edge over the Rams.
21. TaxSlayer Bowl – Tennessee (6-6) vs. Iowa (7-5)
Jan. 2 – 3:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
Tennessee is back in the postseason after a three-year absence. The Volunteers are headed in the right direction under coach Butch Jones, yet this program still has a lot of work to do in order to contend for the SEC East title next season. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a promising sophomore, but he struggled against Vanderbilt and Missouri after accounting for nine total touchdowns in wins over Kentucky and South Carolina. Having a mobile quarterback like Dobbs is critical for Tennessee, as its offensive line has struggled to protect all season and faces a tough challenge from a formidable Iowa defensive front. The Hawkeyes had a favorable schedule but finished 7-5 after an overtime loss to Nebraska to close out the regular season. Iowa’s offense starts with its rushing attack, but quarterback Jake Rudock has been efficient (5 INTs on 337 attempts) this year.
22. Pinstripe Bowl – Penn State (6-6) vs. Boston College (7-5)
Dec. 27 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Points could be at a premium in Yankee Stadium. Boston College averages 25.9 points per game, while Penn State ranked last in the Big Ten with 19.8 per contest. The Nittany Lions struggled to protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg and allowed 42 sacks this season. Those numbers have to be appealing to Boston College defensive coordinator Don Brown, as the Eagles ranked fourth in the ACC by recording 84 tackles for a loss in 2014. Penn State’s defense carried the team to a bowl bid and limited opponents to just 17.7 points per game. The Nittany Lions stingy rush defense will be a good matchup for the Boston College rushing attack and dual-threat quarterback Tyler Murphy.
23. Miami Beach Bowl – BYU (8-4) vs. Memphis (9-3)
Dec. 22 – 2 p.m., ESPN
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl game lands an intriguing matchup between BYU and Memphis. The Cougars had to overcome a lot this year, as the offense lost quarterback Taysom Hill and running back Jamaal Williams to season-ending injuries. Despite losing Hill and Williams, BYU won its final four games to finish 8-4. Christian Stewart filled in admirably for Hill under center, throwing for 14 touchdowns and just one interception over his last four contests. Memphis has made significant progress under coach Justin Fuente, and the Tigers shared the American Athletic Conference after finishing 7-1 in league play this year. After averaging only 19.5 points per game last season, Memphis’ offense has made significant progress and ranked third in the conference by recording 34.7 points per contest in 2014. However, the strength of the Tigers is on defense, as coordinator Barry Odom has developed a group that limits opponents to 4.8 yards per play.
24. St. Petersburg Bowl – NC State (7-5) vs. UCF (9-3)
Dec. 26 – 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
UCF should have a strong contingent at Tropicana Field for this one, and the Knights will be looking to win their fourth consecutive postseason trip. NC State is back in the bowl scene after a one-year absence. The second season under coach Dave Doeren saw the Wolfpack improve their win total by four games, including a win over in-state rival North Carolina in the finale. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett ranked fourth in the ACC by averaging 236.8 total yards per game, and running back Shadrach Thornton averaged 5.5 yards per carry to rush for 811 yards in 2014. NC State’s offense will have its hands full against an active, speedy UCF defense. The Knights allow just 17.9 points per game and limit opponents to 4.3 yards per play. On offense, UCF isn’t as explosive as it was last season, but coach George O’Leary’s group scored at least 30 points in five out of their last six games.
25. Birmingham Bowl – East Carolina (8-4) vs. Florida (6-5)
Jan. 3 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2
Motivation could be an issue for Florida, as interim coach D.J. Durkin will oversee a trip to Birmingham before the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville starts in 2015. If the Gators show up to play, they are a tough matchup for East Carolina’s offense. The Pirates average 37.2 points per game behind quarterback Shane Carden, but Florida’s athletic defensive line could be a problem for an East Carolina offensive line that allowed 28 sacks this year. The matchup between Pirates receiver Justin Hardy and Gators cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III could be one of the best one-on-one battles of the bowl season.
26. Poinsettia Bowl – Navy (6-5) vs. San Diego State (7-5)
Dec. 23 – 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Navy is making its 11th consecutive bowl trip and the second visit to the Poinsettia Bowl four seasons. The Midshipmen still has one game remaining against Army on Dec. 13, and with a win in one of their final two matchups, Navy will clinch a winning record for the fourth consecutive season. Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the catalyst for the offense, recording 51 rushing scores over the last two years. San Diego State is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance and this is the third trip to the Poinsettia Bowl – its home stadium – in five years. The Aztecs’ rush defense will be tested against Navy’s option attack, but Rocky Long’s group held Air Force (another option team) to 140 yards in late November. San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey led the Mountain West with 1,761 rushing yards this season.
27. Famous Idaho Potato Bowl – Western Michigan (8-4) vs. Air Force (9-3)
Dec. 20 – 5:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
What a difference a year makes. Last season, Western Michigan and Air Force combined for just three victories. In 2014, the Broncos and Falcons combined for 17 wins. Expect to see plenty of rushing attempts between these two teams, as Air Force ranks eighth nationally in rushing offense, and Western Michigan is led by Jarvion Franklin (1,525 yards in 2014). Franklin’s emergence was a key reason for the Broncos’ turnaround, but quarterback Zach Terrell’s improvement (23 TDs, 10 INTs) shouldn’t be overlooked. Air Force won’t have running back and leading rusher Jacobi Owens (season-ending foot injury) for this game. However, quarterback Kale Pearson is expected to play after missing the season finale due to injury. Both teams also made major strides on defense this season, with Air Force limiting opponents to 24.2 points per game after allowing 40 per contest last season. This is the first meeting between these two programs.
28. Quick Lane Bowl – Rutgers (7-5) vs. North Carolina (6-6)
Dec. 26 – 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Quick Lane Bowl is essentially the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl rebooted with Power 5 conference tie-ins. Even though Rutgers averages only 25.6 points per game this year, it would not be a surprise to see this game feature plenty of offensive fireworks. North Carolina’s offense ranks third in the ACC with an average of 34.3 points per contest, and quarterback Marquise Williams closed the regular season by recording at least 300 total yards in two out of his last three games. It’s a good thing the Tar Heels can score, as their defense allowed 6.4 yards per play and 38.9 points per game. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova has struggled with turnovers during his career, but the senior finished the year on a high note by tossing four touchdowns in a win over Maryland. Expect Nova and receiver Leonte Carroo to test a secondary that allowed 28 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.
29. Cactus Bowl – Washington (8-5) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
Jan. 2 – 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Oklahoma State’s upset over Oklahoma extended the Cowboys’ bowl streak to nine consecutive seasons. And coach Mike Gundy’s team should benefit from the extra practices, especially with true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph expected to earn another start in this matchup. Washington finished its first season under coach Chris Petersen at 8-5, but two losses came by a touchdown or less. The offense is still finding its rhythm under coordinator Jonathan Smith and scored at least 30 points in back-to-back games to close out the regular season. The defense is Washington’s strength, as the Huskies limit opponents to 24.4 points per game and ranked second in the Pac-12 by recording 49 sacks. These two teams have not met since 1985.
30. Foster Farms Bowl – Stanford (7-5) vs. Maryland (7-5)
Dec. 30 – 10 p.m. ET, ESPN
Expect a low-scoring affair when Maryland and Stanford meet on Dec. 30. The Cardinal opened 2014 with high expectations, but the program slipped to 7-5 and salvaged part of their season by defeating UCLA in late November to avoid a 6-6 mark. The Terrapins’ Big Ten debut wasn’t bad, as coach Randy Edsall’s team won seven games, including victories at Michigan and Penn State. Both teams average under 30 points a contest and have struggled to develop a consistent passing attack this season. Maryland is expected to have star receiver Stefon Diggs back in the mix after a lacerated kidney forced him to miss the final three games. However, Diggs and the Terrapins offense will find little room to maneuver against a Stanford defense that limited opponents to 16 points a game.
31. GoDaddy Bowl – Arkansas State (7-5) vs. Toledo (8-4)
Jan. 4 – 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Arkansas State is making its fourth straight trip to Mobile to play in the GoDaddy Bowl. But unlike previous years, the Red Wolves will play in this game with no uncertainty at head coach. First-year coach Blake Anderson was the fourth Arkansas State coach in four years and guided the program to its fourth consecutive winning record in 2014. The Red Wolves ranked second in the Sun Belt by averaging 36.1 points per game, and quarterback Fredi Knighten led the conference with 304.1 total yards per game. Toledo is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Rockets tied for the MAC West title. The offense leads the way for coach Matt Campbell’s team, as running back Kareem Hunt (151.1 ypg) might be one of the nation’s most underrated players.
32. New Orleans Bowl – UL Lafayette (8-4) vs. Nevada (7-5)
Dec. 20 – 11 a.m. ET, ESPN
This will be UL Lafayette’s fourth consecutive trip to the New Orleans Bowl under coach Mark Hudspeth. The Ragin’ Cajuns are 3-0 in three previous trips to the Big Easy. ULL’s four losses came against teams with winning records, including Ole Miss and Boise State. Nevada is back in the postseason after a one-year absence, and the Wolf Pack is led by dynamic senior quarterback Cody Fajardo. Fajardo averages 280.9 total yards per game and leads the team in rushing (997 yards). Nevada’s rush defense (allowing 179.1 yards per game) will be tested by the Ragin’ Cajuns one-two punch of Elijah McGuire and Alonzo Harris.
33. Armed Forces Bowl – Houston (7-5) vs. Pittsburgh (6-6)
Jan. 2 – Noon ET, ESPN
Thanks to its Week 14 upset win over Miami, Pittsburgh sneaks into the postseason with an at-large berth in the Armed Forces Bowl. And with a win over Houston, the Panthers will match their win total from last year (seven) and build momentum for a team that returns a good chunk of the depth chart in 2015. The Cougars are one of the American Athletic Conference’s top defensive teams in the regular season and have specialized in forcing takeaways over the last two years. But this unit will have its hands full against Pittsburgh’s offense. Running back James Conner earned ACC Offensive Player of the Year honors by averaging 139.6 yards per game and finishing with 24 rushing scores. Houston’s offense enters the bowl game with three consecutive games of at least 30 points scored. Quarterback Greg Ward is a playmaker with dual-threat ability, and receiver Deontay Greenberry is an intriguing NFL talent.
34. Military Bowl – Cincinnati (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (6-6)
Dec. 27 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Military Bowl features an intriguing contrast in styles. Cincinnati’s offense averages 35.4 points per game, while Virginia Tech’s defense ranked second in the ACC by limiting opponents to 20.4 points a contest. The Hokies have been prone to allowing big plays in the passing game (38 plays allowed of 20 yards or more), which is a concern against the Bearcats’ passing offense. Quarterback Gunner Kiel led the American Athletic Conference with 30 passing scores, and six receivers caught at least 20 passes this year. While Cincinnati has no trouble putting points on the board, defense has been an issue for coach Tommy Tuberville. However, the Bearcats are facing an offense that scored just 23.3 points a game and was hit hard by injuries at the running back position.
35. Bahamas Bowl – Central Michigan (7-5) vs. Western Kentucky (7-5)
Dec. 24 – Noon ET, ESPN
In terms of destination bowl trips, it doesn’t get much better than this game. The Hilltoppers and Chippewas meet in the inaugural Bahamas Bowl and for the second time in three years in a postseason game. Central Michigan defeated Western Kentucky 24-21 in the 2012 Little Caesars Bowl. This season’s matchup could feature more points, as the Hilltoppers average 44 points a game behind senior quarterback Brandon Doughty. The Chippewas led the MAC in total defense, and the secondary is limiting opponents to just 211.4 yards per game through the air. Running back Thomas Rawls leads the way for Central Michigan’s offense (122.6 ypg), but the offense has had trouble holding onto the ball this season (26 turnovers).
36. New Mexico Bowl – Utah State (9-4) vs. UTEP (7-5)
Dec. 20 – 2:20 p.m. ET, ESPN
The last two versions of the New Mexico Bowl featured over 90 points scored. While bowl games are unpredictable, it’s probably a safe bet UTEP and Utah State won’t combine for 90 points on Dec. 20. The Miners average 28.3 points per game on the strength of their rushing attack. Quarterback Jameill Showers – a Texas A&M transfer – and running backs Aaron Jones and Nathan Jeffery headline an offense that averages 212.7 rushing yards per game. UTEP may have to open it up to get its ground game on track, as Utah State leads the Mountain West (129.3) in rush defense. The Aggies had to overcome another season of injuries at quarterback, as true freshman Kent Myers is the fourth signal-caller to play this year. This game is also a matchup of two second-year coaches doing a good job at their alma mater (Matt Wells (Utah State) and Sean Kugler (UTEP).
37. Heart of Dallas Bowl – Illinois (6-6) vs. Louisiana Tech (8-5)
Dec. 26 – 1 p.m. ET, ESPN
Louisiana Tech and Illinois weren’t picked by many to reach the postseason, but both programs rebounded into a bowl after each won just four games last season. The Fighting Illini’s 6-6 record was enough for coach Tim Beckman to return in 2015, and the staff hopes to use this game as a way to build momentum for next year. Quarterback Wes Lunt was injured midway through the season and never appeared to be at full strength after he returned from a leg injury. The month off should help Lunt return to 100 percent. Louisiana Tech’s defense made significant progress under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, limiting opponents to 25.2 points per game and forcing 40 takeaways. The Bulldogs will present some challenges for Illinois’ defense, which allowed 33.9 points per contest. Running back Kenneth Dixon led C-USA with 21 rushing scores and averages 5.2 yards per carry.
38. Camellia Bowl – South Alabama (6-6) vs. Bowling Green (7-6)
Dec. 20 – 9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
South Alabama’s football program is only six years old, and coach Joey Jones has done a good job of getting the Jaguars competitive in a short amount of time. This is not only the inaugural Camellia Bowl, but this game marks South Alabama’s first trip to a postseason game. The Jaguars lost four out of their last five games to close out the regular season but played a tough schedule late, including matchups against UL Lafayette, Arkansas State, Texas State, South Carolina and Navy. Bowling Green also struggled late, winning only two out of its last six games. The Falcons lost their starting quarterback (Matt Johnson) after the season opener and backups James Knapke and Cody Callaway combined for 14 touchdowns and 13 picks. With the passing game struggling, Bowling Green needs to lean on its ground attack, which is led by junior Travis Greene (908 yards). This is the first meeting between these two programs.
39. Hawaii Bowl – Fresno State (6-7) vs. Rice (7-5)
Dec. 24 – 8 p.m. ET – ESPN
Fresno State is the only team in the bowl season with a losing record, but coach Tim DeRuyter’s squad makes a postseason trip to Hawaii after winning the West Division and playing in the Mountain West title game. The Bulldogs are reloading after losing quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams, and DeRuyter’s team is looking for its first postseason win since 2007. Rice has quietly won 24 games over the last three seasons and is led by a rushing offense averaging 170.3 yards per game. Fresno State has won all six previous meetings between these two teams.
College football’s new four-team playoff format starts on Jan. 1 with Oregon and Florida State meeting in the Rose Bowl, while Alabama takes on Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl to close out the first round. The Crimson Tide ranked as the No. 1 seed in the new format, with the Ducks ranked No. 2 over the defending national champs. The winner of the Sugar and Rose Bowl games on Jan. 1 are set to meet on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
The Sugar and Rose Bowls won’t take place for almost another month, but it’s never too early to look ahead. Athlon’s editors predict the first two games and offer their national championship pick in the early playoff predictions.
College Football Playoff Predictions
David Fox (@DavidFox615): Alabama over Oregon
The showdown we’ve wanted to see for years — Oregon’s high-powered offense vs. Alabama’s shutdown defense. Never mind that the architect of the offense coaches for the Eagles now, and this is merely a “good” Alabama defense rather than an outstanding one. The Ducks’ defense will be the difference here, and not in a good way. Alabama re-tooled its attack this season to a spread, no-huddle and this is the endgame, a national championship over the best in the West.
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Alabama over Florida State
There is plenty of intrigue in the first four-team playoff and any of the matchups would provide an entertaining national championship. Alabama is the nation’s most-talented team, and the defense is the best among the teams in the playoff. It’s hard to pick against the Crimson Tide with a month to prepare for an Ohio State team that has a quarterback making his second career start. The Rose Bowl should be a high-scoring affair, but I’ll differ with my colleagues and take Florida State over Oregon. The Ducks have an explosive offense and the top player in college football this year in quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, the time off should help the Seminoles get healthy on defense, and I like the coaching edge and experience in big games of Jimbo Fisher. Regardless of which team wins the Rose Bowl, I don’t think either is getting by Alabama in the national championship. The Crimson Tide win their third title in four years.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch): Alabama over Oregon
I tried to find a reason to pick a team other than Alabama — but couldn't pull the trigger on any team but the Crimson Tide. Nick Saban's team is far from perfect but has fewer issues than any of the other three schools in the College Football Playoff field. The offense is loaded with elite playmakers and is thriving under first-year coordinator Lane Kiffin. The defense has had some problems in the secondary but is still one of the best in the nation. Oregon will no doubt present a difficult test, but I can't envision a scenario in which the Ducks have enough answers defensively for the Tide's diverse offense.
Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Alabama over Oregon
Ohio State has SEC-type talent and a former SEC mad scientist running the show, but Nick Saban and Alabama will have more than three weeks to prepare for a third-string quarterback making his second career start. That doesn't bode well Urban Meyer. Out West, Marcus Mariota will be the difference against a Florida State defense that has lived on the edge all season. The Seminoles have struggled against the run and their inability to get stops will create a role reversal in the Rose Bowl as Mariota leads a game-winning drive in the waning moments, costing Jimbo Fisher a second straight championship. In Arlington, the Crimson Tide uses physicality and defense to push around and disrupt the Ducks offense en route to Saban's fifth national championship.
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR): Oregon over Alabama
With all of the debate surrounding the fourth team, I don't think there's much argument when it comes to which two we will see play on Jan. 12. Give Urban Meyer and Ohio State plenty of credit for accomplishing what they have despite losing a Heisman Trophy candidate (QB Braxton Miller) before the season even started. That said, Nick Saban will have Alabama's defense ready for Cardale Jones/Ezekiel Elliott, and the Crimson Tide's ability to attack teams both on the ground and through the air will be enough to get past the Buckeyes. On the other side of the bracket, I look for Oregon and Marcus Mariota to be the team that finally makes Florida State and Jameis Winston pay for a sluggish start. Besides, isn't it appropriate that the next Heisman Trophy winner takes the mantle from the former one by beating him? That leaves us, fittingly, with a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup at Jerry Jones' house for all of the marbles. I'm probably in the minority here, but I am going to take my chances with Mariota putting a stamp on his spectacular season by bedeviling Alabama's defense to lead his Ducks to their first-ever national title. After all, in a season that has been as crazy as this one, doesn't it make perfect sense to pick the only team (and head coach for that matter) in the bracket that has never won a national title to do just that?