Articles By Steven Lassan
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?
Alabama enters the college football playoff as the No. 1 overall seed and the odds-on favorite to win the 2014-15 national championship. The Crimson Tide has won two out of the last three titles and enters the playoff with an eight-game winning streak, including a 42-13 win over Missouri in the SEC Championship and a 55-44 victory over Auburn in the Iron Bowl.
The Crimson Tide’s formula for success hasn’t changed. Nick Saban’s team leans on a strong defense to win games, but the offense also proved capable of carrying this team, as the rushing attack is solid with backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, while receiver Amari Cooper is the best in college football. Blake Sims has developed into a solid starter and potential All-SEC quarterback under coordinator Lane Kiffin.
5 Reasons Why Alabama Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Best Roster and Coach in College Football
Recruiting rankings aren’t necessary 100 percent accurate, but there’s some truth in the evaluations. Alabama has landed the No. 1 class in four consecutive seasons and ranked No. 5 in 2010. There’s talent and depth at every position, and the Crimson Tide has the best overall collection of players in college football this year. In addition to the depth on the roster, Nick Saban is the best coach in the nation. Saban won three BCS Championships at Alabama and claimed the 2003 title at LSU. The X’s and O’s matter, but the Crimson Tide has the best roster and coach in the nation. And considering this program’s success in the BCS era, it’s hard to pick against Alabama in the four-team playoff.
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2. Blake Sims
Alabama went into fall camp with uncertainty at quarterback. Jacob Coker was expected to win the job, but Blake Sims edged the Florida State transfer for the starting job and has turned in a solid all-around year. Sims finished with 3,250 yards and 26 scores and completed 64.8 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 321 yards and six touchdowns. The senior had only 39 career pass attempts entering 2014, but Sims could be an All-SEC player, which comes as a surprise after the preseason debate under center. The senior tossed three picks against Auburn but rallied with a strong performance against Missouri (23 of 27 for 262 yards). Sims entered the year as a big question mark. However, after 13 games, it’s clear the senior is capable of making enough plays in the passing game and is no longer Alabama’s biggest concern.
3. Defense Wins Championships
If the old adage “defense wins championships” holds true in 2014, then Alabama is set with the best group in the four-team playoff. The Crimson Tide allow just 4.7 yards per play (tied for ninth in the nation) and limit opponents to 16.6 points per contest. The secondary has been prone to allow a few big plays, but the rush defense has been rock solid all year. Alabama ranks second nationally against the run by holding opponents to 88.7 yards per game and limiting rushers to 2.8 yards per carry. And the Crimson Tide has allowed just three rushing scores all year. With the concerns in the secondary, it’s important for Alabama to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide has 28 sacks in 13 games and ranked fourth in the SEC by recording 85 tackles for a loss. The stats backup what the depth chart shows: Alabama has the best defense in the playoff.
4. WR Amari Cooper is Unstoppable
Using the term unstoppable is a bit of a cliché, but receiver Amari Cooper capped an outstanding regular season with 12 catches for 83 yards against Missouri in the SEC Championship. Cooper always had elite talent and appeared poised for a monster sophomore season after catching 58 passes for 999 yards as a freshman in 2012. However, Cooper’s numbers dropped to 45 catches for 736 yards. New coordinator Lane Kiffin has made Cooper a priority in the offense, and the junior emerged as a Heisman candidate by finishing the year with 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. Cooper recorded three 200-yard games and caught a touchdown pass in six out of Alabama’s nine SEC matchups. The Crimson Tide has an elite defense and a good rushing attack, but no team had an answer for Cooper in 2014. That narrative should continue in the playoffs.
5. One-Two Punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry
While Amari Cooper and Blake Sims’ emergence has allowed Alabama to open up the offense this season, the gameplan still revolves around establishing the run. The Crimson Tide average 209.5 yard per contest, with Yeldon and Henry forming one of the nation’s top tandems at running back. Yeldon was banged up at the end of the year but still finished with 932 yards and 10 scores. Henry is a bigger back and can pound away at defenses in the second half. The sophomore has 895 yards and 10 touchdowns on 159 attempts this year. Henry is coming off his best performance of the year by recording 141 yards and two scores against Missouri. Stopping Alabama’s rushing attack is easier said than done. Only one team held the Crimson Tide under 100 yards (Arkansas, 66 yards) and this offense rushed for 130 yards only three times in 2014. Defenses have to commit extra defenders into the box to slow down Yeldon and Henry, which opens up the play-action pass to Cooper. That’s quite a dilemma for any coordinator.
Florida State enters the college football playoff with a 29-game winning streak and a tough first-round matchup against Oregon in the Rose Bowl. The Seminoles aren’t the same team that claimed the BCS Championship last season, but coach Jimbo Fisher’s team is loaded with young talent and one of the top quarterbacks (Jameis Winston) in the nation.
Despite finishing unbeaten, Florida State dropped in the committee’s rankings throughout the year. The Seminoles weren’t dominant in most of their games, but Fisher’s team consistently found ways to win, while overcoming youth and injuries on defense.
5 Reasons Why Florida State Will Win the CFB Playoff
1. Jameis Winston
Winston has experienced his shares of ups and downs this season, but when the sophomore is locked in, he’s one of the best in college football. The sophomore missed one game due to suspension and finished the season with 3,559 yards and 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. In the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech, Winston turned in one of his best performances of the year by throwing for 309 yards and three scores on 21 completions. An ankle injury bothered Winston late in the year, and with nearly a month to heal, the sophomore should be at his best in the playoffs. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Winston will have plenty of time to work on getting in rhythm with young targets like Travis Rudolph, Jesus Wilson and Ermon Lane. In the playoffs, a quarterback that’s on fire can carry a team to a championship. Winston is that type of player.
2. Defensive Improvement and Better Health
Florida State’s defense isn’t as dominant as it was last year, but this unit also had to overcome a lot of injuries, a new coordinator and youth in the starting lineup. The Seminoles allow 5.3 yards per play, which ranks 11th in the ACC. And under the direction of first-year coordinator Charles Kelly, the defense ranks sixth in the conference in points allowed per game (23). Kelly has done a good job of making adjustments within the game, as the defense stepped up in the second half against Louisville, Georgia Tech and Miami. While those numbers are up from last season, it’s important to consider Florida State could have zero senior starters in its first playoff game. Standout defensive tackle Eddie Goldman suffered an ankle injury in the ACC Championship, and his status for the playoff games is uncertain. If Goldman can’t play, that’s a huge blow for a defensive line that is already without Nile Lawrence-Stample due to a season-ending injury. Injuries also hit the linebacking corps hard, including ailments to junior Terrance Smith and redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas. It’s possible the time off is going to benefit Florida State’s defense more than any other unit in the four-team playoff.
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3. Freshman Talent on Offense
The Seminoles have veteran playmakers like seniors Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary, but the time to prepare for the playoffs will help coach Jimbo Fisher develop some of the team’s young talent. Running back Dalvin Cook emerged as the team’s top running back over the second half of the season and finished the year with 905 yards and eight scores. The true freshman from Miami gashed Georgia Tech for 177 yards and rushed for 144 yards against Florida. In addition to Cook’s emergence, the receiving corps features an emerging star in freshman Travis Rudolph (32 catches for 459 yards), and true freshman Roderick Johnson is now the team’s starting left tackle. All three players have been major contributors over the last half of the season, and with the additional time to prepare, all three will be more comfortable in Florida State’s offense. That’s a scary thought for the rest of the playoff teams.
4. Experience Winning Close Games
The knock on Florida State’s resume heading into the national championship last year was the lack of close wins. The Seminoles dispelled that narrative after scoring a late touchdown to beat Auburn in the BCS Championship. A year later, the narrative on coach Jimbo Fisher’s team is the Seminoles are simply winning too many close games. Regardless of whether that should be held against Florida State in the seeding, it could come in handy in the playoffs. Florida State won seven games by a touchdown or less and only two of its final seven matchups were decided by more than 10 points. If the Seminoles are locked into another tight matchup in the playoffs, this team has the experience and confidence to overcome a late deficit.
5. Best Kicker in College Football
If Florida State plays another close game, kicker Roberto Aguayo could be a difference maker. Yes, that’s right – we are highlighting a kicker in this section. The sophomore is the best kicker in the nation and the defending Lou Groza Award winner. Aguayo connected on 25 of 27 field goals this season, including 9 of 11 attempts from 40 yards or more. Both Alabama and Oregon have struggled at times with their field goal attempts this season. If either team is locked into a close game with Florida State, Aguayo’s ability to hit 50-yard attempts is a valuable asset for coach Jimbo Fisher.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley moved quickly in replacing the fired Will Muschamp, as the Gators announced Jim McElwain as the team’s new coach on Thursday. The Florida’s coaching search was an interesting exploration into hiring a coach, as the program was very public with its pursuit of McElwain and the negotiations for a hefty buyout with Colorado State.
Now that the dust has settled on the hire, it’s time to examine whether or not McElwain makes sense for Florida. Foley struck out on Muschamp and needs to get this hire right to get the Gators back in contention for SEC East titles.
It’s tough to know where a program stands with candidates when a search opens. Florida is one of the top jobs in college football, so there was no shortage of interested candidates. If some were expecting a big name here, they may be disappointed in McElwain’s hire. However, good coaches can come from any program, and McElwain – while it’s unspectacular – is going to work out well for Florida.
Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives for the Gators and grade the hire:
Positives in Florida’s Hire of McElwain
Background on Offense
Offense was the biggest problem under Muschamp. Florida never averaged more than 26 points per game in SEC contests over the last four seasons and struggled mightily in 2013 by recording 19.9 points per game in league matchups. It will take McElwain some time, but he should jumpstart this offense. Under McElwain’s guidance, Colorado State averaged 35.9 points per game in 2014 and recorded a 36.2 mark in 2013. Sure, the competition is tougher in the SEC, but McElwain transformed quarterback Garrett Grayson into an all-conference performer for the Rams and has a track record of success on this side of the ball. McElwain seems to be the right coach to fix some of Florida’s woes on offense, especially after this team struggled to develop a standout quarterback since Tim Tebow left Gainesville.
McElwain has spent a sizeable chunk of his coaching career out West, but he does have a four-year stint under Nick Saban as Alabama’s offensive coordinator (2008-11). Under McElwain’s direction, the Crimson Tide averaged at least 30 points per game in his four seasons as the play-caller. Even though McElwain has never been a head coach in the SEC before, his experience at Alabama will be a huge bonus when he opens the 2014 season. Experience isn’t required to win in the SEC – but it certainly doesn’t hurt either.
Concerns in Florida’s Hire of McElwain:
Recruiting in the SEC
This is being nitpicky but recruiting to Colorado State and Alabama is a different beast. As we mentioned above, it certainly helps McElwain that he has SEC experience. However, it’s one thing to win at the Mountain West level and another to win enough in the SEC to keep the fans quiet. Will McElwain struggle to recruit to Florida? Probably not. After all, the program is one of the best in the nation and should sell itself on the recruiting trail. However, this is one area that opposing coaches could use against him when going head-to-head with recruits. McElwain is an unknown to most prospects, so it’s important for him to sell his vision and blueprint right away to salvage a class that currently ranks at the bottom of the SEC. It’s also critical for McElwain to build a staff that’s familiar with the SEC, perhaps retaining a few of the assistants from the Muschamp regime would be a good place to start. Can McElwain win consistent recruiting battles against Florida State, Alabama and Georgia? We are about to find out.
This is more of a question than a concern for McElwain. Can he meet the high expectations at Florida? As we mentioned above, it’s easier to win at the Mountain West, and there’s certainly less pressure to coach at Colorado State than Florida. Will the Montana native meet the demands of the fanbase by consistently winning the East, recording 10 victories and beating rival Florida State? That remains to be seen, but the pressure on McElwain to win – and win big – is about to increase by a significant margin.
Florida missed on Muschamp – a Saban assistant – in the last hire, so there’s some doubt among the fanbase McElwain will produce at a higher level. However, there’s plenty in McElwain’s track record to suggest he’s done enough outside of his stint at Alabama to produce at a high level. The Montana native has experience in the NFL with the Raiders, worked as an assistant at Louisville, Michigan State and Montana State and has spent the last three seasons turning around the Colorado State program (including a 10-2 mark in 2014).
By no means is McElwain the flashy hire most fans want. However, he’s exactly what the program needs. Florida is going to get its share of talent on the recruiting trail. Now it needs a coach that can develop and put the talent into a position to succeed. McElwain is clearly that type of coach and is inheriting plenty to work with in 2015.
Boise State and Fresno State close out the 2014 regular season with a showdown on the blue turf in the Mountain West Conference championship game. With a win over the Bulldogs, the Broncos are expected to clinch a spot in one of college football’s premier bowl games as the top team from the Group of 5 conferences. While there’s a lot at stake for Boise State, Fresno State is trying to build off the momentum to close out the regular season. The Bulldogs won their final three games, including a 40-20 upset against Nevada to win the West Division.
Boise State and Fresno State have met 15 previous times, with the Broncos owning a 12-3 series edge. Fresno State’s last win in this series was last season (2013) by just one point (41-40). The Bulldogs have never won in Boise and lost the 2008 and 2010 meetings by 51 points each.
Fresno State at Boise State
Kickoff: 10 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Boise State -22
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: QB Brian Burrell
It’s no secret Fresno State is going to need to score some points to keep pace with Boise State. The Broncos average 41.8 points in six home games this season, and coach Bryan Harsin’s offense is tough to stop on the blue turf. The Bulldogs are averaging 35.3 points per contest over their last three games, and quarterback Brian Burrell is playing better after early-season struggles. Burrell tossed four touchdown passes and threw for 313 yards in an upset win at Nevada and added 207 yards and three touchdowns in a win over San Jose State on Nov. 8. Burrell has 13 picks this year, and he has to keep that number to zero or one on Saturday night. The junior has a strong supporting cast, including running back Marteze Waller (6.5 ypc) and receiver Josh Harper (76 catches). Burrell holds the keys to the offense and will determine if Fresno State can pull off the upset. If he plays well and limits the mistakes, the Bulldogs have a chance to keep this close into the fourth quarter – similar to the first meeting between these two teams.
Boise State’s Key to Victory: Get RB Jay Ajayi Going Once Again
Jay Ajayi is one of the nation’s most underrated players, and the junior enters the Mountain West Championship with seven consecutive 100-yard efforts. In 12 games, Ajayi has 1,619 yards and 24 rushing scores and has caught 45 passes for 536 yards and four touchdowns. In the first meeting between these two programs in 2014, Ajayi gashed the Fresno State defense for 158 yards and two scores on 30 carries. The Bulldogs will be challenged at the point of attack once again, as this defensive front has struggled to stop the run this season and ranks ninth in the Mountain West in rush defense. Surprisingly, Ajayi wasn’t voted the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year this week, and it’s likely the junior will use that snub as motivation on Saturday night. Ajayi makes the offense for Boise State go. Fresno State has to find a way to slow down the junior on the ground, while the Broncos want to see around 130-150 yards from their star running back on Saturday night.
Fresno State gave Boise State all it could handle in the first meeting between these two teams this year. And the Bulldogs played better down the stretch this season, finishing with a three-game winning streak to earn back-to-back trips to the Mountain West Conference championship game. However, it’s a tall order to win in Boise. And the Broncos simply have too much to play for. Ajayi and quarterback Grant Hedrick have big performances, elevating Boise State to a conference title and a spot in a premier bowl game this year.
Prediction: Boise State 45, Fresno State 20
Nebraska didn’t waste time in finding its next coach, as less than a week after Bo Pelini was fired, athletic director Shawn Eichorst has hired Mike Riley from Oregon State.
Not only was Eichorst’s hire quick, but Riley’s move from Oregon State to Nebraska comes as a major surprise. Riley had a long-term contract with the Beavers and was 93-80 during his tenure in Corvallis.
Some may look at Riley’s record and be underwhelmed with just 93 victories. However, Oregon State is one of the toughest jobs in the Pac-12. Riley was hired away from USC in 1997 as the Beavers’ head coach and brought immediate improvement to the program. From 1972-97, Oregon State had zero seasons of more than four wins. In Riley’s first year (1997), the Beavers went 3-8 and improved to 5-6 in the following season. After the five-win mark in 1998, Riley left Corvallis for the NFL.
After four years in the NFL, Riley returned to Oregon State and guided the Beavers to eight bowl games since 2003. The program also tied for second in the final conference standings twice and has four finishes in the final Associated Press poll.
Just how good was Riley at Oregon State? The Beavers had no bowl appearances from 1996-1998. From 1999-13, Oregon State has played in 11 postseason games – clearly a sign of how much the program improved under Riley’s direction.
Did Nebraska hit a home run by hiring Riley? Let’s take a look at the positives and negatives of this hire.
Positives in Nebraska’s Hire of Mike Riley
Mike Riley…the Anti-Bo?
Bo Pelini certainly won a lot of games at Nebraska, but it’s clear his personality clashed with the fanbase and administrators. That won’t be an issue with Riley. The Idaho native is known as one of the nicest coaches in college football. That distinction doesn’t win games, but Riley has the personality to win at a place like Nebraska.
Developing Talent…Doing More With Less
Riley wasn’t going to reel in elite talent at Oregon State. So the coaching staff had to find overlooked players and develop prospects into All-Pac-12 talent. That formula can work at Nebraska, as the Cornhuskers need to hit Texas and California to find talent, which are two areas Riley recruited for Oregon State. Riley has a good eye for talent, and it’s much easier to recruit at Nebraska than Oregon State. Even if Riley doesn’t reel in top 10-15 classes – something Nebraska wasn’t doing under Pelini – the program can win at a higher level if he continues to find and develop talent similar to what the Beavers were doing in Corvallis. Nebraska is a top 25 job but it can be difficult to attract talent to Lincoln. And with that in mind, it’s critical to have a coach that can find and develop talent.
Here’s a look at Riley’s recruiting rankings with the Beavers from 2011-14:
|Year||National Rank||Commits||5-Stars Signed||4-Stars Signed||3-Stars Signed|
|Rankings and recruiting data according to 247Sports|
Any Concerns in Nebraska’s Hire of Mike Riley?
It’s hard to identify many weaknesses in this hire for Nebraska. But is Riley the right coach to move Nebraska back into national title contention? The guess here is the Cornhuskers won’t win at a significantly higher level than what Pelini was able to do. However, if Nebraska wants the anti-Bo Pelini, then Riley is the right coach. Sure, he may not win 11 or 12 games in a season, and the Cornhuskers may have a puzzling loss or two at times, but he’s not going to clash with the fanbase. That’s important after the last few years isn’t it?
By no means in this a splashy hire. Riley isn’t going to move the needle much nationally, and the initial reaction by most took this coaching move as a surprise. However, once the initial surprise has dissipated, it’s easy to see why Nebraska went this direction. Riley is the opposite in terms of personality to Bo Pelini, has recruited Texas well – an area the Cornhuskers need to significantly mine for talent – and has succeeded in terms of developing talent.
In last year’s coach rankings by Athlon Sports, Riley ranked as the No. 27 coach in the nation. Pelini ranked No. 43. Riley is a better coach, knows how to evaluate talent and is going to fit in well at Nebraska with his easy-going personality.
Nebraska is the best job in the Big Ten West Division. The Cornhuskers may not contend for national championships on a consistent basis, but this program should be a player on a yearly basis for the conference title and should rank as a top 25 team.
Riley did more with less at Oregon State. Forget about the record - it's the 11th best job in the Pac-12. He may not bring a national title to Lincoln, but he’s going to win a lot of games.
Final Grade: B
Mike Riley departed Oregon State for Nebraska on Thursday, leaving the Beavers looking for a new head coach for the first time since the end of the 2002 season. Oregon State is one of the toughest jobs in the Pac-12, so finding a coach that can win at a high level won’t be easy for athletic director Bob De Carolis.
De Carolis could be looking at current Pac-12 assistants like Justin Wilcox at Washington or Scott Frost at Oregon. Current FBS or FCS coaches are also expected to jump into the mix, including Fresno State’s Tim DeRuyter, Utah State’s Matt Wells and Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin.
Who might replace Mike Riley at Oregon State? Let’s take a look at 10 possible candidates:
10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Mike Riley at Oregon State
Beau Baldwin, head coach, Eastern Washington
Baldwin is a rising star in the FCS ranks, and Oregon State fans are certainly familiar with his Eastern Washington team after the Eagles knocked off the Beavers in the 2013 season opener. Baldwin spent one year as Central Washington’s head coach in 2007, recording a 10-3 record with a Division II playoff appearance. The California native replaced Paul Wulff at Eastern Washington in 2008 and has a 76-27 mark with the Eagles in seven years. Baldwin has won at least 10 games in each of the last three seasons and claimed the FCS Championship in 2010. He is regarded as a bright offensive mind, and Eastern Washington ranked No. 1 in FCS ranks with an average of 44.6 points per game in 2014.
Tim DeRuyter, head coach, Fresno State
DeRuyter is 26-12 in his three years at Fresno State, including an 11-2 mark in 2013 with a Mountain West title. DeRuyter’s background in Texas and California is critical for a program like Oregon State, as the Beavers recruit heavily in those two areas. Prior to taking over at Fresno State, DeRuyter worked at Texas A&M for two seasons as a defensive coordinator and had stops as an assistant at Air Force, Nevada, Ohio and Navy prior to College Station. DeRuyter went 6-6 this season but also had to replace standout quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams.
Scott Frost, offensive coordinator, Oregon
An Oregon assistant as the head coach at Oregon State? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Frost is considered by many to be a rising star and a future head coach at a Power 5 program. The Nebraska native doesn’t have a ton of coaching experience, but he spent one season as a graduate assistant at Nebraska (2002), a year in the same capacity with Kansas State (2006) and two seasons at Northern Iowa from 2007-08. Frost was hired by former Oregon coach Chip Kelly to tutor the wide receivers in 2009, and he served in that capacity until the start of the 2013 season. Frost was promoted to offensive coordinator after Kelly left for the NFL, and the Ducks’ offense continues to be one of the best in the nation under his watch. Oregon averaged 45.5 points per game in 2013 and has a 45.9 mark entering the Pac-12 Championship. Frost is young and still largely unproven. However, at a place like Oregon State, a coach that can implement an lethal offense like the Ducks have used in recent years would help the Beavers compete in the Pac-12 North.
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
Herman is another assistant coach primed for a chance to run his own program in the coming seasons. The Ohio native started his coaching career in 1998 at Texas Lutheran University and has worked his way up the assistant ladder over the last 17 seasons. Herman also has stops at Texas (graduate assistant) and Sam Houston State (2001-04) before landing his first opportunity to be a play-caller in 2005 at Texas State. After two years with the Bobcats, Herman called the plays at Rice for two seasons and spent three years at Iowa State from 2009-11. Herman was hired by Urban Meyer as Ohio State’s play-caller at the end of the 2011 season, and the Buckeyes’ offense has thrived under his watch. Herman is also a member of Mensa International.
Brady Hoke, former Michigan coach
Hoke seems like a longshot, but his name has popped up in the initial rumor mill of candidates. Why would Hoke be a possible candidate at Oregon State after striking out at Michigan? Hoke was an assistant with the Beavers from 1989-94 and worked with the Wolverines as an assistant while Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis also spent time in Ann Arbor. While Hoke went 31-20 in four years at Michigan and was fired at the conclusion of 2014, he won at San Diego State (not an easy job) and went 19-7 in his last two seasons at Ball State. The connections are there but it would be surprising to see Hoke in Corvallis next year.
Bronco Mendenhall, head coach, BYU
Mendenhall is a longshot, but he played at Oregon State from 1986-87 and later coached in Corvallis from 1995-96. There are certainly ties for Mendenhall to Oregon State, but BYU is a better job. Prior to taking over as the Cougars’ head coach, Mendenhall worked as the defensive coordinator in Provo for two seasons (03-04), spent five years at New Mexico (1998-02) and made other stops at Louisiana Tech (1997), Northern Arizona (1993-94) and Snow College (1991-92). In 10 years as BYU’s coach, Mendenhall has a 90-38 record with nine consecutive bowl appearances.
Mike Norvell, offensive coordinator, Arizona State
Norvell is technically the deputy head coach to Todd Graham at Arizona State, but he’s the architect of the offenses in Tempe. Norvell has worked under Graham for the last eight years, including stints outside of Arizona State at Tulsa and Pittsburgh. The 33-year-old play-caller does not have any experience as a head coach, but it’s clear he’s a rising star in the coaching ranks and is on a fast track to running a Power 5 program.
Bob Stitt, head coach, Colorado School of Mines
Sure, Stitt is a little off the national radar, but it’s not easy to win at Oregon State. Why not try something different? Stitt has coached at Colorado School of Mines since 2000 and has a 98-60 record in that span. The Nebraska native is known for his innovative offenses and spent time as Harvard’s offensive coordinator from 1999-00. Stitt may lack the experience of some of the other candidates on the major college level, but his scheme would be difficult for opposing Pac-12 defensive coordinators to prepare against.
Matt Wells, head coach, Utah State
Wells has picked up where Gary Andersen left off in Logan. Utah State is 18-9 over the last two seasons and played in the Mountain West title game in 2013. Wells and his staff have overcome a plethora of quarterback injuries over the last two years and had to start a true freshman that opened the season as the No. 4 option in 2014. Prior to taking over as Utah State’s head coach and spending two years under Andersen as an assistant, Wells worked at Navy, Tulsa, New Mexico and Louisville.
Justin Wilcox, defensive coordinator, USC
Wilcox is no stranger to the Pacific Northwest, as he played at Oregon from 1996-99 and coached as an assistant at Boise State (2001-02 and 06-09) and at Washington from 2012-13. The Oregon native worked as the defensive coordinator at USC in 2014, and the Trojans finished third in the Pac-12 by holding opponents to 23.8 points per game. Wilcox has been a defensive coordinator for the last nine seasons, including a two-year stint at Tennessee from 2010-11.
Bowling Green and Northern Illinois meet for the second consecutive year in Detroit for the MAC Championship Game. The stakes are a little lower in this season’s matchup, as the Huskies entered last year's game undefeated and had a chance at a marquee bowl. However, the Falcons used a huge performance from quarterback Matt Johnson to end Northern Illinois’ unbeaten season. Much has changed about both programs since last season, as the Huskies had to replace standout quarterback Jordan Lynch and Dino Babers was hired from Eastern Illinois to replace Dave Clawson, who left to be the head coach at Wake Forest.
Bowling Green owns an 11-7 series edge over Northern Illinois. The Falcons snapped a three-game losing streak to the Huskies in last year’s MAC Championship. These two teams have played only once in the regular season since 2011. This is the second meeting between Northern Illinois and Bowling Green in the MAC Championship.
Bowling Green vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Friday)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Northern Illinois -6.5
Bowling Green’s Key to Victory: Get QB James Knapke Back on Track
Bowling Green is just 2-3 over its last five games, and a big problem during that span has been the play of its quarterbacks. Of course, any discussion about the Falcons’ passing attack has to rewind back to the season opener. Starter Matt Johnson suffered a season-ending injury against Western Kentucky, and Knapke – a sophomore from Indiana – has been pressed into the starting role. Knapke has the keys to a potent offense, as first-year coach Dino Babers preaches a “falcon fast” approach, and Bowling Green has ran the most plays in the MAC this season. Knapke has just two touchdown passes in his last four games and passed for just 71 yards against Toledo and 140 against Ball State. The sophomore has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, and running back Travis Greene returned from injury to rush for 159 yards and a score in the season finale. The playmakers are there for Babers. However, the Bowling Green offense won’t get on track without a solid performance from Knapke.
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
The Huskies rank second in the MAC with an average of 246.2 rushing yards per game. Quarterback Drew Hare leads the squad with 790 yards, but there’s a cast of running backs available to contribute. The best of the bunch is Cameron Stingily (4.9 ypc), and Joel Bouagnon and Akeem Daniels also help contribute to the ground attack. The effectiveness of the rush attack has fueled the Northern Illinois offense this season, as the passing game ranks 12th in the MAC with an average of 187.2 yards per game. Hare has tossed 15 touchdown passes to just one interception in 2014, but it’s clear this offense isn’t as explosive through the air as it was under Lynch. And leaning on the rushing attack on Friday night is ideal with a Bowling Green defense ranked 10th in the MAC against the run. The Falcons allowed 325 rushing yards to Toledo and 199 to Ball State. The opportunity is there with a veteran offensive line and talented group of rushers for Northern Illinois to control the time of possession and pound away at the Falcons’ defense.
Revenge should be on the mind of Northern Illinois. The Huskies had a chance to play in a marquee bowl last season, but the Falcons pulled off an upset in last year’s MAC title game. If Northern Illinois establishes its ground attack and continues to take care of the ball (10 lost turnovers in 2014), coach Rod Carey’s team will claim its third conference championship in four years. The Huskies rank sixth in the MAC against the run, which should allow Bowling Green to use Greene and the rest of the backfield to take some of the pressure off of quarterback James Knapke. The Falcons fall short of winning back-to-back MAC titles, as Northern Illinois gets revenge from last year’s loss.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 30, Bowling Green 20
Alabama and Missouri have met only once as SEC members, but there’s no shortage of familiarity between the two programs, as the Tigers and Crimson Tide are set to met in the SEC Championship game on Saturday afternoon. Alabama coach Nick Saban and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel played under Don James at Kent State and both spent time as graduate assistants with the Golden Flashes to begin their coaching career.
But on Saturday, the focus isn’t on the coaching background of Pinkel and Saban, as both teams have plenty to play for in Atlanta. With a win over Missouri, Alabama would solidify its spot in the playoffs and should be the No. 1 overall seed heading into the four-team tournament. The Tigers are No. 16 in the latest committee rankings, which makes a spot in college football’s playoff unlikely. However, Missouri can improve its bowl positioning with a victory over the Crimson Tide. And of course, the chance to win the SEC title is more than enough for the Tigers to be ready for the matchup in Atlanta.
The overall series between Alabama and Missouri is tied at two games apiece. The Crimson Tide has won the last two meetings, while the Tigers claimed the first two matchups. Missouri’s wins against Alabama occurred in 1968 and 1975, while the Crimson Tide has won the only matchup between these two programs as SEC members (42-10 in 2012).
Championship Week Previews and Predictions:
ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12
Missouri vs. Alabama
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -14.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Missouri’s Defensive Line
Despite the departure of two of last year’s standout defensive linemen (Michael Sam and Kony Ealy), Missouri hasn’t missed a beat up front. This group is arguably one of the best in the nation and is headlined by the defensive end pairing of Markus Golden and Shane Ray. The duo has combined for 22 sacks and four forced fumbles this season and rank among the top five tacklers on the team. Alabama’s offensive line may not be as dominant as it was in previous years, but this group is still one of the best in the SEC. The Crimson Tide has allowed only 11 sacks this season and led the way for rushers for average 5.1 yards per carry. Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry have combined for 1,639 yards and 16 touchdowns this year, and despite the emergence of quarterback Blake Sims, Alabama’s offense still revolves around its ground attack. Missouri needs Golden and Ray to create havoc on passing downs, while being tough at the point of attack against the run. In SEC-only matchups, the Tigers led the conference by limiting opponents to just 115 yards on the ground. Of course, it’s easy to poke holes in Missouri’s defensive statistics, as the East Division was the weaker side of the SEC. Indiana, Georgia and Arkansas each rushed for more than 150 yards against this defense. While Golden and Ray are a force off the edge, the Tigers need a big game from tackles Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta on the interior. Alabama left tackle Cam Robinson suffered a shoulder injury in the win over Auburn. If Robinson is less than full strength, that’s an opportunity for Golden and Ray to generate pressure on quarterback Blake Sims.
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2. Stopping Amari Cooper
In order to pull off the upset, Missouri’s defensive front has to control the pace of the game. If the Tigers get to quarterback Blake Sims, that’s less time the senior has to scan the field and find standout receiver Amari Cooper. The junior has 103 receptions for 1,573 yards and 14 scores through 12 games and is the best receiver Missouri has played in 2014. The Tigers may not have an elite, shutdown cornerback, but coordinator Dave Steckel has a solid overall group. Missouri ranks 25th nationally in pass efficiency defense and limited opposing offenses to just 13 passing scores in SEC games this season. Junior Kenya Dennis or sophomore Aarion Penton will attempt to cover Cooper, but the Tigers could also rely on safety help from Braylon Webb or Ian Simon. Regardless of which defenders line up against Cooper, this is not an easy matchup for Missouri.
3. Missouri’s Offense
The 2014 version of Missouri’s offense isn’t as explosive or potent as the 2013 version. Last season, the Tigers averaged 39.1 points per game but that number has dipped to 28.6 in 2014. In addition to the drop in scoring, Missouri’s per-play average has dropped from 6.6 (2013) to 5.3 (2014). Pinpointing the reason for the drop in production is due to a couple of factors, but the Tigers have a balanced attack (2,112 rushing yards, 2,279 passing yards) and are one of the best in the SEC in turnover margin. Quarterback Maty Mauk has experienced his share of ups and downs in his first year as the starter but is coming off his highest passing performance in SEC play (265) yards and has tossed only two picks in Missouri’s last five games. Running back Russell Hansbrough suffered an ankle injury in last week’s win over Arkansas but is expected to play. Hansbrough’s health is critical to the offense, as the Tigers need balance in order to knock off Alabama. The Crimson Tide has been tough to run against all year and has allowed only three scores on the ground all season. Mauk should have opportunities to hit receiver Bud Sasser on big passing plays if Alabama continues to have its share of inconsistent play at cornerback. This is a tough matchup for Missouri’s offense, and considering the Crimson Tide’s elite run defense, the Tigers may need to throw more on Saturday to win. Is Mauk up to the task?
Missouri has exceeded preseason expectations once again. The Tigers were picked by most to finish third or fourth in the East this year, but coach Gary Pinkel’s team reached Atlanta for the second consecutive season. While Missouri has reeled off six consecutive wins since a 34-0 loss to Georgia, this is the toughest opponent Pinkel’s squad will play in 2014. Alabama has its weaknesses, but the offense is coming off a huge performance against Auburn, and the defense has been stingy all season. The Crimson Tide enter Saturday’s game nearly a two-touchdown favorite. Can Missouri surprise once again? Or will Alabama win and clinch a playoff spot in the process?
SEC Championship Game Predictions
|Missouri (+14.5) vs. Alabama||Alabama|
Florida State and Georgia Tech meet for the second time in three seasons in the ACC Championship, and both programs head into this matchup with plenty at stake. The Seminoles have won 28 games in a row and need a victory to stay in the mix for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff format. The Yellow Jackets are in the driver’s seat to make an appearance in the Orange Bowl if Florida State makes the four-team playoff, and coach Paul Johnson’s team may still land there even with a loss on Saturday night.
It’s been a rebound year for Georgia Tech after going 14-13 in the two previous seasons. The Yellow Jackets won 10 games, including key rivalry matchups against Clemson and Georgia. Johnson was named ACC Coach of the Year for Georgia Tech’s success in 2014, and the seventh-year coach has the program poised to finish in the final Associated Press poll for the first time since 2009.
On the other sideline, Florida State isn’t as dominant as it was in 2013, but the Seminoles are still one of the best teams in the nation. Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team enters the ACC Championship with three consecutive wins by five points or less, and the Seminoles have solid road wins over Miami and Louisville, along with a neutral site affair against Oklahoma State.
Florida State owns a 13-9-1 series edge over Georgia Tech. The Seminoles won 12 consecutive games against the Yellow Jackets from 1992-03. Georgia Tech won back-to-back matchups in 2008-09, but Florida State won the last meeting between these two teams in 2012 in a 21-15 victory in the ACC Championship.
Championship Week Previews and Predictions:
Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-12 | SEC
Georgia Tech vs. Florida State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Florida State -4
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State’s Run Defense
Stopping Georgia Tech’s option offense is going to be a handful for Florida State’s defense, especially on just one week to prepare. The Seminoles do have some experience against the option this year, as they played FCS opponent Citadel and allowed 250 rushing yards on 56 attempts. In eight ACC contests, Florida State allowed 133.6 rushing yards per game and limited opponents to 3.5 yards per carry. Anytime a defense matches up against an option attack, it’s important to play assignment football. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially after Florida State’s defensive line was banged up in the win over Citadel. Facing a team that uses cut blocks is not something defensive linemen particularly enjoy, but the Seminoles have the talent to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and end Mario Edwards Jr. earned All-ACC honors this season and are two of the best players against the run in the ACC. Georgia Tech’s leading rusher is quarterback Justin Thomas (861 yards), but B-backs Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days will do the heavy lifting on the ground. Laskey averages five yards per carry, while Days has a 5.9 mark in 12 games. Thomas doesn’t throw it often, but he averages 17.8 yards per completion. Even though receiver DeAndre Smelter is out due to a knee injury, if Thomas, Days and Laskey produce on the ground, it should open up downfield passing opportunities for the passing game. If Florida State limits Georgia Tech’s big plays on the ground, it will extend its winning streak to 29 games.
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2. Turnover Battle
Florida State knows every possession against Georgia Tech is going to be valuable. The Yellow Jackets dominate the time of possession (averaging 34:02 per game), which limits the overall opportunities by the other offense. In the Seminoles’ win over Florida, they recorded 13 possessions (including end of half kneel downs). Against Citadel, Florida State had only nine offensive possessions. In addition to its ability to control the clock and limit offensive possessions, Georgia Tech has the best turnover margin in the ACC (+11) and has generated 27 takeaways this year. On the flipside, Florida State has been generous with giving the ball away, as it has lost 27 turnovers in 12 games. In last week’s win over Florida, the Seminoles lost four turnovers and still managed to win. However, against the Yellow Jackets, Florida State cannot afford to have a similar performance in the turnover department. It’s pretty simple to see Georgia Tech’s formula for a win on Saturday night: Control the clock and keep quarterback Jameis Winston on the sideline and win the turnover battle. If the Yellow Jackets are +2 or +3 in turnover margin on Saturday night, there’s a good chance Johnson’s team hoists the ACC trophy.
3. Georgia Tech’s Defense
Even if Georgia Tech’s offense has success against Florida State’s defense, will the Yellow Jackets get stops against the Seminoles? Statistically, Georgia Tech’s defense has struggled in 2014. The Yellow Jackets rank 13th in the ACC in yards per play allowed (6.1) and seventh in points allowed (24.1 ppg). This unit also ranks low in the conference in sacks (18 – 12th in the ACC) and struggled to get off the field on third downs. However, this unit played better in the second half of the season, limiting Clemson to just six points on Nov. 15, held Georgia to 24 points after the Bulldogs entered the season finale by scoring at least 34 points in their last three games and has forced 17 turnovers over the last five games. Despite their recent performance, the Yellow Jackets are going to have their hands full on Saturday night. Florida State’s offense averages 34.6 points per game and is third in the ACC by recording 6.3 yards per play. Quarterback Jameis Winston has tossed 17 picks this year, but the sophomore is still one of the best passers in the nation and is capable of carrying this offense to another national title. Winston has plenty of help from his supporting cast, which includes standout receiver Rashad Greene (86 catches) and a rising star in freshman running back Dalvin Cook (5.9 ypc). If Winston limits his mistakes, and Florida State doesn’t turn the ball over against an opportunistic defense, all signs point to the Seminoles being able to move the ball – and rather successfully.
The star power in this matchup is clearly with Florida State. Winston, Cook and Greene are capable of scoring 30-40 points if the Seminoles don’t make careless mistakes with the ball. On the defensive side, Georgia Tech’s option offense on a week to prepare is going to be tough for the Seminoles. Keep an eye on third downs – can Florida State put the Yellow Jackets in long-yardage situations? The worst scenario for the Seminoles would be for Georgia Tech’s offense to dominate time of possession and win the turnover battle. Will Florida State clinch a playoff spot and win its third ACC title in three years? Or will the Yellow Jackets spoil the Seminoles’ unbeaten season and win its first ACC title since 2009.
ACC Championship Predictions
|FSU (-4) vs. GT||FSU 35-28||FSU 34-31||FSU 31-27||GT 31-30|
Michigan is the second Big Ten coaching position to open this offseason, as coach Brady Hoke was fired on Tuesday. Hoke went 31-20 in four seasons with the Wolverines, including an 11-2 record in 2011. However, since leading Michigan to a Sugar Bowl appearance and winning 11 games, the Wolverines are just 20-18 and missed out on a bowl in 2014.
Hoke was hailed as a “Michigan Man” when he was hired in 2011. Will the Wolverines look for a “Michigan Man” and hire Les Miles or Jim Harbaugh? Or will outside names appeal to interim athletic director Jim Hackett?
8 Candidates to Replace Brady Hoke at Michigan
Steve Addazio, head coach, Boston College
Addazio wouldn’t be a splashy, name hire like Jim Harbaugh or Les Miles, but he’s a good coach that would win a lot of games at Michigan. In two years at Boston College, Addazio is 14-11 and has recorded a .500 record in conference play in both seasons. Prior to taking over in Chestnut Hill, Addazio spent two years at Temple and went 13-11 during that span. Before taking over the top spot at Temple, Addazio coached at Florida from 2005-10 under Urban Meyer, spent three years at Indiana (2002-04) and also had stops at Notre Dame and Syracuse. Addazio’s style of play and emphasis on toughness would fit in well in the Big Ten.
Mike Gundy, head coach, Oklahoma State
Gundy is 82-44 since taking over as Oklahoma State’s head coach in 2005. Considering he works at his alma mater, Gundy isn’t necessarily looking to leave Stillwater, but reports have indicated there could be friction between the head coach and athletic director Mike Holder. Under Gundy’s direction, the Cowboys have played in eight consecutive bowl games and finished No. 3 nationally in 2011. Gundy’s name also popped up in connection with the opening at Florida and Nebraska. Is he really interested in leaving his alma mater? That’s the big question with Gundy.
Podcast: Who should be Michigan's next head coach?
Jim Harbaugh, head coach, San Francisco 49ers
Harbaugh would be a home run hire for Michigan. But does he want to leave the NFL? Harbaugh played at Michigan from 1983-87 and has been a successful coach at three different jobs. Harbaugh went 29-6 in three years at San Diego, 29-21 in four seasons with Stanford and is 43-16-1 with the 49ers. While Harbaugh is certainly in play at his alma mater, staying in the NFL is also a possibility. If Harbaugh wants to come back to Michigan, he should be Michigan’s No. 1 target.
Jerry Kill, head coach, Minnesota
Kill wouldn’t be the flashiest of hires, but he’s a proven coach at five college jobs. The Kansas native is 25-25 in four seasons with the Golden Gophers, which includes a 9-7 mark in Big Ten play over the last two years. Prior to taking over at Minnesota, Kill spent two years at Northern Illinois (23-16), seven seasons at Southern Illinois (55-32), went 11-11 at Emporia State and 38-14 at Saginaw Valley State (1994-98). While Kill has a good job at Minnesota, Michigan is one of the elite coaching jobs in college football. Wouldn’t necessarily move the needle nationally, but Kill would win a lot of games in Ann Arbor.
Les Miles, head coach, LSU
If Jim Harbaugh is the No. 1 candidate at Michigan, then Miles should be a close No. 2 or 1b. The Ohio native played under Bo Schembechler in Ann Arbor and coached at Michigan as an assistant from 1980-81 and 1987-94. Miles left Ann Arbor for Oklahoma State in 1995 and was elevated to head coach after a three-year stint with the Dallas Cowboys in 2000. From 2001-04, Miles guided Oklahoma State to a 28-21 record with three bowl appearances. Miles took over at LSU in 2005 and is 103-28 during his tenure in Baton Rouge.
Jim McElwain, head coach, Colorado State
McElwain is believed to be one of the frontrunners to replace Will Muschamp at Florida. But if he doesn’t land the job in Gainesville, the Montana native should be in the mix at Michigan. McElwain coached at Alabama under Nick Saban from 2008-11 and has previous experience as an assistant at Fresno State, Michigan State, Louisville and in the NFL with the Raiders. McElwain has thrived at Colorado State after a 4-8 mark in his first season, guiding the Rams to an 8-6 record and a bowl appearance in 2013 and a 10-2 mark in 2014.
Dan Mullen, head coach, Mississippi State
Mullen has spent the past six seasons at Mississippi State, recording a 46-30 record during that span. The Bulldogs also recorded four consecutive bowl appearances and will extend that streak to five in 2014. While coaching in the SEC is an attractive destination for all coaches, Mississippi State is one of the toughest jobs in the SEC. Mullen elevated the Bulldogs into playoff contention this season and led the program to a 10-2 record, which was its first season of double-digit wins since 1999. Prior to Mississippi State, Mullen worked as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator at Florida from 2005-08 and worked under Meyer at Bowling Green (2001-02) and Utah (2003-04) as an assistant. Mullen is clearly capable of winning at a high level. And it’s much easier to win at Michigan than in the brutal SEC West.
Greg Schiano, former Rutgers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach
Schiano has been out of coaching since he was fired at the end of the 2013 season in Tampa Bay. In two years with the Buccaneers, Schiano was just 11-21. However, Schiano was a successful college coach, recording a 68-67 mark at Rutgers from 2001-11. While his record was barely over .500, Schiano inherited a struggling program and transformed the Scarlet Knights into a consistent winner. Prior to his stint with Rutgers, Schiano worked as an assistant at Miami.
Pat Fitzgerald, head coach, Northwestern
Fitzgerald turned down Michigan in 2011. Would he be interested in leaving after a 5-7 record at Northwestern in 2014?
Pep Hamilton, offensive coordinator, Indianapolis Colts
A name to remember in future seasons, as Hamilton has helped mentor Andrew Luck over the last few years in Indianapolis (and at Stanford).
John Harbaugh, head coach, Baltimore Ravens
If Jim won’t leave the NFL, would John Harbaugh be an option?
Tom Herman, offensive coordinator, Ohio State
A rising star in the coaching ranks but needs a chance to run another program before jumping to a Power 5 job.
Butch Jones, head coach, Tennessee
Jones is a Michigan native but is reportedly not a candidate at Michigan.
Pat Narduzzi, defensive coordinator, Michigan State
Would be an excellent choice, but Narduzzi would be unlikely to leave Michigan State for Michigan.
College football’s playoff committee has released four sets of rankings, and the debate about the top four teams will continue every week until the final matchups are released. While the top 25 rankings are expected to change each week and will look drastically different from the release of the first poll to the last one, the playoff committee's poll provided some insight into the process.
Each week, Athlon Sports hopes to replicate the playoff committee’s work by asking some of college football’s top media members to vote on their top eight teams. This poll will attempt to project how the playoff picture stacks up after each week until the end of the year.
Bobby Bowden (@TheBobbyBowden), Legends Poll
Gene Stallings, (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Don Nehlen (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Athlon Sports
Zac Ellis (@ZacEllis), Sports Illustrated
David Fox (@DavidFox615), Athlon Sports
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Teddy Mitrosilis (@TMitrosilis), Fox Sports
Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey), SBNation.com
Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB), SportsonEarth.com
Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello), Campus Insiders
Brad Crawford (@BCrawfordSDS), SaturdayDownSouth.com
Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247), Eersports.com
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
Adam Powell (@ACCSports), ACCSports.com
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch) Athlon Sports
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports
Post-Week 14 Playoff Projection
Takeaways From Expert Poll Results
* Alabama holds a sizeable lead for the No. 1 spot in the playoff projection. The Crimson Tide received 16 of the 21 first-place votes and ranked below second on just one ballot.
* Oregon passed Florida State by a small margin (four points) for the No. 2 spot. The Seminoles have more first-place votes (three) than the Ducks (two), but Oregon claimed 11 second-place rankings to edge Florida State.
* TCU dominated Texas on Thanksgiving, and that result swayed some of the voters to flip the Horned Frogs and Baylor. The Bears own a head-to-head win over TCU, but trail in Athlon’s playoff projection by eight points. Style points in Week 15 could be important.
* With a win over Arizona State, combined with UCLA’s loss to Stanford, Arizona jumped to No. 7 in this week’s poll. The Wildcats are still alive for a playoff spot if they beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship on Friday night.
* The battle to claim a playoff spot seems to be down to seven teams: Florida State, Oregon, TCU, Baylor, Ohio State and Arizona. Perhaps there’s a crazy scenario where another team could jump into the conversation with losses by all four of the top teams in this week’s poll, but the formula for the first playoff poll seems simple. If Alabama, Florida State and Oregon win this weekend, all three teams will be in. The fourth spot will be up for grabs between Baylor, Ohio State and TCU if the top three win in Week 15.
Group of 5 Rankings
1. Boise State
The Broncos are in the driver’s seat for the Group of 5 bowl spot in one of college football’s premier games. Boise State ranked No. 23 in last week’s playoff rankings and should move up after defeating Utah State last week. The Broncos host Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship on Saturday night.
The Tigers clinched a share of the American Athletic Conference title with a victory over UConn last week. Memphis pounded UConn 41-10 in Week 14 and finished the regular season at 9-3 overall. Coach Justin Fuente’s team could claim the outright league title if UCF loses to East Carolina, leaving Memphis and Cincinnati (if it beats Houston) tied at 7-1 overall in conference games. The Tigers beat the Bearcats earlier this year.
Next in Line: Cincinnati, UCF, Northern Illinois, Marshall
Games With Playoff/Bowl Implications in Week 15
UCF at East Carolina
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN (Thursday)
Northern Illinois vs. Bowling Green (Detroit)
7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 (Friday)
Arizona vs. Oregon (Santa Clara)
9 p.m. ET, FOX (Friday)
Iowa State at TCU
Noon ET, ABC
Louisiana Tech at Marshall
Noon ET, ESPN2
Houston at Cincinnati
Noon ET, ESPN
Alabama vs. Missouri (Atlanta)
4 p.m. ET, CBS
Kansas State at Baylor
7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Florida State vs. Georgia Tech (Charlotte)
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (Indianapolis)
8:17 p.m. ET, FOX
Fresno State at Boise State
10 p.m. ET, CBS
The final week of the 2014 college football season has arrived, and the bowl and national title picture is starting to clear. The playoff committee will release its sixth set of rankings on Tuesday this week, and there’s one more poll coming from the committee next Sunday after the Week 15 action.
The new playoff format has added a new layer of intrigue, as four teams – instead of two – will have a shot at the national championship once the bowl pairings are announced in early December.
With 14 weeks in the books, it’s time to take a look at what the bowl picture might hold for each conference and team this year.
Teams on the projection bubble and missing our projections this week: Oklahoma State, MTSU, Temple, UAB and Ohio.
College Football's Post-Week 14 Bowl Projections
|New Orleans||Dec. 20||Sun Belt vs.|
| UL Lafayette vs.|
|New Mexico||Dec. 20||C-USA vs.|
| UTEP vs.|
|Las Vegas||Dec. 20||Mountain West vs.|
| Colorado State vs.|
|Famous Idaho Potato||Dec. 20||MAC vs.|
| Bowling Green vs.|
|Camellia||Dec. 20||MAC vs.|
| Central Michigan vs.|
|Miami Beach||Dec. 22||American vs.|
|Boca Raton||Dec. 23||C-USA vs.|
| Marshall vs.|
|Poinsettia||Dec. 23||Mountain West vs.|
| San Diego State vs.|
|Bahamas||Dec. 24||C-USA vs.|
| Western Kentucky vs.|
|Hawaii||Dec. 24||C-USA vs. |
| Rice vs.|
|Heart of Dallas||Dec. 26||Big Ten vs.|
| Rutgers vs.|
|Quick Lane||Dec. 26||ACC vs. |
| Virginia Tech vs.|
|St. Petersburg||Dec. 26||ACC vs.|
| Miami vs.|
|Military||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| NC State vs.|
|Sun||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Duke vs.|
|Independence||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| North Carolina vs.|
|Pinstripe||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Boston College vs.|
|Holiday||Dec. 27||Big Ten vs.|
| Nebraska vs.|
|Liberty||Dec. 29||SEC vs.|
| Tennessee vs.|
|Russell Athletic||Dec. 29||ACC vs.|
| Clemson vs.|
|Texas||Dec. 29||Big 12 vs.|
| Texas vs.|
|Music City||Dec. 30||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Maryland vs.|
|Belk||Dec. 30||ACC vs.|
| Notre Dame vs.|
|San Francisco||Dec. 30||Big Ten vs.|
| Iowa vs.|
|Outback||Jan. 1||Big Ten vs.|
| Minnesota vs.|
|Citrus||Jan. 1||Big Ten/ACC vs.|
| Wisconsin vs.|
|Armed Forces||Jan. 2||American vs.|
| Houston vs.|
|Taxslayer||Jan. 2||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Louisville vs.|
|Alamo||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Oklahoma vs.|
|TicketCity Cactus||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Washington vs.|
|Birmingham||Jan. 3||American vs.|
| Memphis vs.|
|GoDaddy||Jan. 4||MAC vs.|
| Northern Illinois vs.|
|New Year's Bowls|
|Peach||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Ohio State vs.|
|Fiesta||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Boise State vs.|
|Orange||Dec. 31||ACC vs.|
| Georgia Tech vs.|
|Cotton||Jan. 1||At-large vs.|
| TCU vs.|
|Related: Projecting the Playoff Teams After Week 14|
|Rose||Jan. 1||Playoff |
| Oregon vs.|
|Sugar||Jan. 1||Playoff |
| Alabama vs.|
|National Title||Jan. 12||Semifinal Winner vs.|
| Alabama vs.|
Bold indicates team has accepted bowl bid.
* Indicates conference is not expected to fill all of its allotted tie-ins.
Nebraska fired coach Bo Pelini after the Cornhuskers closed the 2014 regular season with a 9-3 record. Pelini’s record in Lincoln was an impressive 67-27, but the program never took the next step under his watch. Nebraska won at least nine games in each of Pelini’s seven seasons and had four finishes in the final Associated Press poll. However, the Cornhuskers never played in one of college football’s premier bowl games or won a conference title.
Nebraska is one of the top 25 jobs in college football, but there are also drawbacks to coaching in Lincoln. The state does not produce enough in-state talent to win a national championship, which means the coaching staff has to recruit Texas and surrounding areas for talent.
Even though this job may not be as elite as some would suggest, Nebraska has all of the necessary resources to win a Big Ten title – and it’s the best program in the Big Ten West Division.
13 Candidates to Replace Bo Pelini at Nebraska
Steve Addazio, Head Coach, Boston College
Addazio has quickly emerged as one of the top coaches in the ACC over the last two years. Boston College is 14-11 under Addazio’s watch and has finished .500 in league play in both seasons. Prior to Addazio’s arrival, the Eagles went 6-18 from 2011-12 and missed out on bowl appearances in both years. Making Addazio’s two years in Chestnut Hill even more impressive is his ability to win with the available talent and mesh with graduate transfers (quarterback Tyler Murphy), while the program reloads and builds an identity through recruiting. Addazio’s style of play (run-first mentality and toughness) would translate well in Lincoln. Prior to taking over at Boston College, Addazio went 13-11 in two years at Temple and served as an assistant at Florida, Indiana, Notre Dame and Syracuse.
Podcast: Who should be Nebraska's next head coach?
Craig Bohl, Head Coach, Wyoming
To borrow a term from another Big Ten program, Bohl seems to be a “Nebraska man.” He’s a Lincoln native, played under Tom Osborne from 1977-79 and worked on the Cornhuskers’ coaching staff from 1995-02. Bohl was hired as North Dakota State’s head coach in 2003, and he led the Bison until 2013 when he was hired at Wyoming. Bohl’s record with the Bison was a stellar 104-32 and included three consecutive FCS Championships from 2011-13. Bohl led Wyoming to a 4-8 mark in 2014.
Troy Calhoun, Head Coach, Air Force
Calhoun currently coaches at his alma mater (Air Force), so it’s not a guarantee that he wants to leave for another job. Calhoun is 58-44 in eight seasons with the Falcons and guided the program to six consecutive bowl appearances from 2007-12. Air Force missed out on a bowl and went 2-10 in 2013, which was Calhoun’s worst season with the program. However, the Falcons rebounded to 9-3 and could reach 10 victories if they win a bowl game. And considering Nebraska’s history with the option offense, Calhoun’s ties to that style of play would be attractive to the fanbase. Calhoun also has stops on his resume from stints in the NFL (Houston and Denver) and in college with Ohio and Wake Forest.
Willie Fritz, Head Coach, Georgia Southern
Fritz is coming off a successful debut at Georgia Southern, as the Eagles finished 9-3 in their first season on the FBS level. Barring an appeal that’s approved by the NCAA, Georgia Southern won’t be eligible for a bowl game, but a 9-3 record with a Sun Belt title is an impressive debut from Fritz. Prior to Georgia Southern, Fritz went 40-14 at Sam Houston State and 97-47 at Central Missouri. The Kansas native could be in the mix for the opening with the Jayhawks after the program fired coach Charlie Weis earlier this year.
Scott Frost, Offensive Coordinator, Oregon
As a former Nebraska quarterback, Frost is already a popular name in the search to replace Bo Pelini. Frost is only 39 years old, and a younger coach could spark energy into a program that is looking to move back into the national title mix on a yearly basis. The Lincoln native doesn’t have a ton of coaching experience, but he spent one season as a graduate assistant at Nebraska (2002), a year in the same capacity with Kansas State (2006) and two seasons at Northern Iowa from 2007-08. Frost was hired by former Oregon coach Chip Kelly to tutor the wide receivers in 2009, and he served in that capacity until the start of the 2013 season. Frost was promoted to offensive coordinator after Kelly left for the NFL, and the Ducks’ offense continues to be one of the best in the nation under his watch. Oregon averaged 45.5 points per game in 2013 and has a 45.9 mark entering the Pac-12 Championship.
Justin Fuente, Head Coach, Memphis
Fuente inherited a mess after the failed Larry Porter era at Memphis. But in just three years, the Tigers went from 4-8 to winning a share of the American Athletic Conference title in 2014. Fuente’s record at Memphis is just 16-20, but the program has clearly made progress under his watch and finished 9-3 in its second season playing in the American Athletic Conference. The Oklahoma native is no stranger to coaching in the Midwest, as he spent five years under Gary Patterson at TCU and worked from 2001-06 at Illinois State.
Mike Gundy, Head Coach, Oklahoma State
Gundy is 82-44 since taking over as Oklahoma State’s head coach in 2005. Considering he works at his alma mater, Gundy isn’t necessarily looking to leave Stillwater, but reports have indicated there could be friction between the head coach and athletic director Mike Holder. Under Gundy’s direction, the Cowboys have played in eight consecutive bowl games and finished No. 3 nationally in 2011. Gundy’s name also popped up in connection with the opening at Florida.
Mark Hudspeth, Head Coach, UL Lafayette
Hudspeth has been successful at two different head coaching stops, including a 35-16 mark with UL Lafayette over the last four years. The Ragin’ Cajuns are also poised to earn their fourth consecutive bowl appearance after an 8-4 mark in 2014. Prior to taking over at ULL, Hudspeth worked as an assistant at Mississippi State for two seasons (2009-10) and worked for seven years as the head coach at North Alabama (66-21). Hudspeth also has stops in his career at Navy, Delta State and Central Arkansas. Hudspeth is due for a promotion to run a Power 5 job, but his background suggests he would be more interested in SEC openings.
Jerry Kill, Head Coach, Minnesota
Nebraska fans are certainly familiar with Kill after Minnesota claimed back-to-back victories against the Cornhuskers in 2013-14. The Kansas native has a good job at Minnesota, but it’s much easier to win at a higher level at Nebraska. Kill wouldn’t necessarily be the most exciting hire for a program that wants to return to national prominence. However, there’s no doubt Kill knows how to win games. He went 38-14 in five years at Saginaw Valley State, 55-32 in seven seasons at Southern Illinois, 23-16 at Northern Illinois and is 25-25 in four years with the Golden Gophers. Kill’s career record is 152-98, and he has elevated the Minnesota program over the last two seasons.
Jim McElwain, Head Coach, Colorado State
McElwain is one of the rising stars in college football’s coaching ranks. In three years with Colorado State, McElwain is 22-16 and has the Rams poised to earn back-to-back bowl appearances. Colorado State is also 15-3 in McElwain’s last 18 games, which includes wins over Power 5 opponents in Boston College, Washington State and Colorado. Prior to taking the top spot in Fort Collins, McElwain served as an assistant under Nick Saban at Alabama from 2008-11, coordinated Fresno State’s offense in 2007 and worked with the Raiders in 2006. He also has stops as an assistant at Michigan State, Louisville, Eastern Washington and Montana State. McElwain is primed to eventually move up the coaching ranks, but there’s a potential issue with his buyout. All signs point to McElwain’s buyout at Colorado State checking in at a hefty $7.5 million this year.
Joe Moglia, Head Coach, Coastal Carolina
Moglia might be a better fit in the longshot category, but he’s an intriguing name to remember in coaching searches this offseason. The former Ameritrade CEO spent two years as a volunteer assistant at Nebraska (2009-10) and was hired as Coastal Carolina’s coach after a four-game stint with the Omaha Nighthawks. In three years with the Chanticleers, Moglia’s record is 31-9 and has guided the program to three consecutive FCS playoff appearances.
Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
Would Nebraska venture into the defensive assistant ranks once again for a coach? If so, Narduzzi would be a home-run hire for athletic director Shawn Eichorst. The Connecticut native reportedly turned down the UConn job last year, but it’s only a matter of time before he runs his own program. Narduzzi has coordinated some of the nation’s top defenses at Michigan State, including the 2013 season when the Spartans led the nation by holding opponents to four yards per play. Prior to coordinating Michigan State’s defense, Narduzzi called the defensive signals at Cincinnati and Miami (Ohio) and has stops as an assistant at Northern Illinois and Rhode Island.
Greg Schiano, former Rutgers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
Schiano sat out the 2014 season after he was fired after two years as Tampa Bay’s head coach. Despite the failed stint in the NFL, Schiano is expected to get back in the mix for college jobs, as he recorded a 68-67 record at Rutgers, which included six bowl appearances over his final seven years. Schiano’s record with the Scarlet Knights was just one win over .500, but he inherited a program that won only nine games in the four years prior to his arrival.
Other Names to Watch/Longshots
Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst has ties to Wisconsin from a stint under Barry Alvarez in the program’s athletic department from 2006-11. Eichorst and Aranda didn’t work together at Wisconsin, but it’s probably a safe bet Eichorst has kept a close watch on the Badgers over the last few years. Aranda helped to coordinate a defense that led the Big Ten in fewest points allowed per game (16.8) in 2014. A rising star in the coaching ranks but likely a year or two away from taking a head coaching job.
Al Golden, Head Coach, Miami
Golden has ties to athletic director Shawn Eichorst, as they worked together in Miami from 2011-12. However, Golden could be a tough sell in Lincoln after a 28-21 start to his tenure in Coral Gables. Additionally, the Hurricanes are coming off a 6-6 record and went 3-5 in a mediocre Coastal Division.
Jim Harbaugh, Head Coach, San Francisco 49ers
All signs point to Harbaugh coaching somewhere other than San Francisco in 2015. Will it be Michigan, the Raiders or the Jets? Hard to see Harbaugh going to Nebraska, but he’s a name to watch in all coaching searches this offseason.
Tom Herman, Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Despite losing quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury in fall practice, Ohio State’s offense ranked as the best in the Big Ten by averaging 44.1 points per game. Herman and coach Urban Meyer were instrumental in the development of redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett and will have to do the same for Cardale Jones after Barrett’s injury against Michigan. Herman has worked under coach Urban Meyer since 2012 and called the plays at Texas State (2005-06), Rice (2007-08) and Iowa State (2009-11). Herman also is a member of Mensa International. Expect Herman to get a look for openings outside of the Power 5 leagues.
Jim Tressel, Former Ohio State Head Coach
Tressel has been out of coaching since he resigned at Ohio State after the 2010 season. While the end of his tenure with the Buckeyes was rocky with NCAA problems, Tressel is a proven winner with a 241-79 career record. Is he ready to get back into coaching? Or is Tressel comfortable serving in an administration role at Youngstown State?
Brent Venables, Defensive Coordinator, Clemson
Venables is familiar with Nebraska from his time as a player and coach at Kansas State. And Venables has emerged as one of the nation’s highest-paid defensive coordinators and has guided Clemson’s defense to finishes inside of the top three in the ACC in scoring defense over the last three seasons.
Nebraska has fired coach Bo Pelini. Athletic director Shawn Eichorst will hold a press conference on Sunday to discuss Pelini's firing and what's next for the program. Pelini will not coach Nebraska in a bowl game.
Pelini went 67-27 in seven full years with the Cornhuskers and won at least nine games in each season.
However, the expectations are high at Nebraska. Pelini never won a conference championship and never led the program to one of college football’s top bowl games.
Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst has dismissed Head Football Coach Bo Pelini effective immediately. Press conference 1pm.— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) November 30, 2014
Coach Pelini served our University admirably for seven years and led our football program’s transition to the Big Ten Conference. -Eichorst— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) November 30, 2014
Alabama is known for its elite defenses under coach Nick Saban, but in order to win the Iron Bowl matchup against Auburn and keep its national title hopes alive, the Crimson Tide leaned on the offense and receiver Amari Cooper.
Cooper earned Athlon Sports Week 14 Player of the Week honors by catching 13 passes for 224 yards and three scores in a 55-44 shootout victory over Auburn. The junior caught 13 of quarterback Blake Sims’ 20 completions, as the Tigers’ secondary simply had no answer for the receiver that should win the Biletnikoff Award in December.
Cooper and quarterback Blake Sims guided Alabama back from a 26-20 halftime deficit in the highest-scoring game in Iron Bowl history. The Sims-Cooper connection helped to power an offense that averaged 8.8 yards per play and scored on each of its final five drives of the second half.
Cooper caught two of his touchdowns after halftime, including a 75-yard bomb from Sims to cut Auburn’s lead to 36-34 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Iron Bowl totals – 13 catches for 224 yards and three scores – each tied a season-high for Cooper.
Cooper heads into the SEC Championship with 103 catches for 1,573 yards and 14 touchdown catches.
Defensive Player of the Week: Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
Wright continued to state his case as the best defensive player in college football this season with a huge performance in the win over Arizona State. The sophomore helped the Wildcats clinch the Pac-12 South title by leading the team with 13 tackles (five for a loss), one forced fumble and two sacks. Wright’s forced fumble came on Arizona State’s third offensive play from scrimmage, which was returned by Anthony Lopez to give Arizona an early 7-0 lead. Wright heads into the Pac-12 Championship with 139 total tackles, 14 sacks and six forced fumbles.
Coordinator of the Week: Dave Wommack, Ole Miss
The Rebels reclaimed in-state bragging rights and the Egg Bowl trophy after a 31-17 victory over Mississippi State in Oxford. The offense generated 532 yards, but the defense – and coordinator Dave Wommack – deserves accolades for holding Mississippi State to just 17 points and 5.3 yards per play. The 17 points scored by the Bulldogs tied a season-low, and the 5.3 yards per play mark was the second-lowest total recorded by coach Dan Mullen’s team in 2014. Mississippi State’s offense accumulated 445 total yards, but Wommack’s defense stepped up when it mattered. The Rebels stopped two drives on downs and limited the Bulldogs to just one red zone conversion score on three opportunities. Ole Miss also recorded three sacks and nine tackles for a loss. Wommack’s defense also refused to allow Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott any room on the ground, limiting the junior to 48 yards on 24 attempts. Injuries took a toll on the Ole Miss defense in 2014, but the Rebels stood tall against their in-state rival.
Freshman of the Week: Kyle Bolin, QB, Louisville
Bolin became an unlikely hero in Louisville’s 44-40 victory over Kentucky. After a knee injury sidelined starting quarterback Reggie Bonnafon, Bolin entered the game in the second quarter and jumpstarted the offense. The redshirt freshman from Lexington attempted just seven passes prior to Saturday’s game but showed poise against Kentucky’s pass rush and helped to guide coach Bobby Petrino’s team back from a 13-0 deficit to a huge victory in the rivalry matchup. Bolin completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three scores, with all three of his touchdown tosses traveling at least 33 yards.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a fractured ankle in Saturday’s 42-28 win over Michigan and will miss the remainder of the 2014 season. Barrett was injured during the fourth quarter of the Buckeyes’ victory and was carted to the locker room with an air cast on his leg.
Barrett will be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore Cardale Jones in the Big Ten Championship and in Ohio State’s bowl game. Jones completed 2 of 3 passes for seven yards and rushed for 19 yards on two attempts in limited snaps against Michigan.
Jones has attempted just 16 passes during his career in Columbus. The sophomore has rushed for 316 yards and one score during that span.
Jones will have a huge opportunity in his first start next Saturday in the Big Ten Championship. If Ohio State emerges with a victory next week, it will stay in the mix for a playoff spot.
However, Barrett’s injury is a huge blow to Ohio State’s playoff hopes. The committee will take into account injuries, and a team with a third-string will be an interesting evaluation for the rankings after the final weekend – assuming the Buckeyes win the Big Ten title.
Prior to Week 14, Barrett was considered a top-five candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Sure, the redshirt freshman was a longshot, but his candidacy was remarkable considering what transpired for Ohio State in the preseason. Starter Braxton Miller was lost for the year, and Barrett – with zero career attempts – was pushed into the lineup.
Barrett’s final 2014 numbers were impressive by a first-year starter, as he threw for 2,658 yards and 33 scores and added 849 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
Sportsmanship. pic.twitter.com/2q8sw7OlsN— Freep Sports (@freepsports) November 29, 2014
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett suffered a leg injury and was carted off the field during the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Michigan. Barrett was tackled by a Michigan defender, and his leg bent awkwardly in a pile of defenders. The redshirt freshman was replaced by Cardale Jones.
Barrett’s injury is a huge blow to Ohio State’s national and Big Ten title hopes. The Buckeyes were on the outside of the college football playoff’s top four teams and needed a lot of help over the final two weeks. However, with a win over Michigan and the Big Ten West champ, there was plenty for Ohio State to play for over the final few weeks of the season.
With Barrett out indefinitely, Jones – the third quarterback to play major snaps for Ohio State – will have to lead the Buckeyes in the Big Ten Championship next Saturday. And in the first year of the college football playoff, who knows how the committee would view the Buckeyes if Barrett can't play in a bowl.
Barrett entered fall practice as the No. 2 quarterback but moved to the top spot on the depth chart after Braxton Miller suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in August.
The redshirt freshman was one of the big question marks for Ohio State in 2014, but he quickly emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks.
Prior to his injury against Michigan, Barrett completed 12 of 20 throws for 170 yards and one touchdown and added 85 yards and two scores on the ground.
Entering the Michigan contest, Barrett was considered one of the favorites to get to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation. The redshirt freshman threw for 2,658 yards and 33 scores and rushed for 849 yards and nine touchdowns through the first 11 games of the year.
It’s rivalry week, so it’s no surprise when teams exchange words or punches at midfield prior to kickoff. And the overall play in a rivalry game is usually pretty chippy.
Prior to kickoff, Louisville and Kentucky met at midfield and had a small scuffle – including Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino.
Here’s video of the scuffle, along with a picture of Petrino and Kentucky assistant Dan Berezowitz exchanging words prior to kickoff.
Texas A&M finished its regular season slate with a 23-17 loss to LSU, and one day after the finale, coach Kevin Sumlin announced defensive coordinator Mark Snyder won’t return in 2015.
Snyder’s firing was no surprise, as Texas A&M’s defense has lagged behind its offense since this program joined the SEC prior to the start of the 2012 season.
The Aggies allowed 5.2 yards per play in Snyder’s debut (2012), and the numbers only got worse from there. In 2013, Texas A&M gave up 6.4 yards per play and then 5.9 in 2014.
The points allowed totals weren’t much better for Snyder. Texas A&M gave up 21.8 points per game in 2012, 32.2 in 2013 and 27.3 in 2014.
Additionally, the Aggies ranked near the bottom of the SEC in third down and red zone defense over the last two seasons.
In a brutal SEC West, Texas A&M simply can’t fall far behind its opponents, and the timing was right for Sumlin after a 7-5 record.
Former Florida coach Will Muschamp has been mentioned as a possible candidate in College Station and several other big names are expected to be in the mix to replace Snyder.
Texas A&M has plenty of talent on the roster, but it has to fix its defense in order to move up the pecking order in the SEC West.
The next defensive coordinator won’t be short on talent, as defensive end Myles Garrett is one of the nation’s rising stars, and there’s a good chunk of talent on the roster in the underclassmen ranks.
The SEC West isn’t getting any easier. Sumlin isn’t facing a make-or-break year in 2015, but progress is certainly needed in College Station. Hiring a new defensive coordinator is a chance to hit the reset button on defense and find the right solution before it’s too late for Sumlin and this coaching staff.
Arizona State receiver Jaelen Strong is one of the best in the nation, and the junior has provided plenty of highlight-worthy catches during his two seasons in Tempe.
Strong grabbed an awesome one-handed touchdown grab against Arizona during Friday’s Territorial Cup that might be one of the best catches of the year in the Pac-12.
Check out Strong’s one-handed touchdown grab:
LSU freshman running back Leonard Fournette helped to power the Tigers past Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night with 146 yards and one score on 19 carries.
Fournette’s production wasn’t the only highlight of the night, as the freshman destroyed Texas A&M safety Howard Matthews on a touchdown run in the second quarter.
Check out Fournette’s touchdown run and destruction of a Texas A&M defender in the process:
The Egg Bowl is always one of the top rivalry games in the SEC, but there’s more at stake in 2014 for Mississippi State and Ole Miss than in recent memory. For the Rebels, the opportunity to play spoiler against their biggest rival is huge. However, coach Hugh Freeze’s team still has an outside shot at one of college football’s top bowl games if it knocks off Mississippi State, combined with losses by a few teams ahead in the rankings. For the Bulldogs, this is a must-win situation with a No. 4 ranking in the college football playoff headed into Week 14. And style points certainly wouldn’t hurt with Ohio State, TCU and Baylor all close behind Mississippi State.
Ole Miss has a 61-43-6 edge over Mississippi State in the all-time series rivalry. However, the recent trend in this series favors the Bulldogs. Mississippi State has won four out of the last five meetings against the Rebels, including a 17-10 thriller in Starkville last season.
Mississippi State at Ole Miss
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Mississippi State -2.5
Ole Miss’ Key to Victory: Contain Dak Prescott
Containing Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott sounds easy, but only one team – Alabama – has been able to accomplish that in 2014. The junior was held to 82 yards on 22 rushing attempts against the Crimson Tide and completed 27 of 48 passes for 290 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. Those numbers certainly aren’t awful for Prescott, but it’s important to remember 14 of Mississippi State’s points scored in that game were in the fourth quarter – after Alabama was ahead 19-3 at halftime. Stopping the run is the best way to slow down the Bulldogs’ offense. And it doesn’t just revolve around Prescott, as junior Josh Robinson leads the team with 1,084 yards and 11 scores. Ole Miss ranks sixth in the SEC against the run, but the Rebels have limited opponents to just 3.4 yards per carry and seven scores on the ground. This unit is giving up 4.4 yards per carry in its last three SEC games. Injuries and a brutal schedule have taken a toll on the Rebels’ defense in the second half of the year, but this unit limited a potent Arkansas’ ground attack to 3.2 yards per rush last week. Ole Miss has to find a way to limit Prescott and Robinson’s effectiveness on early downs, which will place the offense in third-and-long situations.
Mississippi State’s Key to Victory: Protect the Ball, Win the Turnover Battle
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace is dealing with an ankle injury and was clearly less than 100 percent in last week’s game against Arkansas. Wallace has been inconsistent at times, as he completed 70 percent of his passes in a 35-31 loss to Auburn but tossed an interception and completed only 14 of 33 throws in a 10-7 loss against LSU. It’s no secret Wallace is the key to the Ole Miss offense, especially since Freeze’s team is trying to find a rushing attack. In last week’s defeat to the Razorbacks, the Rebels lost six turnovers. And for the first time all year, Ole Miss has recorded a negative turnover margin in back-to-back games. That’s a concern for Freeze as Mississippi State has recorded 21 takeaways this year and has five games of at least three takeaways in 2014. In addition to forcing turnovers, the Bulldogs have to do a better job of protecting the ball. In three out of Mississippi State’s seven SEC games, Mullen’s team has a negative turnover margin. Despite that mark, the Bulldogs are 2-1 in those games. In a rivalry game, Mississippi State cannot afford to let the underdog hang around due to a turnovers and sloppy play.
Rivalry games always bring out the best in the underdog, which is why Mississippi State should get a test from Ole Miss on Saturday. Sure, the Rebels have lost three out of their last four games, but this team still has talent and is capable of pulling off the upset at home. Freeze will have Ole Miss ready to play – there’s no doubt about that. However, Mississippi State has more to play for and is the better team in 2014. Prescott won’t have huge numbers against the Rebels, but he will find just enough running room and should connect on a few big plays in the passing game to give the Bulldogs a tight victory in Oxford.