Articles By Steven Lassan
College football’s four-team playoff concludes on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas when Ohio State and Oregon meet to decide the national championship. The Ducks are looking for their first title, while the Buckeyes are after their first national championship since 2002.
Oregon is around a seven-point favorite by the Vegas experts for Monday night’s game, but there’s not much separating the Ducks and Buckeyes in the depth chart breakdown.
Quarterback Marcus Mariota is the best player on the field, but Ohio State owns an edge on defense, and running back Ezekiel Elliott has eclipsed over 200 yards in back-to-back games.
National Championship Position-by-Position Breakdown
So far, so good for Cardale Jones. Since replacing J.T. Barrett after a season-ending injury against Michigan, Jones is 32 of 55 for 500 yards and four touchdowns. The sophomore also has 52 rushing yards over the last two contests. The coaching staff would probably like Jones to raise his completion percentage (58 percent), but the sophomore has thrived under pressure by hitting on 7 of 10 passes on third down with seven yards or more to go in 2014.
|Marcus Mariota is without a doubt the best player on the field in Arlington. And stopping the junior and Oregon’s up-tempo offense is the biggest challenge for Ohio State’s defense, especially with just one week to prepare. Heading into Monday night’s showdown, Mariota's season stat line is simply ridiculous: 280 completions on 408 passes for 4,121 yards and 40 scores. Efficiency is an underrated aspect of Mariota’s game, as the junior enters the championship with just three picks and averages 10.1 yards per attempt. Mariota also ranks second on the team with 731 rushing yards and 15 scores.|
Jones has played well. But Mariota is the best in CFB this year.
|RB||Ezekiel Elliott was overlooked in the hierarchy of Big Ten running backs this season, but the sophomore has made plenty of noise in his last two games. Elliott gashed Wisconsin for 220 yards and recorded 230 yards on 20 attempts in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. Expect Elliott to see a heavy workload on Monday night. For the season, Elliott has 1,632 yards (6.9 ypc) and 14 scores. When Elliott needs a break, the Buckeyes can work in Curtis Samuel or H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson.|
True freshman Royce Freeman helped the Ducks eliminate question marks about their physicality on the ground. Freeman enters the championship matchup versus Ohio State with 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns (No. 1 in Pac-12), averaging a healthy 5.5 yards per carry. Sophomore Thomas Tyner (511 yards, 5 TDs) returned from injury to record 124 yards on 13 attempts against Florida State and should see 10-15 carries to keep Freeman fresh for the fourth quarter. Byron Marshall (383 rushing yards, 1 TD this season) was the team’s leading rusher last year, but he’s switched to an all-purpose/receiver role in 2014.
Even - Oregon has an edge in depth. But Elliott is on fire.
The Buckeyes may not have Oregon’s depth of options at receiver, but this unit has made progress under coach Urban Meyer. Devin Smith leads the nation with a robust 27.7 yards per catch average on 32 receptions and has scored four touchdowns in the last two games. Michael Thomas caught seven passes for 66 yards in the Sugar Bowl, placing the sophomore at 50 receptions in 2014. Corey Smith, Evan Spencer and tight ends Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are also major contributors. The Buckeyes also get partial credit here for H-backs Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall (13.5 ypc).
The loss of Devon Allen to a knee injury from the Rose Bowl is a significant blow to Oregon’s receiving corps. Allen was one of the Pac-12’s top freshmen in 2014, recording 41 catches for 684 yards and seven scores. The Ducks also received more bad news at receiver this week, as Darren Carrington failed a drug test and is out for Monday night's game. While Allen and Carrington will be missed, this unit was also able to overcome the loss of Bralon Addison in the preseason and perform at a high level in 2014. Without Allen, leading receiver Byron Marshall (66 catches) and Dwayne Stanford will see more passes in their direction. Freshman Charles Nelson (4 catches for 40 yards in Rose Bowl) is a gamebreaker that could see more time, and tight end Evan Baylis emerged as another threat by catching six passes against Florida State.
Even - Allen's absence is a setback for Oregon. OSU's group continues to trend up.
This unit needed to be revamped with the departure of four starters in the offseason. Left tackle Taylor Decker was the only returning starter for 2014, and this group struggled early. In the loss to Virginia Tech, the Buckeyes allowed seven sacks. However, the offensive line progressed throughout the year and limited opponents to just 15 sacks in nine Big Ten games. Decker and guard Pat Elflein are the standout performers, but freshman guard Billy Price, center Jacoby Boren and right tackle Darryl Baldwin have each started all 14 games this season. The Buckeyes have averaged at least five yards per carry in seven straight games.
A healthy Jake Fisher (LT) and center Hroniss Grasu (C) (both first-team All-Pac-12 in 2014) made a huge difference in the performance of Oregon’s offensive line. The Ducks had to mix and match personnel up front all year due to injuries and has not allowed a sack in their last two games. Fisher and Grasu are two of the best in the nation at their position and helped pave the way for rushers to average 5.5 yards per carry. Freshman Tyrell Crosby (RT - 8 starts in 2014), sophomore Cameron Hunt (RG - 13 starts) and senior Hamani Stevens (LG) round out the starting five. The Ducks' 5.5 yards per carry average ranks No. 12 nationally. In the Rose Bowl win over FSU, Oregon gashed the ' Noles for 301 yards. Winning the battle up front is a must for UO on Monday.
Even - Another close call. Fisher and Grasu's health is a huge plus for OSU. However, Ohio State has improved all year.
The Buckeyes have one of – if not the No. 1 – defensive line in college football. This unit limited opposing rushers to 3.9 yards per carry through 14 games and held Wisconsin to just 71 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship. End Joey Bosa was quiet in the Sugar Bowl, but the sophomore is one of the top defensive players in the nation. Bosa recorded 53 tackles (20 for a loss), 13.5 sacks and forced four fumbles in 2014. Tackle Michael Bennett is another All-American up front, as the senior came on strong at the end of the year to finish with 14 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. End Steve Miller returned an interception for a touchdown against Alabama, while junior Adolphus Washington joins Bennett on the interior.
The Ducks ranked eighth in the Pac-12 (4.2 ypc allowed) in rush defense and was susceptible to plays on the ground against Florida State in the Rose Bowl (180 yards, 4.6 ypc). While Oregon will give up yards, this unit was disruptive at times against the Seminoles. And Don Pellum's line has generated at least two sacks in four consecutive games. Ends Arik Armstead (6-foot-8) and DeForest Buckner (6-foot-7) present a challenge with their length and athleticism, and this duo combined for 18.5 tackles for a loss this season. Oregon uses a lot of odd-man fronts, but Armstead and Buckner can create havoc against the Buckeyes’ offensive line. Junior Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp are the main contributors at nose guard. Oregon's defensive line will play a critical role on Monday night. Can this unit stop the run? UO has played better up front in recent weeks.
Ducks have talent up front, but the Buckeyes might have the best DL in the nation.
Similar to the offensive line, the Buckeyes went into fall practice with some concern in this group. Standout Ryan Shazier left for the NFL, and while there wasn’t an issue about talent, this unit needed to find its next playmaker. Mission accomplished. Junior Joshua Perry led the team with 118 tackles, but freshman Darron Lee recorded 16.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced turnovers. Lee’s emergence helped ease the loss of Shazier, while senior Curtis Grant (58 tackles, 5 INTs) provides steady play at middle linebacker. Talented true freshman Raekwon McMillan (49 tackles, 6 TFL) is the team’s top reserve.
This unit delivered a solid performance against Florida State and needs to have another big game on Monday for the Ducks to win the national title. Tony Washington returned a fumble 58 yards for a score and recorded a sack, Rodney Hardrick forced a fumble, and Derrick Malone made four stops. Outside linebacker Tyson Coleman recovered a fumble and made three stops against FSU. All four players will be tasked with slowing Ohio State’s rushing attack, as well as limiting the plays by Cardale Jones outside of the pocket. Sophomore Torrodney Prevot also recorded a sack against Florida State and joins Washington and Christian French (6.5 sacks in 2014) as key pass-rush threats for coordinator Don Pellum.
Even - Oregon's group is coming off a good performance. Lee is a rising star for OSU.
Fixing the pass defense was a priority for new co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash this offseason. Ohio State allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more and gave up 31 touchdown passes last season. Even without first-round pick Bradley Roby, the Buckeyes have made progress against the pass. Ohio State limited opponents to 15 passing scores – tied for third in the Big Ten – and opposing quarterbacks were held to a 55.1 completion percentage. Cornerback Doran Grant had a standout year (58 tackles, 5 INTs, 9 PBU), while the young safety tandem of Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell combined for 10 interceptions. While Ohio State has made progress against the pass, the matchup against Oregon will be its toughest of the season.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was a big loss for the Ducks, but Chris Seisay held his own in the Rose Bowl. The redshirt freshman made six stops in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State and will be under the spotlight once again on Monday night. On the other side, Oregon senior Troy Hill was one of the Pac-12’s top cornerbacks in 2014 and needs to follow up his Rose Bowl effort (9 tackles, 2 PBU) against a dangerous receiving corps. Safeties Erick Dargan and Reggie Daniels combined for 17 stops in the Rose Bowl. Redshirt freshman Tyree Robinson (35 tackles in 2014) is a future star but also a key contributor in a backup role. Dargan was the team’s top ball hawk in the secondary, picking off seven passes in 2014. Similar to the run defense, Oregon will give up some yards through the air. However, the Ducks limited the big plays (eight of 40 yards or more) by opposing offenses.
Ducks played well versus FSU last week. However, Ekpre-Olomu's absence could be felt this week. Close call here.
Winning the field position battle is an underrated part of any game, and punter Cameron Johnston (45.3) is a key weapon on special teams for the Buckeyes. Kicker Sean Nuernberger is 13 of 20 on field goals this year and has missed 5 of 10 attempts from 40 yards or more. Returns are in good shape with Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall on special teams. Marshall averages 12 yards per punt return, while Wilson averaged 24 yards per kickoff return this year.
The impact of Allen’s knee injury isn’t just limited to offense, as the redshirt freshman averages 26.1 yards per kickoff return. In his absence, freshman Charles Nelson (20.3 yards per kickoff return) will see additional time on special teams. Nelson is one of the nation’s most dangerous punt returners (15.5 ypr, 2 TDs). Kicker Aidan Schneider passed Matt Wogan as the No. 1 kicker this year and connected on 9 of 10 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler (39 yards per punt) isn’t used much (41 attempts) thanks to an explosive offense.
Johnston is a weapon on punts. Returns are almost even. Field goals are a wash.
Urban Meyer is one of the nation’s best coaches and has been an instant winner at each of his four FBS coaching opportunities. The Buckeyes are 37-3 under Meyer’s direction and have yet to lose a Big Ten regular season game. Prior to Ohio State, Meyer won two national titles at Florida, went 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant and was hired as Houston’s new head coach. The additions of assistants Chris Ash (safeties, co-defensive coordinator) and Larry Johnson (defensive line) made a huge impact on Ohio State’s defense.
Mark Helfrich inherited a national championship contender from Chip Kelly, and the second-year coach is 24-3 in his first two years at Oregon. Helfrich and this staff did a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season and the Ducks have a nine-game winning streak entering the national championship. Coordinator Don Pellum has stabilized the defense after a slow start, holding the last four opponents to 20 points or less. Pellum's defense has been opportunistic with 30 forced turnovers and held Florida State to field goals - not touchdowns - in the red zone last week. Offensive play-caller Scott Frost guided the Ducks to an average of 40 points per game for the fifth consecutive season.
Credit to Helfrich for getting the Ducks here. However, Meyer is arguably one of the top 3 coaches in CFB.
Oregon and Ohio State close out college football’s first four-team FBS playoff on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas. Monday night’s matchup is uncharted waters for college football in the new postseason format, as the Ducks and Buckeyes have to regroup for the championship just one week after bowl victories. Oregon used five Florida State turnovers and 41 second-half points to defeat the Seminoles 59-20 in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State overcame a 21-6 first-half deficit to defeat Alabama – the No. 1 ranked team – in the Sugar Bowl.
Both teams have been hit hard by injuries this season. Oregon suffered a couple of injuries to its offensive line in the regular season, including ailments to star left tackle Jake Fisher and center Hroniss Grasu. All-American cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a knee injury after the regular season and is out for the remainder of the year. But those three players aren’t the full extent of the Ducks’ injury report. This team lost starting tackle Tyler Johnstone and receiver Bralon Addison before the first snap of the year. Despite all of the injuries, Oregon’s offense continued to perform at a high level thanks to Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Ducks averaged 47.2 points per game and rebounded from a loss against Arizona in early October to finish the year with nine consecutive victories.
While Oregon’s injuries have been significant at various positions, Ohio State’s losses have been centered on one position – quarterback – without a doubt the most important spot on the field. Braxton Miller was lost for the year in fall practice due to a shoulder injury, but redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett filled in admirably, leading the Buckeyes to an 11-1 regular season. Barrett suffered a season-ending leg injury against Michigan, which pushed third-stringer Cardale Jones into the lineup. Jones had only two career pass attempts prior to this season, but the sophomore delivered with solid performances in big games against Wisconsin (Big Ten championship) and Alabama (Sugar Bowl).
Oregon and Ohio State have met eight previous times on the gridiron. The Buckeyes have won all eight matchups. The last meeting between Oregon and Ohio State took place in the 2010 Rose Bowl.
Oregon vs. Ohio State (Arlington, Texas)
Kickoff: Monday, Jan. 12 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Marcus Mariota
When the College Football Playoff National Championship kicks off on Monday night, there’s no doubt the best player on the field will be wearing a white No. 8 jersey. Quarterback Marcus Mariota won Oregon's first Heisman this year, entering this game with 4,121 yards passing and 40 scores. The junior also has rushed for 731 yards and 15 touchdowns while tossing just three picks in 408 passing attempts. Additionally, Mariota is averaging 10.1 yards per attempt – the best in the nation – and boasts a quarterback rating of 184.4. The junior started slow in Oregon’s Rose Bowl win over Florida State but finished with 338 passing yards and two touchdowns. The Ducks are far from a one-man show on offense, as the line is one of the best in college football, running back Royce Freeman has rushed for 1,343 yards as a true freshman, and the receiving corps is loaded with speed and talent. Stopping Oregon’s offense falls to Ohio State co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Luke Fickell, while its offense shares some of the burden by attempting to slow down the pace and keep the Ducks on the sideline. No defense held Oregon under six yards per play through the first 14 games. Can Ohio State find a few answers? This assignment is no easy task, especially with just a week to prepare. On the positive side, teams with a good defensive line/front seven have been able to slow Oregon’s offense (at times). Ohio State has one of the nation’s most-talented front sevens on defense, headlined by end Joey Bosa, tackle Michael Bennett and rising star Darron Lee at linebacker. The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s most active teams around the line of scrimmage (105 tackles for a loss, 43 sacks) and need a big performance from the front seven in order to slow down Mariota. Of course, it’s going to be hard for Ohio State to completely keep Oregon in check all four quarters. The Buckeyes have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage and limit the damage done by the Ducks’ skill players in open space. Ohio State may have to give up some yards, but this unit needs to limit big plays and force Oregon into longer drives than this team is used to.
2. Ohio State’s Gameplan on Offense
Oregon is going to rightfully garner the pregame attention as the best offense in Arlington. But let’s not forget about Ohio State’s attack. There are more similarities between these two offenses than some may realize, as coach Urban Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman have modeled the Buckeyes’ gameplan after former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly’s attack. This season, the Ducks have run 1,047 plays in 14 games. Ohio State has run 1,015 in 14 contests. And in terms of yards per play, Oregon is averaging 7.4, Buckeyes 7.0. While Ohio State’s offense isn’t as explosive as the Ducks, this unit is capable of scoring 40 points on Monday night. Quarterback Cardale Jones has kept Ohio State’s offense performing at a high level, but the key to Monday night’s game could be running back Ezekiel Elliott. The sophomore has rushed for 450 yards and four scores over the last two games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 180 yards on 39 attempts against Florida State. Even though the Buckeyes want to play at an up-tempo pace, slowing down the game and allowing Elliott and Jones to control the flow of the game on the ground might be the best plan of attack. When Jones drops back to pass, the sophomore has a solid group of receivers at his disposal, including big-play threat Devin Smith (27.7 ypc), the steady Michael Thomas (50 catches) and rising star Jalin Marshall. When Ohio State moves into scoring position, the Buckeyes can’t afford to settle for field goals or have turnovers like Florida State experienced last week. Oregon’s defense is prone to allowing yards in exchange for turnovers and stops in the red zone. Ohio State has to grind it out with its rushing attack and eliminate the giveaways.
3. Turnovers, Third Downs, Red Zone Offense/Defense
While the good folks in Vegas pegged Oregon as a touchdown favorite, there doesn’t appear to be a significant advantage for either team on Monday night. Considering there’s very little separating Oregon and Ohio State, small aspects of the game like turnovers and red zone performance will be critical. In the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the Ducks forced five turnovers. And for the season, Oregon has posted a positive or even turnover margin in every game. It’s critical the Ducks win the turnover battle (+20 for the season), especially since their defense will give up yards. Ohio State is +10 in turnover margin but lost 22 this year. The Buckeyes can be sloppy with giveaways, as Meyer’s team lost at least two turnovers in a stretch of four out of five games. However, in Ohio State’s last three contests, this team has lost only two turnovers. Oregon simply won’t beat itself with turnovers on Monday night. The Buckeyes need to find a way to force a couple of turnovers and finish with a zero in their giveaway column. These two teams are also among the best in the nation at converting third-down attempts. The final stat sheet may not look pretty for either defense in terms of yards or points allowed, but both units have to get off the field on third downs and get the ball back to their offenses. And when Ohio State is on defense, it has to find a way to make the Ducks kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. In the red zone, Oregon has scored 51 touchdowns on 76 trips. That news has to be concerning for Ohio State, as the Buckeyes are tied for 87th nationally in red zone defense. The motto for Ohio State is pretty simple on Monday night: Allow yards but give up only three points.
There’s no shortage of intrigue for the Ohio State-Oregon showdown. For the first time since the 2006 BCS National Championship Game (Texas vs. USC), there’s not a team from the SEC in the final game of the college football season. The Ducks are looking to win their first national title in school history, while the Buckeyes are hoping to claim their first since 2002. Despite losing two quarterbacks to season-ending injuries, coach Urban Meyer kept Ohio State in contention for the playoff and national championship. Meyer is one of the best in the nation, and his big-game experience could benefit the Buckeyes on Monday night. On the other sideline, Oregon has the No. 1 player in college football and an offense that is tough to stop with only a week to prepare. Will Mariota deliver in what could be his final college game? Or will the Ducks’ defensive concerns eventually be too much to overcome? Is this the game where a relatively inexperienced Cardale Jones struggles? All of those questions (and more) will be answered on Monday night.
Here are the staff predictions from Athlon Sports, along with a pick for MVP honors:
|Mitch Light||Ohio State 34-30||QB Cardale Jones, Ohio State|
|Steven Lassan||Ohio State 38-34||RB Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State|
|Mark Ross||Oregon 37-31||QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon|
|David Fox||Oregon 42-35||QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon|
Florida State is starting over at quarterback next season after 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston declared for the NFL Draft on Wednesday. Replacing Winston’s on-field production will be one of college football’s top offseason storylines to monitor, as coach Jimbo Fisher has a cast of talented, yet largely unproven options in the mix.
Before previewing Florida State’s quarterback battle for 2015, let’s take a step back and examine Winston’s two-year career in Tallahassee.
Winston’s departure ends one of the top two-year runs by a quarterback in recent memory. The Seminoles went 26-1 under Winston and claimed the 2013 national championship with a victory over Auburn last season. The Alabama native led Florida State to the playoff in 2014, but the Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
Statistically, Winston’s numbers dropped from 2013 to 2014. After throwing for 4,057 yards and 40 touchdowns in 2013, Winston threw for 3,907 yards and 25 scores in 2014. Additionally, Winston’s interceptions climbed from 10 (2013) to 18 this year.
Even with Winston’s drop in production, coach Jimbo Fisher believed the sophomore had a better year than he did in 2013. It’s also worth noting Winston was playing with a revamped receiving corps and a shuffled offensive line that struggled at times in 2014.
While Winston received plenty of attention for off-field matters, his two-year run at Florida State is going to be hard to top by the next starter or any passer in Tallahassee. And it’s not unfathomable to suggest Winston was the most talented quarterback to play at Florida State.
Considering Winston’s two-year run in Tallahassee, there are big shoes to fill under center. Assuming Winston goes in the first few picks as expected, he will become the third consecutive Florida State quarterback to go in the first round of the NFL Draft. That’s some impressive accolades for Fisher to tout on the recruiting trail.
Let’s examine the next options in Tallahassee:
2015 Year of Eligibility: Junior
Maguire should open spring practice as the favorite to win the quarterback job. The New Jersey native was a three-star recruit coming out of high school after running a wing-T offense at Seton Hall Prep. In two years of snaps at Florida State, Maguire completed 38 of 70 passes for 455 yards, three scores and four interceptions. He has one start (Clemson) under his belt, throwing for 304 yards against a tough defense on Sept. 20 this year. Maguire isn’t as talented as Winston, but he has experience in the offense.
2015 Year of Eligibility: Redshirt Freshman
Cosentino is a Pennsylvania native with plenty of talent, but he’s also a bit on the raw side after also playing in a wing-T offense in high school. Cosentino was considered by 247Sports to be a four-star recruit last year and redshirted in his first year on campus. The talent is certainly there for Cosentino. How quickly can he adapt to Fisher’s offense?
John Franklin III
2015 Year of Eligibility: Sophomore
Franklin III played in two games this year after spending 2013 as a redshirt. The Florida native isn’t short on athleticism, as he was a member of Florida State’s track and field teams. According to his school bio, Franklin III recorded a 6.82 time in the 60-meter dash and shared Offensive Scout Team Player Award honors with Wilson Bell last year. Franklin III is probably a longshot to win the starting job next year.
The wild card: Braxton Miller
Ohio State’s quarterback situation is crowded for 2015. Cardale Jones, J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller are each proven options for coach Urban Meyer. Miller is eligible to transfer and start at another program in 2015, and unless he’s guaranteed a starting spot in Columbus, it’s hard to envision the senior staying to sit on the bench or playing sparingly as a third-string quarterback. The Palm Beach Post reported in late December there was interest from Miller about transferring to Florida State. Miller is a different quarterback than what Fisher has worked with recently, as the senior is a dynamic dual-threat option. However, Miller is coming off two shoulder surgeries and may not be at full strength by this spring. Although Miller has the talent to be an All-American quarterback, he seems like an unlikely fit for Florida State.
Florida State has three freshman quarterbacks committed (as of Jan. 7).
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 100 recruit nationally
Kai Locksley (listed by 247 as an athlete)
4-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 225 recruit nationally
3-Star by 247Sports Composite, No. 377 recruit nationally
Johnson is already enrolled at Florida State, but Francois and Locksley could still flip to another school by Signing Day. Even if all three sign with the Seminoles, it’s hard to envision a true freshman taking the first snap of the year for Fisher.
The Supporting Cast Consideration
Regardless of which quarterback starts for Florida State next season, Fisher and the staff needs to retool the supporting cast. Receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary combined to catch 147 of the Seminoles’ 330 completions in 2014, and both players have expired their eligibility. There’s certainly no shortage of talent, as Travis Rudolph, Ermon Lane, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones is a solid group of young receivers. Four starters must be replaced on the offensive line, but left tackle Roderick Johnson is a good place to start the rebuilding effort. And the new quarterback will have a rising star in sophomore Dalvin Cook to lean on at running back.
Maguire takes the first snap of 2015 for Florida State. Even though he wasn’t the biggest recruit in the quarterback huddle for the Seminoles, the New Jersey native has experience and will have a better grasp of the offense with an offseason to work as the No. 1 passer. Maguire’s first start (Clemson) wasn’t overly impressive on the stat sheet (21 of 39, 304 yards, two picks), but it’s also important to consider the Tigers had one of the best defenses in college football in 2014. Fisher will find an answer at quarterback by the opener, and the guess here is Maguire is the starter against Texas State.
Ohio State and Oregon clash in Arlington, Texas on Jan. 12 to decide college football’s national champion. The Ducks and Buckeyes advanced to the national championship after bowl wins on Jan. 1, setting up an intriguing matchup with no shortage of storylines. Both teams are led by offensive-minded coaches and were two of the top programs during the BCS era. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota will be the best player on the field in Arlington, but Ohio State counters with a defense that limits opponents to 22.1 points per game. Despite losing starter J.T. Barrett, third-string quarterback Cardale Jones has filled in admirably and kept the Buckeyes’ offense hitting on all cylinders.
While Mariota, Ezekiel Elliott and Joey Bosa will get most of the pregame hype as the top players on Jan. 12, there are always a few x-factors that deliver with a big (and perhaps unexpected) performance. Let’s examine five potential x-factors to watch on Jan. 12.
5 X-Factors for the 2015 College Football National Championship
1. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State
Jones easily passed his first two tests as Ohio State’s No. 1 quarterback. The sophomore threw for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship and completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Jones doesn’t have the explosive running ability of former starter J.T. Barrett, but he’s certainly not a statue in the pocket. Against Wisconsin, Jones only rushed for nine yards on eight attempts, but he added 43 yards on 17 rushes against Alabama. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota is clearly the best quarterback on the field when the Buckeyes and Ducks meet on Jan. 12. However, Jones has proven he is more than just a third-string quarterback in two starts. If Jones plays like he did against Wisconsin and Alabama, Ohio State has a good shot to win on Monday night in Arlington.
2. Evan Baylis, TE, Oregon
The loss of standout tight end Pharaoh Brown was a huge blow to Oregon’s offense. Brown suffered a major knee injury in the win over Utah and finished the year with 25 receptions for 420 yards and six scores. With Brown sidelined over the final three regular season games, Oregon tight ends – Johnny Mundt and Evan Baylis – only caught three passes. But in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State, the tight end was featured more by coordinator Scott Frost and quarterback Marcus Mariota. Baylis grabbed six passes for 73 yards against the Seminoles, and both totals were season-high marks for the sophomore. With the speed and vertical threats in Oregon’s passing game, having a tight end like Baylis attacking the middle of the field is another dangerous option for Mariota.
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3. Adolphus Washington, DT, Ohio State
Stopping Oregon’s offense starts at the line of scrimmage. Ohio State has the necessary defensive line to give the Ducks trouble from the snap, as end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett earned All-America honors in 2014. But Bosa and Bennett aren’t the only contributors to a line that is among the best in the nation. Washington ranked as the No. 21 recruit in the 247Sports Composite in 2012 and has been a major contributor since his true freshman campaign. In 14 games this year, Washington recorded 45 tackles (9.5 tackles for a loss), 3.5 sacks and one forced fumble. The junior will be tasked with disrupting Oregon’s offense and winning the battle at the point of attack with interior linemen in guards Hamani Stevens and Cameron Hunt, along with center Hroniss Grasu. The Ducks will be focused on keeping Bosa and Bennett out of the backfield. However, with the attention diverted to the two All-Americans, Monday night’s game is a good opportunity for Washington to have a huge performance.
4. Chris Seisay, CB, Oregon
Seisay was pushed into the spotlight in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury ended Ifo Ekpre-Olomu’s season. Despite Ekpre-Olomu’s absence, Oregon held Florida State to 20 points and no receiver eclipsed the 100-yard mark. The Ducks limited All-ACC receiver Rashad Greene to six catches for 59 yards, while tight end Nick O’Leary caught only one pass for four yards. Judging cornerbacks by statistics is always tricky, but Seisay recorded six tackles in his second career start. By all accounts, Seisay’s performance was not an issue in the Rose Bowl. Ohio State’s receiving corps doesn’t have an All-American performer like Greene, but this unit has made strides over the last few seasons. Devin Smith averages 27.7 yards per catch, while Michael Thomas has 10 catches over the last two games. Seisay was under the spotlight in the Rose Bowl, and it’s a safe bet to assume the Buckeyes will test the redshirt freshman once again on Monday night.
5. Jalin Marshall, All-Purpose, Ohio State
The official Ohio State depth chart lists Marshall at the starting H-back, but the freshman will get the ball in a variety of ways. And if something happens to Cardale Jones on Monday night, Marshall is technically the backup quarterback. Regardless of where he lines up, Marshall is an emerging star for the Buckeyes. The freshman rushed for 142 yards and a score on 23 attempts this year, attempted two passes and caught 33 balls for 447 yards and six touchdowns. Additionally, Marshall was a weapon on special teams, averaging 12 yards per punt return. In the Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama, Marshall recorded 10 touches in an all-purpose role. And if Ohio State is going to win on Monday night, he needs to have 10-15 opportunities to make plays in a variety of ways. The Buckeyes aren’t hurting for playmakers with running back Ezekiel Elliott and receivers Devin Smith and Michael Thomas. Dontre Wilson was the starter at H-Back earlier this year and missed the Sugar Bowl due to injury. Even if Wilson returns against Oregon, Marshall is too valuable (and too productive recently) to leave out of the gameplan.
The college football coaching carousel is one of the most intriguing aspects of every offseason. Regardless of whether a team had a losing record or finished in the top 10 of the final rankings, coaching changes are possible for any program after the regular season has finished.
The 2014 carousel produced several interesting hires, including Lane Kiffin to Alabama, Jeremy Pruitt to Georgia and Doug Meacham to TCU. And all four of college football playoff’s teams this season had a shakeup at one of the coordinator spots, as Florida State replaced Pruitt with Charles Kelly, and Oregon promoted Don Pellum to replace long-time coordinator Nick Aliotti.
Let’s take a look at the coordinator hires that had the biggest impact on the 2014 season:
College Football’s Top Coordinator Hires from 2014
Lance Anderson, Defensive Coordinator, Stanford
Derek Mason’s departure was expected to have an impact on Stanford’s defense, but Anderson ensured the Cardinal remained near the top of the nation in fewest yards per play and points allowed per game. Stanford held opponents to 4.2 yards per play and limited opponents to 16.4 points per contest. The Cardinal also generated 46 sacks and allowed only 10 plays of 30 yards or more. It’s a small sample size, but Anderson appears to be plenty capable of keeping Stanford’s defense among the best in the nation.
Chris Ash, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Ohio State
After allowing 31 passing scores last year, Ohio State needed to find a few answers in the secondary this offseason. The first step to fixing the pass defense came in the form of Ash, as the former Wisconsin and Arkansas assistant has an extensive background in working with defensive backs. The Iowa native brought immediate improvement to the Buckeyes’ defense, as the secondary limited the big plays and held opposing passers to just 55.1 percent completion percentage. Ohio State’s defense also cut its yards per play allowed mark from 5.3 to 4.9 in 2014.
Manny Diaz, Defensive Coordinator, Louisiana Tech
Diaz was one of the nation’s top rising stars in the assistant ranks but was dismissed at Texas just two games into the 2013 season. However, Diaz rebounded in a big way this year, coordinating a Louisiana Tech defense that led the nation with 42 takeaways. The Bulldogs also limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play and 24.7 points per game. Diaz accepted a job at Mississippi State in early January, but he made a huge impact on Louisiana Tech’s defense and helped the Bulldogs win Conference USA’s West Division in 2014.
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
The final numbers revealed Wake Forest’s defense allowed 26.4 points per game and ranked 10th in the ACC (league-only games) by giving up 5.6 yards per play. While the Demon Deacons didn’t rank near the top of the ACC or nation in defensive categories, this unit had to overcome an offense that averaged just 3.1 yards per play in league contests. Additionally, Wake Forest’s offense ranked 12th in the ACC in time of possession, leaving the defense on the field for large chunks of the game. Despite some of the offensive shortcomings, Elko’s work was noticeable with this defense. The Demon Deacons generated 19 sacks in conference play and tied Clemson for the fewest touchdown passes allowed in the ACC.
Ralph Friedgen, Offensive Coordinator, Rutgers
Friedgen was one of the nation’s top coordinator hires for 2014 and was a critical addition for a Rutgers program looking to build positive momentum in its first season in the Big Ten. Friedgen joined the Scarlet Knights’ staff after being out of football since 2010 and brought immediate improvement in a tougher league. Rutgers averaged 26.7 points per game and six yards per play this season, while producing 31 plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback Gary Nova also recorded a 57.2 completion percentage, which was the highest mark of his career.
Tony Gibson, Defensive Coordinator, West Virginia
The West Virginia defense benefited from having a little better luck in the injury department and improved overall depth, but Gibson and veteran assistant Tom Bradley helped this unit take a step forward in 2014. In nine Big 12 contests, the Mountaineers allowed only 5.3 yards per play – ranked No. 3 in the league – and held conference opponents to 27.1 points per game. West Virginia also ranked second in the Big 12 in third down defense and third in the conference in pass efficiency defense. Gibson’s work in 2014 resulted in a significant raise to place the West Virginia native among the nation’s highest paid assistants.
Todd Grantham, Defensive Coordinator, Louisville
Grantham inherited a defense that wasn’t short on talent but had only four returning starters and had to transition to a new 3-4 scheme. Despite the preseason question marks, this group was one of the best in the ACC in 2014. The Cardinals allowed only 4.8 yards per play, held ACC opponents to 19.3 points per game and led the conference with 30 forced turnovers.
Tyson Helton, Offensive Coordinator, Western Kentucky
Western Kentucky’s offense flourished under Helton and first-year head coach Jeff Brohm. The Hilltoppers used an up-tempo approach on offense to record 534.6 yards per game and a robust 7.1 yards per play. Western Kentucky ranked second in Conference USA by averaging 44.4 points per game and recorded 39 plays of 30 yards or more. Quarterback Brandon Doughty was one of the biggest benefactors of the change in coaching staffs, as he threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns under Helton’s play-calling. Prior to 2014, Helton was an assistant at Cincinnati for one year after spending 2007-12 at UAB.
Lane Kiffin, Offensive Coordinator, Alabama
Kiffin’s hire was met with some skepticism after his stint with USC ended during the 2013 season. However, Kiffin was one of the finalists for the Broyles Award – nation’s top assistant – after leading Alabama’s offense to an average of 36.9 points per game in 2014. The Crimson Tide also averaged 6.7 yards per play, produced 20 plays of 40 yards or more and finished second in the SEC in third down offense.
Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
TCU’s offense was in need of an overhaul after averaging just 25.1 points per game in 2013. Coach Gary Patterson turned to Meacham and former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Cumbie as the team’s new co-offensive coordinators, and the Horned Frogs offense quickly emerged as one of the best in the Big 12. TCU averaged 46.5 points per game, led the Big 12 by recording 6.7 yards per play and generated 41 plays of 30 yards or more. Meacham and Cumbie also developed quarterback Trevone Boykin into one of the nation’s most improved players in 2014.
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Pruitt was pegged as an upgrade over former coordinator Todd Grantham, and the former Florida State assistant helped Georgia’s defense improve after allowing 29 points per game in 2013. Under Pruitt’s direction in 2014, the Bulldogs held opponents to 20.7 points per contest and just 4.8 yards per play. Georgia also forced 29 turnovers – 14 more than this unit posted in 2013 – and ranked third nationally in fewest plays of 30 yards or more allowed. Pruitt’s background as a defensive backs coach was also a huge boost for a secondary that was filled with youth in 2014.
Doug Ruse, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia Southern
Ruse is a veteran play-caller, serving as an offensive coordinator for six different programs since 1988. The Missouri native followed coach Willie Fritz from Sam Houston State to Georgia Southern and helped to guide the offense to an average of 7.3 yards per play. The Eagles also led the Sun Belt by averaging 39.1 points per game and finished first nationally by scoring 55 rushing touchdowns.
Mike Sanford, Offensive Coordinator, Boise State
Sanford is no stranger to life on the blue turf in Boise. The former Boise State quarterback returned to coordinate coach Bryan Harsin’s offense in 2014, and the Broncos averaged 39.7 points per game – the highest mark by the Boise State offense since 2011. The Broncos also averaged 6.7 yards per play in Mountain West games and produced 89 plays of 20 yards or more. Sanford was targeted by Vanderbilt this offseason, but he decided to stay at Boise State for the 2015 season. The former Stanford assistant will have his work cut out for him next year, as the Broncos have to replace standout running back Jay Ajayi and quarterback Grant Hedrick this offseason.
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Penn State has a strong track record of success on defense, and Shoop continued to raise the bar in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions led the Big Ten by limiting opponents to 4.3 yards per play and finishing first in the conference in scoring defense (18.6 ppg). The numbers posted by Shoop’s defense are even more impressive when you consider the offensive struggles by Penn State (14th in Big Ten in scoring). Prior to following James Franklin to Happy Valley, Shoop spent three years calling the plays for Vanderbilt’s defense. Under Shoop’s watch, the Commodores finished second in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.1) in 2013. Shoop might be the nation's most underrated defensive coordinator.
Robb Smith, Defensive Coordinator, Arkansas
Bret Bielema’s decision to hire Smith after Chris Ash left for Ohio State paid huge dividends for the Arkansas defense. The Razorbacks allowed 30.8 points per game in 2013 but limited opponents to just 19.2 points per contest in 2014. The defense was playing at a high level to finish the season, as Arkansas allowed only 28 points over its last four games. Smith’s group also ranked second in the SEC in red zone defense, gave up the fewest plays of 20 yards or more in the conference (44) and held opponents to 5.9 yards per play – a yard decrease (6.9) from the 2013 performance.
Other Key Power 5 Coordinator Hires
Vance Bedford, Defensive Coordinator, Texas
Bedford and Charlie Strong helped to transform Texas back into one of the top defensive teams in the Big 12. The Longhorns allowed only 4.7 yards per play and held opponents to 23.8 points per game.
Art Kaufman, Defensive Coordinator, California
The Golden Bears took a step forward on defense under Kaufman, but this unit still needs more talent and depth. California allowed 6.3 yards per play this season – a decrease from 7.1 in 2013.
Pete Kwiatkowski, Defensive Coordinator, Washington
The Huskies had a young secondary but still managed to limit opponents to 24.8 points per game and 5.4 yards per play (Pac-12 only games).
Mark Mangino, Offensive Coordinator, Iowa State
Mangino didn’t bring a ton of improvement to Iowa State on the stat sheet, but the Cyclones lost standout receiver Quenton Bundrage to injury early in the year. Quarterback Sam Richardson tossed 18 touchdowns, which was the most by an Iowa State quarterback since Bret Meyer had 19 in 2005.
Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke
Former NFL assistant returned to Durham and coordinated an offense that averaged 32.4 points per game in 2014. Montgomery is a rising star in the coaching ranks and a name to remember over the next few seasons.
Don Pellum, Defensive Coordinator, Oregon
Pellum’s start as Oregon’s defensive coordinator got off to a rocky start, but the Ducks played better in the second half of the year. Oregon limited its last six opponents to an average of just 17.5 points per game.
Kurt Roper, Offensive Coordinator, Florida
Roper is looking for a new home after Will Muschamp was dismissed as Florida’s coach at the end of the regular season. Roper was only in Gainesville for a year, but the Gators made small gains on the stat sheet. Florida averaged 30.3 points per game in 2014, which was a sizeable increase after finishing last in the SEC with an 18.8 mark in 2013. The Gators also generated 27 plays of 30 yards or more.
Other Key Group of 5 Hires
Scott Boone, Co-Defensive Coordinator, Nevada
Nevada rebounded back into the postseason after missing out on a bowl bid in coach Brian Polian’s debut in 2013. Boone’s arrival from William & Mary helped the defense take a step forward on the stat sheet. The Wolf Pack gave up 7.1 yards per play last season but cut that number to 5.9 in 2014. Also, Nevada allowed the fewest plays of 30 yards or more (17) in the Mountain West this year.
Kevin Clune, Defensive Coordinator, Hawaii
Clune inherited a defense that returned just five starters and allowed 38.8 points per game in 2013. The Rainbow Warriors showed improvement under Clune’s watch, limiting opponents to 26.8 points per game and finishing first in the Mountain West in red zone defense.
Travis Pearson, Defensive Coordinator, South Alabama
South Alabama’s defense had a couple of key losses from its front seven, but the Jaguars remained one of the top units in the Sun Belt. Pearson’s group held opponents to 5.2 yards per play and 22.9 points per game in conference matchups. The Jaguars also ranked second in the Sun Belt with 21 forced turnovers.
Tyson Summers, Defensive Coordinator, UCF
Summers started his tenure as the defensive signal-caller at UCF on a high note, as the Knights defeated Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. In his first full year as the coordinator, Summers guided UCF’s defense to a No. 1 rank in the American Athletic Conference in fewest yards allowed per play and limited opponents to 19.2 points per game.
Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, UAB
Vincent inherited a good group of skill talent in Birmingham, but the Blazers did not have a quarterback with any attempts in a FBS game. Despite the lack of experience under center, Vincent’s offense helped UAB to reach six victories. The Blazers averaged 5.5 yards per play and 33.2 points per game in 2014.
Duwan Walker, Defensive Coordinator, UAB
UAB’s defense allowed 43.8 points per game in 2013, but Walker and coach Bill Clark helped the Blazers cut that total to 29.9 points per contest in 2014.
Marcel Yates, Defensive Coordinator, Boise State
Yates returned to Boise State after a stint on Kevin Sumlin’s staff at Texas A&M and coordinated a defense that limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play in 2014. Additionally, the Broncos led the Mountain West in third down defense.
Ohio State advanced to the College Football Playoff National Championship after a 42-35 upset victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes have played Oregon eight previous times, but the meeting on Monday, Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas is easily the matchup with the most implications between these two programs.
Urban Meyer’s team had to overcome two significant injuries at quarterback this season, yet the offense hasn’t suffered much of a drop with third-stringer Cardale Jones in games against Wisconsin and Alabama. In addition to the steady play from Jones, Ohio State’s offensive line has showed marked improvement since losing to Virginia Tech, and the defense has allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more – the fewest in the nation.
The Buckeyes enter the national championship with a 12-game winning streak and are looking to win their first time since 2003. Ohio State’s last appearance in the title game came in 2007 with a 38-24 loss to LSU.
Five Reasons Why Ohio State Will Win the National Title
1. Ezekiel Elliott
The Big Ten was home to two running backs (Melvin Gordon and Tevin Coleman) that eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark, so Elliott’s production was largely under-the-radar throughout the course of the season. However, after back-to-back 200-yard efforts, Elliott is quickly emerging as one of the nation’s top running backs. The sophomore enters the national championship with 1,632 yards and 14 scores. In games against Wisconsin and Alabama – two solid run defenses – Elliott rushed for 450 yards and four scores on 40 attempts. The sophomore eclipsed at least 100 yards in his last four games and faces an Oregon defense that allowed 6.9 yards per carry on 15 attempts to Florida State running back Dalvin Cook in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks allowed 156.1 rushing yards per game this season and were vulnerable at the point of attack against the Seminoles. Elliott should plan on a heavy workload in the national championship, especially as Ohio State needs to control the clock and keep Marcus Mariota on the sidelines.
2. Cardale Jones
Jones opened fall practice as Ohio State’s No. 3 quarterback, but the sophomore has been the least of coach Urban Meyer’s problems over the last two weeks. Against Wisconsin, Jones completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three scores. And in the Sugar Bowl versus Alabama, Jones completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown. The sophomore isn’t as mobile or elusive as former starter J.T. Barrett, but he has 52 rushing yards on 25 attempts over the last two games. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Jones is a load for opposing defenders to bring down, and he’s been plenty capable of making plays through the air. If Jones continues to play mistake-free ball and delivers on third downs, Ohio State’s offense will continue to perform at a high level.
3. Defensive Line
Ohio State’s defensive line was pegged as one of the best in college football this season and is anchored by two All-Americans in end Joey Bosa and tackle Michael Bennett. Bosa was quiet in the win over Alabama (just three tackles), but the rest of the line stepped up and limited T.J. Yeldon to 47 yards on 10 carries, while Derrick Henry rushed for 95 yards on 13 attempts. End Steve Miller returned an interception 41 yards for a score, while Bennett recorded a sack and four stops. Stopping Oregon’s attack starts at the line of scrimmage. The Buckeyes have the defensive line to disrupt quarterback Marcus Mariota’s timing, and the development of the linebackers have only added to the ability of the front seven to control the flow of the game. Ohio State generated 43 sacks this season and tied for seventh nationally in 105 tackles for a loss. If this unit continues to be disruptive at the point of attack, the Buckeyes should be able to limit the damage from Mariota and the array of talented Oregon skill players.
4. Coaching Experience
In a one-game scenario, there are few coaches better than Ohio State’s Urban Meyer. Although Oregon’s Mark Helfrich is 24-3 in his first two years in Eugene, the edge in coaching has to lean to the Ohio State sideline. Meyer is 37-3 in his first three years at Ohio State and navigated injuries to his top two quarterbacks to reach the national championship this season. Prior to taking the top job in Columbus, Meyer went 65-15 at Florida, 22-2 at Utah and 17-6 at Bowling Green. And in 13 years as a college coach, Meyer has reached the national championship game three times. The Ohio State staff is among the best in college football, which features Broyles Award winner in offensive coordinator Tom Herman and veteran offensive line coach Ed Warinner. On the defensive side, the addition of co-coordinator Chris Ash made a huge impact in 2014, and line coach Larry Johnson Sr. is one of the top assistants in the nation. The best player in the national championship is clearly Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. However, it’s a safe bet to assume Meyer’s big-game experience will help Ohio State on Jan. 12.
5. Development of the Offensive Line
Line coach Ed Warinner had his work cut out for him at the start of the season. The Buckeyes had only one returning starter and surrendered seven sacks in a 35-21 loss to Virginia Tech in early September. But over the last seven games, Ohio State has allowed only 11 sacks and rushers have averaged at least five yards per carry in five out of the last seven games. Left tackle Taylor Decker and guard Pat Elflein both earned All-Big Ten honors, while the same five players have started all 14 games for the Buckeyes this season. Center Jacoby Boren suffered an ankle injury in the Sugar Bowl but returned to action and delivered a solid performance against a talented Alabama defensive line. Oregon’s defensive front has been vulnerable to the run this year, and establishing Elliott and Jones on the ground will be crucial to Ohio State’s hopes at victory. Even though Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner played well for the Ducks in the victory against Florida State, the Buckeyes should have an advantage in the trenches.
Oregon is 60 minutes away from its first national championship after a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks had plenty of help from the Seminoles, using five turnovers by the Seminoles to score 41 points in the second half. As usual, Oregon had plenty of explosive plays by its offense, averaging 7.9 yards per play behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner started slow but finished with 338 passing yards and two scores and added 62 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
The Ducks were pegged as one of the favorites to win the college football playoff in the preseason and used a huge win over Michigan State on Sept. 6 to start 4-0. However, injuries took a toll on the offensive line, and Oregon lost 31-24 to Arizona in early October. But the Ducks regrouped after the loss and finished the year with nine straight victories.
Oregon has eight previous matchups against Ohio State. The Ducks are winless against the Buckeyes and lost their last trip to the national championship game, as Auburn defeated Oregon 22-19 in 2011.
Five Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the National Title
1. Marcus Mariota
When Oregon and Ohio State kick off on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, Marcus Mariota will undoubtedly be the best player on the field. The junior claimed the Heisman after throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 touchdowns and adding 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground. While Mariota’s overall production in yardage and touchdowns is impressive, it’s his efficiency that doesn’t get enough credit. Mariota completed 68.6 percent of his passes in 2014 and tossed only three interceptions on 408 attempts. The junior also led the nation by averaging 10.1 yards per pass and recording 31 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Ohio State’s secondary has made marked improvement under the direction of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013 but cut that number to just 18 in 2014. However, despite an improved secondary and fierce pass rush, this is the best passing attack Oregon has played this year.
2. Defensive Improvement
Considering Oregon’s pace of play on offense, the Ducks are always going to struggle to rank among the nation’s best in total defense. However, yardage allowed is an overrated stat for judging the effectiveness of defenses, and first-year coordinator Don Pellum has settled in over the course of the season. Oregon allows 5.5 yards per play (58th nationally) but lowered that mark to 5.1 since November. The Ducks also held their last four opponents to less than 20 points and made steady improvement on getting opposing offenses off the field on third downs late in the year. Oregon is still far from a shut down defense and will bend to allow opponents to drive the field. However, this unit has played better since an uneven start to the year, as evidenced by five forced turnovers in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State.
3. Improving Health
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff has done a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season. The Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a significant knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State, but this team is in much better shape in terms of health than it was earlier in the year. Running back Thomas Tyner missed the last three games of the regular season and announced his return to the lineup by recording 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts in the Rose Bowl. The offensive line was dealing with several injuries throughout the year and is nearly at full strength. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and was forced to miss three games but returned to anchor the offensive line against Florida State. With Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, this line is one of the best in the nation. And the return of Grasu back to full strength comes at a critical time, as Ohio State’s defensive line is capable of creating plenty of problems and havoc at the line of scrimmage. Tyner’s return also gives coordinator Scott Frost another weapon on offense.
4. Winning the Turnover Battle
Turnover margins vary greatly from year-to-year. Additionally, forcing and recovering turnovers is largely an exercise in luck. Oregon has been one of the best in the nation in turnover margin this year, recording a +19 mark headed into the national championship. The Ducks lost only 10 turnovers in 2014 – the fewest in the nation – and forced 30 (tied for 10th) this season. How good (or fortunate?) has Oregon been in turnover margin this year? The Ducks were the only team in the nation to record a zero or positive margin every game this season. Ohio State lost 22 turnovers in 14 games but has a +10 overall margin. The Buckeyes are better in the turnover department than Florida State, but the Ducks have consistently generated takeaways to overcome a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy on defense. In a tight game, turnovers could be the deciding factor. And that aspect of the national championship matchup favors Oregon.
5. Skill Talent
Few teams in the nation that can rival Oregon’s depth and overall talent at the skill positions. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the workhorse for the ground game, recording 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on 242 attempts. Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12, and the freshman recorded three 100-yard efforts over the final four games. Tyner’s return will help take some of the workload off Freeman’s shoulders, and the Ducks can use all-purpose threat Byron Marshall on the ground (7.5 ypc) when needed. At receiver, Devon Allen will be missed, but Marshall (66 catches), Darren Carrington (19 ypc), Keanon Lowe (14.3 ypc), and Dwayne Stanford (39 catches) are big-play targets for Mariota. This group also contains talented freshman Charles Nelson and tight end Evan Baylis – caught six of his 10 passes in 2014 against Florida State – as additional options. Oregon’s deep group of skill players is a tough assignment for any team to stop, especially with the Ducks becoming more physical on the line of scrimmage and in the rushing attack. Slowing down Oregon’s offense will be a huge challenge for Ohio State on Jan. 12.
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their heated rivalry with a Saturday night, AFC Wild Card showdown on NBC. This will be the fourth time since 2001 the Ravens (10-6) and Steelers (11-5) have played in a playoff game, with the Steelers winning all three previous matchups.
There’s no love lost between these two teams and the annual meetings are usually close. However, this season’s get-togethers produced two blowouts. Baltimore used three Pittsburgh turnovers en route to an easy 26-6 victory on Sept. 11. The Steelers returned the favor in early November, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards in a decisive 43-23 victory over the Ravens.
Adding to the intrigue of Saturday night’s game is that the Steelers will be missing a big piece of their offense because of injury, while the Ravens will wecome back a key defender. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore’s All-Pro nose tackle, is set to return from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in last week’s win over Cincinnati and has already been ruled out for the wild card game. The team's leading rusher and No. 2 receiver, Bell's absence is something the Steelers must overcome.
Pittsburgh owns a 21-17 overall series edge against Baltimore. The Steelers have won the last two meetings in Heinz Field, but the Ravens claimed back-to-back victories in enemy territory on Nov. 6, 2011 and Nov. 18, 2012.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Win the Battle in the Trenches
With All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata’s return, the Ravens’ defensive line is at full strength and will create plenty of headaches for Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first two meetings this year, Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger five times and held Steeler rushers to just 154 yards on 43 carries. Considering the problems in pass defense this season, the Ravens need to disrupt Pittsburgh’s offense by generating pressure on Roethlisberger. And when Roethlisberger breaks free of the initial rush, it’s critical the Ravens stick with their coverage to limit big plays by Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Even with Le'Veon Bell already ruled out because of a knee injury, Baltimore should look to put Roethlisberger in long-yardage situations and use its physical, aggressive front seven to generate pressure. When the Ravens have the ball on offense, getting running back Justin Forsett on track will be a priority. In the first meeting between these two teams, Forsett gashed the Steelers for 96 yards on 22 attempts. In the rematch, Forsett was limited to 38 yards on nine carries. Balance on offense is crucial to set up Baltimore’s play-action game from quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable to play, which means rookie James Hurst will be under pressure to protect Flacco against Pittsburgh’s front seven. If Flacco has protection, there will be opportunities for big plays against a secondary that ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass. Even if cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu return from injury, the Steelers could struggle to contain the Baltimore pass offense.
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Attack the Ravens’ Secondary
Even if Le'Veon Bell ended up playing, running the ball against Baltimore still figured to a be a tough task for the Steelers. After all, Pittsburgh managed only 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts in the first matchup, and the Ravens limited the Steelers to 55 yards on 25 carries in the second meeting. Combine Bell’s absence with Haloti Ngata’s return, and it’s easy to see why this game will rest on the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh added some backfield insurance with the addition of veteran Ben Tate, but it’s difficult to envision Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Tate having much success against a Ravens defense that limited opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry and 88.3 yards per game. Roethlisberger battled an illness in last week’s win over Cincinnati but should be at full strength for this one. In the early November meeting against the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass, but held its last four opponents under 200 yards through the air. Of course, the Ravens didn’t exactly run the gauntlet of quarterbacks in playing Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville and Miami. With the uncertainty surrounding the ground attack and the strength of Baltimore’s front seven, Roethlisberger will have to be perfect for Pittsburgh to win. The veteran is having an outstanding season (32 TDs, 9 INTs) and is surrounded by a deep group of receivers. Antonio Brown led the NFL with 1,698 receiving yards this season, while tight end Heath Miller (66 receptions) and Markus Wheaton (53 catches) were steady options. Rookie Martavis Bryant is an emerging star, averaging 21.1 yards per reception in 2014. The Steelers are known for winning with their defense and rushing attack, but on Saturday night, their best chance of advancing in the playoffs likely rests with an offense taking to the air and Roethlisberger attempting 40-50 passes.
Five out of the last seven matchups between these two teams were decided by three points or less. While both Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh games in the regular season were one-sided affairs, the wild card battle on Saturday night should be close. No Le'Veon Bell for the AFC North champions puts even more pressure on Josh Harris, Ben Tate and Dri Archer to produce out of the backfield. However, the Steelers still have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. Although defenses usually control this rivalry, don’t be surprised if Saturday night’s affair features more scoring. If Pittsburgh had Bell in on the field, the Steelers would be at least a touchdown favorite. Without him, the game moves closer to a toss-up. Roethlisberger does just enough, and Pittsburgh’s defense picks up a late turnover to seal the victory and send the Steelers to Denver for next weekend’s AFC Divisional Round.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 27
UCLA and Kansas State were on the cusp of playing in a bigger postseason game, but the Bruins and Wildcats should have plenty of motivation when they meet on Friday night in the Alamo Bowl. Both teams recorded a 9-3 record in the regular season and went into the final weekend of action with conference title aspirations. UCLA lost to Stanford to end its hopes of playing in the Pac-12 Championship, while Kansas State’s Big 12 title aspirations ended after TCU defeated Iowa State on Dec. 6.
Kansas State is always a threat to win the Big 12 with coach Bill Snyder on the sidelines, and the Wildcats won at least eight games for the fourth consecutive season. There’s no shame in the three losses by Kansas State in 2014, as Snyder’s team dropped games against Auburn, TCU and Baylor – three of arguably the top 10-15 teams in the nation. UCLA was pegged by some as the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, but coach Jim Mora’s team dropped back-to-back games against Utah and Oregon in early October to end its playoff hopes. The Bruins’ 31-10 loss to Stanford in the regular season finale allowed Arizona to win the Pac-12 South. Perhaps UCLA was overranked to start the season, but under Mora’s direction, the Bruins have won at least nine games in every season. This program is on the right track under Mora, and with a win over Kansas State, UCLA will have double-digit victories in back-to-back years for the first time since 1997-98.
UCLA and Kansas State have met only two previous times. The series is tied at one victory apiece, with the last meeting occurring in 2010. These two teams have never played each other in a bowl game.
UCLA vs. Kansas State
Kickoff: Friday, Jan. 2 at 6:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: UCLA -1
UCLA’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s a simple goal, but Kansas State won’t beat itself. The Wildcats lost only 11 turnovers – No. 3 nationally – and committed just four penalties per game. UCLA struggled with its discipline at times in 2014, as Mora’s team committed seven penalties per game and registered a -1 in turnover margin. The Alamo Bowl will be quarterback Brett Hundley’s last game in a UCLA uniform, as Mora already indicated his quarterback is set to go to the NFL. Hundley has been efficient this season, throwing for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns to only five picks. The junior is facing a K-State secondary that ranked fifth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense and allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 62.9 percent of their throws. In addition to Hundley, the Wildcats have to find a way to slow down running back Paul Perkins (1,381 yards, 7 TDs). Protecting Hundley has been a challenge at times this year, but UCLA’s line has played better since the addition of Conor McDermott at left tackle. Kansas State allowed only 35 plays of 20 yards or more (fewest allowed in the Big 12) this season. Hundley and the Bruins offense have plenty of firepower, but patience is required against a defense that doesn’t allow many big plays and has forced 20 turnovers this year. If UCLA limits its mistakes, opportunities should be there for Hundley and this offense to match its 32.9 points per game scoring average.
Kansas State’s Key to Victory: Waters to Lockett
Kansas State doesn’t have the most prolific rushing offense, as the Wildcats rank sixth in the Big 12 by averaging just 142.8 yards per game. What Kansas State doesn’t have in terms of a dominant rushing attack, it certainly makes up for it through the air. Quarterback Jake Waters completed 66.2 percent of his passes this year for 3,163 yards and 20 scores to only six interceptions. The senior’s favorite target is senior Tyler Lockett, who grabbed 93 receptions for 1,351 yards and nine scores in 2014. Lockett averaged 14.5 yards per reception and was a weapon on special teams with two punt returns for scores. UCLA’s secondary allowed only three plays of 40 yards or more during the regular season and it needs to keep Lockett under wraps on Friday night. The Bruins have struggled to generate a pass rush this year, so if the front seven can’t get to Waters, the opportunities should be there for Lockett to make plays downfield. If UCLA can limit the damage by Lockett and Waters, the Bruins should be in good position to earn the Alamo Bowl victory.
On paper, this is an even matchup. Perhaps one of the best of the bowl season. UCLA clearly has more talent on its roster, but Kansas State simply doesn’t beat itself and has one of the nation’s top coaches in Bill Snyder. In a tight game, turnovers could be critical. The Wildcats have been better in that department this season, which could be enough to swing this game in favor of K-State. Also, which team should have more motivation? Both teams had hopes of playing in a New Year’s Six bowl but losses on the final weekend knocked UCLA and Kansas State out of contention for a premier postseason destination. The Bruins have been up-and-down this season, while the Wildcats’ senior class is looking to close out their career with one more win. This one in San Antonio is a coin flip, but let’s a give a small edge to Kansas State.
Prediction: Kansas State 34, UCLA 31
Jim Harbaugh’s return to Michigan is a huge boost to a program that has struggled to be nationally relevant in recent years. The Wolverines recorded three seasons of double-digit victories from 2002-06 but have only one year of 10 or more wins since 2007. Harbaugh is going to elevate Michigan back into Big Ten title contention over the next few years, but the former Wolverine quarterback isn’t inheriting a perfect depth chart or situation for success.
What might be Harbaugh’s biggest problem to overcome in 2015? Let’s take a look at a couple of obstacles for Michigan and its new coach next season.
Obstacles for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan in 2015
This area will receive the most – and immediate – attention for Harbaugh and his staff. In 247Sports composite standings, Michigan is No. 90 nationally in team recruiting rankings. The No. 90 ranking nationally equals the No. 14 class in the Big Ten. That’s right, as of Dec. 30, Michigan ranks last in the Big Ten in recruiting. Sure, recruiting rankings aren’t everything, but there’s some truth in the evaluations. The Wolverines have just six commitments and none of those players are regarded as five-star talents. Michigan was slated to bring in a small recruiting class, so numbers aren’t necessarily needed. However, Harbaugh has a lot of work to do on the recruiting trail and only has a month and a few days to salvage a class that is ranked at the bottom of the Big Ten. Michigan won’t finish last in the conference in recruiting but building a successful class in just over a month is challenging.
2. Quarterback Play
Devin Gardner concluded his career at Michigan with 1,896 yards and 10 passing scores in 2014. Gardner also tossed 15 picks this year, but the Detroit native didn’t have much help from his supporting cast. Harbaugh – a former quarterback – has a penchant for developing signal-callers. Harbaugh’s ability to develop a quarterback will be tested in 2015, as Michigan needs to find a replacement for Gardner. Junior Shane Morris is the frontrunner, and in two seasons in Ann Arbor, he has completed 43 of 87 passes for 389 yards and five interceptions. Morris was a four-star recruit in the 2013 signing class and is a good fit as a pro-style passer for what Harbaugh wants to do on offense. If Morris isn’t the answer, redshirt freshman Wilton Speight or incoming freshman Alex Malzone are the other options for Harbaugh. Developing Morris or finding another answer here will determine just how high Michigan can climb in the Big Ten East Division next season.
3. The Pieces Around the QB
Michigan’s defense has a few holes to fill, but overall, the Wolverines are in good shape on that side of the ball after limiting opponents to 4.8 yards per play in 2014. The biggest questions for Harbaugh are clearly on offense, starting at quarterback and continuing into the skill talent and offensive line. Settling on a quarterback is the first priority, but Harbaugh has work to do at receiver and on the offensive line. Michigan must replace receiver Devin Funchess and needs a big season from younger players like Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson, Freddy Canteen and tight end Jake Butt. Also, the offense needs a go-to running back to emerge. Is that De’Veon Smith? Or will Derrick Green return to full strength after a season-ending injury and reach his recruiting hype? All five starters on the offensive line from the depth chart for the Ohio State game are back, but this unit has to show marked improvement after struggling once again in 2014. The line allowed 26 sacks in 12 games and rushers averaged only 4.1 yards per play in eight Big Ten contests. There’s hope for improvement with the returning players, along with the development of left tackle Mason Cole. Even though Harbaugh should make a difference on offense, Michigan will need to win with its defense in 2015 – at least early in the year.
Michigan’s coaching search is finally over, and athletic director Jim Hackett got his man in former Wolverines quarterback Jim Harbaugh. After a successful four-year stint in San Francisco, Harbaugh and the front office had a mutual parting, and the Michigan alum is set to return to the Michigan sidelines in 2015.
It’s easy to throw around the term “home run hire” when a coach is introduced at a press conference. However, it’s appropriate to throw that term around when it comes to Harbaugh. The 51-year-old coach is exactly what Michigan needs to return to the top of the Big Ten.
The Positives for Michigan:
Game Changer in the East Division
The Wolverines needed someone who can go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer, James Franklin and Mark Dantonio. Harbaugh certainly checks that box. And under Harbaugh, Michigan is ready to jump back into Big Ten title contention.
Eye for Assistant Talent
At Stanford, Harbaugh hired an excellent staff. David Shaw, Derek Mason, Scott Shafer, Willie Taggart, Brian Polian and D.J. Durkin are some of the names Harbaugh hired during his Stanford tenure, and it’s expected he will piece together a standout coaching staff this offseason.
Success at Every Level
Harbaugh has experienced success at every level, starting with a stint at San Diego from 2004-06. Under Harbaugh’s direction, the Toreros went 29-6, including a 22-2 mark over the final two years. Harbaugh took over at Stanford in 2007 and went 4-8 in his first season. The four wins indicated a three-game improvement from 2006 for the Cardinal. Harbaugh improved Stanford to 5-7 in 2008, followed by a 20-6 mark over his final two years. Harbaugh was successful in the NFL, guiding the 49ers to three playoff appearances and a berth in the Super Bowl against the Ravens in the 2012 season.
Offense was the biggest problem under former coach Brady Hoke. Under Harbaugh, the offense shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, it may take a year or two for the program to recruit the right talent, but Harbaugh’s background on offense should immediately help Michigan take a step forward on this side of the ball in 2015.
The Negatives for Michigan:
Are there any negatives?
There’s not a guarantee with any coaching hire, but it’s hard to envision Harbaugh not winning big at Michigan. The former Wolverine quarterback already won at two jobs – San Diego and Stanford – that were more challenging than Ann Arbor. As a former quarterback at Michigan, Harbaugh is returning to familiar surroundings and knows what it takes to win in Ann Arbor. Additionally, he has the right attitude and acumen to go head-to-head with the best in college football on Saturdays, as well as on the recruiting trail. It’s a cliché, but Harbaugh certainly gives Michigan an edge it seemed to be missing over the last few years.
If there is something to be concerned about for Michigan fans, it has to be the NFL. At some point in the future, would Harbaugh want to jump back into the NFL? Maybe. However, if Harbaugh wins a couple of Big Ten titles and leads the Wolverines into premier bowl games on a consistent basis, it’s safe to say the hire worked out well for Michigan and he returned his alma mater into relevance.
As a program, Michigan has been struggling to maintain national relevance in recent years. The Wolverines are just 20-18 over the last three seasons and has a losing record in Big Ten play in three out of the last five years.
With Harbaugh’s arrival, that is about to change. Again, there’s no guarantee with any coaching hire, but it’s hard to see this one not working out. Harbaugh is the right coach to fix Michigan football and should win big over the next couple of years. And for the rest of college football, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry just got a lot more interesting. Harbaugh’s arrival is also huge for the Big Ten as a conference. The Big Ten has fallen in the conference pecking order in recent years, with Michigan’s struggles playing a large role in why the league has taken a step back. But with Harbaugh coming back to Michigan, the Wolverines are set to return to national relevance, helping the Big Ten improve its overall image.
This hiring cycle has been filled with good hires from most programs looking for a head coach. However, Michigan’s hire of Harbaugh might be the best of the bunch. Expect to hear plenty from the Wolverines and Harbaugh over the next couple of seasons. Simply, this is the best hire Michigan could make. There's not a better fit - and a coach at the right time - for Michigan than Harbaugh.
Final Grade for Michigan: A+
The Sugar Bowl matchup between Alabama and Ohio State may not have the quarterback star power of Florida State-Oregon in the Rose Bowl, but there’s no shortage of intrigue in New Orleans. The Buckeyes hope to carry the banner for the Big Ten and score a huge win over Alabama and the SEC, while the Crimson Tide hopes to win their fourth national title in six years.
Ohio State’s playoff hopes suffered a huge setback with the loss of quarterback J.T. Barrett to a season-ending injury against Michigan. However, Cardale Jones played well against Wisconsin and has a month to get ready for Alabama’s defense. Although Jones has extra time to prepare, the Crimson Tide defense also has a month to add a few new wrinkles to the repertoire. As if a quarterback making his second career start wasn’t enough to overcome, Ohio State has to face the nation’s top receiver (Amari Cooper), along with a punishing ground attack led by T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.
Let's take a look at the position-by-position preview for the 2015 Sugar Bowl:
Position-by-Position Sugar Bowl Preview
|QB||Blake Sims entered the year as a question mark but had a breakout year under the direction of coordinator Lane Kiffin. Sims threw for 3,250 yards and 26 scores, while completing 64.8 percent of his passes. The senior also rushed for 321 yards and six touchdowns. Sims tossed only seven picks on 355 attempts, with three of those interceptions coming against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. Sims was one of the SEC's top quarterbacks in 2014.|
Injuries have marred the Buckeyes’ quarterback depth chart in 2014. Braxton Miller was lost for the year with a shoulder injury in August, and J.T. Barrett was a Heisman candidate before a season-ending leg injury against Michigan. Cardale Jones completed 12 of 27 passes for 257 yards and three scores against Wisconsin in the only start of his career. Having a month to prepare for Alabama should help Jones in his second career start.
Jones played well against Wisconsin, but Sims is the proven option.
This is one of the top running back corps in the nation. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry combined for 1,767 yards and 20 scores in the regular season, and both players will challenge an Ohio State rush defense that allowed only 3.7 yards per carry in Big Ten play. Tyren Jones (6.2 ypc) is the third back, while Jalston Fowler is a solid all-around fullback. Yeldon needs 68 yards to reach 1,000, while Henry needs 105 to hit that mark.
Sophomore Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 1,402 yards and 12 scores during the regular season and headlines a talented backfield for coach Urban Meyer. Elliott also factored into the passing game (26 catches). He rushed for 6.5 yards per carry and finished the regular season with three straight 100-yard efforts. Curtis Samuel added 376 yards and six scores, while Warren Ball is slated to fill the No. 3 role.
Ohio State is solid, but Alabama is loaded with talent. Yeldon and Henry is a tough 1-2 punch.
|WR||The Crimson Tide has an edge at this position due to Amari Cooper. The junior is the best in the nation at his position and thrived under Lane Kiffin’s tutelage by recording 115 catches for 1,656 yards and 14 scores. Alabama may not have a standout No. 2 threat, but DeAndrew White is a solid option, and tight end O.J. Howard averages 16.5 yards per reception. Christion Jones ranks third on the team with 19 receptions.|
Urban Meyer is making progress in upgrading the talent at receiver, but the Buckeyes still have a ways to go at this position. Devin Smith is a big-play threat (26.6 ypc), and Michael Thomas (43 catches) has been solid in 2014. Tight end Jeff Heuerman caught only 17 passes this season after grabbing 26 last year. H-backs Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson also factor into this position. Wilson is questionable to play with a foot injury.
Tough to pick against a group that includes Amari Cooper.
|OL||This unit may not be as dominant as Alabama’s last national championship team, but the Crimson Tide has one of the nation’s top lines. Left tackle Cam Robinson had a standout freshman campaign, center Ryan Kelly is one of the best in the SEC, and right tackle Austin Shepherd has allowed only one sack in 2014. Arie Kouandjio had a standout year at guard, while senior Leon Brown rounds out the starting group. Alabama allowed only 13 sacks in 13 games this year and paved the way for rushers to average 5.1 yards per rush.|
Perhaps no unit on Ohio State’s team made as much progress as the offensive line did in 2014. The Buckeyes allowed eight sacks in their first two games but gave up 16 the rest of the year. Left tackle Taylor Decker earned second-team All-Big Ten honors by the coaches, while guard Pat Elflein was a first-team selection. Rounding out the starting five will be center Jacoby Boren, right tackle Darryl Baldwin (the lone senior up front) and guard Billy Price. The same five players have started all 13 games for Ohio State’s offensive line this year.
OSU's OL has improved, but Alabama gets the edge.
|DL||In a 3-4 scheme, Alabama’s defensive line isn’t asked to post big numbers. However, this unit is loaded with talent and is a key cog in the success of the Crimson Tide defense. A’Shawn Robinson can play on the interior or on the edge, and the sophomore recorded 6.5 tackles for a loss this year. Starting ends Jonathan Allen (4.5 sacks) and Jarran Reed combined for 16 tackles for a loss, and there’s no shortage of depth with Dalvin Tomlinson, D.J. Pettway and Da’Shawn Hand in the mix. The Crimson Tide allowed only three rushing scores in 2014.|
The Buckeyes are loaded with talent here. End Joey Bosa creates a ton of havoc at the line of scrimmage, recording 13.5 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss in 2014. Bosa was a first-team Athlon All-American this year. Steve Miller starts opposite of Bosa at defensive end, while Tyquan Lewis, Jalyn Holmes and Rashad Frazier will also see significant snaps. The interior is stout with senior Michael Bennett and junior Adophus Washington anchoring the middle. Ohio State tied for sixth nationally with 40 sacks in 2014.
Close call on the DL. Bosa and Bennett edge Alabama's group.
|LB||Regardless of personnel departures, Alabama continues to own one of the SEC’s top linebacker corps on a yearly basis. 2014 was no different, as Trey DePriest (82 tackles) and Reggie Ragland (88 tackles) helped to anchor a Crimson Tide front that led the nation in rush defense. Senior Xzavier Dickson led the team with eight sacks and also registered 10 quarterback hurries. There’s no shortage of depth here with Ryan Anderson (three sacks), Reuben Foster (20 tackles) and Dillon Lee each capable of playing major snaps.||The Buckeyes had to replace standout Ryan Shazier coming into 2014, but this unit performed at a high level with the emergence of Darron Lee and development of Joshua Perry. Perry and Lee ranked as two of the team’s top tacklers, with Curtis Grant (53 stops) rounding out the starting trio. True freshman Raekwon McMillan is a future star in Columbus and contributed 49 stops and 2.5 sacks in 13 games this year. Ohio State's front seven is coming off a stellar performance, holding Wisconsin to 71 rushing yards.|
Small edge to Alabama here due to depth.
|DB||The biggest concern on Alabama’s defense is at the cornerback position. The Crimson Tide allowed 17 passing scores and gave up 17 passing plays of 30 yards or more this year. Junior Cyrus Jones improved as the season progressed and will start at one corner spot. Sophomore Eddie Jackson made a quick recovery from a torn ACL in the spring and will start opposite of Jones. True freshman Tony Brown, sophomore Maurice Smith and junior Bradley Sylvie are the other key contributors at cornerback. Safety Landon Collins is one of – if not the best – safety in college football. Collins led the team with 91 tackles and intercepted three passes.||The arrival of Chris Ash as Ohio State’s co-defensive coordinator was also critical to the improvement in the secondary. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more last season but cut that number to just 16 in 2014 – and that’s with cornerback Bradley Roby leaving as a first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Senior Doran Grant (five interceptions) is the top player in the Ohio State secondary and could draw the assignment of facing Amari Cooper. Vonn Bell picked off five passes this year and is joined by fellow sophomore Tyvis Powell at the other safety spot. The Buckeyes ranked fourth in the Big Ten pass efficiency defense in 2014.|
Collins is the best secondary player in this game. However, OSU ranked No. 5 nationally in pass efficiency defense.
Field goals have been an adventure at times for Alabama, but the rest of the special teams unit is solid for coach Nick Saban. JK Scott – a true freshman – is already one of the top punters in the nation. Scott averaged 47 yards per punt in 2014. Adam Griffith connected on 12 of 19 field goals this year, while Gunnar Raborn hit on 2 of 3 attempts. Christion Jones is a dangerous option on punt or kickoff returns.
Similar to Alabama, Ohio State has an excellent punter (Cameron Johnston, 45.1 avg.), but field goals have been an issue. Sean Nuernberger has connected on 11 of 18 attempts this year and has hit on just 5 of 10 field goals from 40 yards or more. Jalin Marshall is a dangerous punt returner (12.7 avg., 1 TD), and the Buckeyes have options (Marshall, Curtis Samuel) if Dontre Wilson is unable to play due to injury.
Even - Good punters/return men, question marks on FGs.
|Coaching||Nick Saban is the No. 1 coach in college football - and that's not really up for debate. In eight years at Alabama, Saban is 91-16, has three national championships and has won at least 10 games in seven consecutive years. Lane Kiffin and Kirby Smart are two of the nation’s top coordinators, with Kiffin engineering an offense that averaged 6.4 yards per play in his first season in Tuscaloosa. Saban has assembled an outstanding staff, headlined by Mario Cristobal (OL coach), Billy Napier (WR), Lance Thompson (OLB) and Burton Burns (RB).|
Urban Meyer is one of the nation's top coaches and boasts an overall record of 140-26, with two national championships at Florida. Meyer is 36-3 in three seasons at Ohio State and has a perfect 24-0 record during regular season play in the Big Ten. Similar to Alabama, Meyer has assembled an outstanding staff. Offensive coordinator Tom Herman was hired to be Houston’s next head coach, but he will stay with the Buckeyes through the playoffs. The addition of Chris Ash has paid dividends for Ohio State’s defense in 2014.
Meyer is an outstanding coach, but Nick Saban ranks as the best in college football.
The Rose Bowl matchup between Florida State and Oregon should be one of college football’s top postseason matchups. And there’s more at stake than just a Rose Bowl trophy, as the Ducks and Seminoles are playing in the first FBS college football playoff game and a chance to meet the winner of Ohio State and Alabama in the national championship game in Arlington, Texas.
The margin between Florida State and Oregon appears to be small. Although the good folks in Vegas like the Ducks as the favorite, the position-by-position analysis shows these two teams are even and should meet for an entertaining game on Jan. 1.
Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are the headliners and should have a huge performance against defenses that had their share of struggles in 2014. However, keep an eye on what happens in the trenches. Will Florida State’s shuffled offensive line make a big difference? Or will Oregon’s defensive front create enough pressure to disrupt Winston and slow down Dalvin Cook?
Let’s take a look at the position-by-position breakdown for the 2015 Rose Bowl:
Position-by-Position Rose Bowl Preview
Jameis Winston tossed more interceptions (17) this season than he did in 2013, but the sophomore still played at a high level. Despite a struggling offensive line and new faces at receiver, Winston completed 65.4 percent of his throws and helped FSU’s offense average 34.8 points per game in 2014. Winston didn’t take home much postseason hardware, but coach Jimbo Fisher believed his quarterback was better in 2014 than in his Heisman-winning 2013 campaign.
Marcus Mariota is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. The junior was lethal in the big-play department, recording 27 passing plays of 30 yards or more. And Mariota was incredibly efficient, tossing only two picks on 372 attempts and boasting a 68.3 completion percentage. Mariota led the nation by averaging 10.2 yards per pass attempt. The junior also rushed for 669 yards and 14 scores in 2014. Mariota is the driving force behind Oregon’s offense and a main reason why the Ducks are in position to win the national title.
Even - There's simply no wrong answer here.
Karlos Williams was pegged by most to be FSU’s leading rusher in the offseason, but the senior finished with 609 yards and was passed by true freshman Dalvin Cook as the No. 1 option late in the year. Cook rushed for 905 yards and eight scores and averaged at least five yards per rush in each of the final four games. Mario Pender was limited by injuries in 2014 but averaged 5.2 yards per rush in limited snaps.
Similar to FSU, Oregon also had a true freshman lead the team in rushing. Royce Freeman powered the ground attack by recording 1,299 yards and 16 scores in his first season on campus. Sophomore Thomas Tyner was limited to nine games due to injury but has 1,098 yards in two seasons. Byron Marshall led the team in rushing last year (1,038 yards). However, Marshall played in an all-purpose role (383 rush yards, 61 receptions) in 2014.
Could go with even here too. Small edge to the Ducks.
The top two receiving options in the Rose Bowl reside on the Florida State sideline. Senior Rashad Greene is Jameis Winston’s favorite target (93 catches), while Nick O’Leary won the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Freshman Travis Rudolph is an emerging star (32 catches), while Jesus Wilson, Ermon Lane and Kermit Whitfield round out the FSU receiving corps. The time to prepare for the Rose Bowl should help Winston and Rudolph develop a better connection.
The Ducks lost their top three statistical wide receivers from last season, but this unit has performed at a high level. Running back/receiver Byron Marshall leads the team with 61 catches, while redshirt freshman Devon Allen is one of the nation’s top big-play threats (16.7 ypc). Dwayne Stanford (37 catches) and Darren Carrington (17.9 ypc) are two valuable targets for Mariota. The loss of tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a season-ending knee injury was a huge hit to the receiving corps for Oregon.
Greene and O'Leary are All-Americans. Rudolph could have a breakout performance against a thin secondary.
The Seminoles battled inconsistency up front early in the season, but this unit has performed much better since freshman Roderick Johnson was inserted at left tackle and Cameron Erving was shifted to center. The offensive line has paved the way for rushers to average 4.8 yards per carry over the last four games and surrendered only two sacks in that span. Guard Tre Jackson was a first-team Athlon All-American in 2014.
Health is a major concern for this unit. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and missed the final three games. Grasu’s status for the Rose Bowl is uncertain. If Grasu can’t play, the Ducks will likely turn to Hamani Stevens at center. Senior Jake Fisher is one of the top tackles in college football, and his return from injury seemed to spark the offense after the loss to Arizona. Freshman Tyrell Crosby started seven games in 2014. This unit allowed 29 sacks in 13 games this year.
Even - FSU's shuffled front might have a small edge. Will Grasu play?
FSU’s defensive line is expected to receive a boost with the return of tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample. The junior suffered a pectoral injury earlier in the season but is expected to play in the Rose Bowl. This unit will also benefit from a healthy Eddie Goldman at tackle, while end Mario Edwards Jr. is one of the nation’s most underrated players. Depth is an issue here, but FSU’s front-line talent is capable of controlling the flow of the game.
Oregon’s base defense on its depth chart features a three-man alignment in the trenches. Ends Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner are the headliners, with Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp anchoring the nose guard spot. Buckner was more productive than Armstead on the stat sheet, recording 69 tackles and ranking first on the team with 12 tackles for a loss. The Ducks ranked 51st nationally against the run and generated 34 sacks.
Return of Lawrence-Stample is a boost for FSU. Edwards Jr. and Goldman have All-America talent.
Injuries were a major problem for FSU’s linebacking corps this year. Terrance Smith missed two games and was limited in others due to injuries. Smith recorded 85 stops, while Reggie Northrup led the team with 113 tackles. Redshirt freshman Matthew Thomas was also banged up throughout the second half of the year. He’s an x-factor to watch in the Rose Bowl.
The Ducks boast a veteran group of linebackers, led by honorable mention All-Pac-12 selection Joe Walker and senior Derrick Malone. Rodney Hardrick ranked fourth on the team with 65 stops, while Tony Washington rounds out the starting linebacking corps while recording 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks. Junior Christian French leads the team with 6.5 sacks.
FSU has talent and time to heal will help. But a slight edge goes to Oregon.
The individual talent outweighs FSU’s place on the stat sheet this year. The Seminoles allowed 20 passing scores this season and ranked 10th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. However, this unit has three standouts in safety Jalen Ramsey and cornerbacks P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby. Ramsey should be all over the field in various roles, while coordinator Charles Kelly needs Williams and Darby to regain their All-ACC form from last season.
Oregon was dealt a serious blow with the loss of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu due to a knee injury. Without Ekpre-Olomu, the secondary will ask even more of senior cornerback Troy Hill, who broke up 16 passes and recorded 57 stops in 2014. Freshman Chris Seisay and Dior Mathis will also see an increased role at cornerback. Safety Erick Dargan leads the team with 82 tackles. Reggie Daniels and Tyree Robinson join Dargan as key contributors at safety. Oregon ranked 50th nationally in pass efficiency defense this season.
Ekpre-Olomu's loss is huge. Ramsey is the best defensive player on the field.
Kicker Roberto Aguayo is the best in college football. The sophomore connected on 25 of 27 attempts this season, including all three attempts from 50 yards or more. Punter Cason Beatty has been inconsistent but averaged 41.6 yards per punt in 2014 – a slight uptick from 2013. Rashad Greene (punts) and Kermit Whitfield (kickoffs) are dangerous return men. FSU does not have a score on kick or punt returns this year.
With the speed on Oregon’s roster, it’s no surprise this team has some of the nation’s top return men. Charles Nelson scored twice on punt returns, while three players averaged at least 20 yards per kickoff return. Devon Allen attempted only seven kickoff returns but averaged 27 yards per return. Two kickers – Matt Wogan and Aidan Schneider – combined to connect on 15 of 18 attempts. Punter Ian Wheeler wasn’t used much (39 punts) and averaged only 39.1 yards per kick.
Another close call. Aguayo is the difference here.
Big advantage to FSU in coaching. Jimbo Fisher is 58-10 in five years with the Seminoles and has this program on a 29-game winning streak. Fisher’s staff is stocked with experienced and proven assistants, including recruiting ace Tim Brewster, line coach Rick Trickett and defensive line coach Sal Sunseri. The defense took a step back with several new faces in the lineup under first-year coordinator Charles Kelly. However, Kelly did a nice job of making second-half adjustments this season.
Mark Helfrich is a bit of a mystery. He’s 23-3 in two years as Oregon’s coach, but he also inherited a loaded squad - including Mariota - from former coach Chip Kelly. Helfrich and the staff did a good job of navigating various injuries this year, and offensive coordinator Scott Frost was a finalist for the Broyles Award. First-year defensive coordinator Don Pellum had his share of ups and downs, but the Ducks held their last three opponents under 20 points. This game is a huge opportunity for Helfrich to put his stamp on the program.
Fisher is one of CFB's best coaches - and an outstanding play-caller.
The college football playoff officially begins when Florida State and Oregon meet on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl for the first national semifinal matchup. The Seminoles and Ducks are two of the nation’s most successful programs in recent years, and the Rose Bowl semifinal could be one of the best bowl matchups of the 2014-15 postseason. And there’s no shortage of storylines between Florida State and Oregon, as both programs are among the nation’s best on offense and feature the last two Heisman winners in Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
After dominating its opponents last season, it’s been a different story for Florida State in 2014. The Seminoles won seven games by a touchdown or less, including the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech (37-35) and a road win at Miami (30-26) in mid-November. Pinpointing the reasons for the drop in margin of victory for Florida State isn’t easy, but it’s largely due to the turnover in personnel on defense and an increase in turnovers. Despite problems in those areas, the Seminoles finished the regular season unbeaten and enter the Rose Bowl with a 29-game winning streak. Oregon finished its regular season with one blemish – a 31-24 loss to Arizona – but dominated most of the opponents on its schedule. The Ducks crushed the Wildcats 51-13 in a rematch against the Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship, defeated Utah 51-27, beat Stanford 45-16 and used a second-half rally to knock off Michigan State 46-27 on Sept. 6. Oregon has suffered its share of key injuries this year and has struggled to find consistency on defense under first-year coordinator Don Pellum. However, having Mariota and a lethal group of skill players helps to alleviate many of the team’s issues on defense.
This is the first meeting between Florida State and Oregon. The Seminoles are making their second consecutive postseason trip to Pasadena after beating Auburn for the BCS National Championship last season. The Ducks won earlier this year in the Rose Bowl by defeating UCLA 42-30. Oregon’s last trip to the Rose Bowl as a postseason game occurred in 2012, as Chip Kelly’s Ducks defeated Wisconsin 45-38.
Florida State vs. Oregon
Kickoff: Thursday, Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Oregon -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota
Assuming both players declare, it’s no secret Winston and Mariota are expected to be high picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. And as the last two Heisman winners, there’s plenty of hype and anticipation for this quarterback duel in the Rose Bowl. Winston’s interceptions increased from 10 (2013) to 17 this year, which was largely due to a struggling offensive line and new faces at receiver. Despite the uptick in turnovers, Winston was still performing at a high level. The sophomore completed 65.4 percent of his passes and threw for 3,559 yards. Winston was at his best late in games, completing 68.4 percent of his passes in the second half, while tossing only four picks in the final two quarters. The matchup of Winston versus the Oregon secondary took an interesting turn when the Ducks announced top cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu would miss the playoffs due to a knee injury. Without Ekpre-Olomu, the Ducks will ask more of senior Troy Hill and freshman Chris Seisay in coverage, which is a tough assignment against Florida State’s group of receivers – including standout senior Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. On the other sideline, Mariota has been virtually unstoppable all year. The junior passed for 3,783 yards and 38 scores, while recording 669 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. Similar to Winston, Mariota also had to deal with inconsistency on the offensive line and a new group of targets at receiver. While the huge passing and rushing numbers always get first mention when discussing Mariota, it’s his efficiency that deserves more attention. The junior has completed at least 68 percent of his passes in two out of his three years in Eugene and tossed only two picks on 372 attempts in 2014. Mariota and Winston are the nation's most-talented quarterbacks. And with both players facing defenses that have been less than elite this year, the two quarterbacks should close out the 2014 season with a huge performance. The showdown between Mariota and Winston might be one of the most-anticipated matchups to occur in a bowl.
2. Which defense gets timely stops?
Considering the firepower on both sidelines and on the stat sheet this year, it would be a huge surprise if this game turns into a defensive battle. With that in mind, it’s unrealistic to expect either defense to be perfect in this game. Florida State has dealt with injuries all season on defense, but the time off between the ACC Championship and Rose Bowl should help return this unit to near full strength. Tackle Eddie Goldman suffered an ankle injury in the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech and is expected to return to the starting lineup against Oregon. But Goldman’s return isn’t the only key injury tidbit for Florida State, as tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample may play after suffering a pectoral injury earlier in the year, and a banged up linebacking corps should have a full complement of players available. For Oregon, Ekpre-Olomu is a huge loss against a talented Seminole passing offense. However, if there’s a bright spot for the Ducks, it’s the depth this unit has established over the course of the season. Additionally, Oregon held four out of its last five opponents to less than 20 points and limited each of its final three offenses to less than 4.6 yards per play. Both teams have struggled to get off the field on third downs, but Florida State is 11th nationally in red zone defense. In a tight game, turnovers could play a critical role in the outcome. Oregon has forced 25 takeaways this year, and the Seminoles have 24. There’s no doubt both defenses are going to have their hands full on Jan. 1. Don’t expect either to have a particularly effective day, but the determining factor could be key stops in the fourth quarter, turnovers and sacks. One or two plays on defense could decide this game.
3. Offensive Lines
Both teams had question marks about their offensive lines at various points in 2014. Oregon started the year with a significant setback, as tackle Tyler Johnstone was lost for the season with a knee injury. Johnstone’s injury wasn’t the only setback for the Ducks, as tackles Jake Fisher and Andre Yruretagoyena and center Hroniss Grasu missed time due to various ailments. Fisher’s return sparked the offense in the second half of the year, while Grasu is expected to play in the Rose Bowl after a knee injury suffered against Utah kept him on the sidelines for the final three regular season games. Having Grasu back in the mix is critical with the Seminoles regaining the services of tackle Lawrence-Stample and the strength of Goldman on the interior. End Mario Edwards Jr. is one of the nation's best at stopping the run and holding his own at the point of attack. Florida State had to replace standout center Bryan Stork this season and struggled to find consistency on the ground and in pass protection early in the year. However, this unit has thrived since moving Cameron Erving to center and inserting freshman Roderick Johnson at left tackle. Since the line shuffle, the Seminoles are averaging 146 rushing yards per game and recorded 5.4 yards per carry against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship. This unit has also benefited from the emergence of true freshman running back Dalvin Cook, who rushed for 321 yards and one touchdown over his last two games. In addition to protecting the two quarterbacks (Winston and Mariota), it’s also critical that both teams are physical at the point of attack and open up rushing lanes.
This game has all of the makings for an entertaining shootout. Mariota versus Winston will be one of the top quarterback duels in recent memory, while both players are surrounded with talent, including receiver Rashad Greene, tight end Nick O’Leary and running back Dalvin Cook for Florida State, along with receivers Devon Allen and Byron Marshall, running backs Thomas Tyner and Royce Freeman for Oregon. Offenses are going to dictate the flow of the game. Expect Florida State to use its rushing attack and Cook to keep the Ducks’ offense and Mariota on the sidelines, while Oregon hopes to get the Seminoles into an up-tempo shootout. It’s going to be a tough day for both defenses. However, whichever unit gets timely stops or generates a couple of turnovers will make a huge difference. This game could go either way and may not be decided until the final possession. Florida State can’t afford to commit turnovers like it did during the regular season, as a second-half deficit against the Ducks will be too tough to overcome. However, the loss of Ekpre-Olomu is huge for Oregon, and the Seminoles do just enough on defense to leave the Rose Bowl with a victory and a spot in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 12.
Prediction: Florida State 41, Oregon 34
College football’s new four-team playoff format added intrigue to the bowl schedule, and the anticipated New Year’s Six slate begins with a showdown between TCU and Ole Miss in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Horned Frogs went into the last weekend of action as the No. 3 team in the college football playoff rankings but was jumped by Ohio State and Baylor in the final standings. Ole Miss spent some time in the top four of the committee rankings, and despite a couple of significant injuries, still finished 9-3 with a win over rival Mississippi State in the regular season finale.
TCU was one of the nation’s most improved squads in 2014. The Horned Frogs went 4-8 in 2013 but rebounded into playoff contention behind an offense that averaged 46.8 points per game. The seven-game jump in wins was largely due to the turnaround on offense and the development of quarterback Trevone Boykin. Ole Miss started 7-0 and suffered its first loss of the year at LSU on Oct. 25. After the defeat in Baton Rouge, the Rebels went 2-2 over their next four games, which included a 30-0 loss to Arkansas but a 31-17 win over Mississippi State. The Rebels have increased their win total in each of coach Hugh Freeze’s three seasons and posted their best SEC record (5-3) since 2008.
Ole Miss and TCU have met in six previous meetings. The Rebels own a 5-1 edge over the Horned Frogs. These two teams have not played since 1983. TCU’s only win over Ole Miss took place in 1949.
TCU vs. Ole Miss
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 31 at 12:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: TCU -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. TCU’s Pass Offense Against Ole Miss’ Secondary
Something has to give here. TCU recorded 332.8 passing yards per game and ranked 15th in the nation in pass attempts. Quarterback Trevone Boykin is one of the nation’s most-improved players and emerged as a Heisman contender after throwing for 30 touchdowns and only seven interceptions on 461 attempts. While Boykin had an outstanding regular season, the bowl matchup against Ole Miss will be the best defense he has played in 2014. The Rebels allowed only eight passing scores this season and only one opponent (Texas A&M) managed to pass for more than 300 yards against this defense. Cornerback Senquez Golson had a standout season by intercepting nine passes, while safety Cody Prewitt is among the best in the nation at his position. While the secondary is stingy, the success of Ole Miss’ defense starts up front with a talented defensive front. Boykin has been efficient (60.5 completion percentage and only seven interceptions) this season. However, the Rebels are the toughest defensive team he’s faced all year and will create problems at the point of attack and in the secondary.
2. Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace
Wallace has experienced his share of ups and downs in his Ole Miss career. The senior threw three interceptions in the opener against Boise State but threw for 251 yards and three touchdowns in an upset win over Alabama. Wallace struggled against LSU and Arkansas, yet made just enough plays (13 of 30 for 296 yards) to help Ole Miss knock off Mississippi State. The senior has played his share of tough defenses this season – Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Memphis and Mississippi State – and TCU will present another challenge on Dec. 31. Under the direction of coach Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs are always among the nation’s best on defense. This unit led the Big 12 in scoring defense (20.3 ppg allowed) and limited opponents to 4.9 yards per play. TCU’s secondary missed shutdown cornerback Jason Verrett this year but still managed to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. The Horned Frogs held opposing passers to a 49 percent completion percentage and intercepted 23 passes in 2014. Three players from the secondary earned All-Big 12 accolades, as safety Chris Hackett garnered first-team awards by the conference after intercepting six passes. There’s little doubt Wallace will have a tough time moving the ball through the air against this defense. And that task was made even more challenging after receivers Vince Sanders and Laquon Treadwell suffered season-ending injuries. While Wallace has his hands full, moving the ball through the air has been the best offense for Ole Miss this defense. The Rebels don’t have a traditional rushing attack, so it’s critical Wallace has success early and often against TCU. Limiting mistakes and turnovers is a priority, but Freeze needs his senior to deliver in his final collegiate game.
3. The Offensive Lines
It’s an understatement, but winning the battle at the point of attack is critical for both teams on Dec. 31. Despite the departure of end Devonte Fields before the season started, TCU’s defensive line still managed 34 sacks in 2014. The Horned Frogs’ line has an advantage in the trenches against Ole Miss, as the Rebels will be without standout guard Aaron Morris and allowed 22 sacks in eight SEC games. Can the offensive line provide enough protection for Wallace to attack downfield? Or will Freeze look to get rid of the ball quickly on short passes to give the offensive line help? On the other side, TCU’s offensive line entered the year as a question mark but allowed only 16 sacks in nine Big 12 contests. The Horned Frogs have faced their share of solid defensive fronts this year, including Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma. However, Ole Miss could have the best defensive line TCU has played in 2014. Ends C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes combined for 10.5 sacks, while tackle Robert Nkemdiche is a force on the interior.
At the beginning of the season, not many expected TCU or Ole Miss to be in one of college football’s premier bowl games. However, fast forward a couple of months, and that’s exactly the scenario playing out in Atlanta on Dec. 31. The Horned Frogs and Rebels both spent time inside of the top four of the college football playoff committee rankings and should provide an entertaining matchup. Ole Miss needs a huge effort from its defense, as injuries will force the offense to lean even more on quarterback Bo Wallace. It may take a quarter for TCU’s offense to adjust to the fast, athletic and tough Rebels’ defense, but the Horned Frogs will simply have too much firepower. Expect Boykin to cap a breakout year with a solid performance, as TCU finishes the 2014 season with victory No. 12.
Prediction: TCU 34, Ole Miss 27
College football’s 2015 season is still several months away. However, it’s never too early to take an early look at how the rankings for next season may look when the preseason polls and predictions are released.
Considering all that usually transpires in a college football offseason, this ranking of top 25 teams will change several times until kickoff next year. Whether it’s unexpected personnel changes or breakout players that emerge in the spring, it’s unlikely this top 25 ranking looks exactly the same in a month, three months or by next August.
With that in mind, here’s Athlon’s very early look at the top 25 teams for 2015.
Very Early College Football Top 25 for 2015
1. Ohio State
The Buckeyes have a quarterback quandary to answer in 2015, but it’s a good problem for coach Urban Meyer to have. Will it be Braxton Miller under center after returning to full strength from shoulder surgery? Or will J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones fight for the starting job in offseason workouts? Regardless of which player takes the first snap, Ohio State’s depth chart is loaded with talent. Running back Ezekiel Elliott headlines a solid group of playmakers, and the offensive line is slated to return four starters, including standout left tackle Taylor Decker. End Joey Bosa should be among the nation’s best returning defenders next season, but defensive tackle Michael Bennett and cornerback Doran Grant must be replaced. A lot can change between now and September. However, at least on paper, there’s few potential roadblocks on Ohio State’s schedule in 2015.
Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide aren’t going to slip far in the rankings next year despite a few personnel losses. Receiver Amari Cooper is expected to depart for the NFL, and quarterback Blake Sims must be replaced, but Alabama is loaded with talent and the defense can carry this team to a SEC Championship. Florida State transfer Jake Coker could open spring practice as the favorite to replace Sims, and coordinator Lane Kiffin has to find some new pieces around the quarterback. Kiffin should be able to build around left tackle Cam Robinson and running back Derrick Henry next season, while the team can lean on a defense that should be the best in the SEC once again. There are personnel concerns with this team, and Alabama’s schedule will be challenging, as road trips to Georgia, Mississippi State, Texas A&M and Auburn won’t be easy.
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3. Florida State
Florida State’s preseason ranking and projection will largely be determined on how many and which players decide to leave for the NFL. If quarterback Jameis Winston (as expected) declares for the draft, the Seminoles will slide in this ranking by a couple of spots. But Winston isn’t the only early player that could leave Tallahassee early, as defensive end Mario Edwards Jr., defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could all declare for the next level. Replacing Winston will be the biggest offseason storyline for coach Jimbo Fisher, with Sean Maguire considered the favorite to take the first snap in the spring. In addition to Winston’s departure, the Seminoles lose four starters on the offensive line and must replace standout receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary. Despite the personnel losses, Florida State is still loaded with young talent and has one of the nation’s top coaches in Jimbo Fisher.
The Horned Frogs were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014. In 2015, TCU could be one of the preseason favorites to make the four-team playoff. What a difference a year makes. Coach Gary Patterson’s decision to hire Doug Meacham as the team’s play-caller paid huge dividends in 2014, as quarterback Trevone Boykin emerged as a Heisman candidate. Boykin could be even better in 2015 with another year to learn under Meacham, and the offense returns nearly all of its main contributors at the skill positions. Patterson will have some holes to address on defense, starting in the trenches with the departure of tackle Chucky Hunter and linebacker Paul Dawson and in the secondary with standout safety Sam Carter. TCU plays at Minnesota in the season opener but has a favorable schedule until the end of the year with back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Baylor.
Much like Florida State, Oregon’s preseason ranking and 2015 projection is cloudy until more is known about the future of quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner is expected to declare for the NFL, but if he returns, the Ducks could be ranked higher on this list. Even if Mariota declares, Oregon is still expected to be the preseason favorite in the Pac-12 North. The offense is loaded with skill talent, including running backs Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner, while the receiving corps returns Byron Marshall, Devon Allen and Charles Nelson. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, including standouts center Hroniss Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher. Defensive coordinator Don Pellum will have holes to fill on each level, but the front seven could be the biggest concern if DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead leave for the NFL. Oregon has a challenging road slate in 2015, including trips to Michigan State, Arizona State, Stanford and Washington.
The Bears have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons and will be picked near the top of the Big 12 once again in 2015. Quarterback Bryce Petty departs, but the depth chart is stocked with talented arms, with Seth Russell holding an edge to take the first snap in spring practice. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, the Bears might have the Big 12’s top collection of skill talent in 2015. Shock Linwood, Devin Chafin and Johnny Jefferson are back at running back, and the receiving corps features weapons like Corey Coleman, KD Cannon and Jay Lee. And assuming left tackle Spencer Drango returns to Waco for his senior season, the Bears will have all five starters back on the offensive line. The defense has improved under the direction of coordinator Phil Bennett, and the Bears return a good chunk of talent for 2015. End Shawn Oakman could enter the NFL Draft, but defensive tackle Andrew Billings, linebacker Taylor Young and cornerback Xavien Howard are three All-Big 12 talents returning in 2015.
7. Michigan State
Under coach Mark Dantonio’s watch, the Spartans have won at least 10 games in four out of the last five seasons. And while Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten next year, Michigan State should be in contention for a spot in one of college football’s premier bowl games. Quarterback Connor Cook has already announced he will return to East Lansing for 2015, and the steady passer will be working with a new starter at running back and No. 1 receiver next year. The Spartans could lose defensive standouts Trae Waynes and end Shilique Calhoun to the NFL, and coordinator Pat Narduzzi is leaving East Lansing to take the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. Narduzzi won't be easy to replace, but Dantonio has a good staff and should find the right answers to keep Michigan State's defense among the nation's best.
Even with quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and receiver Sammie Coates departing, Auburn’s offense is going to be just fine with Jeremy Johnson at the controls. In two seasons, Johnson is 57 of 78 for 858 yards and nine passing scores. In addition to the departure of Marshall, Artis-Payne and Coates, the Tigers have to replace center Reese Dismukes and guard Chad Slade. Coach Gus Malzahn hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp to fix the defense, and there’s hope for immediate improvement with a good chunk of the depth chart returning. End Carl Lawson missed all of 2014 due to a knee injury, and his return should help spark a pass rush that ranked near the bottom of the SEC. The Tigers open with a neutral site (Atlanta) game against Louisville and catch Georgia and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2015.
The Tigers will finish 2014 without a double-digit win total for the first time since 2009. However, the future is bright in Baton Rouge with a depth chart loaded with young talent. Running back Leonard Fournette should push for 1,000 yards in his second year on campus next season, and the rushing attack will have to carry the team once again. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will be expected to compete for the starting quarterback job again in the spring, and the receiving corps should improve with the development of young receivers like Travin Dural, Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse. The offensive line may have a facelift in the offseason, especially if Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins declare for the NFL. As usual, the defense should be strong for coach Les Miles. The Tigers could lose a couple of defenders early to the NFL, but rising stars like tackle Davon Godchaux, sophomore Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams will keep this unit among the best in the SEC.
Coach Steve Sarkisian’s first season had its share of ups and downs, but USC could be the favorite to win the Pac-12 South in 2014. Quarterback Cody Kessler is expected to return for his senior year, and the California native should benefit from an offensive line that returns all five starters from the bowl game and the continued development of young receivers JuJu Smith, Darreus Rogers and Steven Mitchell. Top receiver Nelson Agholor may leave early for the NFL, but if he returns for his senior season, Agholor would be one of the top receivers in the nation in 2015. Coordinator Justin Wilcox is expected to lose end Leonard Williams to the NFL, while linebacker Hayes Pullard, safety Gerald Bowman and linebacker/end J.R. Tavai expire their eligibility after the Holiday Bowl. Another positive for USC in 2015 is the full allotment of scholarships to use in recruiting after being shorthanded due to NCAA sanctions in recent years.
With Florida dealing with a coaching transition and South Carolina having question marks on both sides of the ball, Georgia and Missouri should enter the spring as the favorites in the SEC East. The Bulldogs have their share of holes to fill, starting on offense where quarterback Hutson Mason, receiver Michael Bennett and center David Andrews will expire their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. Replacing a starting quarterback is never easy, and coach Mark Richt will be working with a new coordinator after Mike Bobo left for Colorado State. Running back Nick Chubb will be one of the best in the SEC next season. Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt made an impact in his first season as the defensive signal-caller in Athens, as Georgia lowered its yards per play allowed to 4.8 after giving up 5.4 in 2013. Pruitt should continue to mold the Bulldogs’ defense into one of the best in SEC next season but standout linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera must be replaced. The secondary was considered the biggest weakness for Georgia this year and should show improvement in 2015 with only one player expected to depart (Damian Swann) from the Belk Bowl two-deep. The Bulldogs play Auburn and Alabama in crossover games with the SEC West next season.
12. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs are coming off their first double-digit win season since 1999, and coach Dan Mullen has this program trending up after spending time at No. 1 in 2014. Quarterback Dak Prescott is considering the NFL Draft, but if he returns to Starkville, the senior should be one of the nation’s top returning signal-callers in 2015. Prescott isn’t the only Bulldog pondering a jump to the next level, as running back Josh Robinson and linebacker Benardrick McKinney may also leave for the NFL. In addition to the early entries to the NFL, Mississippi State will have to replace receiver Jameon Lewis, three starters on the offensive line and six starters on defense.
13. Ole Miss
The Rebels are coming off their first season of double-digit victories since 1999. And the arrow on coach Hugh Freeze’s team is pointing up, as this team has the pieces in place to finish among the top 10-15 nationally in 2015. Bo Wallace must be replaced at quarterback, but the new starter will benefit from the return at Laquon Treadwell at receiver. Left tackle Laremy Tunsil is one of the best in the nation and is part of an offensive line that returns all five starters from the Peach Bowl depth chart. With the uncertainty at quarterback, the defense will have to carry Ole Miss – at least early on – in 2015. This unit allowed only 13.8 points per game in 12 regular season contests and should have one of the nation’s top defensive lines. However, there’s concern in the secondary with the departure of cornerback Senquez Golson and safety Cody Prewitt.
14. Arizona State
With only eight returning starters in 2014, the Sun Devils were considered by some to be in rebuild mode. However, Arizona State finished 9-3 and came within a victory of playing for the conference title. Coach Todd Graham’s team will have some personnel losses to address with receiver Jaelen Strong leaving for the NFL, and Taylor Kelly expiring his eligibility. But the cupboard isn’t empty on either side of the ball. Mike Bercovici should be a solid replacement for Kelly at quarterback, three starters are back on the offensive line, and running back D.J. Foster is one of the nation’s top all-purpose players. Graham’s specialty is on defense, and this unit used an aggressive pass rush to rank near the top of the nation in tackles for loss and sacks. The defense returns nearly intact in 2015, with safety Damarious Randall and end Marcus Hardison the biggest losses for Graham to replace.
The defending Pac-12 South champions will be among the favorites to win the conference in 2015. Quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson are only going to improve in their second season as starters, and the receiving corps is stocked with playmakers in Samajie Grant, DaVonte’ Neal and Cayleb Jones. The offensive line will be revamped with three new starters in 2015. Arizona’s defense has showed progress under coordinator Jeff Casteel, but there’s a few personnel concerns next season. Linebacker Scooby Wright will be a first-team All-America selection in 2015, but he will have to shoulder even more of the defensive spotlight with defensive backs Jourdon Grandon and Jared Tevis and linemen Reggie Gilbert and Dan Pettinato expiring their eligibility after the Fiesta Bowl. The talent level is on the rise in Tucson, and Rodriguez is clearly one of the best in the conference. Another double-digit win season is a strong possibility.
The Sooners were considered by most to be one of the biggest disappointments in college football this year. And after finishing the regular season at 8-4, coach Bob Stoops’ team will start 2015 lower in most preseason polls. Oklahoma will be a tough team to rank next season, as there’s reason to believe this team will rebound – and also plenty of room to doubt this squad. Quarterback Trevor Knight is expected to be pushed by Baker Mayfield for playing time in spring practice, but the strength of the offense resides in the backfield with Alex Ross, Samaje Perine and Keith Ford (and potentially Joe Mixon). Top receiver Sterling Shepard also returns, and pass targets could get deeper for the quarterback if Missouri transfer Dorial Green-Beckham decides to eschew the NFL Draft. There’s talent at the skill positions, but the offense could be hampered by a line that loses four starters. The Sooners return a solid core on defense and will be helped by the return of linebacker Frank Shannon.
There’s an interesting contrast of personnel returning to Clemson in 2015. The Tigers are stocked with promising young talent on offense, but the defense is losing several key pieces. Quarterback Deshaun Watson decided to sit out the Russell Athletic Bowl and undergo ACL surgery to be ready in time for summer drills. Watson is one of the nation’s rising stars at quarterback and is surrounded by freshmen standouts Wayne Gallman (RB) and Artavis Scott (WR). While talent certainly isn’t an issue for the Tigers, three starters on the offensive line must be replaced, and Chad Morris is no longer calling the plays. With Morris off to SMU, Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott were promoted into the co-coordinator role. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables will be busy this spring, as the Tigers lose ends Vic Beasley and Corey Crawford, along with tackles Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson. In addition to the losses on the line, linebacker Stephone Anthony, cornerback Garry Peters and safety Robert Smith will expire their eligibility after the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Coach Gary Pinkel’s team has a good shot to earn its third consecutive SEC East title. Quarterback Maty Mauk returns but will be surrounded by a revamped group of skill talent, as receivers Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt, along with running back Marcus Murphy expire their eligibility after the Citrus Bowl. Mauk should be better in his second full season as Missouri’s starter, and he should benefit from the return of running back Russell Hansbrough and four starters on the line. Pinkel will probably ask more of his offense in 2015, especially with losses on defense expected to alter the depth chart. The line is set to lose tackle Matt Hoch and end Markus Golden, while end Shane Ray could leave early for the NFL. The linebacking corps should return intact, and three starters are back in the secondary. Coordinator Dave Steckel left to be the head coach at Missouri State, but Barry Odom (Memphis) was a good replacement.
19. Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish stumbled to a 7-5 finish in the regular season after a 6-0 start. Injuries, turnovers and defensive problems were largely to blame for the second-half collapse, but there’s optimism for coach Brian Kelly’s team in 2015. Quarterback Everett Golson has do a better job of limiting turnovers after tossing 14 interceptions and eight lost fumbles in the regular season. Assuming Golson holds off Malik Zaire for the starting job, he will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast, including four starters on the offensive line, receiver Will Fuller (71 catches) and running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The Fighting Irish gave up 29.3 points per game during the regular season, and this unit has to improve for Notre Dame to get back into one of college football’s top bowl games. The good news for Kelly and coordinator Brian VanGorder is most of the personnel from 2014 will return, and top cornerback KeiVarae Russell is back from academic suspension. The Fighting Irish has a difficult schedule next season, featuring matchups against Texas, Georgia Tech, Clemson, USC, Stanford and Pittsburgh.
Paul Chryst is back in Madison, and the Badgers’ new head coach inherits a team that’s capable of winning the Big Ten’s West Division once again. Running back Melvin Gordon will be missed, but Corey Clement is the next star in the backfield for Wisconsin. In addition to Clement’s emergence, Chryst could help the development of the passing game, which is in need of receivers to emerge to help quarterback Joel Stave. Three starters must be replaced on the offensive line, and guard Kyle Costigan and tackle Rob Havenstein are big losses. Coordinator Dave Aranda kept the Wisconsin defense among the best in the Big Ten despite heavy personnel losses prior to 2014. The Badgers return most of its core, with linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch, along with linemen Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring expiring their eligibility after the Outback Bowl. Wisconsin misses Michigan State and Ohio State in crossover play with the East Division.
The biggest offseason priority for coach Jim Mora and the UCLA coaching staff will be to find a replacement for quarterback Brett Hundley. Jerry Neuheisel led the Bruins to a victory over Texas this season, but the California native is expected to be pushed by Asiantii Woulard and incoming freshman Josh Rosen. While the quarterback spot is a concern, the rest of the depth chart returns largely intact. All five starters are slated to return on the offensive line, running back Paul Perkins is back after rushing for 1,000 yards and six receivers that caught at least 20 passes will return next season. Mora and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich need to replace linebacker Eric Kendricks, defensive back Anthony Jefferson and tackle Owa Odighizuwa. Late-season road trips to Utah and USC could decide how high UCLA climbs in the Pac-12 South next year.
22. Georgia Tech
Expect another year of uncertainty at the top of the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech – as the defending division champs – get a slight edge as the early favorite, but coach Paul Johnson’s team has to overcome a schedule that features conference games against Florida State and Clemson and road trips to Miami, Duke and Notre Dame. Quarterback Justin Thomas needs a couple of new options at running back with the departure of Synjyn Days, Zach Laskey, Charles Perkins and Tony Zenon at running back. Guard Shaquille Mason will also be missed. Even with the losses on offense, Johnson’s option attack should continue to perform at a high level, while the defense should improve with only four seniors listed as starters on the Orange Bowl depth chart.
The brutal SEC West provides few breaks for Arkansas, so there may not be drastic improvement in the win column for coach Bret Bielema’s team. However, the Razorbacks are moving forward under Bielema and will once again be a tough out in the West. Quarterback Brandon Allen showed progress in his second year under center and needs more help from his receiving corps to take another step forward in 2015. Even with improvement in the passing game, Arkansas is going to lean on its ground attack. Jonathan Williams decided to return for his senior season, and the senior will team with Alex Collins to form one of the nation's top one-two punches at running back. And we can’t mention the ground attack without a tip of the cap to the offensive line, which figures to be among the best in the nation. First-year coordinator Robb Smith had the defense playing at a high level at the end of the season, and this unit will hope to improve without standout end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight.
24. Texas A&M
Young talent certainly isn’t an issue for coach Kevin Sumlin. Quarterback Kyle Allen supplanted Kenny Hill as the team’s starting quarterback late in the season, and the Arizona native will have a deep group of receivers at his disposal in 2015. Of course, Allen’s position at the top of the depth chart isn’t a guarantee with the arrival of true freshman Kyler Murray. The left side of the offensive line must be revamped with tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard Jarvis Harrison expiring their eligibility after the Liberty Bowl. Regardless of the small concerns on offense, the Aggies won’t be able to climb higher in the SEC West without improvement on defense. Sumlin will have a new defensive signal-caller after Mark Snyder was fired, and this unit has to take a step forward after allowing 36.6 points per game in eight SEC contests. There are reasons for optimism on defense, starting with talented freshmen in end Myles Garrett, safety Armani Watts and linebacker Otaro Alaka.
Jim McElwain inherits talent, but the first-year coach needs to find answers for an offense that averaged only 4.9 yards per play in SEC games. Quarterback Treon Harris should be better in his second season as the starter, but the offensive line is a concern with center Max Garcia out of eligibility and tackle D.J. Humphries set to leave for the NFL. The Gators should be solid on defense under the direction of coordinator Geoff Collins, and this unit should be the strength of the team until McElwain and coordinator Doug Nussmeier has time to stabilize the offense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will be one of the top returning defenders in the nation, but end Dante Fowler will be a huge loss on the defensive front. There's no shortage of talent in Gainesville. How quickly can McElwain get the Gators back on track? The East Division isn't loaded with national title contenders next season, so a quick turnaround is possible at Florida.
The Next Five
Charlie Strong clearly has Texas trending in the right direction. However, the Longhorns could lose standout defensive tackle Malcom Brown to the NFL, which would be a huge loss for a defense that is already slated to lose end Cedric Reed, linebacker Jordan Hicks and cornerback Quandre Diggs.
The Utes are coming off their best season since joining the Pac-12. Now, coach Kyle Whittingham hopes to propel Utah in 2015 to its first double-digit win mark since 2010. Quarterback Travis Wilson will be pushed by Kendal Thompson for snaps in the offseason, and running back Devontae Booker could leave for the NFL after recording 1,512 yards in 2014. The Utes had one of the nation’s top pass rushes, but end Nate Orchard and tackle Sese Ianu depart. Hunter Dimick will replace Orchard’s production at end, and the front seven should benefit with the return of linebacker Gionni Paul from a foot injury. Another positive for Utah: Perhaps the best special teams in the country with kicker Andy Phillips and punter Tom Hackett.
Much like some of the other new coaches in the SEC, Butch Jones has his program headed in the right direction. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a good building block, but the Volunteers need more help in the trenches.
Bobby Petrino’s first season back at Louisville was a success, and the Cardinals should be a fringe top 25 team in 2015. Reggie Bonnafon is a promising quarterback, but the offense won’t have receiver DeVante Parker and running back Michael Dyer next season. Louisville’s defense was one of the best in the ACC in 2014. However, there is work for coordinator Todd Grantham to do next season, as safety Gerod Holliman and linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin depart.
The Golden Gophers were a win against Wisconsin away from playing for the Big Ten title. Coach Jerry Kill’s team should be in the mix for the division title once again in 2015. Running back David Cobb must be replaced, and quarterback Mitch Leidner has to improve as a passer if Minnesota wants to take the next step in the Big Ten.
11 Other Teams to Watch
The Broncos have some holes to fill on both sides of the ball, but coach Bryan Harsin’s team will be in the mix for the Mountain West title (and a top 25 spot) in 2015. The biggest losses are on offense with the departure of quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi.
A healthy Taysom Hill at quarterback and Jamaal Williams at running back should help BYU navigate a difficult schedule that features games against Nebraska, Boise State, UCLA, Michigan and Missouri.
Is 2015 the year Miami takes a step forward under coach Al Golden? Quarterback Brad Kaaya is promising, but the Hurricanes lose running back Duke Johnson to the NFL.
Talent certainly isn't an issue in Ann Arbor. And new coach Jim Harbaugh should bring immediate improvement to a roster that underachieved in 2014. How much? Probably not enough to win the division. However, a top 25 finish isn't out of the question.
The Wolfpack closed 2014 by winning four out of their last five games, including a rivalry matchup against North Carolina and a bowl game against UCF. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett should be one of the ACC’s top returning offensive players for 2015.
The Cowboys returned only seven starters in 2014 and needed an upset win over Oklahoma to reach a bowl with a 6-6 mark. Oklahoma State should be better in 2015, especially if Mason Rudolph continues to improve at quarterback.
The Nittany Lions should be improved in coach James Franklin’s second season. Better depth and more scholarships will help, especially if the offensive lines takes a step forward and protects quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis must be replaced, but receiver Pharoh Cooper is one of the nation’s top all-around talents. The defense was a major issue in 2014 and must be fixed for the Gamecocks to rank among the nation’s top 25 teams in 2015.
After winning at least 11 games in each year from 2010-13, the Cardinal regressed to 7-5 in 2014. Will David Shaw find the right answers this offseason for an offense that averaged only 23.8 points in Pac-12 games this year? In addition to finding answers on offense, Shaw has to replace seven starters from a defense that limited opponents to 16 points per game in 2014.
Boise State and Utah State should be the top teams in the Mountain West next year. Despite significant injuries at quarterback, Coach Matt Wells has guided the Aggies to 19 wins over the last two seasons. The defense loses standout linebacker Zach Vigil, but Kyler Fackrell returns after missing nearly all of 2014 due to a knee injury.
The Hokies were a disappointment in 2014, but there’s hope for a turnaround in 2015. Getting cornerback Brandon Facyson and defensive tackle Luther Maddy back to full strength will help on defense, and there’s a talented group of skill players returning on offense.
The Belk Bowl was one of the big winners in college football’s bowl tie-in shuffle prior to 2014, as the Charlotte, N.C. postseason game now features an annual matchup between the SEC (Georgia) and ACC (Louisville). The Bulldogs and Cardinals both finished the regular season at 9-3, and there’s a little familiarity between the two programs thanks to recent moves in the coaching carousel. Todd Grantham worked from 2010-13 as the Bulldogs’ defensive signal-caller but left to coach under Bobby Petrino prior to 2014. New Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was one of the top coaching hires of the offseason, but the Bulldogs now have uncertainty on offense after offensive signal-caller Mike Bobo left to be the head coach at Colorado State.
Georgia was considered by most preseason prognosticators to be the favorite in the East Division. Despite an early loss to South Carolina, the Bulldogs were in good shape to play in Atlanta after dismantling Missouri 34-0 in mid-October. However, a 38-20 loss to Florida in November put Georgia behind the Tigers – despite Richt’s team winning in Columbia – in the East pecking order. The story was slightly different at Louisville, as Bobby Petrino returned to his old stomping grounds to replace Charlie Strong, and the program recorded a solid 9-3 record in its first year in the ACC. There’s no shame in any of the Cardinals’ three losses, including a Thursday night defeat at the hands of Florida State and a 23-17 loss at Clemson.
This is the first meeting between Georgia and Louisville. The Bulldogs are just 1-3 in their last four bowl appearances. The Cardinals have experienced better luck in recent bowl games, as Louisville is 4-1 in its last five postseason trips.
Georgia vs. Louisville
Kickoff: Tuesday, Dec. 30 at 6:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -7
Georgia’s Key to Victory: Contain DeVante Parker
Louisville’s quarterback situation is a mystery. Will Gardner entered the year as the No. 1 option, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Boston College. True freshman Reggie Bonnafon saw significant snaps this year and replaced Gardner after his knee injury. However, Bonnafon also suffered a knee injury against Kentucky and it’s uncertain if he will play against Georgia. If Bonnafon doesn’t play, Kyle Bolin will get the start. Bolin completed 21 of 31 passes for 381 yards and three scores against Kentucky. Regardless of which quarterback starts, it’s critical Petrino finds ways to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker. The senior was limited to just five games due to injury but caught 35 passes for 735 yards and five scores. Parker averaged 30 yards per catch against Kentucky and topped 100 receiving yards in four out of his five appearances. Georgia’s secondary ranked second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, which was an impressive showing under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs had a couple of offseason personnel departures in the defensive backfield and leaned on a couple of freshmen to play major snaps in the secondary. Georgia recorded only 24 sacks this season, but this unit forced 26 turnovers. Louisville won’t have running back Michael Dyer, which forces Brandon Radcliff and Dominique Brown to shoulder more of the workload on the ground. If Georgia finds a way to limit Parker and keep Bonnafon and Bolin under pressure, Pruitt’s defense has the necessary pieces in the front seven to create havoc around the line of scrimmage.
Louisville’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
Even though Georgia will have a new play-caller for this bowl, don’t expect the formula for success or gameplan to change. The Bulldogs ranked second in the SEC with 255 rushing yards per game, and true freshman Nick Chubb leads the way for the backfield after a suspension and season-ending injury to starter Todd Gurley. Chubb posted 1,281 yards and 12 scores, and the freshman finished the year by recording seven consecutive 100-yard efforts. Georgia’s offense is built around its rushing attack, which helps to open play-action passes for quarterback Hutson Mason. The senior hasn’t posted huge numbers in 2014, but he’s been efficient (67.9 completion percentage) and tossed only four picks on 262 attempts. Louisville’s defense allowed only nine rushing scores and limited opponents to 2.9 yards per carry this season. Additionally, just one team (Florida State) managed to record more than four yards per carry against the Cardinals in 2014. Considering how familiar Grantham is with Georgia’s offense, it should help the Cardinals prepare for this matchup. However, the familiarity won’t matter if Louisville’s front seven is unable to slow down Chubb and backups Sony Michel and Brendan Douglas. Keeping the Bulldogs in long-yardage situations and limiting Chubb on early downs will be the Cardinals’ best formula for a victory. And if Louisville gets Georgia’s offense into obvious passing situations, it should help a pass rush that recorded 39 sacks during the regular season get to the quarterback.
As mentioned above, there’s uncertainty at quarterback for Louisville, and the question marks grew larger in the build up to the bowl with the announcement that running back Michael Dyer won’t play on Dec. 30. Whether it’s Bolin or Bonnafon under center, the Cardinals have to get the ball to receiver DeVante Parker to take advantage of a young Bulldogs’ secondary. Georgia’s offense needs Chubb to lead the way against a solid defensive front for the Cardinals, allowing Mason and his receiving corps to take shots downfield on play-action passes. Both defenses could control the flow of this game and a high-scoring matchup would be a surprise. There’s a little more certainty with Georgia’s offense at quarterback and at running back as Chubb is one of the SEC’s most-explosive playmakers. The guess here is a close game, but the Bulldogs find a way to win in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Georgia 31, Louisville 24
Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer recently underwent throat surgery and spent the Military Bowl victory against Cincinnati coaching from the press box. The Hokies used a couple of turnovers by the Cincinnati offense, along with 210 rushing yards to earn the victory and post a winning record (7-6.)
However, Beamer wasn’t limited in his post-game availability, as the 68-year-old coach broke out the dance moves to celebrate the victory.
Check out Beamer’s post-game dance:
Arkansas and Texas renew an old Southwest Conference rivalry in NRG Stadium on Dec. 29 for the ninth Texas Bowl matchup. Low expectations surrounded both teams entering the season, as the Razorbacks were considered by most to be a year away from bowl contention and the Longhorns had to rebuild under first-year coach Charlie Strong. But both teams overcame preseason personnel concerns to reach a bowl and finished the year playing arguably their best ball of the season.
Second-year coach Bret Bielema has Arkansas headed in the right direction, as the Razorbacks won three out of their final five games to reach the postseason for the first time since 2011. Bielema came to Arkansas after a successful stint at Wisconsin, and the Illinois native is building the Razorbacks in a similar image to how he shaped the Badgers. Arkansas has established itself as a physical, run-first team, and the defense played well in the second half of the season. Texas won three out of its final four games in 2014 to get bowl eligible in Strong’s first year. As with any coaching change, there was plenty of attrition on the Longhorns’ roster, with Strong trying to reshape the overall image and discipline of the program. Injuries also hurt Texas’ roster, as quarterback David Ash retired from football due to concussions and defensive tackle Desmond Jackson was lost for the year with a knee injury.
Texas owns a 56-21 series edge over Arkansas. The Longhorns have won two in a row over the Razorbacks, but these two teams have not played since 2008. The last win by Arkansas took place in 2003.
Arkansas vs. Texas
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Arkansas -6
Arkansas’ Key to Victory: The Offensive Line
The Razorbacks own college football’s biggest offensive line, which has been a key cog in the turnaround for this team in 2014. Dan Skipper is a mammoth left tackle at 6-foot-10 and 326 pounds, and the sophomore is surrounded by three other underclassmen in the trenches, along with standout senior Brey Cook. This unit allowed only 13 sacks during the regular season, while clearing the way for rushers to average 5.2 yards per carry. Two players eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for Bielema, with Jonathan Williams (1,085 yards) slightly ahead of Alex Collins (1,024) on the stat sheet. Texas ranked fifth in the Big 12 (league-only games) by allowing 155.7 rushing yards per game this season, and the defensive line is headlined by standout tackle Malcom Brown. The junior was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports this season. Brown isn’t the only standout on the line, as ends Cedric Reed (5.5 sacks) and Hassan Ridgeway (six sacks) are capable of giving Arkansas’ offensive line all it can handle. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage is critical for Bielema’s team. Quarterback Brandon Allen was efficient (18 TDs, 5 INTs), but the Razorbacks have only nine passing plays of 30 yards or more this season. Allen doesn’t have a deep group of receivers, and this team isn’t built to come from behind. Arkansas needs its offensive line to control the line of scrimmage and keep Brown, Ridgeway and Reed out of the backfield. If the line can clear holes for Collins and Williams, Allen will be able to stay out of obvious passing situations. It’s critical the Razorbacks stay in short-yardage situations, and when Allen has time to throw, the junior needs to continue to play mistake-free ball.
Texas’ Key to Victory: QB Tyrone Swoopes
Due to Ash’s retirement, Swoopes has been pressed into starting action this season. The sophomore has thrown for 2,352 yards and 13 scores but also has 10 interceptions and completed less than 53 percent of his passes in three out of the last five games. Swoopes rushed for 294 yards on 103 attempts this year, and his mobility could be a valuable asset against an Arkansas defense that was playing at a high level at the end of the season. First-year coordinator Robb Smith brought the defense along as the year progressed, and the Razorbacks pitched shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss, limited Missouri to 21 points and held Mississippi State to 17 points in November. The strength of Arkansas’ defense is up front. End Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon are two of the best at their position in the SEC, and linebacker Martrell Spaight emerged as one of the conference’s top linebackers this season. Swoopes should benefit from the extra time to prepare for the bowl game, especially after struggling in the regular season finale against TCU. The sophomore won’t have to win this game just on his right arm. The Texas’ rushing attack averaged 157 yards per game in Big 12 contests, with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray expected to take the pressure off of Swoopes. And when Swoopes has to throw, John Harris and Jaxon Shipley are the primary targets against an Arkansas secondary that allowed only one passing score over the last three games. If Swoopes plays mistake-free ball and uses his mobility to make plays when the pocket breaks down, Texas should have a good shot to knock off Arkansas.
These two teams are similar in terms of style. Arkansas and Texas prefer to lean on the run to setup the pass, and the defenses for both teams are a strength. The Razorbacks and Longhorns have each lost 22 turnovers this year, but Arkansas is +5 in margin, while Texas is -1. In a tight, low-scoring game, turnovers and mistakes will be magnified. There’s not much that separates these two teams. Winning the battle on the line of scrimmage is critical for both squads, as Arkansas hopes to use its massive offensive line to control the clock and establish Collins and Williams on the ground. For Texas, an active defensive front needs to get a good push to slow the Razorbacks’ rushing offense and generate pressure on Allen to force mistakes. Expect Arkansas to have just enough success on the ground to keep Allen out of obvious passing situations, and the junior quarterback outduels Swoopes to give Bielema a bowl victory in his second year.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, Texas 20
The scoreboard in Memphis should be active on Dec. 29 when West Virginia and Texas A&M meet in the Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers and Aggies each average over 30 points per game, and there’s plenty of familiarity between the programs due to the coaching staffs. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worked under Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and both programs run a variation of the Air Raid offense. Current Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital coached under Holgorsen at West Virginia from 2011-12.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen entered 2014 on the hot seat after a 4-8 record in 2013. However, the Mountaineers showed marked improvement (and had better luck in the health department) this year, starting in the opener with a 33-23 loss to Alabama and a 41-27 win over Baylor in Morgantown. West Virginia lost three out of its final four games but getting back to the postseason was huge for the program. Texas A&M finished 7-5 in the Year One in the post-Johnny Manziel era. The Aggies started 5-0 but stumbled with five losses over their last seven games. Defense continues to be a problem for Texas A&M under coach Kevin Sumlin. However, the offense continued to thrive, averaging 34.4 points per game in 2014.
This is the first meeting between West Virginia and Texas A&M. The Mountaineers essentially replaced the Aggies in the Big 12 a couple of years ago during college football’s latest realignment period. West Virginia is making its first appearance in the Liberty Bowl since 1964. Texas A&M has not played in the Liberty Bowl since 1975.
West Virginia vs. Texas A&M
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 29 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: West Virginia -3.5
West Virginia’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
A big reason for West Virginia’s turnaround in the win column in 2014 was the play of quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White. Trickett led the Big 12 with a 67.1 completion percentage and threw for 300 yards in each of his first seven games. However, Trickett was held in check over the second half of the season and tossed five interceptions over his final three starts. Trickett did not play in the finale against Iowa State due to a concussion, and Skyler Howard completed 21 of 40 passes for 285 yards and three scores in his first career start. Trickett was ruled out for the bowl game on Friday, leaving Howard as the clear No. 1 quarterback. The junior college recruit should have an opportunity for a huge day, as Texas A&M’s secondary ranked 11th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and allowed 16 passing scores this year. The Aggies generated 33 sacks in 2014, so it’s critical West Virginia protects Howard and gives him time to find White and fellow playmaker Mario Alford (10 TDs). But the key to victory for the Mountaineers isn’t the passing offense. Texas A&M’s rush defense allowed 223.5 rushing yards per game this season, and West Virginia has the necessary pieces to take advantage of a struggling front seven. Guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski lead a steady offensive line, with Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood combining for 1,411 rushing yards this season. If the Mountaineers establish the run, it should slow the Texas A&M defensive front and allow West Virginia to control the pace of play.
Texas A&M’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It’s no secret Texas A&M is going to have success moving the ball on offense. The Mountaineers made improvement on this side of the ball under first-year coordinator Tony Gibson, but this unit allowed 26.2 points per game and gave up 5.3 yards per play. Opportunities will be there for quarterback Kyle Allen and a talented group of skill players. Allen finished the regular season by tossing 12 touchdowns to only six interceptions and completed 61.1 percent of his passes. The true freshman should benefit from the extra practices prior to the bowl. Three Texas A&M receivers caught at least 40 passes, including standout junior college recruit Josh Reynolds (16.2 ypc) and freshman Speedy Noil (44 catches). Trey Williams is the team’s leading rusher (474 yards) and averages a healthy 6.8 yards per carry. West Virginia’s defense allowed 162 rushing yards per game in Big 12 action, so there will be opportunities for Williams to hit big plays on the ground. However, regardless of Texas A&M’s success on offense, it’s critical for this team to win the turnover battle. West Virginia is -15 in turnover margin, while the Aggies are -7. Both teams have to do a better job of taking care of the ball, but the Mountaineers have been more generous in their giveaways. If Texas A&M scores 30 points and wins the turnover battle, it’s a good bet Sumlin’s team wins the Liberty Bowl.
With the familiarity between the two head coaches and ability of both teams to score around 30 points a game, this could be one of the most entertaining bowl matchups from outside of the New Year’s Six arrangement. The turnover battle is critical for both teams, as Texas A&M and West Virginia each recorded a negative margin in 2014. Whichever team wins the turnover battle and makes a few timely stops on defense will win. It’s a tossup, but the guess here is Howard fills in admirably for Howard, White shines in his last collegiate game, while Shell tops 100 yards on the ground for the Mountaineers to close out 2014 with a victory.
Prediction: West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 34
Avoiding the sights and sounds of Honolulu will be challenging for Fresno State and Rice, as the two programs meet for the first time since 2004 in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. The Bulldogs and Owls had to overcome their share of issues to reach the postseason, but both teams were rewarded with a trip to Hawaii to close out the year and an opportunity to build momentum for 2015.
Fresno State was 3-6 in mid-November, but the Bulldogs rallied to finish the regular season at 6-6. Coach Tim DeRuyter’s team lost to Boise State in the Mountain West Championship, yet getting to a bowl and winning three out of the last four games is a positive sign for a team that had to replace offensive standouts in quarterback Derek Carr and receiver Davante Adams heading into 2014. Rice also started 2014 slow by losing its first three matchups of the season. However, the Owls played a tough schedule – Notre Dame, Texas A&M and Old Dominion – and coach David Bailiff’s team eventually settled and won six consecutive games before a loss at Marshall on Nov. 15. Rice has had to overcome injuries to two of its standout players, as defensive tackle Christian Covington had season-ending knee surgery in November, and receiver Jordan Taylor missed the first three games of 2014.
Fresno State and Rice have met six previous times. The Bulldogs have won all six matchups against the Owls. These two programs are former rivals from the Western Athletic Conference.
Fresno State vs. Rice
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Rice -2.5
Fresno State’s Key to Victory: Protect QB Brian Burrell
Replacing Derek Carr at quarterback wasn’t expected to be easy, and Fresno State averaged only 233.8 passing yards per game after recording nearly 400 yards through the air per contest last season. Brian Burrell was left with big shoes to fill under center, and the junior experienced his share of ups and downs in 2014. Burrell finished the season with 2,576 yards and 22 passing scores and should have an opportunity to shine in the Hawaii Bowl against a struggling Rice secondary. The Owls ranked 10th in Conference USA in pass efficiency defense and allowed 27 scores through the air this season. While the pass defense has been a problem for Rice, getting to the quarterback is not. The Owls tied for first in Conference USA with 35 sacks, and Fresno State’s offensive line allowed 36 sacks to opposing defenses in 2014. Ends Zach Patt and Brian Nordstrom (combined 16 sacks) led the charge off the edge, while six other players have at least two tackles for a loss. Burrell does have mobility (328 yards, 3 TDs), which should come in handy against a solid Rice defensive line. If Burrell has time to throw, he should hit on big plays, especially to receiver Josh Harper (86 receptions, 1,072 yards, 7 TDs). Also, running back Marteze Waller (6.2 ypc) is a big-play threat on the ground, and his presence could help slow the Rice pass rush.
Rice’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Partially due to its inability to establish a ground game against Marshall and Louisiana Tech, Rice lost two out of its last three games this season. The Owls were held to 34 rushing yards in a 76-31 loss to Louisiana Tech and only 81 yards on 35 attempts against Marshall. There’s not a 1,000-yard rusher on this team, but Rice has three players capable of making plays on the ground. Running back Jowan Davis (910 yards) leads the team in rushing yardage, with the bigger Darik Dillard pacing the offense in rushing touchdowns. Quarterback Driphus Jackson is also a factor on the ground (360 yards), but the junior also has an opportunity to take advantage of a Fresno State secondary that ranks 116th nationally in pass efficiency defense. While the overall statistics leave plenty to be desired, the Bulldogs have held their last four opponents to only 23.2 points per game and generated 10 sacks over the final three contests. Balance on offense is critical for Rice’s victory hopes on Dec. 24. In three losses this season, the Owls attempted 34 or more passes. In Rice’s seven victories, passers never attempted more than 28 throws. Fresno State has made improvement on defense over the last few weeks of the season. Can the Bulldogs continue that into the postseason? Or will Rice’s balance and mistake-free game-plan be enough to maintain successful drives (and win) against Fresno State’s defense?
Fresno State’s last appearance in the Hawaii Bowl wasn’t a trip to remember. The Bulldogs lost 43-10 to SMU, and coach Tim DeRuyter is looking for his first bowl win at Fresno State after losing to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl last year. Rice is 2-1 in its last three bowl matchups and is making its first trip to Hawaii since 2003. It’s hard to find a glaring edge for either of these two teams in this game. Conference supremacy doesn’t mean much in bowl games, but Fresno State played in a better league and had a more challenging non-conference slate. Does that mean anything for this game? Hard to say. However, the Bulldogs were playing better defense at the end of the year, and Burrell to Harper combination will be tough for Rice to stop.
Prediction: Fresno State 34, Rice 31
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl provided plenty of fireworks. The back-and-forth offensive battle ended with Memphis winning 55-48 in double overtime.
While this game might end up as one of the top bowl matchups of 2014-15, the Miami Beach Bowl – at least for some – won’t be remembered for the quality on-field play. Instead, the bowl is likely to be remembered for a postgame brawl that erupted after Memphis intercepted BYU quarterback Christian Stewart to clinch the victory.
Here are a few videos and clips of the postgame fight in Marlins Park:
Marshall and Northern Illinois were each on the cusp of an appearance in a bigger bowl game, but the two programs meet for the first time since 2001 in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. The Thundering Herd and Huskies were two of the nation’s top teams from the Group of 5 conferences and were in contention for a spot in one of college football’s top bowl games until Boise State was picked for that designation after it defeated Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship. Marshall and Northern Illinois combined for 23 wins this season, and Tuesday night’s matchup is only the third bowl game (Rose, Sugar and Boca Raton) where both teams are conference champions.
Marshall cruised to an 11-0 start but lost by a point in overtime to Western Kentucky on the final weekend of action in November. Even though the loss to the Hilltoppers ended the Thundering Herd’s hopes of a perfect season, coach Doc Holliday’s team won 10 of their 13 games by at least 15 points and claimed their first conference title since 2002. Northern Illinois continued to dominate the MAC by recording its fifth season of at least 11 victories and won its third conference championship in four years by defeating Bowling Green 51-17.
Marshall and Northern Illinois have played in seven previous meetings. The Huskies own a 4-3 edge over the Thundering Herd, but these two programs have not played since 2001. Northern Illinois has won the last two matchups between these two teams.
Marshall vs. Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 6 p.m. ET (Tuesday, Dec. 23)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Marshall -10
Marshall’s Key to Victory: QB Rakeem Cato
The keys to victory in the Boca Raton Bowl are essentially tied together. It might be too simplistic to just list Cato here, but the senior is the catalyst for Marshall’s offense and one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. Cato threw for 37 touchdowns and 3,622 yards this season and added 457 yards and six scores on the ground. The senior threw for 725 yards over his last two games and faces a stiff test against a Northern Illinois defense limiting opponents to 5.4 yards per play and 23.6 points per game. The Huskies also led the MAC with 30 sacks and forced 24 turnovers. Despite losing standout safety Jimmie Ward to the NFL, this defense remained stingy and no opponent over the last six games scored more than 24 points. Cato has done a good job of limiting mistakes all season, but in Marshall’s only loss of the year (Western Kentucky), he tossed four interceptions. Northern Illinois relies heavily on its ground attack to carry the offense and coming back from 14-0 or a 17-3 deficit could be difficult. Cato is surrounded by an array of weapons, including receivers Tommy Shuler, Davonte Allen, Angelo Jean-Louis and tight end Eric Frohnapfel. In addition to the explosive passing offense, the Thundering Herd has balance with the emergence of converted tight end Devon Johnson at running back. Johnson rushed for 1,636 yards and 16 touchdowns this season. Marshall’s offense is the best Northern Illinois has played this year. If Cato doesn’t turn the ball over and the offensive line gives their senior quarterback time to throw, the Thundering Herd can enforce their style of play and create plenty of problems for the Huskies defense.
Northern Illinois’ Key to Victory: Establish the Run
As we mentioned above, the keys to the game go hand-in-hand. Northern Illinois has a tough assignment on defense trying to slow down the explosive Marshall offense. However, the Huskies can help their defense by establishing their style of play. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey doesn’t have a standout like Jordan Lynch at quarterback, but new starter Drew Hare threw for 17 touchdowns to only two picks and rushed for 850 yards and eight scores in 2014. Hare only had one game of more than 250 passing yards, and it’s clear the offensive identity of Carey’s team rests with the ground game. In addition to Hare, senior running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels and sophomore Joel Bouagnon will each play a significant role on the ground. Stingily led the team with 895 yards and 13 rushing scores this season and will challenge a Marshall defense that ranked ninth in Conference USA (league-only games) against the run. In nine C-USA contests, the Thundering Herd gave up 182.9 yards per game and allowed four yards per carry. Northern Illinois has to win the battle at the point of attack and keep Hare in third-and-short situations. The Huskies’ best shot at winning is to keep Marshall’s offense on the sidelines and allow their ground attack to control the pace of the game.
There’s no shortage of intrigue in the inaugural Boca Raton Bowl. Marshall and Northern Illinois are two of the nation’s top Group of 5 teams and this could be a high-scoring affair if both offenses get on track. The Thundering Herd would prefer to push the tempo and force the Huskies to get away from the ground attack. For Northern Illinois, it’s all about winning the battle on the line of scrimmage and finding a way to keep Cato and the Marshall offense on the sidelines. Expect both teams to have success in establishing their style of play, but the Thundering Herd’s offense is too much for the Huskies.
Prediction: Marshall 38, Northern Illinois 30
The inaugural Miami Beach Bowl also features the first meeting in program history between Memphis and BYU. The Tigers were one of college football’s biggest surprises in 2014, improving from 3-9 in 2013 to 9-3 this season. Coach Justin Fuente has brought significant and immediate improvement to the Tigers, as this team shared the American Athletic Conference title after a 7-1 mark in league play this year. BYU finished its 10th season under coach Bronco Mendenhall with a solid 8-4 record. The Cougars are 4-1 in their last five bowl appearances.
The Miami Beach Bowl will be Memphis’ first postseason appearance since the 2008 St. Petersburg Bowl. A key reason for the Tigers’ improvement in 2014 was the development of the offense behind sophomore quarterback Paxton Lynch. After averaging only 4.7 yards per play in 2013, Memphis averaged 5.5 yards per play this season. Lynch threw for 18 touchdowns and 2,725 yards in 2014 and increased his completion percentage to 64 percent after a 58.2 mark last year. While Lynch has started all season for Memphis, it’s been a different situation for BYU. The Cougars lost quarterback Taysom Hill due to a season-ending leg injury against Utah State, which elevated backup Christian Stewart into the full-time role. Stewart has performed well in Hill’s absence, and his job was only made more challenging with the loss of running back Jamaal Williams to a season-ending knee injury against MTSU.
The Miami Beach Bowl is played at Marlins Park in Miami, Fla. The baseball stadium is built on the site of the old Orange Bowl.
Memphis vs. BYU
Kickoff: Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Memphis - 1
Memphis’ Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
An underrated cog in Memphis’ 9-3 record this season was its +12 in turnover margin. The Tigers forced 27 turnovers and only lost 15. The turnaround in margin was critical after Fuente’s team went -8 last year and finished 3-9 with a handful of close losses. BYU has a -2 turnover margin in 2014 and lost five turnovers over its final three games. Quarterback Christian Stewart has stepped into a difficult situation and played well, completing 58.7 percent of his passes, with 22 touchdowns to just six interceptions. While Stewart has limited mistakes, BYU has lost 14 fumbles this season, which is tied for 119th nationally. Without Williams toting the workload from the backfield, juniors Adam Hine and Nate Carter, senior Paul Lasike and sophomore Algernon Brown have been pressed into more playing time. The Cougars are still having success on the ground with Williams sidelined, as this team recorded 267 rushing yards against UNLV and 264 against Savannah State. Memphis limits opponents to 3.5 yards per carry and ranks second in the American Athletic Conference in pass efficiency defense. Additionally, this defense is active around the line of scrimmage and can get pressure with its front four. BYU has been vulnerable in pass protection, which should allow the Tigers to pressure Stewart, as well as get into the backfield on running plays. Both of those situations create good opportunities to force turnovers. And on offense, Memphis needs to continue limiting their mistakes (15 lost turnovers). Lynch has not tossed an interception in six games, and his efficient play will be valuable against a BYU secondary that has allowed 21 scores in 2014.
BYU’s Key to Victory: Give QB Christian Stewart Time to Throw
As we mentioned previously, Stewart assumed control of BYU’s offense after a season-ending injury to Taysom Hill. The Snow College transfer finished the year on a high note, throwing for 433 yards and five scores against California. Stewart is not as dynamic of a runner as Hill was, but the senior recorded 52 rushing yards against UCF, 47 against Nevada and 38 against UNLV. The mobility could come in handy against an active Memphis defense. Coordinator Barry Odom has transformed the Tigers into one of the nation’s top defenses this year, limiting opponents to 4.8 yards per play (12th nationally). The strength of Memphis’ defense resides in its front seven, as end Martin Ifedi and linebacker Tank Jakes earned first-team all-conference honors in 2014. Jakes led the team with 15.5 tackles for a loss, recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles, while Ifedi picked up 9.5 tackles for a loss and 29 tackles in eight appearances this season. Protecting Stewart and Hill has been a problem on the stat sheet for BYU, as the offensive line allowed 34 sacks in 12 games. Freshman center Tejan Koroma was a bright spot for this line, and it’s tough to place all of the sacks on the front five as mobile quarterbacks often extend the play and are sacked long after a clean pocket was established. If Stewart has time to throw, the receiving corps is capable of producing big plays. Senior Jordan Leslie (14 ypc), and Mitch Mathews (8 TDs, 840 yards) are the favorite targets, but Mitchell Juergens and tight end Devin Mahina are also key weapons for Stewart.
This should be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Memphis and BYU should have plenty of motivation to be in this game, and the Tigers are one of the nation’s most improved teams after going 3-9 last season. The Cougars managed to keep things going after injuries to Hill and Williams and finished the season on a four-game winning streak. Memphis has the edge on defense, but BYU also allows less than five yards per play. The growth and continued improvement of the Tigers’ offensive attack – led by quarterback Paxton Lynch and running back Brandon Hayes – is a big reason why Memphis shared the American Athletic Conference title. Expect a close one in Miami. The Tigers edge BYU to record its first 10-win season since 1938.
Prediction: Memphis 27, BYU 24
Two of the nation’s most improved teams – Air Force and Western Michigan – meet for the first time in program history in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The Falcons and Broncos each improved their win total by seven games last season and scored some impressive wins in the process. Air Force beat Colorado State and Boise State – arguably the top two teams in the Mountain West – this year and claimed the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after beating Army and Navy. The Broncos went 0-2 against Power 5 opponents but lost by one to Toledo and defeated MAC East champion Bowling Green 26-14 in mid-October.
Improvement on defense has spurred the seven-game jump in wins by Air Force this season. The Falcons allowed 40 points per game in 2013 but lowered that number to 24.2 in 2014. Western Michigan experienced a similar turnaround on defense, limiting opponents to 23.8 points per game after giving up 35.4 per contest last season. But the Broncos also took a step forward on offense, as the emergence of running back Jarvion Franklin and quarterback Zach Terrell propelled Western Michigan to lead the MAC with an average of 34.6 points per game.
This will be the 18th bowl matchup of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. The bowl name has changed a couple of times since its inception in 1997, but the last two meetings in Boise were blowouts. Utah State dominated Toledo 41-15 in 2012, while San Diego State defeated Buffalo 49-24 last season.
Air Force vs. Western Michigan
Kickoff: 5:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Air Force -1.5
Air Force’s Key to Victory: Stop the Run
In Air Force’s 3-4 alignment, its three listed starters on the depth chart for the defensive line average 262 pounds. That’s a light defensive front compared to some of the other teams Western Michigan has played this year. The Broncos lean on their ground attack to setup the pass, and running back Jarvion Franklin emerged as one of the top freshmen in college football this season. Franklin recorded 1,525 yards and 24 scores on 294 attempts and earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors for his performance. Air Force may not measure up in terms of overall size up front, but the Falcons are active around the line of scrimmage and ranked second in the Mountain West against the run in 2014. Under the direction of coordinator Steve Russ, Air Force ranks third in the Mountain West with 77 tackles for a loss and finished the season on a high note by containing Colorado State’s offense to just 106 rushing yards on 32 attempts. The Broncos will try to establish the run from the opening snap, and it’s critical the Falcons win the battle on first and second down to force Western Michigan into third-and-long situations. Quarterback Zach Terrell completed 70 percent of his throws this season and tossed only 10 picks on 330 attempts. But how important is it for Franklin to have success? In all four of Western Michigan’s losses, Terrell attempted over 30 passes. In eight wins by the Broncos, Terrell attempted less than 30.
Western Michigan’s Key to Victory: Third-down Defense and Turnovers
Regardless of the time to prepare, playing a team that runs an option offense is no easy assignment. Western Michigan faces a tough task trying to slow down an Air Force offense that averages 272.2 yards per game and led the nation with 732 rushing attempts. The Falcons use a variety of rushers, with Jacobi Owens and quarterback Kale Pearson leading the team in yardage this year. However, Owens is out for the rest of the season due to injury, and Pearson did not play in the regular season finale. Pearson is expected to go against Western Michigan, while Devin Rushing, D.J. Johnson and Shayne Daveren will be counted upon more out of the backfield with Owens sidelined. Despite the injury to Owens, Air Force’s ground attack will test the Broncos rush defense, which ranks fourth in the MAC by allowing 142.7 yards per game. Western Michigan held six opponents under 100 rushing yards this season, but Northern Illinois gashed the defense for 196 yards, while Toledo recorded 234 yards on 36 attempts. Teams that had the right pieces up front and in the backfield had success against the Broncos. However, stopping the run isn’t necessarily the only task for Western Michigan, as this defense needs to get off the field on third downs and force turnovers. Pearson has been efficient when he’s asked to throw, but this offense isn’t built to rally from 14 or 17 points down on a consistent basis. When Air Force gets its ground attack established and continues to eat up the clock on third downs, it’s difficult for a defense to get off the field and get the ball back to its offense.
This matchup could be one of the better pre-Christmas bowls. Both teams have plenty of motivation to cap a season of significant improvement with a win in Boise, while the overall matchup is fairly even between the Broncos and Falcons. Western Michigan should benefit from the extra time to prepare for Air Force’s option attack. However, it may take some time to adjust in game speed. Pearson and the Falcons’ rushers should have success, but the Broncos will also land a few punches behind the one-two punch of Franklin on the ground and Terrell through the air. Limiting big plays in the passing has been a challenge for Air Force this year, and Terrell has a dangerous outside threat in receiver Corey Davis (17.6 ypc). Expect a back-and-forth affair, with Air Force edging Western Michigan for the win in the fourth quarter.