Articles By Steven Lassan
Florida has announced coach Will Muschamp won't return to Gainesville in 2015. The move comes after the Gators lost to South Carolina 23-20 in overtime in Week 12. Muschamp is expected to coach the last two games of the regular season for Florida.
Muschamp went 27-20 in four years at Florida but missed out on a bowl appearance last season with a 4-8 mark.
The Gators were just 17-15 in SEC play under Muschamp and struggled to find answers on offense over the last four years.
Muschamp Out at End of Regular Season; Foley to Begin Search for Next Gators Head Coach http://t.co/ymTl3WbOBn— GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) November 16, 2014
Full statement from athletics director Jeremy Foley: pic.twitter.com/hYVmorQQMK— GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) November 16, 2014
Full statement from Will Muschamp: pic.twitter.com/PyafZHRC9j— GatorZone Football (@GatorZoneFB) November 16, 2014
Saturday’s game between Wisconsin and Nebraska was billed as one of the best head-to-head running back matchups of the season. However, the highly anticipated duel between two Heisman candidates was a one-sided blowout in favor of Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.
Gordon earned Athlon Sports Week 12 Player of the Week honors by gashing the Cornhuskers for an FBS single-game rushing record of 408 yards. The junior’s performance led Wisconsin to a critical 59-24 victory over Nebraska and placed the Badgers in command of the Big Ten West Division.
Gordon needed only 25 carries to rush for 408 yards and did not record a touch in the fourth quarter. He also averaged a healthy 16.3 yards per carry and recorded four plays of 40 rushing yards or more.
In 10 games this year, Gordon has 1,909 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. He also has 11 receptions for 83 yards and two scores.
Gordon was on the radar in the Heisman race throughout the season, but the junior should firmly rank among the nation’s top three candidates after a monster performance in a key win over Nebraska.
Defensive Player of the Week: Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
With an unbeaten season and 25-game winning streak hanging in the balance, Ramsey and the Florida State defense stepped up with another strong second-half performance. The sophomore safety was dominant in the 30-26 victory over Miami, finishing with three tackles (one for a loss), one forced fumble, one interception, four pass breakups and a blocked extra point. Ramsey’s interception sealed the victory against the Hurricanes, elevating Florida State to its 26th consecutive victory and its fifth win in a row over Miami. The sophomore also had an impact beyond the box score, as he pressured Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya throughout the fourth quarter and disrupted a handful of plays. Ramsey was already regarded as one of the top safeties in college football heading into this season, but the sophomore is elevating his performance to an even higher level as Florida State looks to earn a spot in college football’s four-team playoff.
Coordinator of the Week: Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia
The performance of Georgia’s defense in Saturday night’s 34-7 is exactly why coach Mark Richt brought Pruitt to Athens after one year at Florida State. In last year’s loss to the Tigers, the Bulldogs allowed 43 points and 566 yards. But under Pruitt’s direction, Georgia’s defense put the clamps on one of the nation’s top offenses. Auburn entered Week 12 averaging 37.3 points in SEC games and averaged seven yards per play this year. The Bulldogs allowed a score on the Tigers’ first drive of the game, but Pruitt’s group pitched a shutout the rest of the way and held one of the nation’s most explosive offenses to just 292 total yards. Auburn had 93 yards on its first two drives but managed just 68 on its next seven. The win over the Tigers was critical to keeping Georgia’s SEC East title hopes alive, and Pruitt’s defense delivered against one of the nation’s top offenses.
Freshman of the Week: J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State
Barrett ensured Ohio State avoided a letdown one week after a huge road win at Michigan State. The redshirt freshman guided the Buckeyes to a 31-24 victory over Minnesota in frigid conditions at TCF Bank Stadium. Barrett completed 15 of 25 passes for 200 yards and three scores and added 189 rushing yards and one touchdown. He opened Ohio State’s scoring by reaching the endzone on a 86-yard run, which was the longest rush by a quarterback in school history. Barrett has accounted for 38 total touchdowns this year, breaking a record set by Braxton Miller (36) last season.
Minnesota’s Dan Lehman went viral during Saturday’s game against Ohio State. Lehman is a sideline staffer for coach Jerry Kill, and Lehman decided to eat an ice cream bar at the start of the second half.
Eating an ice cream bar is totally fine, but Lehman was enjoying the dessert in a game played in the snow and with temperatures around 20 degrees.
This is definitely a peak moment in Big Ten history.
Here's a Minnesota assistant coach enjoying an ice cream treat in 20-degree weather pic.twitter.com/P0x1cxBUQk— Andy Reid (@misterAndyReid) November 15, 2014
Kansas receiver Nigel King provided one of the top catches of the year in Saturday’s game against TCU.
With Kansas leading 20-17 in the third quarter, King caught a pass off a deflection and tipped it back to himself for a touchdown.
Check out King’s crazy tipped pass and reception for a score against TCU:
Florida State puts its 25-game winning streak and No. 3 spot in college football’s playoff standings on the line Saturday night with a trip to Miami. The Seminoles have controlled this rivalry over the last few years, but the Hurricanes have improved in coach Al Golden’s fourth year and have a three-game winning streak entering Saturday night’s matchup
Replicating the effort and performance from one season to the next is an impossible task. Florida State isn’t as dominant as it was last year, but coach Jimbo Fisher’s team is still among the best in the nation and should have a good shot to repeat if it wins out and makes the four-team playoff. The Seminoles have question marks on the offensive and defensive lines, yet have won four out of their last five games by at least 11 points.
Miami’s three losses in 2014 came against quality teams (Nebraska, Georgia Tech and Louisville), but this team has benefited from playing in the Coastal Division – the weaker of the ACC divisions. However, the Hurricanes are just one of three teams that rank inside of the top 10 nationally in total offense and total defense in terms of yards per play. Defense was a huge point of criticism in Miami early in the year, but this unit has played better in recent weeks, and freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya leads the ACC in quarterback rating.
Miami owns a slight 29-27 edge in the overall series against Florida State. However, the Seminoles have claimed four in a row over the Hurricanes and seven out of the last nine in the series.
Florida State at Miami
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Florida State -2.5
Florida State’s Key to Victory: Stop Miami RB Duke Johnson
Johnson suffered a season-ending leg injury in last year’s matchup against Florida State and started the year with four games of less than 100 yards. However, the junior has been nearly unstoppable over the last five games. Johnson has 843 rushing yards in his last five contests, averaging 8.7 yards per carry. The Seminoles rank seventh in the ACC against the run, giving up 135.7 yards per game. In conference-only matchups, Florida State’s numbers are better, allowing just 108.8 yards per game through six ACC games. The Seminoles aren’t strong on the interior as they were last season, especially with the loss of tackle Nile Lawrence-Stample to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Miami’s offensive line has also experienced its share of injuries, and starting left tackle Ereck Flowers is questionable due to a knee injury. The formula for a Hurricanes victory is simple. Johnson needs to have a huge performance and keep Florida State’s offense on the sideline. If Johnson has success, it should open up play-action passes for quarterback Brad Kaaya.
Miami’s Key to Victory: Limit the Big Plays from Florida State’s Offense
The Seminoles averaged 51.6 points per game last season but have dipped to 37.9 in 2014. Why the drop in production? It starts up front with the offensive line. Center Austin Barron has missed the last four games due to an arm injury but could return for action on Saturday. That’s good news for a group averaging just four yards per carry in 2014. In addition to Barron’s return, the Seminoles will be at full strength in the backfield on Saturday night. Running back Dalvin Cook suffered a hip injury against Virginia but is expected to play. Backfield mate Mario Pender has missed three games in a row due to injury and is also expected to be at full strength. Starter Karlos Williams is averaging 4.4 yards per carry but expect to see plenty of Cook and Pender on Saturday night. Quarterback Jameis Winston has carried more of the offensive workload with a struggling offensive line and rushing attack, and the sophomore has 11 interceptions through 294 attempts. Winston threw for 325 yards and two picks in last year’s game against Miami. The Hurricanes have allowed only nine passing plays of 30 yards or more this year and that trend needs to continue on Saturday. Limit the big plays by Florida State and force Winston and his receivers to work the ball down the field in small chunks.
As evidenced on the stat sheet and on film, Miami has improved this year. This is a huge game for recruiting purposes in Florida, and it’s also a chance for Golden to show how far the Hurricanes have come over the last four years. Florida State isn’t as dominant as it was in 2013. But that’s not a huge issue. This Seminoles’ team still has a lot of talent and has an edge in that department on Saturday night. Miami keeps it close with Johnson’s running and limits Florida State’s overall possessions by controlling the clock. However, the Seminoles have the better quarterback and a recent edge in this rivalry. Florida State wins by a touchdown and extends its winning streak to 26 games.
Prediction: Florida State 34, Miami 27
Due to conference realignment, Arkansas and LSU won’t meet on Black Friday anymore, but the rivalry between these two schools still exists with the annual Battle for the Boot. And this year’s meeting still has plenty of intrigue, as the Razorbacks are searching for their first SEC win under coach Bret Bielema, while LSU is looking to bounce back after a tough loss against Alabama in overtime last Saturday.
The series between Arkansas and LSU has produced several close games in recent memory. The Razorbacks have lost four out of the last five meetings to the Tigers, but last year’s matchup was only a four-point win for LSU. And very little has separated these two programs in their annual matchup, as eight out of the last nine games were decided by a touchdown or less. Most of Arkansas’ home matchups against LSU in recent years have been played in Little Rock, but this season’s game takes place in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks have not defeated the Tigers in Fayetteville since 1992 and trail in the overall series 36-20-2.
LSU at Arkansas
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Arkansas -2
Arkansas’ Key to Victory: Stop the Run
The key to beating LSU is to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. Arkansas is allowing 168 rushing yards per game but has held opponents to just three rushing scores in five home contests. The Razorbacks have allowed three consecutive opponents to rush for at least 128 yards, with Georgia torching Arkansas for 207 yards on 39 attempts. LSU leads the SEC in rushing attempts (494) and averages 4.5 yards per attempt. The Tigers feature four players with at least 260 rushing yards, but true freshman Leonard Fournette is the team’s best option (736 yards). Fournette will challenge a good Arkansas defensive front, and stopping the true freshman will play a huge role in how this game is decided. Quarterback Anthony Jennings has yet to complete more than 50 percent of his throws in a game against Power 5 opponents and has completed only eight passes in back-to-back games. Arkansas needs to load the box and stop Fournette, which will force Jennings to take to the air to win this matchup.
LSU’s Key to Victory: Get Arkansas into Third-and-Long Situations
It may sound like a broken record in the keys to victory for both teams, but Arkansas and LSU are very similar in terms of style of play on offense. The Razorbacks boast a massive offensive line and average 248.2 yards per game on the ground. Junior Jonathan Williams leads the team with 877 yards, but sophomore Alex Collins isn’t far behind with 840 yards. Both players have 10 rushing touchdowns. Considering Arkansas has made strides on defense this year and owns one of the SEC’s best rushing attacks, why hasn’t this team won a game in conference play? The answer isn’t as simple as the passing attack, but the Razorbacks need more through the air. Quarterback Brandon Allen has been a better player at home (61% completion percentage to 54% on road) and has struggled on third downs with more than seven yards to go (17 of 38 for 270 yards and three picks). Arkansas wants to establish its rushing attack, but it also needs Allen to hit a few throws to keep the defense off balance. LSU’s defense has played better in recent weeks, and stopping the Razorbacks’ rushing attack and forcing Allen into obvious passing situations would give Les Miles’ team an edge on the scoreboard.
Arkansas has been on the doorstep of a couple of conference wins this year. The Razorbacks lost in overtime to Texas A&M, lost by a point to Alabama and was defeated by a touchdown at Mississippi State – the No. 1 team in the playoff rankings. LSU has rebounded from a slow start in SEC play, but the Tigers are coming off an emotional, hard-hitting game against Alabama. Everything points to an Arkansas victory. Will the Tigers win another crazy, last-minute affair under Les Miles? Nothing in this game would be a surprise, but the guess here is the Razorbacks break through and win their first SEC game under Bielema.
Prediction: Arkansas 24, LSU 20
There’s usually plenty on the line when Auburn and Georgia meet in The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, but there’s a little extra incentive for both teams on Saturday. The Bulldogs hope to enact a little revenge against the Tigers for last year’s last-minute Hail Mary connection and keep their SEC East title hopes alive. And of course, there’s no shortage of storylines for coach Mark Richt’s team with the return of running back Todd Gurley from a suspension. Auburn needs a win to keep its slim playoff hopes alive, but coach Gus Malzahn’s team is also fighting for bowl positioning. If the Tigers finish 9-3 or 10-2, this squad should have an opportunity to play in one of the New Year’s bowl matchups.
Both teams enter Saturday’s matchup at 7-2, but this is the final SEC game for Georgia in 2014, while Auburn still has a showdown against Alabama on Nov. 29. The Bulldogs lost in Jacksonville against Florida (38-20) on Nov. 1 and lost control of the East Division. However, with a win over Auburn and a Missouri loss, Georgia will play in the SEC Championship. Auburn needs some help in order to play for the West Division title, but even at two losses, the Tigers aren’t out of the mix for a trip to Atlanta.
Georgia and Auburn have met 117 times on the gridiron. The Tigers own a 55-54-8 series edge over the Bulldogs. Auburn won last year’s meeting 43-38, but Georgia has won two out of the last three games in this series.
Auburn at Georgia
Kickoff: 7:15 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia -2.5
Auburn’s Key to Victory: Test the Georgia Front Seven
Georgia’s rush defense struggled in its last two games (Florida and Kentucky), but the front seven is still the strength of coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s defense. The secondary was a concern heading into 2014 but has allowed 10 passing scores in seven conference games. Without receiver Duke Williams, Georgia can devote more attention on Sammie Coates. Assuming the Bulldogs find the right solution to contain Coates and quarterback Nick Marshall, will this defense win the battle at the point of attack? In last year’s game, Auburn rushed for 323 yards (5.7 ypc) and four scores. If the Tigers repeat that total on Saturday, it’s going to be difficult for Georgia to win. Marshall is always dangerous with the ball in his hands, but he’s not the only threat on the ground. Senior Cameron Artis-Payne has 1,190 yards (5.7 ypc), and speedster Corey Grant is also an option. Are Georgia’s recent struggles against rushing games an aberration? Or have teams found something to attack the front seven? Auburn’s rushing attack should provide a good litmus test for the Bulldogs after struggling to stop Florida just a few weeks ago.
Georgia’s Key to Victory: Control the Tempo and Pace of Play
Auburn wants to play at a quicker pace than Georgia, hoping its up-tempo, spread attack will force the Bulldogs out of their comfort zone on offense. Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason has been efficient this year, completing 69 percent of his passes and throwing only three picks. However, the Bulldogs would like to win this game by establishing their ground attack, which ranks second in the SEC with an average of 256.3 yards per game. Freshman Nick Chubb has filled in admirably during Gurley’s suspension, recording at least 143 yards in each of the last four games. Gurley is expected to start on Saturday, but Chubb will see his share of carries. Auburn’s defense is allowing 159.2 rushing yards per game in SEC action. If the Bulldogs establish their style of play, control the clock and let Gurley and Chubb dictate the pace of the tempo, Auburn will have a tough time winning in Athens.
This is a huge revenge game for Georgia. Combine a hungry Bulldogs team with Todd Gurley’s return, and it’s easy to see why Auburn is a slight underdog. It’s tough to envision the Tigers losing two consecutive games under coach Gus Malzahn, but this is a tough matchup for Auburn. The style of play and overall tempo will be critical. If Georgia controls the pace with its rushing attack, the Tigers are going to have their hands full. But if Auburn jumps out to an early lead and its up-tempo attack forces the Bulldogs to throw more, the upper hand will go to Malzahn’s team. This should be one of the best matchups of the weekend. Georgia gets revenge for last year’s game and stays alive in the East Division.
Prediction: Georgia 34, Auburn 31
The SEC West is once again the epicenter of a college football weekend. Alabama is usually the team at the top of the SEC West, but Mississippi State has worked its way through the nation’s best division and enters Week 12 as the No. 1 team in college football’s playoff committee rankings. Of course, the Bulldogs stay at No. 1 is tenuous, but a loss to the Crimson Tide wouldn’t eliminate coach Dan Mullen’s team from the playoff mix.
Alabama opened the 2014 season with a 5-0 start but suffered a 23-17 loss to Ole Miss in Oxford. The Crimson Tide has rebounded since that defeat by winning four in a row, including a 20-13 game at LSU last Saturday. Alabama ranked No. 5 in this week’s committee rankings, but coach Nick Saban’s team controls its destiny into the playoff.
Despite Mississippi State’s No. 1 ranking, the good folks in Vegas aren’t putting much stock in this matchup. The Bulldogs are more than a touchdown underdog (8.5 points) but had an easy win over Tennessee-Martin last Saturday and are catching Alabama at the right time. After a physical 60-minute battle with LSU, can the Crimson Tide respond with the same type of effort and performance a week later?
Alabama has dominated the overall series against Mississippi State 76-17-3. The Crimson Tide has won six in a row against the Bulldogs and none of those matchups were decided by single digits. Mississippi State’s last win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa transpired in 2006.
Mississippi State at Alabama
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -8.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dak Prescott Against Alabama’s Defense
This is one of the most intriguing matchups of the 2014 season. Alabama is simply an immovable object against the run. The Crimson Tide has allowed only 808 rushing yards this year, limiting opponents to just 2.8 yards per carry. Additionally, coach Nick Saban’s defense has allowed only two rushing scores all year and none over the last three games. While Alabama aims to stop the run and has been tough to run on all year, Mississippi State has to try to establish its ground game. Through five SEC contests, the Bulldogs rank second in the league by averaging 251.8 rushing yards per game and have scored 16 touchdowns. Running back Josh Robinson leads the team with 984 yards, while quarterback Dak Prescott is a close second with 779 yards. Both players have 11 rushing scores and average over five yards per attempt. Mobile quarterbacks have provided plenty of headaches for Alabama in recent years: Auburn and Oklahoma in 2014 and Texas A&M in 2013 and 2012. Can Prescott continue that trend? The Alabama defense is the best Prescott and Robinson have played this year and getting 250 or so rushing yards will be a challenge. However, it’s the small gains that could eventually lead to big plays. Keeping Prescott out of third-and-long situations and using his mobility when the pocket breaks down are two areas for Mullen and his staff to monitor on Saturday.
2. Alabama’s Rushing Attack
Alabama still has a few games to help its offensive numbers, but the Crimson Tide rank seventh in the SEC in rushing heading into Saturday’s game against Mississippi State. The No. 7 rank for the rushing attack is the lowest for Alabama in the last seven seasons. And there’s some uncertainty surrounding the running backs for Saturday, as T.J. Yeldon suffered an ankle injury against LSU and may not be at full strength against the Bulldogs. Yeldon has 686 yards this year, while Derrick Henry has 554 on 111 attempts. Alabama’s offensive line isn’t as strong as it has been in recent years, but this rushing attack will challenge the Mississippi State defensive front. The Bulldogs aim to stop the run and have held their SEC opponents to 149.6 rushing yards per game. The defensive line for Mississippi State is loaded with talent, depth and experience, starting with end Preston Smith and continuing to tackles P.J. Jones, Kaleb Eulls and Chris Jones. Can Alabama’s offensive line jell at the right time and create rushing lanes for Yeldon and Henry? Or will Mississippi State win the battle at the point of attack and put the Crimson Tide into long yardage situations?
3. Alabama WR Amari Cooper
Timely is the best way to describe Alabama’s passing offense in last week’s win against LSU. Receiver Amari Cooper had a few dropped passes against the Tigers but finished with eight catches for 83 yards and one score. Blake Sims has been a better quarterback in Tuscaloosa than on the road this year. Sims is completing 69.2 percent of his passes at home and has 11 touchdowns to just one interception. The senior has not tossed a pick in four games, and with a tight game expected on Saturday, he needs another zero in the interception column. Cooper (79 catches for 1,215 yards) is by far the top target for Sims, and the junior should have opportunities for big plays against a Mississippi State secondary that has allowed 16 plays of 30 or more yards this season (worst in the SEC). And if the Bulldogs find a way to slow down Cooper, Alabama still has tight end O.J. Howard and fellow receivers DeAndrew White and Christion Jones to target. Even if Mississippi State stops the run, can its secondary find an answer for Cooper?
Mississippi State hasn’t played particularly well since its 38-23 win to Auburn. However, that shouldn’t be of concern, as the Bulldogs continue to rise to the challenge each week, especially in a road win against LSU and a home victory over Auburn. The Bulldogs have the pieces to match Alabama but winning in Tuscaloosa requires a perfect effort. Prescott and Robinson may not find a ton of success early, but it’s important to stick with the rushing attack. And when Prescott throws, there are plays to be made against the Crimson Tide secondary. Alabama is coming off a physical game against LSU, so a sluggish start isn’t out of the question. With the Bulldogs’ penchant for giving up big plays in the secondary this year, the Crimson Tide may come out throwing to open up their rushing attack. Mississippi State is catching Alabama at the right time. However, the Crimson Tide finds a way to win this one in the second half, and coach Nick Saban’s team sets up an interesting finale against Auburn on Nov. 29.
Prediction: Alabama 27, Mississippi State 20
November is loaded with critical matchups that will shape conference and national title races, and perhaps no division illustrates that point better than the Big Ten West. Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin are all 4-1 in conference play heading into Week 12. And all three teams are set to play each other over the next few weeks, with 3-2 Iowa also in the discussion.
Considering the 4-1 three-team logjam at the top of the division, clarity within the division should start on Saturday with Nebraska traveling to Madison to take on Wisconsin. There are several similarities between these two teams, including style of play, a Heisman contender at running back and a close loss in early October.
Nebraska and Wisconsin have only met eight previous times, and the overall series is tied at four victories apiece. These two teams did not play in 2013, and the Cornhuskers won the first meeting in 2012 but lost 70-31 to the Badgers in the Big Ten Championship.
Nebraska at Wisconsin
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Wisconsin -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Nebraska RB Ameer Abdullah’s Health
Abdullah suffered a knee injury against Purdue on Nov. 1, but all signs point to the senior playing against Wisconsin this Saturday. Abdullah is one of the top running backs in the nation and is critical to the overall success of the offense. A healthy and effective Abdullah makes life much easier for quarterback Tommy Armstrong. Abdullah recorded only one rushing yard against Purdue but has four 200-yard games this year. Through five games, Wisconsin’s rush defense has allowed just three scores and leads the Big Ten in fewest yards allowed (100.8 ypg). While the Badgers lead the conference against the run, Abdullah is easily their toughest challenge so far this year. Assuming he’s healthy, Abdullah is going to be a handful for the Badgers.
2. Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon against Nebraska’s Run Defense
It’s no secret both of these teams want to establish the run on offense. Wisconsin leads the Big Ten by averaging 325.7 rushing yards per game, while Nebraska is second with 280.7 yards per contest. And the picture isn’t much different on defense, as both programs rank close in terms of yards allowed. Nebraska’s rush defense is allowing 130 yards per game in Big Ten action, but two of its last four opponents have recorded more than that mark (Michigan State and Rutgers). Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon is considered one of the top-five candidates to win the Heisman and will be a handful for the Nebraska defense. No team has found an answer to stopping Gordon this year, as the junior has at least 120 yards in every FBS contest. And Gordon has been on a tear recently, recording 205 yards against Purdue, 259 against Northwestern and 175 against Illinois. Nebraska should be the best defense the Badgers have played since the opener against LSU. Will Gordon add to his Heisman resume? Or will the Cornhuskers find a way to limit the damage? Nebraska doesn’t necessarily have to limit Gordon below 100 yards, but the junior has 13 rushes of 30 yards or more this year. For the Cornhuskers to win, they need to limit Gordon’s big plays, force a couple of turnovers and get Wisconsin into third-and-long situations.
3. The Quarterbacks
With Abdullah and Gordon stealing the spotlight, the two quarterbacks – Nebraska’s Tommy Armstrong and Wisconsin’s Joel Stave – are often overlooked. On Saturday, it’s not crazy to think the game could be decided on which quarterback makes more plays in the passing game. Sure, that seems obvious, but both teams plan on a run-first approach, and the defenses want to key on stopping the ground attack. If the rushing game stalls out, which quarterback can deliver through the air? Armstrong has posted better numbers in 2014, but Stave did not play in the first four games due to an occurrence of the “yips.” Stave is coming off his best performance of the year, completing 19 of 29 passes for 219 yards and two scores. Armstrong is still developing in his first full season as Nebraska’s starter, as the sophomore has three games of 48 percent or less in completion percentage. Armstrong also adds a different dimension than Stave. The sophomore has 571 rushing yards and four scores this year. Stave is clearly a pocket passer, and he could share time with mobile junior Tanner McEvoy. Don’t expect either team to throw for 300 yards on Saturday, but one team may need a play or two on a potential game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. Both quarterbacks are overlooked due to the star power at running back. However, if the game is on the line, will it be Stave or Armstrong that can deliver in the clutch?
Mississippi State-Alabama and Florida State-Miami are games garnering more attention on Saturday, but the Wisconsin-Nebraska matchup has plenty of intrigue and potential. And this game is worth the price of admission just for the running back battle between Gordon and Abdullah. Despite both teams having success against the run, Gordon and Abdullah will have their share of successful plays. But the outcome of this game will be decided on the arms of Stave or Armstrong, as well as the play of both defenses. Very little separates Nebraska and Wisconsin. And in a tight game, home-field advantage is worth a couple of points. The Badgers win a close one and take an early lead for the West Division title.
Prediction: Wisconsin 27, Nebraska 24
Rivalry week is usually reserved for the last full Saturday of action in November, but three intriguing rivalry matchups in the ACC headline a slate with national and conference title implications.
Florida State travels to Miami, and with a win over the Hurricanes, the Seminoles would clinch a spot in the ACC Championship. And of course, there are bigger goals for Florida State ahead, as coach Jimbo Fisher’s team hopes to climb higher than No. 3 in the playoff committee rankings.
Clemson-Georgia Tech has potential Orange Bowl implications, while NC State hosts Wake Forest in a key game for bowl eligibility for the Wolfpack.
Elsewhere in the ACC, Pittsburgh travels to North Carolina and Duke hosts Virginia Tech.
Week 12 Previews and Predictions:
ACC Week 12 Game Power Rankings
1. Florida State (-2) at Miami
8 p.m. ET, ABC
With Florida State riding a 25-game winning streak, combined with Miami’s improvement in 2014, there’s some spark returning in this rivalry. This game is always huge in terms of recruiting, but this rivalry has lost a little of its luster in recent years, largely due to Miami’s decline on the gridiron. The Seminoles have won four in a row over the Hurricanes and seven out of the last nine in this series. Coach Jimbo Fisher is undefeated against Miami, and Florida State has won the last two meetings by at least 13 points. This year’s matchup should be closer, as the Seminoles aren’t as dominant as they were in 2013, and the Hurricanes have improved in coach Al Golden’s fourth year. Florida State’s biggest problem in 2014 has been the play of its offensive and defensive lines. And stopping the run is a huge concern for the Seminoles on Saturday night, as Miami running back Duke Johnson is averaging 168.6 rushing yards over his last five games. Florida State is giving up 135.7 yards per game on the ground, but Johnson will be the best running back this team has played. In addition to Johnson’s performance, two other areas are worth noting in Miami’s improvement. Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya leads the ACC in rating (157.64), and the defense is allowing only 4.3 yards per play in conference games. Miami is certainly improved on defense, but the Hurricanes have not played an offense of Florida State’s potential. The Seminoles average 39.3 points per game in conference action, and quarterback Jameis Winston should be able to attack a secondary that has allowed back-to-back games of at least 60 percent completion percentage. There’s no doubt Miami has improved. But will the Hurricanes’ recent play against weaker Coastal teams translate against one of the best squads in the nation? Or will Florida State resume its dominance in the series?
Listen to the Week 12 predictions podcast:
2. Clemson (-3) at Georgia Tech
Noon ET, ESPN
This matchup may not seem like a huge game in terms of national importance, but assuming Florida State reaches the college football playoff, Clemson or Georgia Tech could play in the Orange Bowl against a team from the Big Ten, SEC or Notre Dame. With major bowl implications and a rivalry aspect between these two teams, there’s plenty on the line in Atlanta this Saturday. Clemson is expected to get true freshman Deshaun Watson back at quarterback, and the offense has received a boost from running back Wayne Gallman (back-to-back 100-yard efforts) over the last two games. The Yellow Jackets are allowing 6.4 yards per play but have helped their defensive woes by forcing 21 turnovers. While Georgia Tech’s defense will have its hands full against Watson and a potent offense, the Yellow Jackets create plenty of challenges for Clemson’s defense. The Tigers are first in the nation in third-down defense, while Georgia Tech is converting 59.3 percent of its third-down opportunities (best in the nation on offense). Clemson allows just 69 yards on the ground in ACC contests, but that number should be challenged by the Yellow Jackets’ option attack, which is averaging 335.6 yards per game. Quarterback Justin Thomas is the offensive catalyst for coach Paul Johnson, but Synjyn Days has three 100-yard efforts, and Zach Laskey (595 yards) and Charles Perkins (10.9 ypc) are expected to return from injury this week. Clemson has won three out of the last four meetings in this series but lost its last trip to Atlanta (31-17 in 2011).
3. Pittsburgh at North Carolina (-2)
12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network/ESPN3
With Pittsburgh and North Carolina each sporting a 4-5 record, Saturday’s meeting is critical to bowl eligibility. The Panthers have lost five out of their last six games, while the Tar Heels won two in a row before a 47-20 defeat at Miami. Scoring points shouldn’t be an issue for both teams. Pittsburgh and North Carolina each average 29 points per game in ACC contests, and both squads allow six yards per play in conference matchups. The Tar Heels should expect a heavy dose of Pittsburgh running back James Conner. The sophomore averages 149.1 yards per game, and North Carolina is allowing 218.6 rushing yards in ACC contests. The Panthers have been vulnerable to a few big plays in the secondary (eight plays allowed of 40 yards or more), and the Tar Heels average 291.9 yards per game through the air. Quarterback Marquise Williams is tied for third in the conference with 17 touchdown passes. Tempo and pace of play will be critical in this matchup. North Carolina wants to go fast, while Pittsburgh wants to turn to its ground attack and control the time of possession.
4. Virginia Tech at Duke (-5.5)
Noon ET, ESPNU
How’s this for a role reversal? Duke is fighting to win the Coastal Division, while Virginia Tech needs to win two out of its last three to earn bowl eligibility. Most years, that narrative is usually flipped, but the Blue Devils won the Coastal last year and are in great shape to repeat in 2014. Last year’s meeting was a low-scoring 13-10 affair, with Duke winning without a third-down conversion (0-11) and four lost turnovers. Two key components of the Blue Devils’ 8-1 record is only six lost turnovers and a balanced attack on offense. On the other sideline, Virginia Tech has lost 18 turnovers, and its offense is recording just 4.8 yards per play in ACC contests. Defensively, the Hokies have allowed 23 plays of 30 yards or more but are still active around the line of scrimmage (31 sacks). Stopping the run has been a challenge for Duke (203.4 ypg), and Virginia Tech should benefit from a healthy Marshawn Williams at running back. The Hokies need a big game from Williams, while getting a flawless effort from quarterback Michael Brewer. An individual matchup to watch is standout Virginia Tech cornerback against Duke receiver Jamison Crowder. Fuller is one of the ACC’s top defensive backs, while Crowder is a dangerous all-purpose threat and has at least eight receptions in each of his last three games. Only one game during Duke’s four-game winning streak was decided by more than seven points. If Virginia Tech can limit its mistakes and establish the run, coach Frank Beamer’s team should have a shot at the upset.
5. Wake Forest at NC State (-15)
3 p.m. ET, RSN/ESPN3
The home team has won the last seven meetings in this series and only one of the last four matchups was decided by seven points or less. The history seems to fit appropriately with the spread and the overall landscape of both teams. Wake Forest could be headed for a winless season in ACC play, while NC State needs one more win to get bowl eligible. The Demon Deacons continue to struggle on offense, but the defense has held its own in conference play. Freshman quarterback John Wolford has showed promise for first-year coach Dave Clawson and threw for two touchdowns in the 34-20 loss to Clemson. Wolford needs more help from a rushing attack that is recording less than one yard (0.7) per carry in ACC games. NC State’s offense scored 40 or more points in four of its first five games but has not recorded more than 24 in each of its last five games. Quarterback Jacoby Brissett had his first multi-interception game this season (two) in last week’s loss to Georgia Tech. If Brissett takes care of the ball, NC State should have too much firepower for a Wake Forest team that is good on defense, but struggling to find production on offense.
ACC Week 12 Predictions
|FSU (-2) at Miami||FSU 35-21||FSU 31-30||FSU 34-27||FSU 30-23|
|Clemson (-3) at GT||GT 35-24||Clemson 27-24||Clemson 30-27||GT 27-23|
|Pitt at UNC (-2)||UNC 38-31||UNC 40-38||Pitt 38-34||Pitt 34-33|
|VT at Duke (-5.5)||Duke 28-14||Duke 38-21||Duke 27-20||Duke 24-20|
|Wake at NC State (-15)||NC State 28-7||NC State 38-21||NC State 30-17||NC State 24-14|
Coaching is a hot topic in any sport, but college football seems to bring out the most discussion when it comes to hot seat chatter and finding the next wave of rising stars. With job vacancies and hot seat rumblings only going to increase over the next month, it’s time to take a look at some of the rising stars in the coaching ranks for 2014.
Memphis’ Justin Fuente inherited a mess from former coach Larry Porter but engineered a quick turnaround in just three years with the Tigers. Fuente has Memphis in contention for the American Athletic Conference title this season and will be a name to remember in coaching searches this offseason. In addition to Fuente, some of the other rising stars in coaching ranks include Georgia Southern’s Willie Fritz, UL Lafayette’s Mark Hudspeth and Colorado State’s Jim McElwain.
Who are some of the coaches doing a noteworthy job outside of the Power 5 leagues? Athlon tackles that question below and provides a few coordinators to watch as well.
Head Coaches on the Rise
Dino Babers, Bowling Green
Babers was a well-traveled assistant prior to taking the top job at Eastern Illinois, and the 53-year-old coach has been on a quick rise over the last three years. From 2012-13, Babers went 19-7 at Eastern Illinois and is 6-3 during his first year at Bowling Green. Babers worked under Art Briles at Baylor and runs a similar up-tempo offense, which is averaging 32.9 points per game this season.
Craig Bohl, Wyoming
Bohl is in his first season at Wyoming after a very successful stint at North Dakota State. From 2003-13, Bohl guided the Bison to a 104-32 record and three consecutive FCS Championships. The Nebraska native is 4-6 through 10 games with the Cowboys, which includes losses against top 25 teams in Oregon, Michigan State and Colorado State. Wyoming also has two losses in conference play by 10 points or less. Bohl is a proven winner and is a good fit at Wyoming. Considering his track record of success, Bohl could be the top coach in the Mountain West and just needs time to recruit to his style of play to turn the program into a consistent bowl contender.
Matt Campbell, Toledo
At 33 years old, Campbell is one of college football’s youngest coaches. The Ohio native was promoted to head coach after Tim Beckman left for Illinois, and the Rockets are 23-13 under his direction. Campbell led Toledo to a bowl game in 2012 but missed out on the postseason despite a 7-5 mark last year. The Rockets are one of the top teams in the MAC West this year and should return to a bowl in 2014. Prior to taking over as Toledo’s head coach, Campbell spent three years as an assistant with the Rockets and worked from 2006-08 at Bowling Green. The Ohio native was a standout defensive lineman in his playing career at Mount Union.
Bill Clark, UAB
The future of UAB’s football program is uncertain, but whether he’s in Birmingham or moves on to another school, Clark has a bright future in the coaching industry. After a 5-19 mark in two seasons under Garrick McGee, the Blazers are 5-5 this season and should have a good shot at playing in a bowl. Prior to taking over at UAB, Clark spent one season as Jacksonville State’s head coach (2013) and recorded an 11-4 record. Clark also has a stint as South Alabama’s defensive coordinator (2008-12) and spent several years as a high school coach in Alabama.
Willie Fritz, Georgia Southern
Fritz has been a huge success in his first year at Georgia Southern. The Eagles are ineligible to play in a bowl game this season since they are transitioning from the FCS ranks, but that hasn’t slowed this team. Georgia Southern has won seven in a row and boasts an 8-2 record heading into Week 12. The Eagles' only losses? By one to NC State and by four to Georgia Tech. Prior to taking over at Georgia Southern, Fritz was very successful at three different jobs. He recorded a 40-15 mark at Sam Houston State, a 97-47 record at Central Missouri and went 39-5-1 at Blinn College. Fritz is a proven winner and has successfully blended his desired style of play to the returning talent at Georgia Southern. The Kansas native could be a name to watch for the opening at Kansas this offseason.
Justin Fuente, Memphis
Fuente inherited a roster and program in need of significant repair. Three years later, Memphis is one of the front-runners to win the American Athletic Conference. The Tigers went 3-21 in the two seasons prior to Fuente’s arrival but improved to 4-8 in his first year and 3-9 in 2013. In his third year, Fuente already has Memphis bowl-eligible for the first time since 2008. Considering how far the program has progressed in three seasons, Fuente should be a hot commodity for Power 5 openings this offseason.
Mark Hudspeth, UL Lafayette
Hudspeth is a name to keep on the radar for any SEC openings this offseason. The former Mississippi State assistant is 33-15 in four years at UL Lafayette and has the Ragin’ Cajuns are on track to earn their fourth consecutive bowl appearance. Prior to his current stint at UL Lafayette and two years at Mississippi State, Hudspeth went 66-21 from 2002-08 at North Alabama. Hudspeth signed a six-year contract extension in June, but his track record of success, energetic personality and ability to recruit will no doubt be attractive to any Power 5 program with an opening.
Pete Lembo, Ball State
Lembo is 28-19 through four seasons at Ball State and received a five-year contract extension in March. The Cardinals went to back-to-back bowl games in 2012-13 after going 6-6 in Lembo’s first year. Ball State lost a handful of key players from last season’s team and is off to a 3-6 start. Even though the Cardinals are likely to finish with a losing record for the first time under Lembo, the New York native is still a rising star in the coaching ranks. Prior to taking over in Muncie, Lembo went 44-14 in five years at Lehigh and 35-22 in five seasons at Elon.
Jim McElwain, Colorado State
McElwain’s stock has skyrocketed this fall. The Rams are 9-1 and ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll after Week 11. The Montana native went 4-8 in his first season in Fort Collins, but went 8-6 with a victory over Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl. Colorado State has won 13 out of its last 15 games, with its only loss this season coming at Boise State. Prior to taking over at Colorado State in 2012, McElwain worked on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama as the offensive coordinator and has stints at Fresno State, Michigan State, Louisville and in the NFL with the Raiders.
Matt Rhule, Temple
Last fall, Temple bottomed out with a 2-10 record in Rhule's first season as a head coach, but a deeper look at the Owls’ resume suggests the win-loss mark wasn’t as bad as it first appeared. Temple lost each of its last four games by 10 points or less and carried that momentum into the start of this season. The Owls opened the year with a victory at Vanderbilt and defeated East Carolina on Nov. 1. Temple is 5-4 through nine games and should reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011. Rhule returned to Temple after a one-year stint with the Giants. The Pennsylvania native worked on the Owls’ staff from 2006-11 under Al Golden and Steve Addazio.
Matt Wells, Utah State
Wells inherited a good roster from former coach Gary Andersen, but the former Aggie quarterback has navigated some difficult circumstances in his first two years on the job. Utah State won the Mountain West’s Mountain Division last season even though it lost quarterback Chuckie Keeton to season-ending injury in early October. This season, the Aggies are already on their fourth starter under center, as Keeton, backup Darell Garretson and senior Craig Harrison have been lost due to injuries. True freshman Kent Myers has filled in admirably so far, and Utah State still has a shot at defending its division title. Prior to joining the Utah State staff in 2011, Wells made stops as an assistant at New Mexico, Louisville, Tulsa and Navy. Wells isn’t just benefiting from following Andersen. With the injuries over the last two years, it’s clear Wells knows what he’s doing in Logan.
Other Head Coaches to Know
Tim DeRuyter, Fresno State
DeRuyter went 20-6 in his first two seasons at Fresno State but is just 4-6 this season. The Bulldogs are rebuilding without Derek Carr under center, and barring an upset over Nevada, Fresno State is likely to miss out on a bowl this year.
Doc Holliday, Marshall
Holliday was always regarded as an excellent recruiter, and his work on the trail has paid dividends for Marshall this fall. The Thundering Herd is 9-0 and poised to grab the Group of 5 bowl spot. Holliday entered this season with a 27-24 record in four years in Huntington.
Curtis Johnson, Tulane
The former NFL assistant and New Orleans native is a perfect fit at Tulane. In 2013, Johnson guided the Green Wave (7-6) to their first winning record since 2002.
Joe Moglia, Coastal Carolina
Moglia might have the most interesting back story of any coach on the FBS or FCS level. Moglia coached from 1968-83 but went into business and became the CEO of Ameritrade in 2001. After seven years in that role, Moglia worked as a voluntary assistant at Nebraska from 2009-10 and spent one year as the AFL's Omaha Nighthawks coach in 2011. Moglia was hired as Coastal Carolina’s coach in 2012 and is 28-8 through three seasons. At 65 years old, Moglia isn’t an up-and-comer, but he would be an interesting (and likely successful) hire for a Group of 5 program.
Bobby Wilder, Old Dominion
Wilder was the first hire for Old Dominion after the school restarted its football program. The Monarchs are in their first season in the FBS ranks after tranisitioning from the FCS (2009-13), during which they did not record a losing season. Old Dominion also made the FCS playoffs in 2011 and '12. Through 10 games as a full-fledged FCS member, Wilder has led the Monarchs to a 4-6 mark. The staple of Wilder’s teams are a high-scoring offense, which is currently led by standout quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
And Don’t Forget About….
Greg Schiano, former Rutgers/Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach
Schiano isn’t technically on the rise, but his name is likely to be associated with vacancies this offseason.
Coordinators on the Rise
Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, Wisconsin
Aranda is a relative unknown to most around the nation, but the California native has emerged as one of the Big Ten’s top defensive signal-callers over the last two years. Despite replacing eight starters, Wisconsin leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (14.3 ppg) this season. This coming after Aranda’s 2013 unit ranked second in the conference (16.3 ppg) and limited offenses to just 4.2 yards per play. Prior to joining coach Gary Andersen in Wisconsin, Aranda served as the defensive coordinator at Hawaii (2010-11) and at Utah State (2012). Under Aranda’s direction, the Aggies’ defense allowed just 4.3 yards per play in 2012.
Geoff Collins, Defensive Coordinator, Mississippi State
The Bulldogs’ offense and quarterback Dak Prescott are garnering most of the attention in Starkville, but don’t overlook the defense. Mississippi State is holding opponents to 5.7 yards per play in SEC games, and led by one of the best defensive fronts in the league, the Bulldogs lead the league with 32 sacks. This is Collins’ fourth year in Starkville, and prior to joining Dan Mullen’s staff, he spent time at FIU (defensive coordinator), UCF and Alabama. Collins also is regarded as an excellent recruiter.
Scott Frost, Offensive Coordinator, Oregon
Frost has picked up where Chip Kelly left off when he departed for the NFL. Under Frost’s direction, the Ducks are averaging 7.3 yards per play this fall after leading the Pac-12 with a 7.5 mark in 2013. Prior to his promotion to call the plays in Eugene, Frost worked Oregon's receivers coach from 2009-12 and spent two years at Northern Iowa working on the defensive side of the ball. The former Nebraska quarterback will be a name to remember in coaching searches over the next few seasons.
Tom Herman, Offensive Coordinator, Ohio State
Despite losing quarterback Braxton Miller to a shoulder injury in fall practice, Ohio State’s offense hasn’t missed a beat. Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has emerged as the Big Ten’s top quarterback under Herman’s direction, and the Buckeyes are averaging 6.8 yards per play in conference games this year. The Ohio native has worked under coach Urban Meyer since 2012 and called the plays at Texas State (2005-06), Rice (2007-08) and Iowa State (2009-11). Herman also is a member of Mensa International.
Doug Meacham, Co-Offensive Coordinator, TCU
Meacham and fellow co-offensive coordinator Sonny Cumbie are a big reason why TCU is squarely in the mix to earn a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff. In 2013, the Horned Frogs ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 by averaging just 5.0 yards per play and 25.1 points per game. One year later, TCU’s offense is among the best in the nation. The Horned Frogs are averaging 47.2 points per game and 6.9 yards per play in Big 12 contests. Meacham and Cumbie also transformed quarterback Trevone Boykin into one of the nation’s most-improved players. Prior to joining the TCU staff, Meacham worked for one season as Houston’s play-caller (2013) and worked from 2005-12 at Oklahoma State.
Chad Morris, Offensive Coordinator, Clemson
Morris is one of the nation’s highest-paid assistants and has coordinated a prolific Clemson offense since 2011. The Tigers averaged 40 points a game in 2012-13 and over 30 points in '11. And so far this fall, Clemson is putting up 32.4 points per contest. Morris has never been a head coach on the FBS level (only high school head-coaching stints), and his only FBS experience prior to Clemson was a stint as Tulsa’s play-caller in 2010. The Texas native could be a candidate to watch at SMU.
Pat Narduzzi, Defensive Coordinator, Michigan State
Narduzzi’s is in no hurry to leave East Lansing, but the Ohio native is regarded as one of - if not No. 1 - top assistant coaches in college football. Narduzzi joined coach Mark Dantonio’s staff in 2007 and has developed an elite defense during his tenure in East Lansing. Michigan State led the nation by limiting opponents to just 4.0 yards per play last season, and the Spartans ranked first in the Big Ten in scoring defense from 2012-13. Prior to taking over the controls for Michigan State’s defense, Narduzzi worked on Dantonio’s staff at Cincinnati (2004-06) and had stints as an assistant at Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois and Rhode Island.
Mike Norvell, Offensive Coordinator, Arizona State
Norvell owns one of college football’s best titles, as he’s technically the deputy head coach to Todd Graham at Arizona State. Norvell has worked under Graham for the last eight years, and his three offenses with the Sun Devils have averaged at least 36 points per game.
Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Georgia
Pruitt has made a quick ascension through the coaching ranks. The Alabama native spent nearly 10 years as a high school assistant in the state, including from 2004-06 as Hoover High School. Pruitt worked in an off-field role from 2007-09 at Alabama and was promoted to defensive backs coach in 2010. After three years in that role, Pruitt was hired to coordinate Florida State’s defense in 2013. The Seminoles had one of the nation’s best units under Pruitt’s direction, allowing just 4.09 yards per play. Defensively, Georgia isn't as stocked talent-wise as the Seminoles were last season, but Pruitt’s arrival has had an impact on a unit that allowed 29 points per game in 2013.
Lincoln Riley, Offensive Coordinator, East Carolina
is only 31 years old, but the Texas native is ready for a chance to run his own program. After spending 2003-05 as a student assistant coach at Texas Tech, Riley was promoted to a staff assistant on offense in 2006 and wide receivers coach in '07. Riley stayed on staff in Lubbock until 2010 and followed Ruffin McNeill from Texas Tech to East Carolina. The Pirates are leading the American Athletic Conference in yards per play (6.8), as quarterback Shane Carden has thrived under Riley’s tutelage. An Air Raid disciple who learned under Mike Leach, Riley knows how to develop a passing attack. However, East Carolina’s offense has plenty of balance this year, averaging 188.3 yards rushing per game.
Nick Rolovich, Offensive Coordinator, Nevada
The former Hawaii quarterback has quietly built an impressive resume as an assistant. Rolovich started his coaching career in 2003 at Hawaii and made a stop at City College of San Francisco (2006-07) before coming back to Honolulu to call plays in '10. The Warriors led the WAC in yards per play (7.6) that season and averaged 31.5 points per game in 2011. Rolovich joined coach Chris Ault’s staff in Nevada in 2012 and was retained by Brian Polian in '13. The Wolf Pack are averaging 30 points per game this fall. Could Rolovich be a name to remember at Hawaii if Norm Chow doesn’t return in 2015?
Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Penn State
Shoop has been under the radar over the last few years, but the Pennsylvania native is one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators. Shoop was hired by James Franklin at Vanderbilt and brought immediate improvement to a defense that allowed 31.2 points per game in 2010. The Commodores did not allow more than 25 points per game in Shoop’s three years and forced 30 turnovers (second in the SEC) in '13. Through six conference games this season, Penn State is holding opponents to just 3.9 yards per play and is allowing only 16.6 points per game.
Kalani Sitake, Defensive Coordinator, Utah
Sitake could be one of the nation’s most underrated assistant coaches. The former BYU fullback started his coaching career at Eastern Arizona in 2001 and later spent one year at BYU (2002) and two at Southern Utah (2003-04). Sitake joined the Utah staff in 2005 and was promoted to defensive play-caller in 2009. The Utes have never allowed more than 5.4 yards per play in a season under Sitake’s direction and rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense this year. Heading into Week 12, Utah leads the nation with 43 sacks. Sitake is also regarded as a good recruiter.
Kirby Smart, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama
Smart helps coach Nick Saban coordinate the Alabama defense, which has been one of the nation’s most dominant units over the last few years. The Crimson Tide has not allowed more than five yards per play since Smart was promoted to call the defensive signals in 2008. Alabama has also ranked inside of the top five nationally in scoring defense for six consecutive seasons. Smart has a good job now and is well compensated. Don’t expect the former Georgia defensive back to rush into a head coaching job.
Other Coordinators to Know
Tim Beck, Offensive Coordinator, Nebraska
Mike Elko, Defensive Coordinator, Wake Forest
Rhett Lashlee, Offensive Coordinator, Auburn
Brian Lindgren, Offensive Coordinator, Colorado
Philip Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Baylor
Scottie Montgomery, Offensive Coordinator, Duke
Bryant Vincent, Offensive Coordinator, UAB
Justin Wilcox, Defensive Coordinator, USC
College football’s playoff committee has released two sets of rankings, and the debate about the top four teams will continue every week until the final matchups are released. While the top 25 rankings are expected to change each week and will look drastically different from the release of the first poll to the last one, the playoff committee's poll provided some insight into the process.
Each week, Athlon Sports hopes to replicate the playoff committee’s work by asking some of college football’s top media members to vote on their top eight teams. This poll will attempt to project how the playoff picture stacks up after each week until the end of the year.
Bobby Bowden (@TheBobbyBowden), Legends Poll
Gene Stallings, (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Don Nehlen (@LegendsPoll), Legends Poll
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), Athlon Sports
Braden Gall (@BradenGall), Athlon Sports
Zac Ellis (@ZacEllis), Sports Illustrated
David Fox (@DavidFox615), Athlon Sports
Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis), CardChronicle.com
Teddy Mitrosilis (@TMitrosilis), Fox Sports
Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey), SBNation.com
Matt Brown (@MattBrownCFB), SportsonEarth.com
Rich Cirminiello (@RichCirminiello), Campus Insiders
Brad Crawford (@BCrawfordSDS), SaturdayDownSouth.com
Allen Kenney (@BlatantHomerism), BlatantHomerism.com
Chris Anderson (@CMAnderson247), Eersports.com
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45), CFBHuddle.com
Adam Powell (@ACCSports), ACCSports.com
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch) Athlon Sports
Josh Ward (@Josh_Ward), MrSEC.com
Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB), CollegeFootballTalk.com
Mark Ross (@AthlonMarkR), Athlon Sports
Post-Week 11 Playoff Projection
Takeaways From Expert Poll Results
* Mississippi State extended its edge over Florida State for the No. 1 spot. The Bulldogs held 12 first-place votes last week but recorded 15 after Week 11. The Seminoles had eight first-place votes following Week 10 but lost four in this week’s projection. Alabama also picked up one first-place vote.
* There’s a clear top four in this week’s poll: Mississippi State, Florida State, Alabama and Oregon. In last week’s poll, Alabama and Oregon tied for the No. 4 spot.
* TCU and Baylor are on the outside of the top four in this week’s vote. Even though the Bears won the head-to-head matchup, the Horned Frogs recorded more points (83 to 69) in the post-Week 11 projection.
* Four SEC teams received votes in this week’s projection.
* Ohio State jumped from No. 10 to No. 8 after beating Michigan State in Week 11. The Buckeyes need a lot of help to reach the top four and could benefit from Wisconsin or Nebraska winning out and ranking among the top 10-15 teams in the polls prior to the Big Ten Championship.
* Arizona State climbs from No. 12 to No. 7 after beating Notre Dame. The Sun Devils won’t play an opponent ranked in this week’s poll the rest of the regular season, but a matchup against Arizona and Oregon (if it reaches the Pac-12 Championship) would help bolster coach Todd Graham’s team.
* Two-loss teams Auburn, Ole Miss and Michigan State each received votes in this week’s poll, but all three are longshots to climb back into the top four.
Group of 5 Rankings
The Thundering Herd fell behind 14-0 to Southern Miss but rallied for an easy 63-17 win on Saturday. Quarterback Rakeem Cato has passed for a score in 41 consecutive games, and Marshall’s defense is allowing just 4.4 yards per play. Marshall could be tested in its final three contests, starting with a matchup against defending C-USA champion Rice this Saturday.
2. Boise State
It wasn’t easy, but the Broncos earned their fourth consecutive victory by defeating New Mexico 60-49. Quarterback Grant Hedrick and running back Jay Ajayi each topped 100 rushing yards, and the offense recorded 34 first downs in the victory. Boise State has a tricky matchup against San Diego State this Saturday, as the Aztecs have defeated the Broncos in back-to-back years. After the contest against San Diego State, Boise State plays at Wyoming on Nov. 22.
3. Colorado State
The Rams easily dispatched Hawaii in a 49-22 victory in Week 11. Colorado State is on bye this Saturday, and the off date comes at a good time for coach Jim McElwain’s team. Quarterback Garrett Grayson and receiver Rashard Higgins are dealing with minor injuries and could use the time off to heal before the final two games of the year (New Mexico and at Air Force).
4. East Carolina
East Carolina is coming off a timely bye, which should help coach Ruffin McNeill’s team regroup after the 20-10 loss to Temple on Nov. 1. The Pirates play at Cincinnati this Thursday in a critical American Athletic Conference matchup.
Don’t adjust your vision: Memphis is currently at the top of the American Athletic Conference standings. Yes, that’s right. The Tigers are 4-1 in conference play and scored a key win over Temple on Nov. 7. Memphis should be favored to win its final three games – at Tulane, USF and Connecticut. The Tigers are a longshot to claim the Group of 5 spot, but the inclusion of Memphis in this ranking just shows how far coach Justin Fuente has brought this program over the last three seasons.
Games With Playoff/Bowl Implications in Week 12
East Carolina at Cincinnati
7 p.m. ET, ESPN 2 (Thursday)
After losing to Temple in Week 10, East Carolina needs a win to keep its Group of 5 bowl hopes alive.
Ohio State at Minnesota
Noon ET, ABC
A road trip to Minneapolis is a good letdown spot for Ohio State after its win against Michigan State. The Golden Gophers need a win to keep pace with Wisconsin and Nebraska in the Big Ten West Division.
Clemson at Georgia Tech
Noon ET, ESPN
A critical matchup for positioning within the ACC. Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson is back in the lineup for Clemson, while Georgia Tech needs to win to stay within reach of Duke in the Coastal. The winner of this game stays alive for a berth in the Orange Bowl (assuming Florida State makes the playoff).
South Carolina at Florida
Noon ET, SEC Network
Believe it or not, Florida still has faint SEC East title hopes. On the other sideline, South Carolina is just trying to get bowl eligible.
Mississippi State at Alabama
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
This matchup is the best of Week 12. Mississippi State puts its No. 1 ranking on the line in Tuscaloosa against an Alabama team that is still climbing back into the national title picture. Can the Crimson Tide defense slow down quarterback Dak Prescott?
Nebraska at Wisconsin
3:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Not quite a national showcase game like Ohio State-Michigan State, but this meeting between the Cornhuskers and Badgers is important for the Big Ten West Division title. This game could feature two of the nation’s top running backs if Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah is healthy from a knee injury suffered against Purdue.
Auburn at Georgia
7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN
Remember how last year’s game ended? This year’s version could be just as entertaining, especially with Georgia regaining the services of running back Todd Gurley. Auburn needs to win this one to keep its West Division title hopes alive.
Missouri at Texas A&M
7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network
The Tigers control their destiny in the SEC East. Texas A&M looks to build off its momentum from the win at Auburn last week.
Florida State at Miami
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Miami is garnering some interest as an upset pick over Florida State, but the Hurricanes have lost four in a row to their in-state rival. This matchup is one of the biggest for Miami under coach Al Golden, while the Seminoles can clinch the Atlantic Division with a win on Saturday.
LSU at Arkansas
8 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Will Arkansas get its first SEC win under coach Bret Bielema?
Arizona State at Oregon State
10:45 p.m. ET, ESPN
Sun Devils are on a collision course with Oregon in the Pac-12 title game. However, coach Todd Graham’s team has to avoid a letdown against a struggling Oregon State team on Saturday.
College football’s 2014 season has reached its final stretch run, and the bowl and national title picture is starting to clear. The playoff committee will release its third set of rankings on Tuesday this week, which should give fans, coaches and players a better idea of what the committee values heading into the last few weeks of the season.
The new playoff format has added a new layer of intrigue, as four teams – instead of two – will have a shot at the national championship once the bowl pairings are announced in early December.
With 11 weeks in the books, it’s time to take a look at what the bowl picture might hold for each conference and team this year. The post-Week 11 bowl projections are a mixture between picks for the next few weeks, how things would look if the season ended today, and the results from the first 11 weeks of action. Expect several changes over the next few weeks.
Teams on the projection bubble: Akron, Texas State, Fresno State, USF, Oregon State, ULM, San Jose State, Northwestern, Michigan, Virginia, North Carolina, Oklahoma State, Kentucky and Arkansas. Remember: It’s only Week 11. Several changes are coming, and it’s impossible to project all of the wins and losses the rest of the way considering how much changes week-to-week in college football.
College Football's Post-Week 11 Bowl Projections
|New Orleans||Dec. 20||Sun Belt vs.|
| UL Lafayette vs.|
|New Mexico||Dec. 20||C-USA vs.|
| UTEP vs.|
|Las Vegas||Dec. 20||Mountain West vs.|
| Boise State vs.|
|Famous Idaho Potato||Dec. 20||MAC vs. |
| Bowling Green vs.|
|Camellia||Dec. 20||MAC vs.|
| Ohio vs.|
|Miami Beach||Dec. 22||American vs.|
| East Carolina vs.|
|Boca Raton||Dec. 23||C-USA vs.|
| UAB vs.|
Mountain West vs.
| Colorado State vs.|
|Bahamas||Dec. 24||C-USA vs.|
| MTSU vs.|
|Hawaii||Dec. 24||C-USA vs.|
| Western Kentucky vs.|
San Diego State
|Heart of Dallas||Dec. 26||Big Ten vs.|
| Rutgers vs.|
|Quick Lane||Dec. 26||ACC vs.|
| Boston College vs.|
|St. Petersburg||Dec. 26||ACC vs. |
| Virginia Tech vs.|
|Military||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Pittsburgh vs.|
|Sun||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Louisville vs.|
|Independence||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| NC State vs.|
|Pinstripe||Dec. 27||ACC vs.|
| Georgia Tech vs.|
|Holiday||Dec. 27||Big Ten vs.|
| Wisconsin vs.|
|Liberty||Dec. 29||SEC vs. |
| Tennessee vs.|
|Russell Athletic||Dec. 29||ACC vs.|
| Notre Dame vs.|
|Texas||Dec. 29||Big 12 vs. |
| Texas vs.|
|Music City||Dec. 30||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Iowa vs.|
|Belk||Dec. 30||ACC vs.|
| Duke vs.|
|San Francisco||Dec. 30||Big Ten vs.|
| Minnesota vs.|
|Outback||Jan. 1||Big Ten vs.|
| Nebraska vs. |
|Citrus||Jan. 1||Big Ten/ACC vs.|
| Michigan State vs.|
|Armed Forces||Jan. 2||American vs. |
| Houston vs.|
|Taxslayer||Jan. 2||ACC/Big Ten vs.|
| Miami vs.|
|Alamo||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs. |
| Kansas State vs.|
|Cactus||Jan. 2||Big 12 vs.|
| Washington vs.|
|Birmingham||Jan. 3||American vs.|
| Memphis vs.|
|GoDaddy||Jan. 4||MAC vs. |
| Toledo vs.|
|New Year's Bowls|
|Peach||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
| Marshall vs.|
|Fiesta||Dec. 31||At-large vs.|
|Orange||Dec. 31||ACC vs.|
| Clemson vs.|
|Cotton||Jan. 1||At-large vs.|
| TCU vs. |
|Related: Projecting the Playoff Teams After Week 11|
| Florida State vs.|
| Mississippi State vs.|
|National Title||Jan. 12||Semifinal Winner vs.|
| Mississippi State vs.|
* Indicates an at-large selection. Conference not projected to have enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill the conference alignment.
Clemson is having an uncharacteristic season on offense. The Tigers average just 5.4 yards per play (ninth in the ACC) and rank sixth in the conference by averaging 32.4 points per game. The slow start hasn’t drastically affected Clemson’s record, and coach Dabo Swinney’s team is poised to push for another season of at least 10 wins.
A couple of factors are to blame for the drop in production on offense, but there’s potential for this unit to improve over the final three games with the return of quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Watson’s return comes at a critical time for coach Dabo Swinney’s team. At 7-2 overall and 6-1 in conference play, Clemson is squarely in the mix to earn an appearance in the Orange Bowl – if Florida State makes the college football playoff. The Tigers made two previous appearances in the Orange Bowl under Swinney, but finishing 10-2 and earning a spot in one of the premier postseason games would be a huge accomplishment for a program replacing three offensive standouts in quarterback Tajh Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in 2014.
But there’s also another aspect to Watson’s return: the Nov. 29 showdown against South Carolina.
Clemson has not defeated the Gamecocks since 2008, but this would appear to be its best shot since the Gamecocks are struggling just to get bowl eligible.
Watson nearly guided Clemson to an upset win at Florida State and recorded 50 points in a win against North Carolina. The freshman also passed for 267 yards and two scores in an easy 41-0 win over NC State.
While this year’s offense isn’t as prolific as the units that led Clemson to 32 wins from 2011-13, that hasn’t derailed the Tigers from winning.
With Watson back in the lineup this week against Georgia Tech, it’s a good opportunity for this team to build momentum on offense before the bowl practices.
The true freshman has completed 75 of 112 passes for 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions in limited action this year. With Florida State’s Jameis Winston likely to enter the NFL Draft at the end of 2014, Watson should be the ACC’s top signal-caller in 2015. And Watson should be surrounded by plenty of talent, as running back Wayne Gallman and receiver Artavis Scott have emerged as key playmakers over the last few weeks.
Stoudt has kept the offense on track during Watson’s absence. However, there’s little doubt the true freshman is the better quarterback and has the skill-set to thrive in coordinator Chad Morris’ offense.
The Clemson coaching staff can be more aggressive in its passing game, as Watson averages 15.7 yards per completion, while Stoudt recorded just 10 yards per completion. Watson also averaged 10 yards per attempt, compared to 6.4 to Stoudt. The true freshman has a bigger arm, and his ability to stretch the field should help an offense that has six plays of 40 yards or more, which is a decrease from the 19 this team recorded last year.
Florida State is in full control of the Atlantic Division title this year, but Clemson still has plenty to play for over the last three weeks of the season. With Watson back under center this week, the Tigers have a chance to finish the year with momentum, including a good opportunity to beat their rival South Carolina and earn a spot in the Orange Bowl. And that’s not a bad way to finish 2014 with the amount of firepower that left Clemson for the NFL after the 2013 season.
Oregon crossed another hurdle in its quest to reach college football’s four-team playoff with a 51-27 victory over Utah on Saturday night. The win over the Utes clinched a spot in the Pac-12 Championship for coach Mark Helfrich’s team, and the Ducks have won five in a row since a 31-24 loss to Arizona in early October.
However, Saturday night’s win over Utah could be costly in the long run. Oregon doesn’t release much in the way of injury reports, but a couple key players left the game and were unable to return.
The biggest concern from Saturday night has to be the status of standout center Hroniss Grasu. The senior made his 50th consecutive start in Saturday night’s win over Utah and is one of the leaders for an offense that averages 46 points a game. Grasu left the game with a knee injury and was replaced by Doug Brenner.
In addition to Grasu, Oregon lost tight end Pharaoh Brown due to a serious leg injury, cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu left with a toe injury, and defensive end DeForest Buckner left the locker room with ice on his knee.
Considering Oregon’s policy of not discussing injuries, it’s hard to know how long this team could be without Grasu or Buckner. Ekpre-Olomu commented after the game he expects to be ready for Colorado.
While the injuries against Utah are troublesome for Oregon, this team has a bye in Week 12, followed by games against Colorado and Oregon State. The Ducks should be able to beat the Buffaloes and Beavers without being at full strength.
However, it’s the Pac-12 Championship that should be of concern for Helfrich.
Arizona State has won five in a row, and its defense creates a lot of havoc around the line of scrimmage (73 tackles for a loss). And the Sun Devils certainly have no trouble scoring points, as coach Todd Graham’s offense averages 36.7 points per game.
Arizona State still has work to do in order to reach the conference championship, but the Sun Devils are a threat to Oregon’s playoff hopes if they meet in the Pac-12 title game – especially if the Ducks are at less than 100 percent in the injury department.
With the return of tackle Jake Fisher and quarterback Marcus Mariota’s continued play as the best quarterback in college football, Oregon has scored at least 42 points in each of its last five games.
The high-scoring offense has helped to mask some of the issues on defense, where the Ducks rank ninth in the Pac-12 in yards allowed per play (5.7) and last in the conference in third-down defense.
Getting Fisher back was huge for the offense, but how much of a blow would it be to this team if Grasu was out for an extended period?
So far, the Ducks’ national title hopes have yet to be derailed by injury. And with a couple of weeks to get everyone at full strength before the Pac-12 title game, that’s a huge break for Helfrich’s team.
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett was simply flawless in Saturday’s win over Michigan State. The redshirt freshman finished with 300 passing yards and three scores and rushed for 86 yards and two touchdowns in a matchup against one of the nation’s best defenses.
Barrett earned Athlon Sports National Player of the Week honors for Week 11 due to his performance against the Spartans, which vaulted Ohio State back into contention for a spot in college football’s new four-team playoff.
The Buckeyes lost to the Spartans in last year’s Big Ten Championship, and this season’s meeting was billed as a defacto East Division title game and a matchup between the two best teams in the conference.
The Spartans jumped out to a 7-0 lead early in the first quarter, but the Buckeyes never hit the panic button and rallied behind an offense that finished with just two punts. Barrett guided Ohio State back to a 28-21 lead at halftime, and the redshirt freshman helped the Buckeyes score 14 points unanswered midway through the second half, which gave coach Urban Meyer’s team a 42-24 lead and proved to be more than enough in a 49-37 victory for Ohio State.
Barrett had big shoes to fill in August with the season-ending shoulder injury to quarterback Braxton Miller. After a slow start to the season, the redshirt freshman clearly looks like a rising star at quarterback and is someone who has mastered Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman’s system in a very short amount of time.
Defensive Player of the Week: Cedric Reed, DE, Texas
Reed led a standout defensive effort in Texas’ upset win over West Virginia. The Longhorns held the Mountaineers to a season-low 16 points and five yards per play on 90 attempts. Reed wreaked havoc on West Virginia’s offensive line, sacking quarterback Clint Trickett three times and recording four tackles for a loss. One of the senior’s sacks against Trickett resulted in a safety in the fourth quarter. Reed also chipped in 12 overall tackles and one forced fumble.
Coordinator of the Week: Phil Bennett, Baylor
Baylor’s offense scored 48 points in Saturday’s win over Oklahoma, but the defensive effort from the Bears was just as sharp. Coordinator Phil Bennett has significantly improved Baylor’s defense in recent years, as this unit led the Big 12 in fewest yards per play in 2013. Bennett had to replace a few standouts from last season, but the Bears haven’t suffered in production. In Saturday’s victory, the Sooners did not score a point after the first quarter, were limited to 5.1 yards per play and five out of the last six offensive possessions by Oklahoma never lasted more than 18 yards. Baylor will always have an explosive offense under coach Art Briles. However, it’s the improvement on defense that has the Bears squarely in the mix to earn a spot in the college football playoff.
Freshman of the Week: Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
In his first career start, Falk kept coach Mike Leach’s high-powered offense on track by throwing for 471 yards and five scores in a 39-32 win over Oregon State. The redshirt freshman threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, including an 18-yard toss to Dom Williams to give Washington State the lead for good against the Beavers. Falk had the difficult assignment of replacing injured starter Connor Halliday in last week’s game against USC, but the redshirt freshman clearly showed he was ready for the task by guiding the Cougars to their second Pac-12 victory of 2014. Falk’s 471 yards against Oregon State were the most by a Washington State quarterback in their first career start, and the former walk-on has a chance to solidify his place atop the depth chart for next season if he continues to play at a high level against Arizona State and Washington.
Arizona State bolstered its playoff hopes with a huge 55-31 win over Notre Dame on Saturday.
The Sun Devils had plenty of help from their defense, but receiver Jaelen Strong made one of the best plays of the day with a touchdown grab in the first half.
Strong finished with five catches for 58 yards, and this first-half touchdown reception was his best grab of the day:
Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams had a huge performance in the Golden Gophers’ game against Iowa.
With Minnesota leading 14-7 midway through the second quarter, Williams made one of the catches of the year in the Big Ten. The tight end kept the foot in bounds and snagged a pass from quarterback Mitch Leidner.
Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight went airborne to gain critical yardage in the first half of Saturday’s game against Baylor.
Knight had the first down without the hurdle, but the jump over cornerback Terrell Burt gave the offense a few more yards.
Check out Knight’s awesome hurdle over a Baylor defender:
The first year of college football’s playoff committee rankings has added new intrigue to the season, and one look at the latest top 25 release shows just how important Saturday’s game is between Arizona State and Notre Dame. The Sun Devils and Fighting Irish are ranked back-to-back (No. 9 and No. 10) following the Week 10 games. Saturday’s winner should keep their playoff hopes alive while dealing a significant (and likely eliminating) loss to the other team.
Arizona State has won four games in a row since a 62-27 loss to UCLA. The Sun Devils defeated three ranked teams in that stretch, including a 19-16 overtime win against Utah and a 38-34 last-second victory over USC on Oct. 4. Notre Dame’s only loss this year came at the hands of Florida State, but the Fighting Irish rank behind Arizona State due to the Sun Devils’ strength of schedule and bigger margin of victory against a common opponent (Stanford).
Arizona State and Notre Dame have only three previous meetings. The Fighting Irish are 3-0 against the Sun Devils, including a 37-34 victory in last season’s matchup in Arlington.
Notre Dame at Arizona State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Arizona State -2.5
Notre Dame’s Key to Victory: QB Everett Golson
Coming off a tough matchup against Navy, combined with the loss of linebacker Joe Schmidt, Notre Dame needs its offense to carry the team on Saturday. As evidenced by his 22 passing touchdowns to just seven interceptions, Golson is capable of doing so. Arizona State ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, but this unit has played three average offenses over the last three weeks. Golson could be the best quarterback the Sun Devils have played this season, and his mobility will keep plays alive if the defense is able to get pressure and collapse the pocket. But most importantly for Notre Dame, Golson has to have a mistake-free effort. The junior has seven picks this season and two came in the loss to Florida State. A tight game is expected on Saturday, and a turnover or two by either team could be costly. One other area to watch is the emergence of running back Tarean Folston. The sophomore has 169 yards over the last two games.
Arizona State’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Quarterback Taylor Kelly is still knocking off the rust from a foot injury that forced him to miss three games earlier this year. But Kelly has passed for 385 yards and three scores over the last two contests and has 62 rushing yards in that span. Despite being a little rusty, Kelly guided Arizona State to wins over Washington and Utah. Considering Kelly probably needs another week or two to get fully acclimated to the offense once again, the Sun Devils need to take the pressure off him by establishing balance. Running back D.J. Foster leads the team with 701 yards and freshman Demario Richard has 280 – including 170 over the last two weeks. Receiver Jaelen Strong is one of the best in the Pac-12, catching 57 passes for 821 yards and eight scores. Notre Dame won’t have standout linebacker Joe Schmidt for the rest of the year due to an injury suffered against Navy. Without Schmidt, the Fighting Irish will turn to true freshman Nyles Morgan in the starting lineup. Notre Dame’s defense is giving up 5.2 yards per play in 2014 but has allowed at least 5.6 yards per play in three consecutive weeks. With Schmidt’s injury, combined with the Fighting Irish’s recent performance on defense, Arizona State should be able to push 30 points on Saturday night. Balance for the Sun Devils will be critical, especially as Kelly continues to knock the rust off from a significant foot injury.
It’s probably fair to call this game an elimination matchup in terms of playoff seeding. The loser of this matchup is likely out of the picture for one of the four-team spots, but is still in the mix for one of the New Year’s Bowls. The winner of this game will be on the doorstep of the top eight once again next week and in position to earn a spot in the playoffs. Notre Dame’s defense is a concern. But it’s also fair to wonder whether Arizona State’s recent improvement on that side of the ball was due to offenses that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12. Expect plenty of points in this back-and-forth affair. Notre Dame keeps its playoff hopes alive for another week by finding a way to win this one in the fourth quarter.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, Arizona State 31
At the beginning of the season, not many circled Kansas State-TCU as the biggest game of the year in the Big 12. But Saturday’s matchup between the Horned Frogs and Wildcats could be the biggest game of the year in the conference, as TCU and Kansas State rank No. 7 and No. 8 in the latest playoff committee rankings.
TCU finished 4-8 last season but has experienced a quick turnaround on the strength of an improved offense. The Horned Frogs averaged only 25.1 points per game in 2013 but have recorded 48 points per contest through eight matchups this year. Quarterback Trevone Boykin has thrived under new co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.
With a victory over TCU on Saturday, Kansas State will match its win total from 2013. The Wildcats’ biggest win in 2014 took place in Norman, defeating Oklahoma 31-30 in mid-October. Coach Bill Snyder’s team suffered its only loss at the hands of Auburn – a game that was summed up by missed opportunities for Kansas State.
Kansas State owns a 4-3 series edge over TCU. The Wildcats have won the last two meetings over the Horned Frogs. The last meeting between these two teams in Fort Worth was a 23-10 win by Kansas State.
And here’s a small storyline to note about this matchup: TCU coach Gary Patterson played at Kansas State from 1980-81 and is a Kansas native.
Kansas State at TCU
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: TCU -6
Kansas State’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
It sounds simple, but Kansas State’s mistake-free ways will be tested against TCU. The Horned Frogs lead the nation with a +15 turnover margin and has forced nine takeaways in their last two games. On the flipside, the Wildcats have lost only seven turnovers and commit only 3.4 penalties per game. Bill Snyder’s team simply won’t beat itself on Saturday night. With little separating Kansas State and TCU, it’s the small things that could swing this game in favor of a particular team. The Wildcats need to continue what they have done all season and limit their mistakes. Quarterback Jake Waters is a big part of that storyline, as the senior has yet to throw a pick in a Big 12 game. If Waters completes over 60 percent of his throws, doesn’t toss a pick, and Kansas State wins the turnover battle, that might be enough for the Wildcats to win in Fort Worth.
TCU’s Key to Victory: Establish the Tempo on Offense
Kansas State averages 35.8 points per game in Big 12 action this year, but the Wildcats prefer to move at a methodical pace (32:50 time of possession). TCU is going with an up-tempo approach this year, and the switch in schemes has made a huge impact on the offense. Quarterback Trevone Boykin is a Heisman contender, and the Horned Frogs have 25 plays of 30 yards or more this year. Kansas State is capable of scoring 40 points, but the Wildcats would prefer to move a little slower and use their ground attack to eat up the clock on lengthy drives. TCU should look to jump out to an early lead and force K-State to play at a quicker pace. If Boykin can rebound from his worst start of the season (166 yards against West Virginia), there will be opportunities to make plays against a secondary that ranks seventh in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense.
This is the only top-10 matchup for Week 11 and is relatively even across the board. Both defenses allow less than five yards per play, while Kansas State ranks as the Big 12’s best in scoring defense (18.6 ppg). TCU is more explosive on offense, but the Wildcats – using a different style – aren’t far behind on the stat sheet. Expect a tight game well into the fourth quarter, with both teams landing a few big plays in the process. Kansas State is one of the best in the nation at not beating itself. However, with this game in Fort Worth and quarterback Trevone Boykin due for a rebound effort, TCU gets a slight edge – but there’s not much separating these two teams.
Prediction: TCU 31, Kansas State 30
The Big Ten has spent most of 2014 out of the national spotlight, but the Michigan State-Ohio State showdown on Saturday night carries significant playoff implications. This matchup is easily the biggest game of the year in the conference and is a rematch of last year’s Big Ten title game. In last season’s contest, the Spartans won 34-24 and eliminated the Buckeyes from earning a spot in the BCS title game.
Both teams enter Saturday night’s matchup with one loss. However, there’s a different narrative following each team’s defeat. Michigan State’s defeat came at the hands of Oregon – ranked as the No. 4 team in the college football playoff standings after Week 10. Ohio State’s loss was to a Virginia Tech team that is struggling just to get bowl eligible. And the Buckeyes’ loss to the Hokies is clearly hurting coach Urban Meyer’s team in the playoff poll, as Ohio State ranks No. 14 and needs a lot of help to get into the top four.
Ohio State owns a 28-13 series edge over Michigan State. The Buckeyes are just 1-2 in their last three matchups against the Spartans. Two out of the last three meetings were decided by three points or less. From 1987-2008, Ohio State went 12-2 against Michigan State.
Ohio State at Michigan State
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Michigan State -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio State’s Offensive Line
Outside of J.T. Barrett’s development, this unit was the biggest concern for Ohio State in 2014. The Buckeyes gave up seven sacks in the loss to Virginia Tech but has allowed just 10 in the other seven contests. However, the line has rarely been tested over the last few weeks, and Michigan State’s defensive front is likely the best Ohio State will play this year. How far as the Buckeyes’ offensive line developed in recent weeks? Left tackle Taylor Decker will have his hands full with ends Shilique Calhoun and Marcus Rush, as the duo headlines a Spartans’ defensive front that leads the Big Ten with 28 sacks. While pass protection is a concern, Barrett has the mobility to make plays outside of the pocket (second on the team with 496 rushing yards), and the offense is averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Are the Buckeyes up to the challenge in the trenches? Or will Calhoun and Rush win the battle at the point of attack?
2. Quarterback Play
Through 10 weeks of the 2014 season, it’s clear Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett and Michigan State’s Connor Cook are the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Barrett stepped into a difficult situation with ease, leading the conference with 294 total yards per game. Cook doesn’t have Barrett’s mobility, but the junior is completing 60.6 percent of his throws and has only five picks on 198 attempts this year. In the Big Ten Championship last year, Cook easily outdueled Braxton Miller, completing 24 of 40 passes for 340 yards and one score. Miller completed just 8 of 21 throws and was held to 101 yards and a score. Michigan State doesn’t need Cook to throw for 300 yards on Saturday night, but the junior needs to be efficient and limit his mistakes. Despite completing 61.7 percent of his throws against Oregon, Cook tossed two picks. Ohio State’s defense is holding opponents to 19.8 points per game in Big Ten action and has allowed only seven passing plays of 30 yards or more. That’s an improvement off last season, and Cook will be facing the best pass rush he has played in 2014. Both quarterbacks are going against elite defensive lines and pass defenses that have been stingy. With a tight game expected, the play of Cook and Barrett will be under the microscope. Cook torched Ohio State’s secondary for 304 yards and three scores last year. However, the Buckeyes have showed improvement on defense in 2014. For Barrett, this is his toughest road test of the year. With an offensive line that’s still developing, can Barrett avoid the rush and make plays against a secondary that has allowed 11 passing plays of 40 yards or more – nearly as many (17) as last year?
3. Style of Play
It’s no secret Michigan State wants to control the pace of the game with a vicious defense and a methodical, yet very successful offense. The Spartans lead the Big Ten by averaging 36:02 in time of possession, while Ohio State is third with a 32:24 mark. The Buckeyes’ rush defense has been solid this year, limiting opponents to just 3.4 yards per carry and 118.6 yards per contest. Expect Michigan State to challenge that total with a heavy dose of Jeremy Langford. The senior has five consecutive 100-yard efforts and gashed Michigan for 177 yards and three scores two weeks ago. If Langford has success on early downs, the Spartans will have a chance to control the tempo and later hit on play-action passes to standout receiver Tony Lippett. When Ohio State has the ball, expect Meyer and coordinator Tom Herman to push the tempo. The Buckeyes want to speed up the tempo, which should allow Barrett to get some easy (and quick passes) against the Michigan State defensive front. If the Buckeyes control the pace of the game and jump to an early lead, they will force the Spartans out of their comfort level on offense.
The roles are reversed in 2014. Last season, Michigan State played spoiler, eliminating Ohio State from the national title conversation with a 34-24 win in the Big Ten Championship. The Buckeyes have a chance to do something similar on Saturday night, as a win by Urban Meyer’s team would eliminate Michigan State from the playoff picture. If Ohio State wins, it should get a bump in next week’s rankings. However, even if the Buckeyes win in East Lansing, they need some help to reach the top four. Regardless of the playoff implications, these two teams are the best in the Big Ten. So what’s the difference in the game? Michigan State’s defense and quarterback Connor Cook. The Spartans aren’t as dominant on defense as they were last season, but this unit is still capable of carrying this team to a playoff spot. Barrett has performed well in relief of Miller. However, a road trip to East Lansing against Michigan State’s defense will be too much to overcome.
Prediction: Michigan State 30, Ohio State 20
The annual matchup between Alabama and LSU is one of the SEC’s must-see games every year, and 2014 is no different, as both teams rank among the top 15 nationally. There’s more at stake on Saturday night for the Crimson Tide after ranking No. 5 in the second release of college football’s playoff committee standings. The Tigers ranked No. 16 and are a longshot to make the final four. However, coach Les Miles’ team still has plenty to play for, including a spot in one of college football’s premier bowl games.
LSU has rebounded from an 0-2 start in SEC play to win its last three conference games. The Tigers had a bye last Saturday but defeated Ole Miss 10-7 on Oct. 25. Alabama suffered its only defeat at the hands of the Rebels but has won three in a row, including a 59-0 destruction of Texas A&M.
Alabama owns a 48-24-5 series edge over LSU. The Crimson Tide has won five out of the last seven meetings against the Tigers. However, Alabama is 1-1 in its last two trips to Baton Rouge. LSU coach Les Miles is 5-5 in 10 career games against the Crimson Tide.
Alabama at LSU
Kickoff: 8 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Quarterback Play
The basic approach by both teams is pretty simple: Run the ball and play defense. That statement might be too simplistic, but both offenses want to establish the run to take the pressure of their quarterback. Both signal-callers in this game are under the microscope, as both have experienced their share of ups and downs this season. Alabama’s Blake Sims won a battle with Jacob Coker for the starting job in the fall, and Sims opened the year by throwing for 250 yards in the opener against West Virginia. Sims has played well at times this year but tossed a costly interception against Ole Miss and completed 52.4 percent of his throws in an ugly 14-13 win against Arkansas. While Sims hasn’t been overly prolific, he’s been more successful than LSU’s Anthony Jennings. The sophomore made his first career start in the Outback Bowl last year and carried that momentum into the fall to claim the job over touted freshman Brandon Harris. Jennings is completing only 50 percent of his passes and went just 8 of 16 for 142 yards and two interceptions in a 10-7 win over Ole Miss two weeks ago. Against Power 5 opponents, Jennings has not completed more than 50 percent of his passes in a single contest. However, Jennings is tied for third in the SEC with seven passing plays of 40 yards or more. On paper, the edge should go to Sims. For LSU to win on Saturday night, Jennings needs to have his best game of 2014.
2. Stopping the Run
In last year’s matchup, Alabama drastically outperformed LSU on the ground (193 to 43). And taking the advantage on the ground a step further, the team that has an edge in rushing yardage has won the last six matchups. See why this area is important on Saturday night? Both backfields are among the best in the nation, but running room could be limited. Alabama is allowing only 2.7 yards per carry and opponents have managed only two rushing scores through eight games. LSU will attempt to test the defense with four talented running backs, headlined by Leonard Fournette. The true freshman has rushed for 657 yards and seven scores this year, but he averages only 14.6 carries per game. Fournette will share time with Terrence Magee (6.1 ypc), Kenny Hilliard (six scores) and Darrel Williams (250 yards). On the other sideline, Alabama counters with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry – arguably the nation’s best backfield duo – and both players average 5.2 yards per carry. After five SEC contests, LSU’s rush defense ranks ninth in the league, giving up 186.2 yards per game. The Tigers have played some of the league’s best running teams – Mississippi State and Auburn – and have not allowed a rushing touchdown in two games. This is LSU’s toughest challenge on defense since a 41-7 loss against Auburn. Has this defense found the right answers? Or was the improvement on defense due to playing offenses at Florida, Kentucky and Ole Miss? Either way, the battle in the trenches is critical to the outcome on Saturday night.
3. Alabama WR Amari Cooper
Cooper has been the best receiver in college football through the first 10 weeks of the season. The junior ranks second nationally in receiving yards (1,132) and averages 15.9 yards per catch. Cooper was injured in the win over Arkansas on Oct. 11 but has rebounded with 17 catches for 364 yards and four touchdowns in his last two games. Cooper faces one of his toughest assignments of the season on Saturday night, as LSU’s secondary is one of the best in the SEC. Opposing teams have had success running the ball against the Tigers, so coordinator John Chavis’ defense has faced only 259 attempts this year. LSU has allowed only six passing scores and has limited opposing quarterbacks to a 49.4 completion percentage. Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White are one of the nation’s top duos at cornerback and limited Cooper to just three catches for 46 yards last season. This matchup between Cooper and Robinson/White should draw plenty of interest from NFL scouts. But if Cooper is limited by LSU, who steps up at receiver for Alabama? Is it senior DeAndrew White? Or will tight end O.J. Howard get more involved after a slow start (six catches) to the season?
This game has all of the makings of a physical, 60-minute battle in the trenches. Alabama and LSU have similar styles on offense, and two out of the last three meetings in this series were decided by four points or less. Winning at night in Baton Rouge is never easy, but the advantages in this game are in favor of the Crimson Tide. Blake Sims has performed better at quarterback, and Alabama’s defense has been more dominant this year. LSU needs quarterback Anthony Jennings to have success through the air early to open rushing lanes on the ground. If Jennings struggles, the Tigers are in trouble. LSU always finds a way to keep it close at night in Baton Rouge, and Alabama’s struggles in the turnover department (13 lost in 2014) provide a blueprint on how to win. The Tigers need a few breaks to win this one, and Les Miles’ team falls short against a better Crimson Tide squad on Saturday night.
Prediction: Alabama 27, LSU 17
Florida State’s Thursday night victory over Louisville garnered most of the attention last weekend in the ACC, but the conference had three games decided by a touchdown or less, including Duke’s critical win over Pittsburgh in overtime.
Heading into Week 11, there’s not a marquee national matchup on the slate, but five matchups with conference implications provides some intrigue. Louisville’s trip to Boston College should be the best game of the weekend, while Duke travels to Syracuse, Florida State hosts Virginia and Georgia Tech hits the road for a matchup against NC State.
Duke maintains a lead in the Coastal Division, but the Blue Devils can’t afford a misstep with Miami a game behind in the standings, while Georgia Tech needs to beat NC State with a tough matchup against Clemson ahead in Week 12.
ACC Week 11 Game Power Rankings
1. Louisville (-3) at Boston College
7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The first meeting between Louisville and Boston College as ACC members highlights the Week 11 slate in the ACC. The Cardinals nearly upset Florida State last Thursday but fell short after a furious second-half rally by the Seminoles. The Eagles seem to be finding their stride recently by winning three out of their last four games. The only loss in that span was a four-point defeat to Clemson. The battle in the trenches is under the spotlight in Chestnut Hill, as Louisville’s run defense allowed a season-high 173 yards on the ground to Florida State. Boston College features a veteran offensive line and ranks second in the ACC with an average of 274.9 rushing yards per game. Four players have rushed for at least 263 yards this year, with quarterback Tyler Murphy closing in on 1,000 (965) to lead the Eagles. Louisville has the personnel to devote extra attention at the line of scrimmage, as its cornerbacks Terell Floyd and Charles Gaines lead a secondary that ranks first in the ACC in pass defense efficiency. When the Cardinals have the ball, keep an eye on an offensive line that has allowed 28 sacks this year. Boston College has recorded 25 sacks in nine games and has generated 69 tackles for a loss. Of Louisville’s four highest scoring games this year, two have occurred in the last two weeks. That’s largely due to the return of receiver DeVante Parker, along with the emergence of Michael Dyer at running back. Quarterback Will Gardner is also coming off his first 300-yard game of the season (330 against Florida State). Will the run-first style of Boston College win out? Or can Louisville slow down the Eagles’ rushing attack and jump ahead on the scoreboard to force Boston College out of its gameplan on offense? This should be the best game of the week in the ACC.
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2. Georgia Tech (-5.5) at NC State
12:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network/ESPN3
This is the first meeting between these two teams since 2011, and there’s plenty at stake for the Yellow Jackets and Wolfpack after both programs picked up key wins last Saturday. Georgia Tech needs to win out to have any shot at claiming the Coastal Division title, while NC State is a win away from bowl eligibility. In order for the Wolfpack to get their sixth win, stopping the run has to be a priority. Georgia Tech leads the ACC by averaging 319.7 rushing yards per game, while NC State is allowing 171.1 yards per contest. Quarterback Justin Thomas is the catalyst for the Yellow Jackets’ offense, but running back Synjyn Days has recorded back-to-back 100-yard efforts with Zach Laskey and Charles Perkins sidelined by injury. Establishing the run and controlling the clock is a priority for Georgia Tech with a defense that is allowing 6.4 yards per play in ACC games. NC State’s offense scored at least 41 points in four of its first five games but has not managed more than 24 points in a contest over its last four matchups. Playing better opponents has factored into the drop in production, and the Wolfpack need better play from an offensive line that has allowed 17 sacks in five ACC games.
3. Duke (-3.5) at Syracuse
12:30 p.m. ET, RSN/ESPN3
Duke’s overtime escape last week in Pittsburgh kept the Blue Devils atop the Coastal Division. And with three of Duke’s next four games at home, coach David Cutcliffe’s team has a good chance at repeating as division champs. Syracuse has lost six out of its last seven games, with the only victory coming in that span at Wake Forest (30-7). The Orange is struggling on offense (13th in ACC in yards per play), but the defense ranks fourth in the conference in fewest yards per play allowed (4.8). Syracuse’s defense will be tested against a Duke offense that is one of the most-balanced attacks in the league. The Blue Devils have passed for 755 yards and rushed for 654 yards in ACC play. Protecting quarterback Anthony Boone has been a strength for Duke all season – four sacks allowed in eight games – but Syracuse (61 tackles for a loss) will be aggressive in sending pressure. Another factor in Duke’s success this year has been its lack of turnovers. The Blue Devils have lost just five in eight games. The Orange needs to get pressure on Boone and force a couple of turnovers to have a shot on Saturday. True freshman quarterback A.J. Long has showed promise in four appearances this year, but the Orange has to do a better job of establishing a presence on the ground. Over the last two games, Syracuse has managed just 126 rushing yards. Duke gave up 358 rushing yards in last week’s win over Pittsburgh and has allowed seven scores on the ground over the last three contests.
4. Virginia at Florida State (-19.5)
6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Florida State’s win streak stands at 24, and the Seminoles should make it 25 on Saturday against a Virginia team that has lost its last three games. The Cavaliers were the last ACC team to win in Tallahassee, recording a 14-13 victory in 2011. In order to pull off the upset this year, Virginia needs several things to bounce its way. The offense is averaging only 19.4 points in ACC games, and quarterback Greyson Lambert has tossed four interceptions in his last two games. The strength of the Cavaliers rests with their defense, limiting opponents to five yards per play in ACC games and ranking in a tie for fourth in the league with 62 tackles for a loss. Florida State’s offensive line has struggled at times this year and should be challenged by a Virginia defensive line that features standout end Eli Harold (seven sacks) and a linebacking corps that ranks among the best in the ACC. Quarterback Jameis Winston suffered an ankle injury in last week’s win over Louisville, but the ailment is not expected to prevent him from playing on Saturday. If Winston’s offensive line provides adequate protection, the sophomore will test a secondary that has allowed 12 (second-most in ACC) in conference play this year. As if trying to stop Winston, receiver Rashad Greene and tight end Nick O’Leary wasn’t enough, Florida State has three true freshmen – running back Dalvin Cook and receivers Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph – ready to emerge over the final month of the season. With a game against Miami next week, the Seminoles have avoid a letdown against Virginia, especially with this team entrenched at No. 2 in the college football playoff rankings.
5. Clemson (-21.5) at Wake Forest
7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN (Thursday)
Clemson won the last two meetings in this series by a combined score of 98-20, and the Tigers are a heavy favorite once again on Thursday night. Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson is expected to miss his third consecutive game due to a hand injury, leaving senior Cole Stoudt back under center for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Stoudt is completing 63.2 percent of his throws but has just one passing score against Power 5 opponents in 2014. The Tigers won’t need a huge effort from their offense, as the defense is one of the best in the nation, and Wake Forest is averaging just 2.7 yards per play in conference games. Offensive line play is a huge problem for the Demon Deacons and this group will be challenged against a veteran and talented Clemson defensive front. Wake Forest has allowed 31 sacks in eight games and has not rushed for more than 71 yards in an ACC game this year. The Tigers need a lot of help to pass Florida State in the Atlantic Division, but Clemson still has plenty to play for with a potential berth in the Orange Bowl on the table if the Seminoles make the playoffs.
ACC Week 11 Predictions
|UL (-3) at BC||BC 28-21||UL 24-23||UL 27-24||BC 24-20|
|GT (-5.5) at NC State||GT 31-21||NC State 34-33||GT 34-27||GT 37-27|
|Duke (-3.5) at Syracuse||Duke 28-10||Duke 30-24||Duke 31-20||Duke 37-19|
|UVa at FSU (-19.5)||FSU 31-21||FSU 31-14||FSU 34-13||FSU 31-10|
|Clemson (-21.5) at Wake||Clemson 42-7||Clemson 30-7||Clemson 34-7||Clemson 41-10|
College football’s new playoff format has added a layer of intrigue to the regular season. While finishing in the top two – just like the old BCS format – is important, two additional teams have a chance to win the national title in a four-team postseason format.
The first release of the playoff committee's rankings provided some insight into the process, but with five weeks to go until the four teams are officially announced, plenty of changes are ahead in the weekly top 25 rankings.
What are some factors that will shape how the final rankings look? Scheduling is a huge element to consider, but quarterback play, defenses and emergence of freshmen are other factors to watch.
Here are 10 things to watch over the next five weeks:
10 Things That Will Shape CFB Playoff in Final Five Weeks
1. Showdowns in the SEC West
A significant piece of the inaugural College Football Playoff will be shaped by what happens in the SEC West. Will Mississippi State win out? If the Bulldogs win out, a victory over Alabama would seem to eliminate the Crimson Tide from the playoff picture. And what happens to Auburn if a two-loss Crimson Tide squad wins in the Iron Bowl? But that’s not all. What about the SEC Championship Game if the East winner (Georgia or Missouri) beats the West champion? That’s a huge wrench in the final ranking. It’s safe to say the SEC gets at least one team in the playoff this year. However, getting two will largely be determined on what happens in the remaining showdowns in November.
2. Florida State’s Emerging Young Talent
Florida State’s 2014 team isn’t as dominant as its '13 version. But that’s not a huge issue for coach Jimbo Fisher, as this team is pretty good in its own right. The biggest concern for the Seminoles remains in the trenches, but the offensive line showed some promise by clearing the way for 173 yards and three scores against Louisville. The defensive line is probably Florida State’s biggest concern, especially on the interior where Nile Lawrence-Stample was lost for the season. Even if the Seminoles allow 30 points a game, their offense could score 35-40 each week. Quarterback Jameis Winston is the headliner, but the sophomore has emerging stars at his disposal in a trio of true freshmen — running back Dalvin Cook and receivers Travis Rudolph and Ermon Lane. Cook is averaging 5.6 yards per rush, while Rudolph has 14 of his 19 catches over the last three games, and Lane caught a touchdown pass against Louisville. Florida State’s offense was already lethal without Cook, Rudolph and Lane. But this unit is even more deadly with the emergence of these talented first-year players on offense.
3. Ohio State-Michigan State Showdown
Barring major upsets and a complete shake up at the top of the playoff committee's rankings, the Big Ten is only getting one team into the four-team playoff. And as of Nov. 4, Michigan State and Ohio State need a lot of help to reach the top four. The Spartans have the better resume so far, with their only loss coming at Oregon in early September. The Buckeyes lost to Virginia Tech in September and do not have a win over a ranked team heading into Week 11. With all of that in mind, Saturday’s showdown in East Lansing is critical to the Big Ten getting one team in the mix. If Michigan State beats the Buckeyes handily, and Ohio State wins out to finish 10-2, coach Mark Dantonio’s team should be in the mix for a playoff spot. But what happens if the Spartans win a close game and the Buckeyes lose to Minnesota? That scenario would hurt the Big Ten’s case for a team in the top four. Regardless of what happens after Nov. 8, the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan State game is the only playoff contender left from the Big Ten.
4. Alabama QB Blake Sims
Quarterback play was the biggest concern in Tuscaloosa this offseason. Sims has been steady through the first eight games, completing 65.5 percent of his throws and tossing 15 touchdowns to just three picks. However, in Alabama’s only loss (Ole Miss), Sims had a costly interception. One week later against Arkansas, Sims threw for just 161 yards in a 14-13 win. With one of the nation’s best rushing attacks and defenses on his side, Sims doesn’t have to post huge numbers for the Crimson Tide to win each week. However, the senior has to be efficient and will be under scrutiny in upcoming games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn. It’s not unrealistic to suggest Sims’ play could determine whether or not Alabama wins the SEC or finishes 10-2.
5. Oregon’s Defense
If the Ducks win out, it’s a safe bet coach Mark Helfrich’s team will be in the four-team playoff. But Oregon still has three games and, presumably, the Pac-12 Championship Game remaining, including a road trip to Utah on Nov. 8. Of the remaining three regular-season games, the Utes should be the toughest opponent for the Ducks, but the Pac-12 title game also looms large against (potentially) offensive-minded teams like Arizona State or USC. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for Oregon, but the defense is allowing 28.2 points per game in Pac-12 contests, 5.7 yards per play and is last in the conference in third-down defense. Will this cost the Ducks a game before the playoff? Maybe not, but it could prevent Oregon from winning the national title. Can the Ducks' defense make strides over the final month of the season?
6. Kansas State’s Road Trips
No team has a tougher road schedule over the final five weeks than Bill Snyder’s Wildcats. Kansas State plays at TCU this Saturday, followed by a road date at West Virginia on Nov. 20 and then a matchup at Baylor on Dec. 6. Navigating that road schedule without a loss is challenging, but certainly not impossible for the Wildcats. The Big 12 has more depth than most anticipated at the start of this year, and an 11-1 K-State team should make the playoff. Let’s also not forget the Wildcats have just one loss (Auburn, 20-14) in a game where they had three turnovers and missed three field goals.
7. Receivers at Ole Miss
Ole Miss is going to miss Laquon Treadwell. The sophomore was one of the SEC’s best receivers and led the team with 48 catches through the first nine games. Without Treadwell, the Rebels are looking to Vince Sanders, Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram to pick up the slack in the passing game. Why this is position critical? Even though Ole Miss has two losses, this team still has a chance to impact the four teams in the playoff with a game against Mississippi State on Nov. 29. Finding a way to replace Treadwell’s production for quarterback Bo Wallace is a huge priority for coach Hugh Freeze over the next two weeks.
8. Notre Dame’s Defense
Three of top four outputs (yards per play) against Notre Dame has taken place over the last three weeks. The Fighting Irish’s schedule has increased in difficultly during that span, so it’s not a surprise the defensive numbers aren’t as promising as they were earlier in the season. Notre Dame allowed 5.7 yards per play against Florida State, 5.9 against Navy and 6.1 against North Carolina. Linebacker Joe Schmidt was a key piece of the defense, and he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the win over Navy. Add in the recent performance, combined with Schmidt’s loss and a challenging remaining slate - at Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC – and it’s easy to see why this unit will be under the microscope over the next four games. Notre Dame’s offense averages 35.4 points per contest, and coach Brian Kelly may need that type of production each week to help his young defense survive the Irish's most critical stretch of their season.
9. Todd Gurley’s Return at Georgia
Gurley’s return to the Georgia lineup on Nov. 15 is an interesting late-season development to consider in the overall playoff picture. The Bulldogs have a capable option in freshman Nick Chubb (501 yards in last three games), but prior to his suspension, Gurley may have been the best player in the nation. In five appearances this year, Gurley rushed for 773 yards and eight scores on 94 attempts. The junior is slated to return against Auburn, which is a game that is critical to the Bulldogs’ SEC East title hopes. And of course, the Tigers have their own playoff implications to deal with each week, as coach Gus Malzahn’s team ranked No. 3 in the first committee rankings. Is Gurley’s return enough for Georgia to knock off Auburn?
10. The Darkhorses and Upsets
College football changes drastically from week-to-week and upsets (see Florida over Georgia) are bound to happen over the final five weeks. Pinpointing the upsets is impossible, but there are a few teams to consider. Could Duke threaten Florida State in the ACC Championship Game? Probably not. Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship Game against Michigan State? That’s an interesting rematch scenario. If Arizona State reaches the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Sun Devils’ offense would be a tough matchup for Oregon’s defense. And we can’t forget about the SEC East champion (likely to be a heavy underdog) against the West. All of those scenarios don’t include a team like Miami taking down Florida State as an upset possibility or Utah beating Oregon. Count on an upset or two happening and changing the playoff outlook before college football's Final Four is released.