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Oregon is 60 minutes away from its first national championship after a 59-20 victory over Florida State in the Rose Bowl. The Ducks had plenty of help from the Seminoles, using five turnovers by the Seminoles to score 41 points in the second half. As usual, Oregon had plenty of explosive plays by its offense, averaging 7.9 yards per play behind quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy winner started slow but finished with 338 passing yards and two scores and added 62 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
The Ducks were pegged as one of the favorites to win the college football playoff in the preseason and used a huge win over Michigan State on Sept. 6 to start 4-0. However, injuries took a toll on the offensive line, and Oregon lost 31-24 to Arizona in early October. But the Ducks regrouped after the loss and finished the year with nine straight victories.
Oregon has eight previous matchups against Ohio State. The Ducks are winless against the Buckeyes and lost their last trip to the national championship game, as Auburn defeated Oregon 22-19 in 2011.
Five Reasons Why Oregon Will Win the National Title
1. Marcus Mariota
When Oregon and Ohio State kick off on Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas, Marcus Mariota will undoubtedly be the best player on the field. The junior claimed the Heisman after throwing for 4,111 yards and 40 touchdowns and adding 731 yards and 15 scores on the ground. While Mariota’s overall production in yardage and touchdowns is impressive, it’s his efficiency that doesn’t get enough credit. Mariota completed 68.6 percent of his passes in 2014 and tossed only three interceptions on 408 attempts. The junior also led the nation by averaging 10.1 yards per pass and recording 31 passing plays of 30 yards or more. Ohio State’s secondary has made marked improvement under the direction of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash. The Buckeyes allowed 41 plays of 20 yards or more in 2013 but cut that number to just 18 in 2014. However, despite an improved secondary and fierce pass rush, this is the best passing attack Oregon has played this year.
2. Defensive Improvement
Considering Oregon’s pace of play on offense, the Ducks are always going to struggle to rank among the nation’s best in total defense. However, yardage allowed is an overrated stat for judging the effectiveness of defenses, and first-year coordinator Don Pellum has settled in over the course of the season. Oregon allows 5.5 yards per play (58th nationally) but lowered that mark to 5.1 since November. The Ducks also held their last four opponents to less than 20 points and made steady improvement on getting opposing offenses off the field on third downs late in the year. Oregon is still far from a shut down defense and will bend to allow opponents to drive the field. However, this unit has played better since an uneven start to the year, as evidenced by five forced turnovers in the Rose Bowl win over Florida State.
3. Improving Health
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff has done a nice job of navigating several critical injuries this season. The Ducks lost receiver Devon Allen to a significant knee injury on the opening kickoff against Florida State, but this team is in much better shape in terms of health than it was earlier in the year. Running back Thomas Tyner missed the last three games of the regular season and announced his return to the lineup by recording 124 yards and two touchdowns on 13 attempts in the Rose Bowl. The offensive line was dealing with several injuries throughout the year and is nearly at full strength. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a knee injury against Utah and was forced to miss three games but returned to anchor the offensive line against Florida State. With Grasu and left tackle Jake Fisher back in the lineup, this line is one of the best in the nation. And the return of Grasu back to full strength comes at a critical time, as Ohio State’s defensive line is capable of creating plenty of problems and havoc at the line of scrimmage. Tyner’s return also gives coordinator Scott Frost another weapon on offense.
4. Winning the Turnover Battle
Turnover margins vary greatly from year-to-year. Additionally, forcing and recovering turnovers is largely an exercise in luck. Oregon has been one of the best in the nation in turnover margin this year, recording a +19 mark headed into the national championship. The Ducks lost only 10 turnovers in 2014 – the fewest in the nation – and forced 30 (tied for 10th) this season. How good (or fortunate?) has Oregon been in turnover margin this year? The Ducks were the only team in the nation to record a zero or positive margin every game this season. Ohio State lost 22 turnovers in 14 games but has a +10 overall margin. The Buckeyes are better in the turnover department than Florida State, but the Ducks have consistently generated takeaways to overcome a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy on defense. In a tight game, turnovers could be the deciding factor. And that aspect of the national championship matchup favors Oregon.
5. Skill Talent
Few teams in the nation that can rival Oregon’s depth and overall talent at the skill positions. Freshman running back Royce Freeman became the workhorse for the ground game, recording 1,343 yards and 18 touchdowns on 242 attempts. Freeman’s 18 rushing scores led the Pac-12, and the freshman recorded three 100-yard efforts over the final four games. Tyner’s return will help take some of the workload off Freeman’s shoulders, and the Ducks can use all-purpose threat Byron Marshall on the ground (7.5 ypc) when needed. At receiver, Devon Allen will be missed, but Marshall (66 catches), Darren Carrington (19 ypc), Keanon Lowe (14.3 ypc), and Dwayne Stanford (39 catches) are big-play targets for Mariota. This group also contains talented freshman Charles Nelson and tight end Evan Baylis – caught six of his 10 passes in 2014 against Florida State – as additional options. Oregon’s deep group of skill players is a tough assignment for any team to stop, especially with the Ducks becoming more physical on the line of scrimmage and in the rushing attack. Slowing down Oregon’s offense will be a huge challenge for Ohio State on Jan. 12.
A regular season rematch is on tap when the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts face off in the second AFC Wild Card game on CBS. The Bengals (10-5-1) and Colts (11-5) have already played each other this season in Lucas Oil Stadium, a game that took place back in Week 7 that Cincinnati would rather forget.
Indianapolis held the visitors to just 135 total yards, as the Colts dominated the Bengals 27-0, handing Cincinnati its first shutout in five years. Unfortunately for the Bengals, one of the storylines from that game will remain the same. All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green didn’t face the Colts then because of a toe injury and he won’t this afternoon either, as he’s been ruled out because of a concussion.
Cincinnati will have to try and win its first playoff game in more than two decades without its leading receiver. The Bengals are in the playoffs for a fourth straight season, a franchise record, but haven’t won in the postseason since defeating the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) in the Wild Card round back on Jan. 6, 1991.
Cincinnati is 0-7 since that victory, including road losses to Houston in both 2011 and ’12 and at home to San Diego last season. The Bengals have been outscored 77-33 in their last there Wild Card game appearances.
Indianapolis meanwhile is coming off of back-to-back AFC South championships, as the head coach-quarterback tandem of Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck are in the playoffs for the third time in as many seasons. Luck is 1-2 the postseason so far, with the lone victory coming in last season’s Wild Card round at home. In that game, the Colts turned a 38-10 third-quarter deficit into the second-biggest comeback in playoff history with a thrilling 45-44 victory.
With Baltimore's Wild Card win in Pittsburgh on Saturday night, Cincinnati and Indianapolis already knows whichever team wins will be heading to Denver to take on the Broncos in the Divisional Round next weekend.
Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts
Kickoff: 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Indianapolis -4
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Cincinnati’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave Dalton Hanging
Andy Dalton’s lack of postseason success has been well documented. Despite leading the Bengals to a 40-23-1 record in the regular season and a franchise-record four straight playoff appearances, Dalton hasn’t been able to get the postseason monkey off of his back. An 0-3 record with an anemic passer rating of 56.2 and an alarming one touchdown pass compared to six interceptions certainly doesn’t help Dalton’s case, but it’s probably unfair to expect him to carry the team on his back in the first place. That’s especially the case this afternoon since Dalton won’t have A.J. Green, his All-Pro wide receiver, on the field. While fellow wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate will need to step up in Green’s absence, what Dalton really needs is for the running game to take charge. Following Cincinnati’s 27-0 dismantling by Indianapolis back in Week 7, head coach Marvin Lewis shook up his backfield, moving rookie Jeremy Hill ahead of Giovani Bernard on the depth chart. To be fair, Bernard’s ineffectiveness was somewhat due to the variety of injuries he was dealing with, but the switch also was just what the Bengals’ offense needed. In 10 games as the main back, Hill has rushed for 954 yards and six touchdowns. The second-round pick out of LSU is averaging more than five yards per carry and he’s had five 100-yard performances, including two games in which he went over 150 on the ground. Not surprisingly, Cincinnati went 7-3 down the stretch with Hill carrying the load, and he should be able to find some room to run this afternoon against a Colts defense that’s giving up 113.4 yards rushing per game on the season and has yielded 130.3 over its last four contests. The Bengals’ defense has picked up its play recently too, but points will be needed to beat Andrew Luck and company on their own turf. Cincinnati’s recent playoff failures have largely been blamed on Dalton, so perhaps it’s time for someone else to step up and give their embattled quarterback a helping hand?
[inline_team_schedule team-id=11 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]
Indianapolis’ Key to Victory: Don’t Make Luck Do It All
Andrew Luck has one more playoff victory than his counterpart, Andy Dalton, but there’s no question which quarterback is under more pressure this afternoon. Luck and Dalton are similar in that each has led their team to the playoffs every season since entering the NFL, but outside of that these two signal-callers are not often mentioned in the same breath. For starters, Luck finished the regular season third in passing yards with 4,761, while Dalton was 16th (3,398). Luck tossed 21 more touchdown passes (40 to 19) and one fewer interception (16 to 17), while placing seventh in passer rating (96.5). Dalton checked in at No. 25 (83.5) in that category. However, it also should be pointed out that Luck was third in attempts (616), averaging more than 38 per game while Dalton averaged 30 attempts per contest. The point of this comparison is to show that the Colts rely much more on Luck’s arm than the Bengals do Dalton’s, but it doesn’t have to be that way. For one, all those passes also open Luck up for some additional hits. Even though their sack numbers (Luck 27, Dalton 21) may be similar, there’s little dispute that Luck has taken more of a beating over the season. Cincinnati’s defense is the worst in the league in getting to the quarterback (just 20 sacks), but one way to help Luck in the pocket would to be run the ball effectively, which would then keep the Bengals on their heels. Indianapolis isn’t known for running the ball, but Daniel Herron and Trent Richardson have each had their moments. More to the point, teams have had success running on Cincinnati this season, although the Bengals have really clamped down lately – just 55.7 yards rushing per game allowed over their last three. Luck is certainly capable of leading the Colts to victory pretty much single-handedly, but that’s not always the best strategy to rely on in the playoffs, especially if you want to keep your franchise quarterback healthy for what hopefully will end up being an extended stay.
Andy Dalton may be 0-3 in the playoffs, but his head coach, Marvin Lewis is 0-5. So Cincinnati’s postseason issues extend beyond the quarterback. That said, Dalton’s hopes of getting rid of his 0-for record are not helped by A.J. Green’s absence (concussion). The Bengals have played well down the stretch, but Indianapolis is really comfortable at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the end, Andrew Luck and company simply have too much firepower, especially against a Cincinnati offense missing its All-Pro wide receiver.
Prediction: Indianapolis 27, Cincinnati 20
The day your five-year-old has waited for his whole life for is finally here — the Dallas Cowboys are back in the postseason. Behind the record-setting offensive trio of Tony Romo, DeMarco Murray and Dez Bryant, Dallas won the NFC East with a 12–4 record and has returned to the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2009. A 4–0 showing in December has helped erase a stigma that surrounded a Cowboys franchise that could not win in the last month of the year, particularly under coach Jason Garrett and Romo. Dallas entered this season 8–11 in December in four seasons with Garrett, and Romo had gone 14–22 in the month.
Meanwhile, Detroit (11-5) is back in the postseason for the second time in three years after previously not having made it since 2000. The Lions are still looking for their first playoff win since a 38–6 Divisional Round win over Dallas on Jan. 12, 1992. That win was the first postseason victory for the franchise since 1957, with only two appearances in between.
Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys
Kickoff: 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Dallas -7
[inline_team_schedule team-id=24 date=20141204 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=6][/inline_team_schedule]
Detroit’s Key to Victory: Stafford to Johnson
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford carries this unfortunate bit of baggage into this game: He is 0–16 as a starting quarterback in road games against teams that finished the season with a winning record, the third-most losses without a win in such games for any quarterback since the 1970 merger. But he’s 2–0 against Tony Romo, which gives the Lions a glimmer of hope. Both wins featured dramatic comebacks, including a 31–30 win in 2013 in which Stafford threw for 488 yards and Calvin Johnson caught 14 passes for 329 yards, the second-best yardage total in NFL history. Johnson’s yardage total of 1,077 this season marks his lowest since 2009, but expect Stafford to look Megatron’s way early and often.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=19 date=20141204 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=6][/inline_team_schedule]
Dallas’ Key to Victory: Unleash DeMarco Murray
It’s been a season-long theme for Dallas: Use a powerful running attack to set up Tony Romo for success in the passing game. This week, the Cowboys are facing the NFL’s top rushing defense (69.3 ypg), but it’s critical that DeMarco Murray find some running room against the Lions' defense to open things up for Romo and Dez Bryant — a job that gets tougher with the unexpected availability of leg-stomper Ndamukong Suh. The grind of a long NFL season seemed to catch up with Murray, whose 1,845 rushing yards broke Emmitt Smith’s franchise record and were the third most in the NFL over the last eight seasons. In Weeks 15-16, Murray could muster only a combined 139 yards on 2.6 yards per carry, including a season-low 58 yards in a Week 16 win over Indianapolis. He recaptured some of his early-season form with 100 yards on 20 carries against Washington, his 12th 100-yard game of the season (second most in NFL history). We’ll see if the wear and tear of 392 carries hampers him on the postseason stage.
In an unexpected turn of events for two somewhat downtrodden franchises, both the Detroit and Dallas saved some of their best football for late in the season, combining to go 7–1 in the month of December. So which one is prepared to take the next step and win in January? Jerry Jones sees something he likes in his Cowboys, saying that, “This team has a uniqueness to it that could serve us well in the playoffs.” We tend to agree.
Prediction: Dallas 27, Detroit 21
The 2014 NFL playoffs will kick off in Charlotte Saturday afternoon when the Arizona Cardinals take on the Carolina Panthers on ESPN. The Cardinals (11-5) have four more wins than the Panthers (7-8-1), but are a near-touchdown underdog on the road against the NFC South champions.
Arizona got off to a terrific start, winning nine of its first 10 games despite losing several key defenders before the season even started. Unfortunately, the injuries continued to pile up for the Cardinals, with the casualties including their No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks and top running back, as Bruce Arians’ team stumbled to a 2-4 finish.
Even though Carolina is just the second team in NFL history to make the postseason with a losing record (Seattle, 2010 as NFC West champions), the Panthers have won four games in a row and are one of the hottest teams in the league. The first to win back-to-back NFC South division titles, Carolina is hosting a playoff game for the second straight season. Last season, Ron Rivera’s second-seeded Panthers fell 23-10 to the 49ers in the Divisional Round.
Carolina is 0-3 in the postseason since losing in Seattle in the 2005 NFC Championship Conference Game. The Panthers are 2-2 at home in the playoffs, including a 33-10 loss to the Cardinals in the Divisional Round on Jan. 10, 2009. That was the year Arizona would go on to play in Super Bowl XLIII, losing a heartbreaker to Pittsburgh 27-23.
The Cardinals are back in the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Arians, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in Super Bowl XLIII, will be making his postseason debut as a head coach.
Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 4:20 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Carolina -6.5
[inline_team_schedule team-id=31 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]
Arizona’s Key to Victory: Don’t Leave it Up to Lindley
Ryan Lindley, the Cardinals’ third-string quarterback, will be making just his seventh career start, but this obviously is no ordinary game. Lindley is in this position because Carson Palmer tore his ACL in Week 10 and backup Drew Stanton is dealing with a knee injury of his own. This past Sunday, Lindley finally threw his first touchdown pass, after an NFL-record 229 attempts, yet Arizona wound up losing 20-17 to San Francisco. For the season, Lindley is completing less than half of his attempts (48.4) with twice as many interceptions (four) as touchdowns (two), and is averaging 187.3 yards passing per game. He also, briefly, was benched in favor of rookie Logan Thomas prior to last week’s game, but Bruce Arians decided to stick with Lindley for that game and this one. To add to the challenge facing Lindley, the Cardinals are without top running back Andre Ellington, but they still will have to figure out a way to generate some sort of rushing attack to take pressure off of their unproven quarterback. That is especially the case considering how well Carolina’s defense has been playing lately. During their four-game winning streak, the Panthers have limited opposing quarterbacks to a 64.6 passer rating and have yielded just 43 points. Arizona’s defense by and large has carried this team for much of the season, and it will need to come up with yet another solid performance. Forcing some turnovers would certainly help the Cardinals’ cause, but what is critical is their 29th-ranked passing defense must not give up many big plays to a Carolina offense that’s known more for running the ball. Arizona is a good team, as it’s no small feat to win 11 games, especially in the division where the defending Super Bowl champion resides. And it will take another well-rounded team effort against the Panthers if the Cardinals want to keep their dream of playing in the Super Bowl at home alive. A breakthrough game from Lindley is certainly possible, but it’s probably in Arizona’s best interests to not put pin all of their postseason hopes on their young, untested, third-string quarterback.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=28 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]
Carolina’s Key to Victory: Getting the Ball to No. 88
It’s fair to say that the Panthers already have the advantage on defense going up against third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley. However, Carolina will still need to score points to beat Arizona, and this is not a team that exactly lights up the scoreboard. The Panthers enter this game 19th in the NFL in scoring offense (21.2 ppg) while the Cardinals are fifth in scoring defense (18.7 ppg). Carolina’s calling card has been running the ball, and it has been quite effective doing so recently behind the resurgence of running back Jonathan Stewart and a rejuvenated Cam Newton. However, the key to the Panthers’ offensive game plan Saturday afternoon may be tight end Greg Olsen. The leading receiver on the team despite the presence of first-round pick Kelvin Benjamin, Olsen is Newton’s most trusted target and should be able to take advantage of what has been a weakness for Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals have allowed a NFL-high 1,085 yards receiving (on 85 rec.) to tight ends this season, along with eight touchdowns. Two weeks ago, Arizona gave up 139 yards and two scores to Seattle’s Luke Wilson. No disrespect to Wilson, but Olsen, who recorded his first 1,000-yard campaign this season, is a little more experienced and established at the TE position. It’s just a matter of Newton and offensive coordinator Mike Shula recognizing this and making No. 88 a priority in the game plan.
It’s been a great run for Arizona, especially considering all of the injuries the Cardinals have had to deal with throughout the season. However, I think it’s too much to expect Ryan Lindley, who has a grand total of six starts under his belt, to break through under these circumstances. Scoff all you want about Carolina’s losing record, but the Panthers won their division and are one of the NFL’s hottest teams right now. The defense is playing more like it did last season and Cam Newton seems to have gotten a second wind thanks to the contributions of Jonathan Stewart. Arizona will hang around, but I think the odds are stacked too much against the Cardinals this time. The team that everyone says doesn’t belong in the playoffs sends the Super Bowl host home three victories shy of making their dream a reality.
Prediction: Carolina 20, Arizona 13
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers renew their heated rivalry with a Saturday night, AFC Wild Card showdown on NBC. This will be the fourth time since 2001 the Ravens (10-6) and Steelers (11-5) have played in a playoff game, with the Steelers winning all three previous matchups.
There’s no love lost between these two teams and the annual meetings are usually close. However, this season’s get-togethers produced two blowouts. Baltimore used three Pittsburgh turnovers en route to an easy 26-6 victory on Sept. 11. The Steelers returned the favor in early November, as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards in a decisive 43-23 victory over the Ravens.
Adding to the intrigue of Saturday night’s game is that the Steelers will be missing a big piece of their offense because of injury, while the Ravens will wecome back a key defender. Haloti Ngata, Baltimore’s All-Pro nose tackle, is set to return from a four-game suspension for violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh running back Le’Veon Bell suffered a hyperextended knee in last week’s win over Cincinnati and has already been ruled out for the wild card game. The team's leading rusher and No. 2 receiver, Bell's absence is something the Steelers must overcome.
Pittsburgh owns a 21-17 overall series edge against Baltimore. The Steelers have won the last two meetings in Heinz Field, but the Ravens claimed back-to-back victories in enemy territory on Nov. 6, 2011 and Nov. 18, 2012.
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 3 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Pittsburgh -3.5
[inline_team_schedule team-id=06 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]
Baltimore’s Key to Victory: Win the Battle in the Trenches
With All-Pro nose tackle Haloti Ngata’s return, the Ravens’ defensive line is at full strength and will create plenty of headaches for Pittsburgh’s offense. In the first two meetings this year, Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger five times and held Steeler rushers to just 154 yards on 43 carries. Considering the problems in pass defense this season, the Ravens need to disrupt Pittsburgh’s offense by generating pressure on Roethlisberger. And when Roethlisberger breaks free of the initial rush, it’s critical the Ravens stick with their coverage to limit big plays by Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton. Even with Le'Veon Bell already ruled out because of a knee injury, Baltimore should look to put Roethlisberger in long-yardage situations and use its physical, aggressive front seven to generate pressure. When the Ravens have the ball on offense, getting running back Justin Forsett on track will be a priority. In the first meeting between these two teams, Forsett gashed the Steelers for 96 yards on 22 attempts. In the rematch, Forsett was limited to 38 yards on nine carries. Balance on offense is crucial to set up Baltimore’s play-action game from quarterback Joe Flacco to wide receivers Steve Smith and Torrey Smith. Tackle Eugene Monroe is questionable to play, which means rookie James Hurst will be under pressure to protect Flacco against Pittsburgh’s front seven. If Flacco has protection, there will be opportunities for big plays against a secondary that ranks 27th in the NFL against the pass. Even if cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu return from injury, the Steelers could struggle to contain the Baltimore pass offense.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=09 date=20140904 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=17][/inline_team_schedule]
Pittsburgh’s Key to Victory: Attack the Ravens’ Secondary
Even if Le'Veon Bell ended up playing, running the ball against Baltimore still figured to a be a tough task for the Steelers. After all, Pittsburgh managed only 99 yards rushing on 18 attempts in the first matchup, and the Ravens limited the Steelers to 55 yards on 25 carries in the second meeting. Combine Bell’s absence with Haloti Ngata’s return, and it’s easy to see why this game will rest on the performance of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Pittsburgh added some backfield insurance with the addition of veteran Ben Tate, but it’s difficult to envision Josh Harris, Dri Archer and Tate having much success against a Ravens defense that limited opponents to just 3.6 yards per carry and 88.3 yards per game. Roethlisberger battled an illness in last week’s win over Cincinnati but should be at full strength for this one. In the early November meeting against the Ravens, Roethlisberger threw for 340 yards and six touchdowns. Baltimore finished the regular season ranked 23rd in the NFL against the pass, but held its last four opponents under 200 yards through the air. Of course, the Ravens didn’t exactly run the gauntlet of quarterbacks in playing Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville and Miami. With the uncertainty surrounding the ground attack and the strength of Baltimore’s front seven, Roethlisberger will have to be perfect for Pittsburgh to win. The veteran is having an outstanding season (32 TDs, 9 INTs) and is surrounded by a deep group of receivers. Antonio Brown led the NFL with 1,698 receiving yards this season, while tight end Heath Miller (66 receptions) and Markus Wheaton (53 catches) were steady options. Rookie Martavis Bryant is an emerging star, averaging 21.1 yards per reception in 2014. The Steelers are known for winning with their defense and rushing attack, but on Saturday night, their best chance of advancing in the playoffs likely rests with an offense taking to the air and Roethlisberger attempting 40-50 passes.
Five out of the last seven matchups between these two teams were decided by three points or less. While both Baltimore vs. Pittsburgh games in the regular season were one-sided affairs, the wild card battle on Saturday night should be close. No Le'Veon Bell for the AFC North champions puts even more pressure on Josh Harris, Ben Tate and Dri Archer to produce out of the backfield. However, the Steelers still have one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. Although defenses usually control this rivalry, don’t be surprised if Saturday night’s affair features more scoring. If Pittsburgh had Bell in on the field, the Steelers would be at least a touchdown favorite. Without him, the game moves closer to a toss-up. Roethlisberger does just enough, and Pittsburgh’s defense picks up a late turnover to seal the victory and send the Steelers to Denver for next weekend’s AFC Divisional Round.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Baltimore 27
The GoDaddy Bowl will feature some familiar faces when Arkansas State and Toledo face off in Mobile, Ala. The final postseason contest before the first national champion of the Playoff era is crowned, the Red Wolves (7-5) are playing in their fourth straight GoDaddy Bowl (formerly GMAC Bowl) while the Rockets (8-4) are making their second appearance.
While Arkansas State has been no stranger to ending its season in Mobile, what has changed is the fact that it will have the head coach it started with. Blake Anderson led the Red Wolves to a 7-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in the Sun Belt in his first season after replacing Bryan Harsin, who left after the 2013 regular season to become the head coach at his alma mater, Boise State. Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Gus Malzahn (Auburn) also departed for bigger programs prior to the GoDaddy Bowl in 2011 and ’12, respectively.
Arkansas State is looking for a third straight win in the GoDaddy Bowl against a Mid-American Conference opponent. The Rockets have defeated Kent State and Ball State in Mobile the past two seasons.
Toledo tied Northern Illinois with a 7-1 record atop the MAC’s West Division, but didn’t earn a spot in the championship game because of a loss to the Huskies. After going 7-5 last season but not getting invited to a bowl game, Matt Campbell has the Rockets back in the postseason for the fourth time since 2010.
Campbell is coaching in his third bowl game, as he led Toledo to a victory over Air Force in the 2011 Military Bowl after Tim Beckman departed for Illinois. The next season, the Rockets lost 41-15 to Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
Toledo played in the GMAC/GoDaddy Bowl back in 2005, beating UTEP 45-13.
This is the third meeting between these two schools with Toledo winning both times at home. Toledo outscored Arkansas State 92-28 in those two games, which were played in 1990 and ’92.
Toledo vs. Arkansas State
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 4 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Toledo -4
Toledo’s Key to Victory: Make Drives Count
Arkansas State has beaten two of Toledo’s MAC conference mates in each of the past two GoDaddy Bowls even though each outgained the Red Wolves. In 2012, Kent State had 350 yards of total offense compared to 285 for Arkansas State, while Ball State outpaced the Red Wolves 363 to 331 last season. Despite this statistical advantage, Arkansas State won both games by a combined seven points, as both the Golden Flashes (13 points) and Cardinals (20) struggled to finish off drives. The Rockets enter this game 18th in the nation in total offense (486.3 ypg) and 31st in scoring offense (34.4 ppg), but it’s the latter that’s going to be critical. In the Red Wolves’ seven wins they have given up an average of 17.3 points per game. In their five losses that number soars to 42.4. If Toledo can put together anything close to an average game offensively, it should be in good position to win. The Rockets just need to remember it’s points and not yards that matter most, something that two other MAC teams are painfully familiar with when it comes to facing Arkansas State.
Arkansas State’s Key to Victory: Play Keep Away
The Red Wolves saved their best of the regular season for last when they pounded New Mexico State 68-35 at home. Arkansas State set a Sun Belt record with 764 yards of offense, including 469 on the ground. Three different Red Wolves ran for over 100 yards, led by quarterback Fredi Knighten’s 153. Running the ball won’t be easy against Toledo, who enters this game ranked 18th in the nation in rushing defense (120.5 ypg), but it’s still something Arkansas State must try to do. For one, the Red Wolves are not a prolific passing team at less than 250 yards per game and only 20 scores through the air. But secondly, and perhaps most important, an effective running game will chew up some time on the clock while also keeping the Rockets’ offense off of the field. Statistically speaking, there’s not much separation between these offenses, but Arkansas State has been more generous than Toledo on the other side of the ball. In their last six games alone, the Red Wolves have yielded 35.0 points and 269.2 rushing yards per contest. That’s not a good sign considering the Rockets’ Kareem Hunt is third in the nation (151.1 ypg) in rushing. The real estate may be hard to come by, but Arkansas State needs to make a concerted effort to run the ball or run the risk of Toledo doing the same thing.
The GoDaddy Bowl has become the Arkansas State invitational recently and the Red Wolves have not been gracious hosts to their MAC counterparts. Toledo, however, has the offensive firepower, led by sophomore running back Kareem Hunt, to match Arkansas State and appears to have a slight edge on defense. The Red Wolves’ adopted home-field advantage may help them keep it close, but the Rockets’ have too much fuel and will eventually pull away and exact a little MAC payback in Mobile.
Prediction: Toledo 38, Arkansas State 27
Bowl season has a funny way of changing uninteresting September matchups into must-see TV.
That Western Michigan-Air Force game in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl might not have been on anyone’s radar on the second Saturday in September, but by virtue of being a bowl, the game deserves at least a bit of attention.
The Birmingham Bowl might be the opposite.
In September, East Carolina-Florida would be a compelling early season matchup — the offensive-minded American Athletic Conference upstart facing a defensively stout, yet vulnerable, SEC team.
As a bowl game in the no-man’s land between New Year’s Day and the championship game, though, it’s decidedly lower tier, and both teams share some of the blame.
Florida is between two coaching regimes. While interim coach D.J. Durkin leads Florida into the bowl, new coach Jim McElwain is filling his staff and looking to 2015. Two Gators have already declared for the NFL Draft.
Like Florida, East Carolina had an uneven season. The Pirates seemed destined for a major bowl spot back in September when they picked up two wins against ACC teams. Those dreams faded with back-to-back losses against Temple and Cincinnati on the road to start November. The Pirates added a 32-30 loss to UCF on a Hail Mary to wrap up the regular season.
If both teams play to their potential, though, this could be a compelling game. East Carolina has a reputation as a giant-killer against ACC teams, but the Pirates can’t say the same against the SEC. The game will pair ECU’s Air Raid against a solid Florida pass defense, highlighted by the matchup between receiver Justin Hardy and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
Florida should be out to set the tone for 2015 behind sophomore quarterback Treon Harris, who led the Gators’ late-season spurt.
East Carolina vs. Florida
Kickoff: Jan. 3, Noon ET
Spread: Florida by 7
East Carolina’s Key to Victory: Solve the Florida secondary
The bread-and-butter to the Pirates’ offense is easy to figure out: East Carolina comes from the Mike Leach/Air Raid school of offense. Using that approach, East Carolina defeated Virginia Tech (427 passing yards, three touchdowns) and North Carolina (446 yards, four touchdowns, one interceptions) in September. Consistency, though, was lacking. Quarterback Shane Carden still finished third in the nation in passing yards per game and in the top 30 in efficiency. Wide receiver Justin Hardy will finish his career with more receptions than anyone in college football history. ECU, though, will need to return to its early season form against a stout Florida secondary led by sophomore corner Vernon Hargreaves III. The Gators are one game removed from intercepting Jameis Winston four times and finishing fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Florida’s Key to Victory: Keep the eye on the prize
The Gators will have all the excuses to snooze through the game in Birmingham. Florida will be playing under an interim coach while it waits for Jim McElwain to take over. Running back Matt Jones and defensive end Dante Fowler already have announced intentions to go to the NFL Draft. And the Gators will be facing their first non-power conference program in a bowl since facing Miami (Ohio) in the 1973 Tangerine Bowl. Florida should have a substantial talent edge — particularly on defense — but we’ve seen the script in a bowl game before. The last time Florida played in a bowl with an interim coach was 10 years ago after Ron Zook was fired. Charlie Strong led an uninterested team to the Peach Bowl where the Gators lost 27-10 to Miami.
East Carolina has earned a reputation as a spoiler the last two seasons, going 4-1 against ACC programs. The Pirates, though, haven’t defeated an SEC opponent since South Carolina in 1999, going 0-5 in that span. Florida would be ripe for the picking in the Birmingham Bowl. That said, East Carolina tailed off at the end of the season, losing three games in AAC play once it became the clubhouse leader for a major bowl appearance. For all of it struggles, Florida hit a stride on offense late in the season once the Gators changed quarterbacks from junior Jeff Driskel to freshman Treon Harris. Which edition of these two streaky teams shows up in Alabama will determine the course of the game.
Prediction: East Carolina 28, Florida 21
NEW ORLEANS — Urban Meyer and Nick Saban have squared off with a right to play for the national championship before, but no one could have forecast what took place in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.
In the first instant classic of the playoff era, Ohio State defeated the favored Crimson Tide 42-35 to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 12 against Oregon.
The action-packed semifinal was a game of runs, big plays, dramatic swings, elite coaching and two rabid fan bases in one of the most vibrant cities in the world.
And it proved why college football has been salivating for a playoff for decades.
With just over three minutes to play in the first half, Alabama had a 21-6 lead. Ohio State made crucial mistakes. Quarterback Cardale Jones looked flustered and shaky and the offense had missed opportunities to put points on the board.
But offensive coordinator Tom Herman shook up his gameplan and allowed Jones to attack the Crimson Tide secondary. The 250-pound gunslinger found a rhythm at the end of the first half, and with the help of a trick play, rallied the Buckeyes with big throws and emphatic runs.
"I never would have thought we would have been in this position," Jones said. "We weren't supposed to be in this position. We just beat the No. 1 team in the world."
Ohio State rattled off 28 unanswered points to take a 34-21 lead late in the third quarter. As expected, Alabama never went away, cutting the lead to six with 1:01 left in the third and then against to seven points with 1:59 left in the fourth quarter.
When Blake Sims' Hail Mary attempt landed into the waiting arms of Tyvis Powerll as time expired, the Scarlet and Gray half of the Superdome erupted into a celebration befitting of the Big Easy on New Year's Day.
Regardless of who won, college football was the real winner Thursday. The performance from both teams validated the College Football Playoff in just its first year of action.
Earlier in the day on the other side of the country, the other semifinal was less dramatic with Oregon defeating Florida State 59-20 in the Rose Bowl but no less significant. The Ducks' win ended Florida State's 29-game win streak and bid to win a second national title.
And the best part? One more game to determine a national champion.
"It's awesome. It's perfect," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said after the game. "This is the first year and everyone is already talking about eight. The reality is you will always have someone left out. But this works. Today we had phenomenal football games. I think it's worked."
The former BCS system likely would have placed the undefeated, defending champions (Florida State) against the one-loss No. 1-rated SEC champs (Alabama) into a one-game playoff. Now both teams are eliminated.
Instead of Florida State-Alabama, Arlington will play host to two teams left for dead in the first month of the season.
The experts certainly weren't predicting an Oregon-Ohio State battle. In the system's first year, the sport has already witnessed two of the sport's most historic games. In a battle of two Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in the most gorgeous of settings, Oregon ended Florida State's dominance. Meanwhile, Ohio State did something few believed possible.
College football gets to do it all again next week in Texas.
To no one's surprise, Oregon is a touchdown favorite over Ohio State to win the season's final game in Arlington. So let the drama and prognostication begin again.
"Underdogs again?" freshman linebacker and Sugar Bowl Defensive MVP Darron Lee said. "When will they ever learn?"
PASADENA, Calif. — Credit to Jameis Winston for being a true believer.
The Florida State quarterback kept talking about trying to mount a comeback in a game that finished 59-20, a game that featured a 34-0 run thanks to four turnovers in four possessions.
He described the game as “unfortunate.”
“We were never stopped at all,” Winston said. He talked about Florida State beating itself.
Sure, that’s confidence. And what else should Winston be expected to say after a loss like that?
It’s also lunacy.
Oregon is good. Oregon is national championship good. Oregon is championship good down to every last man, it seems.
A message for the Ducks' championship foe Ohio State: Don’t believe Winston. Nothing about a 59-20 rout was a fluke or some series of lucky bounces or even one player getting a lucky on broken coverage.
Oregon set Rose Bowl records for total yards (639) and scoring. The Ducks scored the most points against a Florida State team since 1985 when Auburn’s Bo Jackson was the one doing the damage.
And put in greater context, what the Ducks did to Florida State was more staggering.
This was a game in which Marcus Mariota threw an interception, something that happened only twice all season. He nearly threw two picks with one pass bouncing out of the hands of Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey.
Mariota wasn’t sharp early, but giving him a short field five times is begging for embarrassment. Oregon obliged Florida State's request.
Mariota completed 26-of-36 passes for 338 yards with two touchdowns all of it after his top deep threat left the game with a knee injury sustained on the opening kickoff.
Oregon's offense didn't sustain even a hiccup without Devon Allen.
A running back who didn’t play the last three games rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.
A receiver who didn’t have a catch in four games this year caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
A tight end who caught four passes all year ended up catching six for 73 yards.
These sorts of things don’t happen by chance. They happen because Oregon has built a program with enough depth so that Thomas Tyner, Darren Carrington and Evan Baylis can contribute on the biggest stage on a moment's notice.
“Those guys did vital stuff without the ball, which was vital for our success,” Oregon coach Mark Helfrich said. “We had to win on the perimeter both in the run game and bubble game and all that stuff goes into it.”
And then there were the turnovers. Two fumbles were clawed out of the hands of Florida State running back Dalvin Cook. Others came on pressure of Winston.
And again, Oregon had an built-in excuse if the Ducks had major lapses defensively. Starting cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu was lost to a torn ACL during practice back in Eugene. No doubt, it was a blow from a personnel perspective and leadership perspective.
Without their best defensive player, the Ducks gained five turnovers, scoring 34 total points off takeaways. Oregon’s lone squandered opportunity off a turnover was a blocked extra point.
That’s dominance. Winning a game under less than ideal circumstances is the sort of thing national champions do. Oregon did it by 39 points.
“We were just ready for the fight,” linebacker Tony Washington said. “And we came out on top.”
PASADENA, Calif. — Jimbo Fisher likes to say the first 39 games were the key to the next 29.
That may be true, with the first three seasons setting the stage for an astounding 29-game run in which the Seminoles didn’t lose a game.
If Fisher’s first 39 was the key to this era of Seminoles football, the next 12 games will be the key to Fisher’s program.
The Seminoles lost 59-20 to Oregon in the Rose Bowl in spectacular fashion, ending their bid to win another national championship. Florida State will soon learn of its place atop the college football world slipped away in the same way Jameis Winston slipped at the Oregon 28 yard line and spit the ball up into the hands of Tony Washington. The linebacker ran it back 58 yards for a backbreaking touchdown.
In that moment, Florida State’s chances of pulling the wild second-half comeback, as the Seminoles had done all season, were over.
“It was a great run,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It was an extremely great run. Hopefully, we can put together another one.”
Florida State heads back to Tallahassee not planning for a national championship game. The Seminoles instead begin the process of looking to a 2015 season in which they stand to lose key personnel, both seniors and draft-eligible sophomore and juniors.
In the next 12 games, Florida State will learn if this was simply the Jameis Winston era or the re-start of an era of Seminoles’ dominance.
Can Florida State do what programs like Alabama do, in replacing first-round talent on a year-to-year basis? Or even Oregon, which perennially has replaced offensive personnel and head coaches and remained the West’s top program.
In Fisher’s first 39 games as head coach, Florida State was 29-10 overall and 18-6 in the ACC. That’s great for most programs, but for FSU, it was enough to label the Noles as something of an underachiever.
The 29-game win streak began with a 21-15 against Georgia Tech in the ACC championship game on Dec. 1, 2012, but the era will be remembered for Winston.
“He’s one of the great players in not only college football (today), but in college football history to me,” Fisher said.
For all the baggage that comes with Winston, this one fact is staggering: Thursday was the first time he left a college football field after a loss.
It may be the only time.
Winston said he’s looking forward to next season, pausing ever so briefly before amending his comment with “playing baseball.” Is that indication he may stay in college football? It's foolish to take anyone's draft statements on the last day of the season at face value.
He’s probably a first-round draft pick, and despite the team-wide collapse in the Rose Bowl, Winston showed why he’ll be considered for the No. 1 overall pick — for starters, converting a third-and-21 with a 23-yard pass.
Even if for some unexpected reason Winston stays at Florida State, the Seminoles will incur significant losses.
Four offensive line starters are seniors. So is Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary and prolific and underrated receiver Rashad Greene. Defensive linemen Mario Edwards and Eddie Goldman and cornerbacks Ronald Darby and P.J. Williams could leave early.
The momentum was going to change in 2015 if Florida State lost by 39 in the semifinal or if the Seminoles won the national championship.
The question now is if Fisher has the pieces to sustain the program that’s become accustomed to being on top again.
Teams that stay on top stack elite recruiting class on top of elite recruiting class. In that way, Florida State is there with the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world.
The Seminoles have the No. 5 class in the 2015 247Sports Composite. If that holds, FSU will have four top-five classes in the last five recruiting cycles. The exception was a class ranked 10th.
Recruiting rankings can lie, though. Florida State would be better served looking at the current roster.
Safety Jalen Ramsey was arguably the best player on the defense, a disruptor at Florida State’s critical “star” position. He’ll be a junior next season.
Left tackle Roderick Johnson is a 6-foot-7, 330-pound future All-American. He’s a freshman.
And finally there’s Dalvin Cook, perhaps the best sign for the program, though it didn’t always seem that way in the Rose Bowl.
He fumbled twice, stripped by Oregon defenders. The Ducks scored twice off his fumbles, the catalyst for 34 unanswered points.
So many times this season, Cook was Florida State’s most clutch runner. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards, the first Seminoles freshman to do so.
But he’s a freshman and he made two critical gaffes that played a part in ending Florida State’s season. FSU could have protected him. Cook could have protected himself and snuck out of the locker room without comment.
Cook remained in the locker room talking to reporters after the game. He answered each question and left.
Next stop: 2015, ready or not.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the Rose Bowl lacked for drama, but there was hardly time to spend time pondering a lopsided final score in the first College Football Playoff semifinal.
Oregon’s unraveling of Florida State was so quick and sudden, there wasn’t much time to think about it.
A five-point third quarter lead ballooned to a 39-point rout in 11 minutes and 31 seconds of game time.
Oregon defeated Florida State 59-20 to advance to the national championship game in Dallas on Jan. 12. The Ducks will face the winner of the Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Ohio State.
Florida State, meanwhile, saw the end of its 29-game winning streak in spectacular fashion in what may be the final game for Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Oregon 59, Florida State 20
Player of the game: Marcus Mariota
Fumbles were the determining factor of Florida State’s loss, but Mariota was the one who capitalized on turnovers. He had an uneven first half, throwing an interception and nearly throwing another that was dropped by Jalen Ramsey. Mariota took over with short field and led 34 unanswered points until he was lifted in the fourth quarter. The Heisman winner completed 26-of-36 passes for 337 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Turning point: Winston’s fumble with 1:36 left in the third quarter
The fumble was bizarre as Winston scrambled around trying to make a play after his team gave up two quick scores. Winston slipped on the turf and gave up an unforced fumble. Linebacker Tony Washington took it back 91 yards for a touchdown to give Oregon a 45-20 lead. There would be no more Florida State comebacks after that.
Unsung hero: Evan Baylis
Oregon’s senior tight end caught four passes all season. With wide receiver Devon Allen sidelined just before the game, Baylis helped fill the void as the Ducks’ second-leading receiver. He finished with six catches for 73 yards.
Needed more from: Dalvin Cook
That’s a tough thing to say about a player who rushed for 103 yards on 15 carries, but even before Cook fumbled twice in the second half, Florida State needed him more. Now, part of that is on Jimbo Fisher. Cook was slicing through the Oregon defense but Fisher twice pulled him in the red zone. Perhaps it’s no coincidence Florida State twice settled for field goals.
Critical call: Darren Carrington’s 57-yard touchdown catch
Oregon’s freshman receiver got a break when Tyler Hunter slipped on the turf helping him to a 57-yard touchdown in the third quarter to take a 32-20 lead. The play call, though, was perfect. Cornerback P.J. Williams crept up to the line to defend a receiver who caught a short pass seven yards a play earlier. Mariota instead went to the next level to catch Carrington in one-on-one coverage.
Stat that matters: 34
Oregon outscored Florida State 34-0 on turnovers as the Seminoles collapsed in the second half with three fumbles and an interception on four consecutive possessions.
NEW ORLEANS — The 2015 Sugar Bowl was a game of runs.
Huge momentum swings and big plays on both sides of the ball allowed Ohio State to overcome a 21-6 deficit with 28 unanswered points of its own.
Then, like the Buckeyes have done all season long, they persevered and overcame adversity to outlast the No. 1 team in the nation in impressive fashion.
Even after taking a two-touchdown lead with just 3:24 left in the game on an 85-yard Ezekiel Elliott run — the longest run allowed by Alabama all season — Ohio State still allowed the Crimson Tide a chance at a game-tying Hail Mary on the final play of the game.
When the final gun sounded, the undisputed king of the North had come into the heart of SEC country and toppled the heavily favored Alabama Crimson Tide to advance to the national championship game in Arlington on Jan. 12.
INSTANT ANALYSIS: Ohio State 42, Alabama 35
Player of the game: Cardale Jones
He didn't win the Offensive MVP — that went to Ezekiel Elliott — but there is little doubt that the most important player on the field was Ohio State's 250-pound quarterback. The sophomore making just his second career start had his share of jitters, but Jones eventually settled down and torched the vaunted Alabama defense. Jones finished with 243 yards passing, 43 yards rushing on 17 carries and one touchdown. More importantly, Jones was electric on third downs, completing big passes and scrambling for first downs all game long.
Turning point: Steve Miller's 41-yard INT return for a TD
Ohio State defensive end Steve Miller wouldn't normally be dropping into pass coverage, but Buckeyes defensive coordinator Luke Fickell called the perfect play at the perfect time. The result was a Blake Sims interception returned 41 yards by Steve Miller for a touchdown that capped a 28-point OSU run with just 3:21 left in the fourth quarter. The two-touchdown lead would hold up.
Unsung hero: Jacoby Boren, Billy Price, Pat Elflein
The interior offensive line for Ohio State was outstanding. Facing off against the likes of A'Shawn Robinson, most believed the Buckeyes would struggle to run the football. But the trio of interior blockers powered the OSU rushing attack. The Buckeyes rushed for 281 yards — 107 more yards than Bama had allowed in any game this season (Auburn, 174).
Needed more from: Blake Sims
Sims entered the game as the unquestioned leader of the offense. He was calm, cool and collected in the face of pressure all season long. But he stared down receivers and made critical mistakes in critical situations. His three interceptions eventually cost Alabama a chance to get back into the game late in the fourth quarter.
Critical call: Evan Spencer-to-Michael Thomas reverse pass
Tom Herman and Urban Meyer emptied the playbook late in the first half when they called a reverse pass from the Ohio State 13-yard line. With 12 seconds left in the first half and trailing by eight points, Evan Spencer took the reverse and heaved a bullet to the front corner of the endzone where Michael Thomas made one of the most spectacular catches of the season just over the outstretched fingertips of the Crimson Tide defender. The play cut the halftime lead to one point.
Stat that matters: 10-of-18
Cardale Jones had his moments where he struggled but third down wasn't one of them. Ohio State was outstanding on the game's most critical down, especially in long situations. The Buckeyes converted on 10-of-18 third downs while Alabama went just 2-of-13 on the all-important down.
PASADENA — For college football fans of a certain age or fans from a certain part of the country, the Rose Bowl holds special significance.
It was college football’s first postseason game. Back when bowl games could be counted on two hands, the Rose Bowl was the greatest prize.
For fans in the Midwest or the North, the Rose Bowl was a brief escape from winter, even if they were watching on television.
The next generation, though, probably views the Rose Bowl with more cynicism. It’s now one of 39 bowl games. Tradition is tossed out a little more readily than it once was, even the Big Ten and Pac-12’s grip on the Granddaddy of them All.
You can't even watch the game with a TV antenna. It's on basic cable now.
As the bowl system gave way to the BCS and now the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl is having an identity crisis the other bowls have not.
During the BCS era, the game hosted a Big Ten and Pac-12 team 10 times in 16 years and not necessarily champions of the respective leagues.
At one point, the game and conferences were so gripped by the tradition, the Rose Bowl invited a 13th-ranked, three-loss Illinois team simply because it could. That team lost 49-17 to USC.
The game invited TCU for the 2011 game only because the BCS contract required it to. The Frogs defeated the Big Ten champion Wisconsin 21-19.
And now in the first year of the playoff, the Rose Bowl is encountering the unthinkable. Florida State is returning tickets. The Rose Bowl wasn’t a sellout in the days before the game.
Chris Fowler, ESPN’s venerable play-by-play broadcaster, isn’t quite sure what kind of game he’s calling on Jan. 1
“This is a different-feeling game, and we’re wrestling with that as a production,” Fowler told Athlon Sports. “Do you present it as ‘the Rose Bowl’ and how much do you focus on that fact that is the first semifinal game staged at the Rose Bowl.
“It’s going to feel unlike any other Rose Bowl that’s ever been played. When it’s over, there’s confetti and a trophy, but very quickly the winning team will begin to look forward to an even bigger game in 11 days.”
The Rose Bowl isn’t what it once was. This is good.
As a child in Cookeville, Tenn., Mack Brown watched the Rose Bowl with his family. As a coach at Tulane, North Carolina and Texas, he thought he’d never have a chance to coach there.
No matter, he thought, the Rose Bowl was all hype.
Then Texas went to the Rose Bowl for the first time in 2005 as the Longhorns replaced the Pac-10 champion USC who were playing for a BCS title in the Orange Bowl.
Before the game, Brown called former USC coach John Robinson to ask about the game.
“He said it’s the coolest thing in the world,” Brown said. “Not many coaches get to do it. Not many players get to play in the Rose Bowl. (He said) ‘I want you to walk out there pregame and look out there in those rolling hills and the sun’s going down and I want you to say ‘this is really cool.’ Then go coach to win the game.’ He was right.”
If a Tennessee-born coach at Texas can go to the Rose Bowl and marvel in it, then the Rose Bowl will survive, even if the game isn’t a sellout in 2015.
The idea of a Big Ten champion facing a Pac-12 champion in the Rose Bowl is all but gone. Moments like last seasons, when Michigan State reached its first Rose Bowl since 1987 and won its first game in Pasadena since then, will be exceedingly rare in the new system.
Big Ten and Pac-12 teams stating season goals of reaching the Rose Bowl won’t have the same ring. In two out of three years, the game will be a consolation prize.
In the playoff, the Rose Bowl will host a national semifinal once every three years. In the other two years, the Rose Bowl will have a Big Ten and Pac-12 team by contract, but one or both of the conference champions from those leagues likely will be in the Playoff.
“If you grew up with it you miss seeing that Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup,” said Kirk Herbstreit, who will be Fowler’s broadcast partner for the Rose Bowl. “If you’re a traditionalist, to get to that playoff, you had to give up a little bit. You lose some of the tradition but you open up the doors for others to appreciate what the bowl game is.”
The idea of a team returning tickets to the Rose Bowl is surprising, but not every team is Florida State or Oregon.
The Seminoles were in Pasadena just last season for the final BCS title game. It’s tough to blame fans who aren’t interested or able to make back-to-back trips to the Rose Bowl. Or if they’d rather hold out for the national championship game in Dallas.
The Ducks have been here three times since the 2009 season.
SEC fans might react to a Rose Bowl semifinal with more enthusiasm. Or Notre Dame fans. Or Baylor fans. Or Boise State fans.
Conference contracts can change. Sunsets can’t.
Four of the New Year’s Six bowl games — the Fiesta, Sugar, Peach and Cotton — are played in domes. One of the exceptions, the Orange Bowl, is played in a sterile, enclosed NFL stadium.
That leaves the Rose Bowl as the only major college football bowl game that stands as a tourist destination unto itself.
“I’ve always said the setting is like a Hollywood set,” Fowler said. “The field is immaculate, something about the quality of the light, the way the stadium sits below the San Gabriel Mountains. It lends itself to great drama.”
Rick Neuheisel calls himself a Rose Bowl enthusiast. He played in the game twice for UCLA. He went once as an assistant with Bruins. He went a fourth time as a head coach for Washington.
Perhaps inadvertently, he gets to the crux of why the end of one tradition for the Rose Bowl may ultimately a positive for college football.
The game is no longer the exclusive destination of Big Ten and Pac-12 teams and hasn't been for nearly 20 years. It’s open to everyone. The pool of teams that can play in the Rose Bowl is wider, and therefore more the experience is more unique.
And every three years, the drama, by virtue of being a playoff game, will be magnified.
“I think it’s cool when one of those (nontraditional) teams gets to come, they finally get it and why the Big Ten and Pac-12 have held such a tight grip on it,” Neuheisel said. “You don’t want to give that experience up for anything.”
PASADENA, Calif. — If all goes well, the honeymoon could be in Dallas. After all, the wedding reception will be the Rose Bowl.
Steve Twomey and Lisa DeFluri didn’t plan for a big wedding when they packed up their Honda Pilot and drove from Eugene, Ore., to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
Just a little ceremony with Steve’s mother and stepfather in the parking lot at the Rose Bowl. Lisa’s mom watched via FaceTime on an iPhone perched on the rear windshield wiper.
Steve’s stepfather, Randy, officiated — he’s a retired firefighter who “did the online credentials.”
The 25-year-old Oregon fans, though, drew a crowd as they exchanged vows under a green and yellow altar at a tailgate in the Rose Bowl, just hours before their beloved Ducks faced Florida State in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
The seventh-grade sweethearts, school teachers both, started to plan on a football-themed wedding, first at the San Francisco 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Those plans were scrapped, and they started talking about a beach wedding in Santa Cruz, Calif.
After selection Sunday on Dec. 7, the subject of the Rose Bowl came up and the couple thought, why not? Steve grew up an Oregon fan in Washington (his mom also was a fan) and fondly remembers "the Joey Harrington days." Lisa liked the helmets and quickly converted when they watched games on the couch together.
Since there wasn’t an official wedding photographer, we took a few shots for the bride and groom:
Just watched a couple get married at a Rose Bowl tailgate. really. pic.twitter.com/vG4RhEvHp3— David Fox (@DavidFox615) January 1, 2015
Reading vows. He mentioned their cat. -df pic.twitter.com/KmwNdGDZ13— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
Marking the occasion... pic.twitter.com/DPn4QxVfKZ— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
And the wedding cake. pic.twitter.com/K6MOSmhka0— Athlon Sports (@AthlonSports) January 1, 2015
LOS ANGELES — Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher probably didn’t mean anything derisive in the way he described Oregon and how it's become an attractive destination.
The reasons are clear why it’s cooler to be a Duck in 2014 than it was in 1994 — it’s the offense, it’s the uniforms, it’s the Nike-fueled facilities. It’s not necessarily because kids from Texas and California can’t wait to live in a dorm in Eugene, Ore.
But Fisher probably wouldn’t use the word “niche” to describe Nebraska, Tennessee or Notre Dame — other programs that have to recruit nationally.
“What you have to create is a niche,” Fisher said. “For people who want to come from long distances to come to a university, why are they coming there? There's something that you have that someone else, if you're bypassing all these places, could it be facilities? Could it be uniforms? They also win a lot of football games.”
But Oregon hasn’t won the game.
The Ducks have been on a steady rise since Rich Brooks took Oregon to the Rose Bowl two decades ago but a national championship is still unchecked on the to-do list.
Oregon doesn’t have the most wins in college football history without a national title to show for it (that would be West Virginia at 719 wins).
But in the last 20 years, they’ve reached major bowl games with four different coaches. They’ve won Rose Bowls. They’ve won the Pac-12. They added the school’s first Heisman Trophy when Marcus Mariota did it less than a month ago.
They’ve even been involved in a recruiting scandal.
In other words, Oregon has done all the things the nation’s powerhouse programs do except win a national title.
The Ducks enter the College Football Playoff as the only team without a national championship. During the BCS era, the other three teams in this year's playoff combined for five.
It’s strange to say Oregon’s program needs validation. The Ducks are indeed one of the powers of college football, the top program right now in the West.
But even second-year coach Mark Helfrich acknowledges perception might change if Oregon can win two more games this season.
“It would validate things externally a lot more than I think internally,” Helfrich said.
Anyone who remembers the pre-Brooks era in Eugene would probably agree that the program is plenty validated. Oregon has done something remarkable in the last 20 years. Think about the powerhouses in college football — programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame and a handful of others.
All of those programs have a history that stretches back to the eras of leather helmets and single wing football.
Oregon didn’t start trying in earnest to field a perennial contender until the 1990s.
The Rose Bowl will feature a team trying to repeat as national champions and a team seeking its first national title. Recent history suggests that Florida State has the easier task.
Since the last time a program won its first national championship in school history (Florida, 1996), a team won back-to-back championships twice (Alabama, USC).
It's funny, then, that Florida State was once in Oregon’s shoes.
Before the Seminoles won their first national title in 1993, the Seminoles were close to a national title but couldn’t quite reach the summit. Bobby Bowden led six consecutive teams to the top four in the AP poll before finishing No. 1 in ’93.
“There’s pressure,” said quarterback Danny Kanell, who was a sophomore on the ’93 title team. “I remember being there with Bobby Bowden, and he got knocked for not being able to win the big game or being able to win the championship. There was a big sigh of relief for him and the program.”
Kanell is hearing the same things about Oregon that he heard about FSU.
“Right now people are saying they can win the Pac-12, they can run around, they can look good in their uniforms, they can put up a lot of points, but they can’t hang with the big boys, big physical teams like Florida State has,” he said.
That perception changes with a trophy.
If Oregon wins a national championship, the Ducks won’t have to answer for being a finesse team (yes, that still happens). Instead, they’ll be a true power player.
“It separates you from everyone who hasn’t,” former Texas coach Mack Brown said. “The day after we won the national championship, I asked Coach (Darrell) Royal what does this mean. It means you’ve done something that very few people do. It means when you speak, people will listen to you differently than they did before. They will look at you differently than they did before. And for the fans, the expectations will be higher.”
The Ducks are already one of the nation’s most unique powerhouses. They rarely change leadership or philosophies on a whim. Ever coach since Brooks has been an internal hire. Assistants tend to stay for decades rather than jumping from job to jobs.
Helfrich hardly carries himself like Nick Saban, Urban Meyer or Fisher. The job doesn't seem to consume him. He's almost a normal guy, for a college football coach.
So what will change for Oregon if they win a national championship, whether this year or in another season?
"I'm sure a lot, and I'm sure not much,” Helfrich said. “I think nationally, hopefully, the perspective of not only our team but our conference would elevate, and the SEC has had that right to puff out their chest and with very good reason for the past several years, but we think we're doing a lot of the right things on this side of the country.”
LOS ANGELES — The coaches in the College Football Playoff will say over and over again that they’re not looking ahead to the national championship game.
At least one part of the operation has to look ahead if they expect to win a championship.
The winners of the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl likely will start planning for the national championship game on Jan. 2 on the way back to campus.
The only way they can do that is thanks to undergraduate assistants and unpaid interns who will load their iPads and laptops with broken-down game film.
“We already have Ohio State and Alabama broken down because when you get back you've got to hit the ground running,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “We have to prepare for that. If it doesn't, it doesn't and we'll have great film to study in the offseason.”
If being an intern on a college football coaching staff feels like a thankless job, think of the staffers who will break down film of a team that loses Thursday. Or worse, breaking down film for a coach who gives his concession speech at the Rose Bowl or Sugar Bowl.
The film that does make it to the team planes on Friday, though, will be a welcome sight.
“The interns have to look ahead a little bit,” said Oregon graduate assistant Nate Costa, a former Ducks quarterback who now manages the scout team. “The only thing we’ll do for potential opponents is have interns break down the film, you’ve got to insert gains, yardages, blitzes, formations. That has to be assembled by the interns.”
This is new ground for the College Football Playoff era. Certainly, teams in conference championship game situation have to break down and evaluate game film of a team on shorter notice, but those are teams that may have played earlier in the season or at least in recent years.
In the college basketball tournament, for example, staffers begin scouting second round opponents before the first round even begins. But that’s a situation with one full day between elimination games. There will be 11 days between the Rose and Sugar bowls and the national championship game.
But college coaches are nothing if not paranoid about preparation. All 11 of those days have to be spent on preparation.
And in terms of scouting for the full-time coaching staff, not a second more.
“I remember just thinking how would this work,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “Now that we’re here, there’s no conversation whatsoever about the next one. You can’t. It’s not fair to our players and certainly when you’re playing a team like Alabama, that’s all hands on deck, to find a way to get this one done.”
LOS ANGELES — Jameis Winston is right.
The Florida State quarterback is saying all the right things about his matchup with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
The game will feature the last two Heisman winners on opposite sidelines, only the third time Heisman winners have faced each other in a bowl game.
As expected, neither Winston nor Mariota are talking it up as the superstar showdown the rest of us know it is.
“I'm not facing him; I'm facing his defense,” Winston said. “It's going to be a Florida State team versus Oregon team not Jameis Winston versus Marcus Mariota.”
Let’s entertain that notion a bit more seriously and not as a cliche.
Winston and Mariota will be facing two defenses led by coordinators who were position coaches this time last year.
That’s the reason we should be excited. Not simply because Winston and Mariota will put two Heisman winners on the field for the first time since 2009.
The Rose Bowl will be a national semifinal matching up two Heisman winners against two first-year coordinators. Neither defense is ranked in the top 50 nationally in yards per game. Oregon is down a star cornerback. Florida State is a shadow of the defense that ranked third nationally last season.
In other words, all the conditions are ripe for Mariota and Winston to put on a show, the nation's most efficent quarterback against the nation's most clutch.
Fans should be grateful. Where the Sugar Bowl semifinal seems to be a game driven by coaches and conferences, the Rose Bowl will be driven by quarterbacks.
One has never lost a collegiate game. One has thrown two interceptions all year and four last year, ludicrous numbers for 2015.
For a few hours on New Year's Day, both programs hope to strip away some of the narratives about the two. The arguments about these two quarterbacks are either lazy (the narrative of Mariota’s squeaky clean image vs. Winston’s troublesome off-field track record) or soon will become tiresome by the NFL Combine (should Winston fall in the draft? Is Mariota a system quarterback?).
In some ways, even the coaches are just sending in a play and watching what happens.
“I've quit questioning what he does on the field and why he does it,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Even when he does it wrong, he can come off and tell you exactly what he saw, what happened, and why it happened. I'll bet it's (right) a 98 percent rate, when he comes off, he can process so much information. His intelligence level is off the charts.”
The future, beyond Jan. 1 and potentially a national championship game, isn’t a topic either are ready to entertain.
Will Mariota and Winston be great NFL quarterbacks? Maybe. Maybe not. Is Mariota too nice? Is he the dreaded system quarterback who will struggle to translate his game to the pro level?
Oregon coach Mark Helfrich is resigned, for now, to say that it will either happen or it won’t.
“I know with both the quarterbacks in this game, they can play at any level,” Helfrich said. “Both those guys, they're completely different, totally different guys from a style standpoint, but both will have tremendous NFL careers if they end up in the right spot. If they don't, things can go different ways.”
In the present, it’s going to be a good show, one that even Winston is going to try to stop and enjoy.
“I think it's going to be a once‑in‑a‑lifetime opportunity to see us play and me personally I'm going to be on the sideline watching Marcus myself,” he said. “I think it's going to be a fun game.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Cornerback Troy Hill on Jameis Winston leading second-half comebacks:
“I don't know what it is about that man, but he cleans it up in the second half and something about him that makes him a winner. They all come together whenever they down, they never get down on themselves, a lot of teams when they lose they put their heads down or when they are losing they put their heads up and give up, but that's different with that team, I feel like they fight harder when they're down.”
Safety Erick Dargan on Jameis Winston:
“He can throw anywhere on the field, you know, whether it's deep, short, middle, side, the ball is going all over. You can't just say, he only likes to throw to the right; no, he's throwing all over. And another thing, he's running, he's moving the pocket. He's not an easy guy to tackle. He's big and he's physical.
“A lot of quarterbacks throw interceptions too and they don't want to throw the ball, and you can tell they don't want to throw the ball. With Jameis he's like, ‘I don't care. I'm still going to throw the ball. My team needs me.’ As a football player you have to respect that and honor that.”
Linebacker Tony Washington on Florida State’s offensive scheme:
“These guys are more traditional NFL pro style offense. It's a little bit different. But I think with the amount we've been practicing, we can get acclimated to it, used to it. ... Similar to stuff like Michigan State. But I think they run it differently. Stanford has a lot of power downhill runs, three tight end, seven offensive linemen type deals. And I don't think Florida State runs that as much. A little different formations and stuff like that. But just keep working we'll be in good shape.”
Linebacker Derrick Malone on Mackey Award winner Nick O’Leary:
“He understands coverages in the sense of where he needs to go and the separations and the positions and he has sharp hands so he goes up and gets the ball and he's a dominant tight end so we got to make sure we lock him up.”
Cornerback Troy Hill on Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene:
“They put him all over the place, X, Y, and then slot and at the third receiver in that slot, motion him around a lot. They do a lot with them and they try to get him the ball because he's a playmaker so I feel like that's how we have to key in on him, and O'Leary, I feel that's what we really need to work on.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Frost on Florida State’s secondary:
“They are not extremely complicated. They just do what they do well with really good players. They are fast. I really think (safety) Jalen Ramse is a special player. He's disruptive in a lot of ways. (P.J.) Williams is a fast scrubber corner. And the other three guys in the secondary, you can't overlook them because they are really talented, too. Across the board, it's as athletic a group as we've played.”
LOS ANGELES — The best experts on the four teams in the College Football Playoff are probably the teams themselves.
The next best thing might be the players and coaches who have been breaking down film and facing a scout team during the last three weeks.
Obviously, they’re not going to give up state secrets in the days leading up to the Rose Bowl, but we decided to see what Florida State is saying about Oregon and what Oregon is seeing out of Florida State.
Here’s the scouting report:
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Marcus Mariota’s vision:
“He has great vision. He sees the field. He does a good job of buying time in the pocket and that doesn't mean just scrambling. It just means buying time where he can see downfield, where a guy gets open. He's a very intelligent football player.”
Linebacker Terrance Smith on containing Marcus Mariota:
“One of the biggest keys to the game is containing Mariota, keeping him in the pocket. It starts up front with the D‑line. The D‑line has to keep their rush lanes and just kind of collapse the pocket and not allow him to break outside of the tackles and pull the ball down and run which is what he's good at doing. Just keeping him inside the tackle box and just collapsing the pocket on him, that where it really starts and having somebody at the second level who can come up and make a play, that's really the key.”
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly on Oregon’s receivers:
“They are explosive and they make plays, but when they are asked to do things in the perimeter, I mean, they get after you. They block you. Sometimes you see guys that make a lot of big plays that necessarily don't block the perimeter as well.”
Defensive end Mario Williams on Oregon’s offensive line:
“Some of the guys are better than others, but as a unit they work great with each other. They're probably the most athletic and conditioned O-line we will be going against this year because they do the hurry up so much, so definitely as a unit they work great with each other.”
Running back Karlos Williams on Oregon’s ability to contain the run:
“They're tough, long, athletic, outside, they can train a lot. They do a very good job defending the run, and that's something that we haven't seen a lot this year. We have been able to get around the edge, quite a bit this year with Dalvin (Cook) and (Mario) Pender. Also with Jameis here we get around the edge, Rashad, stuff like that. We have been able to be a dominant edge team, containment team, but these guys are very good on the edge. Their backers play well, and (Derrick Malone) and (Joe Walker) play downhill, very tough downhill guys, make a lot of plays, very fast, tough, physical guys.
Quarterback coach Randy Sanders on the absence of cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu:
“Him not being there, no question will diminish a little bit of their defense, but it's not like the player they're putting in behind him is not good. You don't get to a position to play in a game like this without having good players, and they've got more than one. So we know whoever comes in will be a good player.”
6. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizzlies are enjoying their best season ever through the holidays, and a lot of their thriving is owed to Marc Gasol’s increased offensive role. Averaging a career-high 14.7 shots per game, Gasol is making mincemeat of other centers with his 23.68 player efficiency rating, and he’s doing it without dropping off on the defensive end. Tennessee’s team is closer to NBA gold than they’ve ever been after Gasol — who slimmed down considerably in the offseason — rededicated himself after a stinging loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in last year’s playoffs.
5. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Move over, Derrick Rose. The famous Chicago-born point guard is back and healthy this season — but he’s no longer the best player on his team. That honor belongs to Butler, whose shockingly strong production has been the delight of the Windy City. Previously known as a one-way player (Butler gained Second All-Team Defensive honors last season), Jimmy Buckets is now a deadly scorer, averaging a team-high 22.2 points per game while leading the league with 40.1 minutes played per game. Many have mentioned Butler as a candidate for the Most Improved Player platform, but his play thus far suggests a greater goal.
4. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
If the Unibrow was on a playoff team, we might cite him as the runaway favorite for this trophy. The fact is, however, that the Pelicans are of a middling sort, on the outside looking into the staggering Western Conference playoff picture. The 21-year-old still has an outside shot at becoming a wunderkind MVP — especially if he keeps putting up numbers that evoke Hakeem Olajuwon — but your money is more safely put in the hands of contender. If you were starting a team from scratch, though? A.D. is the clear No. 1 cornerstone in the game.
3. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If Kyle Lowry keeps this up, he’s going to steal Chris Paul’s mantle as the sport’s most fearsome little man. Lowry’s Toronto Raptors are the surprise top seed in the Eastern Conference, following his ferocious lead to the top. A statement was made — and heard quite clearly — when Kyle took down CP3 this past weekend, tallying 25 points, seven assists and three steals as the Raptors smashed Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers, 110-98, in L.A. Give this 6’0” guy a bit more national TV exposure, and he might become the NBA’s new go-to folk hero.
2. Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors’ best start in franchise history is about more than just their terrific new coach, Steve Kerr. Freed up and freewheeling in Kerr’s offense is the best shooter in basketball, Steph Curry. Curry is a threat to destroy your defense from deep at the moment he crosses the half-court barrier, demanding constant attention from the opposition and always making you pay for the double team with a sharp, uncanny passing eye. Anyone who can figure out how to guard this guy should probably be drawing up strategies for the military.
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The biggest, boldest chip in basketball lies firmly on James Harden’s shoulder. The former Sixth Man of the Year with the Oklahoma City Thunder has taken on more responsibility every year of his career, finally crescendoing into the MVP-worthy present. After improving on his defense this season and consistently taking over games in crunch time (leading the Rockets to an almost unbelievable 21-9 record, despite a litany of costly injuries), there’s really not much left for Harden to add to his game. He’s stronger, smarter, and has more touch than anyone who’s got the foot speed to stay in front of him, and he gets to the charity strike as often as he pleases. He’s the NBA’s leading scorer, and he’s had more impact, on more games, than anyone this season. If you opened the polls today, the Beard would become the Statue.
— John Wilmes
The Athlon Sports team has been dispatched to the New Orleans and Pasadena to cover the first college football semifinal. We'll survey the scene and storylines and then delve into our picks for New Year's Day.
David Fox is at the Rose Bowl trying to determine which star quarterback will have the big day and which team can more successfully play the underdog role. Braden Gall is at the Sugar Bowl where Blake Sims, Amari Cooper and the Ohio State defensive line may be able to upstage the powerhouse coaches.
NEW ORLEANS — Alabama players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Ohio State. What have they been saying?
Scouting Ohio State
Nick Saban, HC
"They're very well coached, which is nothing different from any other team that we've faced that Urban Meyer has coached, because he does a fantastic job with his players and coaches to put an outstanding product on the field. There are some similarities with what they do, especially offensively in terms of what they did when they were at the University of Florida, what he did."
Scouting Cardale Jones
Landon Collins, S
"Basically with the offensive, we've got a new quarterback and basically we're going to try to confuse him and do our best ability to do that and just break him down, break him down with what they like to do from the last game because it's a different quarterback. He's a more passing type quarterback that we see and has a tremendous arm. So once he tries to get the ball out there, try to get it to receivers they're going to try to do something spectacular."
"I watch the film, his tendencies, what his motions is, and stuff like that. It's a disadvantage to only have one film. But we've got a lot of plays on him. And that's the best thing, because I mean we only had like 30 plays, you can't really pick up stuff on, and the teams come out, they get a lot of reps and easy to get ready for oncoming games. We picked up on a few things. And they haven't changed the offense, the way how we looked at it."
Scouting Ohio State's defense
Blake Sims, QB
"Their defensive line reminds me of Missouri. They've got great defensive linemen that they're good at all spots. And I think that that was a good team to compare them to. They're a great team. They play with a lot of passion. And they want to win games. They play together. Very fundamental, sound. And they do what their coach tells them to do."
Jalston Fowler, FB
"They like to move these guys around a lot. I mean, they like to stand them up, give them different looks. It's crazy how they work their defense around that guy. But you gotta always know where he's at because he's one of the main priorities, one of the top guys on the defensive line."
Nick Saban, HC
"Up front on defense, they're very physical and what makes defensive players good is they're hard to block. And they certainly have some guys up front that are hard to block and they played very well and have been difficult to score against. Create a lot of negative plays for people, and it's going to be very challenging for us up front with our offensive line to do a good job of executing against what they do."
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think the two inside players, the two defensive tackles, are issues because they play so hard and they get off your centers and guards. And their two inside linebackers are very physical and their field linebacker can really run. And they leave him in there against three wides a lot and because they have the confidence that he can cover. So this is a very, very good defense. One that really if you look out, if you look all year, outside of Michigan State, which a lot of those yards are at the end of the game, people aren't really moving the ball against these guys very much at all."
Scouting Joey Bosa
Lane Kiffin, OC
"I think first off Bosa is an issue. Very long, strong player, relentless. Effort player. So we have to know where he is. They do a really good job of moving him around. I think that's missed. People talk about his numbers and what a good player he is. He's a great player but they do a great job of moving him so it's difficult. He's inside. He's right. He's left. He's off the ball. He's on the ball. So I feel like what they've done with him on defense is kind of what people do on offensive guys, skilled guy. They move him around, make it hard to find and they've done a great job with that. I think they play very physical."
Scouting Ohio State's secondary
Amari Cooper, WR
"Their cornerbacks are both really fast. 12 is extremely fast. Probably like a legit 4.3 guy. They never let the receivers they play against get too much separation from them. So they're both really solid corners. I think their secondaries are pretty fast, the corners are pretty fast. And their safeties are really good tacklers, their safeties are 2 and 3 on the team in tackles. So, they're really solid defensive backs."
"Overall we feel they're a really sound defense. We feel like the players on their defense are really confident in their scheme. We feel like they're comfortable in that scheme. They don't really change around their defense at all. They do the same things, because that's what they're comfortable doing. And they're really what word can I use? They're just used to running that defense and they do it really well."
NEW ORLEANS — Ohio State players and coaches have been talking all week about the Sugar Bowl and their opponent Alabama. What have they been saying?
Scouting Alabama's offense
Urban Meyer, HC
"You always try to, as part of the game plan and preparation, expose a weakness. And that's difficult with Alabama whether it be punt rush, whether it be kickoff coverage, and then obviously offense/defense. you're trying to find that player or part of that defense or offense that's not very good and you go after it. Alabama is the kind of team it's hard to find that."
Curtis Grant, LB
“They’re a dynamic offense. They’ve got two great backs and obviously they have a great receiver. We’re going to try our best to make them one-dimensional.”
Joey Bosa, DE
"Big talented guys. Athletic. Big, big dudes. And we haven't really matched up with someone like this before, this athletic, this big, but like I said yesterday, I don't think they've seen someone - a D line as consistent as us and as physical as we're going to be. It's going to be interesting to see."
Michael Bennett, DT
"They have a fantastic O line that is very big and actually very athletic. And that's a hard combination to achieve at O line. They prefer the zone offense. They have the guys to run a power offense when they feel like it and they try to every now and then but they like to zone because they have those big athletic bodies up front that can displace people and be on the runs so their running backs can find holes.
Joshua Perry, LB
“I think the key is that you can’t focus too much on stopping [Amari ] Cooper and doing the things that they do in their passing game, because you’ll lose focus on the run and they can get you on that."
Doran Grant, CB
“They are different offensively. They are more balanced and like to run the ball a lot, obviously, but they can spread the ball around more than they have in the past.”
Luke Fickell, DC
"They've got weapons all over the place. That's the thing, that's the thing that gets overlooked sometimes is the offensive line. That's where the games start and that's where they've been so successful over obviously the last seven, eight years."
Scouting Amari Cooper and Blake Sims
Luke Fickell, DC
"Obviously Amari Cooper gets most of the attention. The reality is we haven't seen a guy especially in our league that would warrant as much attention as he does. It's not just the catch to me; it's the runs after the catch. For a guy that cannot only have the deep ball, home run shots, but he can take an out screen and turn it into a touchdown long distance. He does the intangible things. He's going to block and do some things that sometimes you don't see the first rounders or the truly top, top dogs do.
Doran Grant, CB
“He’s a great player. We’ve seen a lot of film on him. He’s a good route runner and has good speed. He’s a very, very good ball-catcher.”
Curtis Grant, LB
“He’s one of those quarterbacks that can keep plays alive. He can beat you with his arm when you’re not paying attention. If you give him a little bit of space, he can make you miss and run the ball to keep the play alive. You’ve got to be able to contain him.”
Scouting Alabama's defense
Taylor Decker, OT
“It is without a doubt the best defensive line we will face all season. It will probably be the best defense we will face. Incredible depth, they rotate all kinds of guys in there. On film, there are four defensive ends I will play against personally. They are really good athletes, big, strong guys that can move. They aren’t just space fillers. That is going to be a challenge as far as the offensive line is concerned, because it is the best we have faced so far."
Cardale Jones, QB
“By far, this will be the best defense we’ve played against all year, the most physical defense we’ve played all year, and the fastest defense we’ve played all year. They’ve got some unbelievable guys on defense that we do our best to simulate and get that look. That’s going to be a challenge for not just me, but the offense. Speed, size, the strength, the physicality. This is going to be the most physical defense we've ever played against. We've got to be ready for that."
Ezekial Elliott, RB
"They’re a great team. They have a big front seven. You don’t really get much movement off the line of scrimmage. The key to our offense is getting the running game going so we can take shots down field, so establishing the running game is going to be very important.”
“They are a very big, physical team. Their d-line, their line backers are just big guys and so they are a lot bigger than the guys we play. Their line backers are all 250, interior d-linemen all 300 pounds, so getting some momentum early in the game, getting movement off the line of scrimmage is going to be important.”
Jeff Heuerman, TE
“They are a very good defense. They know what they want to do and they do it very well. They have a very good secondary. They don’t do a whole lot of crazy things schematically. They know what they want to do and they do it well and execute. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
The college football playoff kicks off on Jan. 1 with Florida State and Oregon meeting in the Rose Bowl, and Alabama and Ohio State squaring off in New Orleans in the Sugar Bowl. There’s no shortage of talent among the four teams in the playoff, but some players are more valuable than others.
To help prepare for the first four-team playoff, Athlon projects the 25 most important players for Thursday’s games. This top 25 player list isn't necessarily a ranking of the best or projected by talent but a compilation of how important players will be in the playoff matchups. There’s little surprise among the top four, as quarterbacks Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston, Cardale Jones and Blake Sims take the first spots. But after the quarterbacks, Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa, Oregon tackle Jake Fisher, Florida State receiver Rashad Greene and Oregon cornerback Troy Hill rank as the most important players for the playoff matchups.
25 Most Important Players for College Football Playoff
1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon, Jr.
It’s rare now for the preseason pick for the Heisman to follow through and win the award. Mariota might not have been the leader every week, but he was darn close. Oregon’s first Heisman winner is exceedingly efficient, throwing a ridiculously low two interceptions this season and four last year. He completed 80 percent of his passes twice this season and fewer than 60 percent just once.
2. Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State, So.
Winston couldn’t contend for a second Heisman trophy thanks to 17 interceptions and the off-field issues that followed him through the season. He was unstoppable in the second half, though. He completed 71.2 percent of his passes in the third quarter and only one of his picks this season came in the fourth quarter.
3. Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State, So.
The 250-pound backup was efficient and productive against Wisconsin but will have to be nearly perfect against Alabama for Ohio State to have a shot at the upset.
4. Blake Sims, QB, Alabama, Sr.
Lane Kiffin has turned this fifth-year senior into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation. Expect a unique and creative gameplan from the Bama play-caller and it’s up to Sims to execute against an elite defensive front.
5. Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State, So.
The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year must play the game of his life against an Alabama offense that can run it as well as it throws it. He is the leader of the D-Line.
6. Jake Fisher, OT, Oregon, Sr.
His value was underscored when the Ducks’ only loss of the season (Arizona) and close call against Washington State occurred with Fisher out of the lineup. The Ducks are undefeated when the senior from Traverse City, Mich., starts, thanks in part to his mean streak.
7. Rashad Greene, WR, Florida State, Sr.
The expert route runner is Winston’s favorite target with 76 catches in 2013 and 93 receptions this season and a total of 2,434 yards and 16 touchdowns. With two more scores, he can tie Peter Warrick’s school record of 29 career TD catches.
8. Troy Hill, CB, Oregon, Sr.
Hill’s position will be magnified with standout cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu out for the playoff due to a torn ACL. Offenses tested him with Ekpre-Olomu in the lineup, as Hill finished the season with 16 pass breakups. That won’t change now that he is the de facto No. 1 corner.
9. Eddie Goldman, DT, Florida State, Jr.
After suffering an ankle injury against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, Goldman is expected to be ready for Oregon. That’s no small matter, either, as the standout defensive tackle may matchup with center Hroniss Grasu. The All-America selection has four sacks and eight tackles for a loss this season.
10. Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State, So.
One of the most disruptive players in Florida State’s defense, Ramsey finished the season with two interceptions, 9.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks ... as a safety. His game-clinching performance against Miami was one of the most impressive defensive efforts of the season.
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State, Fr.
Arguably Florida State’s most clutch performer in the final two months of the season, Cook notched long touchdown runs that sealed games against Louisville and Miami. In the final weeks of the season, Cook has become a workhorse back.
12. Cam Robinson, LT, Alabama, Fr.
After 13 games, Robinson really isn't a freshman. However, the Tide's starting left tackle will face arguably his toughest test of the year against Ohio State. He'll be charged with slowing Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Joey Bosa for most of the evening.
13. A'Shawn Robinson, NG, Alabama, So.
Robinson is the most disruptive defensive lineman Nick Saban has had since Marcell Dareus or Terrence Cody. The sophomore is a load to stop up the middle and could single-handedly destroy OSU's offensive front.
14. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama, Jr.
It might be shocking that the best wideout in the nation isn't higher on this list but there is a good chance Cooper plays more of a decoy role than anything else. He's impossible to stop and could torch the Buckeyes, so he should expect plenty of safety help and double coverage.
15. Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon, Fr.
Another star freshman running back in a class full of them, Freeman gave Oregon a physical edge in the run game in the second half of the season. Freeman rushed for 953 yards and 11 touchdowns in Oregon’s eight-game winning streak to end the season.
16. Mario Edwards, DE, Florida State, Jr.
Oregon has been susceptible to the pass rush this season, and Edwards is the best edge defender for the Seminoles with 20.5 tackles the last two seasons. Edwards already has been a stud at the Rose Bowl with three tackles for a loss in last year’s BCS title game.
17. Cameron Erving, C, Florida State, Sr.
Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, who has coached two Rimington Award winners for the nation’s best center, raves about Erving at the position. His move from left tackle, where he was an All-ACC performer, enabled FSU to have its best OL group of the year with freshman Rod Johnson at left tackle.
18. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon, Sr.
It wouldn’t be Oregon if the Ducks didn’t have a lingering offensive line concern entering the playoff. Grasu is one of the best centers in the country when healthy, but he missed the final three games of the regular season with a leg injury.
19. DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon, Jr.
Buckner is the bulk for a team that is unfairly labeled as a finesse squad. The 6-7, 290-pound Hawaiian leads the Ducks’ defensive line with 12 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
20. Tre Jackson, OG, Florida State, Sr.
Jackson earned unanimous All-America honors in 2014. He has led a revival of the Florida State run game, highlighted by a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013, FSU’s first since 1996, and potentially a second in 2014.
21. Jalin Marshall, AP, Ohio State, Fr.
Ohio State will need to make big plays out in space and possibly on special teams. Marshall can make things happen from anywhere on the field and must be a big-play threat for OSU. He surged over the final month and needs to continue his excellent play.
22. Vonn Bell, S, Ohio State, So.
The talented big-play defensive back will have his eye on Amari Cooper the entire game. He won't be in many man-to-man situations with No. 9 but Bell will be asked to help early and often.
23. Landon Collins, S, Alabama, Jr.
Collins is likely to be the most explosive defensive player on the field for either team and maybe the best tackler of the bunch. He must intimidate in the passing game and fill holes against the run.
24. P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State, Jr.
Williams returns to Pasadena as the Rose Bowl MVP. The three-year starter at cornerback had the game-sealing interception in last year’s national championship game against Auburn.
25. Nick O’Leary, TE, Florida State, Sr.
The Mackey Award winner is more than a safety valve. He’s a go-to receiver. O’Leary caught four touchdown passes in the final three games of the season. In an era when the tight end is vanishing, O’Leary’s consistency, his 47 receptions and 13 yards per catch is notable.
Technically, this is the 26th annual TicketCity Cactus Bowl.
Formerly known as the Copper Bowl (1989-96), the Insight Bowl (1997-2011) and Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (2012-13)
Washington will represent the Pac-12, which has the highest winning percentage in bowl history with seven wins in eight tries (87.5%). Oklahoma State will represent the Big 12, which has the most wins (10) and appearances in the Cactus Bowl (15).
The Huskies and Cowboys have played twice in history, splitting a home-and-home in 1980 (Stillwater) and 1985 (Seattle) with, strangely enough, the home team losing both times.
The Cowboys won their only appearance in the game in 2007 over Indiana, while Washington has never been to Tempe for this game.
After seven years of missing the postseason, Chris Petersen has kept alive a now five-game bowl streak in his first year at Washington. This season marks the ninth consecutive bowl game for Mike Gundy in 10 years at the helm in Stillwater.
Washington vs. Oklahoma State
Kickoff: 10:15 p.m. ET (Jan. 2)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Washington -5.5
Washington’s Key to Victory: Win the line of scrimmage
On defense, a dominant Washington frontline must protect a young secondary, while an elite set of linebackers wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage. On offense, the Huskies must continue their second-half surge on the ground. Washington topped 200 yards rushing in four of their last five games and posted 188 in the easy win over Washington State. Dwayne Washington has been the spearhead for the improvement, topping 100 yards in three straight and reaching paydirt in four straight. If Washington can win the battle up front on both sides of the ball, it could be a long day for the Cowboys.
Oklahoma State's Key to Victory: Keep Mason Rudolph upright and efficient
Oklahoma State's freshman signal-caller Mason Rudolph is one of the big reasons the Pokes ended 2014 with a flurry instead of disappointment. Rudolph had his issues getting acclimated to big-time college football — 53.3% completion rate, three INTs in two starts — but has been productive as well. On the road against two of the Big 12's best (Baylor and Oklahoma), he threw for 554 yards and four touchdowns. Against a Huskies defense that led the Pac-12 in takeaways (27) and is third nationally in sacks (49), keeping Rudolph upright and protected is the only way Oklahoma State can get the win. That's a tall order considering OSU allowed the most sacks of any team in the Big 12.
Both teams capped a bumpy season with a critical victory in their respective rivalry games, adding some energy to the postseason meeting. But the Cowboys are genuinely lucky to still be playing, as this is one of the weaker OSU teams Gundy has coached since arriving in Stillwater. There is hope in the form of Rudolph, but the Cowboys are overmatched from a talent perspective and will be without its top offensive weapon after Tyreek Hill was dismissed from the team. The UW defense could dominate the line of scrimmage, so if the offense can produce just an average performance, the Huskies should get a ninth win this year.