NCAA Football

Sugar Bowl 2015: Key Matchups to Watch in Ohio State vs. Alabama Clash

When Ohio State and Alabama take the field on Jan. 1 at the Sugar Bowl, all eyes will be focused upon head coaches Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

After all, they are two of the rock stars in the sport who have crystal footballs to back it up. It will be a renewal of the coaching rivalry fans saw in SEC Championship Games when Meyer was at Florida, only this time, he will be leading the scarlet and gray from the Big Ten.

However, the actual matchups on the field will go a longer way toward determining the outcome of this game than the coaching showdown. With that in mind, here is a look at the schedule for the Sugar Bowl and some key matchups to watch in the College Football Playoff semifinal clash.

 

2015 Sugar Bowl

Matchup: Ohio State vs. Alabama

Date: Thursday, Jan. 1

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

Place: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana  

Channel: ESPN

 

Key Matchups

Doran Grant vs. Amari Cooper

Ohio State’s defense cost it a chance at a national title last season with multiple collapses against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game, but it bounced back admirably this year. Never was that more apparent than during the 59-0 beatdown the Buckeyes handed Wisconsin in this season’s conference title game.

One reason for the improvement was the country’s 17th-ranked passing defense, which also finished fourth in the nation with 21 interceptions.

Doran Grant is the best cornerback in a talented secondary and will be tasked with the nearly impossible job of at least slowing down Alabama’s all-world wide receiver, Amari Cooper. Grant stepped up on the big stage with two picks against Wisconsin and a formidable game against Michigan State (Tony Lippett only had 64 receiving yards), but Cooper is an NFL star in the making.

Grant is certainly going to need some help from the rest of the secondary if he wants to contain Cooper, who finished the season with 1,656 receiving yards and 14 touchdown catches. 

Ian Rapoport of NFL.com discussed how talented Cooper is and the potential Cooper has for the next level:

Interestingly, Alabama’s second-leading receiver this year was DeAndrew White, who only tallied 439 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if the Buckeyes apply bracket coverage with a safety over the top on Cooper in an effort to force the other receivers to win the game.

 

Alabama’s Offensive Line vs. Ohio State’s Defensive Line

One thing that would really help Ohio State’s secondary against Cooper is if Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and the rest of the defensive line can get a consistent pass rush on Blake Sims.

Something will have to give in the matchup between the Buckeyes defensive line and Alabama’s offensive line. Ohio State was seventh in the nation with 40 sacks, and Alabama was 11th in the nation with only 13 sacks allowed.

Bosa, who led the Big Ten with 13.5 sacks and was named a first-team Associated Press All-American, and Bennett, who was named a third-team Associated Press All-American, will be key in this battle. 

Even if Bosa and Bennett fail to rack up significant sack numbers, they can force Sims to throw the ball earlier than he wants, which will give the secondary a better chance against Cooper. Bosa and Bennett also need to get penetration against the run in order to allow the linebackers to come up and make plays in the backfield.

 

Ohio State’s Receivers vs. Alabama’s Secondary

Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors passed along some statistics for the Ohio State wide receiver corps and a quote from Meyer about that group:

The group has caught 225 passes for 3209 yards and 39 touchdowns through 13 games. And unlike years past, Meyer can rely on a rotation of players instead of one or two to make plays on a semi-weekly basis. 

'We have five guys I have no problem throwing the ball to,' Meyer said.   

Those five guys are presumably Devin Smith, Evan Spencer, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson (who is expected to return for the playoffs after missing the majority of the final month with a broken foot).

Smith consistently beats defenders on deep routes, Thomas is Ohio State’s go-to guy on slant routes who is capable of making one defender miss and racing the rest of the way for a touchdown, Spencer is an excellent blocker who can also make plays underneath, and Marshall and Wilson are the speedsters from the slot who can take shovel passes or reverses and break them for long touchdowns.

Marshall can also play some Wildcat quarterback and may even be the second-stringer during the playoff game behind Cardale Jones.

The Sugar Bowl is a battle between the country’s No. 4 scoring offense in Ohio State and No. 4 scoring defense in Alabama. On paper, that is a strength vs. strength matchup; however, Alabama was a decidedly mediocre 60th in the country against the pass. 

The Crimson Tide have been the kings of college football for years, but they have proven vulnerable in the secondary down the stretch, as JBook of Bucknuts.com noted:

Jones proved in the Big Ten Championship Game with three deep touchdown passes to Smith that he is not afraid to throw it downfield. He will have to do just that against a beatable Alabama secondary if the Buckeyes are going to shock the college football world in the Sugar Bowl.

 

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Schedule, Predictions for Entire College Football Postseason

It’s college bowl season, which means sponsors like Royal Purple, Famous Idaho Potato and even Bitcoin take center stage for football fans looking to enjoy some postseason action.

Regardless of the sometimes amusing bowl names, there are plenty of intriguing matchups on tap during the 2014-15 college football postseason. With that in mind, here is a look at the entire schedule and predictions for each bowl showdown.

 

Under-the-Radar Game to Watch: Utah vs. Colorado State

Colorado State has an opportunity against a Pac-12 opponent to make a statement in its bowl game, but it has more on its plate than just the upcoming contest.

Florida hired head coach Jim McElwain away from the Rams, so they will be playing without their usual leader. McElwain orchestrated one of the best offenses in the country, and there may be some fear that there will be a drop in production in the near future. 

That won’t be an issue if Colorado State brings in someone associated with Oregon’s high-octane attack, which Jeremy Fowler of ESPN pointed out is a possibility:

In terms of the matchup on the field, Utah in a bowl game is as close to a sure thing as you can find in college football and is an incredible 10-1 in the postseason since 1999.

Colorado State finished 10-2 on the season, but it didn’t play a ranked opponent all year. Utah has wins over UCLA, USC and Stanford on its resume but struggled down the stretch with three losses in its final five games, including a 42-10 beatdown from Arizona.

Playing in a difficult conference means plenty of close games, and seven of Utah’s 12 contests were decided by one score. Coach Kyle Whittingham discussed the sheer number of close games, according to STATS LLC, via ESPN.com.

"Seems like every week has come down to the last possession or even the last play at times," Whittingham noted. "We're finding ways to win most of them and that's very encouraging, because the last couple years we were just the opposite of that. We were not finishing and finding ways to win those close games."

One of the key matchups in this bowl game will happen when Utah has the ball. Running back Devontae Booker finished the season with 1,350 rushing yards and nine touchdowns and should have some running room against Colorado State’s defense. The Rams allowed at least 100 rushing yards in every game they played and were 89th in the country against the run.

Utah was only 91st in the country in passing offense, so it will need to rely on Booker and that rushing attack.

On the other side, there are weapons everywhere you look when Colorado State has the ball, and it finished eighth in the country in passing yards per game. Quarterback Garrett Grayson spearheaded the attack all year and won the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. He finished with 32 touchdown passes and was second in the country in passer rating (171.3) behind only Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

Receiver Rashard Higgins, who finished with 17 touchdowns and a nation-best 149.1 receiving yards per game, is Grayson’s primary target. Throw in running back Dee Hart, who tallied 564 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final four games, and this is a complete offense.

Utah will counter with a defense that led the nation with 52 sacks but finished a disappointing 92nd against the pass and 56th against the run. Part of that can be attributed to playing in the offense-happy Pac-12, though, considering the Utes were third in the conference in passing yards allowed per game.

Ultimately, Colorado State has too many weapons on the field for Utah with its balanced offensive attack.

If the Rams can get an early lead in this one behind Grayson, Hart and Higgins, they will force Utah to play from behind and outside of its comfort zone. It is much harder to consistently run the ball when you are trailing because it keeps the clock running, and the Utes will have to turn to an aerial attack that is suspect at best in the second half.

The result will be Colorado State’s 11th win of the season. 

Prediction: Colorado State 34, Utah 24

 

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UCLA Football: Ranking the Top 10 Bruins from 2014 Regular Season

With the 2014 regular season in the books for the UCLA football team, the prudent thing to do would be to reflect on this past year. There were obviously many players contributing to the 9-3 overall record...

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Texas Football: Final 2014 Positional Grades for the Longhorns

When we look at their middling offense and embarrassing special teams, the Texas Longhorns were lucky to finish the season at a bowl-eligible 6-6.

That should tell you something about how Charlie Strong's defense was in 2014.

While not a single offensive unit cracked a B in our final positional grades, every group on the defense easily reached that mark, with even the lowest-rated group turning in a solid season.

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Colorado State Head Coach Search: Latest News and Rumors on Position

In the wake of losing Jim McElwain to Florida, Colorado State has begun its search for the program's next head coach. Some of the early names are intriguing ones, including Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost and Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford.

Pat Forde of Yahoo reported a slew of early names under consideration:

Frost's name has been mentioned in several head coaching searches, including the one for the Tulsa job earlier this month. Philip Montgomery of Baylor ultimately took that role, but Frost remains a strong candidate after helping lead Oregon to the College Football Playoff.

On the heels of grooming Marcus Mariota into a Heisman winner, he might get that opportunity with the Rams. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports offers more on the situation:

Along with his recent success, Vic Lombardi of CBS4 notes Frost has a connection to Colorado State:

Meanwhile, Bedford has built quite a resume for himself at Louisville and Texas. His turnaround of both programs on the defensive side makes him a solid candidate for any school, especially a CSU team that finished 34th in points allowed (23.4) this past season.

Jason Suchomel of Rivals.com (subscription required) notes more on Bedford:

Regardless of who takes over the position, he will inherit a program that has enjoyed success under McElwain. The former Alabama offensive coordinator led the Rams to a 10-2 record in 2014 and used it to propel himself back to the SEC.

Given the wealth of talent to choose from, the Rams have a good shot at coming away with another great head coach. Whether or not that coach will be able to repeat the same success as McElwain, however, remains to be seen.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Ohio State Football: 3 Home Run Candidates to Replace Tom Herman

With offensive coordinator Tom Herman leaving his post at Ohio State to take over at Houston, head coach Urban Meyer needs to find a home run candidate to fill a big void in the Buckeyes' coaching staff. 

Herman, who came to Columbus after successful stints as the offensive coordinator at Rice and Iowa State, helped Ohio State rewrite its record book with offenses that varied from bruising, pound-the-ground attacks to high-flying, aerial assaults. One of his greatest strengths is his flexibility; he finds what his team is good at, and then, he features it with a breathtaking efficiency.

With Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde in the backfield, Ohio State boasted one of the nation's most powerful rushing attacks from 2012-13. With J.T. Barrett and a bevy of playmakers on the perimeter this season, Herman shifted his game plan to be more pass-heavy, which produced the No. 4 scoring offense in the country.

But it wasn't just his ability to manage an offense that made him a perfect fit at Ohio State. Herman's recruiting reach—specifically in the state of Texas—was invaluable as the Buckeyes landed Lone Star State prospects, such as Barrett and Dontre Wilson. 

Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod wrote how important it will be for Meyer to find an all-star candidate to replace Herman. Whether they provide the right fit offensively or possess the Texas connection Herman had, one of these three coordinators would be a fantastic hire for Meyer and the Buckeyes. 

 

Scott Frost, Oregon Offensive Coordinator

Alongside head coach Mark Helfrich, Scott Frost helped Oregon's offense maintain the same effectiveness it had when Chip Kelly was at the helm.

His football knowledge stems from his playing days, when he learned from coaching legends such as Bill Walsh and Tom Osborne during his collegiate career before spending time under Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick and Jon Gruden in the NFL. 

Frost was brought on at Oregon in 2009 to coach the receivers—a role he filled until last season, when Helfrich promoted him to hold offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach duties. The Ducks have soared during that stretch, averaging 555.6 total yards and 45.9 points per game since the start of 2013. 

Oregon runs a wide-open attack that has similar principles to the offense Ohio State runs. Frost would not only maintain what the Buckeyes have built with Herman, he'd also be a great mentor to Ohio State's deep stable of quarterbacks. The Ducks produced a Heisman Trophy-winning signal-caller in Marcus Mariota this season. Frost's role as the quarterbacks coach was key to Mariota's success.

 

Lincoln Riley, East Carolina Assistant Head Coach, Offensive Coordinator

Lincoln Riley doesn't come from a big-time program like Frost, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't be a huge coup for Meyer and the Buckeyes.

An up-and-comer who learned the air-raid offense at Texas Tech under Mike Leach, Riley was brought in as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at ECU in 2010. Since then, he has orchestrated some of the most prolific units in school history, according to his official bio:

Riley's impact can simply be seen by looking at the Pirate record books as his units rank No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 on ECU's single-season passing list. In addition, three of his four squads are listed first, second and third on the school's yearly total offense ledgers, including a recent record-breaking 6,086-yard compilation in 2013.

His impact also helped rewrite the NCAA record book as senior wideout Justin Hardy broke the FBS career receiving record this season.

Riley would be able to do some damage with the talent Ohio State has on the perimeter.

 

Doug Meacham, TCU Co-Offensive Coordinator

Want ties to the talent-rich state of Texas? Why not go after TCU co-offensive coordinator Doug Meacham. 

The veteran coach has coached in or around Texas for years. Prior to taking over the Horned Frogs this season, Meacham was the tight ends/inside receivers coach at Oklahoma State (2005-12) and the offensive coordinator at Houston (2013).

His best work came this year at TCU, though, as he improved an offense that averaged just 25.1 points per game a season ago to a unit that scorched opposing defenses for 46.8 in 2014. After triggering the Horned Frogs' incredible turnaround, Meacham was named a Broyles Award finalist—an award given to the nation's top assistant coach. He came up short, though, as Herman was announced the winner after Ohio State thumped Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

 

All stats via NCAA.com and B/R research.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Descent into the Great Unknown: How Alabama Can Best Prepare for Cardale Jones

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s preparations for Ohio State in the film room will be a little different than they usually are for opponents, especially before a big game like this.

Where Nick Saban is especially meticulous, not letting any detail about the opposition slip through the cracks, he’ll have a difficult time doing so when scouting the Buckeyes offense and preparing the perfect defensive plan.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones made his first start of his career in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin, leading a 59-0 rout of the Badgers. Jones looked poised and confident, completing 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Jones replaced the injured JT Barrett, Ohio State’s Heisman Trophy candidate before he was hurt at Michigan. Barrett was only playing because Braxton Miller, the two-time reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, sustained an injury in practice on the eve of the season.

So Jones is essentially the Buckeyes’ third string quarterback, thrust into a starting role in the College Football Playoff.

But because of Ohio State’s bad luck under center this year, Alabama has very limited film on the guy it will face in the Sugar Bowl semifinal.

Jones had appeared in seven games this year before taking the reins against Wisconsin, largely in backup duty. He threw two passes in three games in 2013.

So drawing up a scouting report on the redshirt sophomore will be a tricky task for Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

“We did see him play in almost a game and a half,” Saban said on Tuesday night. “And he pretty much did a lot of things that the other guy did. But the one thing that he did really well was pass the ball. Made some really really good throws in the Wisconsin game, big plays down the field. Which the other guy [Barrett] did too.

"So we have a tremendous amount of respect for what this guy [Jones] can do, and we feel like, philosophically, they’re going to run that offense. It’s just what part of it they might feature a little different, that’s the part we’re not sure about.”

Saban should be pretty familiar with Urban Meyer’s offense at this point in both of their careers.

They met in a pair of highly publicized SEC Championship Games in 2008 and 2009 when Meyer was at Florida that they split. Saban got the better of Meyer one more time in 2010, Meyer’s last year at Florida and a year without Tim Tebow.

His offense at Ohio State has largely been the same type of concepts.

It’s a more traditional “spread”-type offense, with a lot of quarterback runs and three- and four-wide receiver sets. Miller had a lot of success running the system and then Barrett when he got hurt. Jones thrived in the offense in his one game against Wisconsin.

So Alabama isn’t expecting a much different look in terms of philosophy.

“Most of their quarterbacks are kind of similar,” Alabama safety Landon Collins said. “They run the same scheme on offense. We’re just going to have to watch film on what they do. Because they’re not going to change the whole offense just for one player, and at such late a time. So I guess we’ll just do that.”

It would be naive, though, to expect the exact same look from Ohio State that it has shown all season before Barrett’s injury.

Jones made a couple of plays with his feet, but at 6’5”, 250 pounds, he isn’t quite the nimble quarterback that Barrett or Miller is.

He did, though, show off his arm strength and passing ability that Saban mentioned. Particularly, on 39-, 44- and 42-yard touchdown passes against Wisconsin, Jones displayed the combination of touch, arm strength and accuracy that is critical in an effective quarterback.

And he showed the challenge that Alabama will have in preparing for a relative unknown.

“I think that the style of the quarterback is the same as the other guy [Barrett],” Saban said. “Like, the guy that played all season [Barrett] is a lot like Braxton Miller, so there wasn’t a lot of difference. I think this guy [Jones] is very very capable, very good passer, big, strong, athletic guy that can really do all the things that the other guy [Barrett] can do in terms of quarterback runs. Just a little different style. That’s all.”

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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Michigan Football: Breaking Down Wolverines RB Position

Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith were supposed to be the answers to Michigan’s woeful running game.

However, instead of combining forces to dominate the Big Ten in 2014, the pair of 5’11”, 220-pound sophomores frequently—and somewhat surprisingly—struggled to find steady footing on Saturdays.

To be fair, Green appeared capable of turning the corner prior to suffering his season-ending injury Oct. 4 versus Rutgers. Before breaking his clavicle, Green had 12 carries for 74 yards during what ended up being a 26-24 road loss to the Scarlet Knights.

Before that, he rushed for 170 yards and one touchdown versus Appalachian State and gashed Miami (Ohio) for 137 yards and two scores. Unfortunately, those outbursts were tainted by a six-yard effort against Minnesota and a 25-yard flop versus Notre Dame.

Conversely, one of his best friends endured a similar up-and-down haul—minus the season-ending injury, of course.

At times, Smith looked like a tank. He had a few highlight runs, complete with stiff-arms, gallops and the rest of the trimmings. Back in Week 1’s 52-14 demolition-style victory, he teamed up with Green to bulldoze the Mountaineers for 385 yards and three touchdowns.

It was only Appalachian State, but Smith’s 115 yards and two touchdown runs looked great next to Green’s line. The future of the backfield—if even for just one weekend—looked pretty bright.

Life was good.

Then things fell apart.

 

What the Wolverines had in 2014

Wheels spun, but they didn’t make much progress. Nonetheless, Green and Smith were the best available—or at least that was what Wolverines fans were led to believe this past season.

However, not until the emergence of Drake Johnson did Michigan begin to fully show what it had to offer on the ground. A wave of support from fans followed the 6’0”, 211-pound redshirt sophomore.

The Ann Arbor Pioneer high school hero carried the ball 55 times for 320 yards during the final four games, highlighted by a 122-yard, two-touchdown homecoming romping of Indiana and a 74-yard, two-score effort versus Ohio State.

He didn’t pack Green- and Smith-like power, but his shifty speed injected life into a position group that rushed 425 times for 1,954 yards and 17 touchdowns—numbers good enough for a lukewarm finish of No. 7 in the Big Ten (162.8 YPG).

But, in true bad-luck fashion, he retore his left ACL during the 42-28 loss to the playoff-bound Buckeyes—leaving fans to wonder, yet again, what he’ll bring to the mix next year.

Stats: 110 rushing first downs, No. 9 in the Big Ten. Each of Michigan’s 17 rushing touchdowns were scored in the red zone, good for No. 3 overall in the league.

 

What they’ll have in 2015

Well, let’s start with what Michigan won’t have in 2015: Mike Weber, a 4-star running back who, following Team 135’s stumble to 5-7, flipped from maize and blue to the scarlet and gray of Ohio State.

The 5’10”, 205-pound Cass Tech senior represented another phase in the Wolverines’ return to rushing prominence. But he now belongs to Urban Meyer.

Losing Weber hurt, but Brian Cole, another star prep from the Great Lakes State, appears to be on the way. The 6’2”, 190-pound 4-star athlete out of Saginaw Heritage runs a 4.35-second 40-yard dash and is expected to settle into the backfield this fall.

He could also be a viable pass-catching option, as he has hands to match his quick legs. 

Ty Isaac is a 6’3”, 225-pound combination of speed, power and finesse that Michigan wanted the first time around. However, the 2012 all-purpose back instead chose USC. 

The former Trojans depth-back should find a home in the rotations come spring—he already has a year at Michigan, so he knows the lay of the land. Before transferring from sunny Southern California, the sophomore ran the ball 40 times for 236 yards and two touchdowns, averaging an outstanding 5.9 yards per touch.

Late this past year, former coach Brady Hoke mentioned that Isaac had ran well during bye-week practices and should be ready sooner than later. 

Isaac and Johnson could be the new tandem in town, or they could be an impressive support system for Green and Smith, who seem to be the logical picks for No. 1 and 2 at the moment.

At this point, who's doing what and when hinges on the philosophy of the next coaching regime. 

But there are pieces in place, so the new guys won't have to start from scratch. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and references were obtained firsthand by the writer

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12 College Football Underclassmen to Watch This Bowl Season

The soon-to-begin bowl season isn't just a final showcase for players ready to make the jump to the pros. It can also be a coming-out party for underclassmen.

Last year's Sugar Bowl introduced the rest of the world outside Alabama to Crimson Tide running back Derrick Henry, a freshman who had seen limited action in his first 12 games but in the loss to Oklahoma erupted for 100 yards and a touchdown on eight carries—as well as a 61-yard TD reception. Henry parlayed that into a breakout sophomore year, with 895 rushing yards and 12 total TDs.

While much attention will be placed on teams' veteran stars and leaders, many bowl games will end up hinging on the play of younger players who can use these contests as a springboard for their careers.

Who are some underclassmen to look out for in the next few weeks? Click through to see our picks to click.

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Tennessee Football: Ranking 10 Best Vols from 2014 Regular Season

It seems hard to believe that the Tennessee Volunteers' 2014 regular season has been over for more than two weeks.

Second-year head coach Butch Jones accomplished his goal of getting the Vols back into a bowl game, but it was his players stepping up in close SEC games that helped Tennessee reach the .500 mark for the first time since 2010.

The Vols' next goal is to win their postseason game—a TaxSlayer Bowl matchup in Jacksonville, Fla., against the Iowa Hawkeyes on Jan. 2.

The Hawkeyes finished the season with a disappointing 7-5 record after being picked as a potential Big 10 conference champion during the preseason.

Despite its lackluster finish, Iowa is a senior-laden, disciplined football team that rarely makes mistakes and executes all of its plays with precision.

For Tennessee to come away with its first winning season since 2009, it will have to rely on the same players it relied on all year to make big plays in all three phases of the game.

Here are the 10 players who carried the Vols throughout the regular season and who will play big roles in the matchup with the Hawkeyes at EverBank Field in just a few short weeks. 

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SEC Football: Every Team's Best Moment from 2014 College Football Season

The SEC watched its streak of seven straight national titles come to an end in 2013 but rebounded with another solid year this season.

Alabama made the inaugural College Football Playoff, and for a while it looked like the Tide might be joined by a second member of the conference. Alas, the chips fell otherwise, but Mississippi State and Ole Miss still finished in the top 10, Georgia still finished in the top 15 and Missouri and Auburn still finished in the top 20. 

But more than just the best teams in the SEC had great moments in 2014. From top to bottom—yes, this even includes Vanderbilt—every program gave its fans at least one big reason to cheer.

Here is the highlight each team will remember most fondly.

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Is Brian Kelly Making Right Call to Play Both Malik Zaire and Everett Golson?

At Notre Dame the quarterback controversy continues as head coach Brian Kelly publicly stated Monday that he would play both Malik Zaire and Everett Golson in the Fighting Irish bowl game, according to Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com.

Adam Lefkoe sits down with Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder to discuss Kelly's coaching decision.

Is Kelly making the right choice deciding to play both?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Connor Cook Will Return to Michigan State in 2015: Latest Details and Reaction

Following a phenomenal year with Michigan State, quarterback Connor Cook has decided to return to the Spartans for his senior season.

Noah Trister of The Associated Press reported the news of Cook's decision Tuesday:

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook says he has "unfinished business" that he would like to take care of and indicated he plans to be back with the Spartans as a senior.

Cook has thrown for 2900 yards this season with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. The seventh-ranked Spartans play fourth-ranked Baylor in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1.

Cook finished the 2014 college football season with his second straight year of over 2,700 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Slowly progressing during his sophomore campaign, Cook came into his own as a junior in Mark Dantonio's system.

During the season, Cook spoke about his plans after the year with one caveat, per Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press:

While he hasn't been projected as highly as other quarterbacks such as Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, Cook has been a notable name this season.

A two-year starter, Cook was a model of consistency under center for the Spartans. He helped lead them to a 10-2 record, highlighted by 27-22 win over then-No. 19-ranked Nebraska on Oct. 4.

Despite his comments earlier in the season, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report believed he would end up in the draft:

With Cook back in the fold, the Spartans have a chance to make yet another run at a Big Ten Championship in 2015. Though he'll lose leading receiver Tony Lippett, Cook still has weapons like Josiah Price and Delton Williams to help carry the load.

Given his development over the last two seasons, Cook might have a chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in college football next year.

Of course, that's if the Spartans rally around him after losing several senior leaders.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Butch Jones Is Quietly Building SEC Title-Worthy Defense at Tennessee

When Darrin Kirkland Jr. pulled on his Tennessee cap during a ceremony at Lawrence Central (Indiana) High School on Monday, he gave Volunteers coach Butch Jones yet another jewel in a class poised to turn UT into a contender.

If the old adage of defense winning championships is true, this 2015 recruiting class may just be what sends Tennessee back to the top.

Though Jones couldn't say anything publicly about Kirkland's pledge, he tweeted a not-so-subtle celebration.

UT already enjoyed an emphatic leap up nearly 50 spots to 35th nationally in total defense this year under second-year coordinator John Jancek, who produced a unit that thrived in getting to the quarterback.

The Vols have huge cornerstones around which to build such as defensive ends Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt as well as cornerback Cameron Sutton.

Now with this year's class, Jones has recruited a stable of talent that can at least on paper match anybody's.

Where Tennessee's highly rated 2014 recruiting class was full of offensive playmakers, this year's class is heavy on the defensive needs facing the future on Rocky Top. Many of those needs have been met through some serious victories on the recruiting trail.

The Vols have won huge head-to-head battles with some of their biggest rivals, and the fruits of their work are evident in the star power heading to Knoxville next year.

Though the Vols struggled to find a rotation on the interior of the defensive front this year, they'll add to the mix the nation's top-ranked player—defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie—as well as a pair of quality tackles, Shy Tuttle and Quay Picou.

Throw in a trio of defensive ends who are playing in high school All-America games in Andrew Butcher, Darrell Taylor and Marques Ford, and the defensive line is on firm footing for the future. Not to mention the Vols are in the final three for 4-stars Kyle Phillips and D'Andre Walker to close the class.

If UT can somehow finish with either of those guys (or both), it would only add to a class already lauded by experts. Steve Wiltfong (subscription required) of 247Sports said this week:

Come National Signing Day, there is a good chance we're saying Tennessee has inked the best defensive line class in the country…  As Tennessee improved in year two under Jones and company, these [prospects mentioned above] are the guys that can help lead the Vols back to national prominence. A lot of NFL talent listed here.

Much like Hugh Freeze has done with Ole Miss, it appears Tennessee is beginning its resurgence on the defensive side. Like the Rebels, there's enough talent on offense to have a season very soon that announces to the world that the Vols are back.

Securing a defensive line haul such as the one line coach Steve Stripling is amassing in Knoxville is impressive to everybody, and that includes Kirkland. As one of the nation's top middle linebacker prospects, he's looking for a place that has good enough linemen to give blockers fits so he can make plays.

He took a peek at Tennessee's class and who'd be his future teammates, and that certainly didn't hurt.

"Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle definitely played a big factor in my decision," Kirkland told 247Sports' Wiltfong. "Having two great defensive tackles in front of me and hopefully some others can join as well."

Kirkland was a massive pull at a major-need position. With A.J. Johnson out of eligibility this season, the Vols need help in the middle. Jakob Johnson hasn't run with his opportunity to replace the elder Johnson, and redshirt Dillon Bates is an outside linebacker who could play there if needed.

But Kirkland's commitment gives UT a midterm linebacker who can come in, learn the playbook and compete immediately.

Joining Kirkland on the second level is 3-star Austin Smith, who had offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia and others before committing to the Vols. He's a speedy, rangy outside 'backer who will fit well in Tommy Thigpen's corps.

If UT can add fellow Atlanta-area prospect Quart'e Sapp to the mix, it'll be an ideal haul on the second level.

On the back end, the Vols already boast some excellent young talent, led by Sutton. Cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Rashaan Gaulden as well as safety Todd Kelly Jr. appear poised for exciting futures.

Now, Tennessee has added to that group 4-star cornerback Micah Abernathy, 3-star safety Stephen Griffin and 3-star cornerback Darrell Miller. With Tennessee natives Ugo Amadi and Justin Martin very viable options to close out the class, UT is sitting pretty at defensive back with two months left before national signing day.

It's the same across the board for the Vols, who've thrived on the recruiting trail under Jones, overturning such treasures as Barnett, who finished his freshman season with 20.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks.

Though neither Jancek nor Stripling had developed a reputation of being a standout recruiter during his veteran assistant career, they've both done extremely well at Tennessee.

Players identify with them and believe in what they're building, and the first-year players they're responsible for bringing to UT were sprinkled throughout a defense that carried UT for wide swaths of the season.

The limitations Tennessee's 2014 defense faced were chiefly depth-related, but the improvement from '13 in that capacity was exponential. Considering all the talent the Vols are bringing in on that side of the ball again this year, next season should feature a clearer, more talented rotation.

Nobody is suggesting UT will go undefeated, but winning in the SEC starts on defense, and the Vols are putting the players in place to be special on that side of the football.

When that happens, competing for the division and perhaps even the league may not be far behind.

 

All stats gathered from CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports Composite, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Charlie Strong's 1st Class at Texas Addresses Serious Needs for Longhorns

Texas is looking to regain some of the luster left from an up-and-down 2014 season, and head coach Charlie Strong is heading in the right direction by landing a solid 2015 recruiting class.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer discuss how Strong's class will help the Longhorns next season.

What kind of season will Texas have next year?

Watch the video and let us know!


Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Auburn's 2015 Recruiting Class Deserves to Be in Top 5

The Auburn Tigers had an up-and-down 2014 season, at times looking like an elite team and other times struggling to come up with big stops on defense. Their 2015 recruiting class should help.

Bleacher Report college football analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss Auburn's incoming class and how it can impact the future of the Tigers.

Will Auburn return to dominance in 2015? Check out the video, and let us know!  

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Notre Dame Football: Irish's Bowl Game a Preview of 2015 QB Battle

After taking a look at Notre Dame's quarterback position heading into the Music City Bowl, it took Brian Kelly three practices to make a decision on whom to play. Both of them.

Monday evening, Kelly disclosed his plan to play both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire against LSU. With two weeks to go before the Irish offense gets set to take on the SEC's best statistical defense, Kelly explained the logic behind the decision to use both signal-callers against the Tigers.

"I think both of them can help us win,” Kelly said. "I want to play them both because I think both of them have different traits and we need to find a way to win the game. I think both of them can help us win."

Winning will be a steep task.

According to Odds Shark, the Irish are already seven-point underdogs heading to Nashville, Tennessee on December 30. They'll also need to find a way to slow down LSU's power-running attack, stopping freshman Leonard Fournette with a MASH unit in the front seven.

Offensively, the task for the Irish isn't much easier. The Tigers' young defense is third nationally in scoring, giving up just 16.4 points a game. It has more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes allowed (nine), while surrendering just 162 yards a game through the air.

So if Kelly is looking for ways to generate points, it only makes sense to try and get the best of both worlds at the quarterback position.

"I think as we get into the game there are skill sets that each one of them has that are a little bit different that we’ll utilize in the game," Kelly said. "They both have strengths and we will call upon those strengths during the game. I’m confident that I can manage both of them during the game."

For Zaire, that means trying to open up the ground game with the zone read. While it was against a USC team that had a five-touchdown head start, the Irish moved the ball with the run, as Zaire and Greg Bryant broke off some big plays.

That seems like the best place to begin attacking LSU, with the Tigers' rush defense pedestrian compared to other statistical measurements. At 4.2 yards per carry allowed, LSU ranks 60th in the country.

But in many ways, the bowl game is almost secondary to what's shaking out on the practice fields on campus.

In stepping away from Golson for the bowl game after living through an astounding 22 turnovers in nine games before finally giving him the hook against USC, Kelly is setting the tone for an interesting offseason.

The move isn't unprecedented. You only have to look back to the end of the 2011 season to see Kelly doing something similar. After watching turnovers plague Tommy Rees and an otherwise explosive offense, Kelly finally gave Andrew Hendrix an opportunity to play in the season finale as well as the bowl game.

Kelly kept that competition open after the season ended, turning spring into a four-man race between Rees, Hendrix, Golson and early enrollee freshman Gunner Kiel.

That battle ended up with Golson on top, usurping Rees even after he had been the starter in 16 of the last 17 games Notre Dame had played.

Kelly looks to be making a similar move. So while the bowl game is important, the microscope on the quarterback position is simply part of what's expected when a position underperforms.

"[That] would have been the case at any position," Kelly said. "Anybody that’s not interested in getting better in the areas a coach feels he needs to get better at, he generally usually transfers."

That's a bold statement from Notre Dame's head coach. It also feels like a significant attitude change from earlier in the season.

While Kelly shuffled other positions—safety in particular—when he felt like he wasn't getting optimal performances from his players, the Irish head coach took the long view at quarterback, living through the mistakes Golson made after a year away from football.

But that rope is gone. Kelly revealed that it was Golson's job these past few weeks to earn back any playing time, crediting his senior quarterback for putting in the effort necessary to have a chance to even platoon.

"We had a conversation about what I wanted from him and he’s handled it great. He’s doing exactly what I’m asking him to do on a day-to-day basis," Kelly said. "I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I wasn’t even interested in really going down this road unless he was fully committed and engaged in working on the things that I thought he needed to work on and he’s been all of that."

So the Irish will head to Nashville with two quarterbacks incorporated into the game plan. It's 60 minutes of football that'll serve as the official opening of a quarterback battle that could last into 2015.

"I’m open really to anything at this point," Kelly said. "We want to put the best football team, the best offense that we can put on the field. Ideally, you’d like to have one, but if we’ve got two, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll see how this plays out and then evaluate it as we move forward."

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Big Ten Football: Every Team's Best Moment from 2014 College Football Season

The Big Ten Conference didn't get a lot of love during the 2014 season, mostly because of a rough start that was sorely lacking in quality wins. But when the dust settled and the playoff pairings were set, Big Ten champ Ohio State was part of that Final Four, and nine other schools had earned bowl bids.

It might not have been the greatest season in Big Ten history, but it also wasn't a bad one. Every team did at least one thing worth noting as we look back on 2014's best moments.

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Marcus Peters Reportedly Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details, Reaction

Marcus Peters, considered a promising cornerback prospect before being dismissed by Washington in November, has reportedly declared for the 2015 NFL draft. 

Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports reported the news:

According to Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times in November, Peters was dismissed from the team by head coach Chris Petersen after the player had repeated outbursts and several heated arguments with the coaching staff this season.     

"It’s unfortunate, but we’ve got certain standards and operating procedures,” Petersen said of Peters' dismissal, via Brewer. “We’re trying to do something special here. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Like I said, we wish him the best. It’s always a hard thing—the worst part of the job, without question."

While any interested NFL teams will surely investigate his time at Washington under first-year head coach Peterson carefully, there's no questioning Peters' talent. A Second-Team All Pac-12 selection in 2013, Peters had three interceptions and broke up seven passes in eight games in 2014 before his dismissal. 

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projected the Houston Texans would select Peters with the No. 13 pick in a mock draft he posted in his most recent scouting notebook. Peters was the first corner off the board. 

There's no doubt the value of top-tier corners is on the rise with more and more teams boasting dynamic passing games and athletic wide receivers. So Peters will be a player to monitor.

At the same time, top draft picks are prized commodities, and teams have to be careful when it comes to risks. It will be interesting to see how Peters' past actions affect his draft stock in the months ahead.

 

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Gary Patterson, TCU Agree on New Contract: Latest Details, Comments, Reaction

TCU reportedly reached an agreement with longtime head football coach Gary Patterson on a long-term contract extension over the weekend.    

Kate Hairopoulos of The Dallas Morning News confirmed the new deal with athletic director Chris Del Conte. He wouldn't provide many details, though:

News of the extension comes one day after Patterson won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, as noted by the school. It's his second time earning the honor after previously taking home the trophy in 2009.

Patterson arrived to TCU as a defensive coordinator in 1998. He took over as head coach two years later and, in an era where the coaching carousel spins rapidly each offseason, has seemed content to continue adding to the foundation he's built in Fort Worth.

He's won nearly 75 percent of his games (131-45) over that 15-year span. Equally impressive is the fact the Horned Frogs have qualified for a bowl game in all but two of those seasons. The team has gone 7-5 in those marquee games.

Next up for Patterson and TCU is a Peach Bowl clash with Ole Miss on Dec. 31. It was the program's consolation prize after narrowly missing out on the inaugural College Football Playoff.

 

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