NCAA Football

SEC Championship Game 2014: Analyzing How Title Clash Could Impact Final Playoff

One half of the SEC Championship Game is set following Missouri's 21-14 win over Arkansas on Friday. Now, it's up to Alabama and Mississippi State to figure out that final place.

The Tigers are headed to Atlanta for the second year in a row, the gravity of which wasn't lost on head coach Gary Pinkel. After the game, he said, per Missouri's official website:

It means an awful lot to me. I love my team. This has not been an easy year, but we battled and competed. I feel thankful for all the people around me. Mizzou Athletic Director, Mike Alden, has been tremendously important to me and our fans too. We sold Faurot out tonight and this place was rocking. There are a lot of things to be thankful for. Whoever we play next week, it's going to be a huge game. It's our second time down there (Atlanta, Ga.) in a row, and I'll tell you this, that's hard to do.

No conference championship has more playoff implications than the SEC title game. The result will not only have an effect on the SEC but also the Big 12 and Big Ten, whose top teams are on the playoff periphery at the moment.

You can view the most recent playoff rankings below. (Note: As the table header indicates, the logo shown at the far right of each team's row is for that team's next opponent and not for the ranked team itself.)

While it's not yet known who will play Missouri, the field is narrowed to an extent that you can examine the few different playoff scenarios.

 

SEC Championship Scenarios

Missouri Wins SEC

Strictly from a neutral perspective, this one might be the most interesting, if only to see whether the playoff committee would throw in a two-loss Missouri ahead of TCU/Baylor or Ohio State.

Beating Arkansas is unlikely to have a radical effect on the Tigers' place in the playoff rankings. Missouri should be hanging around 15th or 16th by the time it's in the conference championship. So the issue would then become how beating Mississippi State or Alabama would be enough to make the Tigers jump 10-plus spots into the top four.

The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are good, but they aren't that good.

On the basis of this year, it'd be hard to argue for sending Missouri into the playoff. The Tigers lost at home to Indiana and were shut out 34-0 at home to Georgia. Not to mention that outside of beating the Bulldogs or Crimson Tide, they wouldn't have a great track record.

According to CBSSports.com's Jon Solomon, Missouri has one win over an SEC team that finished over .500 in the conference in the last two years:

Missouri's best non-conference win was against an 8-3 UCF.

If Ohio State ends up losing in the Big Ten Championship Game, then the Tigers will have earned a playoff spot. Otherwise, the playoff should favor OSU and one of TCU or Baylor.

 

11-2 Alabama Wins SEC

Unlike Missouri, an 11-2 Alabama would have a strong case to finish in the top four in the event the Crimson Tide won the SEC championship. The wins over Texas A&M and West Virginia have lost some significance, but 'Bama would still have nice victories over Missouri, Mississippi State and LSU.

That would in all likelihood be enough to get the Tide in ahead of TCU/Baylor or Ohio State. The Big 12 doesn't have a conference championship, which could hurt in terms of perception, while it's no secret that Ohio State's road hasn't been the most daunting.

Beating Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game could put the Buckeyes over the hump, but TCU or Baylor would still have a hard time in a head-to-head tale of the tape with Alabama.

 

11-1 Mississippi State/Alabama Wins SEC

This is by far the easiest scenario to forecast. One of Mississippi State or Alabama finishes 11-1, wins the SEC and likely takes the top seed in the playoff. It's that simple.

The idea of the SEC champion making the playoff has essentially been a foregone conclusion for the entire season. The biggest question about the conference was whether it would send, one, two, three or four teams. Heck, maybe the committee thought about making a special dispensation so as to allow every SEC team into the playoff.

Instead, it looks like the SEC champion is the only team from the Southeast headed into the playoff.

The playoff committee obviously has no dog in the fight, but the committee members must be hoping that this is how things play out. Their jobs would be much more straightforward as a result.

 

Missouri/Alabama Wins SEC, Mississippi State Finishes 11-1

Here is where things would get really interesting. Would the selection committee really throw in a team that didn't even win its own conference, let alone its own division?

If the season ended right now, the Bulldogs would be in, and there's not a lot of time for things to change much. It's not a crazy prospect.

Bleacher Report and sports analytics expert Ed Feng crunched the numbers, and Mississippi State is a slight favorite to get into the top four ahead of TCU and Ohio State.

As discussed previously, an SEC champion Missouri would have a hard time cracking the top four. That opens the door for Mississippi State to enter the playoff even if it loses the SEC West. It would be a bit unfair for Mississippi State to go in ahead of Missouri, considering the Tigers would have beaten Alabama, which the Bulldogs failed to do.

The committee will likely want to make a strong stance in the first year of the playoff. The members shouldn't court disaster by having a non-champion go into the top four ahead of the conference champion.

CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd read over the CFP protocol and reached this conclusion:

A non-champion would be selected only if it is "unequivocally one of the four best teams in the country."

Your response is: Define unequivocally. That's up to the CFP committee. It would be reasonable to conclude from that language conference champions will be favored.

Could Mississippi State still be one of the four best teams in the country despite not winning the SEC? Sure.

But the beauty of the playoff is that everything's decided on the field. It wouldn't make sense to throw in a team that didn't even win its own division.

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Bowl Predictions 2014: Last-Minute Playoff Projections, Odds Before Week 14

If we are going to get any chaos in the race for the College Football Playoff, it is bound to happen during "Rivalry Saturday."

After all, end-of-season showdowns against hated opponents elicit a different type of emotion and effort level, and the pressure that comes with being a playoff contender could come into play if the games are tight down the stretch.

With that in mind, read on to see some last-minute playoff projections from StatMilk, championship odds from Odds Shark and my own playoff predictions before the games start Saturday. 

(Note: As the table header indicates, the logo shown at the far right of each team's row is for that team's next opponent and not for the ranked team itself.)

 

StatMilk and Odds Shark Playoff Projections and Odds

*Odds to win national championship courtesy of Odds Shark, as of Friday night at 10 p.m. ET.

 

Scott Polacek Playoff Projections

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Florida State vs. No. 3 Oregon     

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (semifinal winners)

 

Game to Watch: Auburn at Alabama

No game on the college football schedule has played a larger role in determining the national champion in the past decade than the Iron Bowl.

In fact, the winner of the Alabama and Auburn showdown has won four of the past five titles, and the one they didn’t win was when Auburn lost to Florida State in the championship game. Of course, the Tigers only got there because Chris Davis ran Alabama’s missed field goal back for a 109-yard touchdown on the game’s final play.

Alabama safety Landon Collins discussed that incredible play, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN.com, "It shows up on the TV every now and again, and it breaks our heart every time. In one second they took our whole chance away of winning anything, and definitely it rewinds in my head. Definitely it will rewind in my head constantly throughout this week."

It’s not like Alabama needs any extra motivation with the College Football Playoff and the heated Iron Bowl hanging in the balance, but reliving that play for 365 days is sure to have the players ready for some revenge.

That is a problem for Auburn considering it lost its past two SEC games to Texas A&M and Georgia, the second in blowout fashion. Interestingly, the Tigers are 6-0 in the last 10 Iron Bowls when they are ranked and 0-4 when they are not, so recent history would suggest ranked Auburn is going to win Saturday.

Playoff contenders hoping Alabama loses better pull for that to happen because next up for the Crimson Tide if they win is the SEC Championship Game against the same Missouri team that lost at home to Indiana. If Alabama is going to drop another game at all, it will likely be Saturday.

The Crimson Tide are the quintessential balanced championship threat because there is nothing they don’t do well. They are 25th nationally in passing yards per game, 35th in rushing yards per game, 28th in scoring offense and second in scoring defense. That shutdown defense is the key against Auburn’s no-huddle attack that gave the Crimson Tide so many issues last season.

Auburn is ninth in the country in rushing yards per game with quarterback Nick Marshall and Cameron Artis-Payne leading the way. 

Artis-Payne’s 1,405 rushing yards is the best in the SEC, and it puts him in rare company, via Kyle Burger of Alabama’s 13:

However, Alabama’s powerful defense will make Auburn one-dimensional much the same way that Georgia did in its blowout win over the Tigers. Marshall finished 11-of-23 on the day for 112 yards, zero touchdowns and an interception and looked lost when the team couldn’t get much going on the ground early.

The Crimson Tide will also have the home crowd behind them, which will make life even more difficult for the Auburn offense.

Revenge is in order Saturday, and Alabama will take another step toward the College Football Playoff in decisive fashion. 

Prediction: Alabama 31, Auburn 14

 

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Auburn vs. Alabama: Stat Predictions for Both Teams' Top Playmakers in Iron Bowl

Alabama and Auburn have combined for 18 wins this season due to a bevy of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. While both teams are built in different manners, each have been highly effective in their respective schemes this season.

The Tigers utilize a run-heavy offense featuring several talented ball-carriers and a dual-threat quarterback. They routinely succeed by putting up sufficient points to outscore opponents. The Crimson Tide runs more of a pro-style offense. They orchestrate methodical drives and control the game with strong possessions.

After watching both of these teams in action throughout the course of the season, it will certainly be intriguing to see how these clashing styles fare against each other. As we await the highly anticipated 2014 Iron Bowl, let's predict the final stat lines that some of the biggest playmakers from each squad will produce.

 

Alabama

Blake Sims, Quarterback

Expect Sims to pass a little more often that usual in the Iron Bowl. Head coach Nick Saban will want to take advantage of Auburn's 75th-ranked pass defense that has yielded 17 touchdowns and an average of 232.5 yards per game through the air.

The coach noted his quarterback's high level of confidence entering the game, via Tide 99.1:

Sims has been very efficient this season and has taken care of the football nicely, throwing just four interceptions. The Tigers aren't exactly known for takeaways, so Alabama's signal-caller is likely to keep his stat sheet clear of any blemishes.

 

T.J. Yeldon, Running Back

Yeldon's had some strong performances this season, but they've been sporadic. While Auburn is ranked 35th in the nation against the run, they are only allowing an average of 3.87 yards per carry to opposing running backs. This junior ball-carrier shouldn't be expected to blow the doors off the Tigers defense.

Derrick Henry will also be in the mix for the Crimson Tide, and he'll help get Alabama over the 100-yard mark as a team. Although, unless Saban's team finds itself way out in front, expect Alabama to do most of its offensive damage through the air.

 

Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver

It may be asking a little too much of Auburn's secondary to keep up with the prolific Cooper. He's been one of the nation's best receivers all season long, accumulating 90 receptions for 1,349 yards and 11 touchdowns. He'll add a nice chunk to those numbers on Saturday.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn noted now difficult it's been to prepare for the wideout during an interview with Joel A. Erickson of AL.com, "You can put a jersey on somebody who has the same number, but to simulate one of the best players in college football, that's probably not realistic."

While the Tigers may roll some coverage in Cooper's direction, they can't afford to leave anyone on an island against DeAndrew White. Cooper will get opportunities to make several big plays against Auburn, and he should be expected to take full advantage.

 

Auburn

Nick Marshall, Quarterback

Don't expect Marshall to put up any kind of gaudy numbers against the Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide know he's the Tigers' No. 1 playmaker and will be giving him plenty of attention. Marshall is talented enough to pull off a few big plays, but he'll have it tough.

Although, here's an interesting stat regarding last year's Iron Bowl, via ESPN's Cole Cubelic:

This year, when Alabama played Mississippi State, it limited Dak Prescott to 3.7 yards per carry. Conversely, when Marshall faced off against a solid Ole Miss run defense, he averaged 5.0 yards per rush. Expect this matchup to put the quarterback somewhere in between.

 

Cameron Artis-Payne, Running Back

Artis-Payne will get his carries against Alabama, but he's facing a Crimson Tide team that is ranked second in the nation against the run, allowing an average of just 2.76 yards per carry. Making matters even worse for the ball-carrier, don't expect him to find paydirt, as Alabama has only given up two rushing touchdowns this season.

The senior ball-carrier has put up respectable numbers throughout the year, but he hasn't faced a run defense nearly as stingy as Alabama's. Unfortunately, his nice season won't end on a very high note.

 

D'haquille Williams, Wide Receiver

Williams is coming off a knee injury and missed the team's last two contests, but according to Ryan Cody of WHNT.com, he's expected to play Saturday. The 6'2" wide receiver will have his hands full with the talented, 27th-ranked Alabama secondary, but he'll be a significant presence on Auburn's offense.

The Alabama coach had some high praise for Williams and Co. prior to the game, via Tide 99.1:

With Sammie Coates and Quan Bray also in the mix, we should expect Marshall to spread the ball around. That will help Auburn's overall offensive efficiency, but it will restrict Williams' final output.

 

All team rankings courtesy of NCAA.com. Player statistics via ESPN.com. All stats current as of November 28.

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College Football Rankings 2014: Final NCAA Overview of Week 14 Standings

TCU is in an enviable position among College Football Playoff contenders heading into Saturday’s slate of games.

It already made a loud statement Thursday—even if that came against a struggling 6-6 Texas program that looks like a shell of its once proud self—and now gets to sit back and root for upsets that will bolster its positions in the rankings. An Ole Miss win over No. 4 Mississippi State would really help the Horned Frogs’ cause as the No. 5 team.

With that in mind, here is a look at the various polls, including the all-important College Football Playoff rankings.

 

(Note: As the table header indicates, the logo shown at the far right of each team's row is for that team's next opponent and not for the ranked team itself.)

Saturday’s rivalry clashes start at high noon ET, when Ohio State and Michigan renew their storied history in Columbus.

On the surface, this is a matchup between a program that seemingly wins double-digit games every season as one of the most established brands in all of football and a sinking ship of a program that is losing games and recruits left, right and centre. While that may be an accurate assessment, Michigan gave Ohio State a major scare in a similar matchup last season.

The Wolverines lost by a single point last season and had a two-point conversion attempt that would have ended the Buckeyes’ perfect season if they converted. Still, this time, the game is at Ohio State, and the team that has won nine of the past 10 games in this showdown should have the upper hand.

Quarterback J.T. Barrett discussed the meaning of this rivalry, via Ben Axelrod of Bleacher Report: "I knew it was big, but coming from Texas, it was Texas-Oklahoma. I went to that game, and it doesn't have anything on the Team Up North and Ohio State." 

Elsewhere, Florida State will put its two-year winning streak on the line against Florida. This game could go down to the wire if the Seminoles fall behind again. ESPN Stats & Info noted that slow starts have been a habit of Florida State all season:

The one thing that Florida does well on offense is run the ball (40th in the nation in rushing yards per game), and it also boasts a solid defense that is 23rd in the country in points allowed per game. If there is a combination that lends itself well to protecting a lead, it is playing solid defense and keeping the clock running with the ground attack.

The Gators could shake up the college football world if they are able to do just that.

Two other SEC teams looking for a rivalry win are Alabama and Auburn. It will be impossible to top the ending of last year’s game, but an Auburn upset would send unexpected shock waves throughout the playoff race (and possibly knock the mighty SEC out of contention for a spot).

Auburn may be seen in a better light than Michigan or Florida in its rivalry games, but it feels like the Tigers have as much of a chance to beat the Crimson Tide as the Wolverines and Gators do of beating the Buckeyes and Seminoles.

Auburn lost its last two SEC games and gave up a combined 75 points to Georgia and a decidedly mediocre Texas A&M team. Auburn won’t have to worry about falling out of the Top 25 with another loss because SEC teams always get a boost in the rankings—fair or not—but a loss to its hated rivals will be the cherry on top of a disappointing season.

The other critical game in the SEC West is the clash between Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

A few weeks ago, it looked like this would be a matchup between the top-two teams in the nation, but reality finally hit the Rebels. They have lost three straight SEC contests, including an embarrassing 30-0 defeat to Arkansas. Now, the only way to salvage a once-promising season is to beat Mississippi State.

The final rivalry Saturday is the Civil War out West between Oregon and Oregon State.

This is as similar a mismatch on paper as the Ohio State and Michigan, Florida and Florida State and Auburn and Alabama games, but last year’s contest came down to the wire, with Oregon scoring a touchdown in the final minutes to win by a single point.

All-time Pac-12 passing leader Sean Mannion is back for Oregon State. Still, Heisman Trophy favorite Marcus Mariota will be going up against one of the worst defenses in the entire country, which is simply an unfair fight.

The Beavers have given up at least 27 points in every single Pac-12 game this season, and that is certainly not going to change Saturday against the mighty Oregon attack.

Predicted rivalry winners: Ohio State, Florida State, Alabama, Oregon and Mississippi State

 

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SMU Football: Hiring Morris a Bold Move, but the Right One

Southern Methodist football is in shambles. After June Jones elected to resign from his post as head coach only two games into the 2014 season, the Mustangs were left with an interim coach and a roster with a paucity of real talent.

They have not won a game this year, and their average margin of defeat is more than 34 points. The offense has been pitiful and the defense has been porous—there is really no nice way to put it.

However, the team made a bold move on Thursday evening, hiring former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris to rebuild the struggling program. The news was first reported by Clint Brewster of 247Sports, and Chip Brown of HornsDigest.com reported that Morris will make approximately $3 million per year.

In six years and two games at SMU, Jones’ record was 36-43—pretty impressive considering the Mustangs have still not recovered from the death penalty ruling they got in 1987 for breaking NCAA rules.

The Mustangs went to a bowl game in four straight years under Jones, an amazing feat considering they hadn’t been to one in 25 years before 2009.

But it will be an uphill battle for Morris—there is no question about it. He is known for his innovative offensive schemes, and he is going to need every bit of deception to get the SMU offense to produce in his first few years on the job.

The thing that Morris has going for him that has made him an enticing candidate is his rich Texas roots. He assembled a staunch resume at the high school level, winning a state championship at Bay City and then grooming Jevan Snead into a Division I quarterback at Stephenville before moving on to Austin Lake Travis, one of the most decorated football programs in the state.

He coached there for two seasons, going 16-0 and winning the state championship in both 2008 and 2009. He helped Garrett Gilbert set the state records for passing yards in a season and career passing yards, both records previously held by former Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell.

Then Morris moved to the college level, where he was the offensive coordinator at Tulsa for one season before moving to Clemson in 2011.

At Clemson, his offenses experienced phenomenal success. He molded Tajh Boyd into a record-setting college quarterback and sent wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins to the NFL.

SMU is obviously not afraid of the 45-year-old Morris’ inexperience. He has never been a collegiate head coach and has only been at the college level for five seasons.

However, Morris’ most valuable asset might be his recruiting potential in Texas, arguably the most talent-rich state in the country. He knows the state of Texas and should be able to lure talented athletes to Dallas.

Morris has been in the conversation for several jobs, most notably Texas Tech (per ESPN.com) after Tommy Tuberville’s departure, but it has always been hard to lure him away from his gig as the highest-paid assistant in all of college football.

Finally, though, he found a match he liked.

Expectations shouldn’t be too high. If he can somehow manage to get the Mustangs to be a .500 team, it would be a miracle. He won’t have much to work with in his first year on the job, but he does have Matt Davis, a heralded dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school back in 2012.

Davis, the third-ranked dual-threat quarterback in his class according to Rivals.com, originally committed to Texas A&M. But he transferred to Tyler Junior College after he redshirted his first year at A&M, and after one year of JUCO action, he arrived at SMU. He will be a junior in 2015, and his athleticism projects well in Morris’ offense.

The Mustangs’ recruiting haul is unimpressive, but they do have commits from Kyle Kearns, the 12th-best pocket passer according to 247Sports, as well as 4-star receiver James Proche II.

Chip Brown of HornsDigest tweeted that his sources tell him that SMU will let Morris begin recruiting very soon, in hopes of swaying some of the uncommitted prep players interested in SMU.

This move benefits both parties involved. SMU gets a young, passionate coach full of potential, and Morris gets his first opportunity as a college head coach in the same state where he built his reputation.

It will be interesting to see if Morris’ offense will be effective with mediocre players and if Morris can recruit as a head coach. Sure, he coaxed plenty of offensive players to Clemson, but he had Dabo Swinney there to help out.

Now, Morris is the main man. It is his responsibility not only to recruit players to fit his offense but to recruit defensive players as well.

Also, he will not be able to spend all his time in practice working with the offense. He will have to learn to delegate some of those duties to trusted assistants.

There is definitely going to be a learning curve, but Morris and SMU is a good match and one that could reap rewards down the road.

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UCLA's Quest to Reach Upper Echelon in College Football Falls Short Again

Vegas knew something. It had to. The opening line was just too odd. 

Oddsshark.com had UCLA open as a mere 4.5-point favorite for Friday's home game against Stanford. The line eventually grew to six points, but that was all.

That's six points one week after UCLA earned its most impressive victory of the year—a 38-20 rout over USC—and the score wasn't even that close—and crept back into the periphery of the College Football Playoff conversation. That's six points with Stanford missing its star receiver, Ty Montgomery, who had a shoulder injury. 

Or, maybe it was six points because oddsmakers knew UCLA was due to lay an egg. It hasn't been the first time it's happened this season. 

The sad narrative of UCLA being perennially good but never quite good enough came to fruition again in a stunning 31-10 loss to the Cardinal. Certainly, no one saw Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan having his best game of the season with a 16-of-19 passing performance for 234 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 

The loss, coupled with Arizona's win over Arizona State, sends the Wildcats to the Pac-12 Championship Game for a rematch with Oregon. UCLA, meanwhile, is sent away wondering what could have been. That's been the theme in Westwood for a while now. 

The Bruins were overwhelming preseason Pac-12 South media favorites and sexy picks to make the College Football Playoff. However, UCLA got off to a noticeably slow start even though it sported a 3-0 record with narrow wins against Virginia, Memphis and Texas.

The crux of the problem was protecting quarterback Brett Hundley. Though sacks are a team effort, offensive line issues have been glaring. The Bruins have given up nearly three sacks a game this season. 

Sure enough, offense and protection were lacking against the Cardinal. Hundley left the game in the fourth quarter with an apparent hand injury. 

Though UCLA briefly lived up to expectations by demolishing Arizona State, 62-27, in late September, the reality is Jim Mora's team didn't start to gather steam until the month of November. But just when UCLA seemed to have turned a corner, things went off track. The win over the Sun Devils was followed by back-to-back losses to Utah and Oregon, and the USC victory was followed by the face-plant against Stanford. 

UCLA continues to be in a frustrating spot. The Bruins are consistently good and at times look incredible. They're 3-0 against USC under Mora and generally beat the teams they should. However, UCLA loses consistently to the upper echelon of the Pac-12, Stanford and Oregon, the two programs that have won the past five conference championships. 

The Bruins are a whopping 0-12 against Stanford and Oregon since 2008 with the average margin of defeat being 20.3 points. Ten of those 12 losses have been by double digits. Former head coach Rick Neuheisel was never able to get his alma mater to the next level from 2008-11. Though Mora has injected an obvious edge into the program, he continues to come up short as well. 

With Stanford rebuilding and both the Cardinal and Ducks coming to L.A. this year, 2014 was a prime time for the Bruins to get over the hump. Still, this program continues to get outcoached regularly. 

In all likelihood, Hundley, easily the best quarterback to come through UCLA in a long time, risks leaving for the NFL draft without having played in a major New Year's Eve/Day bowl. That tells you about everything you need to know.

The question is regurgitated: If not now for UCLA, then when? Hundley is likely gone, and linebacker Eric Kendricks, who has led the team in tackles for three straight years, is a senior. 

There are good pieces in place. Sophomore linebacker Myles Jack will come back for one more season at least, but how many more times can cornerstone players return for "the year"?

"We thought this was the year we could become one of the Stanford's or Oregon's," Jack told Clay Fowler of the Los Angeles News Group. "I guess not."

Will next year be different? At this point, UCLA is forcing everyone to wait and see. The high expectations aren't coming through. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com

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UCLA's Quest to Reach Upper Echelon in College Football Falls Short Again

Vegas knew something. It had to. The opening line was just too odd. Oddsshark.com had UCLA open as a mere 4.5-point favorite for Friday's home game against Stanford. The line eventually grew to six points, but that was all...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Arizona State vs. Arizona: Game Grades, Analysis for Sun Devils and Wildcats

The last time Arizona and Arizona State met for the Territorial Cup while both being ranked in the Top 25, Ronald Reagan wasn't even midway through his second term and Dionne Warwick, Elton John and Gladys Knight combined to bring us the top song of the year with "That's What Friends Are For."

Fast forward to 2014, and the stakes have climbed even higher.  Both Arizona and Arizona State entered the game tied with UCLA for the top spot in the Pac-12's South Division, with UCLA holding the tiebreaker.  With Stanford's win over the Bruins, the annual grudge match for the oldest rivalry trophy morphed into the de facto Pac-12 South title game.

Right from the opening kickoff, this game was shaping up to be a classic.  It didn't disappoint, as both teams went blow for blow for most of the game before the Wildcats eventually squeezed out a victory in the fourth quarter.

Let's dive right in as we pick apart both the Arizona Wildcats and Arizona State Sun Devils in our game grades.

 

Box score via NCAA.com.

 

Arizona State Pass Offense

It's difficult to know exactly what to make of the passing game from Arizona State.  Taylor Kelly, who has been a fairly reliable starter for ASU, was benched in favor of Mike Bercovici in the second half.

Kelly really wasn't that bad.  He finished his performance 13-of-22 for 144 yards and two touchdowns.  Bercovici threw the exact same number of passes and completed 14 of them.  But he also threw one (very costly) interception, and finished with 123 yards and two touchdowns.

So the question now becomes why head coach Todd Graham opted for Bercovici over Kelly in the second half.  Don't worry.  We'll get into that in a little bit.

One of the things lacking from the ASU passing game this afternoon was the big play.  Of the combined 27 completions from ASU quarterbacks, only one went for 25 or more yards (a 50-yarder to Jaelen Strong).  

Strong, who injured his shoulder on his long reception, only hauled in four receptions on the day but led the team with 80 yards and a pretty spectacular one-handed touchdown snag.

All in all, it wasn't a bad day for the Sun Devils passing game.  It certainly wasn't lights-out amazing, but it wasn't bad by any stretch.  But it does leave us feeling just a little uneasy about the Sun Devils in their to-be-determined bowl game.

 

Arizona State Run Offense

Like the passing game, the run game was a bit of a mixed bag.  It can really be boiled down to two halves in which the Sun Devils were either pretty solid or pretty horrible.

Prior to halftime, ASU put up 99 rushing yards on the Wildcats on 29 attempts.  A decent 3.4 yards per rush is a good place to start, and we were thinking that if ASU could continue to find avenues to run the ball while perhaps mixing in a few big plays, the Sun Devils might just be able to pull off the win.

After halftime, however, Arizona stepped up its pressure, which not only kept the passing game off-balance but also completely disrupted the run game from ASU.  Minus the first-half numbers, Arizona State gained just 14 rushing yards on 14 carries.  A yard per rush wasn't exactly what we had in mind when we were thinking ASU had a chance to come out on top after a halftime score knotted at 21.

Demario Richard had, by far, the best day for ASU on the ground, averaging 5.2 yards per carry on his 13 attempts.  Most of those, however, came in the first half.

While running the football won't provide quick dividends for a team playing from behind in the second half, Arizona State's complete inability to challenge Arizona on the ground late in the game gave the Wildcats all the confidence they needed to defend the passing game when it mattered most.

 

Arizona State Pass Defense

The two halves were pretty even for ASU's pass defense.  The Wildcats had nearly identical passing statistics from each half, and the Sun Devils were back to their usual tricks of dialing up pressure early on and often on Wildcats quarterback Anu Solomon.

The other side of the blitzing coin is giving up big plays, though.  And ASU gave up some whoppers.

Arizona had five receivers with long receptions of 10 yards or more, and the pass and run defense combined to give up two touchdowns of at least 69 yards.

 

Arizona State Run Defense

That long run we're talking about was a 79-yard scamper from Nick Wilson.  Despite bottling up the Wildcats for just 13 rushing yards on 16 first-half carries, Wilson finished with 178 yards and three touchdowns on 24 attempts.

No other Wildcat had positive rushing yards.

It's not often we'll hand out a midterm A only to watch it plummet much beyond a B or B+, but the Sun Devils' complete inability to slow Wilson down in the second half is probably the biggest reason for ASU's defeat.

For that reason, we're dropping the run defense all the way down to a C- on the day.

 

Arizona State Special Teams

It's hard to hand out a nice grade to a special teams unit that missed its only field-goal attempt, but there were some nice extras thrown in by the special teams that provided the Sun Devils with enough opportunities this afternoon.

First, of ASU's six punts (five from Matt Haack and a quick kick from Taylor Kelly), four were downed inside the 20 (one was blocked).  Arizona was able to overcome poor starting field position almost all day, but we have to give credit to the ASU special teams for putting Arizona in such an uncomfortable position—even if the ASU defense didn't do much about it.

Second, we can't forget about long snapper Mitchell Fraboni, who hustled down the field to pick up a muffed punt return by Arizona.  Everyone loves the big boys making plays, and long snappers are usually only mentioned when they screw up, so we're handing out some kudos here.

 

Arizona State Coaching

Pulling Kelly in favor of Bercovici was a bold move by Todd Graham.  Unfortunately, it didn't pan out.  

Bercovici ended up with nearly identical numbers but had a very costly snap that set up the Wildcats inside the ASU 20.  Arizona capitalized and pushed its lead to two scores.

Had Kelly stayed in, would that have happened?  Maybe, maybe not.  But that extra spark Graham was looking for with Bercovici never really materialized.  You might even be able to argue that the drive or two it took for Bercovici to settle into a rhythm may have cost ASU a potential score or two.

All conjecture, sure.  But if there's one thing college football fans love to do, it's play "what if" after a big loss—especially to a rival.

Arizona State played a solid game, for the most part, and Graham had his team prepared to deal with everything Arizona threw its way early on.  ASU responded to Arizona's first three touchdowns with touchdowns of its own, and the game never really got away from the Sun Devils.  That's a credit to both the players and the coaches.

Still, we're left wondering about the quarterback situation.

 

Arizona Pass Offense

When you have a game in which a running back takes things over, you don't often need a solid game passing the ball.  But in close rivalries, every single yard can be important, and that was certainly the case against Arizona State.

Anu Solomon was about as efficient as they come, finishing 15-of-21 for 208 yards and two touchdowns.  His numbers were also nearly identical in each half, giving the coaching staff ample time to focus their halftime adjustments on the running game and defensive side of the football.

While 208 yards isn't going to get anyone too excited, it's not often we see quarterbacks maintain such a consistent performance for 60 whole minutes.  Solomon was good when he needed to be and even managed to find room for some plays that created momentum.

Samajie Grant was the earlier recipient of one such big play, as Solomon found him on the slant early on and Grant proceeded to weave his way through the ASU defense en route to a 69-yard touchdown reception.  

Solomon also found David Richards later on for a critical 31-yard pickup that extended a drive, but perhaps most importantly, Solomon didn't really do anything to seriously jeopardize the Wildcats' chances.

While sacks for big losses are certainly a concern, we've see far too many quarterbacks panic under pressure and try to force plays when they shouldn't.  Solomon, clearly well-coached, seemed content to suffer through a big sack and come back on the next play or series and regroup.

Punting isn't always the end of the world—a lesson far too many quarterbacks learn far too late in their collegiate careers.  Solomon, a freshman, has already aced that part of his education.

 

Arizona Run Offense

As mentioned earlier, this was truly the tale of two halves and likely where the game was won for Arizona.  After a first half that produced just 13 net yards on 16 carries, it looked as if the Sun Devils only needed to bottle up Solomon in the second half to emerge with a victory.

Nick Wilson had other plans.

The only Wildcat with positive ground yardage on the day, Wilson rattled off 178 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.  He was helped out by some solid play by the Arizona offensive line, which kept the ASU rush contained long enough to get Wilson to the second level.

And when you get to ASU's second level against its heavy blitz, big yardage can be your reward.

 

Arizona Pass Defense

Arizona's secondary was simply good enough today.  Aside from a late interception by Jourdon Grandon, there wasn't a lot to get overly excited about.  The secondary gave up 267 yards and four touchdowns—something that will certainly need to be cleaned up before facing Oregon next week in the Pac-12 Championship.

Then again, Arizona has done well against the Ducks, so maybe defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is on to something.

One thing of concern is the defense's penchant for committing bad penalties on 3rd-and-long.  Arizona State was the beneficiary of at least three first downs after would-be punt-causing incompletions or runs on third down thanks to pass interference, defensive holding or hands to the face.

These mental mistakes must be addressed before Arizona can truly be considered one of the nation's elite teams.

 

Arizona Run Defense

After giving up 99 yards in the first half, Arizona went into the locker room looking for a way to bottle up ASU's Demario Richard and D.J. Foster.  The Wildcats came out in the second half with a plan that worked to perfection.

Step one: Get ASU down by more than one score and force the Sun Devils into passing the ball more than they want to.  Mission accomplished.

Step two: Key some defensive speedsters on the perimeter runs and allow the D-line and linebackers to take care of business up the middle.  Check.

Step three: Let Scooby do what Scooby does.  

Scooby Wright is one of the best—and most underrated—defensive players in the nation.  Perhaps another standout performance—this time on national network television over a holiday weekend—is just what he needed to finally earn that missing respect.  

Either way, Wright needed to feature big in the second half.  He did.

All of that amounts to a paltry 14 yards of rushing offense for the Sun Devils after halftime—and we all know if you can't run the ball, you have to throw the ball.  Guess what: The Arizona secondary and pass-rushers knew that, too.

 

Arizona Special Teams

Yes, there was a pretty ugly muffed punt that resulted in a turnover.  Yes, ASU was allowed to create a little momentum with that big special teams play.  But what better way to erase the negatives created by a muffed punt than by blocking a punt?

Cayleb Jones came through the line barely being blocked in the second quarter to set up a four-play, 30-yard Arizona drive that ended in a touchdown.  That's the kind of stuff special teams live for, and Jones came through in a big way for his team.

With a perfect kicking game that went six-for-six on extra points and averaged better than 46 yards on seven punts, we're fine with handing out a solidly above-average B. 

 

Arizona Coaching

Criticize Rich Rodriguez?  What are we, Michigan fans?

Okay, here's a disclaimer.  This is a bit of a nitpick, but we're going to mention it anyway.  We absolutely hated the decision to go with three straight runs for a net of five yards on Arizona's last drive of consequence.

Yes, the Wildcats were protecting a lead, but ASU had all three timeouts remaining, and the lead was one measly touchdown.  We somehow expected Rich Rod to be a little more like, well, Rich Rod.  

We wanted to see Arizona do something to put the game away right then and there—not run the ball three times for five yards in hopes that the Sun Devils wouldn't notice the running clock.

Yes, it worked out in the end, but that was thanks to the defense that forced a turnover on downs.  We just really wanted to see more from Rodriguez's highly touted, high-octane offense.

Oh well.  A win is a win, a Territorial Cup is a Territorial Cup (Rodriguez's first), and a South Division title is a South Division title.

 

Unless otherwise noted, quotes or references to quotes were obtained firsthand by the writer.

Follow Bleacher Report's National College Football Featured Columnist David Luther on Twitter.

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Arizona State vs. Arizona: Game Grades, Analysis for Sun Devils and Wildcats

The last time Arizona and Arizona State met for the Territorial Cup while both being ranked in the Top 25, Ronald Reagan wasn't even midway through his second term and Dionne Warwick, ...

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Arizona Gets 2nd Chance to Ruin Oregon's Playoff Hopes with Pac-12 South Win

It's not fair to call the Oregon Ducks a Cinderella team. They're clearly one of the best squads in the nation, have the nation's Heisman front-runner in Marcus Mariota and are squarely in the hunt for the College Football Playoff. 

Yet recently, anytime the Ducks square off against the Arizona Wildcats, that clock strikes midnight, and that national championship trophy starts to look more like a pumpkin from Eugene. 

Yes, Arizona's rivalry win over Arizona State on Friday set the stage for a rematch of that thrilling Week 6 matchup that saw the Wildcats upset the then-No. 2 Ducks 31-24. Since that fateful Thursday night, the Ducks have been battling back to get into playoff contention. 

But to make their strongest case to the committee, they have to win the Pac-12. That means, next week, the Ducks have to atone for their sins. ESPN Stats & Info provided a stat comparison for Arizona and Oregon, noting Oregon's only loss came against Arizona:

However, Arizona will certainly have other plans. 

There's no secret to how Arizona likes to toy around with Oregon. In fact, the Wildcats don't toy around at all. 

They run the ball. They run it some more. Then they run it again. 

The Wildcats have beaten the Ducks the last two times they've played—Week 6 of this season and Nov. 23 of last season, when Arizona thumped Oregon 42-16. 

Last year, the Wildcats, behind Ka'Deem Carey's 206 rushing yards, racked up 304 total yards on the ground.

Then in Week 6 of this season, it was again a battle that was won on the ground. In Arizona's seven-point upset, the Wildcats ran for 208 yards compared to Oregon's 144.

What made Arizona so deadly that week, though, was its two-headed monster carrying the ball. Terris Jones-Grigsby led the Wildcats with 115 yards, but he chewed that up over 27 carries.

When the Wildcats needed an explosive play, they turned to Nick Wilson, who racked up 92 yards on just 13 carries, a 7.1 yards per carry average.

Since that game, Wilson has ran for over 150 yards three times, including a monster 218-yard showing at Utah.

Oregon's defense simply isn't up to par with its offense. Some of that is predicated on the fact that when the Ducks take multiple possession leads, teams are forced to pass, and that forces Oregon to use more nickel and dime packages. 

That's part of the reason why the Ducks rank a measly 117th in pass defense, per cfbstats.com, giving up 276.8 yards through the air per game. 

The lousy secondary can be explained away. But part of that trade-off should be a stout rush defense, at least statistically, right? 

Wrong. 

The Ducks rank just 59th in the nation in rush defense, according to cfbstats.com, giving up 158.9 yards per game on the ground. 

So Arizona, a team perfectly built to prey on Oregon's weakness, is now getting another crack at doing so. 

What makes Arizona's simplistic strategy of running the ball so effective is that it stifles the rhythm of the Oregon offense. 

It's tough to keep Marcus Mariota on the sidelines for 10 minutes and then ask him to go into scramble mode. Now he's a Heisman front-runner, so nine times out of 10 he'll do that. But will everybody else around him? 

In both victories against Oregon, the Wildcats dominated the time of possession, holding onto the ball for at least 33 minutes while never letting Oregon hold it for more than 27. 

Six to eight more minutes with the ball in a Pac-12 Championship Game can mean a world of difference. 

You better believe the Wildcats know it, and they're coming for Oregon.

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Arizona Gets 2nd Chance to Ruin Oregon's Playoff Hopes with Pac-12 South Win

It's not fair to call the Oregon Ducks a Cinderella team. They're clearly one of the best squads in the nation, have the nation's Heisman front-runner in Marcus Mariota and are squarely in the hunt for the College Football Playoff...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

UCLA Football: Bruins Must Get Tougher to Ultimately Compete with Pac-12 Elite

PASADENA, Calif. — Stanford spoiled No. 8 UCLA’s hope of a Pac-12 South title and berth in the conference championship game Friday at the Rose Bowl, 31-10.

The thorn in head coach Jim Mora’s side once again came from the Cardinal—and more specifically, their physical brand of football.

“This is the worst [Stanford] has beaten us in the four games we played them [since Mora became head coach in 2012],” he said. “They are just big and physical.”

Stanford dominated on both lines, on defense collapsing UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley’s pocket from virtually the moment he took several snaps, resulting in five sacks.

On offense, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan's sack-free afternoon set the tone. He delivered the ball to the skill-position players on time, which allowed them to pick up yards after the catch.

Putting together perhaps his best individual performance in three years as Stanford’s starting quarterback, Hogan went 16-of-19 passing for 234 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Cardinal to their fourth win over the Bruins in the last three seasons.

The win was also Stanford’s seventh straight in the series, dating back to 2009. That season was the first in which the Cardinal began to establish themselves among the conference’s elite, going on to reach top-tier bowls from 2010 through 2013.

This year’s Stanford team finishes just 7-5, but UCLA linebacker Myles Jack said the Cardinal were much better than their record. More importantly for the Bruins, Jack added that Stanford is a benchmark UCLA is trying to reach.

“Be one of the Oregons and Stanfords, that was kind of our motto,” he said. “We figured this year was the year, but I guess not.”

Jack will be among the returning players in 2015, leading UCLA in its pursuit of reaching the Pac-12’s upper echelon. He should assume a leadership role linebacker partner Eric Kendricks vacates as one of the program’s departing seniors.

Kendricks broke UCLA’s career tackles record of 468, racking up a team-high 11 on the afternoon. Jack was right behind him with 10.

Jack’s ability to swarm to the football and just as importantly bring down the ball-carrier sets the kind of tone the Bruins must follow in the future to be true title contenders. Friday, that was lacking from other spots on the defense.

“We’ve got to do a better job all around, when it comes to rushing, when it comes to tackling, when it comes to everything,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said.

Time of possession is an overrated statistic—except when it’s not. And Friday’s contest was an example of the latter, as noted by Dan Greenspan of The Associated Press:

Complementing Hogan’s proficient passing was a methodical run game, which exploited UCLA’s ineffective tackling to take the air out of the ball.

Stanford had possession for 37 minutes, 49 seconds to UCLA’s 22 minutes, 11 seconds, thanks largely to 202 rushing yards.

“When their running game is a viable threat at all times…they don’t mind running on third down-and-7,” Ulbrich said.

UCLA’s rush defense will look considerably different next season without Kendricks, whom Ulbrich called “the heart and soul” of the program.

And Kendricks isn’t the only notable Bruin who may have gone out winless against Stanford.

Friday would seemingly mark the end of Hundley’s UCLA career. A redshirt junior who finished his undergraduate degree, Hundley was recognized as part of the pregame senior-day ceremony.

With Hundley’s exit, Mora was already faced with beginning a new era in the 2015 campaign. The impending quarterback battle between Hundley’s understudy, Asiantii Woulard, and highly touted prospect Josh Rosen, should dominate offseason headlines in Westwood, California.

But the strides UCLA takes toward becoming a more physical team are perhaps most important for the program's future.

“I thought we closed the gap,” Mora said. “But we still have work to do. We will continue to work hard on getting bigger and faster and stronger and more physical [and] recruiting the type of student-athletes we think can help us win those types of games.”

Such was the case for Oregon, which suffered losses to Stanford in 2012 and 2013 akin to that which UCLA sustained Friday. The Ducks refocused on bulking up last offseason and saw results, blowing out the Cardinal in the rematch earlier this month.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of the UCLA athletic department.

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UCLA Football: Bruins Must Get Tougher to Ultimately Compete with Pac-12 Elite

PASADENA, Calif. — Stanford spoiled No. 8 UCLA’s hope of a Pac-12 South title and berth in the conference championship game Friday at the Rose Bowl, 31-10...

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Oregon vs. Arizona: Date, Start Time and More for 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game

Oregon will have its chance to get revenge. The second-ranked Ducks will meet the No. 11 Arizona Wildcats in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

UCLA's loss to Stanford on Friday meant the winner of Arizona vs. Arizona State would take the Pac-12 South and earn a trip to the title game. The Wildcats beat their in-state rivals, 42-35, at home and will attempt to win the first outright Pac-12 title in school history.

ESPN College Football provided a tale of the tape between the two teams:

Oregon and Arizona met back on Oct. 2, with the Wildcats giving the Ducks their only loss of the season. Terris Jones-Grigsby provided the go-ahead score on a one-yard touchdown run with two minutes, 54 seconds left to play in the game. Scooby Wright III forced and recovered a fumble on Oregon's next drive to seal the win.

Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich felt that his team made far too many mistakes against a tough opponent.

"Again have to give Arizona a ton of credit but there was a lot of stuff in this game that makes it that much more of a bitter pill to swallow in terms of self-inflicted wounds and some of the mistakes we made," he said, per Andrew Greif of The Oregonian.

Helfrich and his team will have an opportunity to set the record straight next Friday.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 5, at 9 p.m. ET (6 p.m. PT)

Where: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California

Watch: Fox

Live Stream:Fox Sports Go

 

The Book on Oregon

By now, most college football fans know what to expect from Oregon. The Ducks attempt to score a lot of points in a short amount of time, and the strategy's proven extremely fruitful. While Oregon ranks 121st in average time of possession, it's also third in points per game.

The Ducks are one of the few programs where the coaches can change, but the system stays in place.

A large reason why that strategy's been so successful is Marcus Mariota, whom most list atop their Heisman Trophy rankings.

Despite an oft-injured and at times inconsistent offensive line, Mariota's thrown for 3,103 yards and 32 touchdowns to just two interceptions. The junior's also a threat on the ground, rushing for 597 yards and nine TDs, and he even caught a touchdown pass against Arizona.

He set the Pac-12 record for most touchdowns in one season, via Oregon Football:

Mariota will also go down as one of the most talented collegiate QBs ever. He's one of five players in NCAA history to pass for 9,000 yards and rush for 2,000 more:

Oregon has plenty of other talented skill players, such as Royce Freeman, Devon Allen and Byron Marshall, but everything begins and ends with Mariota. If he struggles, the Ducks will have a hard time overcoming the Wildcats.

Arizona's had Mariota's number in the past, intercepting him three times throughout his college career, the most against any opponent, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Defense could also be a problem for Oregon. It's natural that a team with such a quick-strike offense would leak some yards. Although the Ducks are 92nd in total defense (435.7 YPG), they're only giving up a more reasonable 23.6 points a game.

The concerning part about Oregon's defense is that it struggles to make stops when necessary. In the win over Oregon, Arizona converted on nine of its 17 third downs. The Ducks are 107th in third-down defense, allowing a first-down conversion 44.1 percent of the time.

Oregon can ill afford the conference championship to turn into a repeat of its earlier meeting with the Wildcats, giving Arizona chance after chance to keep the drive alive.

 

The Book on Arizona

Arizona is a bit like Oregon in that it uses a fast-paced offense built around a mobile quarterback. The Wildcats rank 111th in time of possession and 14th in yards per game.

Of course, that's not a surprise given the connection between Chip Kelly and Rich Rodriguez. It's no secret that Kelly built his Oregon offenses in the image of Rodriguez's when Rich Rod was an offensive coordinator at Tulane and Clemson and then head coach at West Virginia.

Like Oregon, much of Arizona's offensive success is centered around a talented, dual-threat quarter.

While not at the level of Mariota, Anu Solomon's been one of the Pac-12's best quarterbacks this season, carving up opposing defenses with both his arm and his feet. The freshman signal-caller has 3,424 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air and 282 yards on the ground, the final tally of which is somewhat skewed by his minus-47 yards against ASU.

The connection between Mariota and Solomon goes a bit deeper as well, with both players natives of Honolulu, Hawaii. Before Arizona's win over Oregon back in October, Solomon revealed to Sports Illustrated's Thayer Evans that he'd met Mariota when the Ducks star had a workout at his old high school.

"He’s a great icon," Solomon said of Mariota. "I look up to that guy. He’s a great athlete. He’s a great guy."

While Solomon's performance will have a big say on the Pac-12 title game's outcome, what may be more imperative for Arizona is establishing a presence on the ground. Jones-Grigsby and Nick Wilson combined for 207 yards and three touchdowns against the Ducks earlier in the year.

In last year's upset of Oregon, the Wildcats gained 304 yards rushing, with Ka'Deem Carey carrying the ball 48 times for 206 yards and four touchdowns.

The more the Wildcats can run the ball, the more they can eat time off the clock and wear down the Oregon defense. Not to mention, the Ducks' high-powered offense will remain off the field. Slowing down the pace is No. 1 on the list of ways to beat Oregon.

One potential red flag for Arizona is the the number of narrow victories the team's had in 2014 alone, via Sports on Earth's Matt Brown:

The mark of a good team is finding a way to win close games despite not playing well. Against Oregon, though, Arizona won't have much wiggle room. One poor stretch, especially early in the game, can mean a quick two- or even three-score deficit when playing the Ducks.

Just ask Utah. The Utes looked to have taken a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, only for Kaelin Clay to drop the ball near the goal line. Joe Walker recovered and went the length of the field for the Oregon TD.

That play brought Oregon back to life. The Ducks turned a 7-0 deficit into a 24-7 lead over 12 minutes of game time against the Utes. Oregon won, 51-27.

In terms of aesthetic beauty and entertainment, Oregon-Arizona is the best possible Pac-12 Championship matchup this year.

Between the revenge factor and similarity between the teams' styles, fans should be in for an enthralling game.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

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How Missouri Can Play Spoiler for the SEC Title, College Football Playoff

The Missouri Tigers: SEC East juggernauts, apparently. 

With a 21-14 win over Arkansas on Friday, Missouri, at 10-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC, has secured its second straight divisional title. Next week, the Tigers will play either Alabama or Mississippi State for the chance to win the program's first SEC championship in just its third year in the league. 

In the process, Missouri can play the ultimate spoiler and throw the playoff race into total chaos. 

But before looking ahead, it's important to understand what Missouri has done and how it's done it. As Paul Myerberg of USA Today tweets, Mizzou is one of only five programs to repeat as SEC divisional champs. The other four? Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. You know, traditional SEC powers. 

The SEC East was anything but traditional this season, however, so its champion naturally is of the most unlikely kind.

South Carolina, the preseason media favorites to win the division, could finish 6-6 with a loss at Clemson and will at the very least end the year with a losing conference record.

Florida is rebuilding, but it couldn't win enough games to save head coach Will Muschamp's job. Georgia is an enigma; the Bulldogs seem like they could beat anyone in the country on any given week and lose to any team the following week. 

That brings up Missouri, which has wins over SEC West teams Texas A&M and Arkansas but losses to Georgia (34-0) and Indiana (31-27). 

It's been that kind of year in the East.

But Missouri has been able to do what many other teams haven't: close out games when it absolutely had to do so. The win over the Razorbacks was the fourth time this season the Tigers put up at least 13 fourth-quarter points to either run away with a game or rally from behind. 

In short, opponents can't let Mizzou hang around. With the exception of Florida State, there may not be a better team in college football in the final 15 minutes. 

The thing is, Missouri is not an overly explosive offense, a major departure from its days in the Big 12 with former quarterback Chase Daniel. The Tigers average 29 points per game, 10th in the SEC. In fact, Missouri doesn't rank higher than ninth in the SEC in any major offensive category, including long scrimmage plays

Rather, head coach Gary Pinkel has built a steady machine with an athletic defensive front seven that features pass-rushers who are of the nightmare variety. In 2013, it was the combination of defensive ends Michael Sam, the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and Kony Ealy. Together, Sam and Ealy recorded 19.5 sacks. 

This year, pass-rushing specialists Shane Ray and Markus Golden combined for 20.5 sacks entering Week 14. Missouri gives up just 20 points per game and is ranked in the top four of the SEC in average yards per rush and pass attempts allowed. 

If there was any doubt that Pinkel, who is in his 14th year with the program, is closing in on Bill Snyder levels of wizardry, there shouldn't be any more. Pinkel has certainly stated his case as the SEC's coach of the year. 

He can use that wizardry to throw a giant wrench into college football's postseason plans next week. Remember: There are no great teams in college football this year. No team is immune to an upset. 

The formula will be the same whether it's Alabama or Mississippi State lining up on the other side: stop the run—both the Tide and Bulldogs enjoy healthy ground attacks—keep the score close and finish strong with defense. 

It's not the way Pinkel's Tigers have done it in the past, but it's what's working now. And it's what could work next week. 

There's no way Mizzou is getting into the playoff. Two losses could be acceptable in theory in the eyes of the selection committee. However, losing at home to an Indiana team that will, at best, finish with four wins is too much to overcome, and the shutout loss to Georgia is an eyesore. 

But that doesn't mean Missouri can't potentially shut the SEC out of the first four-team playoff. There are no prerequisites about winning a conference championship in order to get into the playoff. That said, it would be difficult to imagine a non-SEC champ, especially a non-divisional champ, being selected without total chaos across the college football landscape.

That's the kind of impact Missouri could have. Given that Missouri has arguably suffered the worst loss of any 10-win team, but is equally capable of frustrating its opponents, it would be appropriate that it could be the team to pull the upset. 

If the Tigers are in a tight game next week heading into the fourth quarter, that will play right into what they have done all year. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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Stanford vs. UCLA: Game Grades, Analysis for the Bruins

UCLA squandered a chance to punch a ticket to the Pac-12 title game and end a six-game losing streak to Stanford Friday, falling 31-10 in the Bruins' final home game of the season.

A five-game win streak propelled UCLA back into the Top 10 and into the periphery of the College Football Playoff discussion at 9-2, but that all came to a screeching halt Friday. After going down 7-0 early, Stanford dominated the rest of the contest with a 436-262 yardage advantage.

Let's take a look at how the Bruins did in every category. It's not pretty:

Pass Offense: After firing on all cylinders on possession No. 1, UCLA's passing game crumbled. Brett Hundley was ineffective and inaccurate in his final home game, going 17 of 32 with 146 yards. Much of the futility can be attributed to the offensive line, which couldn't keep Stanford's defense out of the backfield.

Run Offense: The Bruins moved the ball well with Paul Perkins—who had 17 carries for 116 yards—when committed to it. But as things got away from it, UCLA opted to air it out, and Stanford had all the answers. A plethora of sacks also downed UCLA's rushing totals.

Pass Defense: Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan carved up the Bruins on Thanksgiving weekend, going 16 of 19 for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He completed his first 10 passes. A Stanford team not known for its passing prowess simply shouldn't have found the success it did.

Run Defense: Whether it was Remound Wright or Christian McCaffrey doing the damage, Stanford got it done on the ground early and often against UCLA. Chunk-yardage runs paved the way to most of Stanford's long touchdown drives, helping it gain 22 first downs and rush for 202 yards total.

Special Teams: The Bruins' stellar 51.5 yards-per-punt average was completely overridden by a boneheaded decision to fake a field goal, down 18 late in the third quarter. Backup quarterback Jerry Neuheisel could have extended the play and found someone else but threw a game-sealing pick instead.

Coaching: UCLA was constantly bashed by the same looks from Stanford's defense and failed to make any impacting adjustments. But as stated just previously, its choice to fake a field goal (when a kick would have made it a two-possession game) pretty much put the nail in the coffin. 

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Stanford vs. UCLA: Game Grades, Analysis for the Bruins

UCLA squandered a chance to punch a ticket to the Pac -12 title game and end a six-game losing streak to Stanford Friday, falling 31-10 in the Bruins' final home game of the season...

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Brett Hundley Injury: Updates on UCLA Star's Finger and Return

UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley suffered a finger injury in the Bruins' blowout loss to the Stanford Cardinal on Friday.

Jack Wang of the L.A. Daily News had the report:

Hundley has had an up-and-down season, but he's upped his completion percentage over 70, eliminated a majority of his bad mistakes and quietly become one of the nation's best all-around quarterbacks. Hundley credits his strong play to shutting off the distractions of his impending pro career, something he couldn't do early in the season. 

“I think that’s part of it, when you want to go to the next level, you want to show people you can do things,” Hundley told Everett Cook of the Los Angeles Times. “Sometimes it changed your game, honestly…People don’t realize how much pressure there is, but at the end of the day, when you think about what got you to this point, you have to stay on your foundation.”

This injury leads to more questions about his durability. Getting hurt twice within the same season will earn a red flag for some pro teams, especially given Hundley's skill set and the way he uses his body. Like many college quarterbacks he hasn't learned the art of sliding—something some guys never quite get used to. (e.g. Robert Griffin III)

It'll of course depend on the severity of his injury to determine whether any of that matters. But it's at least worth noting for a player who will in all likelihood be a first-round draft choice if he chooses to forgo his senior year of eligibility.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Arizona State vs. Arizona: 2014 Territorial Cup Winner, Score, Twitter Reaction

Arizona secured a 42-35 victory over Arizona State on Friday to take home the Territorial Cup and earn a trip to the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

UCLA had the tiebreaker against both teams coming into the day, but it needed to defeat Stanford in order to clinch the Pac-12 South. However, the Bruins lost, 31-10, allowing the Wildcats to win the division with a victory over their in-state rivals.

Running back Nick Wilson led the way for Arizona with a huge performance on the ground. The freshman had 178 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries.

Quarterback Anu Solomon added 208 passing yards in the win, as well as two touchdown passes to Semajie Grant. 

Taylor Kelly started the game at quarterback for Arizona State and put up respectable numbers (144 passing yards and two touchdowns). However, head coach Todd Graham decided to switch to Mike Bercovici in the fourth quarter.

The junior quarterback came through with two touchdowns for the Sun Devils and had a chance to tie the game late, but a stop by the Wildcats on fourth-down sealed the win for Arizona.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports discussed what the victory means for the Wildcats:

Arizona jumped out to the early lead on the third play of the game, thanks to a fumble recovery by safety Anthony Lopez. Ted Miller of ESPN noted Scooby Wright made the big play:

The Wildcats continued to showcase strong defense with a goal-line stop, as described by Damien Alameda of Tucson News Now:

However, Arizona State was able to respond and tie the game at 7-7 with a defensive touchdown of their own, as defensive lineman Demetrius Cherry recovered a fumble after Solomon couldn't handle the snap.

Arizona regained the lead 55 seconds later on a 69-yard touchdown pass that started as a short slant to Grant.

As Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated noted, the whole team helped lead to a great run after the catch:

The Sun Devils answered right back. Jaelen Strong caught a 50-yard bomb, setting up a one-handed grab in the back of the end zone to tie the score at 14-14.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports remained impressed with the junior receiver:

A deflected punt late in the first half gave Arizona great field position. A few plays later, a 21-yard touchdown run on 4th-and-1 gave the Wildcats the lead once again. Matt Moreno of Rivals.com liked the call:

Arizona State responded with a seven-yard touchdown catch from Demario Richard, tying the game before halftime.

During the break, the Wilcats players were kept from seeing the out-of-town scores, according to Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com:

After the break, Arizona began taking control in the third quarter. The offense moved the ball down the field with ease during a nine-play, 75-yard drive that took just 2:38.

Doug Haller of AZ Central noted the pace was a big factor:

After a missed field goal for the Sun Devils, the Wildcats were able to extend the lead on another big play by Wilson, as described by Anthony Gimino of Fox Sports Arizona:

While it seemed like the home team was going to pull away, Arizona State was able to cut the lead to 35-28 after making a switch at quarterback. Bercovici came in and immediately led a 65-yard touchdown drive that ended with a two-yard pass to Kody Kohl.

ESPN's Matt Barrie echoed the sentiments of many fans watching along:

Unfortunately, his second possession did not go as well as he was picked off by Jourdon Grandon deep in his own territory. Two plays later, Solomon answered with his second touchdown throw to Grant. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee was already looking ahead after Arizona built a 42-28 lead:

Still, Arizona State refused to give up and answered back once again with a Bercovici touchdown pass. After a defensive stop, the Sun Devils got the ball back down seven points with just under three minutes remaining and all three timeouts.

College GameDay noted the result of the drive:

Arizona did what was needed to come away with a win in arguably the biggest matchup in this rivalry's history.

Both coaches knew exactly what was on the line in this battle, from the Pac-12 South title to a high level of pride. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez explained earlier in the week at a press conference:

You know that for your fans, particularly in the state, that the rivalry game is going to mean a lot to them. But I promise it doesn't mean any more to them than it does to the players and coaches. [...]

I don't believe that, 'If you only win one game but you beat ASU, it's a good year,' but it is the most important game on our schedule because it is the rivalry game.

With the loss, Arizona State finishes regular season with a 9-3 record and should get a quality bowl game this winter, although the fans certainly knew it could've been an even better year with some different bounces.

Meanwhile, Arizona will get a chance to play for the Pac-12 Championship against Oregon on Dec. 5 at Levi's Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers.

Although a spot in the College Football Playoff might remain just out of reach with so many one-loss teams, the Wildcats are still giving themselves a chance to play for a championship. At the very least, they would love to end the year with a conference title and an appearance in a New Year's Day bowl game.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Stanford vs. UCLA: Score and Twitter Reaction

With a chance to clinch a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game, No. 8 UCLA laid an egg at home against Stanford. Using a power-running style and surprising efficiency through the air, the Cardinal dominated the Bruins with a 31-10 victory. 

This loss means two things for the Pac-12. First, the Bruins miss out on a chance to play Oregon next Saturday, as this scenario tweeted out by the Pac-12 Network shows: 

Second, UCLA's slim hopes of making it into the College Football Playoff are over. The Bruins already had a steep hill to climb with Mississippi State, TCU, Ohio State and Baylor also battling for that fourth spot, but a third loss eliminates Jim Mora's team regardless of what happens to those teams. 

As Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated wrote on Twitter, the drop from where UCLA could have been to where it likely will be come bowl season is steep:

While there is plenty to nitpick about UCLA's performance in a key spot, Stanford deserves all the credit for this victory. It wasn't some fluke effort where the Cardinal played their best and UCLA played its worst; Stanford dictated every part of this game from the opening kickoff. 

As Phil Murphy of ESPN.com put it, this was the Stanford performance that we have been waiting to see since the season started:

In fact, the formula used by David Shaw's team was similar to the one it used in defeating Oregon in 2012 and 2013. The Cardinal dominated the time of possession (37 minutes, 49 seconds), converted critical third downs on offense (9-of-14), ran the ball whenever they wanted (202 yards) and gave up nothing on defense after UCLA's first drive that resulted in a touchdown. 

All five of Stanford's scoring drives consisted of at least seven plays and covered at least 63 yards. That allowed the defense to catch its breath on the sidelines while wearing down UCLA's defense for the power running later in the game. 

The biggest surprise of the day was Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan, who finished 16-of-19 for 234 yards and two touchdowns. He also had 46 rushing yards on seven carries. 

The often-maligned senior picked a great day to have his best game of the season. ESPN Stats & Info tweeted out information that would rightly allow one to call this a career game for Hogan:

Mandel pointed out why Hogan's numbers look even better than what the box score will show:

Hogan wasn't just a threat with his arm. The Cardinal took full advantage of their rushing attack to open up the passing game, which included their quarterback running all over the field. Here's how much success they were having in the first half, via ESPN.com's David Lombardi:

Of course, anyone who has kept track of Brett Hundley's career at UCLA wasn't entirely surprised by this result, as these two stats from ESPN Stats & Info highlight:

Even though UCLA entered the year with a lot of hype and was riding high coming off a victory over USC last week, beating Stanford in the regular-season finale was always going to be the true litmus test. The Bruins have been like Charlie Brown trying to kick the ball, while Stanford is always pulling it away like Lucy. 

UCLA wide receiver Jordan Payton said specifically to Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times that Stanford and Oregon are litmus-test games for the Bruins in the Pac-12.

"We can't say our program is there until we beat Stanford and Oregon," Payton said. "They have been killing it the last several years. It would be a big game for us as far as our culture. We haven't taken down the big two."

The game started off perfectly for UCLA, scoring on its first drive to take a 7-0 lead. That would be as good as things would get, as the Cardinal defense went on lockdown, via Stanford Football on Twitter:

Hundley, in particular, had a day to forget. Not only did UCLA come up short in its quest for a Pac-12 title, but he also ended the game on the sidelines with a hand injury in the fourth quarter, via Mark McClune of CBS5 in Phoenix:

Even though the loss doesn't look good for UCLA, it's not like Stanford is a bad team. Don't be fooled by the 6-5 record for the Cardinal. Their five losses came against USC, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon and Utah.

Three of those defeats (USC, Notre Dame, Utah) came by a combined nine points, while Oregon and Arizona State are two of the best teams in the Pac-12. You can't go back and replay those games, but Stanford was a handful of plays away from being 9-2 coming into this game. 

Stanford and UCLA will prepare for their respective bowl games, while the latter will also spend the offseason trying to figure out how to get over the white whale that is Stanford in 2015. 

 

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