NCAA Football

Pinstripe Bowl 2014: Boston College vs. Penn State TV Info, Spread, Time, More

Boston College and Penn State head to the Big Apple in hopes of ending their late-season struggles, facing off in Saturday's 2014 Pinstripe Bowl.

Expectations were sky-high at the start of head coach James Franklin's tenure with the Nittany Lions, as they won four straight and had their bowl ban lifted around the same time. Then, the team sputtered to a 6-6 season after losing six of its last eight games entering its first bowl appearance since the Joe Paterno era.

Like Penn State, Boston College's expectations were much higher back in September after an upset of USC. The Eagles fell to Louisville and Florida State late in the year to drop two of three down the stretch.

Despite tough finishes for both teams, don't expect a small crowd at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, as Jack McCluskey of ESPNBoston.com noted:

Here's a look at everything you need to know for the Pinstripe Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET

Where: Yankee Stadium, New York

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Boston College -2.5

 

Slowing a Runaway Train

Penn State's defense has answered the bell for most of this season, but it has rarely gone up against a dual-threat dynamo like Tyler Murphy.

The former Florida quarterback's transfer to Boston College for his final collegiate season turned out to be quite possibly the best decision of his life. He's come into his own with the Eagles, stepping up in their biggest games with his unique mixture of throwing ability and quick wheels.

Along with a heroic performance in a marquee win over USC, Murphy also broke the ACC single-season record for rushing yards for a quarterback—you know, the conference from which Michael Vick hailed.

Stifling strong offenses is nothing new to Penn State, which boasts a nationally dominant defense. It ranks atop the nation in stuffing the run, giving up just 84 yards per game.

But dealing with a dual-threat quarterback is a different deal, especially one with the breakaway speed of Murphy. Franklin seemed to admit as much to Ben Jones of StateCollege.com:

It will be easy for Penn State to target Murphy as the one to stop in the run game—after all, he leads the team in rushing by more than 300 yards. But if the Nittany Lions thwart the impact of bruising rusher Jon Hilliman in the middle, they'll have a much better chance of putting the onus on Murphy and getting more pressure on him.

Murphy has been strong on the ground, but he's thrown almost as many interceptions (10) as touchdowns (11). That should give Penn State the flexibility to send extra bodies in the backfield.

Of course, that will give Murphy mismatches with his favorite receivers. Will he be able to make the Nittany Lions pay?

 

Finding the Mojo

Saying Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg—and the entire offense, as a result—has lost his mojo down the stretch of 2014 could be viewed as an understatement.

The Nittany Lions' offensive leader has emerged as the best example in years of the sophomore slump. After an 18-touchdown freshman campaign, which he ended on a tear, he's been inescapably poor in 2014, with eight touchdowns to 15 interceptions. 

The struggles have only gotten worse as the season has concluded. Ever since some shaky moments late in Penn State's double-overtime loss to Ohio State on Oct. 25, Hackenberg has just two touchdowns and six interceptions.

It's no coincidence the Nittany Lions lost three of their final five amid that stretch.

Franklin hasn't been convinced all season, however, that Hackenberg is the cause of the problem, per PennLive.com's Greg Pickel: "He's been good. I've tried to say this all year long; I don't really feel like Christian has been our issue. I've been saying since the end of spring ball that it was the development of all the guys around Christian that were going to allow him to continue to grow."

The spirits might be down for Hackenberg (and a few other offensive players) after the end of the season, but simply being in this game should be enough to lift them.

Just getting to a bowl game is a feat in itself, and the tough reality of Penn State's recent bowl ban has kept these players at home over the holidays one too many times. Getting a chance to play in a bowl was never a guarantee—even for the young Hackenberg.

The offensive struggles don't end with Hackenberg, but they start there. If he can settle into his game and make intelligent plays early, the offense should take off.

 

Prediction

For all of Penn State's defensive success this season, the unit hasn't had much experience facing mobile quarterbacks—except J.T. Barrett, who ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns against them. Don't be surprised if Murphy follows suit.

Boston College won't get whatever it wants on offense, but Murphy's dual-threat ability will ensure the unit keeps moving the ball. The Nittany Lions will struggle yet again under Hackenberg and an offense that is losing momentum as the season wears on.

It will be a defensive showcase, but Murphy will find a way to win.

Prediction: Boston College 20, Penn State 10

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Exclusive Look Inside the Closed-Doors Meeting That Killed UAB Football

Birmingham native Cornelius Williams was the wide receivers coach at University of Alabama at Birmingham during the 2014 season.

Williams gave Bleacher Report's Sanjay Kirpalani a firsthand account of the closed-doors meeting in which UAB President Ray Watts informed the team that the Blazers football program was being terminated. Williams also provided exclusive details of the emotional aftermath. All words are his own.   

It wasn't a money game. It wasn't numbers. It wasn't any of that. That's a bunch of b------t at the end of the day.

There have been rumors about shutting down the UAB program for as long as I can remember. I don't know the exact reason it finally happened, but you can read everything about how this stuff goes back to [former UAB athletic director] Gene Bartow's feud with Bear Bryant.

Even before, when I was younger and living in Birmingham, back when Roddy [White] and D-Hack [Darrell Hackney] and all those guys were here and winning, you kind of heard rumors about UAB wanting to shut down the program. The attitude was kind of like, "whatever, it's all talk."

Except it wasn't this time. 

Ray Watts was obviously kind of placed here by the Board of Trustees, and you saw what happened next. 

There was no "I'm sorry."

Watts just started trying to give a bunch of numbers and a bunch of b------t to a group of guys who had no idea what the hell he was talking about.

We had never even met the guy before. That was my first time seeing him in person, and he's talking about numbers this and numbers that and money here and money there.

But there are hundreds of millions of dollars that are put into this university.

Not only that, but we got a guy in Justin Craft [former UAB player and president of the UAB Football Foundation] who has been fighting his ass off from day one for us with $10 million already raised. We also knew the mayor [William Bell] was committed to raising money.

In the meeting, Craft told him: "With all due respect, we have the money raised. I know the numbers. I've seen them myself."

Watts came back with: "You don't know the numbers. You don't know what you don't know."

What kind of man sits there and says all this stuff, and then next thing you know, he's saying we don't have a team anymore?

On top of that, you watch the thing on ESPN, and [Watts] is sitting there saying that he wishes he would've been more emotional.

I don't buy that.

Coaches were crying. Players were crying. I mean everybody who was in there was emotional. It felt like a funeral.

The bottom line is that he did not care. He still doesn't care.

In the aftermath, I tried to call all of my guys, receiver-wise, and check on them and see where they were mentally—just because, you know, you're messing with people's livelihoods. It's not just about football.

At the end of the day, it's an emotional roller coaster for a bunch of different guys—guys who probably won't be able to play Division I football ever again.

I'm still upset and crying about all the stuff that happened. It was hard as hell. It still is.

I remember Coach Clark saying "we met with the president for six or seven hours." [Clark] said the [president] was committed to this and committed to that and he's going to do it the right way—so [was] the AD.

You can see in the video, that's when Tristen [Henderson] went off and said: "You brought this man in and you lied to his face."

You feel for those guys who have put in so much time and effort into it, and then in a snap, it's all gone, swept right from up under them.

Coach [Bill Clark] always said this was a family. That's what we treated it like, and that's what it was.

That's why it was so, so, so emotional and why it still is. That's why you still want to see something happen for these guys for the best.

My family [and] I were pretty fortunate that [Neal] Brown at Troy called me and asked me if I wanted to come back to Troy and coach the receivers down there.

I'm blessed and fortunate to get that opportunity. But what about everyone else?

My heart goes out to my guys. It feels like your heart is in a million places.

You have a group of young men who have been beat down on the field over the past four years or so, who finally have it turned around academically, athletically and personally. We were able to help change and develop these guys into different people.

We were working so hard to make it happen for them, and our kids worked their butts off day in and day out to get to the point we were at.

You can't take away what those kids were able to accomplish. I don't think that should go unnoticed.

It's crazy how somebody can come in there and just not care.

This just sucks for the kids.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Tennessee Football: Freshmen Who Outperformed Their Rankings in 2014

When your recruiting class is ranked seventh nationally as Tennessee's was during the 2014 recruiting cycle, you're bound to have your fair share of superlatives.

Collectively, that class of freshmen has the potential and ability to someday be looked upon as the group that put the Volunteers back on the college football map, depending on how the rest of their careers go. From that class, 24 first-year players played, and at least 11 started.

That's crazy production from a team that simply had to have it, given all the roster deficiencies in 2014. The Vols played more true freshmen than any other team in the country.

Without the group of youngsters, there's no way the Vols would be bowling. A closer look at the schedule still makes it difficult to believe.

But now that this team bridged the gap, there are no excuses moving forward. Head coach Butch Jones' program looks like it's well on its way to being rebuilt, and next year's team will be expected by many to break through another level.

Much of the reason for that is because of the large, impressive '14 class.

Some players such as Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr. lived up to their rankings. Most of the others seem adequately ranked, as we look back on their final numbers from the 247Sports composite rankings.

But some freshmen outperformed the experts' rankings. Let's take a look at the players from the 2014 class who did better than most expected.

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Texas A&M Football: Burning Questions Ahead of the Liberty Bowl

The Texas A&M football team will play the West Virginia Mountaineers in Memphis, Tennessee, in the Liberty Bowl. There are many questions looming over the Aggies' head as they enter the bowl game. 

The Aggies have had three coaches leave the staff since the end of the regular season. No one knows how the team will perform with temporary coaches in those positions. 

The Aggies need to get a victory to reach eight wins on the season. After consecutive loses to end the regular season, a win would be a positive reminder of the potential that this young team possesses. 

This is a look at some of the questions the team is facing as it enters the Liberty Bowl. 

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4'9" Rice Running Back Jayson Carter Gets Special Carry in Hawaii Bowl

In the last game of his career at Rice, Jayson Carter was able to get one final carry.

The 4'9", 140-pound running back—Carter was born with a genetic disorder that stunted his growth—entered the Hawaii Bowl against Fresno State with two minutes remaining and ran the football one last time. He picked up two yards on the carry.

This was not the only carry of Carter's career, however. He had one last season against UTEP.

[YouTube]

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Full Schedule and Bold Predictions for Key Matchups

The buzz around college football is increasing with each passing day. Bowl season has taken on a completely different vibe thanks to the College Football Playoff, as this is the first time teams can settle the champion instead of arbitrary computer systems. 

However, the buzz is also picking up because the new year is approaching. Nothing in sports can top the feeling of watching college football from noon until midnight on New Year's Day, though this year provides bonus treats because the schedule is loaded from December 29 through January 2. 

There is so much discussion around the College Football Playoff, but it's important to remember the other games on the schedule. The Fiesta Bowl and Orange Bowl are still prestige games and have two very different and intriguing battles. 

Whichever game you are looking forward to, there's plenty to discuss about all of the matchups left. Here is a look at the remaining bowl schedule, as well as bold predictions for the games that aren't in the College Football Playoff. 

 

Orange Bowl: Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

It will be interesting to see the mindset of Mississippi State coming into the Orange Bowl against Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs should be thrilled about playing in one of the major bowl games but have to be upset after being the No. 1 team in the playoff standings for three weeks. 

The Bulldogs also have to be concerned about how they finished the season. They lost two of their last three games after a 9-0 start. Dak Prescott went from a great story early in the year to looking lost by season's end. 

In the two biggest games of the year, against Mississippi and Alabama, Prescott was all over the map. He had three interceptions against Alabama, and Ole Miss made him one-dimensional as a passer by taking away the run, which isn't his strength. 

What changed in Prescott's game?

ESPN's Jesse Palmer presented a theory to Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger about the Mississippi State quarterback.

"Thinking back on it, in all the film I watched, I didn't get the feeling that Dak Prescott regressed in the second half of the year," Palmer said. "I think the competition was a little bit different in the second half of the year."

The good news is Prescott will be up against a Georgia Tech defense that struggled all year in every category, via StatMilk:

The Yellow Jackets are a unique offensive team, running the triple-option attack to perfection. They average 333.6 yards per game on the ground and 37 points per game. 

Few teams have been able to stop Georgia Tech's running game. Not even Florida State could do it in the ACC Championship Game, allowing 331 yards. The Seminoles were just able to outscore them 37-35 to keep their perfect season in tact. 

The question is, which offensive scheme do you trust more? Even when Mississippi State was winning, Prescott was all over the map. He had a three-game streak against Auburn, Kentucky and Auburn in which he threw five interceptions, yet the Bulldogs went 3-0. 

Georgia Tech has the offense to create problems for Mississippi State, as the Yellow Jackets can control the clock and score a lot of points. In this battle of ACC vs. SEC, look for the former to come out ahead. 

Georgia Tech 37, Mississippi State 31

 

Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Baylor

Of the non-playoff games, the bowl game that offers the most excitement is Michigan State against Baylor. These are two top-10 teams that play fun styles to keep your eyes glued to the television. 

The Spartans have been battle tested this season, losing to Oregon and Ohio State. However, Mark Dantonio's vaunted defense has shown holes against those teams with 95 points and 1,059 total yards. 

There's been a stigma around Michigan State, that it was all defense and no offense, though that has changed this year. The Spartans are averaging 43.1 points per game, seventh in the nation, and control the tempo of their games, as noted by Mike Griffith of MLive.com: "From an Xs and Os standpoint, Dantonio's teams are efficient on offense and aggressive on defense, thus explaining how the Spartans lead the nation in turnover margin and time of possession."

That's going to be a key point against a Baylor team that led the nation in scoring at 48.8 points per game. The Bears aren't prone to making mistakes, as quarterback Bryce Petty had just six interceptions in 377 attempts. 

Another aspect of Art Briles' team that doesn't get talked about because of how many points it scores is the defense, though Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News pointed it out, via Griffith at MLive.com:

People hear the system (spread) and the conference (Big 12) and immediately get the mental picture of a finesse team. Nothing could be further from the truth. Baylor has consistently sent offensive linemen to the NFL under Briles and is physical and nasty up front led by All-American Spencer Drango. The defense has a future NFL rush end in Shawn Oakman (6-9, 290) and one of the strongest defensive tackles in the country in Andrew Billings, who broke Olympian Mark Henry's high school power-lifting record.

Baylor can get physical with a team like Michigan State, which has had problems keeping up with faster teams throughout the year. The Spartans aren't lacking for firepower, but the offense is more cerebral than the one on the other side of the field. 

The Bears do have to pump themselves up for a lesser bowl game after getting left out of the College Football Playoff, which could be a problem. The good news is they are playing virtually in their own backyard as the Cotton Bowl is at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. 

There won't be a letdown for Baylor. In fact, look for Briles' team to make an emphatic statement. 

Baylor 34, Michigan State 24

 

Peach Bowl: Mississippi vs. TCU

The battle between Mississippi and TCU is fascinating because it will help provide an answer to what happens when a dominant SEC defense goes up against a potent Big 12 offense. 

In the past, this has been a recipe for disaster on the Big 12 side. The conference has had to fight for respectability, though it seemed to get it back this year thanks to the performances of Baylor, TCU and Kansas State. 

For the Horned Frogs, they face a similar situation as Baylor in trying to get up for a lesser game after spending the final five days of the regular season ranked No. 3 in the College Football Playoff Top 25 poll. They also have to go against a more formidable opponent, as Ole Miss is among the most physical teams in the country. 

Look at the matchup of TCU's offense against Mississippi's defense, via StatMilk:

It's the closest thing fans will get to an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object this bowl season, unless Oregon's offense goes up against Alabama's defense for the national championship. 

There are concerns about Mississippi's offense that could hold the Rebels back in this game. They are 57th in the country with 30.4 points per game and were held to seven points total in losses against LSU and Arkansas. 

Quarterback Bo Wallace has completed 29 of his last 61 passes with three interceptions but got credited with a win against Mississippi State because that's something attached to the position. Here's another stat to keep in mind for the Ole Miss senior, via Ryan Gerbosi of The Dallas Morning News:

The last time Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace played in Atlanta, it was a mixed bag for the senior. He completed 25-of-36 for 287 yards with four touchdowns, but three interceptions marred his performance. That was kind of how Wallace’s whole season went. He was up in some weeks, he was down in others.

Mississippi's defense has to be on point because no one knows which Wallace will show up. TCU scored at least 30 points in every game this season, though it hasn't faced a defense like the one it will face in Atlanta on December 31. 

Something has to give. Gary Patterson has been in this spot before, while Hugh Freeze is new to the spotlight. TCU has fewer question marks at the most important position on the field, as well as more offensive depth to overcome what the Rebels will use. 

TCU 28, Ole Miss 24

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It's Now or Never for Jim Harbaugh to Coach Michigan

Michigan fans are giddy with anticipation that Jim Harbaugh will soon be their next head coach.

National sentiment held that Harbaugh would never leave the NFL, but the buzz in Ann Arbor has been consistent, and the combination of a lucrative financial package and loyalty to the program would be difficult for him to resist.

Almost everyone in Ann Arbor expects Jim Harbaugh to be Michigan’s next head coach.

If he decides to coach elsewhere, he will jilt his most ardent supporters, who believe it’s his destiny to lead the Wolverines. During previous searches, Harbaugh’s supporters placed the blame on Michigan for not closing the deal, but this time it’s completely up to him.

Even his waffling in 2011, as reported by Jason La Canfora via CBSSports.com, makes perfect sense in the wake of David Brandon’s troubled tenure.

Fans aren’t angered by the revelation. It makes Harbaugh look like a genius. He foresaw how Brandon would meddle in the program and wanted no part of it.

After the failures of both Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke and the resignation of Brandon, Harbaugh is now dealing with an interim athletic director who has reportedly put together a package to make him the highest paid coach in college football, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

Michigan has placed itself in a difficult position. Harbaugh is clearly its top choice. As a result, he can dictate the terms of his return.

It’s hard to imagine circumstances in Ann Arbor ever being this favorable for him again.

The roster is stocked with highly ranked if undeveloped talent from previous recruiting classes. A quick turnaround is completely possible if Harbaugh can assemble the right mix of position coaches.

Many may question why Harbaugh would leave the NFL, but Bill Bender of Sporting News nails Michigan’s allure.

Understand the obsession. Michigan is one of those programs still clinging to ideals more suitable for the Knights of the Round Table. Mystique. Tradition. Winged helmets. “The team, the team, the team.”

Those are principles that don’t carry as much weight in the near-sighted social media age, especially for a school that has become a GIF-o-matic laughing stock since Appalachian State blocked that field goal in 2007.

Harbaugh is the missing link to the legend of Bo Schembechler. He ends the laughter. He restores the faith. He is everything that ties past, present and future. He revives the winningest program in the history of the FBS.

Michigan fans who consider Harbaugh’s return a fait accompli will be crushed if it doesn't happen. All barriers seem to have been cleared for him to make a triumphant return. 

He has refused to discuss his future until after San Francisco’s final regular-season game on Sunday. His players have reportedly tired of his coaching style and his relationship has deteriorated with the front office. For the first time in his NFL head coaching career, his team will not make the playoffs and is expected to sever ties with him shortly thereafter, according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports.

Until then, speculation will continue.

Fans in Ann Arbor are planning a massive homecoming celebration, but it remains to be seen if the guest of honor has decided to attend. 

Harbaugh is currently a fan favorite in Ann Arbor, but if he passes on this opportunity, his supporters will be just as disillusioned as the San Francisco 49ers.

 

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand.

Follow @PCallihan

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NFL Draft 2015: Prospects with Most to Gain During Bowl Season

There are a lot of things that go into evaluating a draft pick, but it certainly helps to shine on a big stage.

Not only do bowl games give players a chance to show what they can do on national television, but they are also an opportunity for players to prove themselves against quality competition. While beating up on FCS opponents during the year might lead to big stats, these results are much more telling.

All seniors and draft-eligible juniors and sophomores will want to end their careers on a high note, but these top prospects have the most at stake in the coming weeks.

 

Brett Hundley, QB, UCLA

After saying before the season this would be his last year at UCLA, Brett Hundley appears to be true to his word as he prepares to enter the 2015 NFL draft. 

This will make the Alamo Bowl matchup against Kansas State his last collegiate game. The good news is Wildcats head coach Bill Snyder is expecting a strong performance, via Chris Foster of the Los Angeles Times:

In the passing game, he can bring the ball out. He has gained 700-plus [rushing] yards. He lost some yardage; those came on sacks. He is somebody who can really run the ball and an awful lot of that comes on scrambles.

We have seen an awful lot of zone-read-type plays and quick attachments, where people raise up throw ball outside. Hundley does that a lot and quite well.

The problem for Hundley is that the majority of his production has come against inferior pass defenses in the Pac-12. The best defense he faced all year was Stanford in the final week of the regular season, and the quarterback responded with his worst game of the season as the Bruins managed just 10 points in a loss.

Kansas State has the skill to make things difficult on a lot of quarterbacks, but Hundley has to show he can handle an above-average defense. If he does, he might live up to his current standing as one of the top quarterbacks in the draft.

 

Jay Ajayi, RB, Boise State

Boise State might have earned a spot in the Fiesta Bowl as the top non-power conference team in the country. However, that doesn't mean a lot of people have actually watched the Broncos play this year.

That's a shame, too, because Jay Ajayi has been extremely impressive all year, totaling 25 rushing touchdowns to trail only Heisman Trophy finalist Melvin Gordon. The running back also managed to rush for 1,689 yards to carry his team to an 11-2 record.

Unfortunately, he is still behind a number of other top players at his position in this class, as Bleacher Report's Matt Miller noted:

This could change with a strong performance against Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl. For many scouts, this will be the first chance to get a real look at the running back against legitimate competition. Based on what he has done in the past, there is no reason to believe he will do anything besides have a huge day.

 

Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. already lists Benardrick McKinney as the top inside linebacker in the class (subscription required). Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star agrees and thinks he could even be moved around if needed:

However, there is a stigma about middle linebackers that leads to very few being drafted early. C.J. Mosley was almost a can't-miss prospect who reached the Pro Bowl in his first year with the Baltimore Ravens, and even he wasn't selected until No. 17.

McKinney has an opportunity to move safely in the first round and possibly even higher with a strong performance against Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

The challenge for Mississippi State in this game will be to slow down the Yellow Jackets' triple-option attack. McKinney will play a big role thanks to his lateral quickness and ability to finish tackles when he gets an opportunity.

Against a team that rarely throws the ball, the linebacker could finish with double-digit tackles as part of a huge day to showcase his potential.

 

P.J. Williams, CB, Florida State

Another player who is likely already in the first round, P.J. Williams can secure his spot with a strong performance in the national semifinals against Oregon.

The 6'1" junior has the size and physicality to be an above-average player at the next level, but he has struggled to really stand out this season. Part of that was his inconsistent play in coverage, while the other factor was the lack of legitimate competition in the ACC.

However, he was able to show what he can do against the run when his team faced Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.

Rob Rang of CBS Sports broke down the cornerback's strong play: "While Georgia Tech's offensive line was able to consistently create holes between the hashes, their receivers struggled to sustain their blocks against Florida State's physical defensive backs. Williams was particularly impressive in fighting through blocks and delivering forceful hits."

Things will be much tougher against Oregon, which has some of the fastest players in the nation to move the ball on the ground and through the air.

If Williams can help slow down Marcus Mariota and company, it will be hard to find on-field criticisms for the Florida State player once the draft rolls around.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Game Schedule 2014-15: Odds and TV Listings for All Remaining Games

Bowl season has begun with a punch—quite literally, in one instance—as many of the early postseason games have exceeded the hype, and the slate is only heating up with more enticing battles.

There's been an overtime classic ending in a brawl with BYU and Memphis in the Miami Beach Bowl. That was only topped Wednesday, when Central Michigan came back from a 35-point deficit against Western Kentucky on a 75-yard last-second razzle-dazzle play—only to lose on a failed two-point conversion for the win.

Nothing may live up to that sort of ending, but the implications of these games and typical unpredictability of college football guarantee more classics are on the way.

Gear up for what's to come by taking a look below.

 

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark, last updated December 24

 

Most Exciting Bowl Games

Cotton Bowl: Michigan State vs. Baylor

The Baylor Bears were arguably snubbed for the final spot in the College Football Playoff, but they'll get a chance to prove their worth in the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State.

Nobody finished closer to the CFP party than the fifth-ranked Bears, but they face a Spartans team that can also boast a strong superlative. They're the only team whose only two losses this season came to teams that made the four-team playoff—Oregon and Ohio State.

Just like in those two games, Michigan State will go up against a high-octane offense that has proven impossible to stop. It all starts with Baylor senior quarterback Bryce Petty, who has tossed 26 touchdowns and has 3,305 yards passing on the season.

The Bears have some play-calling kinks to work out with offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery taking the Tulsa head coaching job, but Art Briles explained to Detroit Free Press' Joe Rexrode how they would work past that:

Just like in years past, the Spartans defense has been huge in the team's wins—but uncharacteristic struggles have followed. They have allowed 31 or more points three times this season, including 46 or more to both Oregon and Ohio State.

Petty has the weapons in the deep passing game to stretch the defense, but rushers Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson (1,750 yards, 22 TDs combined) will open up the middle of the field if not. Connor Cook boasts an underrated offense for Michigan State that should hang with them, but it will take a big-time performance from him to lift Sparty.

 

Liberty Bowl: West Virginia at Texas A&M

Two teams that expected higher outcomes in 2014 before late struggles will battle in the Liberty Bowl, and the fireworks are certain with Texas A&M and West Virginia in attendance.

Few schools boast the Aggies' wealth at the skill position, allowing for two different quarterbacks to have huge success during stretches this season. The latest is Kyle Allen, the freshman with over 850 yards in four games since taking over the starting job.

A brutal SEC slate beat Texas A&M up with two losses to end the year, but it faces a West Virginia team that dropped three of four down the stretch. Despite the tough finish, the Mountaineers can put up points with the best of them. 

Clint Trickett has thrown for 3,200 yards on the season and figures to do more against an Aggie defense that has allowed 28 or more on seven occasions this season. Kevin White will want to make a lasting impression in his final college game, showing he deserved more consideration for the Biletnikoff Award that was rightly Amari Cooper's.

The level of the stage—or lack of one—guarantees to be the biggest factor, however. At one point this year, both teams had much higher expectations than the Liberty Bowl, but neither team can afford to come in with its head in offseason mode.

Whichever defense avoids that mindset the most has the best chance of slowing down the other.

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Georgia Football: Ranking the 5 Best Freshmen for the Bulldogs

Watching freshmen contribute for a football team is always a treat. Fans get to see these young players grow before their eyes every time they step out on the field, and that was the case for the Georgia Bulldogs this season.

The Bulldogs normally have quite a few redshirt freshmen make an impact for them, but some true freshmen have recently been putting in the work as well. A good example of that is Dominick Sanders, who this season made some big plays at the cornerback position.

Was he among the team's best freshmen this year?

Let’s take a look at the five best freshmen for the 2014 Bulldogs. 

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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Full Odds, Schedule and Predictions

The College Football Playoff kicks off on January 1 with four teams battling in two games to determine what will happen on January 12 at AT&T Stadium. If that still feels like a long way away, there are at least discussion topics to make the wait easier. 

Forecasting the two teams that will play in the College Football Playoff Championship Game has felt easy, though predicting sports is usually a recipe for disaster. There appears to be a divide between Alabama and Oregon from everyone else in the country, including Florida State and Ohio State. 

That may not have been the case for Ohio State with a healthy J.T. Barrett, but there is no time to think of what could have happened. Instead, here's an exploration of what is likely to happen when the inaugural College Football Playoff begins. 

 

Oregon vs. Florida State

Winning 29 straight games and a national championship last year doesn't buy you much respect, at least if you're Florida State. The Seminoles are nine-point underdogs against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, which can be seen as slap in the face and perfectly rational depending on your perspective. 

Fans in Tallahassee will cry foul at the margin by which Oregon is favored, but those people fail to realize that what happened in the past is irrelevant. All that matters is 2014, and Florida State has been a mediocre team on more than one occasion. 

Now, let's give credit to the Seminoles for finding ways to win games against Notre Dame, Florida, Miami, Louisville, Clemson, Boston College and Georgia Tech. Winning is what matters most, but there has to be some consideration given to style points. 

After all, Oregon knocked off an Arizona team that was ranked seventh in the College Football Playoff Top 25 by 38 points in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Ducks were the superior team and left no doubt about that. 

No player echoes Florida State's erratic nature better than quarterback Jameis Winston. The 2013 Heisman winner has thrown 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions this season.

Winston will catch a break with Oregon star cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu out, which could open up matchup problems for the Ducks, via ESPN College Football on Twitter:

Oregon's pass defense didn't rate well this season, though Tyson Alger of The Oregonian has a rational explanation for that:

Eight quarterbacks in the Pac-12 threw for more than 3,000 yards and four tossed more than 30 touchdowns. The Ducks faced this onslaught of aerial attacks with marginal success. Oregon ranked sixth in the Pac-12 with 259.5 yards allowed per game, a number that came out 103rd nationally. That is skewed a bit, though, due to the conference and the fact that many teams fell behind Oregon early and had to pass to catch up.

The Ducks may not have the defensive prowess to stifle Winston, but they certainly aren't bad in that area. It also helps that their offense averages 46.3 points per game, forcing opponents to become one-dimensional early. 

Marcus Mariota has been as unstoppable as any quarterback in the country this year. He has 38 passing touchdowns, 14 rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown with only two interceptions. 

Per Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com, he has been fantastic at protecting the ball and turning turnovers into points this season:

Oregon's 120 points off of turnovers ranks sixth nationally, and their points margin of 107 (120 points scored, 13 allowed after a turnover) is second best in the country behind TCU. Again, in this category, Florida State isn't so good. The Seminoles are actually in the negative in points margin at minus-10. They've scored 83 points off of turnovers, but allowed 93. That ranks in the bottom 20 of all Power 5 schools. 

Florida State has the undefeated record and a national championship last year to boast about, but the 2014 version isn't nearly as strong. Oregon is the better team in every phase of the game and will show it in the Rose Bowl. 

Oregon 34, Florida State 24

 

Alabama vs. Ohio State

Despite being the headlining game on January 1, Alabama vs. Ohio State has all the makings of a one-sided slaughter. Urban Meyer has done a brilliant job of coaching this Buckeyes team, arguably his best work ever, but there's only so much one can do with a third-string quarterback. 

Cardale Jones became one of the best stories in college football following his 257 passing yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State's 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

Alabama is saying all the right things about Jones leading up to this game, including cornerback Cyrus Jones telling Marq Burnett of The Montgomery Advertiser that they are struggling to prepare for him due to lack of tape:

"A little bit, but we've just got to prepare for them as if he was their starting quarterback, as if he'd been the guy all year," Jones said. "I don't think it's too much there. You got to game plan as if he's been the man all year."

In the same piece, Alabama safety Landon Collins that Ohio State's offense doesn't change regardless of the quarterback because they "are kind of similar."

Despite those good vibes for Jones and acts of confusion from Alabama, let's remember he put up those numbers against Wisconsin. The Badgers are a solid team but not in the same realm as the Crimson Tide.

This graphic from StatMilk comparing Alabama and Wisconsin shows how much defensive numbers can be skewed:

On no planet does anyone think Wisconsin is a better defensive team than Alabama, yet the numbers show otherwise. 

The Crimson Tide also present more of a challenge offensively than Wisconsin. The Badgers are as one-dimensional as any team in the country, ranking 118th in passing yards per game with 14 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. 

Blake Sims and Amari Cooper are arguably the best quarterback-wide receiver duo in the country, combining for 115 receptions, 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. If the Buckeyes are able to contain the pass, they have to deal with a rushing attack that had 2,723 total yards, averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored 32 touchdowns. 

Jones only had to throw the ball 17 times in the Big Ten Championship Game, and it worked because Ohio State ran for 301 yards. That kind of production on the ground opens up the play-action passing game, but that won't happen against an Alabama defense that allowed the second-fewest rushing yards per game, via Yahoo! Sports

The marquee battle between Saban and Meyer won't turn into much of a game, because Alabama is vastly superior in all the key areas. 

Alabama 41, Ohio State 17

 

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Postseason Schedule, Championship Predictions

In one week, the first-ever College Football Playoff will commence. Four deserving teams will take the stage on New Year's Day, but only two will emerge with a chance at a national championship.

The first game pits Oregon and Florida State against one another in the Rose Bowl. Both teams come in with Heisman-winning quarterbacks, but it's Oregon that gets the advantage of staying on the West Coast.

Down in New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl pits Alabama and Ohio State against one another. Nick Saban will look for his third win against Urban Meyer, who has lead the Buckeyes to the playoff despite heavy adversity this season.

Just seven days away from the two semifinal games taking place, here's a look at the full schedule and predictions for the two showdowns.

 

Predictions Breakdown

First on tap for the long-awaited semifinals will be the Rose Bowl. Despite the insane wealth of talent between the two programs, much of the focus will be on the two quarterbacks—and rightfully so.

Marcus Mariota has done everything possible to lead the Ducks to the playoff and won the Heisman Trophy along the way. Jameis Winston has the Seminoles in contention for the national title for a second straight season and riding high on a 29-game winning streak.

However, the two signal-callers have followed slightly different statistical paths this year. SportsCenter notes the numbers for the last two Heisman winners:

Along with the two quarterbacks leading the show, their backfield partners will have a huge role. Royce Freeman and Dalvin Cook have carved out huge yards all season with the Ducks and Seminoles, respectively. Expect both freshmen to have an impact, with Mariota and Freeman having the upper hand.

Over in the Superdome, Alabama will look to prove why it's ranked No. 1 against Ohio State. Led by Blake Sims and Amari Cooper, the Crimson Tide have an offense that can lead them to a fourth title in the last six years.

Despite adversity to start the year, Sims has been a weapon for Alabama. Saban spoke about his quarterback's character under center, via Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com:

Meanwhile, the Buckeyes are looking to win a national title with their third quarterback this season. Cardale Jones is leading the offense, and Ezekiel Elliott and Devin Smith are making plays around him.

The trio worked well together in a blowout win against Wisconsin but will have a tougher test against a defense that ranked fourth in the nation. Barrett Sallee voiced his thoughts on the matchup, per Bleacher Report Radio:

By the end of the two semifinals, it will be Oregon and Alabama facing off for the national championship. Both teams have proved they are worthy throughout the season and will ultimately overpower their opponents.

After years of waiting, all college football fans want to see is a great show between four teams that have earned the right to be in the playoff. What happens from there should be debated after getting the full body of work from the two bowl games.

 

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Orange Bowl 2014: Keys for Each Team in Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

While most college football fans have their eyes set on the College Football Playoff games, the Orange Bowl might end up being the best matchup of the entire bowl season.

Mississippi State was one of the best stories of 2014, as the Bulldogs came out of nowhere to reach the No. 1 spot in the polls. Losses to Alabama and Ole Miss knocked the team out of the playoff picture, but it still proved to be one of the best squads in the nation.

Georgia Tech didn't reach those heights, although the Yellow Jackets were a few plays away from potentially beating Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. After consecutive losses to Duke and North Carolina earlier in the year, earning one of the New Year's Six bowls is an impressive accomplishment for Georgia Tech.

Although neither program has as much history as those competing for a national championship, these unconventional teams will be just as much fun to watch.

The question is which team will be able to secure a prestigious win to end the year. In a close game, it will likely come down to which side does a better job of following these keys to victory.

 

Mississippi State

Stick with the Run

One of the biggest mistakes successful teams make when they go down is abandoning the run. After Florida State's Dalvin Cook rushed for 177 yards against Georgia Tech in the ACC title game, though, we know Mississippi State has to rely on the ground attack as much as possible.

Quarterback Dak Prescott is known for his ability to make plays with either his arm or his legs, but he was asked to do too much in losses to Ole Miss and Alabama. Running back Josh Robinson, who seemed headed for stardom at the start of the year, has averaged only 9.3 carries in the last four games.

Of course, it's important to remember how talented the junior running back can be when he gets a chance. Chase Goodbread of NFL.com makes a quality comparison:

Meanwhile, this play against Kentucky made Robinson look like Marshawn Lynch at his best:

Obviously, Prescott will need to have a major role in this game for the Bulldogs to win. However, leaning on Robinson as well as Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway will help the team in this one.

 

Create Penetration on Defense

Stopping the triple-option attack from Georgia Tech is not easy. It's even harder without a defensive coordinator, which is the case for Mississippi State after Geoff Collins left to coach at Florida.

Head coach Dan Mullen recently explained that challenge, per Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com:

They’re just unorthodox. Everyone has their own unique style of offense, but often times there’s a lot of crossover. Today, people are going to run this play under center, from the shotgun, from four-wide, from three tight ends, but the schemes are similar. When you play Tech, it’s very, very unique in their schemes and how they do things—all the chop-blocking they do and all that stuff is just something that’s very, very different that you don’t see on a weekly basis.

While everyone seems to have his or her own strategy for slowing down the option, the best chance you have is to get penetration into the backfield. You need defenders to blow up the play and force the quarterback to make a quick decision, if you even give him a chance to decide.

Players such as Preston Smith and linebacker Benardrick McKinney have to get into the opposing backfield and tackle the ball-carrier before he is able to turn up the field. 

If the Bulldogs sit back and wait for the play to come to them, Georgia Tech will run all over them.

 

Georgia Tech

Force Interceptions

Every defense wants to get interceptions, but it's another thing to aggressively go after them. That is what Georgia Tech has done for most of the season, grabbing 17 in the first 12 games to rank among the best in the nation.

Unfortunately, the Yellow Jackets couldn't get any turnovers against Florida State, which is amazing considering Jameis Winston's struggles with controlling the football going into the day.

Prescott hasn't thrown an interception in the last two games, but this came after a stretch of eight picks in four games against SEC opponents. Heather Dinich of ESPN.com noted the quarterback cost his team a chance at a win against Alabama late in the year:

Georgia Tech can change the game by getting interceptions, ending drives and setting up the offense for easy points. The secondary has built itself to succeed in this way, and Prescott can fall into the trap.

The key is to make the necessary plays, even if it means being overly aggressive looking for the turnover.

 

Finish Drives

Georgia Tech might rely too much on the run, but the squad knows how to move the ball up and down the field. That helps the unit average 37 points per game to rank 19th in the nation.

The amazing thing is this team could be so much better. The Yellow Jackets rank just No. 86 in FBS in red-zone scoring, getting points on just 79.7 percent of drives.

In 69 possessions inside the opponent's 20-yard line, Justin Thomas and Co. have gotten into the end zone just 47 times. That is a lot of touchdowns, but imagine how successful this squad would be if it was scoring at a higher rate.

Of course, it will be even tougher against Mississippi State, which has excelled at coming through when it matters most, as noted by Tyler Duffy of The Big Lead:

Only 60 percent of drives into the red zone result in any points against the Bulldogs. They force turnovers and make stops to keep opponents off the board and stay in the lead.

If Georgia Tech fails to take advantage of long drives and falls short of the end zone, this will be an easy win for Mississippi State.

 

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

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Top Stats That Will Decide Boise State vs. Arizona

A top game between two elite teams often comes down to a few small factors.

This will certainly be the case when Boise State and Arizona collide in the 2014 Fiesta Bowl Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET in Glendale, Arizona. Although neither of these teams spent a lot of time in the national spotlight this season, they are clearly among the best in the nation and will prove it on New Year's Eve.

While each team has its own stars and strategies for winning this showdown, the winner will be the one that can get the advantage in a few statistical categories. Here is a look at the most important stats that will help decide the highly anticipated battle.

 

Jay Ajayi Rushing Yards

Arguably the most talented offensive player in this game is Boise State running back Jay Ajayi. The junior made a bunch of All-American lists this season after finishing with 1,689 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns, both of which ranked in the top five of the nation.

Head coach Bryan Harsin also expects plenty of success for the young player at the next level:

The running back saved some of his biggest games for the most important conference battles. Ajayi totaled 229 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a win over Utah State while contributing 280 total yards from scrimmage and three scores against Colorado State.

On the other hand, the team was only 2-2 on the year when Ajayi failed to reach 100 rushing yards. This compares to a 9-0 mark when he topped the century mark.

Arizona has been inconsistent against the run this season, ranking 71st in the nation with 170.4 yards allowed per game. However, the Wildcats can give themselves a great chance of winning if they can hold Ajayi to double digits on the ground.

 

Samajie Grant Touches

Running back Nick Wilson and receiver Cayleb Jones each play big roles within the Arizona offense, but arguably the most dynamic player on the roster is sophomore Samajie Grant.

The receiver was missed in the Pac-12 Championship Game after being punished for an off-field incident, as explained by Richie Melby of KVOA News 4:

Grant finished the game with one catch for four yards as the Wildcats fell 51-13. In the team's three losses, the big-play threat has just four total receptions for 31 yards.

However, Grant has shown the ability to change games when he gets the ball more often. In the final four games of the regular season, he had 347 yards on 18 catches (19.3 average) and four touchdowns.

If the Wildcats can get the ball into his hands at least four or five times, Grant can provide some highlight-reel plays and help the team win.

 

Team Sacks

Quarterbacks Anu Solomon and Grant Hedrick have both showcased a lot of ability this season, but each player makes mistakes when under pressure. While one is a freshman and the other is a sophomore, both deal with a lack of experience under center.

Things will be especially tough for Hedrick—who has a total of eight interceptions in Boise State's two losses—when he is forced to stare down Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright. The sophomore not only was one of the best players at his position this season, he put himself in Heisman contention with his play:

He enters the bowl season with 14 sacks while leading the country with 28 tackles for loss. He knows how to get into the backfield and finish a play before it starts.

Of course, the Broncos also have some tricks up their sleeves and can get to the quarterback with Kamalei Correa. The defensive lineman had 4.5 sacks in the final three games and consistently causes problems for opponents.

These players will lead the way for both sides, although plenty of other defenders have the ability to get to the opposing quarterback.

With the way each team is capable of scoring points, creating pressure is the only true way to slow things down. Whichever side can do a better job of bringing down the quarterback will have more success defensively.

 

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

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Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech TV Info, Spread and Time

Illinois may be the Big Ten representative at the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl, but Louisiana Tech of the Conference USA is the favorite.

Power conference or not, the Fighting Illini will have to figure out a way to stop the high-octane attack of the Bulldogs if they want to walk away with a victory. Louisiana Tech scored 76 points in its victory over fellow bowl team Rice and will look to unleash that type of attack on Illinois.

With that in mind, here is a look at the essential information for the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

 

Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

Date: Friday, Dec. 26

Time: 1 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread: Louisiana Tech -6 (via Odds Shark, as of Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET)

 

Preview

Both Illinois and Louisiana Tech come into this bowl game playing some of their best football of the season.

In fact, the Fighting Illini won their final two contests against Penn State and Northwestern just to become postseason-eligible, while the Bulldogs crushed Rice 76-31 and then led the Conference USA title game against Marshall for the majority of the way until a heartbreaking 26-23 loss in the final minutes.

The key player in this game is Louisiana Tech running back Kenneth Dixon, who was fifth in the nation with 21 rushing touchdowns this season and third with 26 total touchdowns. That is the same Dixon who set a national freshman record with 28 touchdowns in 2012 and should find some running room against a Fighting Illini defense that was the sixth-worst run defense in the country at 249.6 yards per game. 

O.K. Davis of The Ruston Daily Leader noted just how dominant Dixon has been this season as a one-man wrecking crew:

Louisiana Tech finished No. 13 in the country in scoring offense at 37.5 points per game and will rely on Dixon to exploit what should be some wide-open lanes against the Illini.

Illinois gave up 55 points to Ohio State, 45 points to Nebraska, 44 points to Washington, 38 points to Purdue, 38 points to Wisconsin and even 35 points to Texas State and finished an abysmal 109th in the country in scoring defense.

Dixon gets another chance to demonstrate his abilities against a power-conference defense after losses to Oklahoma and Auburn, and he couldn't have picked a better group to do it against than Illinois.

Coach Tim Beckman offered a defense of his group, though, according to STATS LLC, via ESPN.com: "I will say this: In the big games that we've had in the second half of the football season, the Minnesota game, the Penn State game and the Northwestern game—if you look at them stat-wise—the defense won you those football games.”

Dealing with Louisiana Tech’s offense will not be the only problem for Illinois.

The Bulldogs defense forced a nation-best 40 turnovers on the season and racked up 25 interceptions. While Illinois did manage to score 47 points in its final game against Northwestern, it was still only 84th in the country in scoring offense and 112th in rushing.

Impressive defenses rarely have a problem with this Illinois offense, although quarterback Reilly O’Toole led his team to two victories down the stretch after replacing an ineffective Wes Lunt.

The one advantage Illinois appears to have on paper in this game is a more difficult schedule, which theoretically prepared it better for the postseason than Louisiana Tech. Still, Dixon should have his way against a vulnerable defensive front, and there simply isn’t enough firepower on the Fighting Illini side to overcome an early deficit.

Look for Dixon to put his team ahead in the opening quarter and then gradually work on the clock with a steady dose of handoffs.

Conference affiliation won’t matter in this one. 

Prediction: Louisiana Tech 31, Illinois 20

 

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Full TV Schedule and Predictions for Remaining Matchups

The college football regular season was one of the wildest in recent memory. If the 2014-15 bowl games and the inaugural College Football Playoff build on that, this could go down as one of the most unforgettable seasons in recent memory.

While the College Football Playoff semifinals are stealing many of the national headlines, there are many marquee bowls not being talked about enough. If you love the sport of college football, the coming weeks will be filled with entertaining action.

Here is all the vital viewing information for each remaining bowl game this season:

 

*All games can be live streamed via WatchESPN.com.

 

Underrated Game to Watch: Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl

When the No. 9 Ole Miss Rebels square off against the No. 6 TCU Horned Frogs on New Year’s Eve at the Georgia Dome, college football fans will be treated to a thrilling matchup that could conceivably go either way.

On one hand, Ole Miss was one of the strongest teams in the Southeastern Conference this season, finishing the year with a 9-3 record and big wins over Alabama, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.

While the Rebels' offensive unit wasn’t overly impressive in 2015, finishing 31st in passing yards (275.6) and 60th in rushing yards (167.7) per game, the Ole Miss defensive unit has been lights out.

The Rebels have the top-ranked defense in the nation, allowing an average of only 13.8 points per game.

Asked about the challenge of facing off against the high-powered offense of TCU, Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson told Edward Aschoff of ESPN.com:

It’s always a red flag for a defense when you’ve got a quarterback is that caliber [of player]. They have a lot of athletes; they make a lot of plays. It’s definitely one of the better offenses we’ll face this year. We’re looking forward to the challenge. I don’t think we could have had a better matchup. This is really going to put our defense to the test and see what we got.

On the other hand, the Horned Frogs have a legitimate gripe with the College Football Playoff voting committee after being bumped from the top four in the final week, and the program will be looking to take their frustration out in the Peach Bowl.

Most will point to the elite defense of the Rebels as the best on the field, but TCU has a stellar defense as well. They rank 17th, giving up just 20.3 points per game.

Where the Horned Frogs really differentiate themselves from Ole Miss is on the offensive side of the ball.

With the seventh-ranked pass offense (332.8 yards per game) and the 35th-ranked rushing attack (209.3 yards per game), TCU finished the regular season with the second-ranked offensive unit in the nation, averaging 46.8 points per game.

The Rebels and the Horned Frogs have contrasting styles, and it will make for an interesting game. The conversation about whether a top Big 12 team can stand toe-to-toe with an SEC program will also add to the intrigue of this matchup.

Unfortunately for TCU fans, the strong Ole Miss defense will stifle junior quarterback Trevone Boykin and the Horned Frogs offense. If Rebels senior QB Bo Wallace can protect the football and control the pace of the game, Ole Miss should pull out the victory.

Predicted Winner: Ole Miss 33, TCU 30

 

*Stats via ESPN.com.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Full Schedule, Positional Breakdown for Alabama vs. Ohio State

Here's a statement fans have been waiting to hear for several years: We are one week away from a College Football Playoff. New Year's Day will mark the start of a new era in the sport when four teams compete for the right to play for the national championship.

Both games will feature outstanding teams, but the Sugar Bowl has two coaches with multiple national titles. Urban Meyer and Nick Saban will face off for the fourth time in their careers, with Saban holding the upper hand at 2-1.

If Meyer plans to knot up the series and move on, he will need his third quarterback this season to step up. Cardale Jones broke out in the Big Ten title game thanks to Ezekiel Elliott leading the way.

Going against a potent Alabama offense with Blake Sims and Amari Cooper means another stiff test for Ohio State. Prior to the Sugar Bowl kicking off, here's a look at the schedule and positional breakdown for the matchup.

 

Sugar Bowl Information

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

When: Thursday, Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Quarterback: Alabama

Leading up to the regular season, Sims wasn't even assured the starting spot for the Crimson Tide. Heading into the inaugural playoff, the senior has asserted himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the country.

Sims has taken the reins at Alabama, and he's leading an offense that has passed for 281 yards per game, which ranks 22nd in the NCAA. Saban spoke about the character of his signal-caller, via Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com:

Equipped with weapons such as Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White, Sims has the tools to bring another title back to Tuscaloosa. Throwing for 26 touchdowns and just seven interceptions this season, he doesn't make critical mistakes that can hamper top teams.

Jones can prove a lot with consistent play for OSU in the Sugar Bowl, but he hasn't put together the same resume as Sims. Both will have a chance on the big stage, but Sims comes in with the advantage thanks to success all season.

 

Running Backs: Ohio State

During the last half of the season, Melvin Gordon has been considered the best running back in the country. The Heisman finalist was recently overshadowed by Elliott, who set a new record for rushing yards in the Big Ten title game.

His 220 rushing yards against Wisconsin put him on the map, but the sophomore has been explosive all season. Eleven Warriors notes his total yards in the last five games for Ohio State:

With an inexperienced quarterback under center, Elliott has a chance to be the difference-maker for the Buckeyes. He'll be facing a stout Bama rush defense that has not allowed a 100-yard rusher this season.

Elliott's recent success puts him over Alabama's two running backs, T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. If he can find holes in the Tide's defense, Elliott might just be the one key to an upset win for the Buckeyes on New Year's Day.

 

Wide Receivers: Alabama

Let's be honest—was there really another choice in this category? Devin Smith and Michael Thomas are special talents, but neither comes close to Cooper's dynamic ability this season.

In fact, Ohio State's top three receivers don't have as many receptions combined (101) as Cooper alone (115) this year. That SEC record was just one of many amazing marks for Cooper in 2014, as the SEC Network notes:

Along with Cooper, White also proved he can be effective down the field for Alabama. White led the Tide in receiving during the SEC Championship Game and caught a 58-yard touchdown pass.

Bama's tandem will have to compete against an Ohio State defense that allowed just 188.2 passing yards per game this season. Meanwhile, the Tide's secondary has given up an average of 223.7 passing yards per contest.

Smith and Thomas may be able to exploit Alabama's pass defense, but Cooper alone is a better playmaker. His outstanding season paired with White's effectiveness gives Bama's receiving corps the edge.

 

Defense: Alabama

Much like the Tide's passing game, the defense has plenty of star power. One standout this season has been Landon Collins, a do-it-all safety who has led the defense all season.

Alabama's safety has been special all year, following a long line of defensive backs to explode in Tuscaloosa. Collins leads the Tide in tackles (91) and interceptions (three) along with 3.5 tackles for loss this season.

Thanks to Collins and a stout front seven, the Tide ranks fourth in scoring defense, allowing just 16.6 points per game. Facing the fourth-best scoring offense in Ohio State at 45.2 points per game, the entire defense will be tested.

Getting the job done all season, Bama has earned its place as the top defense in the Sugar Bowl.

 

Prediction

Much like the total tally in the positional battle, Alabama will come away with a win next Thursday night. Jones and Elliott will certainly have a lot to say about the outcome but will ultimately be limited by the Tide's stout defense.

Both Saban and Meyer will no doubt have their teams ready, but the experience under center will make all the difference. Ultimately, it will be Saban moving forward to compete for a fourth national title in the last six seasons.

Final score: Alabama 30, Ohio State 24

 

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St. Petersburg Bowl 2014: NC State vs. UCF TV Info, Spread, Injury News and Time

Central Florida went 0-2 in its two opportunities to beat a Power Five conference opponent this season, but it gets a much-deserved third chance in the 2014 St. Petersburg Bowl against the ACC’s North Carolina State.

College football fans have already seen a double-overtime thriller, a dramatic Hail Mary and a missed game-winning field-goal attempt in the pre-Christmas bowls. Now the Wolfpack and Knights will attempt to keep the postseason action rolling.

Here is a look at the key information for the St. Petersburg Bowl.

 

NC State vs. Central Florida

Date: Friday, Dec. 26

Time: 8 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

Spread: Central Florida -2.5 (via Odds Shark, as of Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET) 

 

Injury Report (courtesy of USA Today)

 

Preview

Central Florida enters the St. Petersburg Bowl with four straight wins, including a dramatic victory in the final seconds against East Carolina. Despite a falloff from last season’s BCS appearance, head coach George O’Leary seemed thrilled with the postseason destination, according to STATS LLC, via ESPN.com:

After a 9-3 season, we are very happy to go to the St. Petersburg Bowl. Obviously a bowl game is a great reward for the players, the program and the fan base. We are very anxious to get to St. Petersburg and enjoy the bowl and its festivities. It will be a great experience for our players and fans.

As for North Carolina State, the Wolfpack have some momentum after crushing rival North Carolina to finish the season.

That Wolfpack defense will have to deal with a Central Florida offense that features a different quarterback than it started the season with against Penn State. The Knights started 0-2, but Justin Holman took over for freshman Pete DiNovo and finished with 2,661 passing yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

You can throw in an American Athletic Conference Championship as well.

North Carolina State finished 77th against the run but was 29th against the pass, which means Central Florida’s best chance could be through the rushing attack. The problem is, the Knights were 105th in the country in rushing offense and didn’t have a single runner tally 700 yards on the ground this season.

The one thing that does stand out in the matchup between Central Florida’s offense and North Carolina State’s defense is the turnovers. Holman threw 13 picks, and Central Florida had a minus-one turnover margin, while North Carolina State had a plus-five.

If the Wolfpack force the Knights to cough the ball up once or twice, it could swing the early momentum their way and put a red-hot offense in position to score.

North Carolina State picked up 362 rushing yards against Wake Forest and 388 against North Carolina. What’s more, quarterback Jacoby Brissett is a threat to run on every snap and gashed the Tar Heels for 167 rushing yards and a touchdown, while running back Shadrach Thompson posted 161 yards on the ground in that game.

Brissett threw for 22 touchdowns and only five interceptions, but the Wolfpack are much more effective keeping the ball on the ground (38th in rushing yards per game and 97th in passing yards per game).

Unfortunately for Brissett and company, that plays right into the hands of Central Florida’s strong defense. 

The Knights were fifth in the country against the run, third in the nation in total defense and eighth in scoring defense. Pack Pride, a syndicated partner of Scout.com, pointed out just how effective Central Florida has been on defense this season:

In what is otherwise a tightly contested matchup on paper, Central Florida’s defense will make the difference down the stretch. The Knights are built to stop the run and will force a late turnover to come away with the St. Petersburg Bowl title.

It will set Central Florida up for another impressive season in 2015. 

Prediction: Central Florida 24, North Carolina State 17

 

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Quick Lane Bowl 2014: Rutgers vs. UNC TV Info, Spread, Injury News, Time, More

The 2014 Quick Lane Bowl could very well turn into the Quick-Don't-Look-Away-From-The-TV Bowl, as both the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the North Carolina Tar Heels can put points on the board in a hurry.

Don't blink. You'll probably miss a touchdown.

But what makes these offenses so good? Jerry Izenberg of The Star-Ledger points out that UNC runs an offensive play every 12 seconds. He describes the Tar Heels as a "where-did-they-go-and-why-did-I-blink offense." That's because junior quarterback Marquise Williams can make all the plays with his arm and with his feet. He's a deadly weapon.

Rutgers relies heavily on senior quarterback Gary Nova and Leonte Carroo, his favorite target down the field. They have hooked up for 10 touchdowns this year, half of Nova's season total. 

Because these two teams boast potent offenses and defenses prone to giving up yards, we're in for an exciting inaugural Quick Lane Bowl.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26

Where: Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan

Time: 4:30 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark on Wednesday, Dec. 24)

  • Over/Under: 65.5
  • Spread: UNC (-3)

 

Team Injury Updates

Team injury reports are courtesy of The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

 

Analysis

Having already touched on some of the key players, let's dive into statistics. First up is Williams.

The definition of a dual-threat quarterback, the UNC stud has carried this offense all season. His passing numbers are pedestrian. He tallied 20 touchdowns, nine interceptions and 2,870 yards and completed 62.7 percent of his attempts.

On the ground is where he thrives. He notched 737 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and found the end zone 12 times.

His cumulative numbers are spectacular. Many expect him to compete for the Heisman Trophy next season. Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh broke down why:

UNC's five leading pass-catchers are all eligible to return next season. So are all eight players who recorded a carry. If Williams can exploit the Scarlet Knights in Detroit, start full time over Mitch Trubisky next fall and play as well as he does in the second half of the season in the first half of the season, he's a sneaky Heisman dark horse.

There's reason to believe he can have his way against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights rank 97th in total defense, as the accompanying graphic indicates. That's better than UNC, but it puts them roughly in the same tier.

The key for Rutgers is to tear up UNC's porous defense. They've been, in a word, horrific. The Tar Heels rank 118th in total defense, 117th in rush defense, 119th in scoring defense and 108th in passing defense. East Carolina dropped 70 against them, while four other teams also crossed the 43-point threshold.

It needs to be a complete effort from Rutgers, though. Nova and Carroo can exploit the secondary, but a career touchdown-to-interceptions ratio of 71-to-51 indicates he's turnover prone. Even a lackluster secondary can jump a route or two and come up with a pick.

It's those drives Nova must avoid. He can't march his team down the field and then throw a costly turnover in UNC's half of the field. Those plays can kill momentum and swing it in the opposite direction.

A 58 percent passer this year, Nova has been far from a sure thing. Carroo has made him far better.

Naturally, Rutgers must lean on the ground game. Head coach Kyle Flood has taken a committee approach to the running back position this season, as eight separate ball-carriers have accumulated 1,774 yards and 18 touchdowns.

Expect to see a combination of Robert Martin and Josh Hicks against UNC. The two freshmen combined for 126 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries in their last game against Maryland.

One player who hasn't gotten a carry this year is fullback Michael Burton, but Flood says he's a big aspect of the offense anyway, via NJ.com's Dan Duggan.

"There are a lot of plays on the tape when you watch it where Michael does a great job of either getting on a designated defender or cleaning the color of a defender who might be coming off another block," Flood said. "It's what all great fullbacks do. And he is a big reason why we were able to have success running the ball."

If he can block the defensive linemen of UNC and allow his running backs to break into the second tier of the defense, the Scarlet Knights will score some points.

While the Quick Lane Bowl doesn't feature the most successful teams in college football this season, it could easily turn into one of the most exciting bowl games on the schedule. High-octane offenses and underwhelming defenses mean the over/under of 65.5 could easily be surpassed.

The uncertainty surrounding Nova and the passing game of Rutgers makes it easy to think UNC will take this game, however. At least one team will notch 40 points—maybe both. But expect the Tar Heels to overcome their defensive shortcomings and celebrate in Detroit.

 

Follow Kenny DeJohn on Twitter: @kennydejohn

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Rose Bowl 2015: Key Storylines for Oregon vs. FSU Showdown

While there's no denying the all-around appeal of the College Football Playoff, the Rose Bowl battle between Oregon and Florida State is the more intriguing game of the two. 

Just a few of the minor storylines to discuss include the battle of the Heisman-winning quarterbacks Marcus Mariota (2014) and Jameis Winston (2013), and the undefeated defending national champions being ranked behind a one-loss Oregon team and having to travel across the country. 

The Alabama-Ohio State game certainly has storylines, but it's not as appealing because Cardale Jones is an unproven quarterback going against a Nick Saban defense when he has three weeks to prepare.

The 2015 Rose Bowl has all the makings of a classic showdown between two premier football programs, so here are the top storylines to follow when the game kicks off on New Year's Day. 

 

Which Florida State Team Will Show Up?

Much like Winston, the Seminoles seem to be Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on a quarter-by-quarter basis. Never was that illustrated better than in the regular-season finale against Florida. Winston threw three interceptions in the first quarter before throwing two touchdowns in the second quarter. 

Florida State's best performance of the season, at least offensively, came in the ACC Championship Game against Georgia Tech. The Seminoles scored 37 points, Winston was flawless with 309 yards and three touchdowns and the team racked up 488 yards. 

It wasn't a perfect team game, as the defense continued to struggle by allowing 35 points and 331 rushing yards to the Yellow Jackets. It was the third time in four games the Seminoles gave up at least 175 rushing yards, yet they haven't found the banana peel. 

However, Florida State is going up against an animal the likes of which it hasn't seen this season. Oregon is the most complete team the Seminoles will face this season. Here's how the Ducks' offense stacks up against Jimbo Fisher's defense, via StatMilk:

The highest-scoring offense Florida State has faced this season was Georgia Tech (19th in points per game). No other team on the schedule ranked in the top 40 in scoring offense, so Oregon will be a dramatic change of pace. 

That means Florida State has to build off the momentum it built in the ACC Championship Game. There won't be any margin for error against Mariota, who accounted for 52 touchdowns on his own this season. That doesn't include the 23 rushing touchdowns from other Oregon players. 

If Florida State and its fans feel disrespected after being ranked third despite a 13-0 record and 29 straight wins, this is its best chance to prove the doubters wrong. 

 

Has Oregon Really Turned A Corner?

For the last three years, Oregon has felt like a college version of Peyton Manning. It puts up great records and incredible offensive numbers, but getting over that final hump has been a problem. 

In 2012, Stanford ruined the Ducks' undefeated season and cost them a shot at the BCS Championship Game. In 2013, Stanford and Arizona defeated Oregon in a three-week span to leave the Ducks in the Alamo Bowl against Texas. 

This year, it seemed like Oregon was destined to fall short again after losing to Arizona in October. There's no denying the Ducks have been one of the best football programs in the country since Chip Kelly's first year as head coach in 2009, but they've had problems against certain Pac-12 teams along the way. 

Fortunately, things worked out perfectly for Oregon in 2014. After the Arizona loss, the Ducks were able to right the ship. They finally conquered Stanford in a 45-16 blowout and avenged their loss against Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game with 51-13 drubbing of the Wildcats. 

Mark Helfrich doesn't get the national credit he deserves because of the perception that he inherited all of Kelly's players. While that may be true, he's run with that talent and brought in his own to keep Oregon among the national elite. 

Per Jason Quick of The Oregonian, it was Helfrich who took ownership of Oregon's loss to Arizona in October and helped repair a struggling team:

(Oregon) had just played a decidedly sloppy game that elicited several boos from the normally supportive Autzen Stadium crowd. There were 10 penalties. Countless missed tackles. Five sacks allowed. Two fumbles lost. And several blown coverages.

But when the then 40-year-old coach stood before the team, he didn't deride his players.

Helfrich took the blame.

Quick then notes that Helfrich was "more intense and a more detail-oriented head coach" after the loss. That's what Oregon has been lacking in the previous two years. The Ducks have been content to run on the field, but figuring out what a roster needs to get over the top is why they have a chance to win a championship. 

Now, the Ducks have to prove those changes can stick against a team they appear to be superior to in Florida State. 

Mariota has been what Winston was last year, a dazzling playmaker who constantly finds ways to create big plays and doesn't turn the ball over. The first game against Arizona was his worst of the year, yet he still finished with 276 passing yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. 

Oregon has been building itself back into a national-title contender since losing the BCS Championship Game to Auburn in 2010. This is the final stage of that process, though it will all be undone with one disappointing performance against Florida State. 

 

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