NCAA Football

Heart of Dallas Bowl 2014: Top Storylines Going into Illinois vs. Louisiana Tech

Louisiana Tech and Illinois kick off a packed Friday of college football bowl action with the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Neither the Bulldogs nor the Fighting Illini are the most attractive team in the country, and many fans will likely fail to give this matchup any sort of chance. However, it's often the more obscure bowls that are the most fun. The most recent example is the finish to the Bahamas Bowl, which had one of the unlikeliest Hail Marys you're ever going to see.

The Heart of Dallas Bowl probably won't have such a crazy conclusion, but it could be a sleeper pick for one of the more entertaining matchups this week.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 1 p.m. ET

Where: Cotton Bowl, Dallas, Texas

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:WatchESPN

 

Storylines

How Will Illinois Represent the Big Ten?

It's no secret that the Big Ten is suffering from a perception problem. Most fans and writers rank the conference behind the SEC, Pac-12 and maybe the Big 12 as well. A Big Ten team losing to a Conference USA team won't do the conference any favors, either.

With Illinois representing the B1G, things aren't looking too promising. BTN.com's Tom Dienhart listed his confidence picks for each bowl game featuring a team from the conference, and the Heart of Dallas Bowl ranked at the very bottom. He said the best strategy for predicting a winner was flipping a coin.

Nothing about the Fighting Illini stands out. They rank 102nd in total offense (360.3 YPG) and 112th in total defense (464.3 YPG). Although they own wins over Penn State and Minnesota, they were also beaten by Washington, Nebraska and Ohio State by a combined 97 points.

Head coach Tim Beckman announced earlier in the week that Reilly O'Toole will start the game at quarterback, per Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune:

O'Toole has completed 58.7 percent of his passes and has nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. In short, he doesn't exactly elicit a wealth of confidence among Illini fans. Wide receiver Mike Dudek has emerged in a big way this year with 69 receptions, 965 yards and six touchdowns, but he's only as good as the quarterback throwing him the ball.

Beating Louisiana Tech won't exactly bolster the Big Ten's reputation, but you can bet an Illini loss will be used as a stick to beat the conference.

 

Do the Fighting Illini Have Any Answer for Kenneth Dixon and Cody Sokol?

Illinois' top objective will be slowing down Kenneth Dixon. The Louisiana Tech running back has run for 1,236 yards and 21 touchdowns this year and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Illinois gave up an average of 249.6 yards a game on the ground, so Dixon could have a field day.

As Sports Illustrated's Bill Carey wrote, the junior enters the game on a rich vein of form and has history on his mind:

Dixon enters the bowl game on a hot streak. He has 10 touchdowns in his last four outings, including three against Marshall in the Conference USA championship on Dec. 6. Those scores gave him the school record of 59 touchdowns. Next up: Dixon is just five yards away from Daniel Porter’s program record of 3,352 career rushing yards, a mark that he could snap on his first play from scrimmage.

Dixon's also caught 26 passes for 306 yards and five touchdowns. He's a multifaceted weapon in the Louisiana Tech offense and can beat the Illini in a variety of ways.

If Illinois can neutralize Dixon, then it will heap more pressure on quarterback Cody Sokol. Although the senior threw for 3,189 yards and 29 touchdowns, he also threw 13 interceptions and completed 58.6 percent of his passes. He's prone to making mistakes, and early issues could grow into major problems as the game unfolds.

As a team, Illinois intercepted just seven passes during the season, so Sokol should be able to avoid turnovers. The Illini can at least get some pressure on him to prevent him from getting into any sort of groove.

Sokol's clearly the weaker link in the Louisiana Tech offense, so Illinois will want to make him win the game. By putting the game in his hands, the Illini should be able to get the better of the Bulldogs.

 

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

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St. Petersburg Bowl 2014: TV Info, Live Stream, Preview for NC State vs. UCF

With all of the family Christmas obligations out of the way, college football fans can go back to their routines of plopping down on the couch and watching games for hours on end.

The day after Christmas alone features three different bowl games, one of which is the St. Petersburg Bowl between North Carolina State and Central Florida. The Wolfpack got bowl-eligible after big wins over Wake Forest and North Carolina to close out the season, while the Knights enter having won nine of their last 10 games.

Aesthetically, this game won't be the most beautiful to watch, but football is football.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 8 p.m. ET

Where: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, Florida

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

 

NC State will go about as far as quarterback Jacoby Brissett can take it. He has 2,344 passing yards with 20 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He also added 498 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

In the game against Florida State, which the Wolfpack could have arguably won, Brissett threw for 359 yards and three touchdowns. That defeat was evidence of how good NC State can be when the QB is on his game.

Conversely, Brissett showed the following week how much one of his bad performances can drag the team down. He went 4-of-18 for 35 yards in a 41-0 loss to Clemson.

Bleacher Report's Brian Leigh wrote that Brissett shows flashes of being a potential NFL quarterback and would stand to gain a lot by returning to Raleigh, North Carolina, in 2015:

He doesn't get mentioned as a first-round prospect, though, because he didn't play with consistency and barely snuck his team into a bowl game. A 6'4" quarterback with a rocket arm and Ben Roethlisberger's leg strength should not be a middle-round pick.

Brissett, then, would stand to gain a lot by returning. He is one of the few quarterbacks who could start the year off the radar and legitimately rise into the first round. His top seven receivers are all set to return, and Brissett has the arm to take advantage.

A bowl game could be a great springboard for the junior going into next year.

Unfortunately for Brissett, UCF boasts a defense that ranks eighth in points allowed (17.9 PPG), 12th in passing yards allowed (185.4 YPG) and 10th in interceptions (18).

Jacoby Glenn and Terrance Plummer are among the biggest reasons for the Knights' strength on that side of the ball. Glenn, a sophomore defensive back, leads the team in interceptions (7) and defended passes (18). Plummer, a senior linebacker, leads the team in tackles (92) and tackles for loss (12.5).

Glenn's being mentioned as a strong NFL draft prospect, which is no surprise to Plummer, per Shannon Owens-Green of the Orlando Sentinel:

I think he's always been this good. I think he's just starting to get the recognition. His maturation process has actually been him taking coaching better, him going out there and taking practice more serious and making sure he does his job. I think that’s where he really improved.

We're trying not to be that guy who is always on him saying 'you're so good, you're so good.' We're trying to push him because when people know they're that good, it's not good. When somebody's on your back all the time, you keep striving for greatness and I think that's what he's doing and we're all so proud of him.

Even if, like Brissett, Glenn stays in college for another year, it's never too early to begin building that draft resume. Shutting down the Wolfpack QB would be a nice feather in Glenn's cap and a great way to close out 2014.

Of course, Brissett has a lot to gain as well should he consistently challenge and beat Glenn with pinpoint passes.

The individual battle between quarterback and defensive back alone should be worth the price of admission.

 

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

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Quick Lane Bowl 2014: Rutgers vs. North Carolina Viewing Info and Stars to Watch

College football fans are getting a belated Christmas present in the form of the Quick Lane Bowl between Rutgers and North Carolina.

Neither team is particularly good, with the Scarlet Knights finishing 7-5 and the Tar Heels coming in at 6-6. However, this game should feature plenty of scoring. Rutgers and UNC combined to allow 69.8 points per game during the season.

At the very least, the Quick Lane Bowl should be entertaining.

The three players below are among the biggest reasons to foresee an offensive explosion.

 

When: Friday, Dec. 26, at 4:30 p.m. ET

Where: Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan

TV Info: ESPN

Live Stream:Watch ESPN

 

Stars to Watch

Leonte Carroo, Rutgers, WR

Leonte Carroo's 2014 stats should come with some sort of asterisk indicating Gary Nova was his quarterback. Who knows what the junior wideout could've done with a more consistent quarterback?

Carroo caught 53 passes for 1,043 yards and 10 touchdowns. His numbers dwarfed everybody else on the team. Each stat was more than double the output of the next closest player. It came as no surprise when he was named the Scarlet Knights' offensive MVP:

The Big Ten media also named Carroo to the All-Big Ten team, per Dan Duggan of NJ.com:

North Carolina safety Tim Scott knows that stopping the stellar wide receiver will be among the Tar Heels' top tasks.

"He's a big-play guy," Scott said, per Duggan. "When it comes to the passing game, he'll be the guy that's most likely going to have the ball in his hands so we have to do a great job of containing him and making sure he doesn't get those big plays on us like he has in the past."

Carroo hasn't yet put his name in the 2015 draft hat, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him do so. A big bowl game won't make him a first-round pick overnight. It could, however, raise some eyebrows and get him on the radar of some teams.

 

Marquise Williams, North Carolina, QB

If you're curious as to how a team ranked 116th in total defense could win six games, look no further than Marquise Williams. The junior quarterback threw for 2,870 yards and 20 touchdowns and also rushed for 982 yards and 12 touchdowns.

The Tar Heels don't have any hope of winning this game if Williams struggles. The defense almost certainly won't shut down the Rutgers offense, which means that Williams playing well is paramount to his team's success.

It's not a coincidence that he's thrown 11 touchdowns to 10 interceptions in North Carolina losses, compared to 20 and five, respectively, in UNC wins. His completion percentage is also four points lower in defeats.

Rutgers ranks 105th in rushing defense, so the Scarlet Knights are ripe for the picking on the ground. Williams should find running lanes when he scrambles out of the pocket. The more success he has running the ball, the more the secondary will open up.

 

Ryan Switzer, North Carolina, WR

Williams' favorite target by far is Ryan Switzer. Switzer leads the team in receptions (55) and yards (703), throwing in four touchdowns as well. He's not the most dynamic big-play threat in the Heels' passing game, but you can count on Switzer getting plenty of touches Friday.

Switzer also regularly returns punts for the Tar Heels. While he's averaging just 4.9 yards a return, you never know when he could spring free for a touchdown. He took five punts to the house last year.

In case you really need a reason to root for Switzer, Dijana Kunovac of Inside Carolina provided this anecdote:

How can you not like this guy?

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Independence Bowl 2014: Miami vs. South Carolina TV Info, Spread, Time and More

Amid the lull that is between Christmas and New Year's Day, Miami and South Carolina will grace college football with an appearance in the 2014 Duck Commander Independence Bowl.

Let's not sugarcoat it—the hopes were considerably higher for both teams than finishing the season in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Gamecocks have gone from an SEC contender to a lowly 6-6, while the Hurricanes boast the same record with more than a few games they'd like to have back.

Such a disappointing season can have a team already checked out and ready for the offseason, but the prospect of finishing out with a win should bring out the fight in two proud programs.

Here's a complete breakdown of the Independence Bowl.

 

When: Saturday, Dec. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, Louisiana

TV: ABC

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Spread (via Odds Shark): Miami (-3.5)

 

Tough Sell

South Carolina is in the midst of the program's golden age, with legendary head coach Steve Spurrier having completed his rebuilding process and boasting a team capable of contending in college football's toughest conference. Miami is undoubtedly down, but its fanbase's sky-high expectations haven't wavered.

Add them both together, and getting fans of these two schools to make the trek to Shreveport could be tougher than advertised—much less get the team's spirits up for the game, as Spurrier told Miami Herald's Susan Miller Degnan:

It’s tough for both schools. We’ve been 11-2 the last three years. I don’t know if you knew that or not. But this year, we’re 6-6. Miami used to play for national championships. They’re 6-6. This is where life is. Fans, once you’ve been up there and your team is having sort of an average year, it’s hard to sell tickets.

David Caraviello of The Post and Courier summed up the end of the season from Miami's perspective:

Spurrier's prophecy seems to be right on the money. According to Degnan, South Carolina has sold only 1,100 tickets while Miami hasn't even released its information. 

Still, Degnan reported that bowl officials claimed around 37,000 tickets had been sold for the game. But envisioning that many butts in seats come Saturday afternoon is awfully hard.

The offensive firepower is there for both teams, and it should result in an exciting game to watch if Miami and South Carolina bring it. How many people will be in the stands to watch it in person, however, remains to be seen.

 

Running Wild

The workhorses for both Miami and South Carolina should be quite busy come Saturday afternoon.

The Hurricanes expect to run the ball with ferocity, boasting arguably the best running back in school history—and that's saying something. Duke Johnson is only a junior, but he has dazzled with 1,520 yards and 13 total touchdowns on the year.

Johnson has slowed down somewhat to finish the 2014 season—if you call performances of 88 and 89 yards slowing down. Before that, he rushed for more than 100 yards and a touchdown in six straight games.

His magnificent year has led many to believe it's his last in the college ranks, as Yahoo Sports' Rand Getlin noted:

While that much is still up in the air, there's no doubt that Saturday will be Mike Davis' final game in a South Carolina uniform. 

The senior Gamecocks running back hasn't put up Johnson-like numbers with just 927 yards and 10 total touchdowns, but his importance has been unquestionable in South Carolina's offense. Dylan Thompson and the passing game has been inconsistent, but Davis' impact shines through in almost every game.

The two running backs are actually buddies off the field, but it should be all business Saturday, as Matt Harris of KSLA noted:

There's nothing like a healthy rivalry between two dominant offensive players, and Davis and Johnson should certainly have that as they play each other in what could be the final collegiate game for both. There's nothing each would like more than a bit of bragging rights on the other as they begin the next step in their careers.

 

Prediction

Not only is Johnson the superior running back, but he has a more dangerous offense around him with Brad Kaaya playing well under center. 

The mentality of both South Carolina and Miami will loom large, but neither proud program should expected to disappear in a high-profile bowl game. Coming off three losses in which they allowed 30 points or more, though, the Hurricanes will be intent on setting a defensive tone.

The Gamecocks won't be able to match it with their own defense, leading to a big Miami win.

Prediction: Miami 31, South Carolina 20

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Rose Bowl 2015: Viewing Information and Predictions for Oregon vs. Florida State

After all of the presents have been opened, the ball drops in New York and the first meal of the New Year has been eaten, the first game of the College Football Playoff will kick off.

The Rose Bowl, known as the oldest bowl since starting in 1902, will set the stage for the inaugural playoff. Of course, the two teams playing in the epic game make the first semifinal even more enticing.

Oregon comes into the matchup with one of the most high-powered offenses in the country led by Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Florida State has a Heisman winner, too, with Jameis Winston looking to keep the Seminoles' unblemished record intact.

Before the first semifinal kicks off, here's a look at the full viewing information and predictions for the Rose Bowl.

 

2015 Rose Bowl Information

Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

When: Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Rose Bowl Predictions

The hype machine is a funny thing. Sometimes players are built up and crumble under expectations. During the Rose Bowl, fans will get to watch two quarterbacks who have thrived under that pressure.

Sure, Winston hasn't been perfect all season, but he has still led his team to a perfect record with late comebacks nearly every week. The 2013 Heisman winner led the Seminoles on a final drive for the ages against Auburn last season to win the national title.

Albert Breer of NFL.com passed along his thoughts on those who question the Noles' dominance this season:

On the other side stands Mariota, who overtook Winston this season. His dual-threat ability saw him pass for 52 total touchdowns and just two interceptions. Compared to Winston's turnovers this year, Mariota looks the part of the more proven quarterback in the matchup.

Mariota's success has also led to him achieving success that has never been matched at Oregon. SportsCenter notes yet another award that Mariota pulled out earlier this week:

Holding down the offense this season, Mariota has made his presence known for the Ducks. Meanwhile, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had done the same for Oregon's defense prior to his season-ending knee injury.

The dynamic cornerback had just two interceptions and 63 tackles on the season, but his impact on the team was much more than just his play. Mariota spoke about the effect of not having Ekpre-Olomu on the field, via Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

He's been awesome ever since being injured but he's really kept everyone's spirits up and to have that type of leader even when he's not on the field is so pivotal. He understands that he still has a lot of influence even if he's not on the field. Guys will rally around him.

Paul Finebaum of ESPN also noted that the injury greatly benefits the FSU passing game:

Having a playmaker like Rashad Greene down the field for Winston, with Dalvin Cook in the backfield, the Noles can exploit the Ducks defense. The trio has been successful down the stretch, and Oregon's defense has been shredded several times this season.

However, that likely won't prove to be enough against the potent Oregon offense. With Mariota at the wheel, the Ducks will drive straight into the national championship game with a showdown against the winner of the Sugar Bowl.

 

Predicted final: Oregon 37, Florida State 31

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Full Schedule and Predictions for College Football Playoff

With the holidays here, college football fans are immersed in the gifts of bowl games and top matchups between marquee programs. As much as everyone invests in bowl season, it's hard not to admit that the games after Christmas are more appealing than what's already happened. 

That's not to say there haven't been electrifying games, but the Potato Bowl doesn't draw in a huge sense of wonder. With only one full week of bowl season left, not including the College Football Playoff National Championship, things are starting to pick up in a big way. 

Fortunately, that means the discussion around these games has started to increase dramatically. Let's add to that with a look at the remaining games, as well as predictions for the key games still left on the schedule. 

 

College Football Playoff

The four teams vying for the national championship have built impressive resumes up to this point, though there seems to be a clear divide between the top two schools and the other two. 

Alabama and Oregon are the overwhelming favorites to meet at AT&T Stadium on January 12. According to Odds Shark, the Crimson Tide and Ducks are each favored by nine points in their respective games against Ohio State and Florida State. 

For perspective, only the Sun Bowl and Foster Farms Bowl have spreads of at least nine points. It's hard to argue with the rationale, as Alabama and Oregon have separated themselves from the pack in college football. If the BCS still existed, no one outside Tallahassee would have qualms about those teams in the top two spots. 

Starting with the Alabama-Ohio State game, the Buckeyes have been a great story all year. They are on their third-string quarterback, yet they had no problems thrashing a solid Wisconsin team in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

However, the Badgers defense isn't in the same class as 'Bama's. Nick Saban has to be salivating at the prospect of going against a quarterback making his second career start.

If the Buckeyes are going to win this game, it will be on the legs of running back Ezekiel Elliott. Jay Clemons of Fox Sports South offered these great stats on Ohio State's dynamic runner:

The sophomore first exploded onto the nation's radar in Ohio State's 50-spot rout of Cincinnati on Sept. 27, amassing 233 total yards and one TD against the Bearcats. But the regional microscope reveals something that's similarly stellar:

Of the Buckeyes' 13 outings, Elliott (1,610 total yards, 12 TDs) accounted for 100 total yards and/or one touchdown 12 times.

The numbers look even stronger for OSU's tent-pole victories over Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin: The St. Louis, Mo. native averaged 146 total yards/1.4 TDs.

Unfortunately, teams haven't been able to run against Alabama, as this graphic from StatMilk indicates:

The numbers are even more impressive the deeper you dig. Alabama led the nation with only three rushing touchdowns allowed, tied for second in yards allowed per carry (2.8) and fourth in total rush yards allowed (1,153), per Yahoo Sports

On the other side, Alabama has been able to move the ball through the air and on the ground. The Crimson Tide rank 16th in total offense and 17th in scoring offense. Amari Cooper has been as uncoverable as any receiver in the country. 

Blake Sims has evolved into a dynamic player over the year, saving his best performances for the stretch run. After struggling early against Auburn, the senior quarterback has accounted for six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing) in the last six quarters. 

The odds have been stacked against Ohio State all year, but Urban Meyer's crew is going against a beast the likes of which it hasn't seen in Alabama. 

Moving to the Rose Bowl, even though the talent gap may not seem as stark between Oregon and Florida State, the Ducks can't lose here. 

Florida State has pulled off a trick that would make Criss Angel jealous. No team should be able to win as many games by a touchdown or less as the Seminoles have (seven) without stubbing its toe at least once, yet here they are as the country's only undefeated team. 

Looking at the tale of the tape, via StatMilk, Oregon wipes the floor with Florida State in virtually every major category:

The only area Florida State looks markedly better is on defense, but even that can be explained by Oregon playing so many blowouts that it gave up cheap yardage to opponents. 

If the Seminoles are going to pull off the upset, it's on Jameis Winston's arm. He has been erratic all year with 17 interceptions, but he stepped up in the biggest moments to secure wins all year. His best performance was against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game with 309 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. 

That is the kind of stat line Florida State will need to win, but how do you trust Winston given how he's been so Jekyll and Hyde in 2014? That kind of act can work against Notre Dame or Oklahoma State, but not the No. 2 team in the country. 

When you flirt with disaster, eventually the tightrope breaks. This is Florida State's last stand, and it won't be pretty. 

Predictions: Alabama def. Ohio State, 41-14

Oregon def. Florida State, 34-20

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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.

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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.

Begin Slideshow

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. 

Begin Slideshow

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.

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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. 

Begin Slideshow

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

 

If you want to talk sports, hit me up on Twitter. 

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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.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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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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