NCAA Football

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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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.

 

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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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Fresno State vs. Rice: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 Hawaii Bowl

Rice cruised to a 30-6 win in the Hawaii Bowl over Fresno State on Christmas Eve in Honolulu. The Owls wrapped up the 2014 season with an 8-5 record while the Bulldogs fell to 6-8 overall.

Rice junior quarterback Driphus Jackson finished the game 15-of-24 for 318 yards and three touchdowns. He added another 41 yards on the ground. The Owls featured a balanced offensive attack, gaining 463 yards on the day.

Some wondered why Fresno State received a bowl invite in the first place. At 6-7, the Bulldogs were the seventh team in the last 64 years to have made a postseason bowl despite posting a losing record, per ESPN College Football:

Fresno did little to bolster the idea of bowls accepting losing teams, putting in a largely listless display. The Bulldogs gained 255 yards of total offense. NFL.com's Bryan Fischer thinks that this is a growing trend under head coach Tim DeRuyter:

The team is 0-3 in bowl games since he took over.

Before the game, DeRuyter commented that the attention paid to the Hawaii Bowl could either prove a help or hindrance to the Bulldogs, depending on their performance, per Bryant-Jon Anteola of The Fresno Bee:

We’re looking to have a really good national name as we reach out to different areas in recruiting. And because people see us out on ESPN regularly, things are real good when you win on national TV.

But when the last thing you leave out there, especially on Christmas Eve when we’re the only game of the day, it’s not a good look for you. It can hurt your image nationally and hurt you down the line if recruits are influenced by it.

He and Fresno State didn't do themselves any favors with this defeat. The Owls outplayed the Bulldogs in every aspect, and it started as soon as the contest began.

Rice couldn't have started the game much better. The Owls jumped out to a comfortable 16-3 lead after a field goal from senior James Hairston and two touchdown passes from Jackson.

Hairston put Rice ahead 3-0 on the first drive of the game, but Fresno State's Kody Kroening canceled out the field goal with one of his own with two minutes and 16 seconds left in the quarter.

That's when the Owls offense kicked it into high gear. Jackson needed five plays to go 78 yards, connecting with senior wide receiver Jordan Taylor for a 14-yard TD pass with 23 seconds to go until the second quarter.

Rice sophomore cornerback J.T. Blasingame then intercepted Fresno State QB Brian Burrell on the second play of the ensuing drive. Immediately following the turnover, senior wide receiver Mario Hull hauled in a 69-yard touchdown reception, scoring Rice's second TD in 19 seconds of game time and giving the Owls a 13-point advantage.

According to Rice Football, the catch was also Hull's career long:

The opening frame was all about setting new records, with Rice's 16 points the most the team had ever scored in the first quarter of any bowl game:

Fresno State was arguably lucky to only be down by 13, considering the disparity between the two teams in total yards. In only 15 minutes, Rice managed to outgain its opponent by over 200 yards:

Only one quarter in, the Bulldogs were teetering on the brink. Another touchdown or two from Rice, and the game could've been out of reach before halftime.

Instead, Fresno State tightened up on defense and held the Owls to four yards for the entire second quarter, per ESPN Stats & Info:

Rice didn't help itself by committing seven penalties for 60 yards in the first half and converting only two of its seven third downs.

Unfortunately, the Fresno State offense could only muster a 40-yard field goal from Kroening to cut the deficit to 10 points, 16-6, before halftime. The Bulldogs' offensive stagnancy wasted the strong defensive performance.

Burrell really struggled in the half, throwing for 40 yards on 9-of-18 passing. On the other side, Jackson completed the same amount of passes but instead gained 195 yards through the air.

Running backs Josh Quezada and Marteze Waller provided little support on the ground, rushing for a combined 55 yards. The Bulldogs averaged 183.9 yards on the ground heading into the game.

The third quarter was more of the same for Fresno State as the Bulldogs offense couldn't find the key to unlock the Rice defense. Two of the team's drives ended in three-and-outs, another in an interception and the last in a missed field goal from Kroening.

Jackson padded Rice's lead with 6:18 remaining in the third. He hit junior wideout Dennis Parks for a 40-yard touchdown. Anteola highlighted a block downfield that allowed Parks to break for the big play:

It was Parks' first touchdown of the season. WNSP's Patrick Woo thinks the wide receiver has a bright future ahead:

Rice carried its 23-6 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRuyter replaced Burrell at quarterback with freshman Zack Greenlee. The move produced little, with Greenlee finishing the game 7-of-18 for 49 yards.

A one-yard touchdown run from sophomore running back Darik Dillard put even more distance between the two teams, giving Rice a 30-6 lead 10:07 from the final whistle.

For Rice, this is both a nice way to close out the 2014 campaign and begin building toward 2015. This was the third straight bowl game for the Owls, with head coach David Bailiff building a consistently strong program in Houston.

Fresno State, meanwhile, wraps up a frustrating season with an even more frustrating loss. This year was a major backward step for the Bulldogs after they won nine games in 2012 and then 11 in 2013.

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USC Star Su'a Cravens Ready to Cap Monster Season with Happy Holiday Bowl

SAN DIEGO — Forget falling snow: The 75 degrees welcoming USC football to its first Holiday Bowl practice Wednesday at San Diego State made for Trojans sophomore safety/linebacker Su’a Cravens’ ideal winter wonderland.

“It’s good to be in California,” Cravens said. “Glad to not be in another state around Christmastime.”

A native Southern Californian, Cravens should feel right at home with conditions like these at the holiday season. He played his prep football at Vista Murrieta High School in the bedroom community of Murrieta, California.

That’s just a short trek from San Diego up Interstate 15, a roadway that passes near where Cravens and the Trojans conclude the 2014 season Saturday at 8 p.m. ET against Nebraska.

Cravens exudes California swagger, right down to the tattoo of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on his arm.

But had fate twisted another way, Saturday’s Holiday Bowl would have a much different feel for Cravens.

“I was planning on taking an official visit to Nebraska my junior year [at Vista Murrietta],” he said. “But it didn’t quite work out.”

Nebraska worked to establish a recruiting pipeline into Southern California under its previous coaching regime.

Bo Pelini’s gone now,” Cravens said of the Cornhuskers head coach who recruited him, fired last month. “But I’ve got a former teammate on Nebraska, [offensive lineman] Corey Whitaker, so it’s going to be fun to see him.”

Things may not have worked out for Nebraska, but they certainly are for both USC and Cravens, as his second season in the program comes to an end.

Cravens earned first-team All-Pac-12 recognition this season, racking up 62 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions—one of which went for a touchdown.

Of Cravens’ many contributions to the Trojans this season, the most significant may be one that stat sheets cannot fully quantify. He played a variety of spots for defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, primarily nickelback or strong-side linebacker, depending on the need at any given snap.

And while his original head coach at USC—Lane Kiffin—is gone, the Trojans’ current staff has an obviously high opinion of what Cravens brings to the team.

Head coach Steve Sarkisian said earlier this season that “[continuing] to recruit players like Su’a,” meaning versatile defenders who can seamlessly switch roles against hurry-up offenses, is imperative for competing in the Pac-12 Conference.

But against Nebraska, Cravens leads the USC defense against an opponent known for a much more traditional style, predicated on establishing All-American running back Ameer Abdullah on the ground.

“You said it: Run the ball,” Cravens said of Nebraska’s game plan. “They’ve got a big [offensive] line and they’ve got a very good running back [in Abdullah].

“We’ll do everything we can to shut down the run game,” he added. “And hopefully it will turn into a game where they’re playing catch-up and have to pass the ball.”

No matter if the Cornhuskers go to the run or the pass, however, Cravens will be on the field. That’s a certainty regardless of where the Trojans are playing—though doing so in California makes this particular matchup a little sweeter.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics compiled via CFBStats.com.

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USC Star Su'a Cravens Ready to Cap Monster Season with Happy Holiday Bowl

SAN DIEGO — Forget falling snow: The 75 degrees welcoming USC football to its first Holiday Bowl practice Wednesday at San Diego State made for Trojans sophomore safety/linebacker Su ’a Cravens’ ideal winter wonderland...

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Hawaii Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Fresno State vs. Rice

Rice 16, Fresno State 6 — Mid 3rd Quarter

College football fans will get to open just one present from under the bowl tree on Christmas Eve night, as Fresno State takes on Rice in the sunny setting of the 2014 Hawaii Bowl.

The Bulldogs pulled the rare feat in 2014 of making a bowl despite finishing with a sub-.500 record. It's usually impossible due to teams needing at least six of 12 regular-season wins, but Fresno State is 6-7 after falling to Boise State in the Mountain West championship.

Rice won six games all in a row at one point but has dropped two of three to close the season. The Owls will also try to end an 0-6 all-time record against Fresno State, which they previously played in the WAC.

If you like defensive showcases, this might not be the game for you. Rice allowed 76 points to Louisiana Tech in its final regular-season game, and Fresno State allowed over 45 four times on the year. 

Tune into ESPN at 8 p.m. ET to catch the game, or stay updated with live updates below.

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Florida State vs. Oregon: Who Is the Better 2nd-Half Team?

With nine come-from-behind victories this season, it would seem as though the third-ranked Florida State Seminoles are the best second-half team in the nation.

But is that really the case? Perhaps it is the second-ranked Oregon Ducks, Florida State’s Rose Bowl opponent, that are the team to beat in the second half.

While there are tons of intriguing Rose Bowl storylines, most notably a meeting of the past two Heisman Trophy winners, one that has been overlooked is how differently these two conference champions have won this year.

The Ducks are perhaps the best front-runners in the entire country and usually play the first half of games as if they were lightning shot out of a cannon. When they’ve had a lead this year, they’ve pummeled opponents into the ground and left no doubt as to whom the better team was.

Meanwhile, the Seminoles have played the role of the cardiac kids. Fans of Florida State have purchased a controlling share of the Lipitor market in the process. The Noles have made a habit of waiting until the second half or fourth quarter to inflict pain on their opponents and ultimately spoil upset after upset.

This phenomenon is even more interesting when you consider that during Florida State’s national title run last season, they played more like the 2014 Ducks than the 2014 Noles.

Both teams have found great success in the second half of games this season, and it is highly likely that the Rose Bowl will be decided in the last 30 minutes.

So, which semifinalist is the better second-half team?

 

More Points!

All college football teams are bound to fall behind in a couple of games during the course of the season, even the very best squads. In fact, as Nicole Auerbach of USA Today explained on Dec. 3, Oregon, Alabama and Florida State trailed in a majority of their games this season.

However, the difference between Bama, Oregon and Florida State is the margin by which the Noles have had to come back from.

Even the best teams in college football get behind in games. Alabama has trailed in eight of 12 games this season — the same number as Florida State — and Oregon has been down seven times. The difference comes in the margins. Alabama's average largest deficit is 6.4 points, and Oregon's is 7.1. Florida State's is 14.1.

Including the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech, the Noles have had nine come-from-behind victories this season. In Auerbach’s piece, John Ewing, the director of research and analytics for Prediction Machine, explains just how unlikely it is that the Noles are still undefeated this season.

According to John Ewing, Director of Research and Analytics for Prediction Machine, Florida State was the projected winner 83% of the time in all of its games, and even considering the games in which opponents had leads in the second half, no team was ever more than 75% likely to win its game against Florida State. Still, there was only approximately a 1-in-10,000 chance that Florida State should still be undefeated considering the team's tendency to trail so many opponents, Prediction Machine found.

While Florida State was almost always favored to win ballgames in which the team tailed, the probability that it would actually win each and every one of those games is bordering on a statistical anomaly.

So, how have the Seminoles been able to dominate the last 30 minutes of games this season? Well, it all starts with 2013 Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and the FSU offense.

In the first half of games this season, Florida State is averaging 16.6 points per half—ranked No. 37 in the nation. In second halves, FSU is averaging 17.5 points—ranked No. 18. While an extra point of offense per half may not sound like a lot, it is.

On average, FBS teams have averaged 14.6 points per first half this season. Comparatively, teams have averaged just 13.3 points per second half this season.

Florida State is different. It is one of the few teams in college football that average more points in the second half than in the first. Moreover, the Noles are also scoring four more points in the second half than the average FBS team.

But how do those statistics compare to the Ducks? Oregon has one of the most prolific offenses in college football and is led by 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota.

The Ducks rank No. 3 in the country in points per game and total offense this year. Moreover, they rank No. 5 in first-half points with 24.2 and No. 3 in second-half points with 20.8.

Oregon clearly has the far superior offense and is averaging 11.5 more points per game than Florida State.

The Ducks are outscoring FSU by more than a touchdown in first halves this year and by 3.3 points in second halves, despite the fact that Oregon’s offense has taken its foot off the gas in multiple games this season due to insurmountable leads.

However, Oregon’s offense “slows down” in the second half. Florida State’s offense has gotten better as the game has gone along.

Additionally, FSU knows how to win close games in the fourth quarter. If a similar situation were to occur in the Rose Bowl, one would think FSU would be more apt to deal with that scenario.

By my calculations, the Ducks have only been in four games this season in which their opponent was within two scores of them going into the fourth quarter.

In those four contests—against Michigan State, Washington State, Arizona and Utah—the Ducks have averaged 14.5 points in those fourth quarters and have allowed just six points per fourth quarter. Even in their loss to Arizona, the Ducks won the fourth quarter 10-7.

Oregon’s offense is just as potent as any in college football, and it’s clear it dominates the Seminoles in terms of points per half. However, there is something to be said for teams that get better as the game goes along.

Florida State is flat out a better team in the second half than it is in the first half. But is FSU's offense really better than Oregon in the second half of games this season? The statistics would suggest that it's not.

 

First-Half versus Second-Half Defense 

Despite the fact that the Ducks rank No. 84 in total defense and No. 103 in passing defense, they’ve done a relatively good job of keeping opposing teams out of the end zone, especially in the first halves of games this year.

In total, Oregon is allowing 22.5 points per game this season, which ranks No. 29 in the country. Statistically, Oregon’s defense has gotten off to strong starts this season and has allowed an average of 10.7 points per game in the first 30 minutes of games this season—ranked No. 16 in the country.

Over Oregon’s past five games, the Ducks defense has allowed a paltry 5.8 points per first half, including a total of six points over the past three games.

While Oregon’s defense has been very solid in the first half of games this season, the D has taken some hits in the final 30 minutes.

Oregon ranks No. 52 in the country in terms of points allowed per second half this year. On average, the Ducks have allowed 12.6 points per second half. While that number is still above the national average of 13.3, the Ducks are still allowing almost two more points in the second half than in the first.

So how does Florida State’s defense compare to Oregon’s?

In terms of points per game allowed, the Ducks and Seminoles are basically identical. Florida State is ranked just behind the Ducks at No. 30 and is allowing 23 points per game this year. Moreover, Oregon’s defense has allowed 35 touchdowns this year—ranked No. 29—and FSU has allowed 36 touchdowns—ranked No. 33.

You would think based on Florida State’s propensity for comebacks that its second-half defense would be far superior than its first-half D. You would be correct.

In the first half of games this season, FSU’s defense is ranked No. 67 in points allowed with 14.5, which is just a hair better than the national average of 14.6.

However, the Seminoles defense has shined in the second half this year. It's allowing a minuscule 9.4 points per fourth quarter this year—ranked No. 13 in the nation. Furthermore, Florida State’s defense is allowing 3.2 fewer points than Oregon’s defense in second halves this year and 3.9 fewer than the national average.

Oregon and Florida State’s defenses are almost identical; however, it’s very clear which defense is better in the first half and which is better in the final 30 minutes.

 

The Heisman Winners

While defense, production out of the backfield, coaching, turnovers and a host of other factors will help determine which team advances to the national championship, the Rose Bowl ultimately will be won by the quarterback who gets the job done in the second half.

Let’s start with the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.

Mariota’s offense scores more points in the first half, which is partially due to the fact that he and his starters often sit out large portions of the second half. That being said, Mariota’s second-half passing numbers are actually much more efficient than those in the first half.

Mariota’s passer rating in the second half of games this year is 208.95, which is far and away the best in the nation.

Moreover, he is completing an ungodly 75.4 percent of his passes in the second half, which ranks No. 2 in the country. Yes, Mariota has more passing touchdowns in the first half (21) than he does in the second (17), but he’s been more efficient with the ball, which could be huge against Florida State.

The most obvious difference between Mariota’s first- and second-half performance this year has been in the running game. In the first half of games this year, Mariota has rushed 78 times for 511 yards—an average of 6.55 yards per carry—and nine touchdowns.

In the second halves, he has dialed down the running game. So far this year, Mariota has 39 carries for 158 yards (4.05 YPC) and five touchdowns in the second half of games.

This is not to say Mariota is a worse overall player in the second half. He’s not. Mariota has been equally as good in both halves. He's just done more damage with his legs in the first half and has been more efficient with his arm in the final 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, the other Heisman-winning quarterback in this matchup has performed much better in the second half of games this season. By Jameis Winston’s incredibly lofty standards, his performance in the first half of games this season has been an unmitigated disaster.

Not only has Winston thrown the most first-half interceptions in college football (13), but he has also registered a 137.37 quarterback rating—ranked No. 73 in the country—and has only completed 62.9 percent of his passes. You don’t need to look much further to see why the Seminoles have struggled as a team in the first half of games this season.

However, Winston has been great in the second half this season, which is one of the reasons why FSU has been able to overcome nine significant deficits. On average, Florida State is outscoring opponents by 8.1 points in the second half this year.

Winston has the fourth-most second-half passing yards this season (1,769) and has only thrown four picks, which is a bit high by national standards but low in comparison to his interception percentage.

Winston has thrown 10 second-half touchdowns and completed more than 68 percent of his passes—a 5.5 percent improvement over his first-half completion percentage this season.

Mariota’s performance in second halves this season is still superior to Winston’s; however, Winston gets much better as the game goes along, as does his defense. The Ducks may have the slight edge in the second half due to the performance of their offense, but there’s no denying the fact that Florida State is a dominant second-half team.

The 2015 Rose Bowl will come down to what happens in the second half. There will be no running away and hiding by either team unless something really crazy happens.

Oregon’s offense is clearly superior in both halves this season, and its defense outranks Florida State’s in the first half as well. However, Florida State’s offense improves in the second half of games while Oregon’s declines, and FSU has one of the strongest second-half defenses in the nation.

So who’s the better second-half team? It’s too close to call.

 

Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

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Jim Harbaugh: Michigan Desperately Wants Him, but Is the Feeling Mutual?

The Michigan Wolverines have won more games than any other team in college football history, but they have fallen out of prominence recently.  Their Brady Hoke experiment didn’t work out, and now they are scouring the coaching carousel looking for someone to replace Hoke, who was fired on December 2.

They haven’t tried to hide the fact that Jim Harbaugh is their top candidate.  The former Michigan quarterback, Harbaugh brought unprecedented success to a Stanford program that was a perennial loser for decades.  Then, he became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and promptly led them to the NFC Championship Game in each of his first three seasons.

Michigan has already offered Harbaugh a very lucrative contract, reportedly a six-year, $48 million deal per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.  That annual salary of $8 million would immediately make him the highest-paid coach in all of college football, a perk that would be hard to pass up.  They also gave Harbaugh a shoutout on Twitter, wishing him happy birthday on December 23 when he turned 51.

Even 49ers general manager Trent Baalke confirmed Michigan’s interest in Harbaugh during an interview on radio station 95.7 The Game (via The Wolverine).

Ever since Lloyd Carr left Michigan after the 2007 season, the Wolverines have been struggling to uphold their sterling tradition and prestige.

Rich Rodriguez took over for Carr, and he and Hoke each did their fair share of damage to the program. Now Michigan is in dire need of someone to transform U-M back into a winner.

If Harbaugh does anything, it’s win.  He has proved throughout his career that he is a winner.  He is one of the most intense and passionate coaches around, and a startling story of Harbaugh while he was at Stanford recently reported by Max Cohen of The Michigan Daily is a perfect example.

According to Cohen, Harbaugh rubbed a Stanford player’s blood on his face like war paint to show that he wanted badly to be on the field with his team.  Say what you want about this incident, but it’s the epitome of intensity.

Michigan needs that type of coach pacing its sideline in 2015.  Harbaugh has everything that would turn the Wolverines into championship contenders.  He is a U-M alum, so he is aware what it is like to be part of the tradition.  He is extremely competitive, and he would do everything in his power to win games.  He has national appeal due to his past success, and he would recruit with outstanding aplomb.

But if there is anything that makes the Michigan fans hurt worse than the team’s mediocre play in recent years, it’s that Ohio State has been tremendously successful since it hiredUrban Meyer.

Harbaugh is Michigan’s Urban Meyer, someone who can come in and change the culture and win quickly.

So it’s crystal clear that Michigan desperately wants and needs Harbaugh, but does Harbaugh want and need Michigan?

That is the million dollar question and one that can only be answered by the coach himself.  He is almost surely going to leave the 49ers on a sour note, as they are reportedly going to fire Harbaugh within 48 hours after the team’s final game against the Arizona Cardinals, according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports.

There is likely to be a host of other NFL job openings at season’s end, including the Oakland Raiders and Chicago Bears, and if Harbaugh feels like he wants to remain a pro coach, he will unquestionably be at the top of almost every team’s list.

Harbaugh’s competitive nature might keep him in the NFL too.  His brother, John, has a Super Bowl ring with the Ravens as does the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll.  Carroll and Harbaugh have a well-documented rivalry that goes back to both coaches’ college coaching days, Carroll at USC and Harbaugh at Stanford.  Whether the animosity started with their angry handshake after Stanford beat USC 55-21 in 2009 or some other time is unknown, but it has to be hard for Harbaugh to see Carroll as a Super Bowl-winning coach.

But Carroll also won championships at USC, and that is something that Harbaugh has never experienced.  He has never reached the pinnacle, college or NFL, and he is going to have to decide if Michigan or some other pro job gives him the best chance to finish the season ranked No. 1.

This will definitely be one of the most interesting stories in sports for the near future.  Harbaugh and Michigan is a terrific match, and it has already made an outrageous offer that would make Harbaugh a very rich man, but money is not going to be the deciding factor.

Harbaugh will be well compensated wherever he ends up, and where he ends up will depend on if he would rather pursue a national championship at Michigan or a Super Bowl in the NFL.

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