NCAA Football

College Football Playoff 2014-15: Schedule, Updated Odds and Predictions

While the season-long narrative in NCAA football focused mainly on how and why the playoff committee would choose the four teams to contest the inaugural College Football Playoff, those plot points are moot, and the discussions surrounding them have fallen by the wayside.

The matchups are set in stone, and there are plenty of intriguing storylines heading into the playoff, as all four programs are steeped in history and prestige, with monumental figures that dominate the NCAA sports landscape.

Alabama (12-1, 8-1 SEC) will take on the Ohio State University (12-1, 8-0 Big Ten) in the Sugar Bowl. All eyes will be on the gridiron in that contest, but the coaches pacing the sidelines make the matchup all the more intriguing, as the game renews a rivalry of sorts between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer.

Saban and the Crimson Tide squared off against Meyer's Florida Gators in the 2008 and 2009 SEC Championship Games. The Gators won the first contest 30-21, while Saban got his revenge a year later in a commanding 32-13 win.

As for Oregon (12-1, 8-1 Pac-12) and Florida State (13-0, 8-0 ACC), who will do battle in the Rose Bowl, it's Heisman vs. Heisman under center. Ducks quarterback and 2014 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota will try to outduel Florida State signal-caller Jameis Winston, who won the award—and the national championship—in 2013.

Here is the schedule for the College Football Playoff, the latest odds, predictions for each game and an early preview of the two semifinal contests. 

 Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Wednesday, Dec. 16 at 4 a.m. EST.

 

Sugar Bowl: Alabama vs. Ohio State

Alabama might be the No. 1-ranked team in the country heading into the playoff, but Ohio State could make a claim to be team 1-A if one based things solely on their superb second half of the season.

After escaping with a double-overtime win against Penn State on Oct. 25, the Buckeyes scored 42 points or more in five of their last six games. As we all know, this culminated in the most complete performance of any FBS team this season, the 59-0 laugher over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Cardale Jones started for the first time at quarterback in place of an injured J.T. Barrett and threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns against one of the best defenses in the nation. 

Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman have devised a diabolical uptempo, no-huddle offense that could give the Crimson Tide fits. Unlike the regular season, Alabama will have had three weeks to focus solely on stopping the Buckeyes' attack.

Of course, Ohio State has the same amount of time to add new wrinkles to the attack with Jones at the helm, something Saban is taking into account.

"The one thing he did really well was pass the ball," Saban said, referring to the Big Ten Championship Game, per Cleveland.com's Bill Landis. "He made some good throws in the Wisconsin game, some big plays downfield. We feel like philosophically, they're going to run their offense, it's just what part of it they might feature a little differently, that's the part we're not sure about."

The Crimson Tide defense didn't fare well against Auburn's no-huddle attack in the 2014 Iron Bowl, giving up 630 total yards, but a unit featuring players like Landon Collins, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dickson is talented and athletic enough to make an adjustment.

Alabama's best course of action is to shut down Ezekiel Elliott and force Jones to beat them. Jones never had to worry about trading blows in the Wisconsin game thanks to a phenomenal performance from the Buckeyes defense.

In that contest, Elliott busted an 81-yard touchdown run early and kept the Badgers defenders on their toes. This won't happen against Alabama, who allowed just 2.81 yards per carry and three rushing touchdowns this season, per NCAA.com. 

If the Buckeyes are going to score enough to keep up with 'Bama, they will have to do so mostly through the air, and chucking the ball up to Devin Smith can only work so many times before a team catches on.

Alabama, on the other hand, can hurl the ball in wide receiver Amari Cooper's direction as many times as they like. The 2014 Heisman Trophy finalist has been pretty much unstoppable this season. NFL Network's Ian Rapoport passed along this appraisal of the Biletnikoff Award winner:

Cooper, whom Grantland's Charles P. Pierce called the "the best college football player in the country by a country mile," racked up 115 receptions this season for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns. Those receptions happened to account for 42.9 percent of the passes completed by quarterbacks Blake Sims and Jake Coker this season.

The Buckeyes will know what's coming when Sims drops back, but they won't be able to stop it. It will be up to sack-master Joey Bosa and company to try to disrupt Sims before either Cooper or DeAndrew White can create separation.

Ohio State did a great job of shutting down Melvin Gordon in the Big Ten Championship Game, but the run defense wasn't quite impenetrable down the stretch. Indiana's Tevin Coleman put up 228 yards on 8.4 yards per carry on Nov. 22, while Minnesota put up 218 team rushing yards on Nov. 15.

Besides, Alabama features not one, but two lethal backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. With a decent passing attack keeping the Buckeyes honest, the two-headed monster in the 'Bama backfield should have little trouble keeping the chains moving and finishing off drives in the red zone.

Meyer and Saban are two of the best coaches in college football with top-tier staffs supporting them. This game will likely be a back-and-forth, punch-counterpunch battle, one that will see 'Bama narrowly edge its opponent by taking Elliott out of the game and getting another stellar display from Cooper.

Prediction: Alabama 28-24 OSU

 

Rose Bowl: FSU vs. Oregon

The Seminoles can't afford to get behind the Ducks' high-octane attack early. Oregon, behind numerous superlative performances from Mariota, finished third in the nation in scoring (46.3 points per game) and spent much of the latter stages of the season jumping out to big leads on hapless defenses.

The Ducks held 30-3 halftime leads over Colorado and Oregon State in consecutive games in November. They also enjoyed a 23-0 halftime lead in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Arizona, a team that held the Ducks to 24 total points earlier in the year.

The turnover battle will be key to watch in this game. The Seminoles forced their fair share of turnovers this season (24), but joke's on them, Oregon doesn't make mistakes. Mariota threw just two interceptions in 372 pass attempts, and the Ducks finished third in the country in turnover margin at plus-17.

The Ducks' ability to maintain pressure on Winston and force him into making mistakes will be key to their chances in this contest. Winston bumped the curbs an awful lot this season in commandeering the Florida State offense. After throwing just 10 picks in 2013, Winston had 17 passes end up in enemy hands this season. 

And yet, Florida State just didn't lose. Part of this is due to the weapons surrounding Winston on offense, which might be an even better crew overall than last season.

One holdover from last year's title-winning squad is tight end Nick O'Leary, a security blanket worthy of Linus van Pelt who scored six touchdowns and finished second on the team in both receptions (47) and yards (614). Rashad Greene proved to be nearly as money as Alabama's Cooper this season, racking up 93 receptions on the year.

Karlos Williams is a tough featured running back, but there is also freshman tailback Dalvin Cook, who at times seems to do more gliding out on the grass than actual running. Cook averaged 5.8 yards per carry this season and came up big in the ACC Championship Game, carrying the ball 31 times for 177 yards in the 37-35 win over Georgia Tech.

ESPN's David Hale noted on Dec. 7 that Cook was one of the best bets in college football to chew up big chunks of yardage:

He could be a problem for an Oregon defense that gave up 4.12 yards per carry this season, per NCAA.com.

Of course, the Noles' own defense will have a whole host of uber-skilled athletes to contend with when they're on the field. 

Mariota has the luxury of throwing to players like Byron Marshall, Devon Allen, Dwayne Stanford and Darren Carrington and hardly seems to rely on any given receiver to carry him through a contest. Those four wideouts had just seven 100-yard receiving games between them this season. There really isn't a specific pass-catcher for the Seminoles to hone in on and try to disrupt Mariota's flow.

Running back Royce Freeman put up 1,299 yards on the ground this season, and even if the Seminoles bottle him up, Mariota can help out his own cause and keep the Seminoles defense honest thanks to his ability to improvise on the ground. 

 

Oregon's offensive line is rather suspect, so Florida State would do well to cue up a few blitzes when possible and coax strong performances out of Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr., who will need to focus on putting pressure on Mariota while still maintaining containment. 

It's certainly a daunting task for the Seminoles to contend with this hyper-kinetic attack, but linebacker Reggie Northrup insists his team is up to the challenge.

"Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses. Oregon is a great team. There's a lot of stuff that we see that is pretty exciting. It's exciting to play them. There's a lot of stuff that we'll see that we have an edge on. You just try and clean it up," he said, via the Orlando Sentinel's Brendan Sonnone.

Florida State is chock full of professional-grade talent, but the statistics show Oregon has done quite well against teams that rank highly in the Defensive Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI), via Sonnone:

Northrup is right in implying that Oregon has not seen a defense with so many future NFL players in the lineup. And while the Ducks have not played many top-end defenses, they have faced three teams that field a similarly-ranked defense in the FEI as FSU’s:  Stanford (11th), Utah (14th) and Washington (16th).

In those contests, Oregon scored 45 points, 51 points and 45 points, respectively. When facing top-end defenses that are comparable to FSU’s, the Ducks have scored at a rate similar to their season average.

If Oregon plays as well as it usually does against top-rated defenses, don't expect the Noles to keep up in the first two quarters.

Winston's usual second-half heroics will give the Seminoles a fighting chance in this contest, but a hot start from Mariota and the Ducks will give the defense plenty of cushion to stifle a late comeback.

Prediction: Oregon 42-FSU 31

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Christian Kirk to Texas A&M: Aggies Land 5-Star WR Prospect

Texas A&M's latest big-time commit comes at wide receiver, as Saguaro standout Christian Kirk committed to the Aggies on Wednesday, according to Jason Jewell of 247 Sports:

Kirk received dozens of scholarship offers from all over the country, and he chose Texas A&M over an impressive finalist group that also included Arizona State, Auburn, UCLA and Ohio State.

As has become typical in wide receiver recruitment, Texas A&M was viewed as the favorite throughout much of the process. 247Sports' crystal ball put a 48 percent chance of Kirk signing with the Aggies as of Wednesday morning, with Arizona State a close second at 44 percent.

Since Kevin Sumlin arrived at College Station, the program has been a hotbed of pass-catching talent. Mike Evans was at times the best receiver in college football in 2013, and the team's 2014 class included Frank Iheanacho and Speedy Noil. Coupled with 2013 top recruit Ricky Seals-Jones, there may be no better crop of young receivers in the entire nation.   

Kirk is coming off a senior campaign in which he often carried the Saguaro offense. He compiled 1,187 yards and 17 touchdowns on 61 catches as a receiver, while also adding 1,692 yards and 25 touchdowns as a running back. The offense was designed around getting him the ball in any way possible and then allowing him to go to work.

Kirk, a 5-star talent who also played cornerback on defense, is considered the 27th-best player nationally by 247Sports' composite rankings in the Class of 2015. He's rated as the No. 4 receiver behind only Calvin Ridley, Tyron Johnson and Deon Cain and is considered the best player in the state of Arizona.

While he has some work to do in a few areas, Kirk is as close to an instant contributor as one can get coming out of high school. Listed at 5'10" and 191 pounds, he's not huge but possesses a steady frame and runs a 4.49 40-yard dash, per his 247Sports profile. Playing against SEC competition isn't going to result in many injury issues—even as a freshman. 

The Aggies should look to use Kirk in a Percy Harvin-esque role. He probably grades out as less of a No. 1 receiver type than someone who just makes plays every time the ball is in his hands; he's nearly as talented as a rusher as he is a receiver. Equipped with good speed and off-the-snap quickness, Kirk should be able to move back and forth between the slot and outside receiver positions.

The coaching staff will also have to work with Kirk on becoming a more consistent receiver. There is a danger here that he could become a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none prospect and frustrate with what becomes unusable talent. 

But finding ways to harness Kirk's talent is a problem plenty of teams would love to have. Already a college-ready athlete with room to grow into something special, Kirk is the exact type of recruit who can help head coach Kevin Sumlin continue diversifying his offense. The constant threat of him being able to beat opposing defenses for big plays as a receiver or running on reverses or out of the backfield makes for an interesting fit.

Now comes the hard part: proving the hype is real on the field.

 

Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter:

 

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5-Star Christian Kirk Commits to Texas A&M, What Impact Will He Have in 2015?

Christian Kirk, a 5-star athlete out of Scottsdale, Arizona, has made his commitment, and the talented wide receiver has chosen the Texas A&M Aggies for his college career.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down Kirk's game and what type of impact he'll have at Texas A&M.

What type of impact will Kirk have for the Aggies?

Check out the video and let us know!

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Gus Malzahn and Will Muschamp Are the Next Nick Saban and Lane Kiffin

Some of the most exceptional football minds who have ever nervously paced a sideline have publicly admitted that they need help. They’re tossing egos aside. They’re tapping enormous financial reserves. They’re acknowledging their weaknesses in plain sight.

As a result, help is coming. In some places, it’s already there.

The latest arms race in college football isn’t about state-of-the-art weight rooms, luxurious locker room waterfalls or excessive mass-recruiting mailers printed on premium parchment. It’s about investing in the sideline and seeking out the appropriate sidekicks required to break through.

When Auburn announced it had hired Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator last week—reportedly to the tune of $1.6 million per season, according to AL.com—it added an enormous personality to its team. It also, more importantly, addressed its most glaring weakness with a deafening response.

By adding Muschamp, the Tigers acquired the mindset and influence that has been absent of late. And to put that robust salary to good use beyond the practice fields and game days, they also landed a 5-star recruiting weapon.

"I'm excited to welcome Will back to Auburn as our new defensive coordinator," Malzahn said in a statement released by the school. "Will is a one of the top defensive minds in college football who has great passion and energy for the game. He is a tremendous addition to our staff."

That undisclosed but heady salary undoubtedly will make Muschamp the highest-paid coordinator in college football. While life as a head coach didn’t pan out in Gainesville, a buyout of more than $6 million on top of a lucrative new salary will make for a jam-packed Christmas tree in the Muschamp household.

More significant than the enormous wealth being tossed in his direction is what it signifies and the precedent it is poised to set: powerful, revenue-churning programs are diving into their rainy-day suitcases filled with cash and adding known assets without hesitation.

Although compensation for assistant coaches was already skyrocketing, this is about more than the finances attached. Larger-than-life personalities are willingly hopping in the sidecar and tossing on their helmets while giving a simultaneous thumbs-up. This is radical change from where we were not too long ago.

Following the Iron Bowl, a game in which Auburn allowed 55 points and 539 yards in a loss, it became abundantly clear that change was necessary for the Tigers. Even before this regular-season destruction, you had a sense that new leadership was likely imminent.

With competition and vacancies at Texas A&M and South Carolina—two other SEC schools with robust personalities in place, blank checks and defensive coordinator spots to fill—Auburn aggressively secured its most significant recruit of the year.

In doing so, it followed a blueprint laid out by its rival less than a year earlier.

After offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier left Alabama for Michigan following the 2013 season, Nick Saban used the opportunity created by the surprising departure to overhaul his team’s offensive philosophy.  

Lane Kiffin, seemingly untouchable and radioactive at the time, was paid the modest sum of $680,000 to reshape the Alabama offense. This yearly salary made him the No. 25 highest-paid assistant coach in 2014, according to USA Today.

At the time, the hire wasn’t given its true appreciation and dissection. It was difficult to see beyond the overall shock value of having two of the most polarizing figures operate on the same sideline for the same football factory.

“We are excited to have Lane join our staff,” Saban said in a statement when the Kiffin hire became official [via AL.com]. “He is an outstanding and creative offensive coach who has great experience both at the college and NFL level. He has a very good understanding of the game and I have always been impressed with what I saw in the games he called."

This personnel decision identified perhaps the lone weakness in Saban’s game—if you can even call it that. As brilliant as he is in so many arenas, Alabama has lacked ingenuity on the offensive side. Kiffin was brought in to change that.

More significantly, he was hired to win games like the Iron Bowl, 55-44 marathon matchups that Saban has openly anguished over. Still, even for a program that consistently attracts, recruits and develops top-tier defensive talent, the occasional shootout in this era of the sport is not inevitable.

“The way we’re headed in college football, there are going to be games like this,” Saban told ESPN.com’s Alex Scarborough following the Iron Bowl victory, bringing the Kiffin hire full circle.

Even though Kiffin will take home less than half of what defensive coordinator Kirby Smart made in 2014—the second-highest-paid coordinator, according to USA Today—his hire was significant given his high-profile, on-the-tarmac firing at USC.

He was perceived to be damaged goods, and yet, the nation’s most consistently astute evaluator of talent brought him in knowing the attention and potential scrutiny that would follow.

The decision, as it turns out, worked brilliantly. Even without a starting quarterback defined in the spring, Kiffin helped mold Blake Sims into one of the conference’s most electric talents with the helping hand of wideout Amari Cooper. Most importantly, Alabama is headed to the first College Football Playoff as the No. 1 seed.

Auburn hopes it has found its answer to Kiffin in Muschamp, an unproven commodity as a head coach—like Kiffin—but a master when it comes to his side of the ball. How these hires impact the sport’s most fascinating rivalry is certainly a story that will garner plenty of attention, although this is not a trend that will be limited to the state of Alabama.

It wasn’t long ago that $1.6 million was a robust salary for a head coach. Now, in a booming, paycheck-packed time for the sport, it’s no longer unreasonable to see teams dole out that money to coaches down the organization chart.

With so much money pouring into schools through newfound revenue streams—thanks in large part to conference-centric networks—power programs now have the financial freedom to pay coordinators like head coaches. It’s still an enormous gamble, but the financial ramifications aren’t as significant to the bottom line as they once were.

For high-profile coordinators like Muschamp and Kiffin—along with the big names to follow—latching on to a favorable coordinator job in a well-funded program offers tremendous perks.

Beyond the obvious dollar signs, it offers a far less pressure-packed spotlight from which to polish a tarnished image. It’s a place to reboot and regroup. While expectations will remain robust, they’ll be tempered in their new role.

And for the leaders of these enormous businesses, the prospects of teaming up and putting all emotionally driven interests aside has become a no-brainer. Hiring the premier specialists to work their magic is not a knock at their own value as head coach; if anything, this open conversation only drives home just how much winning matters.

Job security, more than anything, is what Saban, Malzahn and the next batch of coaches are after. It’s why they’re seeking out the appropriate tag-team member and, in many ways, their anti-self.

The personalities will get bigger, and the paychecks will continue to blossom. The state of Alabama is ahead of the curve in college football’s wingman era, but it likely won’t be for long.

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Why Arizona State Is Poised to Shock the College Football World in 2015

Here's what Arizona State could be without in 2015: its starting quarterback, leading receiver, leading rusher, leading tackler and sack leader. 

Still, because of the experience on the roster, the Sun Devils could surprise everyone and win the Pac-12. Think it's impossible? Who saw Arizona as this season's Pac-12 South champions with a starting 22 full of freshmen and sophomores?

College football is good for at least one or two teams to come out of nowhere in any given season. Arizona State has developed a strong reputation under head coach Todd Graham, but Arizona and USC should be strong candidates to be preseason Pac-12 South favorites. 

That leaves the Sun Devils with a lot to prove. Here's how they get it done. 

 

Offense: Replacing Offensive Weapons is Key

Making assumptions is dangerous. With that in mind, let's make one anyway. 

Wide receiver Jaelen Strong and running back D.J. Foster haven't officially declared for the NFL yet. As Doug Haller of azcentral.com reports, however, both have submitted feedback on their prospects:

A small group of ASU players – including Strong – have requested feedback from the NFL Draft advisory board. They have not yet heard back. Players have until Jan. 15 to apply for the draft. The NFL is scheduled to release the official list of underclassmen Jan. 19.

For what it's worth, B/R's Matt Miller listed Strong as the No. 6 receiver in this year's draft, but he does not have Foster ranked among top running backs. To have one or both of those players return for one more year would obviously be a huge boost for Arizona State.

In the event that doesn't happen, though, the Sun Devils should still be in good shape at the skill positions. 

Arizona State would lose two things from Strong: production (75 catches, 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns) and the ability to make highlight-reel catches. The receiving group can pick up where it left off in at least one of those categories.

Cameron Smith, Gary Chambers, Ellis Jefferson and tight end Kody Kohl combined to catch 74 passes and 14 touchdowns. With the exception of Chambers, that group is made up of freshmen and sophomores. 

Potentially replacing Foster could be its own challenge because of the versatility he brought to the offense as a running back and receiver out of the backfield. As a freshman, though, Demario Richard was second on the team with 437 yards and rushed for two touchdowns. Graham told Tyler Lockman of Fox Sports Arizona that he's been impressed with Richard's ability to perform in crucial situations: 

It's hard for a young man that's 17 or 18 years old to come in here and do that. I'm really proud of his mental maturity and his toughness. That's the thing that has really impressed me -- his durability and toughness. We knew he was a great back, and he's really done well.

Interestingly, perhaps the position of least concern is quarterback. Taylor Kelly will depart, but junior Mike Bercovici played well in three starts this season while Kelly nursed a foot injury. Bercovici doesn't bring the same mobility to the quarterback spot that Kelly does, but he can sling the ball. According to his ASU profile, Bercovici's 488 passing yards against UCLA were the most by a Sun Devil quarterback making his first career start. 

Bercovici will be protected by an offensive line that should return most of its two-deep, minus its two tackles, Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka. The Sun Devils finished 11th in the Pac-12 with 3.08 sacks allowed per game, but they still won nine games. Barring injuries, this unit can't get much worse. 

The Sun Devils could have as many as six key contributors on offense depart, but turnover doesn't mean lack of experience. This is when Graham's recruiting efforts should mean little-to-no drop-off. 

 

Defense: Experience Must Pay Off

Whereas Arizona State's offense will have to reload, the Sun Devils defense has already gone through that transition. The knock on Arizona State heading into the 2014 season was the massive turnover on that side of the ball. Nine starters were gone, including Pac-12 defensive player of the year Will Sutton. 

The results ended up being better than expected, however. Though the numbers in major categories (points per game allowed, passing defense, etc.) were pedestrian, the Sun Devils ranked near the top of the Pac-12 in sacks per game (3.25) and tackles for loss per game (8.08). 

That aggressiveness was well-documented by Dan Wolken of USA Today in November: 

Two weeks ago in a victory against Utah, Arizona State blitzed on 68 of 78 defensive plays, often sending multiple linebackers or defensive backs. Then in last Saturday's 55-31 victory against Notre Dame, arguably the biggest win of Graham's career, Arizona State blitzed on 62 of 79 plays, disorienting quarterback Everett Golson so badly that he threw two interceptions for touchdowns and committed a pair of turnovers deep in his own territory.

Nearly all of Arizona State's defensive starters should return in 2015 to make up a junior- and senior-laden group. What little this defense does lose is noteworthy, though. Defensive end Marcus Hardison, who led the team in sacks, and safety Damarious Randall, who led the team in tackles, will be gone. 

That's where players like linebackers Salamo Fiso and Laiu Moeakiola, who combined for 21.5 tackles for loss, have to step up. 

 

Schedule: Important Home Games

The Pac-12 has established itself as arguably the second-best conference in college football next to the SEC. Particularly, the Pac-12 South was deep in 2014 with five bowl-bound teams with at least eight wins.

It's in a tough division, but Arizona State has a schedule that sets up nicely next season. Sometimes that's a necessary part of a title run.

USC, Oregon, Washington and Arizona all come to Tempe, per FBSchedules.com. Additionally, the Sun Devils have an attractive and potentially playoff-enticing nonconference game against Texas A&M in Houston in Week 1.

Every year is different, but the Pac-12 could set itself up again to where a one-loss team is playoff-bound. With a reloaded offense and a more experienced defense, Arizona State has the makeup of a team that can surpass expectations despite losing its statistically best players. 

 

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

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Why Arizona State Is Poised to Shock the College Football World in 2015

Here's what Arizona State could be without in 2015: its starting quarterback, leading receiver, leading rusher, leading tackler and sack leader...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

How D.J. Jones' Flip from FSU to Ole Miss Impacts Recruiting Landscape

Florida State held a commitment from top-ranked junior college defensive tackle D.J. Jones for five months. The Seminoles fell short of sealing the deal, as the 4-star standout flipped to Ole Miss on Wednesday morning and signed a national letter of intent to join the Rebels in 2015, per David Johnson of 247Sports.

Jones, who initially pledged to the defending national champions in July, was considered one of the top prospects up for grabs on JUCO national signing day. He rates sixth nationally among all JUCO recruits in 247Sports' composite rankings and fielded scholarship offers from more than 15 college teams.

Despite his longstanding verbal pact with Florida State, other options gradually entered the picture. His signing ceremony featured three team hats on the table—Florida State, South Carolina and Ole Miss:

The loss creates a hole along the defensive interior for Jimbo Fisher's 2015 class. The group currently includes 5-star defenders Josh Sweat, Tarvarus McFadden and Derwin James, but Jones played a crucial role as a lane-clogger and penetrative tackle, along with 4-star commit Darvin Taylor.

With the 6'2", 310-pound playmaker headed to Oxford, Florida State must search elsewhere as high school signing day approaches. 

Illinois 5-star defensive end Terry Beckner probably tops the list. The 6'4", 293-pound East St. Louis High School senior is rated 16th overall in 247Sports' composite rankings. 

He's a versatile lineman capable of rushing the quarterback off the edge or sliding inside to take on inside rushing efforts. Beckner tallied 118 tackles, nine sacks and two interceptions as a junior and overwhelmed elite offensive linemen this summer at The Opening, an invite-only prospect showcase held at Nike's world headquarters.

Florida State has stayed persistent in this pursuit, which becomes substantially more critical with Jones out of the equation. Beckner, who spent an official visit in Tallahassee last month, is projected to sign with Missouri by 74 percent of expert predictions in 247Sports' Crystal Ball.

Beyond Beckner, the Seminoles could ramp up efforts to reel in Canadian defensive tackle Neville Gallimore, who traveled to Florida State in October for an official visit.

Meanwhile, Ole Miss is in prime position to capitalize on the big addition. The Rebels are believed to be a favorite for 5-star Florida defensive end CeCe Jefferson.

The team's sales pitch to Jefferson and other edge-rushes becomes increasingly more compelling given Jones' elite skill set inside. 

Ole Miss also signed top-ranked JUCO defensive back Tony Bridges, a former Auburn commit, on Wednesday. The Rebels currently hold the country's No. 16 recruiting class in 247Sports' composite rankings.

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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D.J. Jones to Ole Miss: Rebels Land 4-Star DT Prospect

Defensive tackle D.J. Jones has been pursued by many of the top programs in major college football over the past several months, but the JUCO transfer has finally made a decision.

According to Yancy Porter of Scout.com, the East Mississippi Community College standout has officially signed with Ole Miss:

The 6'2", 310-pound Jones is a four-star prospect, per 247Sports, and he ranks as the No. 1 recruit at his position.

He was being pursued most heavily by Ole Miss, Florida State, Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina, according to 247Sports. The recruiting process went down to the wire despite the fact that he initially committed to playing for the Seminoles back in July, as evidenced by this tweet:

As those involved with college football know all too well, though, verbal commitments don't guarantee anything. Just a couple months after announcing his intent to play at Florida State, Jones made it clear that he hadn't stopped exploring other options, according to Phil Kornblut of The Post and Courier:

"(My commitment strength is) about medium. Still trying to feel some teams out, including FSU," Jones said.

Less than a week before his final decision, Jones revealed that all of his top suitors still had an opportunity to secure him, per Patrick Ochs of The Sun Herald.

"All five schools have a chance to get me," he said. "There's not really a spread between Ole Miss and Florida State or Alabama and Florida State, I just feel like all five have a chance."

Jones certainly won't be accused of making a rash decision as he certainly took the time to explore all of his options. Regardless of his choice, though, he seems like the type of player who is destined to be successful.

He has all the physical tools necessary to be a star at the highest collegiate level, and the fact that he has some junior college experience under his belt should help him in terms of stepping in and contributing immediately.

With so many elite programs attempting to land Jones, expectations will be through the roof. As long as he can manage them, though, all signs point toward him being as a good as advertised.

 

Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter

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Watch Heisman Finalist Melvin Gordon Predict 1st College Football Playoff

Melvin Gordon and the Wisconsin Badgers are on the outside looking in when it comes to the College Football Playoff, but that doesn't mean he can't predict who he thinks will win it all.

Bleacher Report caught up with the Heisman finalist to get his thoughts on the playoff.

Who will win it all: Oregon, Alabama, Ohio State or Florida State?

Check out the video and let us know!  

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Bleacher Report Expert Picks for Every 2014-15 College Football Bowl Game

Bowl season is the most wonderful time of year, and this year's slate of bowl games will bring you a compelling matchup nearly every day for three straight weeks.

From the national semifinals between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State, and No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State, to the seemingly annual Gildan New Mexico Bowl shenanigans, if you miss a minute of bowl action this holiday season, you could miss the play people talk about for the next eight months.

B/R's experts picked against the spread all season long. Unfortunately, Ben Kercheval, Adam Kramer and Barrett Sallee played to a three-way tie at the end of the regular season. The good news is that "co-champions" don't exist in the world of picking against the spread.

To keep the fun going, let's determine "one true champion" with the bowl games.

 

Standings

Ben Kercheval: 41-35

Adam Kramer: 41-35

Barrett Sallee: 41-35

Michael Felder: 35-41

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Which 2015 Recruit Is Most Likely to Win the Heisman Trophy?

The 2015 college football recruiting class boasts an impressive cast of athletes who are sure to have an immediate impact on their respective teams. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer give their picks for the 2015 recruit who has the best chance to win the Heisman Trophy. 

Which one of these recruits do you think can win the Heisman?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Watch 5-Star Alabama Commit Go Goal Line to Goal Line on Spectacular Punt Return

Deionte Thompson is a 5-star wide receiver, per 247Sports' composite rankings, and he is committed to Alabama. Watch Thompson make this team look silly with a sensational punt return.

Was this the best punt return of the week?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Penn State Will Land Monster 2015 Recruits in First Class Since Sanctions Lifted

With sanctions being lifted, Penn State coach James Franklin has full use of his scholarships back, and he is making a splash on the recruiting field.

The Nittany Lions are bringing in several top recruits to bolster their depleted roster.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder and Adam Kramer discuss the Penn State recruiting class and what is in store for the Nittany Lions. 

Will James Franklin bring Penn State back to glory? Check out the video and let us know!

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How Bowl Season Remains Relevant in the College Football Playoff Era

There is a lot of leverage to be had this bowl season. And a lot of leverage to be lost.   

Bowl game results will not fade easily. The conference lobbyists will make sure of it.

If TCU stomps into Atlanta and its offense picks apart Ole Miss and its Land Shark Defense, the Big 12 is not going to let anybody forget it over the next eight months. Same with Baylor against Michigan State.

TCU will still have quarterback Trevone Boykin in 2015, and will want to be able to remind one and all what it did to the SEC. Baylor won't have quarterback Bryce Petty next fall, but that is not going to stop the Big 12 from claiming it got hosed—as long as its teams win the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and the Cotton Bowl.

If Florida State handles Oregon and then beats the winner of Ohio State-Alabama, the ACC is going to convene its 2015 preseason media event with banners pinned up proclaiming "Not the same old ACC."

FSU had to win some conference squeakers in 2014, and the ACC claimed that it was a better conference than people gave it credit for and that it had closed a wide gap with the SEC-like 'Noles.

It would have proof with another FSU national title. "They had tougher games in conference than with a bunch of Ducks," the choir will sing.

So, for the sake of the ACC, Clemson also better deal with Oklahoma, Louisville has to beat Georgia and Georgia Tech better show up big against Mississippi State.

Of course, if there is a Big 12 dumpster fire, if Ole Miss beats TCU, the committee will be vindicated. There could be—but probably wouldn't be—less grumbling over the CFP methods if it turned out it had TCU pegged accurately all along as a fringe contender in 2014. Same with Baylor.

I don't imagine chairman Jeff Long will hop on one of those conference calls with media next November after the release of a Tuesday vote, listen to a question about the committee's incompetency and say, "Well, you think we effed it up last year, and we didn't". He might not say it, but he might think it.

That's how it is going to work from now on. For a few weeks in August 2015, we are going to reference back to the 2014 bowl season, and remind the CFP they are imbeciles or they are lucky/smart they got it right. "Did you see Boykin dazzle against the baddest men on the planet, an SEC defensive line? How could those CFP imbeciles have left them out." It's going to happen.

If it wins, TCU is going to roll forward next season with the benefit of the doubt if it is involved in another close race for final four.

There was too much furor over the CFP rankings for us to ignore the meaning of the 2014 bowls. Bowl bias is going to be created, and it is going to carry over. There is no such thing as a clean slate. People are not robots.

What about SEC bias? It lives off past results. It was evident when Texas A&M jumped into the top 10 after hammering South Carolina. The Aggies didn't belong there. SEC bias lived magnificently when Auburn got in the top four with a wobbly defense.

Bias is inherent in college football. Why do you think so many people thought that if the names on the front of the jersey said "Oklahoma" or "Texas," the Big 12 would have been in the final four?

The SEC is favored in nine of its 12 bowl games, according to Odd Shark. If it goes 6-6 this bowl season, the light will come on to some folks in denial. "Hey, maybe the SEC really is down because it is losing too many junior stars and not developing quarterbacks." That will carry over to 2015. An idea will percolate. Committee members will be out and about. They will hear it, they will and remember it.

I know, the College Football Playoff Committee does not issue its rankings until late October so programs have a chance to forge new identities based on the current season, not the previous season or the preseason polls. The CFP also doesn't have to look foolish like the rest of us (me), who thought Oklahoma was a national championship contender, or those people (you) who considered Texas A&M a powerhouse, or others (SEC fans everywhere) who were convinced the SEC would have two in the first final four.

There will not be a clean slate from 2014 to 2015. It just won't happen. There will be some residue from the 2014 season's bowl games. People are human. They will trace back over their handiwork and say, "Did I discount the Big 12 too much? The ACC?" Damn, I don't want to make that mistake again. I guarantee the committee is looking for validation with these bowl games and final four matchups. What if they don't get that validation?

The committee thought the ACC was weak. It thought the Big 12 was unworthy. Preconceived prejudices are everywhere in college football, and they are hard to kill. Why do you think Florida State was bounced up and down the rankings in 2014? The Seminoles were expected to win by 39 points in the ACC, just like they did in 2013. When they didn't, we thought the 2014 'Noles were far inferior to the national champions of 2013, and the CFP kept scratching its head over these guys in the weekly rankings. There were some automatic thoughts, I guarantee it, that the ACC was weak and FSU, if it was any good, should have plowed the ACC.

So, what if Clemson or Georgia Tech or Louisville win their bowl games? The ACC and the strength of schedule it presents will be looked at in a different light in 2015. I guarantee it. There will be less skepticism of the ACC in 2015.

Oklahoma wouldn't let us forget it beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl last January. TCU won't let us forget. Baylor won't let us forget, neither will the ACC. If the SEC wins all nine of the games it is favored in, it is going to remind one and all that it is still Goliath.

The perceptions created this bowl season are going to stick around for a while, especially if there are some decisive wins one way or another. Score one more for the College Football Playoff.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report. He has covered college football and various other sports for 20 years. His work has appeared in USA TodayThe New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is the author of How the SEC Became Goliath (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2013).

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Connor Cook Returning to Michigan State Makes Sparty a Strong 2015 Playoff Team

Connor Cook indicated Tuesday that he will forego the NFL draft and return to Michigan State for his senior season. If he does, the Spartans will have taken their first major step toward competing with Ohio State in the Big Ten East and contending for the 2015 College Football Playoff.

Cook is a 6'4" quarterback whose name has been floated as a potential first-round draft pick. But he said he wants to stay in school because he has "unfinished business" that he wants to accomplish, per Noah Trister of The Associated Press.

The news is not official but appears to be headed that direction. Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press spoke with Cook's father, who said his son's return, while likely, is not quite 100 percent certain:

Cook finished with 2,900 passing yards, 22 touchdowns and six interceptions this regular season, improving his efficiency from 135.5 as a sophomore to 152.4. His completion percentage (58.2) stayed the same, but his yards per attempt (9.0) rose dramatically.

The Spartans are set to lose 1,300-yard running back Jeremy Langford and 1,100-yard receiver Tony Lippett this offseason and might have regressed to the dark ages—i.e., the Andrew Maxwell era—had Cook left for the NFL with them.

But now? They should remain a conference favorite.

Cook was improved but far from perfect in 2014, chasing NFL-caliber throws with occasional easy misses. Another offseason to work on his mechanics should improve his repetitive accuracy.

But the real reason Cook is so vital is because of leadership. The defense regressed when Darqueze Dennard, Max Bullough, Denicos Allen and Isaiah Lewis left this past offseason. It's fair to guess that losing Langford, Lippett and (most importantly) Cook would have had the same effect on the opposite side of the ball.

Cook played two of the best games of his career in the 2013 Big Ten Championship and the 2014 Rose Bowl, the latter against a tough-as-nails Stanford defense. He also played well at Oregon this past season and showed the cajones of a leader against Michigan:

Cook's return ensures the Spartans will be good next season, but it doesn't ensure the Spartans will be great. And the difference between good and great comes down to something independent of Cook: the players who have yet to decide on their immediate NFL future.

Defensive end Shilique Calhoun said he hasn't really thought about going pro, per Trister, and cornerback Trae Waynes and left tackle Jack Conklin are also candidates to make the leap.

All three of those players have a chance to be selected in the first round (Calhoun and Waynes more likely than Conklin). They would all make the preseason All-Big Ten team next season. Losing all three would turn making the playoff into a semi-unrealistic goal.

But as long as Cook returns, it's possible. He has a chance to be the top quarterback in college football next season, depending on who does and doesn't declare for the NFL draft. He won't post gaudy numbers—that is simply not Michigan State's style—but he makes throws few other college quarterbacks can make. And he's more mobile than he's often given credit for.

Marcus Mariota led the nation in passer rating and won the Heisman Trophy this season. J.T. Barrett (before getting injured) finished No. 3 in passer rating and was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Blake Sims finished No. 7 in passer rating. And Jameis Winston, despite a lower passer rating, is a former Heisman winner himself.

All four of those quarterbacks made the playoff.

To wit, the correlation between great QB play and success is not overstated. Michigan State would have needed a magical defense such as 2013's to make the playoff without Cook under center. And next year's defense, which should be very good, will not be that magical.

But the offense has a chance to be just as good as this year's, which finished No. 15 in Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings.

Lippett and Keith Mumphery will be gone, but slot receiver Macgarrett Kings Jr. and tight end Josiah Price should return. And to replace Lippett and Mumphery, the Spartans have no shortage of high-upside options, chief among them former top-100 recruit Aaron Burbridge.

Burbridge won the Tommy Love Award as the most improved offensive player on the team, per Rexrode. He is 6'2" and toolsey but has maddened Spartans fans with his inconsistency. But would it really be so crazy for him to break out as Cook's No. 1 receiver during his senior year next season?

The talent is certainly there.

Michigan State has a difficult schedule that once again features Oregon (this time at home) and Ohio State (this time on the road) next season. It also features road trips to Michigan and Nebraska and nonconference games against three more teams—Western Michigan, Air Force and Central Michigan—that made a bowl game in 2014.

The road will be tough, but an 11-1 record against a quality schedule would be enough to get Sparty into the playoff conversation. And as daunting as a trip to Columbus sounds, it's not unwinnable.

The only Big Ten team Urban Meyer has lost to in his three years with the Buckeyes was Michigan State. The only quarterback he's lost to was Cook. And that was back when Cook was just a sophomore.

Imagine what he might do as a senior.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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Meet Jovon Robinson, Auburn's Next Offensive Star from the JUCO Ranks

AUBURN, Ala. — For Auburn, offensive success and junior college stars have gone hand-in-hand for the last few seasons.

The tradition started with Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton in 2010 and ramped up in 2013 and 2014 with quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and wide receiver D'haquille Williams.

So as Marshall and Artis-Payne—and possibly Williams—prepare for their last game with the program this week, it's only fitting that they're being joined by the next dynamic playmaker from the JUCO ranks.

Five-star running back Jovon Robinson, the nation's No. 1 junior college player, enrolled at Auburn over the weekend and joined the Tigers for the start of Outback Bowl preparations as an early enrollee Monday afternoon.

"He got some (reps)," Malzahn said Monday afternoon. "He just got here. We're just trying to get him slowly acclimated and everything that goes with it."

Robinson might be coming along slow, but he wasted no time in showing his new teammates what he can do with the ball in his hands.

Robinson's arrival is perfect timing for Auburn's backfield, which loses seniors Artis-Payne and Corey Grant after the Outback Bowl.

Freshman Roc Thomas and 4-star commitment Kerryon Johnson project as speed backs in Malzahn's system, leaving a hole at the every-down role that Tre Mason and Artis-Payne have held the last two seasons.

Mason and Artis-Payne took that responsibility and became the SEC's top running backs for their respective seasons, and Robinson has the talent to make it three in a row in 2015.

At 6'0" and 238 pounds, he has the ideal build for a power back, but 247Sports' Keith Niebuhr said he could be the all-around runner Auburn desires for the 2015 season:

Not only can he get around the edge and produce big-gainers, he can be that tough runner in between the tackles. ... He runs with power, and with a purpose. The bonus with Robinson is the fact he can catch the ball out of the backfield and make things happen downfield in space. Because of that versatility, he truly can be an every down back in the Gus Malzahn offense at Auburn.

We don’t say this often, but there really aren’t any holes in his game.

To make the situation even better for Auburn, he gets eight extra practices during bowl season on top of the additional work he would gain during camp next spring.

"It gets him acclimated and gets him around our guys more than anything," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "We know and think that he’s got a lot of upside."

Of course, Auburn has been familiar with Robinson's upside for several years now.

While the program's former JUCO stars were brand new to the Plains when they enrolled on campus, Robinson has a unique backstory.

His time out on Auburn's practice field Monday afternoon was not the first time he put on the trademark white helmet as a member of the Tigers.

Robinson was a part of Auburn's recruiting class of 2012 as a 4-star back out of Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee. He signed, enrolled and began practice on Auburn's squad later that year, only to be declared ineligible a week into fall camp after an NCAA investigation revealed at least one of his grades in high school were changed.

Robinson landed at Georgia Military College in 2013 and jumped back onto the national radar by breaking the national junior college record for rushing yards in a season:

Despite a strong push from in-state rival Alabama, Robinson recommitted to Auburn in May and stayed solid to his pledge throughout his sophomore season at GMC.

“Everybody knows I’m committed to Auburn," Robinson told 247Sports (subscription required) in September. "I’m still being recruited by Alabama and all those other schools, but the coaches know where I want to go. I know where I want to go. You know where I want to go."

With a lot of changes coming to the Tigers' offensive depth chart this upcoming offseason, Robinson's decision is already paying off with a head start at becoming the No. 1 back for his new team.

"It’s huge," Lashlee said. "He gets a head start learning the terminology and learning the system and actually going and doing it before we get to March."

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Oliver Luck Leaves West Virginia to Take Job with NCAA

West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, who also serves on the College Football Playoff selection committee, is reportedly set to leave his post to take on a prominent role with the NCAA. The organization announced the move Wednesday:

The NCAA has hired Oliver Luck as the executive vice president of regulatory affairs, a new position that will bring the national office regulatory functions – academic and membership affairs, the Eligibility Center and enforcement – under one umbrella. 

[...]

"I am very pleased to have Oliver joining our team in the national office,” said [NCAA President Mark] Emmert. “He brings to us wide ranging, hands-on experience from across athletic, academic, and business worlds. Most important, his commitment to the success and well-being of our student-athletes is unquestionable. He has demonstrated that commitment on the ground and throughout his life. I'm anxious for him to get started with us."

Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail  first reported the news:

He also provided further details about Luck's expected role as second in command:

Luck talked about the move, according to the official announcement:

This is a time of fundamental change in intercollegiate athletics that will set the foundation for the years ahead. The challenges both internal and external to the NCAA present a unique opportunity to help shape the landscape for hundreds of thousands of young men and women. It is an honor to join President Emmert, the NCAA staff, and our member institutions in this journey. I look forward to partnering with campus executives, administrators, coaches and student-athletes, to enhance the intercollegiate athletics experience.

In terms of Luck's role on the selection committee, Joe Schad of ESPN passed along comments from CFP executive director Bill Hancock:

Luck has served as the athletic director at West Virginia since 2010. He oversaw the program's move to the Big 12 Conference and made the decision to promote Dana Holgorsen to head football coach, among other notable changes.

He's the father of current Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. NCAA headquarters is also located in Indianapolis.

Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated believes Luck will bring some ideas for progress to his new job, but doesn't sound convinced change will come easy:

The NCAA has been a major target of criticism in recent years for a wide range of reasons. Hiring Luck suggests the organization knows it at least needs to consider fresh ideas. The question is exactly how much power he'll possess in this newly created position and how much change he can enact.

A clearer outlook should emerge once Luck gets down to business in the position. The College Football Playoff will also need a new Big 12 representative if it's going to maintain its current structure.

 

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A New Beginning: The Ultimate College Football Playoff Hype Tape

The College Football Playoff is finally here. The Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the Ohio State Buckeyes.  The Florida State Seminoles vs. the Oregon Ducks. Reigning national champions, Heisman Trophy winners and storied programs will battle it out for a spot in the record books. 

Take a look at the ultimate hype tape for the first-ever College Football Playoff. 

Who will comes out on top?

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Can Ohio State Shut Down Another Heisman Finalist in Amari Cooper?

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In order to make it into the first ever College Football Playoff, Ohio State first had to stop a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Now to advance in it, the Buckeyes are going to need to shut down another.

Limiting Melvin Gordon to 76 rushing yards in the Big Ten Championship Game, Ohio State effectively brought an end to the Wisconsin running back's Heisman chances while simultaneously clinching its spot in college football's final four.

Gordon would go on to finish second behind Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota in Heisman voting, one spot ahead of the only other player invited to New York City as a finalist for college football's most prestigious award.

That would be Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, whose Crimson Tide will take on the Buckeyes in the playoff semifinal game that is the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

While he may have finished third in Heisman voting, you'd be hard-pressed to find a player who's been more dominant than Cooper has been in 2014.

"He's one of the best receivers ever to play college football," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said.

The numbers back up that sentiment, as Cooper's 115 receptions and 1,656 yards currently rank 21st and 25th, respectively, on college football's all-time single-season lists.

Should he reach his averages of 8.8 catches and 127.4 yards per game in the Sugar Bowl, Cooper would slide into 15th and 10th place, respectively, in the record books, with a potential appearance in the National Championship Game looming.

In fact, if Cooper reaches those numbers, a trip to Arlington, Texas for Alabama would likely be more than just a possibility. It's not a coincidence that the Crimson Tide possess one of their most potent passing attacks in recent memory despite less than standout play from senior quarterback Blake Sims.

The Buckeyes know this, which is why when their attention turned toward Alabama, it simultaneously turned to Cooper.

The versatility of the 6'1", 210-pounder is what stands out to Meyer most, as Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has made use of his team's best player in both the short and deep passing games alike.

"They use him as a matchup guy in screens and quick screens," Meyer said of Cooper. "But they also—obviously he's the best downfield threat there is in the game right now."

This is obvious, as evidenced by Cooper's three 200-plus-yard receiving games and hauls of 75, 79 and 80 yards in separate games.

The 2014 Biletnikoff Award winner will head to New Orleans with no shortage of momentum either, having tallied 13 receptions for 224 yards and three touchdowns in the Iron Bowl against Auburn, and 12 catches for 83 yards in the SEC Championship Game versus Missouri.

If ever there was a test to see how far the Ohio State pass defense has come in the past year, this would be it, after the Buckeyes surrendered 16 receptions, 227 yards and two touchdowns to Clemson's Sammy Watkins in last season's loss to the Tigers in the Orange Bowl.

OSU has seen significant improvement in its secondary this season, moving from 112th (267 yards per game) to 17th (188.2 YPG) in pass defense, but the Buckeyes are yet to have faced a receiver as talented as Cooper.

"Amari is not worthy of anyone comparing him to anybody else," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after his team's win over Auburn on Nov. 29. "He is Amari Cooper. He has his own style. He's a very competitive guy who works really, really hard. Has really good speed getting in and out of breaks. Works hard in the game to get open. Does a good job of executing, has made a lot of really big plays for us this year."

Containing a player of Cooper's caliber will take a group effort from Ohio State, but if there's one Buckeyes defensive back to keep an eye on, it's cornerback Doran Grant.

A first-team All-Big Ten selection this season, Grant has grown into one of Ohio State's most reliable defensive players, tallying nine pass breakups and five interceptions on the year.

Although Cooper will be the best player that Grant has matched up with this season, the Akron, Ohio native has reason to remain confident heading into the Buckeyes' battle in the Bayou.

After all, Grant did a more than admirable job in his toughest test of the season to this point, limiting Michigan State wideout Tony Lippett to just five catches for 64 yards in OSU's Nov. 8 showdown with the Spartans.

That marked the Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year's second-lowest output in a game in which he did not score a touchdown this season and played an essential role in the Buckeyes' season-defining victory.

"He was chirping off at the mouth from the beginning," Grant said of Lippett after OSU's 49-37 win in East Lansing. "But then as the game started going, he was like, 'Hold up.'"

Trash talk shouldn't be an issue with Cooper, who is perhaps known as much for his quiet nature as he is for his big-play ability. Throughout his historic junior campaign, the Miami native has let his play do the talking, although that alone has made plenty of noise.

“He is sort of a quiet guy when it comes to how he plays," Saban said in September. “He’s the complete package when it comes to a guy that is a pretty complete player.”

But as the Buckeyes showed with Gordon—and to a lesser degree, Lippett—they've had a knack for bottling up the elite players that they've faced thus far.

Should Ohio State do the same with Cooper, it will likely find itself playing for the national championship a week later, where waiting for the Buckeyes in Arlington will either be Mariota's second-ranked Ducks or last season's Heisman Trophy winner in Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

In other words, to win a national title, Ohio State is going to have to pull off a Heisman finalist trifecta. Welcome to the playoff age of college football.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Georgia Football: Returning Stars Are Richt's Best Recruits and Sign of Progress

According to 247Sports, the Georgia Bulldogs' 2015 recruiting class is ranked third in the nation. While that's an impressive feat, it's not necessarily the best barometer of the program as a whole.

Further, Mark Richt's best recruits for the 2015 season aren't new enrollees. Instead, they're established stars with NFL potential, and their decisions to stay in Athens are signs of progress.

To be sure, Georgia's 2015 recruiting class is talented. But those potential stars are still very much unknown quantities.

To the contrary, Leonard Floyd, Malcolm Mitchell and John Theus—all of whom were announced as returning last weekend, according to Seth Emerson of The Telegraph—are well-established as strong components of Georgia's roster. So is Jordan Jenkins, who is likely returning.

The returns of Floyd and Jenkins ensure stability for a defense that has been defined primarily by turnover as of late.

More practically speaking, Floyd and Jenkins will once again lead a fierce Georgia pass rush in conjunction with emerging star Lorenzo Carter.

Floyd and Jenkins, who have combined for 27 career sacks and 47 tackles for loss, had NFL opportunities this season. Case in point: Floyd was regarded as one of the 20 best draft-eligible prospects, per ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. (subscription required).

Their decisions to return were undoubtedly influenced by defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and the strides the defense took during his first year at the helm.

On the other side of the ball, John Theus's return at the tackle position, where he's started 34 games over the past three seasons, guarantees an offensive line that is largely intact.

Yes, senior leader David Andrews will be gone and the vacant center position will be a point of concern in his absence. However, Georgia returns four starters along the offensive line, and Theus—who started as a true freshman and has remained foundational to the unit—is the most talented of the bunch.

A strong offensive line bodes well for the Bulldog offense as a whole. Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and a presumably healthy Keith Marshall will benefit greatly from experience up front while keeping Georgia's ground attack in peak form.

Regardless of who claims the starting quarterback spot—Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta or Jacob Park—protection from Theus and the rest of the crew will prove vital.

Equally significant is the return of Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell, who missed almost all of 2013 and much of 2014 with a knee injury, came on strong over the closing weeks of the season. In Georgia's final four games, he notched three touchdown catches and hauled in at least four passes in half of his appearances this year.

With Mitchell, however, Georgia isn't hoping for a return to recent form.

Rather, the Bulldogs are hoping that his recent solid play is indicative of a return to his early-career production. As a true freshman, Mitchell caught 45 passes for 665 yards. As a sophomore, he added another 572 receiving yards despite splitting time at defensive back.

With Floyd, Jenkins, Theus and Mitchell, proven, game-changing talent is coming back for Georgia. That much is known.

Incoming freshmen may or may not come ready to play in 2015, but Theus did in 2012 and he's still ready. Trent Thompson looks likely to live up to the hype in collapsing pockets from his defensive tackle position, and he may contribute as a freshman in 2015.

But what Floyd and Jenkins can do is already known. A number of talented incoming recruits may help Georgia's passing attack in 2015, but none has demonstrated game-breaking ability like Mitchell.

Even more encouraging is the underlying motivation for the stars' returns.

Conventionally speaking, there are two common reasons for bypassing the NFL draft.

First, and perhaps most obviously, is the need to improve as player. Interestingly enough, even players like Theus (a three-year starter) and Floyd (a projected high-round pick) see value in self-improvement at Georgia. That's a testament to the coaching staff.

The second motivation is the desire to achieve more as a team. Put bluntly: These players aren't coming back to lose games.

Whether their desire to finish strong comes to fruition remains to be seen, but at the very least, it is a sign of good things to come that established team leaders think more can—and will—be accomplished.

 

Unless otherwise noted all quotes obtained firsthand and all stats courtesy of Sports-Reference.com.

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