NCAA Football

Bowl Projections 2014: Playoff Predictions and Championship Odds

Weeks of heated debate led to this. The selection committee unveiled its final College Football Playoff rankings on Sunday, with Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State occupying the top four seeds.

Fans and analysts projected potential semifinal matchups over the past couple of months, but now everybody has something tangible to sink his or her teeth into and examine. The Crimson Tide and Buckeyes will meet in the Rose Bowl, with the Seminoles and Ducks facing off in the Sugar Bowl.

Both games are worthy of being a national championship, and you can see any one of the quartet emerging as the last team standing. That's evident in the relative closeness of their odds to win the national championship. (Note: Championship odds are courtesy of Vegas Insider.)

Below, you'll find brief previews for this year's semifinals.

 

Sugar Bowl

No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes

It may sound reductive, but this game will likely come down to who has the better quarterback.

When teams throw Blake Sims out of his comfort zone, Alabama's offense takes a step back. Some of Sims' worst performances this year have coincided with the Crimson Tide's closest games.

The senior quarterback was 19-of-31 for 228 yards and an interception in the 23-17 loss to Ole Miss. In the narrow victories over Arkansas and LSU, he was a combined 31-of-66 for 370 yards.

Jacob Coker nearly replaced Sims early in the third quarter of the Iron Bowl, at which point the Tigers led 33-21. Sims eventually recovered and Alabama outscored Auburn 34-18 in the second half. It was a real Jekyll-and-Hyde performance.

Before the SEC title game, 'Bama head coach Nick Saban alluded to how important it is for Sims to maintain his composure and remain confident on the field, via Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman:

On the other side, you've got Cardale Jones, who, despite his performance in the Big Ten Championship Game, remains largely untested in such a high-pressure situation. He's attempted 36 passes in his college career, 17 of which came against Wisconsin.

We're talking about a quarterback making his second career start in a national semifinal game against the top-ranked team in the country. That raises a red flag no matter what Jones did in his first start.

On the other hand, you could spin Jones' inexperience in a positive way. As Aaron Suttles of TideSports.com noted, the Tide staff doesn't have a ton of tape from which to devise a defensive game plan:

Jones isn't a carbon copy of J.T. Barrett, either, which means Saban can't expect to see the same offense Ohio State used the entire season. Plus, the Buckeyes' dominant performance against the Badgers meant Urban Meyer didn't have to open up his entire playbook and use a bunch of different looks with Jones.

That element of surprise could play majorly in OSU's favor.

You can't beat a team as good as Alabama with shaky quarterback play. Missouri, Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M all learned that the hard way. Jones doesn't have to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns, but he can't complete fewer than 50 percent of his passes and have more interceptions than he does touchdowns.

Similarly, Sims can't let his emotions override his brain. That's when he makes silly mistakes and tries to force throws that aren't really there.

"Sometimes, it's a big game, and he starts putting a lot pressure on himself, and he gets a little anxious," Saban said of his QB, per ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough. "I don't think he really processes and makes as good of decisions when he gets like that."

Alabama has one of the most efficient offenses in the country when Sims is on his game. When he's not, you get the first half against Auburn.

In a head-to-head battle between Jones and Sims, you give the slight edge to Sims. Neither team owns a discernible advantage over the other, so Sims outshining Jones could well decide the outcome.

Prediction: Alabama 30, Ohio State 24

 

Rose Bowl

No. 2 Oregon Ducks vs. No. 3 Florida State Seminoles

Throughout the season, Florida State's built a reputation for starting games slowly. Then head coach Jimbo Fisher makes the necessary halftime adjustments, and the Seminoles look like a different team in the second half.

So far, FSU hasn't given itself more trouble than it can handle.

Against Oregon, a slow start could be fatal. The Ducks are capable of scoring a lot of points in a short amount a time. After a few bad drives, Florida State could be looking at an early 21-0 or 24-7 hole.

Oregon turned a 7-0 deficit into a 24-7 lead over Utah in a span of 12 game minutes, while a slim 6-0 lead over Arizona became a 23-0 edge in the final seven minutes and 27 seconds of the first half in the Pac-12 title game.

If the Ducks build an early double-digit lead, they won't fade like Miami or Louisville did.

A big reason Florida State doesn't want to be staring at a massive first-half deficit is Royce Freeman. The freshman running back improved as the season went on, running for over 100 yards in each of his last three games:

Florida State's run defense hasn't exactly been stout, giving up an average of 160.1 yards a game.

The 'Noles didn't win the ACC title because they shut down the Georgia Tech running game. The Yellow Jackets rushed for 331 yards on 59 carries in a 37-35 loss.

Between Freeman and Marcus Mariota, Oregon could carve up the Seminoles defense.

For Florida State, the game plan starts with slowing down Mariota. He's the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy and makes the Ducks go.

Fisher wasn't shy in his praise of the junior quarterback, per Rob Moseley of GoDucks.com:

When you think back to Oregon's rough patch earlier in the season, the team really had a hard time supplying Mariota with consistent protection. He was under duress quite often, and that set off a chain reaction that affected every facet of the team.

Bleacher Report's Jason Gold wrote in his Rose Bowl preview that getting after the QB will be one of FSU's keys to victory:

If there’s one area where Oregon’s offense has really struggled this year it is in protecting Marcus Mariota. The Ducks’ offensive line has allowed Mariota to be sacked 29 times this season.

If the Seminoles are able to get pressure on Mariota, flush him out of the pocket and contain his running ability, they may be able to slow down Oregon’s high-octane offense.

The Florida State pass rush will be getting a boost in the form of Eddie Goldman's return. The junior defensive tackle left the ACC championship with an injury, but Fisher's confident that he'll be back soon, per Tim Linafelt of Seminoles.com:

The Seminoles will need every healthy body they can get to stop an Oregon offense that looks to be truly hitting its stride for the first time all season.

Although Florida State is still unbeaten, the Ducks are arguably the hotter team. And with the Seminoles' continued problems in the first half, Oregon gets the nod.

The Ducks will take an early lead, and while FSU will claw its way back, the Pac-12 champions will wrap up the victory late.

Prediction: Oregon 38, Florida State 34

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Armed Forces Bowl 2015: Preview, Predictions for Houston vs. Pittsburgh

It used to be that six- and seven-win teams wouldn't sniff a January bowl game, so what a treat it must be for the Pittsburgh Panthers and the Houston Cougars to square off in the Armed Forces Bowl this year.

For Pitt, you look back at the schedule and quite frankly, there isn't a whole lot to like as far as big wins and memorable moments. The Panthers started 3-0, which included a 30-20 victory at Boston College, but followed it up with six losses in their next seven games, counting a 21-10 loss to Akron.

But quarterback Chad Voytik and company rallied in the final two weeks of the regular season with impressive victories against Syracuse and Miami to reach the all-important six-win mark and become bowl-eligible. The late-season push paid off, and the program will get an additional month of practice to not only prepare for Houston, but continue to get better as a whole.

Most folks are familiar with Houston from the occasional flirtation with an undefeated season or the offense that has, for so many years, put up plenty of big numbers through the air. The 2014 campaign got off to a slow start and the Cougars sat at 2-3 heading into an Oct. 11 contest with Memphis in which Houston emerged victorious.

That led to four more wins in the final six games of the season, an on Saturday Houston put up an admirable fight in a 38-31 loss to Cincinnati on the road. The Cougars will now have a chance to reach eight wins for a third straight year.

Here's what you need to know:

Date: Friday, January 2

Time: 12 p.m. ET

Place: Fort Worth, Texas

TV: ESPN

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Texas Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Arkansas vs. Texas

The Texas Longhorns have a chance to finish year one of the Charlie Strong era with a record better than .500 in the Advocare Texas Bowl. But the game will be anything but easy for the Longhorns.

Texas will face 6-6 Arkansas, which made significant strides toward the end of the 2014 season.

The Longhorns control the overall series record against their former Southwest Conference foe and have won 56 games compared to the Razorbacks' 21.

But all-time record will not impact what happens when the two teams take the field on December 29. What team will leave Houston with a winning 2014 season record?

Let's take a look.

 

When: Monday, Dec. 29, 9 p.m. EST

Where: NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas

TV: ESPN

Last meeting: Sept. 27, 2008, Austin, Texas

Last meeting outcome: Texas 52, Arkansas 10

 

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Foster Farms Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Maryland vs. Stanford

When: Tuesday, Dec. 30; 10 p.m. ET Where: Levi’s Stadium; Santa Clara, California TV: ESPN With both a new name and new home, the Foster Farms Bowl welcomes the Stanford Cardinal (7-5) and Maryland Terrapins to Levi’s Stadium...

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Quick Lane Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Rutgers vs. North Carolina

The North Carolina Tar Heels (6-6) will meet the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (7-5) in the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl. 

It was the inaugural season for Rutgers in the Big Ten, and it started quite well for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers got off to a 5-1 start before dropping four of its final six games.

The Scarlet Knights dealt with several injuries throughout the season, but to be bowl-eligible in their first season in the Big Ten is a good accomplishment.

The high point of Rutgers' 2014 season was its victory over Michigan back on October 4.

For the Tar Heels, it was another disappointing season. At 6-6 (4-4 ACC), it goes down as another mediocre season in a year where the ACC Coastal Division was UNC's for the taking. 

Back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Duke in November were the highest points in UNC's season. 

This is the first year that Ford Motor Company is the official sponsor for this bowl game, formerly known as the Motor City Bowl. 

  • When: Friday, December 26, 2014
  • Where: Ford Field, Detroit, Michigan
  • Time: 4:40 p.m. ET
  • TV: ESPN
  • Radio: ESPN Radio
  • Spread: The spread is not currently available; we will update once it does become known.

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TaxSlayer Bowl 2015: Preview, Predictions for Tennessee vs. Iowa

On Jan. 2, the Tennessee Volunteers (6-6) will face off versus the Iowa Hawkeyes (7-5) in the TaxSlayer Bowl (formerly known as the Gator Bowl) in Jacksonville, Florida. 

This game represents an interesting dynamic. Both teams pride themselves upon playing extremely well on the defensive side of the ball. Tennessee allowed 23.9 points per game this season, and Iowa allowed only 24.0 points a game

The big difference comes in the category of experience. Iowa is a veteran-laden bunch. Tennessee relies primarily upon underclassmen. Regardless, this game presents an opportunity for both programs to begin the new year on a positive note. 

Here's everything you need to know:

Date: Friday, January 2

Time: 3:20 p.m. ET

Place: EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPN Radio

 

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Pinstripe Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Penn State vs. Boston College

Penn State will play in its first bowl game since the 2011 postseason as the Nittany Lions (6-6) will face Boston College (7-5) in the Pinstripe Bowl.

This is Penn State's first bowl game after a two-year absence due to sanctions imposed as part of the Jerry Sandusky case.

The teams haven't played since 2004, when BC won 21-7.

Let's take a look a the Pinstripe Bowl, which will be played on Dec. 27 at 4:30 p.m. (ESPN).

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Russell Athletic Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Clemson vs. Oklahoma

The Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners are set to square off in the Russell Athletic Bowl, played on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Florida.

The Tigers (9-3) are coming off a 35-17 win over their in-state rival South Carolina, while the Sooners (8-4) are limping into the postseason after losing to Oklahoma State this past Saturday.

Both of these teams came away with big bowl wins last season—Clemson in the Orange Bowl and Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl—so this matchup should be much anticipated.

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Music City Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for LSU vs. Notre Dame

With 10 previous matchups in their history, LSU and Notre Dame are already well-acquainted with one another.

However, the Tigers (8-4) and the Fighting Irish (7-5) will find themselves in a new locale for their meeting later this month.

Notre Dame and LSU are on very different paths heading into this year's Music City Bowl—a new postseason game for both sides.

The Fighting Irish started the year as dark horse College Football Playoff contenders with six straight victories. But a heartbreaking loss to national semifinalist Florida State away from home sent Notre Dame on a downward spiral as Brian Kelly's team dropped five of its final six games of the season.

Les Miles' young LSU team, on the other hand, has had an up-and-down season. The Tigers rebounded from an upset loss to Mississippi State and a blowout defeat at the hands of Auburn with a solid three-game winning streak before dropping a close loss to No. 1 Alabama and a frustrating shutout to Arkansas. But LSU has the momentum heading into this year's matchup in the Music City thanks to a 23-17 win against Texas A&M on Thanksgiving Night.

Will the Tigers keep moving forward into 2015 with another victory, or will Notre Dame end its losing skid with a season-ending victory against a SEC opponent?

Before we get to the breakdown of this matchup, here are all the basics you need to know:

Date: Tuesday, December 30
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Place: LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee
TV: ESPN

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Holiday Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. USC Trojans

It's official. The Nebraska Cornhuskers and USC Trojans will head to San Diego to face off in the Holiday Bowl.

The NCAA confirmed the suspicion, but Husker and Trojan fans were both filling Twitter with word about the projection. Since its creation in 1995, the Cornhuskers have been to the Holiday Bowl a total of three times. The most recent being in 2010. This is USC's first time.

As for the series between the Huskers and Trojans, this will only be the fifth time the two have met. The last time Nebraska and USC saw each other was 2007 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Huskers lost that matchup 49-31. That was also the final season of former head coach Bill Callahan's tenure at Nebraska.

Seven years later, the Huskers have just fired the coach that replaced Callahan: Bo Pelini. The change in Lincoln could make things in the bowl game interesting.

The Huskers have never defeated USC, dating back to 1969. The two only tied once in 1970. Can Nebraska overcome adversity and defeat the Trojans in the 2014 Holiday Bowl?

 

Where: Qualcomm Stadium, San Diego, CA

When: Saturday, December 27, at 8 p.m. ET

Watch: ESPN

Listen:Husker Sports Network

Betting Line via Odds Shark: TBD

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Predictions for Every Bowl Game

The time for the first College Football Playoff field has come. Naturally, there's a lot of controversy. Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Oregon are in; Baylor and TCU are out. 

As Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports tweets, no one is getting "robbed"; rather selecting the final spot is extremely difficult. But that's what college football signed up for, and that's the committee's job. 

The rest of the bowl season? It took shape on Sunday as well, and there are some great matchups on hand. 

Here's how the two major Top 25 polls looked after Week 15. The following slides contain each and every postseason bowl matchup, including the four-team playoff. Click on the links below to view the latest College Football Playoff, Associated Press and USA Today Top 25 polls.

College Football Playoff 

Associated Press

USA Today Amway Coaches Poll

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Las Vegas Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Colorado State vs. Utah

The Utah Utes have accepted a bid to the 2014 Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, where they will play Colorado State on Dec. 20 at Sam Boyd Stadium in Whitney, Nevada.

Dirk Facer of the Deseret News reported on the postseason matchup, which is the third of five games to kick off the bowl season.

Utah managed to improve to 8-4 on the strength of a 38-34 victory over the Colorado Buffaloes in the regular-season finale. Although Colorado State is coming off an encouraging 10-2 campaign, it ended on a bit of a sour note.

A last-minute loss to Air Force, combined with the departure of head coach Jim McElwain to Florida, puts the Rams in a precarious position ahead of their final game of the year.

Below is a closer look at the game, including the basic viewing information and predictions as to how the impending showdown will unfold.

Note: Stats are courtesy of NCAA.com.

 

Las Vegas Bowl Preview, Predictions

The outcome will likely come down to how well Rams star quarterback Garrett Grayson plays. With a 32-6 ratio for touchdowns and interceptions, the senior signal-caller has played at an extremely high level.

But facing his best opponent all season without McElwain's help to prepare, how will Grayson fare? Zach Abolverdi of The Gainesville Sun documented what Grayson said regarding McElwain's departure:

That offers an idea of the type of turnaround McElwain orchestrated at Colorado State and how difficult it might be for the underdogs to get up for this one, even though it is a bowl game.

Andrew Gorringe of Scout.com notes how the Rams also boast two tremendous playmakers to help their cause:

Utah doesn't boast quite as much offensive firepower. Junior QB Travis Wilson is a towering presence, yet he isn't the same, dynamic threat Grayson is as a passer. The Utes defense is led by speedy linebacker Jared Norris, whose play will be instrumental in shutting down Rams ball-carrier Dee Hart.

A superior strength of schedule should help Utah compensate for any lack of offensive weapons it has. Its win on the road over UCLA earlier in the year showed that the No. 22 Utes indeed deserve to be considered among the country's best teams.

One big edge the Rams might have in this one is how proficient they are on third down, converting 51.2 percent of the time, which ranks them fifth in the nation, ahead of the likes of Oregon, among others.

That's a stark contrast to Utah's success rate of 39.2 in such situations. If Devontae Booker isn't established early for the Utes on the ground, the favorites could be in trouble if Wilson is asked to put the ball in the air too often.

NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah has compared Booker favorably to a former NFL star, so that should shine through against a generous Rams front seven:

When Utah has had its most success, Booker has been the workhorse, so that should be the game plan—to keep Colorado State's amazing third-down offense off the field. The Rams concede a healthy 4.68 yards per carry, so Booker should be able to get downhill in a hurry and force obvious passing situations for Grayson and Co.

Neither defense is great, so this should be a high-scoring, entertaining showcase to help kick off the bowl season. In the end, though, the team deservedly in the Top 25 will emerge with the victory.

Prediction: Utah 34, Colorado State 31

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Liberty Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for West Virginia vs. Texas A&M

The Texas A&M Aggies (7-5) from the SEC will take on the West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5) out of the Big 12 on Dec. 29 in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee.

After kicking off the their 2014 season with a big win over the No. 9 South Carolina Gamecocks, the Aggies were ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation before suffering a string of losses and eventually dropping out of the Top 25 altogether.

Meanwhile, the Mountaineers cracked the Top 25 briefly during the latter weeks of the season, but almost all of their losses were close contests with highly ranked teams, including a one-point loss to TCU and a six-point loss to Kansas State.

Texas A&M will enter the matchup with the 12th ranked passing offense in the country, while West Virginia boasts the 6th ranked passing offense. Neither team has a particularly effective defense, so this game will likely be a high-scoring shootout with both teams piling up big yardage.

Both teams were unable to take advantage of their high-powered offenses throughout the year and ultimately finished their seasons with disappointing records, but a bowl game win in Memphis would help either team build some much-needed momentum as they look toward a rebound season in 2015. 

Here are the details to know about the matchup:

Date: Monday, Dec. 29

Time: 2 p.m. ET/1 p.m. CT

Place: Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium

TV: ESPN

 

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College Football Rankings 2014: Final Playoff Bracket and Semifinal Predictions

The inaugural College Football Playoff has increased the intrigue surrounding the bowl season. For the very first time, four teams have the opportunity to come away with the title of national champion. However, they must first get through their respective semifinal bowl games.    

On Sunday, members of the CFP selection committee scrutinized every contending teams' strength of schedule, quality wins, poor losses, eye tests and whatever other criteria they deemed relevant to ultimately determine the nation's Top Four.

Here's a look at their findings in the form of the final playoff bracket:

With the semifinal matchups now set in stone, let's take a look at which two teams are likely to forge berths in the national championship game.

 

Sugar Bowl

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State

There was very little doubt that Nick Saban's team would be ranked any lower than No. 1 overall following Alabama's 42-13 drubbing of the Missouri Tigers.

Throughout the season, the Crimson Tide have been consistent and very efficient on both sides of the ball, ranking 17th in the nation in points scored and fourth in points against.

Senior quarterback Blake Sims atoned for several miscues in the Iron Bowl against Auburn by producing a stellar performance in the SEC title game. He completed 23 of his 27 passing attempts for 262 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Sims' fine showing left him with this accolade, via ESPN Stats & Info:

Prolific wide receiver Amari Cooper hauled in 12 of those passes for 83 yards, while running back T.J. Yeldon carried 20 times for 141 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama's offense racked up almost 37 minutes on the field, dominating the time of possession.

Ohio State's 15th-ranked defense is coming off a shutout win against Wisconsin; however, the Badgers were a very one-dimensional, run-heavy offense. A well-versed Alabama defense will pose a much larger threat.

With quarterback J.T. Barrett out for the season, uncertainty surrounded the Buckeyes entering the Big Ten Championship Game. However, backup Cardale Jones quickly put any doubts to rest, completing 12 of his 17 passing attempts for 257 yards and three touchdowns against the Badgers.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Jones is off to a historically good start:

Jones was complemented nicely by running back Ezekiel Elliott, who torched Wisconsin for 220 yards and two scores on 20 carries, balancing the offense and keeping a tough Badgers defense on its heels throughout the game.

It may be difficult to find that kind of success against Alabama's 11th-ranked defense. The Crimson Tide are only allowing an average of 4.68 yards per play this season, and that doesn't bode well for an Ohio State team that didn't have to sustain a scoring drive longer than seven plays against Wisconsin.

Alabama will take away those big plays from Jones and Co., forcing the quarterback to sustain longer drives against its stout defense. While Urban Meyer will put his signal-caller in a position to succeed, Jones' inexperience will lead to some costly mistakes, and ultimately a loss.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 27

 

Rose Bowl

No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

Oregon enters the Rose Bowl boasting the nation's third-ranked offense, scoring an average of 46.3 points per game and coming off a 51-point performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Arizona.

Just how good has this Ducks offense been? It has scored at least 42 points in each of its last eight games.

Obviously, credit must be given to quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Heisman Trophy hopeful has been electrifying this season, totaling 53 touchdowns while only throwing two interceptions along the way.

Here's the difference in passing numbers this season between Mariota and his upcoming opponent, via SportsCenter:

Although, Mariota hasn't done it alone. He's surrounded by highly skilled playmakers in running back Royce Freeman and wide receiver Byron Marshall.

Freeman rushed for 114 yards against Arizona, forming a perfect complement to Oregon's passing attack. While Marshall only caught five passes for 23 yards, his presence helped free up other targets for Mariota, as both Darren Carrington and Charles Nelson eclipsed 100 yards receiving.

Florida State hasn't been extremely stout on the defensive side of the ball this season, ranking 51st in the nation, allowing 378.3 yards per game and giving up 36 offensive touchdowns.

The Ducks should always expect to put some points on the board, so Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston needs to be in top form.

Luckily, Winston has plenty of momentum heading into this contest after completing 21 of his 30 passing attempts for 309 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game.

However, Winston hasn't been able to get out of the gate quickly this season and has been forced to come from behind often. ESPN's Joe Schad humorously tweeted his take on how the quarterback can beat the Ducks:

Running back Karlos Williams missed the ACC title game, but Dalvin Cook was unleashed in a big way. The freshman ball-carrier accumulated 177 rushing yards, 43 receiving yards and one touchdown, combining with prolific wide receiver Rashad Greene to form two fantastic weapons for Winston.

The Seminoles put up 37 points on the Yellow Jackets, but they will need to find paydirt early and often to keep up with the Ducks. That's a possibility when considering Oregon's defense ranks 80th in the nation in yards allowed; however, in an expected shootout, it's hard to bet against Mariota.

Prediction: Oregon 45, Florida State 35

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 7.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Idaho Potato Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Western Michigan vs. Air Force

There may be more exciting matchups in the 2014-15 bowl season, but you'll have a hard time finding two teams closer in skill level than Potato Bowl participants Western Michigan and Air Force.

The Broncos and Falcons each come into the Dec. 20 matchup with relatively similar resumes. Western Michigan averages 34.6 points per game, Air Force 30.9. Air Force allows 24.2 points per game, Western Michigan 23.8. Normalize those results for conference—the Falcons' Mountain West is stronger than the Broncos' desire for MACtion—and you get two near-mirrors of one another.

Football Outsiders, which normalizes team stats in the way just described, ranks Air Force 44th. Coming in three spots later is Western Michigan.

 

Of course, how those teams get to that relatively similar playing field is very different and should define this year's Potato Bowl.

Under head coach Troy Calhoun, Air Force has been defined by its ground game. The Falcons ranked eighth nationally with 272.2 rushing yards per game, led by a five-headed monster of ball-carriers with 60 or more carries. 

Jacobi Owens had a team-high 1,054 yards during the regular season, but Air Force will be forced to play without the sophomore star. Owens suffered a Lisfranc injury in a 45-38 win over Nevada and was ruled out for the remainder of 2014 after undergoing surgery.

In the two games since he went down, Air Force's ground game has been noticeably less explosive. The Falcons averaged a paltry 3.4 yards per carry in a 30-14 loss to San Diego State and were held in check against Colorado State despite pulling off a surprising upset. 

Calhoun's team was able to defeat the then-ranked Rams despite the injury bug biting its most important players. Not only was Owens unavailable, but an injury to quarterback Kale Pearson forced senior Nate Romine, the team's leading passer last season, back into the lineup. Romine completed just six of 15 passes but added a team-high 61 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Pearson's status for the bowl game has not been determined, but Air Force surely hopes he'll be in the lineup.

The 5'9" senior has brought a diversity to the offense so rarely seen under Calhoun. His stat line (1,513 yards, 14 TDs, 3 INTs, 59.3 completion percentage) looks like something Marcus Mariota may put up over three weekends.

Most major college quarterbacks would laugh at that line being a check in the "positive" column. Yet, for a team that couldn't manage double-digit touchdown passes either of the last two seasons, Pearson has been a godsend.

"There was a big misconception of him," Air Force offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen told David Ramsey of The Gazette last month. "We've known all along that he can spin it pretty good and that he was the total package, but we were happy to let other people think that he wasn't, so we could surprise them a little bit."

Western Michigan doesn't create its balance via the quarterback position, but it does have two young stars in the midst of breakout seasons.

Quarterback Zach Terrell threw for 3,146 yards and 23 touchdowns during the regular season, completing 70 percent of his passes and becoming one of the MAC's best all-around playmakers. Terrell has completed at least 69 percent of his passes in each of his last five games and hasn't dipped below the 56 percent mark all season.

For all his stellar play, though, Terrell is not the best player on his young offense. That distinction would go to true freshman Jarvion Franklin, perhaps the nation's best running back who no one knows. Franklin tied for third nationally with 24 rushing touchdowns behind Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon and Boise State's Jay Ajayi.

Western Michigan running backs coach Mike Hart—yes, that one—offered this assessment of his protege to Sports Illustrated'Martin Rickman

The thing that he has—that every great back has to have—is great vision. One thing you can’t teach a kid is to see a hole, you can’t teach him to get to that hole. He has great vision and great feet and great acceleration. It surprised me a lot. He’s hard to tackle. He’s slippery. The thing that’s going to set him over the top is getting him to use his size and be really physical on a consistent basis. He turns it on and turns it off, but if he can be physical on every single snap, which he has the capability of doing, then I truly believe he’ll be unstoppable.

Franklin's ascent has been vital in Western Michigan's rejuvenation under head coach P.J. Fleck. The second-year coach, who just turned the ripe age of 34 last month, turned a program that went 1-11 his first season into a dangerous up-and-comer. He was named the MAC Coach of the Year and has become so renowned nationally that his name has even been thrown around as a potential candidate at Michigan.

Odds remain against Fleck getting such a high-profile job, but he's been instrumental in drumming up support for the program. 

"Some people think I'm crazy, some people think I'm insane or whatever people think I am," Fleck told David Drew of MLive.com last month. "I know this: We have something special to watch and a wonderful product that's not far from home that truly is the future of college football with what we're accomplishing and trying to accomplish in the future years."

Fleck will need both facets of his offense to fire on all cylinders against Air Force. The Falcons have limited opponents to 17 touchdowns through the air this season on a relatively paltry 55.6 percent. Their run defense has been a little more prone to allow scores but has held opponents under four yards per carry.    

With Western Michigan also excelling in run defense, something will have to give for both teams. Given the relative health of the Broncos, I like them to pull off a close victory.

Score Prediction: Western Michigan 34, Air Force 28

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Predictions 2014: Latest Projections After Playoff Rankings Reveal

It's a good thing the college football playoffs were introduced so we could finally put to rest all of the controversy. 

Oh, wait. 

The official Final Four was announced Sunday, with Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State at the top, in that order. The obvious exclusions were TCU, who entered the Week at No. 3, beat Iowa State by 52 points and finished at No. 6, and Baylor, who emphatically beat No. 9 Kansas State but still came up just short. 

There was understandable disappointment from both Big 12 schools:

The major takeaways: Conference championships are undeniably important, and no matter how many teams make the playoffs, there will always be upset parties on the outside looking in. 

That said, let's take a look at the now-official college football playoff semifinals. 

 

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

Urban Meyer has two national championships under his belt, but an argument can be made that this was the finest coaching job of his career. He endured the loss of two quarterbacks—one a Heisman candidate before the season and one a Heisman candidate by the end of it—and still did enough to get into the playoffs.  

But now he faces his toughest test of the year. 

Despite allowing 44 points against Auburn a couple of weeks ago, the Crimson Tide are second in the nation in points allowed per game (16.8) and 10th in yards allowed per play (4.6). As always, they have an array of future NFL players, led by safety Landon Collins. 

The Buckeyes' super-efficient offense—scoring at least 40 points in nine of their past 11 games—didn't miss a beat with Cardale Jones under center this week, demolishing No. 13 Wisconsin, 59-0. They will be able to move the ball, but Alabama's solid pass rush will be able to generate enough pressure to keep the sophomore QB uncomfortable and force some crucial mistakes. 

Moreover, as Meyer pointed out, via the Tuscaloosa News' Cecil Hurt, Alabama's offense is no longer overshadowed by its defense:

Even if the inexperienced Jones lights up Nick Saban's defense, which will have nearly a month of preparation, the Tide have the weapons to be just fine in a shootout. 

Prediction: Alabama 38, Ohio State 28

 

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

Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston. 

Even though the pair of quarterbacks won't be on the field at the same time until the final handshake, that's what the 101st Rose Bowl will be hyped as. Those two players alone won't decide the game, but it's undeniably captivating: 

As ESPN's David Hale pointed out, the pair of QBs have been quite similar over the past two seasons:

Comparing Winston & Mariota the last 2 seasons… pic.twitter.com/Z8f9ZnAipn

— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) December 7, 2014

But Mariota (better completion percentage, more passing yards, more rushing yards, more touchdowns, 15 fewer interceptions) has been better this season. And more importantly, the Ducks as a team have been better than the Seminoles. 

Since a loss to Arizona in early October, Oregon has won eight games by an average of just over 26 points. That includes dominant victories over Top 25 teams UCLA, Utah and Arizona. 

Comparatively, Florida State's last eight wins have come by less than eight points per contest. That includes narrow escapes against Louisville, Miami, Boston College and Florida. 

You can't fully discredit the Seminoles for continuing to win. And they have the talent on offense to give Oregon's occasionally inconsistent defense problems. But it's going to be a nightmare ofr Jimbo Fisher's squad to slow down Mariota, Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall and the Ducks' uptempo attack. 

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

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College Football Playoff 2014: Full Schedule, Predictions for Semifinal Matchups

Nothing is given in the College Football Playoff. That was made extremely clear Selection Sunday when the committee decided the Top Four teams in the final bracket.

In the end, it will be Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and (surprisingly enough) Ohio State playing for a shot at the national championship. The Buckeyes received the final spot thanks to a 59-0 bludgeoning of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game.

As a result, both TCU and Baylor missed out of the semifinal matchups despite convincing wins of their own. Neither was crowned the sole Big 12 champion, ultimately hurting the chances for each program.

With the playoff now set, here's a look at the bracket, schedule and predictions for the semifinal matchups.

 

Predictions Breakdown

It might be a controversial matchup, but Ohio State taking on Alabama in the Sugar Bowl will have no shortage of fireworks.

Both programs feature offenses playing at a very high level, but the Buckeyes come in after rolling Wisconsin. Cardale Jones got his first start under center and responded with three touchdowns to go along with Ezekiel Elliott's 220 rushing yards and two scores.

Playoff chairman Jeff Long noted the decisive victory thrust Ohio State into the playoff, per Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

Elliott and Jones will be in for their biggest test of the season against Alabama. The Crimson Tide ranked second in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (88.7) and fourth in scoring defense (16.6) to go along with their potent offense.

ESPN Stats & Info points out a staggering note about the Tide's defense this season:

In the end, it will be Alabama moving on from the Sugar Bowl to play for a fourth title in the last six seasons. While the Buckeyes will put up a good fight, Nick Saban will flex his defensive muscle against Urban Meyer as he did in the 2009 SEC Championship Game.

Out on the West Coast, Oregon will be close to home in the Rose Bowl against Florida State. Each team's quarterback comes in with aspirations of being a first-round pick in the future, but Marcus Mariota has been the best player in the country all season.

On the other side of Mariota will be defending Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. Both come in as two of the best college signal-callers in recent memory, as College GameDay points out:

Winston vs. Mariota will be the biggest storyline—and rightfully so—but two freshmen might steal the show.

Oregon's Royce Freeman has tallied 1,438 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns. Dalvin Cook has 905 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, including a 220-total-yard performance in the ACC Championship Game for Florida State.

Corey Clark of the Tallahassee Democrat passed along a comment from head coach Jimbo Fisher on how special Cook has been:

The second semifinal will end with Mariota raising the roses after potentially taking the Heisman away from Winston. Cook has closing ability, but Freeman and Mariota will be too much for the Seminoles, and Oregon will play for a national title.

What happens after that will be determined by how the teams respond during the first semifinals in college football. Both matchups will be special, but the national championship is setting up as yet another huge showdown.   

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Bowl Predictions 2014: Projections and Odds for Top Matchups

The 2014-15 college football bowl schedule was released Sunday and it is time for the fans of the sport to start deciphering the latest predictions and projections for the top matchups.

With the College Football Playoff committee voting in to the inaugural bracket and a slate full of other intriguing bowl battles, the fans of the sport having trouble saying goodbye to the regular season will be calmed by the postseason possibilities.

Here are the top matchups and the predicted winners in each must-watch, College Football Playoff bowl game.       

 

*Betting information via OddsShark.com.

 

Breaking Down Alabama vs. Ohio State

One of the biggest postseason matchups of the year will be the No. 1 overall Alabama Crimson Tide squaring off with the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes in the semifinals of the first-ever College Football Playoff.    

Alabama will face Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

The Crimson Tide have earned their No. 1 spot. They're coming off an SEC Championship Game victory and have won eight games since their lone loss of the season. Based on their overall resume this season and recent performances, their place atop the rankings is deserved.   

Alabama may be known for the program’s defensive ability on the field, finishing the season ranked fourth in the nation allowing just 16.6 points per game, but it has been the offense that has helped the team make it to No. 1.

Led by senior quarterback Blake Sims and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, the Crimson Tide have been better than expected thus far, finishing the regular season 17th in the nation with an average of 37.1 points per game. The rushing attack is once again a big part of the game plan (36th overall), but it has been the success of the 22nd-ranked passing attack that deserves the most credit.

When asked about Sims, head coach Nick Saban told reporters, “You love to see a guy who's gone through what he's gone through, who's worked so hard and always persevered, then have success. It's a credit to his character and work ethic.”

As great as Alabama has been, the team will face a tough test against the tenacious Buckeyes. Ohio State has dealt with two devastating, season-ending injuries to quarterbacks Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, but there is no doubt that the Buckeyes deserve the honor of making the Top Four.

Despite being forced to deal with major obstacles all season, Ohio State finished the year as the Big Ten champions by crushing Wisconsin in decisive fashion. This in spite of the need to trot out former third-stringer Cardale Jones under center.

OSU ranked fourth in the country with an average of 45.2 points scored per game. Add in a defensive unit that is ranked 23rd overall allowing just 21.2 points per game, and the Buckeyes are the kind of all-around team that fans love to watch against top competition this time of year.    

Ohio State deserves credit for making a dream run to the Top Four despite adversity, but Alabama is the best team in the nation for a reason. With a superior offensive unit and a better overall defense, the Crimson Tide will use the Buckeyes as a warm-up game for the National Championship.

Predicted Winner: Alabama 33, Ohio State 20

 

*Stats via ESPN.com.

 

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Alamo Bowl 2015: Preview, Predictions for Kansas State vs. UCLA

The Valero Alamo Bowl will pit two of the better Big 12 and Pac-12 squads against one another as the Kansas State Wildcats and the UCLA Bruins will square off in San Antonio. It will be the first top 15 matchup in Alamo Bowl history. 

The game will kick off on January 2 at 6:45 p.m. EST. 

Two of the best quarterbacks in the country will be squaring off as Jake Waters will try to out-duel Brett Hundley. 

With that, let's check out both team's keys to victory and players to watch in the Alamo Bowl. 

Begin Slideshow

Camellia Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for South Alabama vs. Bowling Green

There are many bowl games worthy of watching on the first day of the postseason, but few will feature the excitement that will be showcased in the 2014 Camellia Bowl when the South Alabama Jaguars square off against the Bowling Green Falcons.

With South Alabama representing the Sun Belt Conference and Bowling Green representing the Mid-American Conference, this is the inaugural Raycom Media Camellia Bowl and one of the most underrated matchups of the early bowl season.

Here is all the vital viewing information for the 2014 Camellia Bowl.

 

Where: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama

When: Saturday, Dec. 20

Start Time: 9:15 p.m. ET

Watch: ESPN

Live Stream:WatchESPN

 

Breaking Down the 2014 Camellia Bowl

Casual college football fans may not know much about South Alabama and Bowling Green, but the two teams should put on a matchup worthy of the national stage.

The Falcons are coming off a devastating loss in the MAC Championship Game. Bowling Green finished the season first in the MAC East standings but was thoroughly overmatched by Northern Illinois in the championship. Add in back-to-back losses coming into the title game to Ball State and Toledo, and the Falcons have struggled down the stretch.

When asked about the blowout loss to Northern Illinois, Bowling Green coach Dino Babers spoke to reporters:

We weren't able to match them in any facet of the game. They just had too much strength and speed for us on both sides of the ball. Last year, it seemed like they were a one-man offense and then the defense was built around the safety. I was interested to see how they were going to respond to losing two superstars, and the answer is that they've become a much more complete team. They now play 22 deep instead of relying on a couple guys.

The Falcons have a solid offensive unit, ranked 63rd in the league with an average of 29.8 points per game, but the program has struggled defensively. After allowing 33.9 points per game (108th in the nation), South Alabama will be ready to take advantage.

The Jaguars may have the opportunity to beat Bowling Green’s suspect defense, but the offensive unit has not been overly impressive. South Alabama is 107th in the nation, scoring 22.1 points per game, but the team is coming off a loss to Navy in which the Jaguars scored 40 points.

With big-game experience from playing teams like Mississippi State and South Carolina, South Alabama and its defensive unit (allowing just 25.8 points per game) should step up and shut Bowling Green down.

Both teams deserve credit for making it to the inaugural Camellia Bowl, but South Alabama has the better overall defense and should be able to pull out the victory.

Predicted Final Score: South Alabama 30, Bowling Green 24

 

*Stats via ESPN.com. 

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