NCAA Football

Inside Ohio State's Unlikely Journey to the College Football Playoff

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Since arriving at Ohio State in late 2011, Urban Meyer has built a reputation based on his brutal honesty. If a Buckeyes player or position group has been slacking in practice, their head coach hasn't been shy to call them out. When media members ask ill-prepared questions, they soon know about it.

Meyer's bluntness apparently extends to himself as well.

Which is why when he looked at his roster on the eve of the 2014 season, Meyer was realistic with his expectations. Ohio State was ranked fifth in the preseason AP Top 25, but seemed like a long shot to land in the College Football Playoff after star quarterback Braxton Miller went down with a season-ending injury two weeks prior to the start of the 2014 campaign.

"I wasn't sure this year," Meyer said, looking back on his preseason prognostications. "I thought it might be next year."

Meyer wasn't alone. And with an ugly early-season defeat and eventual loss of another Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, questions followed the Buckeyes all the way up until Sunday's announcement of college football's first-ever playoff field.

But when it was Ohio State that was revealed as the selection committee's fourth and final team, it marked the culmination of one of the most unlikely journeys to the chance to play for a national championship—one that's been more than a year in the making.

 

'I Want to Help This Team Win a Big Ten Championship'

Preseason polls aren't released until a few weeks before the start of the season, but the initial expectations for Ohio State's 2014 campaign were set inside of a small office in Miami's Sun Life Stadium in the early hours of Jan. 4.

It was there that Miller gave his pledge to Meyer that he'd return for his senior season, instantly making the Buckeyes national title contenders with the mere presence of one of the sport's most exciting and accomplished quarterbacks.

Tight end Jeff Heuerman followed suit, adding security to an Ohio State roster that would already be replacing four starting offensive linemen, the Big Ten's best running back in Carlos Hyde, its top receiver in Corey "Philly" Brown and a pair of future NFL first-round picks in linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. At first glance, Ohio State's depth chart possessed plenty of question marks, but Miller made it clear that he wasn't coming back to be part of a rebuilding season.

“I want to help this team win a Big Ten championship next year," Miller said in a statement officially announcing his decision to forego the NFL draft. "Plus, I want to improve as a quarterback in all aspects of my game."

Cornerstones of the Buckeyes' 2011 recruiting class—former head coach Jim Tressel's last—Miller and Heuerman had seen and accomplished plenty in their time in Columbus. But a conference championship was still missing from each of their resumes.

“As a senior, we just want to go out with a championship," Heuerman said. "That’s something my class doesn’t have to put next to our name.”

If Ohio State was going to do just that, both Miller and Heuerman figured to play key roles in the process. And while each missed spring practice—Miller with outpatient shoulder surgery and Heuerman with foot surgery—both were expected to be ready by the start of training camp in August.

At least that was the plan.

 

'A Bad Day'

On Aug. 20, Heuerman and the Buckeyes' other captains met with reporters, the mood around the Woody Hayes Athletic Center palpably somber. Heuerman looked particularly spent, his eyes glassed over and tone noticeably dejected.

Just three weeks earlier, the Ohio State tight end had compared Miller's importance to the Buckeyes to that of LeBron James' to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But two days prior, Heuerman learned that Ohio State would be without its LeBron, when Miller fell to the ground after attempting a pass in a non-contact throwing drill.

"I went berserk," Meyer said. "It was devastating. It was a bad day."

The prognosis was a torn labrum in Miller's throwing shoulder, which would require season-ending surgery. The Buckeyes' new starting quarterback would be redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett, who had been splitting reps with OSU's first-team offense throughout fall camp as Miller struggled to recover from his initial shoulder surgery.

Whether he believed them at the time, Heuerman said all the right things about how there was nobody better suited for the task at hand than Barrett. But even he understood why the the outside perception of Ohio State was suddenly shifting.

"We're not naive to the situation. We understand what happened and what we lost," Heuerman said. "But just like the Cavs, just because LeBron's out, you don't put them out, do you? They've got a lot of other playmakers, so that's kind of the situation we're in. We've got a lot of playmakers and we're going to have to rely on them to make plays.

"Obviously, it's not how you draw it up."

 

'We Just Gotta Get a Lot Better'

Trailing 7-6 at halftime, the Buckeyes struggled in their season opener against Navy, but ultimately prevailed with a 34-17 victory. But just a week later, Ohio State's worst nightmare was realized, as its inexperience showed up at the most inopportune time.

Hosting Virginia Tech in a prime-time matchup with several prominent recruits and the actual LeBron James standing on the sideline, the Buckeyes were both outplayed and outcoached in a 35-21 defeat at the hands of the Hokies. OSU's receivers failed to get open and the offensive line failed to protect Barrett, who turned in a 9-for-29, three-interception performance against Virginia Tech's dare-you-to-throw defense.

The Buckeyes' playoff hopes weren't dead—although some claimed they were—but they certainly took a significant hit against a Hokies team that would wind up with just a 6-6 record on the season. Perhaps more important than Ohio State's drop to No. 22 in the Top 25 was the vulnerability that it showed, leaving so much uncertain for the 10 games left on the Buckeyes' slate.

"We just gotta get a lot better," Meyer said after the game. "And that starts tomorrow."

 

'A Young Team Grew Up'

The Buckeyes bounced back with blowout wins over Kent State and Cincinnati, before opening up their Big Ten schedule with lopsided victories against newcomers Maryland and Rutgers. In the span of one month, Barrett went from question mark to potential Heisman Trophy candidate, posting numbers that put him on pace for the greatest statistical season in the history of Ohio State quarterbacks.

"I had a lot of confidence in J.T. I love J.T. He's fun to coach," Meyer said following Barrett's 409-yard, four-touchdown performance against Cincinnati. "He's a guy that has a great demeanor on the sideline. He's a student of the game. He has a great relationship with his coordinator and position coach. He's a product of those around him."

Playing on a sprained MCL, Barrett helped the Buckeyes eek out a double-overtime win at Penn State on Oct. 25, a week before adding another blowout to their resume with a victory over Illinois. Ohio State was suddenly riding a six-game winning streak, but it didn't seem to mean much to the College Football Playoff committee, who ranked the Buckeyes 16th and then 14th in its first two polls of the season.

"While I wouldn't get that excited about Ohio State's placement, we do think that based on the other teams that they've played to this point in the schedule, this is where they deserve to be ranked," playoff committee chair Jeff Long said when the first rankings were revealed on Oct. 28. "Ohio State has opportunities on their schedule to play up."

The first of those opportunities came on Nov. 8.

That date had long been circled on the Buckeyes' schedule anyways, as it marked their rematch with Michigan State from last season's Big Ten Championship Game. The Spartans had snapped Ohio State's 24-game winning streak and prevented it from appearing in the national title game, and again appeared to stand in the way of the Buckeyes' postseason goals.

Only this time, it was Ohio State who would make a statement.

Despite heading to East Lansing as an underdog, the Buckeyes played their most complete game of the season, leaving Spartan Stadium with a 49-37 win over the eighth-ranked Spartans. Barrett accounted for 386 yards and five touchdowns, vaulting Ohio State back into the national title picture with its first signature win of the season.

“This is a different Buckeye team than it was early in the season,” Meyer said afterward. "A young team grew up tonight."

 

Bye-Bye Barrett

After again boosting its resume with a road win over No. 25 Minnesota, the Buckeyes struggled in wins over Indiana and Michigan, but still found themselves ranked fifth by the playoff committee at the conclusion of the regular season. On paper, Ohio State seemed primed to vault into the top four with a win over No. 13 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, but one play against the Wolverines threw another wrench into the Buckeyes' postseason plans.

Keeping the ball on a read-option on the first play of the fourth quarter, Barrett was sandwiched between two Michigan defenders. When the play cleared, the Ohio State quarterback remained on the ground, as a hush fell over the Ohio Stadium crowd.

"I heard him yell and I ran over to help him up,'' Heuerman recalled. "When I went over I saw his ankle and it wasn't pretty. I just told him, 'Stay down, stay down.'

"It kind of hit me. 'Oh man.'''

After Barrett was carted off the field, it didn't take long for news to trickle in that he had suffered a broken ankle, thus bringing his stellar freshman season to a close. In 12 games, the redshirt freshman broke Ohio State's single-season total offense record (3,772 yards) and the Big Ten's total touchdowns record (45), en route to being named the Big Ten's quarterback and freshman of the year.

All of a sudden, it appeared as though Barrett's remarkable season would be held against the Buckeyes in their hunt for a playoff spot, as the committee would now judge them without their most prominent player in the picture. Anything less than a commanding performance in the conference championship—with its third option at quarterback—and Ohio State seemed likely to be left out of the final four.

"I think it's all going to be how we play next week," Meyer said of his team's playoff chances.

 

Remembering Kosta

The next week would prove to be one of the most trying in program history, for reasons that extended beyond the football field.

On Nov. 30—one day after the Buckeyes' win over Michigan—OSU walk-on Kosta Karageorge was found dead in an off-campus dumpster. The first-year defensive lineman had died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound and had been missing for the better part of the previous week after sending a cryptic text message to his mother complaining about concussions.

As a result, Ohio State's weekly press conference felt like a mix between a funeral and investigation, as though in attendance tried to make sense of the tragedy.

"This is the best group of medical people I've ever been around, the way they handle their business and the attention to detail," Meyer said when pressed on his program's handling of concussions.

“I don’t think he’d want for anything like this to hold us back. He was a huge team guy, a huge team guy," left tackle Taylor Decker said while remembering Karageorge. "He wasn’t getting reps in the games and stuff like that but he still loved coming out every day. It wasn’t about that for him. He came out and he helped us and I don’t think he’d want anything like that to hold us back at all by any means."

 

Cardale, Controversy and Championships

In Indianapolis, reminders of Karageorge were everywhere at the Big Ten title game, from a moment of silence before kickoff to Michael Bennett wearing Karageorge's No. 53 and other players' own individual tributes.

Despite the somber tone around the OSU program for the previous week, the Buckeyes still had a game to play, and faced a tall task as four-point underdogs to the Badgers.

At least, that's how it seemed.

But from the moment the ball was kicked inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Ohio State took command, with quarterback Cardale Jones leading the Buckeyes on a six-play, 77-yard opening drive that culminated with a 39-yard touchdown toss to Devin Smith. Jones would find Smith in the end zone twice more throughout the game, showcasing his cannon-like arm in an MVP performance in what would be a 59-0 walloping of Wisconsin.

"I played with confidence because of the confidence my teammates had in me, the confidence my coaches had in me, my family, close friends, Buckeye Nation," Jones said. "It was very fun, going out there showing everybody what we can do when we all come together as one."

But would it be enough?

Ohio State was 11-1 and the outright Big Ten champion, but entered championship weekend ranked fifth by the playoff committee, sandwiched between Big 12 co-champions TCU and Baylor. Despite the Horned Frogs' status as the nation's third-place team, they figured to be in a fight with the Buckeyes and Bears for the fourth and final spot, as Alabama, Oregon and Florida State seemed to had already secured their places in the playoff field.

Ohio State's resume seemed to stack up favorably against TCU's and Baylor's, with one more win, an outright conference championship and a dominant performance over a ranked team still fresh on everybody's mind. Still, the playoff selection process was unprecedented, and Meyer admitted to Sports Illustrated that he was nervous on the morning of the announcement.

But when the playoff committee revealed its final four in order at 12:45 p.m. ET—first Alabama, then Oregon, then Florida State—it was Ohio State who laid claim to the fourth and final spot. Given where the Buckeyes stood just 11 months earlier, it was likely as much as it wasn't, after all that Ohio State had been through in 2014.

"It's a long journey," Meyer said after the Buckeyes had been announced for the playoff, a day after the Big Ten Championship Game. "I started seeing it, but I didn't believe it completely until the experience we had on Saturday night."

 

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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2014 Heisman Hype: An Epic Look at All of Marcus Mariota's 53 TDs

Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks have had an incredible season. The junior signal-caller is not only the Heisman Trophy front-runner, but he is also two wins away from leading his team to a national title.

Check out all 53 of Mariota's touchdowns in this ultimate Heisman hype tape.

Will Mariota bring home the Heisman?

Check out the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Teams on Upset Alert in 2014-15 College Football Bowl Season

Of the 38 bowl games this postseason, only 12 include favorites of seven points or more, per Odds Shark.

But whatever this bowl season lacks in underdog quantity, it makes up for in underdog quality. Both of the national semifinals include a power-conference champion (Florida State and Ohio State) getting more than a touchdown.

But which of this year's favorites run the greatest risk of losing outright? In order to find the answer, we looked at teams that have been overvalued, teams that have been undervalued, matchups, context, coaching situations, location and myriad other factors.

The list we came up with includes seven big favorites at risk of going down: six that are giving more than a touchdown, and one that is giving slightly less but will likely draw public support.

Sound off below and let us know what you think.

 

All spreads courtesy of Odds Shark unless noted otherwise.

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Could Ohio State Land Both 5-Star RB Damien Harris and 4-Star RB Mike Weber?

Ohio State remains in search of a stud running back with workhorse potential in the 2015 class. However, recent developments suggest the Buckeyes are firmly in the mix for two of the nation's premier rushers.

Urban Meyer and his staff have long coveted 5-star Kentucky recruit Damien Harris, hosting him for an official visit earlier this season. Now, Michael Weber has inserted himself into the discussion as a potential difference-maker in the Buckeyes backfield.

The 4-star prospect revealed his decision to spend an official visit in Columbus this weekend on Twitter:

Like Harris, Weber was formerly committed to Michigan.

The Detroit product backed off his verbal pledge to the Wolverines in late November. He was initially viewed as a quality replacement for Harris, who decommitted from Michigan last winter.

Now, both are coveted uncommitted players just two months shy of national signing day. Harris is expected to announce his collegiate intentions Jan. 9, while Weber has yet to share any time frame for a decision.

Harris, rated No. 1 overall among running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings, trimmed his list to five teams in August. The group of finalists consists of Ohio State, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Florida, though a coaching change in Gainesville doesn't bode well for a squad that always seemed to be the biggest long shot.

He spent time at Ohio State in September, watching the team suffer its lone loss of the season to Virginia Tech. With just four weeks remaining until his commitment, teams are implementing a full-court press during the final stretch:

Though Harris spent significant time sidelined by a knee injury this season, he managed to surpass 6,000 career rushing yards at Madison Southern High School. He finished the fall with 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns in just seven games after consecutive campaigns with more than 30 scores on the ground, per MaxPreps.

Weber enjoyed a career-best effort in 2014, rushing for more than 2,200 yards and 29 touchdowns. It was his third consecutive 20-touchdown season at Cass Technical High School.

Since decommitting from Michigan, he's picked up an offer from Alabama. However, in-person visits from Meyer and Ohio State assistants Kerry Coombs and Stan Drayton helped turn his attention to the Buckeyes, per Ian Cuevas of Land-Grant Holy Land.

Ohio State currently holds the nation's No. 4 recruiting class in 247Sports' composite rankings, filling the majority of its positional needs. Running back, however, is still a primary concern.

Suddenly, the race for Harris doesn't seem as dire. The battle seemingly centers on the Buckeyes and in-state Kentucky, where he'll use an official visit this weekend.

If Harris elects to stay home, Ohio State seems to be gaining steam with Weber, who would serve as an outstanding Plan B. However, Harris could elect to jump on the Buckeyes bandwagon in January, even if the Michigan standout is already on board.

Unlike Kentucky, Ohio State has at least one high-profile playoff game to showcase an offense that's managed to maintain momentum while losing two star quarterbacks this year. A strong postseason run could attract Harris and other blue-chip prospects, strengthening a 2015 recruiting haul that already contains a wealth of potential.

Neither running back may view sharing the load as an ideal situation in college, but the opportunity to seize a starting role in one of the nation's most dynamic attacks could be enough to lure both to Columbus next season.

 

Recruit ratings and info courtesy of 247Sports.

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Florida State Football: 5 Bold Predictions for the Seminoles' Bowl Game

This one is going to be fun. Two high-powered offenses and two defenses susceptible to giving up big yardage could result in a high-scoring affair between Oregon and Florida State in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The Seminoles face a tall task when they square off against Marcus Mariota and the talented Ducks in Pasadena, California. Let’s take a look at some very bold predictions from the FSU perspective in this ballgame.

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Rapid-Fire Predictions for LSU vs. Notre Dame in Music City Bowl

Notre Dame has struggled down the stretch, but it has many talented young players looking for a chance to shine. LSU has played the top teams in the country very closely all season. These teams will square off in the Music City Bowl on Tuesday, December 30, at 3 p.m. ET at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer discuss the headlines from this bowl.

Who will win the Music City Bowl?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

SEC's Favorite Rivalry Renewed in Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer Semifinal

When Chris Davis went 109 yards to end last season's Iron Bowl, the rivalry between Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and Alabama head coach Nick Saban jumped into national consciousness as one of the best new coaching rivalries in the SEC.

Long before that, though, it was Saban vs. Urban Meyer that stole the show in the SEC.

Those two legends were a major part of the beginning of the title run. Meyer won national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008, and Saban took the torch and ran with it from there, winning titles in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

The rivalry kicked into overdrive in the 2008 season, when top-ranked and undefeated Alabama took his Crimson Tide to the SEC Championship Game to face off against No. 4 Florida in what was essentially a de facto BCS national semifinal.

The Crimson Tide took a three-point lead into the fourth quarter before Meyer's Gators—led by quarterback Tim Tebow—scored two touchdowns in the final frame to punch a ticket to the BCS National Championship Game against Oklahoma.

According to The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com), Tebow had been 0-5 as a starting quarterback when trailing in the second half up to that point in his career. However, he put his team on his back, throwing for 53 yards and rushing for seven on the game-winning drive, which culminated with a five-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper with two minutes and 50 seconds to play to give the Gators the 31-20 win.

The next year in Atlanta, the stakes were the same.

Alabama again entered undefeated but was ranked No. 2 thanks to No. 1 Florida navigating the season undefeated as well.

In a game for the ages—which, according to Lance Taylor of WJOX in Birmingham, was the last time Alabama was the underdog—the Crimson Tide throttled the Gators 32-13 and went on to win their first national championship since the 1992 season.

"I can't remember my address or phone number," Meyer said on Sunday's Sugar Bowl teleconference. "But I can tell you probably every play from those games.

"That [2009 Alabama] team was one of the best teams that I ever coached against."

Meyer retired shortly after the 2009 SEC Championship Game loss only to rethink his plans and recommit to Florida for the 2010 season—his last in Gainesville.

These are the two coaches who were at the forefront of the SEC's rise to become a superpower. While they wanted to beat each other in the biggest games of the late 2000s, they remain friends off the field.

"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Urban," Saban said on Sunday's teleconference. "We've done some ESPN games together. I consider him a good friend and I certainly have a tremendous amount of personal respect for the kind of professional that he is and the kind of coach that he is and the kind of programs that he's had."

Meyer echoed those sentiments, saying that the two "used to sit next to each other at SEC meetings" and serve on several committees together that focus on the future of player well-being and other goals that could be achieved through autonomy.

It's a rivalry between two coaches who, while friends, are two of the fiercest competitors in college football. On top of that, they boast two different styles.

Saban, a defensive guru who hired Lane Kiffin to become more versatile vs. Meyer, an offensive pioneer who has been at his best at Florida and Ohio State with fearsome defenses.

Two fiery competitors who have competed against each other will renew the rivalry on the biggest stage in college football history.

These are uncharted waters.

New Year's Day 2015 will cut the ribbon on a brand new era for college football, one that includes national semifinals and a Super Bowl-style title game.

It's only fitting that two of the best coaches of this generation have the scissors in their hands to get the festivities started.

Saban and Meyer helped put the SEC on the map, and they'll do the same with the College Football Playoff.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee. 

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Rapid-Fire Predictions for Wisconsin vs. Auburn in Outback Bowl

Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon had one of the most prolific seasons in college football history, leading the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship appearance. Auburn has one of the most dangerous offensive attacks in the country. These teams will square off in the Outback Bowl on New Year's Day. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer discuss the headlines of this bowl game.

Who will win the Outback Bowl?

Watch the video, and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Comparing Resumes for Every Heisman Trophy Finalist

In what might have been the most anticlimactic Heisman finalist reveal in recent memory, Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota have punched their respective tickets to New York. 

There are a handful of other players who had a case. Indiana running back Tevin Coleman, TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin, Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III and even now-injured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett all had an argument for a trip to the ceremony. 

That said, was there a chance any one of those players would win? In all likelihood, no. 

There was a clear separation between the top three players and everyone else, and then there's another separation between Mariota and Cooper and Gordon.  

Still, how do all three resumes stack up against one another? Let's take a look. 

 

Marcus Mariota, Quarterback, Oregon

The Stats: 68.3 completion percentage, 3,783 passing yards on 10.2 yards per attempt, 669 rushing yards, 53 total touchdowns, two interceptions

The Skinny: Mariota is the favorite and there isn't even a second guess about it. No player has been more consistent while having a direct impact on the game on every snap. 

(For the record, Reggie Bush finished with 794 first-place votes, or roughly 85 percent, on 892 ballots cast in the 2005 voting.)

For all the turnover and injury issues Oregon had at wide receiver heading into the 2014 season, Mariota actually surpassed his passing numbers from a year ago (3,665 yards passing, 31 touchdowns, 9.5 yards per attempt) on 14 fewer passing attempts. Only Brandon Doughty of Western Kentucky has more touchdown passes this year. Mariota also threw two fewer interceptions than a year ago. 

The only major area in which Mariota's numbers went down were his rushing yards (715 to 669), but that's negligible. Furthermore, the emergence of freshman Royce Freeman at running back had taken some pressure off of Mariota to run the ball. His 342.5 total yards per game ranks fifth in major college football. 

Against Stanford, which has the second-best scoring defense in the country and the third-best defense in yards per play allowed (4.21), Mariota tallied 343 total yards at nine yards per play and four total touchdowns. 

Beyond the stats, the other thing that has helped Mariota has been the lack of a Heisman conversation. The first College Football Playoff has become the main talking point while the Heisman has moved to a back-burner discussion. That's been a good thing for Mariota, the presumed front-runner. But there's no denying he's had a year worthy of Heisman love.

 

Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver, Alabama

The Stats: 115 receptions, 1,656 receiving yards, 14.4 yards per reception, 127.4 yards per game, 14 touchdowns

The Skinny: As far as wide receivers go, no player changes the momentum of a game like Cooper. 

Cooper was hampered by injuries in 2013, but he showed why he's the most sought-after receiver this year with 1,656 yards, which is best in the country. Only Rashard Higgins of Colorado State has more touchdowns (17) and yards per game (149.1). But Cooper has pulled in nearly nine receptions per game (8.8). Only East Carolina's Justin Hardy has better numbers there (9.2 per game). 

The only time Cooper was shut down in 2014 was in a 14-13 win over Arkansas, in which he was again slowed by injuries. When healthy—or close to healthy—no one has been able to stop Cooper. He's a smooth route-runner and has game-changing speed. It's no wonder that B/R draft guru Matt Miller has Cooper as the No. 1 overall receiver in this year's draft class. 

And not that it will win him the Heisman, but Cooper was also part of perhaps the best moment of the year: Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin signaling touchdown before Cooper even catches the ball against Auburn in the Iron Bowl. 

 

Melvin Gordon, Running Back, Wisconsin

The Stats: 309 rushes, 2,336 rushing yards, 7.56 yards per rush, 26 rushing touchdowns, 179.69 yards per game

The Skinny: There may not be a player of the non-quarterback variety that is a bigger part of his team's offense than Gordon. The senior has accounted for 57 percent of Wisconsin's 314 rushing yards per game, which is best in the Big Ten. He's also responsible for 60 percent of the Badgers' rushing touchdowns. 

Gordon isn't your traditional, bruising Wisconsin running back like Heisman winner Ron Dayne. He's a big-play threat every time he touches the ball.

Twice this season, Gordon has averaged at least 16.3 yards per carry: Against Nebraska, in which he also broke LaDainian Tomlinson's single-game FBS rushing record with 408 yards in three quarters, and against Bowling Green, in which he averaged 19.5 yards per carry. 

Of course, if Gordon's career day against the Huskers—which held up for one whole week before Oklahoma running back Samaje Perine rushed for 427 yards against Kansas, mind you—couldn't get him past Mariota in the Heisman race though, what will?

Heading into the Big Ten title game against Ohio State, Gordon had the attention of Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer, who was more concerned about stopping the Heisman candidate than anything else. 

“That’s our No. 1 concern, is getting this guy to the ground,” Meyer said, via Tim Moody of The Lantern. “Then No. 2 is making sure that we are protecting our quarterback.” 

Ohio State did just that, too, limiting Gordon to 76 yards on 26 carries and no touchdowns. 

 

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

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Nike Unveils Home Uniforms for Teams Playing in 2015 College Football Playoff

All four teams in the inaugural College Football Playoff are Nike schools, and Nike unveiled the home uniform for each team Tuesday morning.

There were no drastic alterations to any team's uniform. The biggest change may be the addition of a fractal diamond-colored swoosh. 

Take a look below to see all of the home uniforms for the 2015 College Football Playoff.

 

Alabama

 

Ohio State

It is important to note that because Alabama and Ohio State are so close in color, one team will have to wear white in the Sugar Bowl.

 

Oregon

It should also come as no surprise that Nike's biggest changes were for Oregon. The Ducks will not be wearing the winged helmets they wore for the majority of games this season, instead opting for a green helmet with a yellow "O."

 

Florida State

 

Cleats

[Nike]

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Navy to Wear Custom 'Don't Tread on Me' Uniforms for Army-Navy Game

Under Armour is rolling out custom uniforms for the Navy Midshipmen in time for Saturday’s Army-Navy game, and, as you might expect, the gear is as American as Duke Nukem fist-fighting a crepe iron.

Tagged with the words "Don't Tread On Me," the gear features red stripes over navy and white. Under Armour also made significant use of the First Navy Jack rattlesnake, which will be featured in a non-coiled, flying-out-of-the-fake-peanut-jar form. 

In short, these uniforms are quite to very fresh, depending on your taste for hammer-down patriotism. 

The main logo will feature a redesigned Navy "N-star" with an intertwining rattlesnake, because the snake is terrifying and cannot be featured enough.

Army and Navy will kick off at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. The game will mark the 115th meeting between the two programs. Navy leads the series 58-49 (with seven ties).

  

Follow Dan on Twitter for more sports and pop culture filigree.

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Bowl Games Schedule 2014-15: Viewing Info, Latest Odds for Every Matchup

Do you agree with the College Football Playoff selection committee's Top Four?

Whether you do or don't, there's good news for all of us: It's bowl season, and we're in for a couple weeks of some darn good football. Whether your team is contending for a national championship or just barely squeezed into a bowl game after a six-win season, the upshot is that you get to watch it at least one more time.

While college football enthusiasts are excited about the upcoming slate of games, so are savvy bettors. There's plenty of money that can be taken off the hands of Vegas oddsmakers in the coming weeks.

As we all impatiently await the return of the nation's top teams to the amateur gridiron, here's a look at the full schedule of bowl games and the corresponding odds for each.

 

Early Odds to Bet

Music City Bowl: Notre Dame vs. LSU (-8)

The Fighting Irish fooled us all until about halfway through the regular season. Notre Dame looked like one of the nation's dominant teams after beginning the year with a 6-0 record.

However, the wheels fell off after the team suffered its first loss to Florida State.

After that 6-0 start, Notre Dame played the remainder of the season at 1-5, quickly falling out of contention for all top-tier bowl games. The Fighting Irish did finish the season 7-5 and earned a berth in the Music City Bowl, but they will have their hands full against the stout defense of LSU.

The Tigers finished the season ranked third in the nation in points allowed, giving up an average of 16.4 per game.

While the team's offense has struggled, its defense has provided many wins in low-scoring affairs, and that's exactly how LSU will defeat Notre Dame.

In the season finale against Texas A&M, LSU running back Leonard Fournette rushed for 146 yards while quarterback Anthony Jennings rushed for 119. As a team, the Tigers put up a total of 384 yards on the ground en route to a 23-17 victory.

Notre Dame ranked 62nd against the run this season, allowing an average of 161.2 yards per game on the ground. The team struggled mightily against run-first opponents, allowing 336 rushing yards and three scores to Navy in a 49-39 victory.

Rest assured, the Irish won't put up 49 points on LSU's defense.

When factoring in the massive amount of turnovers committed by quarterback Everett Golson this season—he's thrown at least one interception in each of his last nine games—and LSU's 20 takeaways in 12 games, it becomes difficult to bet against the Tigers.

Prediction: LSU 27, Notre Dame 17

 

Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. Baylor (-3)

We know Michigan State's defense is very good. After all, the unit finished the regular season ranking 12th in points allowed, giving up an average of just 19.9 per game.

With that said, we also know one other thing about that defense: It really struggles against better offenses.

The Spartans played two of the nation's most prolific offenses in Oregon and Ohio State this season. The Ducks rattled off 46 points and the Buckeyes accumulated 49 against Sparty. That's not a good omen considering the team's next opponent is a Baylor squad that owns the nation's most potent offense, averaging 48.8 points per game.

Baylor finished the season against Kansas State's respectable defense, and quarterback Bryce Petty simply picked the Wildcats apart. He earned his team a share of the Big 12 title after completing 34 of his 40 passing attempts for 412 yards and one touchdown in a 38-27 victory.

Michigan State does have a good offense of its own, ranking seventh in the nation with an average of 43.1 points per game. However, this team hasn't been able to keep up with the offensive juggernauts in 2014, scoring 27 points against Oregon and 37 against Ohio State.

This contest won't be a blowout by any stretch of the imagination, as the Spartans certainly aren't pushovers. However, a win shouldn't be expected considering the team's track record this season.

Prediction: Baylor 45, Michigan State 38

 

All game odds courtesy of Odds Shark and current as of December 8. All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 8.

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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Date, Schedule, Odds, Predictions

The College Football Playoff committee and Las Vegas have spoken: The CFP Semifinals will be blowouts. 

Try not to shoot the messenger.

Alabama is a hefty favorite over Ohio State. This makes sense not because of the silly SEC-Big Ten squabble, but because of a third-string quarterback under center for the Buckeyes.

Oregon is the other major favorite thanks to the astonishing output by Marcus Mariota. It does not help that Florida State's Jameis Winston looks nothing like the guy who won a Heisman last year.

But hey, these are just early lines to digest—and exploit.

 

2015 College Football Playoffs Info and Odds

Odds via Odds Shark as of 8 p.m. ET on Dec. 8.

 

Odds Advice 

No. 1 Alabama (-10) vs. No. 4 Ohio State

Alabama is on top of the world for good reason.

Nick Saban has his normal elite defense by way of a unit that ranks fourth in the nation. But he also happens to possess an elite offense led by quarterback Blake Sims (3,250 yards, 26 scores), whose dual-threat capabilities help the Crimson Tide to average 37.1 points per game.

Saban also has a Heisman contender at wide receiver. Amari Cooper is a household name at this point by way of 1,656 yards and 14 scores. Backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry complement the aerial attack with 10 touchdowns apiece.

"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," Saban said of Sims after the SEC Championship win over Missouri, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "It's a credit to his character and work ethic."

So Alabama is right to be the favorite, but try not to be blindsided when the potent Buckeyes keep pace.

Sophomore quarterback Cardale Jones may have one start to his name, but 257 yards and three scores with no picks in the Big Ten Championship show that he is more than ready to fill J.T. Barrett's cleats.

Coach Urban Meyer has his own strong ground game to lean on thanks to the efforts of Ezekiel Elliott, who has 1,402 yards and 12 scores on the year. The sophomore carries his own when asked, as shown by his 20 carries for 220 yards and two scores in the 59-0 win over Wisconsin.

It all equates to a close encounter between two teams that have improved each step of the way this season.

Alabama's path through the SEC was much more difficult. The team is also healthier at key areas and has a Heisman contender to lean on when things get rough. The Crimson Tide will pull one out late, but do not expect Jones and the Buckeyes to go down without a fight.

Prediction: Alabama 24, Ohio State 21

 

No. 2 Oregon (-9) vs. No. 3 Florida St.

Say hello to the toughest spread of the CFP to date.

Oregon could show up and blow away Florida State, right? Bang-bang bet right there. Or, the Seminoles could show well on the defensive side of things, and Winston's recent flirtation with elite play could lead to a breakthrough.

It is no secret that Winston is a mess this season with 3,559 yards and 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. That said, the ACC Championship win over Georgia Tech is notable as a potential turning point thanks to 309 passing yards and three scores with no interceptions.

For those who keep track of such things, it was the first time Winston has not thrown a pick in a game since mid-October.

As one can glean from the above numbers, though, Winston downright pales in comparison to Mariota.

Then again, who doesn't?

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports puts it best: 

The devil in the details for this set of odds analysis is the Florida State defense.

Jimbo Fisher's unit is not bad per se, but it does rank 30th in the nation with an average of 23.0 points allowed per game. A major red flag is the fact that the unit continues to struggle to get off the field.

Just last week in the ACC Championship, Georgia Tech held the ball for more than 34 minutes of play. This same unit was lucky to get past Boston College 20-17, as the Eagles had possession for more than 33 minutes and ran for 240 yards and a score in the process.

Now imagine what Mariota can do to such a defense. The superb defenses of Michigan State, Stanford and Utah certainly know, as all surrendered a minimum of 45 points.

The spread is still a tad too large due to Winston's late-game heroics, but Mariota has this one under control.

Prediction: Oregon 36, Florida State 28

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified

 

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: TV Schedule, Odds and Projections

We've been waiting for a change to the bowl system for quite some time now, and the inaugural College Football Playoff appears to be living up to expectations right out of the gate, giving us two very compelling semifinal contests to kick off 2015.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl pits No. 1 Alabama against No. 4 Ohio State in a battle between two of college's legendary coaches, Nick Saban and Urban Meyer. The Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual features No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State, as former Heisman winner Jameis Winston takes on this year's expected Heisman winner, Marcus Mariota.

Hollywood couldn't write a better script.

As we impatiently wait for these four teams to return to the gridiron and decide who will battle in the national championship game, here's a look at the full viewing information, odds and predictions for both semifinal contests.

 

Sugar Bowl

When: Thursday, January 1

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana

Time: 8:30 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 58
  • Spread: Alabama -10

 

Prediction

The Crimson Tide may be known for their defense, but the offense has been firing on all cylinders lately. In Alabama's last three games, it put up at least 42 points in each due to a well-balanced attack.

Quarterback Blake Sims overcame three early interceptions in the Iron Bowl to throw four touchdowns in a victory over Auburn, and he returned to his efficient self in the SEC championship, tossing two touchdowns and zero picks against Missouri. Amari Cooper remains one of college's biggest weapons and Sims' most reliable target, hauling in 25 receptions for 307 yards and three touchdowns over that span.

Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry complement the passing game perfectly. Both are averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry and have scored 10 touchdowns apiece this season. This two-headed monster out of the backfield allows Alabama to move the ball at will.

Ohio State has a prolific offense of its own; however, there's inexperience at the quarterback position. With J.T. Barrett out for the season, Cardale Jones stepped in and did a fantastic job in the Big Ten championship, completing 12 of his 17 attempts for 257 yards and three touchdowns. He was complemented nicely by running back Ezekiel Elliott, who carried 20 times for 220 yards and two scores.

The Buckeyes can sure move the ball, but contending with Alabama's fourth-ranked scoring defense that's allowing an average of just 16.6 points per game will be a hefty challenge for a quarterback making just his second career start. Alabama's experience will prevail.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 23

 

Rose Bowl

When: Thursday, January 1

Where: Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California

Time: 5 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

Betting Info: (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 71
  • Spread: Oregon -9.5

 

Prediction

Winston won the Heisman Trophy and the Seminoles won the national championship following a fantastic 2013 campaign; however, it hasn't been smooth sailing for this team once again this season.

Yes, Florida State did go undefeated in 2014, but over its final four games of the year, it didn't notch a victory by any more than five points. That's a cause for concern heading into the Rose Bowl considering three of those final four teams were unranked and didn't have nearly as prolific an offense as Oregon's.

If the Seminoles are going to take down the Ducks, they must score some serious points. Luckily, Winston put together a great performance in the ACC championship, completing 21 of his 30 passing attempts for 309 yards and three touchdowns. It marked the first time in seven games in which he didn't throw an interception. That should give him some confidence heading into the team's bowl game.

Of course, Winston will need some help from running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Rashad Greene. Cook is averaging 5.8 yards per carry on the season and can be a factor in the passing game as well. Greene's reliable hands have tallied 93 receptions on the year for 1,306 yards and seven scores. They give the Seminoles a great chance to accumulate points against Oregon's 80th-ranked defense in total yards allowed.

Florida State may be in better shape with the nation's 51st-ranked defense in that category, but it must contend with Mariota and Oregon's third-ranked scoring offense that's averaging 46.3 points per game.

Mariota has been a touchdown machine this season, totaling 53 while throwing just two interceptions. He has some great weapons of his own in running back Royce Freeman and wide receiver Byron Marshall. This trio has been lighting it up all season and scored at least 42 points in each of its last eight contests. Meanwhile, the Seminoles have only eclipsed that number three times this season.

Prediction: Oregon 45, Florida State 35

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 8.

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Rapid-Fire Predictions for Michigan State vs. Baylor in 2015 Cotton Bowl

Michigan State's only two losses were against two teams in the College Football Playoff, finishing behind Ohio State in the Big Ten. Baylor narrowly missed the CFP, ending the season as the very first team out. These two teams will square off in the Cotton Bowl.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer debate who will be victorious between these two Top 10 teams.

Who will win the Cotton Bowl?

Watch the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Rapid-Fire Predictions for Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech in Orange Bowl

The 2014 Orange Bowl looks to be an intriguing matchup. After a bittersweet regular season, the Mississippi State Bulldogs square off with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer dish out their predictions for the Orange Bowl.

Who will win: Mississippi State or Georgia Tech?

Check out the video and let us know! 

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Heisman Watch 2014: Breaking Down Race with Full Predictions

Controversy has become so common in college football that we are confused when there is none. Unfortunately for lovers of chaos, the Heisman Trophy competition should be an open-and-shut case.

Sure, you could have an argument about the finalists involved when only three players were given an invite to New York City. Players that put up fantastic numbers like Tevin Coleman or Trevone Boykin, or a defensive star like Scooby Wright should be rewarded for impressive seasons.

It's even weird to see a defending Heisman winner in Jameis Winston not become a finalist, even though his down year speaks for itself.

Still, the voters narrowed it down to just three deserving candidates. While each had a good year, the winner is pretty clear cut this season. Here is a breakdown of the three finalists in order of their projected finish.

 

3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

Remember when Alabama was just a running team that lacked dynamic players on offense? Well that certainly isn't the case anymore thanks to the play of Amari Cooper.

The junior has totaled 115 catches and 1,656 receiving yards this season, each of which leads all of FBS. His 14 touchdowns trails only Rashard Higgins of Colorado State.

As if his numbers weren't impressive enough, Cooper has been a human highlight reel that has become almost impossible to stop at this level.

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer will have to find a way to slow down the receiver in the Sugar Bowl, but he already has great things to say about the Crimson Tide star:

Alabama has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball to help it be ranked No. 1 headed into the bowl season, but Cooper is clearly the most impactful player on the roster.

 

2. Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin

This season has been the year of the running back, with Todd Gurley, Tevin Coleman, Ameer Abdullah, Semaje Perine and others posting big numbers. However, Melvin Gordon has been the best of the best with 2,336 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground.

Just for good measure, the Wisconsin running back also has 151 receiving yards and three touchdowns through the air.

Although his NCAA record of 408 rushing yards in a game lasted only one week until Perine was able to top it, Gordon did his damage in just three quarters in a blowout win over Nebraska.

The only downside is that he did not leave the best impression in his most recent game. With Wisconsin competing for a Big Ten title, Gordon only managed 76 yards with an average of 2.9 per carry and no scores.

It isn't surprising the Badgers struggled on an off day by their best player, losing 59-0.

Bleacher Report's Ian Kenyon argued that this was enough to lose him the Heisman Trophy:

Gordon was able to put together an historic season and one of the best you will ever see at the position. Unfortunately, it's unlikely he will raise the trophy.

 

1. Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Everyone on this list has had a great year in their own right, but it is hard to make an argument against Marcus Mariota being the most outstanding player in college football.

The Oregon quarterback leads the nation with a 186.3 efficiency rating, which is better than Jameis Winston's mark a year ago a full 15 points better than the next best on the 2014 list.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports also adds some incredible stats from this season:

Seth Davis of CBS Sports has more great things to say about the quarterback while discussing the Heisman race as a foregone conclusion:

While the Ducks went through a rough patch behind an injured offensive line, Mariota was there to hold the team together and end the season with eight straight wins while scoring at least 40 points in each.

After his five-touchdown performance in the Pac-12 title game, this should be a nearly unanimous decision for the Heisman Trophy.

 

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

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College Football Awards Show 2014: Start Time, Date, TV Info and More

Save for the Heisman Trophy, all of the biggest awards in college football will be handed out at Thursday's College Football Awards event.

Finalists have already been named for each of the marquee awards, with future NFL standouts sprinkled all across the place. Getting the chance to add your name to a list that features many of the best to ever play the game is no small feat. 

While the Heisman finalists will have to wait it out until Saturday night to learn their fate, each has a realistic chance to bring home some hardware Thursday. Let's take a look at everything you need to know for the show.

 

What: 2014 Home Depot College Football Awards

When: Thursday, December 11

Start Time (ET): 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN

 

Complete List of Finalists 

Note: Coach of the Year finalists TBA on Wednesday, Dec. 10

Awards finalists information per CBSSports.com.

 

Maxwell Award: College Player of the Year

Finalists: Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, Wisconsin RB Melvin Gordon, Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott

For an award that ever-so-closely mimics the Heisman Trophy, you'd be surprised at how rarely the Heisman and Maxwell winners intertwine.

Since 2008, Cam Newton is the only player to win both awards in the same year. Andrew Luck took it over Heisman winner Robert Griffin III in 2011, Manti Te'o stole it from Johnny Manziel in 2012, and AJ McCarron snuffed out Jameis Winston in 2013.

Will we see Marcus Mariota buck that trend come Thursday night? Don't be surprised.

The Oregon gunslinger has almost certainly wrapped up the Heisman, and fellow Maxwell finalists Melvin Gordon and Dak Prescott both faded down the stretch. Meanwhile, Mariota has been on fire throughout the entire season, as ESPN's Dari Nowkhah shared:

Back in 2010, Newton ran away with both major awards en route to his unbelievable championship season. Mariota's championship hopes are still up in the air, but he's emerged far enough ahead of the pack to follow in Newton's footsteps.

 

Biletnikoff Award: Top Wide Receiver

Finalists: Alabama's Amari Cooper, West Virginia's Kevin White, Colorado State's Rashard Higgins

Like Saturday's announcement of the Heisman Trophy, the naming of the Biletnikoff winner should be a mere formality.

That's because Alabama wideout Amari Cooper has simply shredded the competition—no disrespect to Kevin White and Rashard Higgins, two soon-to-be NFL standouts. With three 200-yard games this season, he's reached 1,656 receiving yards to lead the nation and even ink out Higgins' gaudy numbers.

With the way Hattiesburg American's Jason Munz puts it, White and Higgins are simply duking it out for second place:

Already having rewritten the record books at Alabama, Cooper will have the chance to add both a national title and an early first-round draft pick to his resume. But the Biletnikoff is already pretty much in the bag.

 

Chuck Bednarik Award: Defensive Player of the Year

None of the Chuck Bednarik Award finalists were able to make a late push to sneak into the once-wide-open Heisman conversation, but all three should enter Thursday night feeling confident of their chances.

It's a duo of sophomore standouts for top teams, as Ohio State's Joey Bosa and Arizona's Scooby Wright III propelled their teams to New Year's Six bowls through dominant play in the trenches. Joining them is Clemson's scary pass-rusher, Vic Beasley, who should be wreaking havoc off the edge at the next level rather quickly.

Wright may have garnered the most hype with his dominant play throughout the Pac-12 slate, including game-changing plays in Arizona's early road win over Oregon. As SB Nation's Spencer Hall noted, Oregon had to change its entire philosophy when the two played Friday:

Beasley has posted a remarkable season as expected, but Bosa's dominant play to get his Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff and Wright's impact play in big moments should have the two sophomores duking it out.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Games 2014-15: TV Schedule, Live Stream Info, Predictions for Top Matchups

From the pre-Christmas bowls to the vaunted College Football Playoff, fans of college football will be glued to their television sets all holiday season long.

There's nothing in sports quite like bowl season. Every school invited to one of the postseason games will play in front of a national television audience, and fans often get to see dream matchups they are otherwise left at the mercy of their athletic directors to schedule. 

The momentum built from a big bowl win can't be overstated either, as it can be the difference between high hopes and downtrodden doubts entering the 2015 campaign.

Let's take a look at all of the bowl matchups on tap for the postseason and predictions for three of the biggest games on tap.

 

Live Stream: Games on ABC/ESPN networks streamed on WatchESPN; Hyundai Sun Bowl streamed on CBSSports.com.

Note: Bowl schedule courtesy of ESPN.com.

  

Predictions for Top Matchups

Peach Bowl: No. 9 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 TCU

TCU might still be wiping the disappointment from its brow after being snubbed by the CFP committee. But the Horned Frogs will have to put that in the rearview mirror to prepare for Ole Miss in an exciting Peach Bowl matchup.

Any fan keeping close tabs on the 2014 season knows what kind of a high-flying matchup this will be, as FanSided's Patrick Schmidt shared:

Despite falling from No. 3 to No. 6 in the rankings after a 55-3 drubbing of Iowa State, TCU more than earned its chance to face one of the SEC heavyweights. And it creates quite the matchup on one side of the ball.

The Ole Miss defense has thwarted some of the nation's most prolific attacks, stifling both Mississippi State and Alabama in key victories throughout 2014. With Robert Nkemdiche wreaking havoc off the edge and Senquez Golson ball-hawking, TCU will undoubtedly face the stingiest defense it has gone up against all year.

Few quarterbacks have posted seasons as strong as that of TCU's Trevone Boykin, but the Rebels will have the team speed on defense to frustrate him.

Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace has been inconsistent, but he should find success here. In all of the Horned Frogs' games decided by one possession or less, the defense allowed 30-plus points.

TCU will be motivated by the snub and won't back down, but the Rebels have found their magic again after some late-season issues. Expect one of the best bowl matchups of the year to end in a tight victory for the Rebels.

Prediction: Ole Miss 34, TCU 30

 

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

In what should be a battle between Heisman Trophy winners when the time comes, the Rose Bowl between No. 2 Oregon and No. 3 Florida State will go to the most complete team. 

That's undoubtedly Marcus Mariota's Ducks.

Ever since an early October defeat at home to Arizona, Oregon has been an absolute wrecking ball. It has racked up 40 points in each of its final eight games, including a resounding 51-13 win in a rematch against the Wildcats in Friday's Pac-12 title game.

In order to continue their furious win streak, the Ducks will have to thwart the Seminoles' unbeaten streak, which has stretched over two seasons. But Florida State has been playing with fire, with seven wins by six points or fewer, and on New Year's Day, the 'Noles will get burned.

Florida State's defense has been opportunistic in making plays to allow Jameis Winston to mount game-winning drives, but no opportunities will come against Mariota—who has thrown two picks all year to Winston's 17. Both quarterbacks will bring their best, but the Ducks are peaking at the right time and will win this one convincingly. 

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

 

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

Ohio State got the final spot in the CFP it so desperately wanted, and now the Buckeyes get the reward of playing top-ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

The problem with that for the Buckeyes? Their upcoming foe looks the part of a buzz saw ready to rip every one of its opponents to shreds on the football field.

The Crimson Tide's playoff hopes looked dashed with an early season loss at Ole Miss, but they've more than taken care of business since. They have risen up to tests from LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn in recent weeks and have left no doubt about their supremacy. 

As ESPN's Paul Finebaum put best, the doubters were awfully wrong:

The Buckeyes have mirrored Alabama with a dominant run of their own, beating 11 straight opponents after a shocking 14-point home loss to Virginia Tech back in Week 2. Third-string-quarterback-turned-starter Cardale Jones looked magnificent in his starting debut against Wisconsin and should find more success against a susceptible Alabama secondary.

That will only be enough to keep this one close, however. The Buckeyes' stingy defensive front will be no match for Alabama's downhill rushing attack, and Blake Sims' arm along with Amari Cooper's threat on the outside will keep Ohio State's defense on its heels.

Don't count against Alabama head coach Nick Saban with three-plus weeks to prepare.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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Rose Bowl 2015: Updated Odds and Full Preview for Oregon vs. Florida State

The 2015 Rose Bowl has everything a college football fan could ask for, including the pressure that comes with being in the semifinals of the initial College Football Playoff. 

Oregon and Florida State are two national brands that are instantly recognizable by even the most casual followers of the sport. The Seminoles feature last season’s Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback in Jameis Winston, while the Ducks counter with this season’s overwhelming Heisman favorite in Marcus Mariota.

The two teams combined to go 25-1 this season, and Florida State has not lost in two years. Oregon typically destroys its opponents (winning by just over 26 points a game the past eight contests), while Florida State has worn out the cliche “finds a way to win” saying with escape acts against North Carolina State, Louisville, Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami, Boston College, Florida and Georgia Tech.

Here is a look at the essential information for the game before digging into a preview.

 

2015 Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State

When: Thursday, Jan. 1

Where: Rose Bowl Stadium, Pasadena, California

Start Time (ET): 5 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN 

Odds (via Odds Shark): Oregon -9.5, as of December 8

 

Preview

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher could not have set up this game much better, via Andrew Greif of The Oregonian:

It's what college football is all about. That makes for great TV and great competition and what it's all about. Getting the best against the best. Oregon is a national brand-name team. They have earned that right, the team is recognized all the way across this country. … Florida State is a national brand-name. When you put two quarterbacks like that, brand names like that as far as college football it's what the playoff was designed to do.

While Florida State has won every game it has played the last two seasons, the key to this one will be stopping the high-octane Oregon attack. Jared Shanker of ESPN.com believes that the Seminoles caught a break getting matched up with the Ducks instead of Alabama:

It sounds crazy -- and maybe it is considering Oregon is outscoring opponents by almost 24 points per game -- but football is a game of matchups, and the Seminoles are better off against the Ducks, an early 8.5-point favorite.

Oregon’s offense is “off the charts,” Fisher said, but the Seminoles have the luxury of three-week period to prepare for the Ducks’ dynamic spread. Although no offense is soaring quite like the Ducks’, Florida State’s last three games have been against Boston College, Florida and Georgia Tech. All or some of those teams are predicated on the run, have mobile quarterbacks, use a lot of misdirection and run some variance of the option.

That experience may help, but stopping Boston College, Florida or even the tricky option offense of Georgia Tech pales in comparison to stopping Marcus Mariota and company.

The good news for Florida State is that it is loaded with dynamic athletes along the defensive line who are explosive enough to counter Oregon’s speed and strong enough to stuff the middle. Eddie Goldman in particular will be asked to plug the middle, while Mario Edwards must contain the edge and find a way to redirect plays back to Goldman and the linebackers.

Oregon’s one weakness on the offensive side this year was protecting Mariota, and it allowed 29 sacks throughout the campaign. While much of that was when there were injury problems along the front, Goldman and Edwards represent the protection’s biggest challenge of the year.

Florida State will have to generate pressure because the rest of the matchup with Oregon’s offense doesn’t look promising. The Ducks only turned the ball over eight times this entire season and should be able to run all over Florida State’s 60th-ranked rush defense with Mariota and Royce Freeman.

Mariota is the face of college football this season, but Freeman gave Oregon’s offense an extra dimension down the stretch with 12 touchdowns in his last eight games. The freshman is a physical presence in the backfield who improved as the season progressed.

Remember, the Seminoles allowed 331 rushing yards to Georgia Tech the last time out. Oregon should have plenty of lanes to attack on the ground. Of course, that will force Florida State to devote more attention to stopping the run, which will open up the passing game over the top for Mariota.

On the other side of the ball, Florida State will have to establish the run for multiple reasons. For one, freshman Dalvin Cook is a budding superstar who carried the offense with 392 yards in his last two games and won an ACC Championship Game MVP award. What’s more, Oregon’s defense is a mediocre 57th in yards per rush, so there should be some openings along the line.

If the Seminoles can keep the chains moving and the clock running, it would also keep Mariota and the powerful Oregon offense on the sidelines for longer and give the Florida State defense a much-needed rest.

Running the ball consistently should open up the pass for Florida State as well, which is critical because Oregon is an abysmal 103rd in the country in passing defense. The Seminoles counter with the No. 14 passing offense.

That disparity is the biggest advantage Florida State has on paper in this game, and it needs to exploit it to come away with the victory. Look for deep-threat Rashad Greene and Nick O’Leary, who is Winston’s security blanket on critical third downs, to make some pivotal plays in the passing attack.

However, before you just assume Florida State’s offense is going to destroy an overmatched Oregon defense, it is important to point out that the Ducks thrive by creating turnovers. Only seven defenses in the country scored more points off turnovers per game than Oregon this year, while Florida State’s offense ranked an alarming 116th in the country with 27 turnovers.

The game will ultimately be determined by a costly Florida State turnover. Playing against Mariota and Oregon’s offense puts an incredible amount of pressure on the opposing offense to score almost every time it touches the ball. Winston will press given the circumstances and throw a crippling interception. 

Mariota will make him pay.

Prediction: Oregon 34, Florida State 24

 

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