NCAA Football

Arkansas State vs. Ball State: Score, Grades and Analysis from GoDaddy Bowl 2014

Fredi Knighten and Arkansas State denied Ball State its first ever bowl victory on Sunday night. 

The calm before the national championship storm was anything but that, as the sophomore quarterback led a late comeback drive to propel the Red Wolves to a thrilling 23-20 win over the Cardinals in the GoDaddy Bowl.

Filling in for Adam Kennedy, who left the game with an injury in the second quarter, Knighten threw for just 115 yards through the air. But many of those came when it mattered most, as he orchestrated a five-play, 59-yard touchdown drive and threw the game-winning score with just 32 seconds remaining.

It appeared, however, even that wouldn't be enough. 

Ball State drove right back down the field, but after a late hit put the Cardinals in position for a 38-yard field goal, the Red Wolves blocked it to secure to amazing, roller-coaster win. 

It was the Cardinals who got the scoring started late in the first quarter. Thanks to a heavy dose of Jahwan Edwards on the ground, they went 89 yards over 14 plays and more than six minutes, eventually scoring on a Keith Wenning-to-Willie Snead nine-yard TD connection.

Edwards finished with 146 yards and a score.

After the teams exchanged field goals, Arkansas State tied things up before halftime with a late touchdown drive that was fueled by a little Gus Malzahn-inspired trickeration:

The Red Wolves took the 16-13 lead early in the fourth quarter, but things got crazy in the final 10 minutes. 

Wenning threw an interception that seemingly sealed it for Arkansas State, but Knighten responded with a pick of his own—this one in the end zone. Ball State drove 80 yards and an Edwards touchdown looked to give the Cardinals the win with 1:33 remaining. 

But then came Knighten's magical touchdown drive, followed by the game-winning blocked field goal, giving Bryan Harsin an 8-5 season and bowl victory in his first campaign filling Malzahn's shoes. 

 

Player Grades

Fredi Knighten, Arkansas State: A-

Taking over for Kennedy, Knighten stepped up in a big way. 

Although he didn't do a ton of damage through the air, tallying just 5.8 yards per throw, he managed the game (75 percent completion percentage, just one turnover) and made his impact on the ground. Running Arkansas State's tricky offense, he carried the ball 19 times for 97 yards.

As the A-State Game Day Twitter feed pointed out, it was a career night for the youngster:

Throw in the game-winning drive, and it's clear Arkansas State is in very good hands for the future. 

 

Keith Wenning, Ball State: B-

In the windy conditions, Wenning had a tough night throwing the ball. He completed just 23 of 44 throws for 215 yards (4.9 yards per attempt), a touchdown and a late interception.

But as Ball State announcer Pat Boylan noted, he found other ways to make a positive impact:

Overall, it was hardly the ideal ending for Wenning, who enjoyed such a prolific collegiate career. But he had solid pocket presence and made some nice throws that showed why he has potential as a late-round NFL draft pick.

After a late drive that set the team up for the game-tying field goal, has nothing to be ashamed of. 

 

Qushaun Lee, Arkansas State: A

Playing on a Sunday night, Qushuan Lee looked a little bit like Sean Lee in the middle of Arkansas State's defense. 

The junior middle linebacker was all over the place, as he recorded double-digit tackles and then came up with a huge interception late in the game. 

It's difficult for one player to make more of an impact on the defensive side of the ball. 

 

Jahwan Edwards, Ball State: A

Where would the Cardinals' offense have been without Edwards? As Wenning struggled to find a rhythm and move the ball with consistency, Edwards was a true threat in the running game. 

The junior running back not only showed some impressive elusiveness and cutting ability, but he ran hard, often dragging tacklers for some extra yardage. This run was a good example of that:

In the end, he finished with 146 yards on 28 carries and one crucial fumble recovery late in the game, stealing the show from Ball State's high-powered pass offense. 

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Texas Football: 4 Recruits That Charlie Strong Will Immediately Lure to Texas

Chief among reasons that Charlie Strong has been hired to be Texas' next head coach is his ability to recruit. The program could use an early return on its decision.

The Longhorns' class is currently ranked No. 12 according to Rivals, sporting major holes at key positions of need, the main ones being at defensive back and defensive end.

Those holes provide Strong with a perfect opportunity to make a quick statement on the job. Signing day is less than a month away, so many of the nation's big-name recruits have already chosen where they will play their college ball.

Still, there is plenty of talent that is still waiting to be snatched up. Given his reputation as a defensive guru, as well as his ability to mine talent from the state of Florida, Strong should have no problem adding these recruits to his first Longhorn class.

 

DE Solomon Thomas

The Longhorns have been pursuing 4-star defensive end Solomon Thomas for quite some time, and the Strong hire should finally put them over the hump.

With Jackson Jeffcoat graduating and Cedric Reed potentially bolting for the NFL, Texas needs an impact end like Thomas. At 6'3" and 265 pounds, he has the size to immediately make an impact on the strong side.

The Coppell product has paid visits to Stanford, Ohio State, UCLA and Arkansas, but has kept Texas in his top five. After producing his second All-American defensive end, Strong should make a compelling case for Thomas' commitment.

 

S Edwin Freeman

After missing out on Jamal Adams, the Longhorns remain starved for a blue chip safety recruit for its 2014 secondary. For now, Edwin Freeman might be their last hope.

Currently projected to play on the back end, Freeman also has the ability to play outside linebacker. His 6'1" frame has room for added bulk, but has the requisite speed to play at safety. It all depends on what his coaches determine.

But based on Texas' need at safety, it's hard to imagine him not getting a look there. Adrian Phillips is graduating, leaving them with unproven and inconsistent options at both spots. Luckily for them, Quandre Diggs has decided to stay for his senior season and could slide over if needed.

Reeling in Freeman is among the program's highest priorities. However, Strong would be wise to check on Adams, as well as former Texas A&M commit Dylan Sumner-Gardner. All three have the ability to play meaningful snaps early on.

 

DT Travonte Valentine

Fresh off of his decommitment from Miami, Florida native Travonte Valentine is well within Strong's wheelhouse and would fill a need for the 'Horns.

Sure, Texas already has three defensive tackles committed for 2014. But Trey Lealaimatafao has taken three visits in the past month, while Courtney Garnett seems destined for a redshirt season. Zaycoven Henderson, a 4-star prospect, will also need time to develop his raw talent.

Valentine is a similar raw talent, but would easily be the leader of Texas' new crop of tackles. He has great size at 6'3" and 305 pounds, possessing the burst to create havoc in the backfield.

Alex Norman and Paul Boyette Jr. have not panned out for the Longhorns, who need depth behind upperclassmen Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson. Valentine gives them a player that will be ready to take over once they depart. 

 

RB D'Ernest Johnson

Like Valentine, D'Ernest Johnson is a Florida native that should be on Strong's radar. Texas could use him to add some depth at running back.

Johnathan Gray could be out until August with an Achilles injury. Commit Kevin Shorter is dealing with a potentially career-threatening spine injury. Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron are both rising seniors.

Does Texas need any other reason to add another running back to its 2014 haul?

Johnson, who has an offer from Louisville, would give Texas a shifty back that can catch passes out of the backfield. And if he doesn't work out there, he projects well as a defensive back.

Another name to watch at tailback is former Texas pledge and current Louisville commit Daniel Gresham. He is as likely as any to follow Strong to Austin and would project to be the team's power back once Bergeron graduates.

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USC Football: Steve Sarkisian Needs to Hire a Defensive Line Coach ASAP

Ever since Ed Orgeron angrily stormed out of Troy after being passed over for the head-coaching job, there's been a large void to fill at USC. Spirits are relatively high around the Trojans, as a Las Vegas Bowl win and success on the recruiting trail are starting off a much more favorable offseason compared to 2012.

New head coach Steve Sarkisian has been hard at work assembling a new staff around him, but fittingly enough, the one role he hasn't yet filled is that of the defensive line coach.

It's been over a month, and the position remains hauntingly vacant.

And it hasn't just been vacant; no really viable candidates have been tossed around to take the job, which is troubling, as the defense line was so pivotal to USC's success in 2013.

At first, it looked as if fabled recruiter and Washington defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi would be following Sark to Southern California. In late December, however, USC and Washington began investigating Lupoi for NCAA violations. Lupoi was accused of paying for online classes and private tutoring for a recruit.

That brought the Lupoi train to a screeching halt and has left the Trojans without options. It has also caused some heat to come down on athletic director Pat Haden because of USC's existing sanctions. 

Sarkisian told the media that he would contact Orgeron about coming back to USC, but whether it's because of pride or other opportunities, the fan-favorite coach has yet to return to Troy. 

According to LA Daily News' Scott Wolf, that best-case scenario for Trojan fans absolutely isn't happening.

So if Orgeron isn't coming back, who is Sarkisian going to hire?

That is the million-dollar question at USC right now.

Sarkisian has assembled a top-notch staff, though it is arguable that popular coaches like Tommie Robinson and Clancy Pendergast proved enough in 2013 and should have been able to keep their jobs. Nevertheless, the position that has been the hardest to fill has been that of the D-line coach. 

It's important that Sarkisian finds a top-notch replacement soon; games are won in the trenches, and we saw in 2013 that the Trojans had one of the best fronts in the Pac-12. While much of that can be attributed to the players' talents, we know that the Orgeron effect was a major part of it.

Sarkisian should be looking for a coach who is not only a good teacher, but also a great motivator. In short, he's looking for someone Orgeron-esque, and that's what makes this particular vacancy that much more arduous to fill.

USC resumes classes on Jan. 13, and offseason workouts will begin shortly thereafter. There's no doubt the position will be filled well in advance of spring ball, but the sooner the new D-line coach can get in, make his mark and start getting to know the players, the better Sarkisian's chance of succeeding next fall.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Steve Sarkisian Needs to Hire a Defensive Line Coach ASAP

Ever since Ed Orgeron angrily stormed out of Troy after being passed over for the head-coaching job, there's been a large void to fill at USC...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Ohio State Defense Must Improve Dramatically for 2014 Title Run

With quarterback Braxton Miller running Urban Meyer's spread system, Ohio State's offense operated at a record-breaking efficiency in 2013. The high-flying Buckeyes scored points at a historic rate on their way to a second consecutive undefeated regular season.

A beleaguered defense, however, cost Ohio State a chance to play for a national title. The Buckeyes were one victory away from punching their ticket to Pasadena, Calif., but Michigan State ran through the Buckeyes in the Big Ten title game. Clemson did the same thing four weeks later in the Discover Orange Bowl, handing Ohio State its second loss in as many games.

If the Buckeyes hope to make a run at major college football's first playoff, they'll need dramatic improvement on that side of the ball.

Despite this year's poor results, Meyer has lofty expectations for his defense.

"Is it what we expect? No, we expect a top 10 defense at Ohio State," Meyer said, according to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors.

The Buckeyes were far from that this season. Ohio State ranked 46th in total defense, giving up an average of 377 yards per game. The Buckeyes were particularly bad against the pass, ranking 110th out of 123 teams after allowing an average of 268 passing yards to opposing quarterbacks.

It was late in the season, as if the defense were deteriorating, when things fell apart for Ohio State.

Looking ahead to next season, the Buckeyes will return six of seven starters in the front seven, but they'll be losing two of their best defenders in linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Bradley Roby. In total, the secondary will need three new starters.

Fortunately for Ohio State, there are a number of young players who appear to be primed for stardom.

Soon-to-be sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa was sensational in his first year, beating out sophomore standout Adolphus Washington for a starting position. Freshman Safety Vonn Bell, making his first start in the Orange Bowl, showcased impressive athleticism. 

Those two freshmen made the biggest defensive plays of the game.

In the first quarter with Clemson backed up at its own 1-yard line, Bosa blew through the offensive line and forced an intentional grounding call on quarterback Tajh Boyd, resulting in a safety. In the second quarter, the Tigers were threatening inside Ohio State's 10-yard line before Bell made a leaping interception on a flip pass from Boyd.

According to Rowland's article, these are the kind of players defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is expecting to step up and turn things around for the Buckeyes:

Those guys fought for every single one of those seniors. They had a great week of practice and were excited to play. I think we found some guys that we know are going to be really good players in the future.

If playmakers don't step up defensively, the 2014 season will look a lot like 2013.

 

All stats via NCAA.com

David Regimbal is the Ohio State Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

10 SEC Teams Who Will Finish in the Top 25 Recruiting Class Rankings

The SEC is generally viewed as the best conference in college football. It's extremely competitive not only on the field, but also on the recruiting trail. The final top 25 recruiting rankings are always dominated by SEC schools, and this year will be no different.

Alabama, Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M have their eyes on the No. 1 spot. Auburn's magical season has helped it surge up the rankings, plus Florida and Georgia are up to their old recruiting ways.

Also, underdogs like Ole Miss and Kentucky are constructing impressive recruiting classes.

Note: All ranking information, star ratings and commitment totals are based on 247Sports' recruiting rankings

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Michigan Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Losing 31-14 to Kansas State in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl was just the tip of the iceberg for the Michigan Wolverines, who have several adjustments to make and concerns to address before even thinking of contending for a 2014 Big Ten title. 

This past year's 7-6 skid dashed preseason expectations that included winning a division championship, downing Ohio State and rattling off two in a row versus Michigan State. 

Not one of those three goals came to fruition, despite a somewhat encouraging offensive display during a 42-41 season-ending loss to the Buckeyes at The Big House. 

Now, it is back to the drawing board. Team 134 fell short.

If Team 135 wants to avoid a similar outcome in Ann Arbor, coach Brady Hoke must correct lingering issues prior to spring practice. 

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Virginia Tech Football: 4 Recruits Hokies Must Land on NSD 2014

National signing day (NSD) is just 30 days away, and most teams have a put a bow on the 2013 season. All teams, however, are focused on securing the signatures of mercurial and impressionable 17-year-old high school kids from across the nation as NSD rapidly approaches.  

The heavy lifting was completed months ago, as coaches traveled across their assigned geographic footprint and sold these kids on why their school was the place to be. 

The Virginia Tech Hokies currently have 27 verbal commitments. The key, though, is getting each of those commitments to sign an official letter of intent and still be able to add another player or two to what is shaping up to be one of Tech's biggest and most talented recruiting classes ever. 

Can the Hokies close with a couple of big-time recruits left on their list? Or will another team swoop in late and create more recruiting heartbreak in Blacksburg?

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What a Difference a Year Makes: Key Stats That Changed Notre Dame's Fate

A year ago, Notre Dame was in the BCS National Championship. After completing an undefeated regular season against one of the toughest schedules in football, the Irish made it to Miami thanks to a stingy defense, a strong running game and a mistake-free football team that dominated the turnover battle. 

The Irish will be home watching Auburn and Florida State play for this season's title. After winning 12 games, the Irish slid back to nine wins, with losses to Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt and Stanford revealing some of the fatal flaws of Brian Kelly's fourth Notre Dame squad. 

A large part of the slide was due to the loss of some key personnel. In addition to having to replace quarterback Everett Golson after his spring suspension, the Irish sorely missed All-Americans Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o, their top two running backs, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, and key graduating defensive starters Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta. 

But personnel changes were hardly the only problem. In addition to injuries decimating the starting lineup, a look at some of the key statistics on both offense and defense illustrate the difference between 12-1 and 9-4.  

 

Offense

There are a few striking differences between the Irish offense of 2013 and the team from 2012. The biggest is the quarterback. In Golson, Brian Kelly had a quarterback who was physically capable of executing a spread attack. In Tommy Rees, the Irish did not. 

With Golson, the Irish relied more heavily on a ground game, both to utilize his running ability and to take the mental game out of his hands. The Irish ran for 25 percent fewer yards this season (1,963) than last year (2,462), and it's hard not to notice the gaping hole Golson left as the team's leading scorer on the ground, with no running back matching his touchdown total. 

While the team's scoring average actually went up five percent, the teams rushing touchdowns were almost cut in half from 23 to 12. With essentially all new running backs, the team's rushing average fell from 4.9 yards per carry to 4.5. Without a steady ground game to rely on, the team's third-down conversion rate fell as well. 

The Irish were far more prolific scoring touchdowns via the pass, throwing for 27 in 2013 while passing for just 14 in 2012. They did that in spite of completing just 52.6 percent of passes, down from 58.2 in 2012.

While Tommy Rees was hardly known for his downfield passing, he threw for 254.8 yards per game, up over 30 yards from the 2012 average of 222.8. Rees also tossed 13 interceptions this season, an almost 40 percent increase on last year's total of eight. But factoring in fumbles lost, the Irish offense only turned the ball over twice more than last season.

 

Defense

The Irish went from an elite team to just an above-average one mostly because the defense slipped almost across the board.

The team did lose Maxwell Award winner Manti Te'o as well as fellow starters Danny Spond, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. Notre Dame also suffered significant injuries to half of its two-deep, including All-American-caliber talents in Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, and those injuries showed. The unit suffered significant regressions in just about every statistical category.  

First and foremost, the Irish were easier to score on. After giving up just 12.8 points a game last year, that number jumped to 22.4, nearly a 10-point swing. The Irish gave up over 20 percent more first downs than last year, almost 40 percent more rushing yards, and after allowing a relatively stingy 3.5 yards per carry, that number jumped to 4.2 in 2013.

One of the historically tough Notre Dame rush defenses in 2012, it took until the Oklahoma game for the Irish to give up their first rushing touchdown before giving up just four on the season. This year they gave up 13, a big reason why the defense's red-zone touchdown percentage jumped from just 34 percent to 52. 

Bob Diaco's defenses in South Bend haven't been known for their takeaways or sacks, but the 2012 unit put up healthy numbers. But after tallying 34 sacks in 2012, that number dropped to just 21. And after taking the football away 23 times, that number fell to 17. 

 

Overall

After building the 2012 team's identity around a suffocating defense and a strong ground game, the offense's modest improvements weren't enough to make up for the step backward on defense. With a running attack that couldn't hold up its side of the bargain and a passing game that wasn't accurate enough to be as explosive as it needed to be, the unit's efficiency was hampered by the lack of a running quarterback. 

Yet blaming the season on Tommy Rees hardly paints an accurate picture. A year after Manti Te'o led an opportunistic, ball-hawking, no-mistakes group, the 2013 defense gave up more rushing touchdowns, passing touchdowns, third-down conversions and red-zone scores, all contributing to a much smaller margin for error. 

That razor-thin edge was seen all too frequently in the Irish's four losses, when defensive struggles against Michigan put the Irish in a shootout they couldn't win. Against Oklahoma, early turnovers and two broken plays on defense doomed Notre Dame. Against Pitt, critical fourth-quarter interceptions and a disappearing ground game gave the Irish one of their ugliest losses in years. And a decimated defense was no match for Stanford's power running game. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Nebraska Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Nebraska football fans, still basking in the afterglow of NU’s first bowl win since 2009, can now turn an unfiltered eye to the future. As the long offseason is truly upon us, it is time to consider what questions Nebraska must answer for next season to be more successful. After the drama and disappointment surrounding 2013, Nebraska fans would welcome an uptick in fortune and better results to celebrate.

For that to happen, here are five areas of concern Nebraska must address.

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Pac-12 Football: 10 Things We Learned from the Bowl Season

A record nine Pac-12 teams participating in bowl season meant plenty of opportunity to reflect one final time on why the 2013 season played out as it did. Nine bowl games also offered a peek into the conference's 2014 outlook. 

 

Beating Fire with Fire Is Key to Toppling Stanford

Stanford's 24-20 loss to Michigan State in the Rose Bowl was not so much a lesson of how to beat the Cardinal, but rather reinforced a reality made evident in their previous four losses during the last two seasons. 

The Spartans came to Pasadena, Calif., boasting a physical defensive style on par with that which Stanford rode to a second consecutive conference championship. 

When asked if Michigan State's was the best defense he faced, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney said, "Definitely," per a press-conference transcript from asapsports.com.

He added: 

I knew they played team defense where they were all rallying to the ball. I knew they don't stray away from their job. But when you get out there and you see how cluttered everything is and how much problems they cause, we needed to make some adjustments, and we failed at that and didn't score.

Stanford's previous losses in the 2013 campaign came to Utah and USC, two teams built on unflinching, physical defense. Don't be surprised if in their pursuit to catch the Cardinal, other Pac-12 teams try to restructure their defenses similarly in much the same way numerous Pac-12 offenses adopted hurry-up schemes after Oregon's success in the late 2000s. 

 

The Oregon Run Game Is Sure to Keep Defenses Guessing (and Sweating) 

Postseason play foreshadowed the look of the 2014 Oregon offense. And what opposing defensive coordinators saw in two different games has to have them reaching for the aspirin. 

First, in the Alamo Bowl, a healthy quarterback Marcus Mariota went off for 133 yards rushing. With running backs Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall returning, the Ducks have plenty of speedy options.

Oregon also gets an injection of power to complement all that quickness. 

Verbal recruiting commit Royce Freeman is a 6'0", 227-pound back with a punishing ball-carrying style unlike anything seen from recent Ducks backs. He scored three touchdowns in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

 

For Arizona's Griffey, It's Like Father, Like Son 

Arizona quarterback B.J. Denker won Most Valuable Player of the AdvoCare V100 Bowl, but freshman wide receiver Trey Griffey stole the show with a pair of touchdown receptions.

The son of Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., Griffey’s first score came on a leaping grab reminiscent of his father’s home-run robbing catches in the outfield as a Seattle Mariner.

 

Breaking Old Habits a Must for Arizona State  

Arizona State recorded the Pac-12's best regular-season conference record and won the South Division title in head coach Todd Graham's second season. However, their 37-23 blowout loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl was a significant departure from the mantra of accountability Graham emphasized in Arizona State's run to the Pac-12 South title. 

"We didn't practice [well]," Graham said in his postgame press conference, per TheSunDevils.com. "We didn't come prepared to play and that's our job as coaches.

"It's not the players' fault, that's why they hire coaches, to get your guys ready to play," Graham added.

The Sun Devils have a long offeason to regroup, and more importantly, refocus. Specifically, Arizona State got away from its committed seven penalties—a season high—for 59 yards.

The Sun Devils only accrued more penalty yards on Sept. 21 at Stanford. Not coincidentally, that too was a loss. 

 

Bending but Not Breaking Is the Reality for Pac-12 Defenses 

Washington was outgained 473 yards to 319 by BYU in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, yet the Huskies won by a comfortable 15-point margin, 31-16. Conversely, Washington outgained Stanford 489 to 279 but lost, 31-28, when the two met in October.

Those results aren't indicative of a trend. Surrendering more yards is counterintuitive to any defensive game plan, and it's no coincidence the Pac-12's top scoring defense—Stanford—was also the conference's second-best defense in yards yielded. 

However, the proliferation of uptempo offenses around the conference has made giving up yards a virtual inevitability. What becomes of those yards is the more meaningful measurement of a defense's performance. 

 

Takeaways = Wins

More turnovers gained typically means more opportunities for an offense, which means more points, and that translates to more wins. Pretty simple formula, right? 

Just how much winning the turnover battle can mean to a team's record may not be more evident anywhere in the Pac-12 than at Oregon State. 

The Beavers used two takeaways to beat Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl, 38-23. And while it certainly didn't hurt that the Beavers converted both Broncos turnovers into touchdowns, the highs and lows of Oregon State's up-and-down rode with how it fared in turnover margin. 

In seven wins, Oregon State was plus-11 in turnovers gained to turnovers lost. The Beavers were minus-eight in their six losses. 

Amid its five-game losing streak to end the regular season, Oregon State was within single digits of two of its opponents: Oregon and Stanford. Not coincidentally, those were the two losses in which the Beavers did not lose the turnover battle. 

 

Mike Leach Cares Not for Second-Guessing

It stands to reason Washington State head coach Mike Leach would be an unhappy camper following his team's blown lead to lose the New Mexico Bowl to Colorado State, 48-45. After the Cougars threw away a 15-point cushion in fewer than three minutes, an obviously frustrated Leach let reporters know in his postgame press conference just how unhappy he was. 

 

UCLA Offense Developing into a Force 

The top three defenses UCLA faced in 2013 were Stanford, USC and Virginia Tech, against which the Bruins scored 10, 35 and 42 points. 

A difference between the first result and latter two is that UCLA saw USC and Virginia Tech at season's end, after the Bruins offense found its confidence behind quarterback Brett Hundley. 

"To be able to come in against a [Virginia Tech] defense that was ranked eighth in scoring defense, that's a credit to these guys and [offensive coordinator] Noel Mazzone," UCLA head coach Jim Mora said in his postgame press conference, per UCLABruins.com

With much of the offensive line remaining intact, a deep receiving corps and an influx of more young talent to Westwood, Calif., UCLA is on course to have an offense that can compete with the nation's best defense on a weekly basis. 

Oh, and don't forget Hundley. Reports of his return for a third season captaining the UCLA offense is the foundation for what should be an explosive bunch in 2014.

 

Leaving Las Vegas (and USC)

For several USC Trojans, their 45-20 rout of Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl was their final time donning cardinal and gold. Defensive lineman George Uko, offensive lineman Marcus Martin and safety Dion Bailey all declared their intent to forego their remaining NCAA eligibility to pursue the NFL draft. 

Wide receiver Marqise Lee is also headed to the NFL, which means new USC head coach Steve Sarkisian will not be seeing any of this next season: 

Sarkisian inherits a roster already thinned by NCAA sanctions, but the mass departures leave USC even more so heading into 2014. He'll have quarterback Cody Kessler, running back Buck Allen and wide receiver Nelson Agholor, all of whom made big plays in the Las Vegas Bowl, as well as All-American defensive lineman Leonard Williams. 

Still, the key lesson to take from USC's bowl appearance is the Trojans will look quite a bit different the next time they take the field—for better or worse. 

 

The Best Is Still Ahead for the Pac-12 in the Postseason 

Rather than 2013 marking the culmination of the Pac-12's ascent, the conference's record season is a milestone building toward more. A 6-3 final bowl record with countless impressive performances on both sides of the ball gives the Pac-12 more collective positive momentum heading into the offseason than its ever had. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Pac-12 Football: 10 Things We Learned from the Bowl Season

A record nine Pac-12 teams participating in bowl season meant plenty of opportunity to reflect one final time on why the 2013 season played out as it did. Nine bowl games also offered a peek into the conference's 2014 outlook...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Power Ranking 10 Best 2014 Early Enrollee Recruits

The trendy thing to do as a recruit these days is enroll early in college. It gives a recruit a head start on getting comfortable in his new environment, used to going to class and learning the playbook.

Another great thing about enrolling early is that it allows a prospect to participate in spring practices. By the time training camp starts, many recruits who enroll early actually feel like redshirt freshmen.

The 2014 class has a group of prospects who are set to enroll early at the school they are committed to.

Alabama will be getting a pair of 5-star commitments on campus soon, while Florida will get a much-needed quarterback for the spring. Also, Tennessee's headliner will be in Knoxville before most of its recruiting class arrives. 

Player evaluations are based on review of tape at Scout.comRivals and 247Sports.

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10 Biggest Takeaways from 2014 High School Football All-Star Games

High school football all-star games are always interesting to cover because so much happens around each of them. There's always observing which recruits are performing well during practices, the recruiting buzz and then prospects announcing their decisions.

With the Under Armour and Army all-star games now over, it's time to reflect. A lot of things happened over the past few days, so it would be wise to hit on some of the key moments.

An SEC school will not finish this recruiting cycle as strong as many thought, while a Pac-12 school is showing signs of life on the trail. Plus, a mother once again showed her displeasure on national television.

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Stephon Tuitt Reportedly Announces He Will Enter 2014 NFL Draft

With so many college football players officially declaring for the NFL draft, Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has added his name to the growing list of pro prospects hoping to hear their name called in May.

Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton reported that Tuitt will officially declare for the NFL draft.

As a junior, Tuitt had the option to stay one more season with the Fighting Irish, but he decided that this was his best opportunity to be drafted.  He's certainly in good shape, as Bleacher Report's own Matt Miller has him going No. 35 overall to the Cleveland Browns.  Rob Rang of CBS Sports has Tuitt going No. 14 overall, while Dane Brugler has him going No. 28.

It was a productive year for Tuitt with the Fighting Irish.  He finished the season with 49 total tackles, nine tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and an interception returned for a touchdown.  Bleacher Report's Michael Felder had this to say about Tuitt after he declared.

At 6'7'' and 322 pounds, Tuitt is a monster on the defensive line.  He combines the strength and the size of a defensive tackle with the speed and the agility of a defensive end, which makes him a mismatch against most offenses.  He is capable of staying low and bull-rushing the quarterback with his strength, but he also has a variety of pass-rushing moves.

At the next level, Tuitt could either play on the end as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme, or he could play as a five-technique in the 3-4.  Regardless, any team that drafts him will be prepared to take on a versatile defensive lineman capable of making big plays.

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Texas Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Now that the Texas Longhorns have their guy in Charlie Strong, the entire focus shifts to the offseason.

Mack Brown had the Longhorns finish with at least four losses in each of the past four seasons, falling below the standard that he himself had established throughout his 16-year tenure.

With new blood being infused into the program with Strong's arrival, the future is—in a word—exciting.

That isn't to say the Texas program is without concern. Far from it.

In fact, some of the same issues that plagued the Longhorns for the past few seasons will likely re-emerge as critical fixes in order for Strong to establish some success down the road.

But what else is on the horizon for the Stronghorns?

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Miami Football: 3 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

After two restless days, the Miami Hurricanes football team received news that its head coach Al Golden would be staying at The U.

But after a handful of relieving sighs and "thank you" messages, the 'Canes will get back to business, focusing on how to improve during the offseason.

Following a disappointing finish to the 2013 campaign, there certainly are a few concerns surrounding the squad.

Other than defensive improvement, which has been highlighted recently, three areas stick out as Miami enters the nine-month stretch leading up to the 2014 season.

 

Getting Duke Johnson Healthy

Yes, the season opener is a long, long time away.

But over the final five games, the Hurricanes suffered without their star running back, Duke Johnson.

Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel notes that Johnson is not likely to participate in spring drills.

Now, I won't pretend I'm a doctor—mostly because it's illegal—but Johnson will need time to get comfortable returning to what he did best. Johnson's game was predicated on finding open holes, making hard cuts into running lanes and accelerating through them.

And he was darn good at it.

Local product and 4-star back Joseph Yearby is planning on enrolling early, so he, Dallas Crawford and Gus Edwards will share the load during spring ball.

While those reps will help the Miami reserves, Johnson faces a road to recovery that will be frustrating, keeping him off the field until the summer.

Though Johnson missing spring action will push back his conditioning, the layoff will allow him to get completely healthy—something the Hurricanes definitely need.

 

Retaining Current Recruiting Class

While uncertainty surrounded Golden's future at The U, many wondered what impact it would have on the Hurricanes' current recruiting haul.

Immediately following the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and during Golden's flirtation with Penn State, 4-star defensive tackle Travonte Valentine decommitted from Miami. Valentine was already considered a soft commit, and he announced that his rumored top suitor, LSU, was officially his new leader, via Andrew Lopez.

Valentine's decommitment was a factor in Miami slipping from sixth to ninth in 247Sports' Composite team rankings.

But the ranking is not the important part.

As of this writing, the 'Canes still hold 27 verbal commitments along with one signee, defensive tackle Calvin Heurtelou. Valentine, however, was an essential part of this class, potentially bringing the biggest frame (6'3", 338 pounds) to clog the interior.

Of course, as Valentine clarified, Miami is not out of the running for his services.

While some recruits, like 4-star safety Kiy Hester, are "100% committed to the U," as he tweeted Sunday, any prospect wavering in his pledge could have been affected by Golden's short silence.

So now, it's time for Golden and his coaching staff to lock up their class while attempting to add the final pieces for signing day Wednesday, Feb. 5.

 

Impending Starting Quarterback Battle

Stephen Morris led the Hurricanes for two seasons, but a new quarterback era at Miami is on its way.

Ryan Williams and Kevin Olsen are the leading candidates for the job, and spring practice will provide an opportunity to see the duo battle. Much-heralded 4-star commit Brad Kaaya is also en route to Coral Gables, Fla., but Peter Ariz of CanesInSight notes Kaaya said he cannot enroll early because of a policy at his high school.

As a freshman at Memphis in 2010, Williams appeared in every game, and he has played well in limited reps for the 'Canes. Under Golden, the Miramar High School product has completed 37 of 52 passes for 506 yards, four touchdowns and an interception.

A prized recruit and brother of ex-Cane Greg Olsen, Kevin was redshirted during the 2013 campaign.

But after not being taken to the Russell Athletic Bowl, Olsen's current status is not clear. Manny Navarro of The Miami Herald notes Olsen, Rashawn Scott and Ray Lewis III did not join their teammates on the trip to Orlando, but the reasoning has not been announced.

Bleacher Report's Chris Bello says the 'Canes need Olsen to win the starting job next season to provide a long-term option under center.

Ultimately, due to Kaaya's summer enrollment, it will likely be a battle between the senior Williams and the redshirt freshman Olsen while Kaaya steals any reps he can.

 

All recruit star rankings via 247Sports.

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De'Anthony Thomas Officially Announces He Will Enter 2014 NFL Draft

Arguably college football's most explosive player is taking his talents to Sundays. Oregon running back/offensive weapon De'Anthony Thomas announced his intention to forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 NFL draft on Sunday.

He released a statement via GoDucks.com:

I am officially withdrawing from the University of Oregon to pursue a professional career in the NFL. I want to express my deepest appreciation and thanks to the University and all of my teammates, coaches and fans.  I look forward to staying connected to the University and visiting the sidelines as often as possible.

Ducks coach Mark Helfrich talked about Thomas' decision: 

De'Anthony has been a spectacular talent in college football and has been a part of some of the most memorable plays in the history of the University of Oregon. We wish him success going forward with his career.

Thomas broke out in Eugene as a freshman under then-head coach Chip Kelly, lining up at both running back and slot receiver while also becoming a dynamic return man. While he was never used as a primary running back—he never even came close to leading the Ducks in carries—what made Thomas special was his ability to break the big play.

He averaged a touchdown every 9.23 carries at Oregon, and 2013 was the first regular season of his career without double-digit total touchdowns.

In fact, Thomas' decision to enter the draft comes after a somewhat disappointing junior season.

Amid preseason Heisman buzz, the 5'9" speedster broke out with consecutive 100-yard rushing performances and had accumulated 338 rushing yards and six touchdowns through three weeks. However, an ankle injury suffered against Tennessee on Sept. 14 kept him out for more than a month and he struggled to regain his form.

Thomas went through a midseason stretch where he had 31 rushing yards or fewer in three straight contests. While he finished the campaign with solid outings against Arizona and Oregon State, it was clear by the end of the season he'd been usurped on Mark Helfrich's depth chart.

He concluded the 2013 regular season with 581 yards and a 6.2 yards-per-carry average, both career lows. Freshman Thomas Tyner and sophomore Byron Marshall both ended the regular season with more carries and yards per attempt than Thomas.

That probably played at least a part in his decision to enter the draft early.

Although his diminutive size and lack of natural position could give some teams pause, the success of Darren Sproles, Danny Woodhead and others with a similar skill set could make Thomas appealing.

Still, there seems to be a fracturing of opinion about how elite a prospect he is. CBS Sports currently projects Thomas as a fifth- or sixth-round choice, while ESPN's Scouts Inc. has him No. 37 overall.

Teams will also have to decide during the draft process whether they prefer Thomas at running back or lining up more like Tavon Austin, who was taken No. 8 overall by the St. Louis Rams in 2013 despite similar size concerns.

Where Thomas falls in May will have a lot to do with his combine performance. Austin was able to rise from a fringe first-round pick by wowing scouts with his speed and agility—something Thomas will have to show to fall on the upper end of his projections.

 

Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter:

 

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Auburn vs. FSU: What Each Team Must Do to Win BCS National Championship

With only one loss between the two programs, the Auburn Tigers and Florida State Seminoles are accustomed to winning big games. However, nothing can prepare them for the BCS National Championship Game, which takes place on Monday, Jan. 6, at 8:30 p.m. ET at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. 

FSU enters the contest as the prohibitive favorite to win, as oddsmakers expect the Tigers to lose by 10 points, per Covers.com. It's not surprising, considering Jimbo Fisher's club finished the regular season with the top-ranked scoring offense and defense. 

However, Auburn's fateful path to this point in the proceedings (miracle wins over Georgia and Alabama) suggest this upcoming matchup could be a lot closer than some expect—at the least. Nobody should be surprised if this "David" slays that "Goliath." 

Here's what both teams must do in order to secure victory. 

 

FSU: Stop Auburn's Running Game

What? You thought there was something else the Seminoles needed to do? 

This one's simple: If FSU can shut down Auburn's option running game, then the Tigers have little-to-no chance of winning this upcoming game. 

But it's a lot easier said than done. 

Tre Mason and Nick Marshall combined to rush for 2,644 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013.

Remember, Alabama was one of the top teams in the nation at shutting down the run (three yards per carry allowed) before Auburn ran over, around and through the Crimson Tide for 296 yards and two touchdowns.

Florida State enters the game with the country's No. 13-ranked run defense, allowing 116.5 yards per game. Head coach Fisher talked about his staff's familiarity with Gus Malzahn's offense, as relayed by David Leon Moore of USA Today:

We have a lot of guys on our staff that have played against Gus for a long time. They know a lot of his high school roots, a lot of people he was around and things he did. I keep a running record of all the guys we've played against and books on all the guys we've played against for the last 10, 15 years.

That familiarity could give FSU an edge, but then again, Alabama and Missouri both thought they had a chance:

If the Seminoles can't shut down the Tigers on the ground, then Auburn will have a shot to win. 

 

Auburn: Shut Down FSU's Three Elite Receivers

As good as Jameis Winston has been, he wouldn't have won the Heisman Trophy without his exceptionally gifted receiving corps. FSU had three receivers catch at least 50 passes for at least 929 yards and six touchdowns. 

No other team in the nation can boast such a stat, and there's no doubt Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin comprised the nation's top receiving trio. 

Greene was the team's top possession receiver, hauling in 67 passes for 981 yards and nine touchdowns. Benjamin was the top scorer and big-play threat, catching 50 passes for 929 yards and 14 touchdowns, which was the fifth-most of any receiver in the FBS in 2013.

Cornerback Jonathon Mincy, via Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com, talked about the upcoming challenge: "It’s going to be a big challenge. That’s all I’ve been hearing about, is their wide receivers. It’s a great opportunity that we can go out there to show that we can be a proven defense."

Highlighting Auburn's secondary difficulties this past year, Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee writes about what could potentially be a winning formula for the Tigers: 

The Tigers have given up an SEC-worst 27 passing plays of 30 or more yards and 14 of 40 or more yards. Conversely, Florida State led the ACC and is fourth in the nation in pass plays of 20 or more yards with 71.

Auburn bends but doesn't break, so when an opportunity presents itself, whether it's generated from pressure or not, the Tigers have to pounce—just as they've done all year.

The only problem with that formula is that FSU has been phenomenal all year long about taking care of the football, earning a plus-17 mark for the year. 

That means Auburn's secondary will likely need to win individual battles against the talented trio of Seminoles receivers, which hasn't worked well for any team to this point. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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GoDaddy Bowl 2014 Arkansas State vs. Ball State: Live Score and Highlights

Ball State - 10

Arkansas State - 10

Early-Third Quarter 

Bleacher Report will provide live, in-game analysis and scoring updates, so stay locked in here.

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