NCAA Football

USC Uses Bye Week to Heal Wounds, Prepare for Final Push

Fate—and the Pac-12 Conference's schedule-makers—dealt USC football a favorable hand with the second of the Trojans' two bye weeks falling late in the season.

"The bye probably couldn't come at a better time," head coach Steve Sarkisian said on his weekly conference call Sunday. "We need to get healthy."

It's no secret that USC is operating at a numbers disadvantage. Fewer than 50 scholarship players made the trips to Utah and Washington State in the last two weeks as a season-long war of attrition takes its toll on a roster already depleted by three years of NCAA sanctions.

With no competition until Cal comes to town on Nov. 13, Sarkisian gave the team the week off from practice, though the Trojans will take to the weight room. On-field workouts resume Saturday.

"We're a team that has been in some really emotional games, some very physical games [and] I think we need a break," Sarkisian said. "This gives us a great opportunity to focus on our academics. This gives us a great opportunity to focus on our rehab."

Indeed, the extra time off should help players recently returning from injury get closer to 100 percent, including safety Gerald Bowman and wide receiver George Farmer—both missed the Oct. 25 loss at Utah.

"The other guys who've been out, I think can get healthy by the time we play Cal," Sarkisian said.

That group includes linebacker J.R. Tavai, wide receiver Ajene Harris and fullback Soma Vainuku.

Linebacker-safety hybrid Su'a Cravens is the latest Trojan to sustain an injury that will be nursed over the bye week.

In a hold-your-breath moment for the team, Cravens came out of USC's 44-17 rout of Washington State last Saturday with a knee injury.

"Su'a 's a tough kid, he's a good football player and he wouldn't come out of the game unless he felt like he couldn't play," Sarkisian said.

"Good football player" is a modest description considering Cravens' contributions to the USC defense. He has arguably been one of the Trojans' two best performers along with defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

Cravens has racked up four sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and two interceptions—one of which went for a touchdown.

It's no wonder Sarkisian called him "unbelievably valuable."

The good news for USC is that Sarkisian said Cravens' MRI revealed "nothing structurally wrong."

"Now, how quickly he can come back from this, we'll see," the coach added. "We're going to do everything in our power and I know he's going to do everything in his power to get as healthy as he can get for next Thursday night when we play Cal."

Cravens tweeted an update Sunday, which suggests the dynamic playmaker will be back in the lineup for the Trojans' critical stretch run:

Cravens' presence will be vital to USC's final push. His ability to either drop back into pass coverage against Cal's multiple-WR sets or pressure quarterback Jared Goff is a unique commodity.

Likewise, Cravens can operate as a spy against mobile quarterbacks such as UCLA's Brett Hundley and Notre Dame's Everett.

"Every week you get something new," Sarkisian said. "You get a new challenge, a different scheme. ... Su'a is a primary example [of adjusting for changes]. One week he can play the run, second week he can be a blitzer coming off the week and the next week he's in a nickel role covering receivers."

If there's any time for USC to have one of its most versatile players back in the lineup, it's this three-game stretch.

USC remains in the hunt for the South Division's berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game but must win its final two conference games to have any chance. The third and final of the Trojans' regular-season contests has no bearing on the league title race, but facing rival Notre Dame is motivation all its own.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Uses Bye Week to Heal Wounds, Prepare for Final Push

Fate—and the Pac -12 Conference's schedule-makers—dealt USC football a favorable hand with the second of the Trojans' two bye weeks falling late in the season...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

College Football Week 11 Predictions: Picking Top-25 Games Against the Spread

Week 11 has a chance to be the best week of the college football season—and that includes the chaos-filled Week 6.

Six games this weekend will pit teams from the College Football Playoff Top 20 against one another, including five between teams in the Top 16 and two between teams in the Top 10.

Last week, we saw our first quote-unquote "elimination game" of the CFP era when Auburn beat Ole Miss 35-31 in Oxford. This week, we will see "elimination games" Nos. 2, 3 and 4.

I got off to an OK start with my against-the-spread picks after subbing in for Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer last week, finishing with a 9-7 record. I am still seething about what happened in the Florida State-Louisville game, which appeared to be a lock in the first half, but I knew what I was getting into when I picked it.

C'est la handicapping.

 

All spreads courtesy of Odds Shark unless noted otherwise.

Begin Slideshow

10 Biggest Questions Facing Top 25 Teams Heading into Week 11

Well, this is it. This is the weekend college football fans have been looking forward to for months on end. Results aside, the hype is about as good as it gets. 

There are six games between Top 25 teams, two of which feature two Top 10 teams. From Alabama to Michigan State, from Oregon to TCU and Notre Dame, there's so much on the line for teams eyeing what basically boils down to two playoff spots. 

The two undefeated teams atop the playoff rankings, Mississippi State and Florida State, play home games against UT-Martin and Virginia, respectively. So, yeah, they're not exactly in the headlines.

Otherwise, there's a lot going on. 

Which storylines are the most important heading into Week 11? The answers are in the following slides. 

The only criterion here is that one of the teams involved has to rank in either the Associated Press poll or the Amway coaches poll.

Begin Slideshow

The 5 Most Telling Stats for the Miami Hurricanes This Season

The Miami Hurricanes have already clinched bowl eligibility, one simple step in continuing their trek toward perennial relevance once again.

However, taking a close look at a handful of stats provides clear reasoning for why Al Golden's team has fallen from Coastal Division contention and out of favor among many fans.

When Miami wins, it emits the appearance of a program legitimately on the rise. But when the 'Canes fall, the fingers begin incessantly pointing and obnoxious banners start flying.

Some numbers may lie, but these don't.

Begin Slideshow

Mike Leach Confuses Ankles with Legs While Explaining Connor Halliday Injury

Mike Leach tried to channel his inner Dr. House during a press conference Monday, but he struggled mightily in his explanation of the injury Connor Halliday had sustained against Oregon State.

The Washington State football coach attempted to clear up the confusion surrounding his quarterback’s season-ending injury—specifically, whether Halliday had broken his leg or his ankle while playing the Beavers.

Somehow, Leach's explanation made things even muddier, as he appears to believe Halliday’s leg bones are part of his ankle.

Deadspin’s Kevin Draper spotted a Comcast SportsNet video of the confusing press conference. Leach first stated that Halliday had broken his ankle, then elaborated that Halliday had broken his "whole ankle."

"Well it’s pretty much out there," Leach said. "He broke his ankle. ... You can go read that report and then go ahead and ask that guy, and then whatever you draw from that, that would be great. ... The whole ankle."

Despite this exacting breakdown, reporters continued asking for clarification. Some had heard that Halliday had broken the tibia and fibula in his leg—bones Leach maintained were part of the ankle.

"Well, the tibula [sic] and the fibula are in the ankle, you see. Here, let me show you," Leach said, flinging his leg onto the conference table. "Big bone, little bone. Both of them."

In Leach’s mind, Halliday’s injury is a high ankle break involving those long shoots of marrow connecting the lower ankle and the knee. Some would call it a leg, but the coach prefers the "tibula," which is like the tibia but ankle-ier.

The Washington State coach has already blessed the college football world with a thesis on the downfall of humanity due to Internet dating this year. We can only sit back and eagerly await his thoughts on fire.

Is it rapid oxidation or just angry air?

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Mike Leach Confuses Ankles with Legs While Explaining Connor Halliday Injury

Mike Leach tried to channel his inner Dr. House during a press conference Monday, but he struggled mightily in his explanation of the injury Connor Halliday had sustained against Oregon State...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Insider Buzz: 2015 Recruits Atop Georgia's Updated Big Board

After the Georgia Bulldogs' embarrassing loss to the Florida Gators, we turn our attention to Georgia's recruiting trail.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder and 247Sports Recruiting Analyst Rusty Mansell discuss the Bulldogs' game plan for their 2015 recruiting class. 

Which recruits do you think Georgia will get?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Is 2015 DT Hjalte Froholdt the Next Bjoern Werner?

Around five years ago, Hjalte Froholdt was introduced to the game of football in Denmark on a grass field that hadn't been cut in months. Today, he's one of the nation's top prep defensive linemen and bound for Arkansas next fall.

His journey from the Scandinavian Peninsula to big-time college football eerily mirrors that of German-born Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Bjoern Werner.

Hjalte, which is pronounced YELL-da, recalls that first practice was with "three or four players." Despite not having access to many resources, there were benefits of having to learn the game at warp speed.

"We put on some way oversized equipment because their club didn't have anything else," Froholdt told Bleacher Report. "We got taught the fundamentals because we had some great coaches. We pretty much were taught everything because it wasn't like you just play offensive line or defensive line. Over there, you play everything because you had to play where you were needed."

Froholdt didn't start playing football until he was 12, but it didn't take long for him to develop dreams of coming to play in America as a foreign exchange student.  By the time he was a sophomore, he was granted the opportunity to come to the United States for school and football.

He landed at Harding High School in football-crazy Warren, Ohio.  He figured that playing sports would help ease his transition and help him make friends, and he hoped to kick-start his career by earning reps on the junior varsity squad.  

Instead, by the sixth game of the season, Froholdt had locked down the starting jobs at tight end, defensive end and as the team's punter. It was at that point that he realized playing football in college was a realistic possibility.

"Halfway through the season, my coaches told me that I would probably have a bright future ahead of me in this sport," Froholdt said. "I think that was like around the sixth game. That's when a few college coaches starting contacting me and wanting to know who I was."

While his success brought the attention of colleges, another curveball was on the horizon after his sophomore season.

A rule preventing exchange students from competing in sports for two consecutive seasons in the same state meant Froholdt had to head back home to Denmark for his junior season.

Instead of sitting idle for a year, Hjalte got back to his roots in his home country.

"I was very fortunate because when I came back home to Denmark, we moved to a bigger city so that I could play with the best team in Denmark," Froholdt said. "I played with the seniors this past year—seniors meaning 19- to 25-year-olds pretty much. So I played with them and the senior national team and started as a defensive tackle. We played against Austria, France and Sweden."

After a successful stint back home, Froholdt—who committed to Arkansas in December of 2013 over offers from Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and Ohio State among others—had his sights set on a return to the U.S. for his senior season.

His search for a new home led him to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, a budding prep powerhouse currently playing its second season of high school football. 

Ascenders head coach Chris Weinke—a former NFL quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner—knew exactly what he was getting when the 6'4", 282-pounder arrived on campus in the summer.

"The initial reaction is that he's a physical specimen," Weinke said. "We were well aware of him and his commitment to Arkansas, so we were excited about him. I think the one thing we saw with him early on is that we still thought there was an upside to him."

Given that this is only his second year playing competitive football in the U.S., one would assume that Froholdt would be a raw talent whose technique might hold him back—especially in one of the most talent-laden hotbeds in the country, just south of the Tampa area.

"One of the things we felt that he was gifted athletically," Weinke said. "We didn't necessarily know that he was fundamentally sound. We felt like if he got him in this structure and continued to coach him up, he could become an impact player."

It hasn't taken long for Weinke's theory has come to fruition.

Despite a thumb injury suffered in the first game of the season that has caused him to miss one game—coincidentally, the only loss of the season for IMG—and play with a club on his hand, Froholdt has turned in a strong season through eight games.

He's been a disruptive force in the middle of the Ascenders defense, having racked up 55 tackles—including 12 for loss—with seven sacks and two forced fumbles through nine games, according to MaxPreps

Given that Werner—who played only two years of prep football before heading to Florida State—had a similar journey and played along the defensive line in college, his example is the blueprint for Froholdt.

"Of course, he's an inspiration for me because he showed that it really doesn't matter where you are from if you have the ability and the work ethic and you are willing to put everything you have into it, then you will get success," Froholdt said. 

Weinke—a former Seminole great who is familiar with Werner from following the 'Noles program in recent years—said that his star pupil and the current Colts star share certain traits on the field, with one noticeable difference.

"I think when you look at their body types, Hjalte is a bigger, thicker guy," Weinke said. "Obviously, Bjoern is going to make his money coming off the edge. I think Hjalte can do that, but he's got more of a body type to play inside. They are similar in their work ethic and approach in how they don't take a play off."

With his high school career winding down to its close, Froholdt is excited to continue his career in Fayetteville, in arguably the toughest division in college football. 

While Froholdt is set to enter the SEC perhaps lighter on playing experience in comparison to his peers, Weinke believes he has all the necessary tools to become an impact player at Arkansas.

"He causes havoc," Weinke said. "He has an outstanding work ethic. He's one of the leaders on our team. I truly believe he will be an impact player at the next level. He's big, strong and quick. He has a high football IQ. He's been a great leader on our defense. We've been obviously very fortunate to have him on our football team."

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Auburn Football: Tigers' Wide Receivers Surging at the Perfect Time

AUBURN, Ala. — Two weeks ago, Quan Bray told everybody to watch out.

The senior wide receiver was coming off Auburn's disappointing road loss at now-No. 1 Mississippi State, and he wasn't pleased with the consistency from himself and his fellow receivers.

"I don't think we've played a complete game, to be honest with you," Bray said on Oct. 19. "The LSU game was probably the one we clicked the most as an offense just as a whole. But as far as a receiving standpoint, I don't think we've all clicked yet.

"Hopefully in these next six games, y'all will see us clicking where we supposed to be at."

Bray looks like a man of his word two games into those six, a loaded back half of the Tigers' 2014 slate.

The Auburn offense has cut down on the turnovers and racked up more than 500 yards in wins against South Carolina and Ole Miss.

Part of the reason head coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle attack is on such a roll has a lot to do with Bray and his fellow receivers, who had consistency issues at the beginning of the season.

Quarterback Nick Marshall relied on junior college transfer D'haquille Williams to come down with most of the catches as returning leader Sammie Coates struggled with a leg injury.

Now the big-play Coates, who made five catches for 122 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers' 35-31 road victory against Ole Miss' No. 1 scoring defense, is playing back at full speed:

"Sammie is right at 100 percent probably for the first time since early in the season," Malzahn said Tuesday in his weekly press conference. "So that helped. We spread the ball around. All of our guys made some plays in the passing game. When you can do that, that definitely helps open each other up."

The nation's No. 3 receiver in yards per catch in 2013, Coates is once again a deadly deep-ball threat with his speed and size.

This opens up more possibilities for Williams, a rangy intermediate target who has rarely dropped the ball during his time on the Plains.

Throw in the use of speedy duo Ricardo Louis and Bray on swing passes and screen routes, and now an Auburn offense that looked like it was inching toward becoming a run-heavy attack again can truly become a dual threat.

"As a wide receiver crew, we've got a whole bunch of playmakers in our room," Coates said. "Nick, he's comfortable. He knows that if he throws the ball in our area, we're going to make a play with it. We tell him not to think too hard about how he throws it. Put it in our area code, we're going to bring it in."

Malzahn's offense may not be dominated by the ground game like it was last season, but it still uses a run-first philosophy. 

Auburn's patented inside-out running game, Malzahn said, creates chances in the passing game—and vice versa.

"We’re getting a few more yards on the perimeter, which is opening up things in the middle," Malzahn said Tuesday. "We’re hitting some deep balls down the field, which is opening the run game up. It all works together, and I feel like we’re improving."

The wideouts said they used the crucial bye week after the loss against Mississippi State to "work on the little things as a unit."

For several of them, that meant working harder at blocking, and the results have showed on the field for Auburn with more explosive runs to the outside.

"The little things are what people may not notice," junior receiver Melvin Ray said. "But as far as blocking-wise, that’s what I want people to be able to see and say, ‘He’s a complete guy other than just being able to catch the football.' If I can do my job, I know we have explosive guys like Nick and Cam and Ricardo and Corey—we can really spring them for bigger plays."

Unlike Coates and Wiliiams, role receivers such as Ray and Marcus Davis get a majority of their snaps in running situations, where they can showcase that extra blocking work.

It might not show up on the stat sheet, but it can definitely open up opportunities for scoring plays.

In the case of Davis, it could open up the opportunity for a wide-open touchdown grab like he had against Ole Miss.

With four games left in the regular season, Auburn's star receivers are making the big plays, and the ones lower down on the depth chart are laying the groundwork for possibly even more success against Georgia and Alabama—and they are just fine with that balance.

"If the team's winning, I'm winning," Davis said. "It's all about the team for me. As long as I'm on the field playing and contributing, I'm happy with that."

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Georgia RB Nick Chubb Is Not the Next Todd Gurley, He May Be Better

In the insistent refusal to compare Georgia freshman running back Nick Chubb to the man he’s replaced over the past three games, Todd Gurley, something interesting has happened.  Chubb has actually played better than the suspended one-time Heisman Trophy candidate.

The statistics tell the story with startling clarity.  In three starts, Chubb has racked up 599 yards of offense and five touchdowns.  In five games earlier this year, Gurley racked up 826 yards of offense and eight touchdowns.  Put bluntly: Nick Chubb’s average performance (199.67 yards and 1.67 touchdowns per game) has surpassed that of Todd Gurley (165.2 yards and 1.6 touchdowns per game).

But these statistics are not anomalous representations.  Chubb has eclipsed 200-yard marker in total offense in two of his three starts.  In 29 career games, Gurley has reached such a total only once.  And Chubb’s worst game over this short stretch yielded 174 yards of offense.  Over the course of three seasons, Gurley has averaged under 130 rushing and receiving yards per contest.

Of course, statistics never tell the full story, but if anything, the narrative surrounding Chubb’s emergence should magnify his measurable output.

Chubb isn’t performing at this level in a vacuum.  On the contrary, he’s performing at a Heisman level himself in the face of multifaceted adversity.

Chubb, who was playing high school football this time last year, was thrust into the starting lineup in dire circumstances when Gurley, arguably the best running back in the country, was suspended in October.  Replacing a player of that caliber is never an easy task, but Chubb was not aided by what was supposed to be tremendous depth in the backfield as junior running back Keith Marshall and fellow freshman star Sony Michel were inactive due to injury.

Chubb didn’t merely pick up the work load of Todd Gurley; he picked up the workload of the entire backfield.  At 33 offensive touches per start, Chubb has averaged a heavier workload than Gurley has ever recorded in a single game.

And he’s done all of this against three noteworthy SEC opponents in three games away from the comforting confines of Sanford Stadium.

Chubb carried the ball 38 times and hauled in four receptions on the road against a Missouri team that currently sits atop the SEC East.  His ability to churn out yardage kept the Tigers from overcoming a slew of turnovers.

In a road game against Arkansas, a team that many expected to upset the Bulldogs, Chubb ran for 202 yards against a defense that is allowing just 136.8 rushing yards per game.

And in a disappointing loss to the Florida Gators, Chubb was the lone bright spot thanks to his 156 rushing yards and 59 yards through the air.

But the rarity of those types of performances seems to go unnoticed—or at least underappreciated—even by Georgia fans.  After all, the consistency with which Gurley changed games has become the new standard at Georgia.  But Chubb’s last three games have been stellar even relative to other national stars.

Wisconsin star Melvin Gordon is the lone running back still in serious contention for the Heisman Trophy.  His best three-game stretch against power-five opposition came against Northwestern, Illinois and Maryland.  Over the course of those three October games, Gordon accounted for 568 yards of offense.

Mark Ingram, the last running back to win the Heisman, put together just one comparable three-game run in 2009, when he accounted for 603 yards of offense in consecutive games against Kentucky, Ole Miss and South Carolina.

So, ironically, the comparisons between Chubb and Gurley may actually be unfair to the younger star running back not because he doesn't stack up, but because he comes out ahead.  And when his youth is considered, it’s hard not to heap lofty expectations on Chubb.  After all, his play as a true freshman has been every bit as good as Gurley, the consensus favorite to be the first running back selected in the 2015 NFL draft.

Gurley returns on November 15 for a game against the Auburn Tigers, and Georgia head coach Mark Richt told Seth Emerson of Macon’s The Telegraph that Gurley “can’t wait to play.”

If Chubb has another big game against Kentucky this week, Gurley may find himself in a competition for carries.

 

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

NCAA Football Rankings 2014: Top 25 College Playoff Standings for Week 11

Tuesday's announcement by the College Football Playoff voting committee of the Week 11 rankings has fans of the sport debating which teams deserve the honor of participating in the first-ever bracket-style postseason format.

Mississippi State and Florida State were clear choices as No. 1 and No. 2 overall due to their unblemished records, and Auburn's victory over Ole Miss in Week 10 helped ensure the Tigers also stayed in the Top Four.

While most fans can agree on the Top Three, the final Playoff spot has sparked a major debate.

Here are the Week 11 College Football Playoff, Associated Press, Amway Coaches and Bleacher Report Top 25 polls and a breakdown of the most surprising team in postseason contention.

 

Most Surprising Top Four Team

Most college football fans understood that the top three spots would be occupied by Mississippi State, Florida State and Auburn, but the debate raged on about which program would be seeded fourth overall.

According to the selection committee, Oregon deserves the honor more than Alabama right now.

A loss earlier in the season to Arizona was a devastating blow for the Ducks, but the program has bounced back for four straight victories. Oregon's resume also boasts wins over elite teams such as Michigan State, UCLA and Stanford.

When asked about why Oregon made the Top Four over a team like Alabama, selection committee chairman Jeff Long told The Associated Press, via ESPN, "It was very close, and I think it's the product of Oregon's other wins they have. They have the Michigan State win, but they also, again, went on the road against UCLA and won, and a couple of wins that made their body of work, put them a step ahead of (Alabama) at this point."

The Ducks square off with the Utah Utes in Week 11. If Oregon can walk out of the matchup with a win, the program will not face another ranked team for the remainder of the season and should be able to run the table.

With only one loss, it will be hard to keep the Ducks out of the Playoff.

As ESPN Stats & Info's Twitter account pointed out, the Ducks have a very realistic opportunity to win the Pac-12:

While there was concern about how the College Football Playoff committee would vote each week, ESPN's Joe Schad acknowledges the way the polls are being handled:

There is no doubt that Alabama deserves heavy consideration for the final spot in the Playoff, but the team's upcoming schedule is brutal. With matchups against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn (plus a possible SEC Championship Game), the decision to keep the team on the outside of the Top Four is fair for right now.

If the Crimson Tide win all of their remaining games and finish the season with one loss, there is no doubt the program would leapfrog any other one-loss team. Oregon should make the Playoff if the team stays unblemished for the remainder of the year, but the top teams in the SEC have the potential to drastically change what the rankings look like over the final weeks of the season.

The Ducks control their own fate, though. Led by Heisman Trophy candidate and junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, winning each of the remaining games in the regular season and taking home the Pac-12 Championship will force the College Football Playoff committee to keep the team in the Top Four.

While it was surprising to see Oregon jump Alabama in the standings, the team deserves the honor and must now withstand the pressure of remaining in playoff contention for the rest of the season.

 

Stats via ESPN.com.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Notre Dame Football: Everything Irish Fans Need to Know About Arizona State

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame football stayed put at No. 10 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, but the Irish have a juicy opportunity to nab an impressive victory Saturday against No. 9 Arizona State.

The Sun Devils surged five spots up the rankings and leapfrogged the Irish. So what do Notre Dame fans need to know about the team in Tempe, Arizona?

Aside from their “Desert Fuel” uniforms, here’s what Irish fans should know about the Sun Devils.

 

Jaelen Strong

Arizona State redshirt junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong will pose a major threat to the Irish secondary. Strong has hauled in 57 receptions for 821 yards and eight touchdowns this season. As part of his breakout campaign last season, Strong made eight grabs for 136 yards and a score.

“[He] is as good as any wide receiver in the country,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of Strong on Tuesday. “Big, athletic, fast, reminds me of [former Irish great and current Arizona Cardinals receiver] Michael Floyd. Just big, athletic, strong, hands, goes up and gets the football.”

Slowing Strong figures to be one of the primary focuses for defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. After Strong exploded for 10 receptions, 202 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-34 win over USC, the 6’3”, 215-pounder has been somewhat neutralized in the last three games.

He still had a touchdown in wins over Stanford, Washington and Utah, but Strong averaged just 5.3 catches and 69 yards in those victories, well off his season averages. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Sun Devils have only averaged 23 points per game during that span.

Irish cornerbacks Cody Riggs and Cole Luke must be on their game to stymie Strong. They’ve already shown the ability to do so against elite wide receivers this season, holding Michigan’s Devin Funchess without a score and totally limiting Stanford’s Ty Montgomery.

“We certainly have had players of [Strong’s] caliber, but he's a unique blend of speed and size that I don't know that we've quite seen, but clearly we know what we need to do,” Kelly said.

 

Taylor Kelly

After missing three games (UCLA, USC and Stanford) with a broken foot, redshirt senior quarterback Taylor Kelly returned for wins in the last two games against Washington and Utah. Kelly’s numbers have been modest in the two contests, completing 56.1 percent of his passes and averaging just 192.5 yards per game.

“Taylor Kelly back in the lineup really changes things, I think, in terms of his ability to run the football, as well,” Brian Kelly said.

But which Kelly shows up Saturday afternoon? The one who entered the season with 45 career passing touchdowns, more than 5,000 yards passing and a 65.3 career completion percentage? The one who threw for 362 yards and three scores against the Irish last season and is also a rushing threat? Or the one who has struggled since the injury?

Either way, Kelly’s recent performance favors the Irish. But without Joe Schmidt in the center of the Notre Dame defense, the Irish figure to not be as primed to slow the Sun Devil attack.

 

Improving Defense

As the offense has stagnated for Arizona State, the defense has stiffened. The Sun Devils have allowed an average of 13.3 points per game over the last three games—against Utah, Washington and Stanford—since a mid-October bye week.

The young Arizona State defense has found its stride.

“I think that there's a better recognition and understanding of the scheme,” Brian Kelly said. “There's eight new players on that defense, so you could see that they're understanding what they're doing a lot better and what [head coach Todd] Graham wants them to do.”

But Arizona State hasn’t seen an offense like Notre Dame’s and a quarterback like Everett Golson during the improved three-game stretch. The best reference points for the Sun Devils are UCLA, with quarterback Brett Hundley, and USC, with quarterback Cody Kessler. The Bruins posted 62 points against Arizona State, and the Trojans tallied 38.

We’ll see Saturday just how far the Arizona State defense has come since those games. But with a young group on that side of the ball, the balance has to be tilted in favor of Golson, who keeps on rolling with 22 touchdowns through the air and seven on the ground.

Advantage, Irish offense.

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.

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Will Texas Rebound with 2015 NFL Draft After Disappointing 2014 Showing?

After being shut out of last year's draft, the Texas Longhorns look to rebound with a group of very talented prospects that could make an impact on Sundays.

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder and Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Analyst Matt Miller discuss what kind of draft class the Longhorns could have.

Which Longhorn will have the biggest impact at the next level?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Kent State Lineman Loses Mind on Sidelines, May Have Demons Inside Head

Kent State’s Jon Cunningham is a freshman, but he terrified at a senior level Tuesday night.

Cameras followed the 295-pound defensive tackle around during the Golden Flashes' matchup with the Toledo Rockets, presumably just to make sure he was OK. Cunningham stalked the edge of the field, pumping up teammates and attempting to shake the sad gremlins out of his skull with a series of aggressive jaw plyometrics. 

RedditCFB (h/t SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal) posted a Vine of the antics. Sometimes, you have to exorcise the demons mid-game: 

If you’ve never made this face before, you’ve never walked barefoot through a dark living room:

Unfortunately, Cunningham’s energy would be for naught. The Golden Flashes lost 30-20 to the Rockets and currently sit at 1-8 on the season.

Hang in there, sir. Seasons like this happen. You just have to support each other, light some candles and summon the dread lord Jaraxxus to come and devour the vile spirits howling inside your cerebral cortex. 

You know, just trust in your game plan.

 

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Tennessee Football: Grading Volunteers' Top Freshmen Post-Week 10

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones is redefining "rebuilding" on Rocky Top. The Volunteers have played 23 true freshmen, more than any other team in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

While it has been a slow go in the development process, the Vols finally broke through with a big win last weekend, beating division foe South Carolina 45-42 in Columbia to set up the possibility for a bowl berth.

UT has to win two of its final three games to go to the postseason.

First-year fingerprints were all over that victory over the Gamecocks as budding stars such as running back Jalen Hurd and defensive end Derek Barnett continued to emerge as household names.

Potential stars abound as fruits from Jones' first full recruiting class, and solid role players are shaping up as well from that haul and redshirts from the previous cycle. Several have played so much it's difficult to believe they were going through orientation just a few months ago.

Let's take a look at Tennessee's top youngsters and critique their promising performances in their abbreviated careers.

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2015 DB Recruits Most Likely to Be Future Shutdown Corners in the NFL

With the emergence of bigger receivers and freakishly athletic tight ends, finding corners who can lock down one side of the field has become increasingly difficult.

For the nation's top college football coaches, that puts a premium on finding athletic corners on the recruiting trail with size and range who can keep up with shifty and explosive pass-catchers. 

However, the 2015 class has a deep group of corners—as evidenced by the fact that there are five players at the position who have earned the coveted 5-star designation.

Which cover corners are the best candidates to become future shutdown corners in the NFL?

*Players listed in alphabetical order.

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Texas Football: The 5 Most Telling Stats for the Longhorns This Season

Despite their 4-5 record, the Texas Longhorns remain a team ripe with potential. But as the stats show, it's tough to expect much more down the stretch thanks to their mistake-prone ways.

The fact is that the Longhorn defense has gotten it done all season, especially against the pass. This unit's yards-per-attempt figure ranks among the best in the nation, which is amazing given the talent level of the Big 12 passing attacks.

Unfortunately, the offense remains stuck in the mud because of too many mistakes with the ball, poor conversion rates and a passing attack that remains overly focused on two playmakers.

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Michigan Football: Wolverines Offense Taking Flight with Unexpected Players

When Michigan began Brady Hoke’s fourth campaign, big changes were expected on offense.

The offense certainly changed, but the results were disappointing as the team struggled. But with Michigan’s bowl hopes on the line last week, two players who were huge question marks entering this season have put the offense back on track, as the team enters the backstretch of the season with Brady Hoke's job in doubt.

Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier was hired to impose consistency on an attack that had morphed from one game to the next under his predecessor. While his exact tactics were a matter of debate, the players who’d star in the new scheme were highly touted.

The running attack would be powered by Derrick Green or De’Veon Smith, who had battled during spring practice and fall camp. A late entry in the battle was Ty Isaac, who had petitioned the NCAA for immediate eligibility after transferring from USC. All three had been highly coveted 4-star recruits and were capable of being the top back.

The passing attack would be anchored by returning fifth-year senior Devin Gardner, who would be targeting wide receiver Devin Funchess and tight end Jake Butt. Both Gardner and Butt were returning from injuries while Funchess entered the season wearing the hallowed No.1 jersey, an honor that carries high expectations for a Michigan receiver.


The Best Laid Planes Often Go Astray

Everything was in place for Michigan to bounce back from last season’s 7-6 collapse. But the season had some unpleasant surprises for Michigan.

The running game was still mired behind an ineffective offensive line. Even when the offensive line did open gaps for Derrick Green and De’Veon Smith, they lacked the vision to take advantage of the openings.

Ty Isaac made an impression but only on the practice squad since the NCAA denied his eligibility request. Smith inherited the starting job when Green broke his clavicle and was lost for the season prior to the Penn State game.

The passing attack had problems of its own.

Gardner continued to turn the ball over and was benched for Shane Morris. Morris left the game with what was eventually diagnosed as a concussion; an injury that engulfed the program and started a chain of events that resulted in the dismissal of athletic director David Brandon.

Tight end Jake Butt (10 receptions for 113 yards and one touchdown) returned from an ACL injury but hasn’t replicated the success of last season.

Devin Funchess (48 receptions for 572 yards and four touchdowns) is the team’s top receiver but isn’t the big-play threat that many expected when the season began, a leg injury that occurred during the second game of season is still hampering his speed and route-running ability.

Heading into a homecoming matchup versus Indiana, Michigan desperately needed a win to keep its bowl hopes alive.

With the season hanging in the balance, two players who had played minor roles all season both stepped up with dual 100-plus yard performances to pace the Michigan offense.


Running Back Drake Johnson


Drake Johnson entered the Indiana game with nine career carries for 50 yards over three games (one last season before being injured and two earlier this season).

Johnson took advantage of the opportunity, exploding for 122 yards on 16 carries and scoring his first two career touchdowns. The performance was extra special since it happened on homecoming, and both of his parents are Michigan alumni. His mom, who has served as Michigan head cheerleader coach for over 30 years, talked to mgoblue.com about watching her son have his first big game for Michigan:

I cried at the first one [touchdown] because I knew it was a dream come true for him. He's been talking about playing football since he was a little kid. When he talked about talking smack to the players here as a little kid, he really did. A couple times, I grabbed him by the collar and said, 'Would you get back here and be quiet!' But he would say, 'I'm going to do this, and that's going to be me!'

And now, he really did do that. I'm so lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

Johnson brought a new wrinkle to the Michigan running attack. While Green and Smith are traditional power backs, Johnson exhibited speed and elusiveness that could spell trouble for future opponents. 

It also helped that Michigan's offensive line had one of its best performances of the season.

Hoke played coy about naming him as the starting running back for this week, but Johnson impressed former Michigan great Braylon Edwards with his performance versus Indiana:

Johnson’s career day kept Michigan’s postseason hopes alive and provided a glimmer of what Doug Nussmeier has been trying to accomplish on offense since replacing Borges.


Wide Receiver Amara Darboh

Amara Darboh had been in the shadow of Funchess all season before getting his first 100-yard game versus Indiana. Darboh (nine receptions for 107 yards and one touchdown) exploited gaps in the Indiana secondary to become Michigan’s top receiver in the game.

Darboh also made a great defensive play, breaking up a potential pick-six in the first half.

His performance marks a long road back since a foot injury caused him to miss last season.

Doug Nussmeier addressed Darboh’s journey back during his weekly press conference:

…being cleared to play doesn’t mean you’re going to play at the highest level you’re capable of and these are both really young players that are growing each and every week. You’re seeing the emergence of Amara.

Darboh’s performance will force opponents to account for two deep threats in addition to tight end Jake Butt. His emergence bodes well for the Michigan offense as it gears up for its final three regular-season games.


Still Need Two More Wins

The Michigan offense looked good versus Indiana, but the team needs two more victories to secure a bowl bid. A postseason berth is the bare minimum for Brady Hoke to have any chance of returning next season.

A victory over Northwestern is possible, but the two final games versus Maryland and Ohio State will be difficult.

Michigan will need unheralded players to keep producing for the offense to keep rolling.

Players like Drake Johnson and Amara Darboh will play key roles in determining Brady Hoke’s fate.


Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations were obtained firsthand.

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Bowl Predictions 2014: Updated Playoff Projections Before Critical Week 11

Let your couch cushions know that you plan on getting very familiar with them on Saturday.

The Week 11 college football slate features six marquee contests that will shape the College Football Playoff discussion for the rest of the season. There will be teams eliminated from competition with losses on Saturday, but the winners will make a loud statement to the selection committee with a month remaining in the season.

Among the Saturday showdowns are clashes between Ohio State and Michigan State, Oregon and Utah, Alabama and LSU, Arizona State and Notre Dame, Kansas State and TCU and Oklahoma and Baylor.

November is when the pressure really sets in on the college football calendar, and we will see which teams are capable of delivering in the clutch on Saturday.

The College Football Playoff projections will likely look different after such a loaded week of games, but here is a look at where they stand now.

 

Playoff Projections

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 Mississippi State

Rose Bowl: No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Alabama   

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (Semifinal Winners)

Florida State already won its difficult games on the schedule. The Seminoles are going to win out and will have the opportunity to defend their national title.

Alabama is hitting its stride as it enters November, and the Crimson Tide will also win out and clinch the SEC title. That will get Nick Saban’s team into the field of four.

Mississippi State’s only loss will be to Alabama, and wins against SEC heavyweights like Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss will get the Bulldogs into the playoffs. 

Michigan State will knock Ohio State out of the national title race for the second consecutive season and win the Big Ten. The Spartans will benefit from a number of losses in the Big 12, Pac-12 and from Notre Dame down the stretch and seize one of those coveted four spots.

 

Under-the-Radar Week 11 Game to Watch: Oregon at Utah

While the lion’s share of the college football attention will be directed toward games in the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 on Saturday, the late-night showdown between Oregon and Utah in the Pac-12 figures to be just as entertaining and important in the College Football Playoffs race.

The Utes may be eliminated from postseason consideration with two losses, but the Ducks are right in the thick of it. However, a second loss of the season on Saturday would prove crippling to their playoff chances.

The critical matchup in this one features the Oregon offense against the stout Utah defense.

Oregon brings a balanced and intimidating offensive attack to the table on Saturday. It is 16th in the nation in passing yards per game and 25th in rushing yards per game, and quarterback Marcus Mariota is on the short list of everyone’s Heisman contenders with 2,541 passing yards, 410 rushing yards and 33 total touchdowns.

Mariota makes plays with his arms and legs and has come through in the clutch for the Ducks in tense moments against UCLA, Washington State, Michigan State and Stanford. The defense has to constantly focus on Mariota and preventing his big-play abilities, which opens up the field for the running backs and wide receivers to make plays in space.

However, the Utah defense means this will be a strength-against-strength matchup.

The Utes have three players among the Pac-12’s top six in tackles for loss and have yet to give up 30 points in a single game this season, which is an impressive accomplishment in the quarterback-loaded Pac-12. Utah is giving up 21.3 points a game and will challenge Mariota and the Ducks. 

Hans Olsen of 1280 The Zone and Football Writers Association of America member Patrick Schmidt believe the Utah defense will have a big impact on this game:

Utah will be motivated after a heartbreaking loss to Arizona State with a chance to make a national statement against one of the most respected programs in the country. What’s more, the crowd should be rocking under the lights, which could influence Oregon’s up-tempo offense.

Oregon coach Mark Helfrich certainly thinks the crowd could be a problem, via Gary Horowitz of the Statesman Journal, “You have to be on point in every phase to get it done. We’re going to a very hostile environment against a very good team.”

Ultimately, the problem for the Utes will be scoring the ball.

They are 111th in the nation in passing yards per game at 175.3, and things look even worse after leading receiver Dres Anderson was lost for the season with a knee injury. The Utes will rely on their rushing attack behind Devontae Booker, who is second in the Pac-12 with 123.8 yards per game.

Oregon’s defense struggled against California two games ago, but it redeemed itself against Stanford. The Golden Bears exploited the Ducks through the air, while the Cardinal rely on the run. Oregon is beatable if you bring a solid passing attack to the table, but Utah does not.

The Utes will contain the Ducks’ offensive attack for most of the game, but they won’t be able to score enough points to come away with the win.

You can only ask so much of the defense against Mariota and Oregon, and the Ducks will eventually break through for a decisive touchdown late in the game. Oregon will be tested, but it will do enough to win and maintain its inside position for a College Football Playoff spot. 

Prediction: Oregon 31, Utah 17

 

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