NCAA Football

Orange Bowl 2014: Updated Odds, Preview for Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State

Make no mistake, the 2014 Capital One Orange Bowl between Georgia Tech (10-3, 6-2 ACC) and Mississippi State (10-2, 6-2 SEC) is more than just one last showcase for two of the bigger programs in the nation.

This competition, despite taking place outside of the College Football Playoff, which should siphon most of the attention placed on NCAA football this winter, is plenty meaningful to the teams involved.

"We felt this was an unbelievable destination for us to go to," Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said, via the AP (h/t FoxSports.com). "If you went and asked all our players to what bowl game they wanted to go, this would be their No. 1 choice."

It's been 75 years since the Bulldogs last played in the Orange Bowl, making this perhaps one of the most meaningful bowl games outside of the CFP, if one is capable of getting emotionally invested in this year's overcoming of a stark history in Starkville.

The two-loss team's real No. 1 choice was assuredly a spot in the playoff, but this is quite the consolation prize.

Georgia Tech is coming off a close loss to Florida State in the ACC title game, but the Yellow Jackets have had plenty of time to shrug off that disappointing result and come out ready to prove the Seminoles aren't the only ACC team capable of defeating marquee opponents from the other Power Five conferences.

A battle against an SEC squad is the perfect opportunity for some interconference jockeying.

Here is a look at the latest odds and viewing information for the Capital One Orange Bowl, followed by a quick preview of what to watch for in this high-profile contest.


2014 Orange Bowl Odds, Viewing Info

Date: Dec. 31

Time: 8 p.m. ET

Location: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

Matchup (spread): Georgia Tech vs. Mississippi State (-6.5)

Odds: Georgia Tech +105, Mississippi State -115

TV: ESPN

Live Stream:WatchESPN

Note: Odds courtesy of Odds Shark and updated as of Dec. 28 at 12 a.m. ET.


Preview

The first task for Mississippi State will be contending with the Yellow Jackets' triple-option offense, a throwback attack that produced 4,337 rushing yards this season.

There is no big secret to head coach Paul Johnson's offense, just a beguiling mix of option runs, dive plays, counters and tosses designed to flummox even the most disciplined of defenses. Sticking to assignments and maintaining gaps will be key to the Bulldogs' success in this contest. 

"They catch a lot of people out of gaps a lot of time," Bulldogs defensive lineman Preston Smith said, via the Sun Sentinel's Ryan S. Clark. "They catch people slipping who are trying to do too much. They break on a lot of the mistakes that other teams make. Watching film, we've seen we have to do to eliminate the mistakes other teams have made against them."

Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas was in fact the team's leading rusher, with 965 of the 4,337 rushing yards, but it's not like the team's preeminent ball-carrier is allergic to the pass. Thomas still managed to throw for 1,594 yards and 17 touchdowns against just five interceptions.

Dive back Zach Laskey and Synjyn Days were key cogs in the triple-option machine, combining for 1,441 rushing yards this season.

Of course, much of the team's success through the air comes from catching its opposition off guard, and Thomas completed just 50.9 percent of his passes.

If Mississippi State can manage to force this team into 3rd- and 4th-and-long situations, it should have a solid chance of ending drives early. The Bulldogs boast a voracious defensive front, anchored by Smith, who racked up 14.5 tackles for loss this season, per CFBStats.com. 

Johnson is aware of the challenge.

"All of those guys that they have up front are good," Johnson said, via the Sun Sentinel's Scott Alan Salomon. "They have a really good front seven, and I spoke to some coaches in the conference and they think that they might be the best front seven in the entire SEC."

Mississippi State allowed just 126.5 rushing yards per game this season.

Fourth down is mentioned because Johnson isn't keen on punting the ball. Georgia Tech converted on 12 of 17 fourth downs and punted just 29 times all season.

Johnson will do all he can to establish an early lead and hold on for dear life, as his defense is liable to let him down against Dak Prescott and the Bulldogs offense.

Prescott accounted for 37 total touchdowns and 3,935 all-purpose yards this season. He formed an effective backfield tandem with running back Josh Robinson, who averaged 6.4 yards per carry and rushed for 11 touchdowns.

The Yellow Jackets ranked 49th in points against and 64th in yards allowed per contest. The Bulldogs couldn't have achieved such great balance without a stout offensive line.

SB Nation's Reid Coker noted offensive lineman Ben Beckwith as perhaps the most important offensive player not named Dak or Josh:

The fact that the guy went from being a walk on to a starter in the SEC says all you need to know. But not only was he a starter, he had so good of a season that he received All-SEC and All-American honors. The interior of the offensive line dominated in the big wins this season, and Beckwith was a big reason why. The offensive line as a whole made the difference for the offense this year. They don't have a lot of star power, but they are experienced and played well enough to give us a chance to win every single game.

If the Bulldogs can storm out to an early lead, it could prove to be a tough uphill climb for the Yellow Jackets, who can't rely on quick-strike attacks to shift the tide of the game. Their best bet for racking up an early advantage might be getting pressure and forcing Prescott into making mistakes.

The Yellow Jackets picked off 17 passes this season. Junior defensive backs Jamal Golden and D.J. White led the way with four each.

However, Prescott doesn't make too many mistakes and is liable to tuck the ball and run instead of forcing passes into coverage. Georgia Tech recovered 12 fumbles this season, but those can't be relied upon in a game of this magnitude.

Look for these teams to trade blows early on, with Georgia Tech's misdirection dizzying the Bulldogs for the first couple quarters and racking up a ton of yardage. Prescott will hook up with wideout De'Runnya Wilson early and often and keep Mississippi State in contention.

Once the Bulldogs start picking up their cues on defense, they should be able to build a slim advantage and hold it against a Yellow Jackets team that doesn't have the ability to mount a quick, late comeback, especially against a disciplined defense used to big-game pressure by this point.

Prediction: Mississippi State 34, Georgia Tech 28

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Fiesta Bowl 2014: Top Storylines to Follow in Boise State vs. Arizona

Boise State enters the 2014 Fiesta Bowl looking to build on an already-prestigious history in the bowl, going up against an Arizona team that might feel a distinct home-field advantage.

But although the Wildcats should have somewhat of a crowd advantage due to the proximity, the Broncos will make this quite the spectacle. Along with prestigious history in the bowl game, Boise State has shown its grit amid emerging as the only non-Power Five team to notch a Top 25 ranking at season's end.

But the Broncos will go up against an Arizona team looking to make up for its most recent drubbing at the hands of Oregon, and also hoping to get its 11th win in what has been a memorable season.

Here's a look at the top storylines to watch for in the Fiesta Bowl.

 

The Quest for 3-0

No matter what Boise State accomplishes in bowl games for the distant future, the 2007 Fiesta Bowl will forever live in college football lore.

An unthinkable Statue of Liberty play won the Broncos the Fiesta Bowl over Oklahoma in crazy fashion. Then, Boise State repeated the feat in 2010 by knocking off No. 4 TCU 17-10 in the program's second appearance.

Now back for the third time ever, the Broncos shouldn't expect anything other than to make it a perfect 3-0. 

Even though their first appearance in the Fiesta Bowl came just eight years ago, the Broncos can inch closer to history with another win, as 93.1 The Ticket's Jeff Caves noted:

The Mountain West-hailing Broncos haven't faced too much elite opposition this season to show how they'll fare against Arizona, but they have impressed in certain stretches. They hung in there for most of a 28-14 loss to Ole Miss in August, and they toppled bowl-bound foes like BYU, San Diego State, Utah State and Colorado State convincingly. 

Unlike the last two times the Broncos made it here, though, it hasn't quite been a banner year. With two losses on the slate, it remains to be seen whether Boise State has enough magic to make a third run at a bowl it has dominated.

 

Month-Long Hangover

Conventional wisdom would suggest that Arizona's more than excited to be a part of the Fiesta Bowl. After all, the Wildcats haven't made it here since 1993.

But it'd be even easier to suggest that Rich Rodriguez's crew will have somewhat of a hard time getting up for this one.

The last time Arizona played, it faced an Oregon team that it beat the previous time the two met. The sequel wasn't as rewarding for the Wildcats, who were drubbed 51-13 in a game that could have propelled them into the College Football Playoff conversation.

It's made Rodriguez—and many around Arizona's facilities, probably—a little on edge, as Arizona Daily Star's Daniel Berk noted:

Of course, the Wildcat players can take that edge one of two ways—they can come into New Year's Eve with a chip on their shoulder, or come in deflated after a few weeks of lower spirits than normal.

Getting a bid to the Fiesta Bowl likely reinvigorated the Arizona players, but nothing turns things around like winning football games. And even though we're a few weeks removed from it, that loss to Oregon is freshest on the Wildcats players' minds.

If the hangover carries on into the first quarter, Rodriguez and Co. could get run out of Glendale.

 

Battle of the Best

Boise State's Jay Ajayi and Arizona's Scooby Wright III have been impossible to contain for their respective teams in 2014.

Already declared for the NFL draft, Ajayi has proven to be uncatchable all season long. He's scampered for a whopping 1,689 yards, amassing a total of 2,225 yards from scrimmage and serving as a one-man wrecking crew.

The playmaker he'll be going up against first and foremost has him beat on postseason accolades, however. The sophomore linebacker took home the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award (top defensive player) rather convincingly, and he's only a spry 20 years old.

Wright typically makes his impact rushing the passer, and he'll certainly become acclimated with Grant Hedrick. But with how much the Broncos value the run, he'll be called upon to shed blockers and find Ajayi before he breaks loose.

What makes their matchup even crazier is that Wright could be in Boise blue, as Rivals.com's Jeremy Rodrigues noted:

When it comes down to it, Wright leads an Arizona defense looking to make up for two paltry performances against Oregon and Arizona State to close out 2014. He and the defense will be intent on a big performance to set the tone entering next year.

Meanwhile, Ajayi is playing in his last collegiate game and looking to leave a lasting impact on his legacy in practically Boise State's championship setting. 

Both players will have everything to play for on New Year's Eve, but in much different ways. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Sugar Bowl 2015: Keys to Victory in Alabama vs. Ohio State Playoff Clash

This might sound like a cliche, but just participating in the Sugar Bowl signifies a remarkable feat for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The heavy underdog heading into Thursday's showdown against the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide, Urban Meyer's club lost starting quarterback Braxton Miller early in the season, only to see his sensational replacement, J.T. Barrett, go down right before the end.

Yet the Buckeyes captured the inaugural College Football Playoff's fourth and final spot by dismantling the Wisconsin Badgers for the Big Ten crown. Meyer praised his team's resolve to ESPN.com's Austin Ward:

Incredible year, a year that if you would have told me back in August when I saw our starting quarterback go down that this would happen, I would have said, 'Not yet.' You just never can devalue the chemistry on a team, the closeness of a team. And then when you deal with tragedy and other things that our team has experienced throughout the year, it was a learning experience. I learned more from our players maybe this year than in a long time.

As a reward for their hard work, the Buckeyes play the 12-1 Crimson Tide, who are armed with their usual suffocating defense and one of their most explosive offenses in years. After getting shunned from the title picture last year, they're now in the driver's seat to reclaim college football's throne.

Let's take a look at what needs to happen for each squad to celebrate New Year's Day with a victory.

 

When: Thursday, Jan. 1 at 8:30 p.m. ET

Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana

Watch: ESPN/WatchESPN

 

Alabama vs. Ohio State Stats

 

Alabama's Key to Victory: Don't Lose Turnover Battle

Look at the pretty table above, and the tale of the tape doesn't give Ohio State much reason for optimism besides a slightly superior passing game now operating without Barrett. There's only one notable advantage for Ohio State, which boasts a plus-nine turnover margin to Alabama's minus-one.

This is where you should be saying, "But the Buckeyes recovered 21 fumbles all season. Fumble recoveries are more luck than skill." Very true. There's a craft involved to stripping balls loose, but no linebacker possesses the sorcery to control how it then bounces.

For a heavy favorite like the Crimson Tide to lose, such fortune would have to turn against them. Notice it doesn't even say "Win Turnover Battle." Shaking Cardale Jones could turn this match into a rout, but simply avoiding any mistakes on their end will ensure a victory.

Nick Saban preached the same philosophy in his own way before the SEC championship clash against Missouri. Per AL.com's Natalie Pierre, he encouraged quarterback Blake Sims to stay poised like a fictional character from a movie well before Sims' time:

Even with the reference lost on him, the junior went 23-of-27 passing for a cruising offense that generated 9.7 yards per play and secured the football. That rousing efficiency will earn the nation's top-ranked club a ticket to the championship.

In its only loss of the season, on the other hand, Alabama coughed up two turnovers to Mississippi State, including an interception in the end zone with under a minute left. Such game-changing plays are the only way to take down a ferocious powerhouse.

 

Ohio State's Key to Victory: Shut Down Run

Thanks to Heisman finalist Amari Cooper, Alabama is far from a one-dimensional offense. Nick Saban's squad can hold its own through the air, but the smashmouth school has not ditched its old-fashioned roots.

The Crimson Tide still produce 209 yards per game through the ground, led by 10 touchdowns apiece from T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Each rusher enters the playoff bout averaging over five yards per carry.

Nobody is going to eliminate Cooper from the fold, so the Buckeyes instead must prevent any further damage by silencing Alabama's rushing attack. Although not outstanding in that category, they recently stifled the nation's premier runner.

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon entered the Big Ten title game with 10 straight 120-yard rushing games, scoring 27 touchdowns in the process. Against Ohio State, he mustered just 76 yards on 26 carries during a 59-0 laugher.

Yet two weeks earlier, Indiana's Tevin Coleman burned the Buckeyes for 228 rushing yards and three scores. Heading into Thursday, nobody knows which unit to expect.

Replicating the latter effort will yield disastrous results, as combining a hearty rushing attack with the pairing of Sims and Cooper will force replacement quarterback Jones to carry Ohio State through a shootout.

Keep Yeldon and Henry at bay, and the green signal-caller at least has a fighting chance to lead his club to an upset.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Russell Athletic Bowl 2014: Oklahoma vs. Clemson TV Info, Spread, Time and More

Different paths have the Oklahoma Sooners and Clemson Tigers in the 2014 Russell Athletic Bowl for what promises to be one of the most memorable encounters of the season.

Bob Stoops' Sooners tumbled to the late-December encounter thanks to a heartbreaking overtime loss to Oklahoma State to finish the season at 8-4. Dabo Swinney's team came on strong to end the season and took down South Carolina to finish 9-3.

The paths merge Monday as the Sooners look to get back on track and the Tigers look to finish a surprising season in strong fashion, starting quarterback or not.

 

Opposing Strengths

It is almost as if those who create the bowl games want each encounter to be entertaining.

Mission accomplished here, as a prolific Oklahoma offense takes on the nation's top-ranked defense.

The Sooners figure to have starting quarterback Trevor Knight back. The sophomore's 2,197 yards and 14 touchdowns, with another 340 yards and five scores on the ground, hint at the versatility he brings to the offense.

A freshman leads the nation's ninth-ranked rushing attack, though. Samaje Perine leads a long list of effective runners, albeit in rather dominant fashion:

Clemson is not exactly a team intimidated by rank or statistics, however.

Early hiccups against Georgia and Florida State derailed the season, but a 35-17 blowout over South Carolina shows just how dominant the Tigers can be against top competition. There, a talented Gamecocks rushing attack averaged just 1.9 yards per carry on the way to 63 rushing yards.

An Oklahoma offense accustomed to scoring in the neighborhood of 40 points must now find a way to produce against a defense that allows an average of 17.6.

As they say, something has to give.

 

Grounding it Out

For Clemson, Monday is perhaps the biggest dose of adversity the offense has faced all season.

Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson lit a fire under the stagnant Tigers attack this season with 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns to two interceptions through the air and another five scores on the ground.

Things shift back to senior Cole Stoudt under center Monday, though, with Watson out due to knee surgery. In other words, Swinney will need to lean on an upstart rushing attack:

Stoudt has completed 62.0 percent of his passes this season, but he struggles with turnovers, as a 6-10 touchdowns-interceptions ratio shows. Despite his struggles, the defense seems confident that the senior and his unit will uphold their end of the bargain.

"We have full confidence in our offense and their abilities,"defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said, per STATS LLC (via ESPN.com). "They just got to handle their adversity and they're going to do fine, but we're going to continue to do our part and do what we've been doing all year and try to put a strong finish on our season."

Thanks to Wayne Gallman and Tyshon Dye, the Clemson rushing attack figures to be the strong complement Stoudt needs, unlike earlier in the regular season.

What Stoudt does with the talent around him may decide the game outright.

 

When: Monday, December 29, 5:30 p.m. ET

Where: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 52.5
  • Spread: Oklahoma (-3.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

The absence of Watson will hurt Clemson in a big way Monday. 

A sudden lack of versatility in the Tigers attack means the entirety of the pressure falls on the defense. While it's up to the task, few have been game enough to handle Oklahoma's Perine this season. The owner of a minimum of 151 yards and two touchdowns in each of his past three outings, Perine is set to gash Clemson in a way it has not seen so far this year.

For Oklahoma, a disappointing season ends on a high note.

Prediction: Oklahoma 35, Clemson 28

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Liberty Bowl 2014: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia TV Info, Spread, Time and More

Of the offensive-minded bowl games this season, few hold a candle to the Liberty Bowl, in which the Texas A&M Aggies and West Virginia Mountaineers will collide.

Kevin Sumlin's Aggies were not game enough to compete in the SEC, but a young roster gets a great test against an upstart Mountaineers team that also finished with a 7-5 record. Both programs lean on top-12 passing attacks that help the offenses to average a minimum of 33 points per game.

Monday is a critical stepping stone for both programs. Texas A&M needs to mature to compete in a division that contains Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Auburn, LSU and Arkansas, not to mention the SEC as a whole. If West Virginia is to join the ranks of Baylor, TCU and Kansas State, a Monday triumph is a step in the right direction.

It may not be the College Football Playoff, but few games are as important as the Liberty Bowl.

 

Shootout in Memphis

Dana Holgorsen's offense ranks better through the air than the Aggies, but the biggest storyline surrounding the contest is the loss of his starting quarterback, Clint Trickett.

The senior, who threw for 3,285 yards and 18 scores this year, decided to retire before the bowl game due to concussions, as Allan Taylor of the West Virginia Metro News reports:

Things now rest on the arm of sophomore Skyler Howard, who has thrown five touchdowns to no interceptions over the course of his past two outings.

The loss of a starting quarterback is never something to gloss over, but the torrid state of the Aggies defense is noteworthy:

Then again, Sumlin's offense should encounter few issues posting numbers on the scoreboard.

The campaign has been disappointing overall, but the Aggies offense has shown flashes such as a 41-point outburst in an upset of Auburn. Freshman quarterback Kyle Allen leads the way and has 1,028 yards and 12 scores to his name on the year.

A trio of runners who give even the best SEC powers issues this season insulates Allen:

The high-scoring environment magnifies each possession and mistake. Even better, inexperience under center is not the negative it seems.

 

X-Factor Defined 

NFL scouts will invade Memphis Monday. 

The reason, of course, being West Virginia senior wideout Kevin White. A gaudy 102 receptions for 1,318 yards and nine scores on the year is great, but his impact goes beyond numbers.

Truthfully, the Mountaineers go as White goes.

White wowed the nation with a stretch of seven games to start the season in which he surpassed the 100-yard mark. The only losses in that span were understandable—at the hands of Alabama and Oklahoma.

After that, though, White went for more than 100 yards just once in the team's final five games, of which the Mountaineers lost three.

Now the challenge is getting White involved early and often with a backup under center.

"Skyler and I are starting to get on pace, and he has been doing a great job at practice," White said, per STATS LLC (via ESPN.com). "He has improved, and his knowledge of the offense has improved tremendously. ... We will make it work."

Texas A&M cannot handle top-flight receivers (Alabama's Amari Cooper caught eight passes for 140 yards and a pair of scores against the unit back in October), but the wrinkle that is Skyler under center complicates things to a degree.

 

When: Monday, December 29, 2 p.m. ET

Where: Liberty Bowl Memorial, Memphis, Tennessee

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 64.5
  • Spread: West Virginia (-3.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

The Texas A&M defense really makes this a simplistic pick. 

Sumlin's offense can move the ball well enough, but not to the point it can compensate for what the defense will allow Monday.

Much of the attention goes to the unfortunate loss of its starting quarterback, but the West Virginia offense could not have asked for a more favorable encounter in order to keep the offense rolling.

Expect just that as White takes things into his own hands in a shootout.

Prediction: West Virginia 42, Texas A&M 35

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Bowl Picks 2014: Predictions on Most Overlooked Games Remaining

With 39 different bowl games, it's only natural that some intriguing matchups will fall through the cracks as everybody talks about the new College Football Playoff.

Most of the attention in the college football world is focused on the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl, which serve as national semifinals. And after that, there's the other four bowls that comprise "New Year's Six."

It makes sense that the best teams would receive the most hype.

That also means that a handful of potentially great games are getting overlooked. Below are two such bowls.

 

Most Overlooked Bowls

AutoZone Liberty Bowl: Texas A&M vs. West Virginia

Do you love offense? Of course you do.

West Virginia and Texas A&M are ninth and 12th, respectively, in passing offense and also 64th and 63rd, respectively, in passing yards allowed. With any luck, this bowl turns into one of those games where one quarterback has five touchdowns, but the other one has six.

As if that's not enough reason to tune into this game, Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen and Aggies offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who's a former member of Holgorsen's staff, have had a nice Twitter battle over the last few weeks.

WVU play-by-play man Tony Caridi sparked the friendly battle:

This game will feature two quarterbacks who took over midseason, with Kyle Allen replacing the suspended Kenny Hill, and Skyler Howard stepping in for the injured and subsequently retired Clint Trickett. While Allen arguably has the slight edge in terms of talent and 2014 production, the A&M defense will likely negate that advantage.

Say what you want about Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, but it's generally not going to help the unit when the DC is gone a month before a bowl game. Texas A&M's defense was already bad enough, giving up 449 yards a game. Take Snyder out of the mix, and little is likely to change.

The Mountaineers have a far more balanced offense as well. Kevin White is perhaps the second-best wide receiver in the country behind Amari Cooper. The trio of Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith also combined to rush for 1,856 yards and 14 touchdowns.

It's hard seeing how the A&M defense slows WVU down enough to let Allen have a chance. At least both teams should score points by the bucketload.

Prediction: West Virginia 45, Texas A&M 34

 

Outback Bowl: Auburn vs. Wisconsin

And now from two teams that love to pass to two teams that love to run. Auburn and Wisconsin combined to average 572.5 yards a game during the season. The two teams were 11th and third, respectively, in the country in rushing.

With more and more teams adopting some sort of spread, pass-happy offensive style, the Tigers and Badgers are becoming a bit of a novelty. That's why it will be so much fun to watch them going head-to-head against one another.

If anything, watch this game because it will be Melvin Gordon's last in college football. The 2014 Heisman Trophy runner-up was one of the most dynamic players in the country, rushing for 200-plus yards on five different occasions.

Wisconsin interim head coach Barry Alvarez has seen his fair share of talented RBs at the school, but he didn't hesitate to put Gordon at the top of the list, per Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin:

While Gordon is a great collegiate player, the Big Ten title game illustrated that one man cannot win a game by himself. Ohio State held Gordon to 76 yards in a 59-0 shutout.

It's hard to ignore that massive defeat when looking at Wisconsin's chances, considering the loss to the Buckeyes was one of the team's few truly tough games. In another difficult matchup, the Badgers squandered a 17-point second-half lead to LSU.

Auburn also illustrated in the loss to Alabama that it possesses a dynamic passing game. Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards and three touchdowns against the Tide.

Back on Dec. 15, Bleacher Report's college football staff ranked the top dual-threat QBs in the country and listed Marshall fourth behind Marcus Mariota, J.T. Barrett and Brett Hundley. Overall, the Tigers star received an 86 out of 100. The B/R staff highlighted how Marshall's grown into a more balanced quarterback:

Nick Marshall has made striking improvements as a passer. Last season he was timid throwing intermediate and vertical routes, doing most of his damage on screens. This season he has missed fewer open receivers and shown confidence stretching the field. He is still less consistent than the players above him, but he's getting there.

Auburn's not particularly great against the run, but the Tigers should limit Gordon enough so that he doesn't have a monster game. As long as the Badgers running back finishes right around the century mark, the Tigers should be able to overwhelm the Badgers defense with their offensive firepower.

Prediction: Auburn 34, Wisconsin 24

 

Note: All stats courtesy of NCAA.com unless otherwise noted.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Bowl Games 2014-15: Postseason Schedule and Predictions for Biggest Matchups

We've already seen some epic games during the bowl season, and there are still 21 more postseason tilts to be played.

Any of them could turn into instant classics. It's all leading up to the culmination of the first College Football Playoff, which is scheduled for Jan. 12 in Arlington, Texas.

Which two teams will be vying for the distinction of being the first national champion of the playoff era? It's between the Oregon Ducks, Alabama Crimson Tide, defending champion Florida State Seminoles and Ohio State Buckeyes.

I'll give you my take on the two semifinals matchups, but first here's a look at the remaining bowl schedule.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Texas A&M vs. West Virginia Memphis, Tenn.
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium Dec. 29
2 p.m. ESPN Russell Athletic Bowl
Oklahoma vs. No. 17 Clemson Orlando, Fla.
Florida Citrus Bowl Dec. 29
5:30 p.m. ESPN AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
Arkansas vs. Texas Houston
NRG Stadium Dec. 29
9 p.m. ESPN Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Notre Dame vs. No. 23 LSU Nashville, Tenn.
LP Field Dec. 30
3 p.m. ESPN Belk Bowl
No. 13 Georgia vs. No. 21 Louisville Charlotte, N.C.
Bank of America Stadium Dec. 30
6:30 p.m. ESPN Foster Farms Bowl
Maryland vs. Stanford Santa Clara, Calif.
Levi's Stadium Dec. 30
10 p.m. ESPN Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
No. 9 Ole Miss vs. No. 6 TCU Atlanta
Georgia Dome Dec. 31
12:30 p.m. ESPN VIZIO Fiesta Bowl
No. 20 Boise State vs. No. 10 Arizona Glendale, Ariz.
University of Phoenix Stadium Dec. 31
4 p.m. ESPN Capital One Orange Bowl
No. 7 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 Georgia Tech Miami Gardens, Fla.
Sun Life Stadium Dec. 31
8 p.m. ESPN Outback Bowl
No. 19 Auburn vs. No. 18 Wisconsin Tampa, Fla.
Raymond James Stadium Jan. 1
Noon ESPN2 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 5 Baylor Arlington, Texas
AT&T Stadium Jan. 1
12:30 p.m. ESPN Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
No. 16 Missouri vs. No. 25 Minnesota Orlando, Fla.
Florida Citrus Bowl Jan. 1
1 p.m. ABC Rose Bowl Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual
College Football Playoff Semifinal

No. 2 Oregon vs. No. 3 Florida State Pasadena, Calif.
Rose Bowl Jan. 1
5 p.m. ESPN Allstate Sugar Bowl
College Football Playoff Semifinal

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Ohio State New Orleans
Mercedes-Benz Superdome Jan. 1
8:30 p.m. ESPN Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl
Houston vs. Pittsburgh Fort Worth, Texas
Amon G. Carter Stadium Jan. 2
Noon ESPN TaxSlayer Bowl
Iowa vs. Tennessee Jacksonville, Fla.
EverBank Field Jan. 2
3:20 p.m. ESPN Valero Alamo Bowl
No. 11 Kansas State vs. No. 14 UCLA San Antonio
Alamodome Jan. 2
6:45 p.m. ESPN TicketCity Cactus Bowl
Washington vs. Oklahoma State Tempe, Ariz.
Sun Devil Stadium Jan. 2
10:15 p.m. ESPN Birmingham Bowl
East Carolina vs. Florida Birmingham, Ala.
Legion Field Jan. 3
Noon ESPN GoDaddy Bowl
Toledo vs. Arkansas State Mobile, Ala.
Ladd-Peebles Stadium Jan. 4
9 p.m. ESPN College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T
TBD vs. TBD Arlington, Texas
AT&T Stadium Jan. 12
8:30 p.m. ESPN

 

Florida State Will Roll Past Oregon

The battle of the last two Heisman Trophy winners won't be much of a contest. The Seminoles have squeaked by winning a mountain of close games all season long. Truth be told, they haven't played well for 60 minutes in any game this season.

With everything on the line and facing the newly crowned Heisman winner, the Seminoles will produce their best performance of the season. The lack of respect from the CFP committee and analysts have created an us-against-the-world theme for the champions, and that's bad news for Oregon.

Bo Mattingly of Sports Talk with Bo sees Florida State winning a close one.

Marcus Mariota was deserving of his 2014 Heisman award, but he has never faced a defense as athletic as the Noles. From players such as Eddie Goldman on the defensive line to corners such as P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby, Florida State will get after Mariota.

Turnovers will give the Noles great field position, and Jameis Winston and the offense will make the Ducks pay. Florida State will advance to the championship game with a 34-14 win.

 

Alabama's Speed Will Lead to Blow Out

The Crimson Tide have never had so many weapons on offense. Nor have they had the willingness to use them all. Amari Cooper is the best wide receiver in the nation, and the Tide's offensive line is still big, nasty and dominant.

Add in TJ Yeldon and quarterback Blake Sims has protection and a wealth of ammunition.

Ohio State's defense might be able to keep it close if its offense could stay on the field. Unfortunately for Buckeye Nation, third-string quarterback Cardale Jones and the offense are going to be looking at a lot of three-and-out possessions.

The speed on Alabama's defense will be a shock to Ohio State's system. The front seven will take away Jones' running ability and stuff the conventional run game.

Even if J.T. Barrett or even Braxton Miller had been the signal-caller for Ohio State, I'd lean toward Bama's defense and overall team speed.

However, with the inexperienced Jones in the hot seat, things look even better for Bama. Get ready for a beatdown in the Bayou as Alabama will dominate the Sugar Bowl 40-13.

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AdvoCare Texas Bowl 2014: Arkansas vs. Texas TV Info, Spread, Time and More

Thanks to high-profile upsets near the end of the season, the 2014 AdvoCare Texas Bowl between the Arkansas Razorbacks and Texas Longhorns is much more than just a battle between a pair of .500 teams.

Charlie Strong's Longhorns found a way to take down Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State in successive fashion to become bowl eligible. Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks did much of the same with upsets of LSU and Ole Miss.

The result is a standoff between a forceful rushing attack and a Texas defense that carries along a struggling offense.

Monday night's marquee showdown is not one to skip.

 

Trench Warfare

Observers know by now that Arkansas does not disguise what it wants to do each time out.

In short, Bielema and Co. want to run the ball down the defense's throat on each play.

Arkansas touts a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, proof enough that the approach works:

The fact Williams even rushed for 83 yards and a score on a 4.2 per-carry average against Alabama in a 14-13 loss speaks volumes about how effective the attack can be against any opponent.

Texas knows a thing or two about strong defense, though. The Longhorns ranked No. 1 in total defense and pass defense in the Big 12 this year.

Though they lost the game, the Longhorns defense held Baylor—a team that averages 48.8 points to lead the nation—to 28 points. A West Virginia offense that averages 33.2 scored just 16 against the unit, while Texas Tech managed just 13 despite its average resting slightly above 30 points per game.

Arkansas brings the pain in the trenches on the opposite side of the football too, mostly thanks to Trey Flowers. The senior end has five sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss this year, which is a large part of the reason the defense ranks 16th nationally in scoring.

It sounds obvious to say any football game is won in the trenches, but this train of thought gets a boost when the two collide Monday.

 

The Weight of the World...

...falls on the shoulders of Longhorns sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes.

The Texas offense can only go as Swoopes does. He has thrown for 2,352 yards and has 16 total touchdowns on the year, but 10 interceptions personify his turnover struggles.

Case in point, a 48-10 season-ending loss to TCU was the direct result of Swoopes' four interceptions. As Brian Davis of the Austin American-Statesman captures, he is ready to move on from the woeful performance:

Now would be an ideal time to do so, given the magnitude of the historic rivalry being renewed Monday. The emotions run deep, as even Strong outlined recently.

"I grew up in Arkansas, grew up an Arkansas fan because it's a major university in the state," Strong said, per STATS LLC (via ESPN). "So many memorable games. Like I said, the '69 game was an unbelievable game. ... Growing up around it, you just know how big it was and how important it is to so many people."

No pressure, right? 

Swoopes can hurt the Arkansas defense and possibly negate the rush with his legs. If turnover issues persist, though, the Razorbacks will use additional possessions to grind the clock to an eventual win.

 

When: Monday, December 29, 9 p.m. ET

Where: NRG Stadium, Houston, TX

Television: ESPN

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 44.5
  • Spread: Arkansas (-6.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

Las Vegas has this one right. 

The turnaround by Texas is something to be proud of and will help in the recruiting department, but Arkansas is simply further along in the rebuilding process at this stage.

Thanks to a defense that stood tall in the rigors of a brutal SEC schedule, the Razorbacks have a distinct advantage. Rushing the ball will not come as fluidly as usual, but Williams and the stable of Arkansas backs will find plenty of room to operate on the ground.

In a ground-based affair, Arkansas gets the edge.

Prediction: Arkansas 27, Texas 20

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Rose Bowl 2015: Key Positional Battles in Oregon vs. Florida State Matchup

The college football gods couldn't have produced a better matchup for the 2015 Rose Bowl if they tried.

Oregon and Florida State are among the best teams in the country, loaded at nearly every position. The Ducks and Seminoles also feature the last two Heisman Trophy winners.

The uptempo, quick-strike Oregon offense will also contrast well with Florida State's slightly more pro-style game plan.

With so much talent on the field at once, the more neutral fans will have a field day following the individual positional battles. While it won't be weighing on their minds at the time, some of these players will also be auditioning for the draft, thus giving a potential preview for what's to come in the NFL.

The four matchups below will be among the most compelling both in terms of skill involved and importance on the game.

 

Oregon C Hroniss Grasu/Oregon LT Jake Fisher vs. Florida State DT Eddie Goldman/Florida State DE Mario Edwards Jr.

During Oregon's worst stretch of the season, the Ducks offensive line offered little protection for quarterback Marcus Mariota. It was almost as if Oregon was intentionally making life tough for its signal-caller as some sort of test.

Luckily for the Ducks, Mariota's one of the best players in the country and could almost single-handedly win on his own. The problem also resolved itself, as more Oregon offensive linemen got healthy and the coaches simplified the blocking schemes.

In terms of sacks, Florida State is one of the worst teams in the country. The Seminoles got to the quarterback only 17 times and rank 112th in the country in average sacks per game.

With that said, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman and defensive end Mario Edwards Jr. are immensely talented and could give the Oregon offensive line nightmares. Goldman has four sacks and eight tackles for loss, and Edwards has recorded three and 11, respectively.

Oregon will counter Goldman with center Hroniss Grasu, who was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy despite not playing since Nov. 8. The Ducks have been secretive regarding Grasu's health, but Andrew Greif of The Oregonian believes that the senior will be on the field:

If you're trying to read tea leaves, the start of Oregon's bowl practices coincided with Grasu ditching his scooter, which took pressure and weight off his injured appendage. He's since left UO's closed practices wearing shoulder pads and cleats. He has also maintained he will play again before the season ends — which could be a distinct possibility on Jan. 1 considering the strengths along FSU's line.

Even if Grasu plays, you wonder if he'll have any sort of rust. It's one thing to practice; it's another to be playing against a player of Goldman's ability in a national semifinal game.

Ducks left tackle Jake Fisher will be opposing Edwards. Fisher, a first-team All-Pac 12 member, missed a couple of games earlier in the season. During that time, Oregon allowed 12 sacks, illustrating Fisher's importance to the team.

 

Florida State QB Jameis Winston vs. Oregon S Erick Dargan

Most would agree that this year's Florida State team isn't quite as good as last year's national champions. The Seminoles lost Kelvin Benjamin, Devonta Freeman, Timmy Jernigan and Lamarcus Joyner, among others, in the draft.

As a result, more and more pressure falls on the shoulders of Jameis Winston. The first half of the ACC Championship Game was evidence of how much he can lift the Seminoles up despite a poor overall performance. FSU led 28-21 at halftime, in large part because of Winston's 222 yards and three touchdowns through the air.

ESPN's Bomani Jones called it Winston's best half all year:

One player Winston will have to be aware of at all times is Oregon safety Erick Dargan. Dargan's six interceptions led the team and were three times more than any other player.

The senior also leads the team in tackles (82). He knows how to read the game and is seemingly in the right place at the right time.

According to ESPN.com, in games decided by 14 points or less this year, Winston's completed 62.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. Compare that to his numbers in games decided by 15 points or more (72.1%, 10 TDs, 3 INTs).

The bigger the impact Dargan has, the more Winston's likely to struggle. And the more Winston struggles, the more likely it is Florida State will find itself in a dogfight.

 

Oregon QB Marcus Mariota vs. Florida State LBs Terrance Smith and Reggie Northrup

Many are rightfully focusing on the matchup between Mariota and Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey. Certainly the way that Florida State lines up Ramsey and how that affects Mariota will be an interesting factor to follow.

What might prove even more important is how well the Seminoles can limit Mariota on the ground. The Heisman winner ran for 669 yards and 14 touchdowns this year.

Although Mariota's not a dynamic runner like Robert Griffin III, Michael Vick or Vince Young were in college, that added dimension only gives opposing defenses more problems.

FSU linebackers Reggie Northrup and Terrance Smith were first and second in tackles for the Seminoles, respectively. The former was a third-team All-ACC honoree, and the latter was named to the second team.

More than likely, one of Northrup and Smith will be shadowing Mariota on every down. If they can combine to limit Mariota's effectiveness on the ground, the FSU secondary won't have to worry about Mariota breaking containment and getting into the open field as much and will be able to focus solely on defending the pass.

 

Florida State WR Rashad Greene vs. Oregon CB Troy Hill

Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu will miss the Rose Bowl after injuring his knee, thus taking the Ducks' best cover corner out of the picture. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher talked about how he "hated to see that," per Natalie Pierre of AL.com:

The Oregon pass defense wasn't exactly dominant with Ekpre-Olomu on the field. Take him out of the mix, and the secondary is a major question mark:

The injury also means that senior CB Troy Hill will line up against Rashad Greene on most downs. The senior wide receiver leads FSU in every major receiving category with 93 receptions, 1,306 yards and seven touchdowns.

On paper, it's a major mismatch in Florida State's favor. Winston should test Hill early and often.

However, Hill bristled at the idea that he's been invisible for the entire season and that the Rose Bowl is the first time he'll really be called upon, per Rob Moseley of GoDucks.com:

This will be a major test for Hill. He has a great chance to walk the walk and shut down one of the best wideouts in the country.

Smothering Greene will only make life harder for Winston, which in turn will make Florida State a more pedestrian team—at least by the Seminoles' standards.

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USC Football: Trojans' Loaded Offense Will Help Them Contend for 2015 Playoff

SAN DIEGO — Fresh off winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player in No. 24 USC’s 45-42 Holiday Bowl victory Saturday over Nebraska, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler made it clear he’ll be back for 2015.

“I’m absolutely coming back,” Kessler said in the postgame press conference, though just minutes earlier during the trophy presentation, he mentioned coming back for a national championship next year.

In the meantime, Kessler’s three scores Saturday gave him 39 for the 2014 campaign, tying a single-season record that USC predecessor Matt Barkley set in 2011—even if he didn’t know it.

“What’s awesome is he had no idea [he tied the record],” head coach Steve Sarkisian said.

“The most important thing to me [is] winning games for [teammates],” Kessler elaborated. “If that happens to [mean] breaking a record because that’s what it takes to win a game, then so be it.”

Both individual records and wins should be in great supply for Kessler and USC in 2015. But the quarterback is just one instrumental piece in a veritable offensive machine USC has rolling out of this season and into next.

Offensive lineman Zach Banner probably summed it up best: “Got a lot of young dudes coming back.”

Nowhere is USC’s youth more apparent than on the offensive line. It’s a unit that virtually learned on the job in 2014.

Of the starters in Saturday’s Holiday Bowl, only center Max Tuerk made any career starts prior to this season. Three first-stringers—Damien Mama, Toa Lobendahn and Viane Talamaivao—couldn’t have, because all were high schoolers just a year ago.

From preps to lining up opposite future NFL draft pick Randy Gregory: That’s Lobendahn’s arc in the past year.

“They did a great job,” running back Javorius “Buck” Allen said. “[Offensive line coach Tim] Drevno does a great job with those guys every day.”

Allen took advantage of big holes the line paved in the second half, rushing for 152 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The redshirt junior running back may not be one of the players back in 2015—he said he’ll weigh his NFL draft decision in the days to come—but his success operating behind that young offensive line bodes well for the future of the Trojans’ ground attack.

Along with Allen, its top rushing weapon, USC may have to replace its leading receiver, Nelson Agholor.

Agholor said, “I’m in no hurry at all,” as far as an NFL draft decision is concerned.

If the Holiday Bowl was his collegiate farewell, he went out in a manner befitting his outstanding career with seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown.

He also played defense on Nebraska’s last gasp, Hail Mary attempt as time expired.

Should Sarkisian have to fill Agholor’s void in the passing game, the Trojans’ coach will have options.

Freshman John “JuJu” Smith’s stellar debut season finished with a three-catch, 66-yard night. Tight end Bryce Dixon also had arguably the best game of his young career with four receptions, including a touchdown.

Dixon and Smith could be two parts in a dynamic sophomore triumvirate—if Sarkisian gets his way with Adoree’ Jackson.

“I keep battling [defensive coordinator] Justin Wilcox because I want [Jackson] on offense,” Sarkisian said. “He probably would have scored four touchdowns tonight.”

Sarkisian had to settle for Jackson scoring two. One was a Holiday Bowl-record 98-yard kickoff return, the other a 71-yard catch from Kessler.

The coaching staff will have an interesting decision with Jackson in the offseason, but Saturday’s showing gives Sarkisian and Co. plenty to mull over.

As the coaches decide how best to utilize Jackson, the rest of the USC offense already knows what it can build on for 2015—because, as Banner pointed out, they began taking those strides in 2014.

“You’ve got to do your part to the highest level,” he said. “And we learned that as a team over the [course of] the season.”

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of the Holiday Bowl.

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USC Football: Trojans' Loaded Offense Will Help Them Contend for 2015 Playoff

SAN DIEGO — Fresh off winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player in No. 24 USC’s 45-42 Holiday Bowl victory Saturday over Nebraska, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler made it clear he’ll be back for 2015...

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Holiday Bowl 2014: Game Grades, Analysis for Nebraska vs. USC

Steve Sarkisian and No. 24 USC withstood a furious rally from interim head coach Barney Cotton and Nebraska Saturday night, winning a 45-42 shootout in the Holiday Bowl.

Defense was optional as the Trojans (9-4) piled up 515 total yards, while the Cornhuskers (9-4) accounted for 525. Nebraska was able to whittle USC's 18-point second-half lead down to three, but the Trojans defense stood strong in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter to seal the victory.

Nebraska Cornhuskers Grade Analysis

Pass Offense: The Cornhuskers came out with guns blazing as Tommy Armstrong and the passing game set the tone early. Nebraska threw the ball 27 times for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone as De'Mornay Pierson-El and Kenny Bell had no problem getting open against the USC secondary.

Nebraska didn't slow down in the second half. Armstrong finished with a career-high 381 passing yards, completing 63.3 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and an interception.

Run Offense: Ameer Abdullah had a hard time finding lanes against USC’s incredible front seven, especially in the first half. The standout running back gained just 32 yards on 13 carries through two quarters, averaging 2.5 yards per carry. 

Things picked up in the third quarter when Armstrong got involved in the zone-read and option game. That opened lanes for Abdullah, who finished with 88 rushing yards, but the team finished with just 144 rushing yards on 43 carries. 

Pass Defense: Nebraska faced a stiff challenge in defending Cody Kessler and the high-flying USC Trojans, but it held up well on Saturday night.

The secondary did some good things in the first half, limiting Kessler to 169 passing yards and a touchdown (with one interception). The back end broke down big time in the third quarter, when the Trojans torched the Cornhuskers for 148 yards and two touchdowns through the air. They tightened up in the fourth quarter, though, forcing USC's defense into three consecutive three-and-outs to spark Nebraska's rally.

Run Defense: The Cornhuskers' run defense got off to a great start, limiting USC’s ground game to just six yards in the first quarter. Those fortunes changed in a big way in the second quarter, though, when USC running backs Javorius Allen and Justin Davis got going.

The Trojans ran for 101 yards and averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the second quarter. That set Kessler up for big things in the passing game because play action was so effective. The Trojans finished with 194 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per rush.

Special Teams: Nebraska's one firm advantage against USC came in the special teams department. Abdullah torched the Trojans with a trio of big kickoff returns in the first half, averaging 40 yards per return. Sam Foltz averaged 44.7 yards per punt, and Drew Brown was perfect on his two field goal attempts.

Nebraska even broke free to block a USC punt late in the third quarter, which helped the Cornhuskers stay close as the Trojans threatened to take control of the game.

Coaching: It appeared as though the Nebraska coaching staff was outsmarting itself with its offensive game plan in the first half. Instead of featuring Abdullah and the running game, the Cornhuskers threw at a much higher rate than they typically do. That strategy helped build a 17-10 lead, but Nebraska’s offense bogged down, going three-and-out on three consecutive possessions in the second half.

Barney Cotton mixed things up and called a few effective trick plays that caught USC off guard. But late in the fourth quarter, a questionable call to go for it on fourth down instead of attempting a game-tying field goal cost Nebraska a chance at overtime.

USC Trojans Grade Analysis

Pass Offense: Kessler and Nelson Agholor turned in solid performances against Nebraska’s 26th-ranked pass defense. Kessler only completed 58.9 percent of his passes, but he threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Agholor led the team with seven receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown. But Kessler spread the wealth around as eight different receivers caught passes against the Cornhuskers.

Run Offense: After a slow start, USC's rushing attack had its way with Nebraska's defense. Allen and Davis found big lanes against the Cornhuskers' defensive front, combining for 197 yards on just 30 carries. Allen finished with a game-high 152 rushing yards and two touchdowns, highlighted by a 44-yard touchdown jaunt midway through the third quarter. 

Pass Defense: USC’s secondary struggled in the first half, dropping a number of interceptions while allowing numerous big plays to Armstrong and the Nebraska offense. Su’a Cravens came up with a redeeming play in the closing moments of the second quarter, though, when he halted a Nebraska drive that had reached the red zone with an interception.

The Cornhuskers' first-half success translated to the second half as USC surrendered 381 passing yards to a quarterback whose previous career high was 273. 

Run Defense: USC’s front seven did an outstanding job of bottling up Nebraska’s dangerous rushing attack in the first half.

Abdullah and Co. managed just 27 yards on 18 attempts through two quarters, averaging a meager 1.5 yards per carry. Armstrong got more involved in the run game in the second half, which opened things up for the Cornhuskers down the stretch. Still, USC was able to limit Nebraska's explosive backfield to just 3.3 yards per carry. 

Special Teams: Adoree' Jackson got things going early for USC’s special teams when he took a first-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. But that play was countered by some horrific punting from Kris Albarado.

His first two punts set Nebraska up inside USC’s territory, which the Cornhuskers cashed in for touchdowns on both occasions. He averaged just 31.2 yards on seven punts, one of which was blocked by the Cornhuskers late in the third quarter. If not for Jackson's touchdown, USC's special teams could have cost the team a victory.

Coaching: It was clear that USC was unprepared for Nebraska's pass-heavy strategy to start the game, which helped the Cornhuskers build a seven-point first-quarter lead. The Trojans adjusted in the second quarter, though, scoring 14 unanswered points to close out the half. 

But Nebraska got creative in the second half, keeping USC off balance with its play-calling that freed Abdullah up on a number of big plays. That's when the Trojans' inability to close out games almost cost them. Fortunately for Sarkisian, the Cornhuskers had dug themselves in too deep a hole to recover from. 

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

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Nebraska Football: Huskers' Loss to USC a Fitting End to Bo Pelini Era

When time expired at the Holiday Bowl, it was official. The Bo Pelini era was over at Nebraska. It was a fitting ending, too.

That's not to say that the Huskers didn't put up a fight. They did. It just wasn't enough. And isn't that what feels the most familiar about Pelini's time at Nebraska?

During his tenure, Pelini never had less than four losses with the Huskers. On the other hand, he also never had less than nine wins. The struggle was that the former Nebraska head coach just couldn't get over the hump.

Against USC, Nebraska faced the same issue. That's why the 45-42 loss at the hands of USC stings so much. The Huskers could have won. The opportunities were there. It just didn't pan out.

You can blame some of it on the play calls. There were two opportunities where Nebraska left two field goals on the field in favor of going for it on fourth down. Neither time resulted in what the Huskers wanted.

It could also be blamed on the mentality of the Nebraska team. After a rocky month, it was clear there was a lot of emotions on the field. At one point, 93.7 The Ticket's John Gaskins noted that Nebraska coaches were fighting on the sidelines while interim head coach Barney Cotton broke them up.

However, it seems like Pelini's memory is what put the fight in the Nebraska players. From an empty bus seat in his honor, to his name placed on helmet decals and towels, Pelini was everywhere with the Huskers. In this final game before the new coaching staff takes over, it felt like Pelini's staff could finally pull it off.

Against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Nebraska was unable to overcome the hump in 2014. The Huskers got close against Michigan State and Minnesota, rallying late to keep the hope alive. It just wasn't enough in either game.

That's always been the challenge for Nebraska under Pelini. Defeating ranked opponents and winning in the national spotlight have plagued the Huskers and it became clear that Pelini wasn't sure how to fix the problem.

Nebraska can still be proud of the performance against the Trojans, though. The Huskers finished with 525 total offensive yards and some strong showings from the Blackshirts.

Senior I-back Ameer Abdullah increased his career rushing total to 4,588 yards, which was only 192 yards shy of Mike Rozier’s Nebraska record of 4,780 career rushing yards. Freshman wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El had a career-high eight receptions, which also set a Nebraska bowl record and freshman safety Kieron Williams blocked two USC punts in the game. And those are just to name a few of those who made big plays for Nebraska.

Yet, it still wasn't enough and it feels oddly similar. Even the one second that was added back on the clock (by Big 12 referees) at the end felt familiar to a certain moment in Big 12 history. It was enough to even get former Texas head coach Mack Brown talking.

After the game, Cotton answered a question about the final attempt to go for it on fourth down.

"I was very proud of them. ... We just came up a little short at the end," he said.

Yet, that comment about one play felt like it could sum up much more. After all, Pelini came up short many times during his tenure, especially in big games. He was 9-17 against ranked opponents for the Huskers (he was 9-14 to start the season, per The Wall Street Journal)which left many fans hoping for more.

The Holiday Bowl was the end of one era for Nebraska, but it's also the beginning of another. Will things be different?

Only time, and a fair chance to Mike Riley, will tell.

 

All quotes obtained via the Huskers post-game press conference, unless otherwise noted.

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Fantastic Slate of Games Shows That Lesser College Football Bowls Still Matter

Nebraska had plenty of times to call it a night. 

The Cornhuskers could have given up when they fell behind by 14 points in the third quarter to USC in the Holiday Bowl. They could have given up the second time they fell behind by 14 points, or when they fell behind by 18 points—all in the third quarter. 

Nebraska didn't have to show up at all, really. Every year, there are a handful of bowl games where it's evident one team didn't want to be there. With players still visibly upset about the firing of head coach Bo Pelini, it could have been easy to mail it in—especially for future pros like running back Ameer Abdullah.

But Nebraska battled back from each deficit. Its efforts ultimately came up short in a 45-42 loss, but this game should be viewed as anything but a disappointment. It was wildly entertaining late-night television with plenty of momentum swings and big plays. 

It was everything a bowl game should be. All but one of Saturday's games were. From Penn State's come-from-behind 31-30 overtime victory against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl to the 36-31 shootout in the Sun Bowl between Arizona State and Duke, four of Saturday's five bowls were decided by five points or fewer. 

It was a day that gave us trick plays from the Blue Devils, who converted a fake punt and a wide receiver pass on the same drive. 

It was a day that saw one kicker, Boston College's Mike Knoll, brutally miss an extra point in overtime. Meanwhile, Penn State's Sam Ficken, who once missed four field goals in a one-point loss to Virginia in 2012, had a moment of vindication by winning the game on the following possession. 

It was a day that came agonizingly close to giving us a fat guy touchdown (but was called back for an ineligible-receiver penalty). 

Bowl season thus far has silenced any remaining doubters who claim that there are too many postseason games. Not all of them are created equal, of course. With 38 bowls plus the College Football Playoff championship game, some are bound to be stinkers. 

However, for every Hawaii Bowl (Rice 30, Fresno State 6), there's a Bahamas Bowl waiting to give the gift of a Hail Mary with three laterals. 

Even the Miami Beach Bowl, which went into two overtimes and ended with BYU and Memphis players brawling on the field, was memorable. It just wasn't the memory the inaugural game wanted to make. 

In that vein, however, bowl season has been unforgettable this year. That's not always the case. Furthermore, early bowl games provide an escape from the playoff conversation. From Week 1 to "Selection Sunday," anything and everything is about the playoff. It's exciting and novel, but it also gets redundant.

When USC and Nebraska played, there were no playoff implications other than a possible look-ahead conversation to 2015. When South Carolina held off Miami 24-21 in the Independence Bowl, there was no evaluation about what it meant for the Gamecocks' strength of schedule. 

The playoff semifinals and major bowls are approaching in earnest on New Year's Eve/Day. There will be more than enough time then to dissect the matchups and bigger-picture storylines. 

The games on Saturday? They were just games—ones that mostly came down to the final play. That's more than good enough for all of us as spectators. The sentiment of the day was captured by Trojans head coach Steve Sarkisian, per Josh Webb:

On Saturday, that description applied to more than just one team. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. 

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Cody Kessler Will Return to USC for 2015-16 Season: Latest Details and Reaction

Cody Kessler's in no rush to get to the NFL.

The junior quarterback announced following USC's 45-42 Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska that he'll return to Los Angeles for his senior season, per ESPN's Joe Schad:

Kessler added that he wants to help the Trojans win a national title, per Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News:

Sports Illustrated's Chris Burke praised Kessler for remaining patient and not trying to cash in on his strong performance—he threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns on Saturday night:

Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com is already putting Kessler on his list of early Heisman Trophy candidates for 2015:

The decision doesn't come as a major surprise. The Trojans star wasn't considered one of the top QBs in the 2015 draft class, and it's unlikely that a strong scouting combine and pro day would've made him jump ahead of guys like Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley.

Before the game, Bleacher Report's NFL draft expert Matt Miller, despite being high on the player, said that he never classified Kessler as a 2015 prospect:

Kessler has a lot to gain by sticking around. The 2016 draft class doesn't really have a can't-miss QB. Some are high on Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg, but it's not exactly a consensus.

There's both time and opportunity for Kessler to climb up draft boards and become the top-rated quarterback this time next year.

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Nebraska vs. USC: Score and Twitter Reaction for 2014 Holiday Bowl

They may call it the Holiday Bowl, but it was no vacation for the two teams involved.

USC earned a hard-fought, 45-42, win over Nebraska in the 2014 National University Holiday Bowl on Saturday at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.

The Cornhuskers made interim head coach Barney Cotton proud with their indelible performance. Cotton, coaching in place of Bo Pelini, whom Nebraska fired on Nov. 30, was temporarily in charge of the team before former Oregon State head coach Mike Reilly takes over the squad.

Freshman cornerback Adoree' Jackson put in a superlative performance for the Trojans. He made plays in all three phases of the game, scoring on a 98-yard kickoff return on special teams, reeling in three catches for 73 yards and another score on offense, while also putting in a strong night on defense.

Nebraska sophomore quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. played the game of his life, racking up 371 yards passing, another 41 on the ground and four total touchdowns against just one interception.

Rivals.com's Sean Callahan noted Armstrong hit an important career milestone in this game:

Despite the state of flux in the coaching ranks, Cotton was impressed with the way the Nebraska players prepped for this game.

"The way they attacked this bowl preparation, I couldn't ask for anything more," Cotton said Friday, via the Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein. "They've been first-class. They've been high energy. I hope we play that way."

Players on both squads came out with plenty of energy and emotion, and the game was an enthralling back-and-forth affair right from the start. 

Nebraska drove for a field goal on its second possession of the game. Jackson followed that up with his first highlight of the game, a searing kickoff return complete with a front flip into the end zone that fired up the USC fans who made the trek down to San Diego. InsideUSC noted his return set a Holiday Bowl record:

Armstrong had a bit of a wild first half where he was lucky to not get picked off on a smattering of errant throws. He was mostly effective, however, and drove the Cornhuskers down the field on a 53-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass to a diving Kenny Bell in the back corner of the end zone.

USC signal-caller Cody Kessler, who had thrown for 36 touchdowns and four interceptions coming into the game, did well enough on the next drive to get the Trojans into field-goal range, and Andre Heidari knocked the ball through the uprights from 42 yards out to tie the game at 10 points apiece.

After an exchange of punts, Nebraska recaptured the lead with an Armstrong pass to De'Mornay Pierson-El from nine yards out, but USC came roaring back on the next possession and tied up the game at 17-17 on a TD pass from Kessler to Nelson Agholor just under two minutes into the second quarter.

Agholor, who finished with seven receptions for 90 yards, was a difference-maker in the first half, per the Omaha World-Herald's Samuel McKewon:

The USC defense shone brightly on the next couple of possessions, as Cornhuskers running back Ameer Abdullah struggled to gain much traction on the ground at times and Armstrong lost his touch for a bit. Despite Abdullah's difficulties in the second quarter, the newly hired Reilly couldn't help but wish the senior had another year in him, via BTN.com's Brent Yarina:

The Trojans capitalized during Nebraska's lull, mixing passes from Kessler and runs from Justin Davis and Javorius Allen on the next drive, with the latter back giving USC a 24-17 lead on a two-yard scoring plunge.

Neither team had made many costly errors up to this point, but the half ended with an exchange of interceptions instead of punts. Nebraska corner Josh Mitchell snatched up a rare Kessler pick near midfield and set up his team with excellent field position and plenty of time to put points on the board before halftime. 

Alas, Armstrong's gunslinger mentality doomed the Cornhuskers' chances, as he threw a costly pick deep in the red zone to Su'a Cravens. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller had seen enough of Armstrong's shenanigans:

Jackson kicked off the second-half scoring with a blazing run on a 71-yard scoring reception. It was a stunning display of his versatility, as he lined up in the backfield on the play. ESPN College Football provided a look at Jackson's speed:

USC was in the driver's seat with a 31-17 lead, but Nebraska would prove to be difficult to shake in this one. Abdullah answered right back with a 20-yard touchdown run, only to have USC's Allen trump him on the ensuing drive with a 44-yard burst up the middle of his own for another Trojans score.

After a Nebraska field goal cut the Trojans' lead to 38-27, Kessler came right back with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Bryce Dixon to extend the advantage to 45-27.

The Orange County Register's Michael Lev noted USC's underclassmen were thriving in this contest:

With the way the Cornhuskers defense was playing, that lead might have been insurmountable heading into the fourth quarter, but Armstrong dialed up some magic and hit Jordan Westerkamp for a 65-yard touchdown just before the end of the third quarter. 

ESPN provided a look at the play, showing Westerkamp doing an incredible job of stepping in front of a pair of USC defenders to snatch the ball out of the air and turn upfield for the touchdown:

USC held tough for much of the fourth quarter, but it couldn't hope to completely contain Armstrong and the shifty Abdullah. Armstrong went into hero mode on a nine-play, 77-yard scoring drive, which ended with a 15-yard run from the quarterback. He then tossed a neat little pass to Bell for the two-point conversion, making it a one-score game.

Nebraska got the stop it needed on USC's next drive, and the offense immediately went to work. The Cornhuskers were able to move just into field-goal range, but Cotton elected to go for it on 4th-and-3 from USC's 31-yard line. However, the Trojans would stop Pierson-El on the pitch play at the 30-yard line and take over the ball on downs.

The Huskers would get one final chance at the very end of the game, but Armstrong's Hail Mary heave was well short of the end zone and fell harmlessly to the turf, securing the win for the Trojans.

The Holiday Bowl victory caps a successful season for head coach Steve Sarkisian in his first season in Los Angeles. He managed to guide this team to nine wins with an abundance of underclassmen playing key roles on the team. This Trojans squad could very well be the class of the Pac-12 South next season.

Nebraska's program is clearly in a state of limbo, but the game afforded Reilly an extended look at all the talent that is available to him. The Cornhuskers' fanbase demands success every year, and Reilly will have to work quickly to improve upon Nebraska's results from this campaign.

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