NCAA Football

Auburn vs. Alabama: Assessing Each Team's Key to Victory in 2014 Iron Bowl

How many times have you watched the replay of Auburn's Chris Davis' game-winning return of an Alabama missed field goal to secure a 2013 Iron Bowl victory this week? Ten? Twenty? Well, there's a reason for all of that reminiscing—this is one of the most exciting college football games every year, and there will be no exception in 2014.

You aren't fired up yet? Well, maybe this will help:

Last year, the Tigers took down the No. 1 Crimson Tide, ending their hopes of a BCS title. This year, Alabama is the nation's top-ranked squad once again, and a win could propel the team into the first-ever College Football Playoff. Will Auburn play spoiler once more?

Before Auburn attempts to repeat history and Alabama gets a shot at redemption on Saturday, here's a look at the biggest key to victory for each team in this year's Iron Bowl.

 

Alabama: Get out of the Gate Quickly

The Crimson Tide's offense was a work in progress early in the season, but quarterback Blake Sims really came into his own, and Alabama is averaging 35.0 points per game as a result. However, Sims and Co. need a quick start to gain an early lead on the Tigers, forcing them to play from behind.

When Alabama has trailed early in conference games this season, results haven't been good. Ole Miss was the first to get on the board against the Crimson Tide, and the Rebels went on to win that game. Later in the season, LSU jumped out in front early. While Alabama won that game, it was forced to do so in overtime.

In both of those instances, Alabama didn't score until the second quarter. That cannot be the case against a dangerous Auburn offense on Saturday.

The Tigers are a run-first team. When they fall behind, they are taken out of their comfort zone. That was the case earlier this season when Dak Prescott got Mississippi State out to an early lead against Auburn. It forced the Tigers to pass more frequently, and the end result was Nick Marshall completing 17 of his 35 passing attempts for two touchdowns and two interceptions.

Mississippi State won that game handily by clamping down on defense after gaining that early lead, and Alabama is built to do the same.

This shouldn't be an issue for Sims in the Iron Bowl. Of his 19 touchdown passes this season, eight have come in the first quarter. He's also completing 67.7 percent of his passes in the opening quarter of games this year, over 7 percent more than any of the other three.

 

Auburn: Fire Up the Defense

Auburn isn't exactly the team you think of in terms of defense; however, that's going to have to change for the Tigers if they are to take down Alabama yet again.

This season, Auburn's defense can be described as porous. The Tigers are ranked 40th in scoring defense, 74th against the pass, 38th against the run and 52nd in total defense. Those aren't good numbers to begin with, but the problem here is that they've been worse against SEC opponents.

Over their last five conference games, the Tigers have allowed at least 31 points in each. If Auburn gives up that many points to Alabama, a victory will be practically out of reach against a Crimson Tide defense ranked second in the nation, allowing an average of just 14.5 points per game.

One big way to slow Alabama down will be to contain wide receiver Amari Cooper. Tigers defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson spoke with Joel A. Erickson of AL.com about the team's plans to double-cover the prolific wideout.

"We'll do it some, absolutely," said Johnson. "Of course, there's a lot of different ways you do it. What everybody calls double-zone, just two deep, try to have somebody over the top, try to disguise what you're doing."

Keeping Alabama's offense from lighting up the scoreboard will work in similar fashion to how Auburn took down Ole Miss and its stout defense. While the Rebels did put up 31, the points were spread out over the course of the game, allowing the Tigers to continue running the ball, racking up 248 yards and three touchdowns on 46 carries and coming away with a win.

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Arkansas vs. Missouri: 2014 Battle Line Rivalry TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates

For the first time since 1963, the Arkansas Razorbacks and Missouri Tigers will play in the regular season.

There is no sexy bid for the College Football Playoff on the line. But there is Arkansas as one of the most dangerous teams in the nation and already bowl-eligible. There is Missouri's quest to win the SEC East and play in the title game.

There is the birth of the Battle Line Rivalry.

In what promises to be a brutal affair between two like-minded SEC members, a tradition will be created. While not the biggest game on Friday's slate, this one is the most deserving of attention from fans around the globe.

 

Trench Warfare 

The cliche "something has to give" certainly applies when looking at these two teams.

Missouri does the majority of its offensive damage on the ground thanks to the efforts of tailbacks Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy. The former has 858 yards and nine scores, the latter has 689 and three.

The nation knows about Arkansas' elite ground attack at this point. It is the main reason the Razorbacks have made it through a schedule that includes Auburn, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and Missouri to become bowl-eligible:

"I know this, we're playing as good as anybody," Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said, per The Associated Press, via FoxSports.com. "I'm sure there's a team or two that would be a matchup issue for us, but we're playing really good … If you just put us in a room right now with anybody, I think we could hold our own very, very well."

Author Zach Law puts one aspect of the impending physical matchup into perspective:

The biggest caveat of all? Both teams rank 16th nationally with an average of just 20.2 points allowed per game.

That said, the number is certainly more impressive for the Razorbacks given the aforementioned schedule and the fact the unit has now shut out LSU and Ole Miss in back-to-back games. 

Regardless, something truly will have to give Friday.

 

Ruining the Party

If there is one player set to take the field in Columbia who can ruin how this game figures to play out, it is Tigers sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk.

That sounds strange to say provided the fact he is the guy who tossed four interceptions on 21 attempts in a 34-0 loss to Georgia earlier this season. But Mauk has turned up his play a notch and has seven touchdowns to just one interception over the course of his last four outings.

His most recent was impressive, too, as SEC Network illustrates:

Granted, Mauk has not completed better than 60 percent of his passes in seven games and counting, but if there is a way to counteract what may be gaudy rushing totals by Arkansas, it is scores through the air by the sophomore.

Whereas Arkansas ignores the passing game because it can (and will Friday with quarterback Brandon Allen injured), Missouri at least attempts to get Mauk going each time out for his propensity to score in a hurry.

If Mauk can ride recent momentum gained by saving his team's SEC East title hopes, this one may not exactly be a ground-based affair.

 

When: Friday, November 28, 2:30 p.m. ET

Where: Faurot Field, Columbia, Missouri

Television: CBS

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: N/A
  • Spread: Arkansas (-1.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

The Razorbacks are about to shock the globe again. 

Missouri's defense ranks well, but keep in mind that both of the team's losses this season have come against the strong rushing attacks of Indiana and Georgia. Both programs were able to bruise their way to a minimum of 210 yards and three scores on the ground apiece.

Now think of what that deep, physical Arkansas attack will do to the unit.

Look for the Razorbacks to have a field day in Columbia.

Prediction: Razorbacks 28, Tigers 20

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Bowl Projections 2014: Playoff Predictions After Release of Week 14 Poll

There may be plenty of hype that surrounds the weekly release of the College Football Playoff rankings, but nothing changed in the top seven on Tuesday. 

Alabama, Oregon and Florida State are still in perfect position to finish as the top three, while Mississippi State, Baylor, TCU and Ohio State are right in the thick of the race for the No. 4 spot.  So what does that do for the playoff projections?

Read on to see the latest playoff picks from StatMilk, the national championship odds from Odds Shark and my own playoff projections.

 

StatMilk and Odds Shark Playoff Projections and Odds

*Odds to win the national championship are courtesy of Odds Shark, as of Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET.

 

Scott Polacek Playoff Projections

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

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

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (semifinal winners)

 

Breakdown

Alabama, Oregon and Florida State making the playoffs in this hypothetical is fairly self explanatory at this point.

They were the top three teams yet again in Tuesday’s new poll, and, assuming they all win out, the Crimson Tide would be SEC champs with wins over Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU and the SEC East champion, the Ducks would have wins over UCLA, Stanford, Michigan State and the Pac-12 South champion and the Seminoles would be the one undefeated power-five conference team remaining as ACC champs.

There may be some criticism surrounding Florida State because it wins so many of its games by close margins, but quarterback Jameis Winston put that in perspective, via Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel:

Well, you know, we were downgraded every time we blew someone out last year, so think of the irony of that. If we win the game close, we're bad. When we blow someone out, we're bad. But the thing is, we're a team, we're a family at Florida State.

What everyone else thinks about us, that's none of our business.

The surprise here is the No. 4 spot, especially since I have consistently put Baylor there in recent bowl projections.

The reason for that change is because the Buckeyes were still ahead of the Bears in the most recent poll, and that will weigh large in the near future. Baylor didn't pass Ohio State when the Buckeyes struggled with Indiana, which means it may not have another opportunity to jump Urban Meyer's bunch in the future polls.

If Baylor wins out and beats Kansas State, its resume will be close enough to TCU’s that the head-to-head victory from earlier in the season will finally come into play. That would ultimately put the Bears ahead of the Horned Frogs.

However, the Buckeyes are ahead of those Bears, and in this scenario, they beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.

The Badgers have climbed to No. 14 in the rankings and will likely be even higher by the time the conference title game rolls around. An Ohio State win over Wisconsin will be seen in the same light as a Baylor win over Kansas State, so the Bears will not jump the Buckeyes in the last rankings.

That leaves Mississippi State.

As of now, the Bulldogs are getting credit for being in the SEC, but the selection committee will grant more credit to conference champions at the end of the season. If all of these teams win out, the Bulldogs won’t even be SEC West champions, let alone SEC winners.

The Buckeyes will get the necessary boost from knocking off a formidable Wisconsin team (and Heisman Trophy candidate Melvin Gordon) to leapfrog Mississippi State and hold off the Big 12 contenders. 

Don’t just assume Ohio State will beat Wisconsin, though. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports noted that Gordon is at his best when the stakes are highest:

However, J.T. Barrett and the Ohio State offense will outscore Gordon and the Badgers and make a final impression on the selection committee. 

Get ready for a Nick Saban and Meyer showdown in the College Football Playoff.

 

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College Football Week 14 Schedule: TV and Live Stream Info for Every Game

The pageantry and tradition surrounding annual clashes with hated rivals is one of the few sacred things remaining that separates big-time college sports from professional ones.

College football fans will be treated to a number of crucial rivalry showdowns in Week 14 with much more than bragging rights on the line. There are four spots up for grabs in the initial College Football Playoff, and the top contenders will all be tested in Week 14 by some of their most hated opponents. 

With that in mind, here is a look at the entire schedule with broadcast information.

The schedule and viewing information is courtesy of CBSSports.com. For games without national or regional coverage on a major network, check local listings.

 

Live Stream Resources 

Just in case you are inexplicably doing something Saturday that isn’t sitting in front of your television and watching these games (you get a pass if you are actually at one in person), here is a look at the various live streams available.

 

ESPN: WatchESPN

SEC: CBSSports.com

Fox: Fox Sports Go

BTN: BTN2Go.com

Pac-12: Pac-12.com

ABC: ABC Live

CBS: CBSSports.com

 

Week 14 Playoff Viewer Guide

That is an overwhelming amount of games, channels and live streams, even for this late in the season. Perhaps it would be easier to digest with something of a viewing game plan revolving around the games featuring playoff contenders.

Thanksgiving is easy because there is only one game. TCU heads to Texas to take on a suddenly resurgent Longhorns team that has won three in a row and has its eyes set on ending TCU’s title hopes.

Texas’ defense is 24th in the country in points allowed per game, so if there is going to be an upset, it will start on that side of the ball.

Friday is also fairly straightforward in terms of what you will be watching. Stanford and UCLA square off in an afternoon clash that should fit in perfectly with your morning shopping schedule. Come back from the Black Friday specials to watch Brett Hundley tear apart a mediocre Stanford team that has lost two of its last three. 

ESPN Stats & Info noted that the Bruins are rolling on offense, which is bad news for the Cardinal:

Saturday is where your remote-control skills will be tested.

Michigan and Ohio State kick things off at noon ET in one of the most storied rivalries in not only college football but all of sports. Fans were treated to a brawl, ejections and a game-winning two-point conversion attempt in the final minute of last year’s game, so this is must-see viewing for fans who consider themselves college football fans.

Despite Michigan’s struggles, the players have one thing on their mind, as junior Joe Bolden said (via Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com):

It's the biggest rivalry in all of sports, it's the last Saturday in November. You get to go back to your home state, see a lot of people who don't like you anymore. It's a meaningful game. Throw out the records, the point (spread). It's a football game.

And it's played just like every other football game, and at the end of the day, you'll see who's better.

Things get really interesting at 3:30 p.m. ET when Florida takes on Florida State, Ole Miss squares off with Mississippi State, and Baylor battles Texas Tech.

Baylor has the top-scoring offense in the country, and Texas Tech has the 126th-scoring defense in the nation, so the recommendation here is to watch that game first. It will likely be over by the end of the first quarter, and you can direct your attention toward the other two games.

Keep an eye on the Florida and Florida State contest early, but that is the one you want to turn on in the fourth quarter. After all, Florida State has survived close calls against Oklahoma State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and Boston College that all came down to the final minutes. The Seminoles also had to come back against North Carolina State and have provided some of the best late-game drama in all of college football this year.

In between the beginning of the Baylor game and the end of the Florida State one, focus your attention on Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

This may be the most important game on the schedule since Ohio State, Baylor and TCU are all in the mix with the Bulldogs for the No. 4 spot. It represents a chance for Mississippi State to put some style points up against a respected but reeling opponent. The Rebels have lost their last three SEC games, and their once-vaunted defense allowed a combined 65 points against Arkansas and Auburn.

Mississippi State could put up a crooked number and impress the selection committee.

The nightcap features games between Oregon and Oregon State and Alabama and Auburn.

The Crimson Tide are seeking revenge after losing on a 110-yard missed field goal return in the final seconds last season. It ended their national and SEC championship hopes, and Nick Saban will surely have a motivated football team going against an Auburn squad that got its doors blown off by Georgia in its last SEC game.

From a competitive standpoint, the SEC clash figures to be closer, but the Ducks beat the Beavers by a single point last year. Quarterback Sean Mannion has the all-time Pac-12 record for passing yards in a career, and he will test an Oregon secondary that has been burned before this season (allowing 41 points to California comes to mind).

Still, Marcus Mariota and the high-flying Oregon offense figures to bury an Oregon State defense that allowed 30 points to Hawaii, 35 to USC, 31 to Colorado, 38 to Stanford, 45 to California, 39 to Washington State and 37 to Washington.

That means you will probably have the Auburn and Alabama game on to finish the day. Here’s to hoping fans are treated to an equally thrilling finish in that game as they were last season.

 

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Arizona State vs. Arizona: 2014 Territorial Cup TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates

The stakes have never been higher in the Territorial Cup between the Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats.

Literally—both teams rank among the top 13 in the nation, meaning this is the first time in the epic in-state rivalry's history that both programs are ranked for the showdown. More importantly, both sit at 9-2 and are part of a three-way tie at the top of the Pac-12 South.

Again, it does not get bigger than this. Arizona State has won three of the last four in the series, but both teams enter with prolific offenses that promise a shootout is set to unfold in the desert.

 

(In)Experience Factors

Some were ready to consider this a down year for the Wildcats. 

After all, the team is led by freshmen at both quarterback and running back. Anu Solomon has been a great surprise under center, though, throwing for 3,216 yards and 15 touchdowns to seven interceptions.

It helps that tailback Nick Wilson is already one of the nation's best, having rushed for 1,085 yards and 12 touchdowns on a 6.0 per-carry average. That said, it is the quarterback who most scares Arizona State coach Todd Graham.

"Man, he's done a tremendous job,'' Graham said, per Doug Haller of AZCentral.com. "Just a great operator of the offense, and his ability to extend plays, he really has a great knack for that. He's very elusive in the pocket, and you can tell he has a mastery of what they're trying to do. He does a great job."

As a result, the Wildcats come in at No. 22 with an average of 36.2 points per game. One problem—the more experienced Sun Devils trump that with an 18th-ranked offense that averages 37.2.

Senior quarterback Taylor Kelly has had a bit of a rough season thanks to a foot injury, but still has 1,730 yards with 18 touchdowns to five picks. He is rounding into form just in time, having thrown for nine touchdowns to three interceptions over the course of his past three outings.

Kelly has his own elusive lead back in junior D.J. Foster, who averages 5.7 yards per carry and has 968 yards and nine scores on the year. 

In short, this has the look of an offensive shootout, although the experience gap may prove critical. This is especially the case with Solomon's status up in the air due to injury, meaning Jesse Scroggins, who has attempted seven career passes, would be the starter.

 

Getting Defensive and Territorial 

The hiccup for both teams, of course, is a thing called defense.

The visitors rank 65th in this regard, the hosts 54th. Both share a common loss to the UCLA Bruins, which says all that really needs to be said about both units.

Arizona State was on the wrong side of a 62-27 outcome in which quarterback Brett Hundley threw for four touchdowns and the defense allowed 225 rushing yards and two more scores. Arizona let Hundley run wild for 32 total yards, and the Bruins found 271 yards on the ground.

Both offenses will clearly run through the ground game Friday, although Arizona appears to have a distinct advantage in that the Sun Devils struggle to contain dual-threat quarterbacks. Of course, this notion relies on Solomon actually being active and effective on a short week. 

Still, that appears to swing things slightly in Arizona's favor, although it is important to point out that the series favors the visitor. As of late, at least, with the road team holding an 8-6 record in the last 14 contests.

As the Wildcats seniors play at home for the last time, they can only hope that trend does not hold true.

 

When: Friday, November 28, 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Arizona

Television: Fox

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: N/A
  • Spread: N/A

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

If the home team were fully healthy, this one would likely play out a little differently.

But the Sun Devils are the ones finally getting to full strength and hitting their stride. Kelly is going to shred a defense that struggles in most aspects and counteract whatever the Wildcats can throw at him.

Solomon or not, the Wildcats offense will be a bit one-dimensional in its approach. Wilson is a great player, but the freshman is not at a point where he can do it all on his own.

That brings up the decisive factor—experience. Kelly and Co. have been down this path before.

Prediction: Sun Devils 36, Wildcats 30

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Arizona State vs. Arizona: 2014 Territorial Cup TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates

The stakes have never been higher in the Territorial Cup between the Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats...

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Stanford vs. UCLA: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

Owners of a five-game winning streak, the only thing that can stop the UCLA Bruins from playing in the Pac-12 title game is a 6-5 Stanford Cardinal team.

It is not as easy as it sounds.

The Cardinal have taken down the Bruins three times over the course of the past two seasons. The gritty defense that has given Brett Hundley and Co. fits is alive and well. That said, the dual-threat quarterback has turned up his play in recent weeks.

In a battle of opposite strengths to close the season, Stanford wants nothing more than to play the spoiler. UCLA has its eyes on bigger things. One of Friday's marquee showdowns is of the can't-miss variety.

 

Tempo Talk

Hundley and the Bruins are at their best when they can jump out to an early lead and never look back.

In fact, the Bruins have losses to Utah and Oregon this season. They were down 7-0 after one frame against the former and 8-0 against the latter. For one reason or another, the Bruins are at their best when playing with the lead.

That just so happens to be the perfect counter to Stanford. Out of necessity more than anything this year, David Shaw's team is at its best with the lead. It simply cannot fall behind and play catch-up—especially without its best offensive weapon come Friday, as NFL.com's Bryan Fischer points out:

Ty Montgomery is the team's leading receiver with 61 grabs for 604 yards and three scores. The next closest has 28 catches. As a result, the Cardinal rank 89th in scoring this season.

Stanford has certainly had the recipe to shut down the Bruins in recent years, though. It is something Bruins coach Jim Mora is quite aware of, in fact.

''We just have to play better,'' Mora said, per The Associated Press, via FoxSports.com. ''If that's the common thread, yeah, we have to play better. We have to protect the ball. We have to take care of our quarterback.''

If Mora's team can strike first in the face of the nation's seventh-ranked defense, it puts itself in a great position to avoid the upset and see title hopes realized.

The task falls on one man.

 

The Focal Point

Of course, that man is Hundley.

For Hundley, this is rather simple—foot to the pedal and never look back. He has completed 72.0 percent of his passes this season for 2,873 yards and 20 touchdowns to five interceptions. As one of the nation's premier dual-threat players, he also has 566 yards and eight scores on the ground.

Stanford has given Hundley serious issues in the past, but it is critical to point out that he should be in great form considering Friday may be his last home game before he jumps to the pro level, as noted by College GameDay:

Where Hundley lands in the pros is a debate for another day, but he surely feels like he has something left to accomplish when it comes to facing the Cardinal. Last season alone in a loss, Hundley tossed two picks and was sacked four times.

The UCLA offense simply will not move against Stanford without a great performance from Hundley. Few better options exist for him as a going-out party than blowing away the Cardinal, but there is a big difference between talking about it and doing it.

 

When: Friday, November 28, 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: The Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

Television: ABC

Betting Lines (via Odds Shark):

  • Over/Under: 50
  • Spread: UCLA (-4.5)

 

Team Injury Reports

Injury reports per The Sports Network, via USA Today.

 

Prediction

It is hard to see how Stanford goes on the road without its best offensive player and pulls off this upset.

Hundley is simply too hot right now for the Cardinal to completely contain. Over the course of his last two outings alone, he has thrown for five scores with one pick and added another three scores on the ground.

UCLA is fully in stride with the Pac-12 title game in sight while Stanford is just happy to be bowl-eligible. That says it all in regard to how this one will play out on a short week.

Look for Hundley to come out firing and not let the Cardinal get close to taking back the lead.

Prediction: UCLA 23, Stanford 14

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Week 14 NCAA Championship Predictions

For the second week in a row, the Alabama Crimson Tide are atop the College Football Playoff rankings following Tuesday's release. Coach Nick Saban's powerhouse from Tuscaloosa is in prime position to win its third national title in four years.

However, Alabama is no lock to remain there with an Iron Bowl rivalry clash against Auburn on deck for Saturday, which serves as the headliner of Week 14's action.

The Top Seven teams in the playoff standings didn't change from last week, but the top teams all face considerable tests against underdog adversaries that are fully capable of pulling an upset. On the other hand, the superior teams should pull through at this late stage of the season, so the top of the NCAA standings may look identical once more in the next edition.

Below is a complete look at the current Top 25 rankings, along with predictions as to which teams will be in the Top Four following Week 14.

 

 

Predictions for Top Four

1. Alabama

Considering how Auburn dashed the Tide's national championship hopes in such heartbreaking fashion in last year's Iron Bowl, it's only fitting Alabama gets a shot at revenge in Bryant–Denny Stadium.

The Tide have yet another savvy, veteran quarterback in fifth-year senior Blake Sims, who adds the dimension to make plays with his legs that his predecessors have lacked. Sims keeps the opposing defenses honest enough to open running lanes for T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry.

AL.com's Andrew Gribble notes how Sims has been quite the playmaker this year:

Meanwhile, Saban has once again assembled an elite Alabama defense, one filled with NFL-caliber talent and ranking second in the country, conceding just 14.5 points per game.

ESPN's Chris Fowler offers some hope for the underdog visitors:

Auburn has the ninth-ranked rushing attack in the country, yet the Tide give up just 2.76 yards per carry, per NCAA.com. Something will have to give, and considering the fact that the Tigers have lost two of their past three matchups with ranked teams, Saturday's game should go in Alabama's favor.

There is just too much physicality on the Tide's side for them to drop a second straight game to Auburn, especially at home. They will confine Tigers QB Nick Marshall to the pocket (as was done with Mississippi State's Dak Prescott), likely with mush-rushing tactics to coerce Marshall into mistakes.

Sims' decision-making is second to no QB in the SEC, and that will allow Alabama to protect home field and get into the conference championship game with a big victory.

 

2. Oregon

It's not as if the Ducks can take Oregon State lightly when they travel to Reser Stadium in Saturday's "Civil War" clash.

The Beavers are scrapping for bowl eligibility and have upset Arizona State this year. They are a foe to be reckoned with, particularly with so much pride on the line.

But Oregon State won't be able to tame Ducks Heisman Trophy front-runner Marcus Mariota in all likelihood. Mariota has been shredding defenses all year and should feast on Oregon State's 91st-ranked scoring defense.

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports highlighted just how impressive Mariota has been over the past two years:

The selection committee shouldn't dock Oregon any style points if it wins ugly in Corvallis. The Ducks haven't even come close to defeat since a disappointing loss to Arizona at home. They went on the road in the next game and knocked off UCLA in a victory that's looking better by the day.

As long as Mariota is at the offensive controls, Oregon ought to be a shoo-in for the Top Four. The Pac-12 Championship Game could even vault the Ducks into the No. 1 spot if Alabama falters ahead of them.

 

3. Florida State

The possibility of having the Seminoles third and Oregon second—or the other way around, doesn't matter—is tantalizing to say the least.

Seeing Mariota do battle with reigning Heisman winner and national champion counterpart Jameis Winston would be must-see TV. It would also help determine which young man will be chosen as the first QB in the 2015 NFL draft (assuming both leave school early).

Casting that aside for a second, what Florida State has done as a team this year is nothing short of remarkable. ESPN's Heather Dinich documented what coach Jimbo Fisher had to say about his team's standing among college football's best:

Being slotted below two one-loss teams will only further fuel the Seminoles' quest for a repeat, which they seem determined to accomplish despite a number of close calls along the way.

Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com captured the resilience FSU has shown:

Boston College threw the ball just 12 times in the Seminoles' 20-17 victory this last Saturday. Between the Florida Gators' run-heavy offense and Georgia Tech's triple-option attack, FSU will deal with the ACC title game, and there could be tougher sledding ahead.

In the face of massive expectations, distractions on and off the field and scoreboard deficits, the Seminoles keep coming back for more. So many contributors have stepped up along the way that it won't be a surprise when Florida State skates by and remains among the four playoff teams when the final standings are released.

 

4. Mississippi State

While the Top Three appear to be a bit more solidified, Mississippi State's hopes of staying in the Top Four hinge largely on what others do. Should Alabama fall to Auburn—the Tide wouldn't in this scenario—the Bulldogs would get a shot to play for the conference championship.

But with just a road trip to Ole Miss remaining, coach Dan Mullen's team doesn't control its own destiny. Mike Greenberg of ESPN explains in his analysis:

Big 12 contenders TCU and Baylor are nipping at the Bulldogs' heels, and the Bears have a great shot to leap over everyone in front of them by beating No. 12 Kansas State in their regular-season finale.

Then there's Ohio State, whose rise to sixth in the standings has been catalyzed by freshman QB J.T. Barrett. The Buckeyes have the benefit of a conference title game where they'd probably match up with a quality adversary in Wisconsin and make their own case to get in.

The lone loss to Alabama is nothing to be ashamed of, but it took away from the mystique surrounding dual-threat Bulldogs signal-caller Prescott and the meteorically rising Mississippi State program. It now needs help just to remain in the Top Four beyond next week's release.

While it will look good for the Bulldogs to knock off the Rebels in the Egg Bowl—and they will, by a comfortable margin—Prescott will need to orchestrate a truly dominant win to leave a lasting impression for the selection committee.

Otherwise, Mississippi State will be relegated to a high-profile bowl game. That would be a great step in the right direction for Mullen and Co. but not what fans were ultimately hoping for after such a promising start.

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Stanford vs. UCLA: TV Info, Spread, Injury Updates, Game Time and More

Owners of a five-game winning streak, the only thing that can stop the UCLA Bruins from playing in the Pac -12 title game is a 6-5 Stanford Cardinal team. It is not as easy as it sounds...

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Oregon Football: What the Ducks Should Be Thankful for in 2014

First off, let me be the first to wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. It’s a wonderful time of year, especially for sports fans. If you happen to be a fan of the second-ranked Oregon Ducks, it’s an even better time of year.

With only two more games standing between Oregon (10-1, 7-1) and a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, the Ducks are well positioned to make a run at a national championship.

According to Bleacher Report’s Ed Feng, the Ducks have a 76 percent chance of advancing to the Playoff—the best odds of any team in the country. Moreover, Feng currently has the Ducks projected as the No. 1 seed in the Playoff.

While the Ducks are sitting pretty right now, the next two games will be extremely challenging. Oregon has the weight of the world on its shoulders, and everyone expects them to glide into the Playoff. It won’t be that easy.

Regardless of their record, the Beavers also come to play in the Civil War and will give the Ducks their best shot. If the Ducks are able to take out Oregon State, and they should, they’ll be rewarded with a shot at the Pac-12 title against UCLA, Arizona or Arizona State, all of which are ranked in the top 13 of the College Football Playoff rankings.

With the burden of high expectations placed squarely upon their shoulders, what do the Ducks have to be thankful for in 2014? Well, how about we start with Oregon’s Heisman Trophy candidate: Marcus Mariota.

 

Marcus Mariota

Redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota is the greatest football player in the history of the University of Oregon. That is not an opinion. It is, at this point, a fact.

Yes, Oregon’s football program has produced six College Football Hall of Famers and six NFL Hall of Famers. However, no Oregon player has ever finished higher than third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

That will change this year, as Mariota is the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, according to Odds Shark (via Bovada). Currently, Mariota is a 1-3 favorite to win the award and one of two players to have better than 2-1 odds to win the prestigious award—the other being Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon.

ESPN’s latest Heisman Watch has Marcus Mariota winning seven of the 10 first-place votes. The other three are for Gordon.

Mariota has broken numerous Oregon, Pac-12 and national records during his three years as the Ducks quarterback. If his career ended today, Mariota would have the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the history of college football. By the way, it’s not particularly close.

Mariota has a chance to lead the Ducks to what I will refer to as the college football trifecta. With two more wins, Mariota can lead Oregon to a Pac-12 championship and secure the first Heisman Trophy in school history. With four more wins, the Ducks can win their first national championship in school history.

Without Marcus Mariota, there’s no way the Ducks are in contention for a national championship or a Pac-12 title this season. Quite simply, Mariota is having the best single season in school history and one of the best seasons in Pac-12 history.

It seems as though there are only three things that matter in or around Eugene right now. They are “Jesus, girls and Marcus Mariota.”

 

Royce Freeman

Marcus Mariota’s play this season is the reason why the Ducks are in a position to compete for a national championship. However, without the impact of true freshman running back Royce Freeman, the Ducks wouldn’t be nearly as feared as they are.

Freeman has done much more than simply become Oregon’s featured back. He’s run his way into Oregon lore. The true freshman has already set the freshman record for touchdowns in a season (16) and became the first true freshman in school history to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

On the season, Freeman has rushed for 1,050 yards and 16 touchdowns on 187 carries. Freeman ranks No. 35 in the nation in rushing and No. 10 in rushing touchdowns.

More importantly, Freeman has brought a bruising style to the backfield, something the Ducks have severely lacked in years past. Ducks running backs have traditionally excelled running around the edges. However, they’ve struggled running in between the tackles. Not this year.

Freeman is a fearless back who isn’t afraid of contact. That style of running will benefit the Ducks later this season.

 

Mark Helfrich

No one could possibly duplicate the success former Oregon head coach Chip Kelly during his four-year tenure in Eugene. From 2009 to 2012, Kelly led the Ducks to a 46-7 record, four consecutive BCS appearances, three consecutive Pac-12 titles and the 2010 BCS National Championship Game. Kelly’s has the highest winning percentage (86.8) of any Pac-12 coach in history with at least 50 games coached. 

Replacing Kelly was going to be an enormous challenge for anyone, let alone a coach with no prior head-coaching experience. That being said, current Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich has proved to be a fantastic head coach. Through 24 games, Helfrich owns a 21-3 record and has once again put the Ducks in national title contention. In fact, Helfrich’s winning percentage of 87.5 is higher than Kelly’s.

While there were early concerns about Helfrich’s ability to guide the Ducks to the promised land after last year’s losses to Stanford and Arizona, the 41-year-old Oregonian has shown that he’s the right man to lead Oregon.

In Chip Kelly’s second year, he led the Ducks to a BCS National Championship Game appearance. In his second year, Mark Helfrich has the opportunity to one-up his former boss. If Helfrich were able to finally guide the Ducks to a title, Oregon fans would be eternally thankful.

 

Nike

Let’s be honest here. If it weren’t for the support of Nike founder Phil Knight and the support of his company, the Oregon Ducks would not be the powerhouse football school that it has become.

Plus, due to the relationship between Oregon and Nike, the Ducks are always the best-looking team on the field. That is something to be thankful for.

 

A Chance at Redemption

When the Ducks lost to Auburn in the 2010 BCS National Championship Game, there were concerns that Oregon had reached its pinnacle and that the Ducks had squandered their lone chance at a title. Those concerns remain intact to this day. 

Yes, the Ducks won the Rose Bowl in 2011 and the Fiesta Bowl in 2012. Yes, Oregon has been a top-five program for most of the past six years. In fact, since 2009, Oregon’s 67-10 record is second-best in the nation, trailing only Alabama’s 70-8 record. However, Alabama has won three national titles in that span. The Ducks have, well, you know.

It’s not like the Ducks haven’t been close: They have. In 2010, they lost on a last-second field goal in the championship after a “missed” tackle (do not watch if you’re queasy). In 2012, Oregon had a golden shot at another national championship appearance before losing to Stanford 17-14 in overtime. In 2013, another loss, this time at Stanford, derailed their championship aspirations.

Now, for the fourth time in five years, the Ducks are in national championship contention. The difference between this year and years past is the play of Marcus Mariota.

Oregon has never had a player compete at such a high level. Yes, Mariota has been spectacular in each of his three seasons as Oregon’s quarterback. However, this has been his finest year. 2014 has been Marcus Mariota’s magnum opus.

The Ducks have a chance to redeem themselves and finally win the title they’ve let slip through their fingers. For that, the Ducks should be thankful. You never know when your title window has closed until it has past.

One thing we know is this: Oregon’s title window isn’t closed. Oregon should be thankful for that, but also cognizant of the fact that the window could vanish at any moment.

Oregon’s time is now.

 

Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

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Oregon Football: What the Ducks Should Be Thankful for in 2014

First off, let me be the first to wish you and yours a Happy Thanksgiving. It’s a wonderful time of year, especially for sports fans. If you happen to be a fan of the second-ranked Oregon Ducks, it’s an even better time of year...

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Analytics Guru Shows Florida State Would Have Lost 4 Games If It Played in SEC

Is Florida State a fraud?

Yes, the Seminoles are defending champions. Yes, Jimbo Fisher's squad has never been ranked outside the Top Three. And yes, FSU has still not lost a game. That is all well and good, but the interesting question here is, are the 'Noles one of the four best teams in college football? 

My stats say no. 

Simply put, Florida State has not dominated teams like it did last season. It plays in the ACC and has trailed at halftime against North Carolina State, Louisville and Miami. This past weekend,as a 17-point favorite, the Seminoles beat Boston College by three points on a late field goal.

Because of their undefeated record, the 'Noles probably deserve to make the College Football Playoff. However, Florida State's presence in the Top Four shows that the selection committee has strayed from its intention of finding the four best teams.

Any respected computer ranking will tell you the same thing. 

Whether you look for Florida State in the Sagarin rankings (16th), ESPN's Football Power Index (10th) or my numbers at The Power Rank (23rd), it never appears near the top four. 

You can further consult the markets for evidence of Florida State's weakness. For example, the Seminoles were three-point favorites at Miami, a three-loss team. In contrast, Alabama was a 10-point favorite against Mississippi State, the top-ranked team in the nation at the time. 

Florida State's weak schedule has saved it. To prove that, we simulated how the 'Noles would have fared against Auburn's SEC schedule. 

It's not pretty. 

These win probabilities come from my rankings at The Power Rank, the same analytics that drive the weekly college football playoff projections. Among other factors, these calculations consider strength of schedule and home-field advantage.

The numbers tell us Florida State would have won 3.9 of eight games if it had played Auburn's SEC schedule. In contrast, the same analytics project 6.1 wins for Florida State with its actual ACC schedule. By winning close games, the Seminoles have exceeded this expectation.

The main reason my numbers project Florida State as a 4-4 SEC team is the defense. In the past two seasons, this unit was in the top five in my defense rankings, which take yards per play and adjust for strength of schedule.

In the 2014 season, Florida State has dropped to 38th. 

The numbers single out the pass defense, which has allowed 6.48 yards per pass attempt, 87th-worst in the nation. Florida State can’t generate a pass rush, as it has sacked the quarterback on 4.6 percent of pass attempts, compared to the six percent FBS average.

The win probabilities against SEC teams are also interesting, as Florida State might play these teams in the playoff. Let's analyze some potential games using my efficiency rankings, which take yards per play and adjust for strength of schedule.

 

Ole Miss

Neutral-site win probability for Florida State: 44.2 percent

The Rebels have the seventh-ranked defense, a unit strong enough to slow down Jameis Winston and the Florida State offense. On offense, Mississippi relies on quarterback Bo Wallace and a passing attack that ranks 18th in the nation in pass efficiency.

It is important to note that these numbers might overestimate the Ole Miss passing attack if the teams were to play today, as they don't take into account star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell's absence. 

That said, the 'Noles have struggled out of the gate seemingly all season, and the Rebels' relentless defense would have a strong chance of preventing any comeback efforts by Winston and Co. 

 

Mississippi State

Neutral-site win probability for Florida State: 37.8 percent

Florida State and Mississippi State would score a lot of points. QB Dak Prescott leads the 12th-ranked offense with both his arm and his legs, and running back Josh Robinson is a force at breaking tackles.

FSU has missed a great deal of tackles this season, including "30-something" tackles versus North Carolina State earlier in the year, according to safety Tyler Hunter, via Bob Ferrante of Bleacher Report

The Bulldogs are far more talented than the Wolfpack.

Mississippi State's 32nd-ranked defense would most likely struggle against Winston's offense, but it's hard to deny the Bulldogs offense finding quick success against Jimbo Fisher's defense. 

 

Auburn

Neutral-site win probability for Florida State: 36.5 percent

Auburn's offense relies on its ground game, as the Tigers run on 64.5 percent of plays. (This does not include sacks, which traditionally count as rushes in college football.) 

Cameron Artis-Payne, who just so happens to lead the SEC in rushing, and QB Nick Marshall are quite the tandem with the read-option, a play the 'Noles have had a tough time stopping at times this season. 

Auburn's defense is ranked 28th, which is not elite, but it is better than the unit Florida State faced in the national title game last season. And this is not the same 'Noles offense from a year ago. A slow start against the fast-paced Gus Malzahn offense, and FSU would be in trouble.

 

Georgia

Neutral site win probability for Florida State: 33.6 percent

Georgia and Florida State would be another shootout. Georgia features the sixth-ranked offense behind an offensive line that has opened up holes for both Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb, the latter of whom Bleacher Report's Ray Glier said is "an upgrade" over the former. 

Georgia's defense fares better against the pass than the run. The Bulldogs running game matches up well against Florida State, which relies on Winston's arm for most of its points.

That said, though, the Bulldogs did an excellent job of keeping the high-powered Auburn offense in check, allowing the Tigers to score just seven points. That touchdown was on the Tigers' opening drive, and Jeremy Pruitt's defense never let up after that.

Winston would put up points, but Georgia would answer right back, using its talented running back depth to milk the clock and keep Winston off the field as much as possible.

 

Alabama

Neutral site win probability for Florida State: 22.1 percent

Alabama is a nightmare matchup for any team, as its 11th-ranked offense and second-ranked defense make it the most balanced team in the nation.

Even though he gets little credit, QB Blake Sims has led the sixth-most-efficient pass offense in the nation. His top wide receiver, Amari Cooper, is a big reason why, hauling in 11 touchdowns on the year and ranking third in receiving yards nationally. 

The defense is in the top six in both pass and rush defense and is finding its groove at the right time. 

A sluggish first half against Nick Saban would be tough to overcome for Florida State. If the 'Noles had a hard time putting up points to start the game against weaker ACC opponents, just imagine what Alabama would do out of the gate. 

 

Ed Feng founded The Power Rank and has also written for Grantland and Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter @thepowerrank.

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Texas Tech Football: Kingsbury Going to Have Tough QB Decision Next Season

Texas Tech has had a rough season this year. It currently sits at 4-7 for the year with one game remaining, a showdown against Baylor at Jerry World in Dallas. Kliff Kingsbury did not get the kind of production he expected from Davis Webb coming into the season, and the defense has been atrocious.

After Webb shredded the Arizona State defense in last year’s Holiday Bowl, he looked like the quarterback of the future. And Kingsbury was forced to put all his eggs in one basket when both Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield chose to transfer to other schools.

The only scholarship quarterbacks on the roster were Webb and Patrick Mahomes, a true freshman from Whitehouse, Texas, with zero college experience. But the hope was that Webb would sustain the success he experienced in the bowl game and lead the Red Raiders to greener pastures.

Unfortunately, that is not exactly how things have played out so far in 2014. Webb was an entirely different quarterback than he had been in his freshman season. He was missing easy throws, making bad decisions and turning into a turnover machine. And since he was ineffective, Mahomes was not able to get any experience because Tech played close games against both Central Arkansas and UTEP.

The quarterback situation culminated in Tech’s loss to Texas. Webb was unable to play due to an ankle injury he suffered in a blowout loss to TCU, and Mahomes—making his first career start—was injured in the second quarter when he was hit hard trying to run. Vincent Testaverde, a walk on and the son of former Miami star Vinny Testaverde, was forced to finish the game.

Even after a bye week in preparation for Oklahoma, Webb was still not ready to go. Mahomes made his second start, and he looked awesome. He was incredibly poised for a guy making only his second career start, finishing 27-of-50 with 393 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He spread the ball around admirably, completing passes to 11 different receivers, and the Red Raider offense played arguably its best game of the season to that point.

In the days leading up to Tech’s game against Iowa State, Kingsbury said he expected to have his full stable of quarterbacks healthy, but he refused to name a starter.

Surprisingly, Mahomes got the start, and he didn’t disappoint. He put together another productive performance against the Cyclones, completing 23-of-35 attempts for 328 yards and four touchdowns. He did turn the ball over twice, an interception and a fumble, but he adds a dynamic to the offense that is nonexistent with Webb: the quarterback run game.

Facing a pivotal third down late in the fourth quarter of the Iowa State game, Mahomes dashed nine yards for a first down, sealing the Red Raiders’ fourth victory of the season. Webb is more of a pocket passer, and if Mahomes can continue to beat defenses with his arm and legs, he might be the signal-caller of the future.

In his Monday press conference, Kingsbury spoke highly of Mahomes to reporters.

“He’s doing a lot of good things for that age,” he said. “You know there is going to be some spots that he’s got to grow, but for a true freshman, pretty pleased with where he’s at.”

However, there will be an added wrench in the quarterback competition come next spring. Jarrett Stidham, the second-best dual-threat quarterback according to 247Sports, will graduate from Stephenville High School early so he can participate in spring drills.

So as the start of next season comes around, Kingsbury will have a tough decision on his hands. He will have three options to start at quarterback in the 2015 season opener against Sam Houston State: Webb, Mahomes and Stidham.

Webb is probably the best pure passer of the group and has the most experience, but his limited mobility doesn’t allow Kingsbury to open the playbook as much as he would like.

Mahomes is very athletic and a solid runner, and he will continue to grow as he gets more repetitions in practice and in games.

And Stidham is the wild card, he is pretty much unknown. He has amassed gaudy high school stats, but keep in mind that he plays in the 4-A classification, meaning he is not exactly facing dominant defensive units. However, he received exemplary grades at Elite 11, so he is likely the real deal. He will have plenty of time to learn the playbook and if you trust recruiting services, he has more talent than any other quarterback on the roster.

It is obvious that Kingsbury thinks very highly of the Texan prep star. Kingsbury told Stidham that he can “change the program,” so don’t expect Stidham to stay on the bench for long.

The quarterback won’t be able to carry the team by himself, but a consistent athlete behind center is a heck of a place to start. It’s not like the quarterback is not going to have help, either. The offense is going to be loaded with weapons.

DeAndre Washington will be back for another season, and he should be able to build on his stellar 2014 breakout season. Justin Stockton will serve as an excellent change-of-pace back and will also contribute catching passes.

Bradley Marquez will graduate, but the rest of the receiving corps will be back barring any unexpected events. Jakeem Grant, Devin Lauderdale and Reginald Davis should continue to get better during the offseason and serve as big-play threats. Dylan Cantrell will be back as a lethal red-zone target, and Ian Sadler might develop into a possession receiver similar to others who have come through Lubbock—Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Eric Morris, etc.

But those skill guys can only be as good as the guy throwing them the ball. And if Kingsbury’s track record of grooming quarterbacks is any indication, he will make the correct decision.

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Texas Football: What the Longhorns Should Be Thankful for in 2014

This Thanksgiving, the Longhorns can be thankful for a chance to upset the No. 5 TCU Horned Frogs. Without Charlie Strong and his staff, that never would have been possible.

Riding a three-game winning streak to bowl eligibility, the Longhorns sport the best defense in the Big 12, led by Malcom Brown. They also have an offense that's averaging almost 32 points per game during that streak, led by a developing quarterback and his breakout top target.

All you can ask for at this stage is an opportunity to achieve some degree of success. These Longhorns have plenty of that in these final two games.

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Is Jalin Marshall a Better Option at H-Back Than Dontre Wilson?

When Dontre Wilson arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 2013, it didn't take long for the hype to grow.

He was just an undersized true freshman, but his speed and playmaking ability blew his teammates away and eventually—or rather, inevitably—drew comparisons to former Florida great Percy Harvin.

“Dontre looks to be a special player,” former Buckeyes safety Christian Bryant said in July of 2013, according to Doug Lesmerises of The Plain Dealer. “With the speed, and his agility, just when he catches the ball, you can just see how he moves. He's going to be a special player.”

Fast-forward 16 months, though, and it's redshirt freshman Jalin Marshall who's producing the kind of highlights everyone expected from Wilson. In fact, Marshall has been so explosive filling in full time for Wilson—who broke his foot against Michigan State three weeks ago—that it raises a legitimate question.

Is Marshall a better option for Ohio State's offense than Wilson?

The person playing the H-back position at Ohio State draws so much attention (from both defenses on the field and media off of it) because of its pivotal role in Meyer's offense. The Buckeyes didn't have anyone with the right skill set for the position in 2012, and Ohio State's offenses suffered as a result.

That's why Meyer hit the recruiting trail so hard that year. The Buckeyes desperately needed a Harvin-like player who could stretch the field and put pressure on opposing defenses. That's when Wilson and Marshall, both of whom were rated 4-star prospects by 247 Sports, came into the fold.

Wilson got the early praise and attention last year, but Marshall is currently contributing at a level that's impossible to ignore.

Will Meyer decide to feature one over the other when Wilson fully recovers from his foot injury? 

 

Tale of the Tape 

Wilson came into the season as Ohio State's top H-back after locking down a starting spot during spring camp, and he flashed his versatility in the season opener against Navy. The sophomore touched the ball eight times and produced 89 total yards for an offense that struggled to find its footing in quarterback J.T. Barrett's first start. 

But Wilson failed to produce consistent numbers as the season wore on. In Week 2 against Virginia Tech, he was absent—outside of one brilliant 40-yard catch—in a game that Ohio State needed a consistent playmaker. In fact, he's only produced more than 45 total yards in two games this season (against Navy and Cincinnati), none of which have come against Big Ten competition. 

Of course, his up-and-down numbers could be a reflection of his rotation with Marshall. While both were healthy, Meyer constantly plugged the one or the other into the offense in an effort to maximize Ohio State's playmaking potential while keeping opposing defenses on their heels. 

That shouldn't discount what Marshall has done as the primary H-back over the last two weeks. 

Much was made of Marshall's two fumbles against Minnesota, which cost Ohio State at least seven points and directly led to 14 for the Gophers. Those two costly mistakes cast a shadow over an otherwise excellent performance—the redshirt freshman accounted for 107 total yards and a touchdowns on just six touches.

After the game, Meyer was happy with the win, but he was concerned about Marshall's turnovers.

“Obviously, it’s got to stop, or eventually, he’ll lose his playing time,” Meyer said, according to Tim May, Bill Rabinowitz and Jess Myers of The Columbus Dispatch. He later added that it's not Ohio State's philosophy to pull a player the moment he makes a mistake. Meyer wants his players to be aggressive and make plays. 

With another chance, that's exactly what Marshall did. 

Trailing an upset-minded Indiana team 20-14 midway through the quarter last Saturday, Marshall stepped up and saved Ohio State's season. He returned a punt 54 yards for a touchdown to help the Buckeyes retake the lead and then scored on touchdown receptions of six, 15 and 54 yards to blow the game wide open. It was the first four-touchdown performance in a single game for a freshman since Dez Bryant in 2007, an accomplishment that earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors

Marshall has thrived in a featured role, leading the team in receptions (10), receiving yards (190) and touchdown receptions (four) over the last two weeks. No other Ohio State pass-catcher has more than 75 yards and a touchdown during that same span.

Does that mean Marshall should be featured once Wilson returns from injury? The two playmakers, who coincidentally room together, are constantly competing for playing time.

“Me and Dontre are always competing for a spot to make a play, but I always feel like if I’m out there or if he’s out there, we can both make the big play,” Marshall said, according to Blake Williams of BuckeyeSports.com. “It will be fortunate if that’s me.”

If he continues to play at this level, it will be fortunate for Ohio State as well. 

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Tennessee Football: What the Volunteers Should Be Thankful for in 2014

With Thanksgiving coming up this week, it's time to take stock of the things the Tennessee Volunteers and their fans have to be thankful for both in this season and in the years to come.

The 2014 campaign hasn't been pretty at times, but it has also provided a spark of hope for recruits and current players. Butch Jones is slowly righting the ship in Knoxville, and although the wins aren't quite where he or his coaching staff want them to be, it's clear the Vols are no longer content to roll over when the going gets tough.

Tennessee has one very winnable game left against Vanderbilt standing in its way of reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2010, and a postseason berth, although likely in a lower-tier bowl and against a non-marquee opponent, are still indicators that the program is on the upswing.

It's hard to keep a program like Tennessee down for long, and while it took an unusual set of circumstances to cause the team to free fall in the first place, it appears that a round of fortune may be headed towards Knoxville to reverse the trend and restore the Vols to their place among the elite in college football.

Here are four important circumstances and factors playing into Tennessee's favor this Thanksgiving holiday. 

 

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Winning College Football's Championship Is Tougher Than Winning the Super Bowl

Winning the Super Bowl may be the ultimate accomplishment in football, but you know what? Winning college football’s national championship is a much tougher proposition.

And in some respects it has become an even more exacting task this season, when the first College Football Playoff was supposed to open the door to more schools.

Start with some basic math.

In the NFL, 12 teams will qualify for the playoffs. That’s 37.5 percent of the league’s teams.

If college football decided to be that generous, 48 of the 128 FBS school would be invited to the playoffs, instead of just four. Heck, Marshall already would have clinched a spot, and getting into the tourney would be no more difficult than qualifying for a lightly regarded bowl game.

But what really makes the college trek so much more intense is that one flawed Saturday can derail the entire season of a team that might be the most talented in the nation.

The folks at Ohio State would certainly agree with that. No matter what their Buckeyes do, they can’t rid themselves of the stink of losing to Virginia Tech back in September.

It’s even worse if that blemish surfaces in the last week or two of the regular season. In the NFL, that’s when the top teams think about resting their starters, but no college team has a playoff spot clinched yet. They’re all like tightrope walkers. They can wobble a little, but one serious stumble and they’re toast. Squashed toast.

Consider:

No. 1 Alabama has to face archrival Auburn and then survive the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, which will feel like a road game if Georgia is the opponent.

No. 2 Oregon has a seeming walkover against Oregon State, but that was also the case last year, when the Ducks had to scramble for a 36-35 victory at home. And their likely opponent in the Pac-12 title game is UCLA, which is on a five-game winning streak.

No. 3 Florida State has to play an emotion-packed game against Florida, which will be determined to send Will Muschamp out on a winning note. Then the Seminoles will vie for the ACC Championship against Georgia Tech, whose triple-option offense is nearly impossible to replicate in practice.

No. 4 Mississippi State must win at Ole Miss, in what ranks as the biggest game in the history of The Magnolia State. But its biggest test will come the next week, when it will be idle unless an Alabama loss puts the Bulldogs in the SEC title game. Without a conference championship, teams from around the nation will be pointing at Mississippi State as the team that needs to be bounced from the playoffs.

Imagine that. Mississippi State’s defense has allowed only six points in its last 95 minutes of play, yet could tumble if it doesn’t throttle its in-state rival as more and more attention gets paid to the “eye test.”

But there are at least three recent Super Bowl champions who never would have vied for the Lombardi Trophy if style points mattered in the "National Forgiving League."

The 2012 Baltimore Ravens were pounded 43-13 by Houston in Week 7 and then went on to lose four of their last five regular-season games, including two at home. They limped into the playoffs with a 10-6 mark but then got hot.

The 2011 New York Giants fell all the way to 6-6 after losing four consecutive games from Nov. 13-Dec. 4, including a 49-24 torching at the hands of New Orleans. They finished 9-7 but squeaked into the postseason because no one else in the NFC East finished better than 8-8.

The 2010 Green Bay Packers lost two of their last four, including a 7-3 dud at Detroit when losing Aaron Rodgers to a concussion made them look like a one-man team. They got in the playoffs as a 10-6 wild card and caught fire when Rodgers returned.

Who’s like that in college football right now, the suddenly dangerous team no one wants to play? How about Arkansas, after back-to-back shutouts against two top-20 teams? But in college football the Razorbacks barely rate as an afterthought while playing in an SEC West Division where every team is bowl-eligible.

And, compared to the regular seasons of those three Super Bowl champions, all of Florida State’s come-from-behind victories against so-so opponents don’t look so shabby, do they?

Yet the Seminoles are perhaps the most maligned 11-0 team in college football history, because they haven’t exercised the “game control” that CFP committee chairman Jeff Long has said is a factor in the playoff rankings.

Side note to Mr. Long: I hereby challenge you to give Bill Belichick a call and chastise him the next time his New England Patriots don’t exhibit the requisite amount of game control in a win. Just remember to hold the phone a safe distance from your ear when the blowback erupts.

The first-half flubs that have left FSU with an image problem are proof that winning somehow is no longer enough as credentials for the college championship get scrutinized like never before.

In other times, Florida State’s victories would have classified as dramatic, and the Seminoles would have been celebrated. But in the age of style points and eye tests, they’re regarded as winning lazily, even though they’re the defending national champions and have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in James Winston.

We saw a little of that overreacting in the NFL this season, when some people actually thought Tom Brady needed to be benched after the Patriots were blown out 41-14 by Kansas City in September. But that tumult never affected New England’s playoff status.

So how about we compare Florida State to some of the NFL franchises that reside nearby, the ones that belong to the NFC South? Believe it or not, the 2-9 Tampa Bay Bucs still have a chance to make the playoffs, because no one in the division is better than 4-7.

If FSU fans read that and begin to weep, it’s understandable, because there’s no doubt that a loss will immediately exorcise Jimbo Fisher’s team from the playoff picture.

But take heart, Seminoles fans. If your guys come up short there’s still hope for them to go on with their football careers and accomplish easier things. Like winning the Super Bowl.

 

Tom Weir covered college football as a columnist for USA Today.

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Post-Week 13 College Football Playoff Projections from Analytics Guru Ed Feng

After ESPN aired the release of the inaugural College Football Playoff poll on Oct. 28, there was just one question on everybody's mind: What will the rankings look like when they matter on Dec. 7?

My algorithm projects just that in the sortable table above. Now, allow me to explain my rankings...

 

Mississippi State Is Not Giving Up No. 4 Spot Without a Fight

Way too many people think Mississippi State, which holds the precarious fourth spot in the committee rankings, is in trouble. If Alabama beats Auburn Saturday, the Bulldogs won't play in the SEC championship game, meaning they will miss the opportunity to "impress the committee" the last week of the season. A team like TCU or Ohio State could grab the final playoff spot.

Here's why the Bulldogs won't go down without a fight, however. 

First, they travel to Mississippi for the Egg Bowl this weekend. If they win, they'll notch another notable win over a Top 25 squad. That will give them four wins over teams that were ranked in the Top 25 at the time of each contest, along with one five-point loss to the top-ranked team in the country. The committee should look favorably upon that resume. 

Second, the committee has shown that it needs a pretty strong statement to move the Top Four teams around. Oregon jumped Florida State only after a 24-point road win over a ranked Utah team. Alabama jumped from fifth to first after beating top-ranked Mississippi State. 

Which of the first three out could impress the committee with a big win over a top team in the next two weeks? Not fifth-ranked TCU. The Horned Frogs play unranked Texas this week and Iowa State the last week of the season. Unless the Bulldogs drop a game, TCU will struggle to leap over Mississippi State. 

Sixth-ranked Ohio State has captured the Big Ten East and will play the winner of this weekend's game between Minnesota and Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. This works out well for the Buckeyes, as the victor of that contest will almost surely be in the Top 15 of the committee's rankings.

The Buckeyes are favored to beat either Wisconsin (57.8 percent) or Minnesota (80.0 percent ). However, given the committee's apparent need to see a very dominant performance to warrant movement, Ohio State would need to do it with a great deal of style to jump into the Top Four. 

Seventh-ranked Baylor may have the best chance to make the jump. The Bears play a strong Kansas State team at home the last week of the season, and their head-to-head win over TCU will look extremely impressive.

That said, given the committee's tendencies so far, a three-spot jump for a Top 10 team without losses above it looks very unlikely.

All of these factors, coupled with the chance that one of the Top Three teams could lose, contribute to Mississippi State's 51.5 percent chance to make the playoff.

 

How Much Do Current Rankings of TCU and Baylor Matter?

How does the committee distinguish between Big 12 rivals TCU and Baylor? Baylor beat TCU by a field goal in their head-to-head contest. However, TCU has a better out-of-conference win over Minnesota, a team the committee moved up to 18th this week.

How would their playoff chances change if we flipped their rankings?

As the fifth-ranked team, Baylor would have a 49.4 percent chance to make the playoff, almost double its 26.4 percent probability at seventh. If TCU slipped from fifth to seventh, its playoff odds would drop from 46.4 percent to 22.5 percent. These shifts are drastic for such small changes in ranking.

Baylor might still end up ahead of TCU with its matchup agains the Wildcats. An impressive win, along with the head-to-head advantage, could cause the committee to put the Bears ahead of TCU.

 

Things Setting Up Nicely for Ohio State

After a win over Indiana, Ohio State's odds to make the playoff only increased 1 percent. However, the Buckeyes' situation looks much better due to the rise of the Big Ten West.

This past weekend, Minnesota had a big win over Nebraska, which moved it to 18th in the committee rankings. The Gophers play 14th-ranked Wisconsin for the West division this weekend. The winner of that game will give Ohio State a borderline Top 10 opponent in the Big Ten championship game.

Hello, impressive win. 

Ohio State would rather face Minnesota, a team it already beat. Ohio State's third-ranked offense in my yards-per-play-adjusted-for-schedule metric has a significant edge over Minnesota's 45th-ranked defense. The Buckeyes have an 80.0 percent win probability at a neutral site.

Wisconsin and running back Melvin Gordon have the top-ranked rush offense by my yards-per-carry-adjusted-for-schedule metric and thus pose more of a challenge to the Buckeyes and their 54th-ranked rush defense. Despite the Gordon factor, Ohio State still has a 57.8 percent win probability against Wisconsin.

 

Ed Feng founded The Power Rank and has also written for Grantland and Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter @thepowerrank.

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Kramer's College Football Notebook: Committee Setting Very Dangerous Precedent

The transparency between selection committee and fans was supposed to enhance the College Football Playoff experience. At the very least, it was poised to allow access to information that was once sealed and tucked away.

However, as the weeks have progressed and the reasoning behind various moves have been justified in detail, one can’t help but be concerned with the glaring inconsistencies and deficiencies in the public portion of the process. We have been granted access, but no clarity.

If anything, we're more confused than we have ever been.

It's not the latest Top 25 College Football Playoff Rankings that are generating the concern. There is debate to be had in and outside of the first four positions, but nothing glaringly amiss. 

The concern comes in the comments that selection committee chairman Jeff Long made on ESPN while discussing Mississippi State's strange, evolving playoff resume. Long provided the following explanation on the current value of the Bulldogs' wins over teams who are no longer ranked in the Top 25:

Jeff Long said the committee factors in that some of Miss St wins came against teams previously ranked. Seems like a new talking point.

— Jon Solomon (@JonSolomonCBS) November 26, 2014

As the masses proclaimed foul in this logic—connecting the dots of how preseason rankings and other factors could impact their decisions—Long clarified his point once the cameras had been turned off. 

You may now get off your preseason rankings ledge, at least for the time being.

Jeff Long clarified his statement to mean CFP-ranked. Meaning nothing before Oct. 28. ND was No. 10 in that one btw.

— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) November 26, 2014

Although the clarification helped, there are issues with this entire thought process in general. 

Even if preseason rankings aren't included, were the committee's initial rankings influenced by where teams started before the season began?

And if teams are truly being judged on their entire season, why should ranking at any point in the process be factored in this discussion? Patience has been stressed throughout this entire process, so what good does it do to assess a matchup from the past without truly knowing what the matchup means?

The final product is all that matters, so shouldn't this same logic be applied for hopeful teams' playoff resumes along the way? This part seems most obvious of all.

Beyond these potential logic flaws, Tuesday night’s vocal misstep identified an issue with the process of revealing these rankings along the way. Although these weekly releases are a network’s dream—a way to fit roughly 30 seconds of information into a 30-minute opening, laughing to the bank the entire way—it also leaves the committee open to these types of situations.

It generates conversation from the masses, but it also leaves this group vulnerable to criticism, some of which is warranted. There is growing concern—at least out in the open—that the consistency with the selection committee has already been lost. Tuesday night didn’t help alleviate these stances. If anything, it only drove them home further.

Confidence in this group is already starting to dwindle, and the important part of the process hasn't even begun. The weekly releases have generated interest as planned, although they have also revealed significant flaws and confusion in this process along the way.

Here are some other observations regarding the latest playoff rankings.

 

Ohio State Getting Some Help

This all looks to be setting up brilliantly for the Buckeyes.

Although Ohio State struggled for much of its contest against Indiana on Saturday, it didn’t budge from the No. 6 spot. Given the shrinking amount of time to make an impression—either positive or negative—this was a solid development for Urban Meyer’s team. 

Perhaps more importantly, the teams crucial to the Buckeyes’ final playoff push also saw plenty of love from the committee. Minnesota jumped from No. 25 to No. 18 following its win over Nebraska, and Wisconsin jumped up two spots to No. 14 after beating Iowa in Iowa City. 

The Badgers and Gophers will meet up this week with a spot in the Big Ten Championship on the line, which means Ohio State’s overall resume—if it wins out—will only improve. The ideal situation for the Buckeyes is a convincing Wisconsin win and losses from teams hovering around the Top 10. If that’s the case, the Big Ten Championship could end up being an even brighter Buckeye showcase. 

That’s also an extra game neither Big 12 team will have. And if Alabama beats Auburn, Mississippi State's season will end with the Egg Bowl.

Regardless of what transpires, Ohio State has done what it had to do. It has distanced itself as far as it possibly can from its lone loss against Virginia Tech and held onto the label as the nation’s hottest team.

 

Welcome to the Party, Group of 5

It took a while, but the Group of Five was finally allowed access to this exclusive club. It might have bribed a bouncer to get there, although it makes no difference now. Two teams outside of power-five conferences finally cracked the latest Top 25.

It's about time.

Boise State was the first team to hear its named called at No. 23, and undefeated Marshall followed directly at No. 24. The Broncos just dismantled Wyoming on the road, and they’ve been fabulous since losing to Air Force back in September. Marshall, meanwhile, almost suffered its first loss of the season against UAB, although the Thundering Herd snuck past UAB, 23-18.

The arrival of teams outside of the power conferences has been a long time coming. You could make the argument—and a good one for that matter—that 10-1 Colorado State warrants inclusion as well. If the Rams take care of business against Air Force on Saturday, it wouldn’t be shocking to see another Group of Five team added to this mix.

Keep in mind: One of these teams will be granted access to a marquee bowl. Now that multiple Group of Five teams have cracked the rankings, keep an eye on the team on top. That's the place you want to be.

 

UCLA vs. Georgia in the Battle for No. 8

Although the battle between UCLA (currently No. 8) and Georgia (currently No. 9) may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, this could change rather quickly.

If UCLA beats Stanford on Saturday, it will head to the Pac-12 Championship Game. If Missouri loses to Arkansas, Georgia will win the SEC East and play in the SEC Championship Game. While their playoff chances aren’t nearly as defined as the teams directly in front of them, each could state their case for a playoff spot by winning out. 

No, they’re not directly competing with one another just yet, but the possibility of either team entering the playoff picture warrants consideration, especially with huge potential matchups looming.

There is still so much football to be played and more losses to come. The closer you are to the top four positions, the better. UCLA has a slight, critical advantage for the time being.

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Ohio State's Path to the College Football Playoff Becomes Clearer

COLUMBUS, Ohio — For Ohio State, no news was good news during Tuesday's release of the College Football Playoff rankings.

Following a week where the Buckeyes escaped a Big Ten matchup with Indiana that was at one point too close for comfort, Ohio State remained sixth in the weekly rankings release. More than that, the Buckeyes still appear to control their own destiny in their quest for a playoff spot, with two weeks to go until the final top four teams are chosen.

At first glance, that may seem unlikely, especially considering that there was no movement in the top seven this past week and Ohio State remains two spots back of a coveted final-four spot.

But the Buckeyes' path to the playoff is only becoming clearer, and Ohio State may have even received some good news from playoff committee chair Jeff Long regarding its future prospects.

"We try not to look into the future, but we've always said that championships won on selection weekend will have an impact," Long said on ESPN's televised revealing of the rankings. "It will certainly add to [Ohio State's] body of work if they have that Big Ten championship."

That's obviously big for the Buckeyes, who locked up an appearance in their conference title game with last weekend's win over the Hoosiers.

Conference championship aside, Ohio State is virtually guaranteed a chance at adding another quality win to its resume, as it will meet the winner of this weekend's matchup between No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 18 Minnesota.

While Long was answering a question in regards to the Big 12's lack of a conference title game, his response perhaps most applied to the Buckeyes' argument against No. 4 Mississippi State.

After all, assuming No. 1 Alabama beats No. 15 Auburn this weekend, the Bulldogs will be left out of the SEC Championship Game, giving Ohio State the edge in the first criterion that the committee will look at when comparing similar resumes.

With everything in the playoff selection process unprecedented, it remains unclear whether the Buckeyes' and Mississippi State's resumes are close enough to go to a tiebreaker. But one glance at both teams' bodies of work would indicate that they are.

Ohio State possesses wins over No. 10 Michigan State and No. 18 Minnesota, with the potential to add a third Top 25 victory in its conference championship game.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs' only current Top 25 win before this weekend's matchup with No. 19 Ole Miss came against No. 15 Auburn.

Conversely, Mississippi State's lone loss of the season—to No. 1 Alabama—certainly trumps Ohio State's Sept. 6 defeat to 5-6 Virginia Tech, and Long also stated that the committee will take into the consideration that the Bulldogs beat LSU and Texas A&M teams that were ranked in the Top 10 at the time that they played.

However, that argument could end up working in the Buckeyes' favor as well, as it takes the sting out of their perceived scarlet letter of a loss to the Hokies.

Regardless of which side of the argument you fall on between the Bulldogs and the Buckeyes, it would be tough to argue that, at the very least, the two teams don't possess similar resumes.

Given the criteria that the committee has laid out—and what Long said on Tuesday—that would appear to favor Ohio State, assuming that the Buckeyes win their conference championship game.

 

But What About The Big 12? 

Although Mississippi State likely won't be afforded the opportunity to play for its conference crown—and an Alabama loss would likely eliminate the top-ranked Crimson Tide from the playoff discussion anyway—both teams still in contention for the Big 12 title remain in the playoff hunt.

No. 5 TCU and No. 7 Baylor currently sandwich Ohio State, with the Bears having the inside track to their league title.

That could prove important for Baylor, which—unlike Mississippi State—will be recognized as a conference champion should it win the remainder of its games.

While the Big 12 doesn't possess a conference championship game, the Bears' regular-season finale against 12th-ranked Kansas State could ultimately enhance their resume.

That's why it was so important for Ohio State to see the Badgers and Gophers ranked where they were this week, enhancing the likelihood that a Buckeyes win in Indianapolis would neutralize a potential Baylor win over the Wildcats.

It's also worth noting that a Big Ten title victory would give Ohio State one more win over Baylor should both win out, only adding to the Buckeyes' argument against a team that it's already ranked ahead of.

As for TCU, the Horned Frogs remain ranked ahead of the Buckeyes, but would not be recognized as the Big 12 champion by the committee should both they and the Bears win their two respective remaining games, as Baylor beat TCU on Oct. 11.

More importantly for Ohio State, the Horned Frogs lack the opportunities to enhance their resume, with only games against 6-5 Texas and 2-8 Iowa State remaining on their schedule.

That should leave the Buckeyes feeling pretty good right now heading into this weekend's rivalry game against 5-6 Michigan.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, this entire process is unprecedented, and it remains possible—perhaps likely—that one or more teams ranked in the top seven will lose a game between now and the final rankings reveal in two weeks.

But with both the inside track to a conference championship and the chance to enhance its resume with another quality win, Ohio State appears to be in as good a shape as any team still fighting to control its playoff fate.

A lot can obviously change between now and Dec. 7, but should the Buckeyes win out, their argument to make the inaugural playoff field will undoubtedly be a strong one—if not the strongest.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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