NCAA Football

BCS Championship 2014: Players to Watch in Florida State vs. Auburn Clash

The No. 1 Florida State Seminoles and the No. 2 Auburn Tigers will do battle at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday, Jan. 6, at 8:30 p.m. ET to determine which team is crowned champion before the BCS takes a bow.

Big names such as Heisman winner Jameis Winston are obvious ones to watch. The Florida State quarterback, along with Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, is a player who will most impact the outcome of the game.

But there are a few other weapons to keep a close eye on in the contest, as they contain game-breaking ability. The bowl season has been anything but predictable, so one of the following names may take control in what should be a shootout.

 

Devonta Freeman, RB, Florida State

Winston is backed by Devonta Freeman, whose production all year helped keep defenses honest.

The junior rushed for 943 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013 but also caught 19 passes and turned it into 257 yards and another touchdown.

The NFL has its eyes on Freeman should he declare for the 2014 draft, as Rotoworld's Josh Norris explains:

Believe the hype. Freeman has been held back a bit this season, as he had five games with less than 10 carries. Eight saw him carry the rock less than 15 times.

Expect Freeman to see an uptick in opportunities as the Seminoles look to keep the Tigers offense off the field. Freeman is more than capable of having a big day in a coming-out party of sorts.

 

Tre Mason, RB, Auburn

Flip to the other side of the running back matchup, where Auburn's Tre Mason is a bit more nationally known than Freeman.

While Marshall was Auburn's second-leading rusher with 1,023 yards and 11 scores, much of his success depends on Mason's ability to find room. Mason did just that as a workhorse with 283 carries for 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns.

That ability to keep defenses on their toes is what Mason says allows the Tigers offense to be so formidable, per Kareem Copeland of the Associated Press:

I feel like we're pretty good at what we do, and that's what got us here. That's our edge, running our plays at a fast pace, and a very high tempo. We feel like that's our edge, getting the ball snapped before they're even ready or realize. When we play that fast, I feel like it's hard for them to determine where the ball is at.

Mason leads the nation's No. 1 rushing attack, which averages 335.7 yards per game. His 46 carries for 304 yards and four scores in the SEC Championship Game against the Missouri Tigers put him on the map, but now Mason has a chance to steal the spotlight on the biggest stage of them all.

 

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State

While only Florida State's second-leading receiver behind Rashad Greene, sophomore Kelvin Benjamin is the piece that allows the Seminoles offense to churn consistently.

Standing at 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin is a rare breed of physicality and speed that is nearly impossible to stop at the collegiate level.

Benjamin caught just 50 passes in 2013, but they translated to 957 yards and 14 touchdowns—with an average of 19.1 yards per catch. The definition of an elite weapon, Benjamin has recorded four games with multiple touchdowns—three of which have come in his last three games.

Against an Auburn defense that allows an average of 24 points per game, Benjamin is in for another massive performance and is a sure thing to garner national attention before he potentially takes his talents to the next level.

 

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Auburn vs. FSU: Predicting Final Score, Top Performers for 2014 BCS Championship

The two top college football teams in the nation close out what's been a wild bowl season when No. 2 Auburn (12-1) and No. 1 FSU (13-0) battle for the 2014 BCS National Championship on Monday, Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. 

Offensive fireworks should be commonplace when these two powerhouses clash.

Florida State, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Jameis Winston, finished the regular season with the nation's top-ranked scoring offense, while Auburn, led by speedy signal-caller Nick Marshall, finished with the No. 9-ranked scoring offense. 

Both teams have been unstoppable for most of the season, winning their games by huge margins throughout the year. Auburn won by an average of 16.2 points per game, while FSU won by a staggering amount of 42.3 points per contest.

Here's a final prediction for the championship game, along with projections for the top performers. 

 

Game Prediction

As much as Auburn's season appears to be fated for glory—given the team's miraculous wins against Georgia and Alabama in consecutive weeks—this game is FSU's to lose.

On paper, the Seminoles appear to have a huge edge, featuring the nation's top scoring defense. Much like Alabama's championship defense in 2012, FSU's defense has no obvious weaknesses.

Auburn's offense has been a veritable juggernaut during the final stretch against Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Missouri, however, and should provide a unique challenge to the Seminoles in this upcoming game.

Alabama's defense had allowed just three yards per carry before Auburn shredded it for 296 yards in the 2013 Iron Bowl.

For this reason, FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is looking to that game's tape to find answers for his defense, as relayed by Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel: "Schematically, obviously us and Alabama are very similar. So how [Auburn coach Gus Malzahn] attacked Alabama, what he had success with, what he didn’t have success with."

The Seminoles will do a better job than Alabama of keeping Marshall from ripping off huge gains, thanks to the team's athletic defensive front.

On the other side, Auburn must do something no team's been able to do this season: The Tigers must somehow find a way to shut down FSU's top-ranked scoring offense.

Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee pointed out Auburn's biggest challenge: "If Auburn can't get pressure with four and is forced to blitz and open up passing lanes, quarterback Jameis Winston and these receivers are going to pick this defense apart."

Missouri's big receivers gave Auburn's secondary fits in the SEC Championship Game, and FSU's trio of Rashad Greene, Kenny Shaw and Kelvin Benjamin will do the same in this upcoming contest. 

Final Score: FSU wins, 49-35.

 

Projected Top Performers

Passing: Jameis Winston, FSU

Auburn's Marshall passed for over 300 yards just once in 2013, and his highest touchdown total the past year was two, which he achieved four times. 

Conversely, Winston topped 300 yards on seven occasions, and he threw three or more touchdowns eight times. 

The Heisman winner has three receivers at his disposal who caught at least 50 passes for at least 929 yards and six touchdowns. There's little doubt Winston will finish the game as the top passer unless he gets injured. 

Should Marshall outgun his opponent, then it will be one of the biggest shockers of the entire 2013-14 college football season. 

 

Running: Tre Mason, RB, Auburn

Thanks to FSU's athleticism up front on defense, nobody should expect Nick Marshall to break out with 200-plus yards on the ground like he did against Tennessee. He'll be lucky to crack 100 yards, as you can be sure the Seminoles will be working hard to keep him in the pocket. 

But Tre Mason could have another tremendous game between the tackles.

Consider these jaw-dropping stats: During Auburn's final five games, Mason carried the ball 30.8 times on average per game, gaining 868 total rushing yards and scoring 13 touchdowns. 

He's likely feeling spry heading into this game, too. After his incredible run to close out the season, Mason commented on the toll it took, via Auburn Gold Mine:

With a month to rest up, Mason will look to keep Auburn in the game with a huge game on the ground. 

 

Receiving: Kelvin Benjamin, FSU

It's likely another receiver will catch more passes than Benjamin, but the freakishly athletic sophomore will finish the game having made the biggest impact on the scoreboard.

At 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin is a tremendous red-zone threat. He's also pretty impressive to meet in person, as pointed out by Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports:

His 14 total receiving touchdowns tied for fifth in the nation, and he put on a remarkable three-game run to close out the season, catching 17 passes for 392 yards (23 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns. 

He's become Winston's favorite target in big-game situations down the home stretch, and Benjamin should have a field day against Auburn's secondary.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78 

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Michigan Football: Michigan State, Not Ohio State, Will Be Toughest Game of 2014

After Michigan running back Mike Hart famously referred to Michigan State as "little brother" in 2007, a stoic, unamused Mark Dantonio didn't hesitate to respond. 

"Just remember, pride comes before the fall," Dantonio said during a press conference, via YouTube. "I'm telling them: It's not over." 

Dantonio's words foreshadowed a dramatic shift in the rivalry. After the 2007 contest, Michigan had emerged victorious in six straight and eight out of 10 contests against the Spartans. 

Since then, Michigan State has taken five of the last six.  

What has traditionally been a relatively innocuous rivalry has suddenly grown fangs, and the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy is now more contentious and personal than ever before. Constant trash talking is now the norm, and Michigan State in particular has played with new levels of ferocity and hunger in the series. 

The Spartans are fresh off of a spectacular 13-1 season that was capped by their first Rose Bowl victory in 26 years. They'll likely finish the season ranked third in the country, and on top of that they'll finish with the nation's top-ranked defense

While playing Ohio State in Columbus next year will be a daunting task, playing on the road at Michigan State will once again prove to be Michigan's toughest game. 

Due to a shakeup in the Big Ten next year with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers, the Wolverines will be forced to play back-to-back road games in East Lansing. 

Michigan will have to return to the site of one of their ugliest losses in recent program history, when they rushed for an embarrassing minus-48 yards and generated just 168 yards of total offense in a 29-6 loss. 

Over the last two contests, Michigan has scored just 18 points against its in-state rival and has struggled mightily to move the football. The Wolverines have amassed just 494 yards combined in these two games, and they've looked completely outmatched against the physical Spartan defense. 

The Wolverines have moved the ball much more effectively against Ohio State in their last two meetings, racking up 882 yards of total offense and scoring 62 combined points. While Michigan State's offense has continued to develop and will return the majority of its starters next year, it's Ohio State that will prove to be a tougher test for the Michigan defense. 

Although 1,000-yard rusher Carlos Hyde is set to graduate, the Big Ten's two-time Graham-George Offensive Player of the Year, Braxton Miller, has said he'll return for his senior season. Miller has been a nightmare for the Michigan defense, rushing for 153 yards and three touchdowns and passing for 133 more in their most recent meeting. 

But the Michigan offense simply hasn't proven that it can score points on Michigan State, and I see little reason to believe that this trend will end next year. 

Armed with a shiny new contract extension, Dantonio is in a position to lead the Spartans to even greater heights in 2014. They've surpassed Michigan in terms of national relevance, and they'll be the favorite to emerge as Big Ten champions yet again.

While "The Game" will continue to weigh heavier on the minds of Michigan fans, it's the battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy that'll prove to be the toughest test for the Wolverines in 2014. 

 

Follow me on Twitter @TomLogan_BR

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Boise State Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

Boise State football finished the 2013 season with an 8-5 overall record. To put that into some perspective, it is the worst record the Broncos have had since going 6-5 overall as members of the Big West in 1998.

However, to give you a greater idea of just how unusual losing that many games in a single season is to the tradition-rich program, it takes a bit more history.

Since the Broncos began playing football in 1933 as a junior college, and even after the school became a four-year institution in the 1960s, from the Big Sky to the Big West to the WAC and now the Mountain West Conference, the Broncos have only lost five or more games in a season 12 other times.

Those are pretty impressive totals, and it should be a reminder to anyone writing off the Broncos now that Chris Petersen is gone. After all, this program has been around for 80 years, and in that time, it has continued a level of excellence beyond any single player, coach, administrator or generation of fans.

As the programs now moves forward into 2014, the goals, purpose, expectations and standards have not changed.

In fact, if anything, the bar just keeps getting higher.

With Bryan Harsin now leading the charge as head coach, the new year brings renewed hope and optimism. He and his new staff have a challenging journey ahead, but they seem very capable of climbing the mountain set before them. 

Let's look at some of the most immediate concerns this new staff must tackle and what they mean for the state of the program.

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BCS: The Most Intriguing Stories Heading into Florida State's Clash with Auburn

With the BCS National Championship game between the Florida State Seminoles and the Auburn Tigers set to take place on Monday evening, there are a few storylines that you will need to keep close attention to during the game.

The Seminoles have been dominant throughout the entire season. The Tigers have been the beneficiary of Lady Luck's love.

Which team will prevail?

The following subplots will likely decide the winner. Each subplot was ranked by how they would each impact the outcome of the game.

Begin Slideshow

Penn State Football: 3 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

There hasn't been much for Penn State football fans to cheer about so far in 2014. 

In the past few days, new concerns have emerged that affect both the immediacy and longevity of Nittany Lion football. Recent events have sent shockwaves through the program, some even signaling a new era.  

While the magnitudes vary, all are key issues that Penn State needs to address before its 2014 football season gets underway. 

Here are the three biggest concerns for the Nittany Lions this offseason. 

Begin Slideshow

Alabama Football: Reasons to Be Optimistic About Tide After Disappointing 2013

It’s hard to look at an 11-2 season as anything except a success, but for Alabama, it almost seems like the end of the world.

Nick Saban has built Alabama into such a high-caliber program that fans expect national championships year in and year out, and rightfully so. This year, the team was certainly primed to win it all again, but it just didn’t happen.

While fans may be upset at the current state of things—AJ McCarron and C.J. Mosley leaving, the defense seemingly baffled by the hurry-up offense, a lack of dominance on the offensive line—there is still much to be optimistic about.

All is not lost in Tuscaloosa. In fact, things look pretty darn good. Here are five reasons fans should feel good about the Tide heading into the offseason.

 

Derrick Henry

The freshman running back saw his first significant action of the season and more than lived up to the hype he brought in—if that was even possible.

Henry touched the ball nine times for 161 total yards, including a touchdown run of 43 yards and a 61-yard screen pass TD.

The Yulee, Fla., native who broke multiple high school rushing records is primed to see significant carries in 2014 and could even take over as the No. 1 back.

By the second half of the Oklahoma game, he was drawing comparisons to another great SEC back who opened eyes as a freshman.

 

Freakish Defensive Line

Nick Saban doesn’t like to talk about sacks, but rather the need to "affect the quarterback.” Still, he can’t deny what freshman A’Shawn Robinson did this season.

Robinson led the team with 5.5 sacks and added five quarterback hurries on the season. He and fellow freshman Jonathan Allen found themselves in the regular defensive line rotation, which can go six and seven deep, and were a disruptive force up front all year.

Add to that a 2014 class that includes 5-star pass rushers Da’Shawn Hand and Christian Miller, 4-star defensive tackle Josh Frazier and the possibility of adding 5-star Matt Elam, and the Tide looks set for a few years up front.

While the pass rush has been a concern this year across the board, it doesn’t look like it will be in the future.

 

Amari Cooper Leads Stud Receivers

Amari Cooper didn’t quite live up to the hype he brought after his freshman season, putting up “only” 736 yards and four touchdowns. But after foot injuries hampered him during the year, he finished strong with 299 yards in his final two games and looks primed for a huge junior year.

And he’ll be surrounded by a star-studded supporting cast.

Only Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell leave a group that will include the returning DeAndrew White, Christion Jones and rising redshirt sophomore Chris Black. Three 2013 signees—five-star Robert Foster, four-star ArDarius Stewart and four-star Raheem Falkins—all redshirted this year and will look to contribute this year.

The Tide will also add four-star Cameron Sims and four-star Derek Kief to an extremely talented group. Whoever the new quarterback is won’t lack for targets.

 

Saban’s Record with New Quarterback

Speaking of a new quarterback, Saban has done pretty well with rookie signal-callers.

Granted, he’s only had to break in two (Greg McElroy in 2009 and AJ McCarron in 2011), but he has set them up for success by leaning on a talented running game and lockdown defense.

He’ll have the running game with Derrick Henry, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake all returning, and the defense will have the potential to succeed.

The options he has to pick from are a talented bunch, with rising senior Blake Sims, rising sophomore Alec Morris and a trio of talented freshmen who all redshirted. He’ll also have freshman David Cornwell coming in and could look to potential transfers for more help.

Replacing McCarron will be very difficult, but Saban has a pretty good track record of breaking in new quarterbacks.

 

Back to Square 1

While it seems crazy to say, the reality check that the end of 2013 provided could turn out to be a good thing going forward.

Like in 2010, when the Tide lost three games with a very talented squad, Alabama will come away hungry and will have something to point to what happens when things go wrong.

Only a handful of seniors on this year’s team were around for that season while the rest only knew seasons that ended in national championships. That won’t be the case anymore.

After finishing a season like they did this year, the players will only be motivated to not let it happen again.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting info comes courtesy of 247Sports.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edwards finished with 146 yards and a score.

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

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

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

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

 

Player Grades

Fredi Knighten, Arkansas State: A-

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

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

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

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

 

Keith Wenning, Ball State: B-

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

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

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

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

 

Qushaun Lee, Arkansas State: A

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

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

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

 

Jahwan Edwards, Ball State: A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DE Solomon Thomas

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

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

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

 

S Edwin Freeman

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

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

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

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

 

DT Travonte Valentine

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

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

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

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

 

RB D'Ernest Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Ohio State Defense Must Improve Dramatically for 2014 Title Run

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All stats via NCAA.com

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

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

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

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

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Michigan Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Offense

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

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

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

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

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

 

Defense

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

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

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

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

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

 

Overall

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

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Nebraska Football: 5 Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason

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

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

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

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

 

Beating Fire with Fire Is Key to Toppling Stanford

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

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

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

He added: 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Breaking Old Habits a Must for Arizona State  

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Takeaways = Wins

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mike Leach Cares Not for Second-Guessing

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

 

UCLA Offense Developing into a Force 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Leaving Las Vegas (and USC)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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

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

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Power Ranking 10 Best 2014 Early Enrollee Recruits

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

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

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

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

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

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