NCAA Football

Post-Week 11 College Football Playoff Projections from Analytics Guru Ed Feng

After ESPN aired the release of the inaugural College Football Playoff poll, the question on everybody's mind was: 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...


Alabama Is Still Your SEC Favorite

For the second straight week, Alabama holds the dreaded fifth spot in the committee rankings. No. 4 TCU likely jumped ahead of the the Tide because the committee was more impressed with the Horned Frogs' decisive 41-20 victory over Kansas State than with Bama's 20-13 squeaker over a down LSU squad. 

However, in the long run, the numbers still like Alabama's chances in the SEC. It has a 69 percent chance to beat top-ranked Mississippi State at home this weekend. And despite an upcoming game with Auburn, Alabama has a 54.9 percent chance to win the SEC West.

With the strength of the conference in the west, Alabama's road to the playoff gets easier in the SEC title game. It would have a 76 percent win probability against Georgia or 89.5 percent chance against Missouri.

Alabama most likely won't remain on the outside of the playoff for long.


Ohio State Shows the Power of the Upset

Last weekend, Ohio State traveled to Michigan State as the underdog. A defeat would have put the Buckeyes at two losses and officially ended their playoff hopes.

However, Urban Meyer's squad surprised the nation and pulled off the upset. The win elevated the Buckeyes' playoff probability from 4.5 percent last week to 22.0 percent this week. This shows the massive impact of turning a low-win-probability game into an actual victory.

But the Buckeyes still have some work to do. While Ohio State will almost certainly win the Big Ten East, the Buckeyes still would have to play Nebraska or Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game. The computers think it will be Wisconsin and give Ohio State a 54.8 percent chance to win this neutral-site contest.


Pool of Contenders Shrinking 

As the number of games remaining continues to shrink, the number of opportunities for upsets dwindle, and we can be a more and more confident in our numbers.

Last week, only Oregon had a greater than 50 percent chance to make the playoff. This week, four teams have better than even odds to end the season in the Top Four.

This shift in probability toward the top teams means that the pool of contenders is getting smaller.

For example, consider Ole Miss. Despite a win, the Rebels' playoff chances dropped from 35.1 percent last week to 18.0 percent this week due to circumstances largely out of their control. Specifically, Alabama's critical win over LSU drastically boosted the Tide's SEC West title hopes and, in turn, dropped Ole Miss' chances. 


Lack of Big 12 Championship Game a Huge Advantage

Big 12 titans TCU (62.3 percent) and Baylor (51.8 percent) have two of the top four playoff probabilities. It helps that both teams have already played their toughest opponents. Between the two, TCU has the toughest remaining game (at Texas, 56.7 percent win probability).

This is made possible by the fact that the 10-team Big 12 does not currently have a championship game. 

Last week, TCU and Baylor won decisive games over ranked Kansas State and Oklahoma teams respectively. The committee recognized the strength in these wins, as both squads jumped SEC teams. TCU jumped ahead of Alabama while Baylor jumped Ole Miss.

If TCU was forced to play Baylor again in a conference title game, the Bears would have a 55.8 percent win probability. However, both teams would have much lower probabilities to make the playoff.


Pac-12 Bias

Last week, the committee played favorites with Arizona State. This week, another Pac-12 team, UCLA, got the special treatment. The Bruins jumped from 18th to 11th after their win over Washington, a team that hasn't impressed anyone this season.

Granted, most of UCLA's upward movement came at the expense of teams that lost. However, the Bruins jumped ahead of Nebraska, which had a bye.

Don't get too excited about UCLA (8-2, 5-2 Pac-12). It trails Arizona State (8-1, 5-1) in the Pac-12 South standings. UCLA has a 27.8 percent chance to win the Pac-12 South, while Arizona State has a 57.6 percent chance.

Even if the Bruins managed to emerge from the South they would only have a 27.2 percent chance to beat Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. All of these factors combine to give UCLA a 3.7 percent chance to make the playoff.


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

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Does Oregon Deserve to Be Ahead of FSU After Latest CFP Committee Rankings?

No. 2 Oregon has jumped over No. 3 Florida State in the latest College Football Playoff ranking despite the 9-0 Seminoles' undefeated record. Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss whether the committee was right or wrong in putting the 9-1 Ducks so high.

Who is in your Top Four? Should the Ducks have leapfrogged the Seminoles?

Watch the video and let us know!

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UCLA Football Recruiting: 5 2015 Recruits Bruins Must Land

Recruiting for Jim Mora and the UCLA football team is off to a great start for the 2015 class. 

Using Scout.com as a mechanism of reference, the Bruins currently have the No. 15 class in the country. If one looks at the average star rating per recruit, UCLA is No. 3 nationally—ranking behind only Alabama and Michigan. 

This piece will speak about the must-get recruits for this class—strictly based on need from a roster and talent perspective. The list won't be a comprehensive look at every elite recruit UCLA is pursuing. However, the athletes listed here all have a feasible shot at eventually ending up in Westwood. 

 

*Star rankings for the recruits are all from Scout.com, unless noted otherwise. 

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UCLA Football Recruiting: 5 2015 Recruits Bruins Must Land

Recruiting for Jim Mora and the UCLA football team is off to a great start for the 2015 class. Using Scout.com as a mechanism of reference, the Bruins currently have the No...

Begin Slideshow

Does Alabama Deserve to Be in the Top 4 After Week 12 CFP Committee Rankings?

The Alabama Crimson Tide lead the "first four out" of teams in the latest version of the College Football Playoff committee rankings. Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss whether that is a good position for Alabama.

Will Alabama make the CFP?

Watch the video, and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The 3 Biggest X-Factors for Tennessee vs. Kentucky

The Tennessee Volunteers head into Saturday's matchup with the Kentucky Wildcats desperately needing a win that would all but ensure themselves of bowl eligibility.

While the Vols are, on paper at least, a better team than the Wildcats, there are a few X-factors that will play a big role in determining if Tennessee can gain and maintain control of the game or if Kentucky can pull a huge upset on the road. 

One thing is for sure: Neither team is lacking motivation to land a knockout blow this weekend. The Wildcats need just one more win to become eligible themselves, and to achieve it at the expense of Tennessee would be a signature victory for second-year head coach Mark Stoops

Tennessee, on the other hand, needs two wins to make the postseason, but a win over Kentucky would mean the Vols only need a single victory against remaining opponents Missouri and Vanderbilt—and the latter seems to have reverted back to the dark ages of Commodores football under first-year head coach Derek Mason.

The Vols are favored to win this game, but after three 5-7 seasons in a row, they have a track record of folding when they only need one more win to reach the all-elusive bowl game.

With so much on the line this weekend, there's no doubt both teams will get each other's best shot. Here are three X-factors that could trump even the most passionate pregame speeches by Vols head coach Butch Jones and Stoops before their teams take the field. 

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5 Things We Learned from College Football Playoff Committee's Week 11 Rankings

The selection committee's third release of its rankings proved to be its most interesting and revealing. There is strong indication that the members indeed are evaluating the teams freshly each week and not following the poll practice where teams only slide up and down out of fixed positions from the previous week.

That's good. It makes for an intriguing final month of the season for the fewer than a dozen contenders still remaining in the playoff hunt. 

Here are the five things that come immediately to mind based on the committee's new rankings.

 

SEC is looking at one bid

Forget two bids in the four-team field. The SEC will need to hang on to its one bid, as a two-loss conference champion may very well be shut out of the playoff. Despite being the top-ranked team for three weeks in a row, Mississippi State may be finished with just one loss if it does not win the SEC West because of a weak nonconference schedule.

 

Big Ten is in big trouble

Ohio State's big win over Michigan State is good for the Buckeyes but very bad for their conference. OSU will not be able to play its way into the playoff without help as the committee has a very low regard for the Big Ten. The Buckeyes' best remaining opponent could be Nebraska—if they meet in the B1G title game—and the Huskers are ranked only 16th despite having just one loss.

 

TCU shouldn't get too comfortable

While the Horned Frogs made a celebrated jump into the top four this week, this stay is by no means permanent. Baylor still has a chance to get past TCU as it has better opponents coming up, including the regular-season finale against Kansas State.

Since the two teams share the same foes in 10 of their 11 games against FBS opponents, TCU should root hard for Minnesota, as its victory over the now-ranked Gophers is a far better scalp than Baylor's win over Buffalo.

 

Committee is sending a message about schedule

That Baylor is in its current predicament owes a great deal to its awful nonconference schedule. Conversely, that UCLA is ranked 11th can be traced to its decision to play two power-five opponents in its three OOC games. A third example is Notre Dame, where we learned that while it's good to schedule tough opponents, you'll need to beat them to get credit.

 

Where's group-of-five?

For a second consecutive week, the committee did not bother to put a group-of-five team in the rankings, leaving the access bowl picture very murky. But with the introduction of Minnesota at No. 25, one must wonder if leaving Marshall out at this point makes sense. As a direct comparison, the Herd performed better than the Gophers as they both beat Middle Tennessee at home. Marshall won by 25 (49-24) whereas Minnesota won by 11 (35-24).

 

Explanation of rankings

BCS rankings are a simulation of the BCS formula used from 2004-2013 with two exceptions: The AP poll is used in place of the Harris Poll, and Sagarin and Massey rankings are their native systems instead of the non-MOV version used for the BCS.

CFP mock rankings are published weekly at Bleacher Report, with components including polls, computers, strength of schedule and conference championships. The full rankings are here.

 

Follow on Twitter @ThePlayoffGuru

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Is Ohio State Poised to Make Playoff Spot After Latest CFP Committee Rankings?

The Ohio State Buckeyes are ranked eighth in the latest College Football Playoff rankings. The rest of the season looks promising for the Buckeyes, but will it be enough to get them into the CFP?

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder discuss what would need to happen to get OSU into the playoff. 

Do you think Ohio State will make it?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Twitter Reacts to Week 12 Top 25 Reveal

Between a number of ranked matchups and a stunning Texas A&M upset victory over Auburn, Week 12's edition of the College Football Playoff rankings was due for a serious shakeup.    

Here is an overview of the latest Top 25 from the 12-person selection committee, as the college football hierarchy was revealed in an ESPN telecast Tuesday night:

In preserving its undefeated record, it comes as no surprise that Mississippi State is still the top team in the country.

For the second game in a row, Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston overcame multiple interceptions to lead the team to a 34-20 win over Virginia. That shaky, turnover-prone play had to contribute to FSU's fall to No. 3, as Oregon slid into the second spot on the strength of a win over Utah.

Stewart Mandel of Fox Sports praised the committee for placing the Ducks No. 2:

Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman was rather shocked by the move at the top:

The Tigers are now out of the coveted Top Four following a 41-38 loss to the Aggies at home. Previously sixth-ranked TCU dominated then-No. 7 Kansas State 41-20 to bolster its resume in a big way—enough to get into the Top Four, at that.

Joey Galloway of ESPN offered his take:

TCU's triumph creates considerable convolution in the Big 12, thanks to its prior loss to Baylor, who blew out Oklahoma, 48-14, this weekend.

Much has been made of the Bears' weak non-conference schedule, which Sporting News' Matt Hayes doesn't buy into:

CBS4's Vic Lombardi deployed similar logic with regard to the Baylor-TCU dilemma:

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports raises an interesting point about the Horned Frogs' potential fate:

A reputable Michigan State Spartans defense was shredded by the Ohio State Buckeyes in East Lansing, as QB J.T. Barrett accounted for five total touchdowns in a 49-37 landmark win. That battle for Big Ten superiority gave the Bucks a big boost in their postseason push.

In all likelihood, though, Ohio State will face a conference championship tangle with Nebraska, provided the Cornhuskers win at Wisconsin next week and run the table in the final two games thereafter.

Bleacher Report Buckeyes expert Ben Axelrod alluded to how the Big 12 could impact OSU's playoff chances:

UCLA made a big jump from 18th to 11th in the latest rankings, catalyzed by star signal-caller Brett Hundley's four total TDs in a 44-30 win over Washington. Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times had the last laugh regarding his assertion that the team could still contend:

It will be interesting to see whether the Bruins can defeat USC and Stanford at home to stay in the Pac-12 South hunt, where they trail Arizona State.

The Sun Devils are dangerous, riding a wave of momentum off a 55-31 win over Notre Dame, while the Alabama Crimson Tide are still lurking thanks to a gritty, 20-13 overtime victory against LSU.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports noticed how the committee gravitated to Arizona State, while CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd feels Alabama could jump into the Top Four soon enough:

As can be discerned from the breakdown of all these conferences and the most current standings, there is still so much at stake with mere games remaining. The biggest showdown on tap for Saturday is Mississippi State's trip to Tuscaloosa, where it hopes to knock off Alabama.

ESPN's Mack Brown weighed in on what should be a classic SEC clash:

Few could have forecast Auburn losing, so even the top-tier teams playing perceptibly winnable games aren't safe.

In just the third edition of the College Football Playoff rankings, the committee has rewarded a less-heralded team in TCU by placing the Horned Frogs fourth. With the program in such a great position and so many formidable contenders chasing, this race for the postseason will surely be fascinating down the stretch.

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Hits and Misses of the CFP Committee's Top 25 Poll After Week 11

The College Football Playoff selection committee came out with its third Top 25 ranking Tuesday, and much like with the previous system, there's bound to be debate.

Bleacher Report college football analysts Barrett Sallee and Michael Felder break down the hits and misses from the committee poll.

Which schools do you think deserve to be in the CFP?

Check out the video and let us know!

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College Football Playoff 2014: Final Four Predictions After 3rd Top 25 Rankings

Another week, another shakeup in the College Football Playoff rankings with yet another loss for a top team. Auburn fumbled away a golden chance to make the playoff—twice—and subsequently dropped out of the top four.

In the Tigers' place, TCU moved into the playoff picture for the first time this season. Meanwhile, Mississippi State, Florida State and Oregon all remain in the top four with the Ducks moving up two spots and knocking the Seminoles down a peg.  

Several weeks still lie ahead, so there's no telling how the final rankings will look. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide battle this weekend in a highly critical showdown, and the outcome will have a major impact on the rankings.

Prior to another huge weekend of games, here's a look at the latest College Football Playoff rankings and projections for the final bracket.

 

Analysis

It may not have been billed as a huge matchup prior to the season, but Mississippi State at Alabama already looks like the biggest game of the year.     

Coming into the contest, the Bulldogs are the unanimous No. 1 across all polls and the only undefeated team in the SEC. The Tide roll in after their final road test with a 20-13 win over LSU in overtime, solidifying their place as one of the best in the country.  

Both programs have endured the toughest schedules to this point, as ESPN Stats & Info notes:

Throughout the last several weeks, I've projected that Mississippi State will go in as the No. 4 seed and Bama as No. 2 overall. That's been contingent on this game. Suffice it to say, there's a lot on the line in Tuscaloosa this weekend.

Outside of the SEC, potentially the biggest game is taking place in Coral Gables, Florida. Miami might not come in as a ranked team, but the Hurricanes come in with three straight wins by an average of 24 points.

Florida State enters with an unblemished record but has narrowly escaped games against Notre Dame and Louisville. Miami coach Al Golden still knows taking down the Seminoles will require near perfection, per Christina De Nicola of Fox Sports:

This is obviously a team that's executing at a high level that we're going against that's 25 straight now. That's elite. You've got to execute at a high level, and (it) really doesn't matter whom you grew up with or whom you played high school with. You've got to get the job done, and that's what our guys have to stay focused on this week.

On the West Coast, Oregon has emerged as the class of the Pac-12 after a convincing win over Utah.

The Ducks have taken down some of the top teams this season with one of the best offenses in the country. Scoring the fourth-most points (46 per game) and ranking inside the top 25 in both rushing (22nd) and passing (18th), Oregon has rolled since losing to Arizona.

Kevin McGuire of NBC Sports points out how dominant the Ducks have been against notable defenses:

Marcus Mariota continues to shine under center, combining for 38 total touchdowns and just two interceptions. Even with Pharaoh Brown now out for the season, per Kevin Gemmell of ESPN.com, Mariota's legs along with Byron Marshall and Devon Allen can carry the team.

Unlike some quarterbacks who struggle under pressure, Mariota has been one of the best on the road. Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports notes how well Mariota has played away from Autzen Stadium:

Meanwhile, other teams like TCU and Arizona State loom with hopes of taking one of the final spots. If the Tide, Ducks or Seminoles drop a game, it would leave an opportunity for either of those two programs to step up.

College GameDay passes along a look at the chances for several one-loss teams to win the rest of the way:

The weeks left of the regular season in college football can be counted on one hand, so a lot can change before the playoff.

Even with one loss, it appears Mississippi State might have built a strong enough resume to make the final cut. Having one of the best measuring sticks this weekend in Tuscaloosa, the Bulldogs might also solidify their spot.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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College Football Playoff 2014: Official Selection Committee Rankings for Week 12

Down goes Auburn, and with its fall comes some clarity atop the College Football Playoff rankings. After a week that saw Texas A&M pull off a surprising upset of the third-ranked Tigers and six different matchups between Top 25 teams, we're finally beginning to cross schools out of playoff contention.

Mississippi State, Oregon and Florida State, playoff teams a week ago, stay as such in the latest committee rankings—albeit with one major change. The 9-1 Ducks, despite having a loss, leapfrogged the undefeated Seminoles (9-0) to take the second spot. The question coming into Tuesday night, though, was whether Alabama or TCU would occupy the fourth and final spot.

The Crimson Tide and Horned Frogs each earned impressive wins over ranked opponents, with Alabama needing overtime to take down LSU while TCU went all scorched-earth on Kansas State. In the end, the 12-person committee went with the more impressive victory. TCU was named as the fourth would-be finalist, with Alabama rounding out the Top Five.

Here's a look at how the rest of the Top 25 played out:

Given the number of high-profile games on the schedule, it's no surprise changes abound. Alabama earned its stripes with a hard-fought 20-13 victory over LSU, as the Tide needed multiple big plays to stay alive. Blake Sims, who struggled mightily for most of regulation, led a 55-yard drive in 50 seconds to set up a 27-yard Adam Griffith field goal that sent the game to overtime.

In the extra period, Sims hit DeAndrew White from six yards out to put Alabama ahead for good. The senior finished with 209 yards and two touchdowns but completed only 20 of 45 passes.

"He didn't have one of his better games. It was tough," Alabama coach Nick Saban told reporters. "He hung in there. He made some great plays when he had to...I'm really, really proud of way he hung in there."

TCU's triumph over Kansas State involved much less stress. Trevone Boykin accounted for 342 total yards and four touchdowns as TCU scored the first two touchdowns and never trailed in a 41-20 victory. The Horned Frogs have gone 5-1 in a six-game stretch playing five ranked opponents, with their only loss coming in heartbreaking fashion to Baylor.

The Bears got their own resume-affirming win Saturday, unloading a 48-14 walloping on Oklahoma in Norman. Corey Coleman made 15 receptions for 224 yards and had two touchdowns (one rushing), helping Baylor score the game's final 45 points. It was an exclamation-point loss for Oklahoma, which came into the season with national title hopes and is now 6-3.

Baylor, meanwhile, got the performance everyone has been waiting for. The committee still prefers TCU's overall resume, but it'll be interesting to see how much that head-to-head win for Baylor plays a difference down the stretch. 

"The only thing we can control is to try to win out, be 11-1 and have an opportunity to be (Big 12) co-champions," TCU coach Gary Patterson told Stephen Hawkins of The Associated Press. "Just how we play, and what the general public and the committee think about us when we get done...we've just got to control our own destiny."

Resume affirmation also came for Arizona State and Ohio State, which each have legitimate claims for a Top Five spot. The Buckeyes, who were behind two-loss Ole Miss a week ago, went to East Lansing and earned a 49-37 win over Michigan State that was stronger than the final score indicates. They punted only twice, converting 10 of 14 third downs and putting up 568 yards of total offense.

J.T. Barrett accounted for five touchdowns and 386 total yards, continuing his emergence as one of college football's best quarterbacks.

"I think it is, because I love my team and I don't know enough," Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer told reporters when asked if Ohio State is a playoff team. "I haven't studied the other teams really. If I have to go fight for this team, what they've done—very impressive. That darn loss the second game, if that hurts us, I'll take the hit for that."

The loss to which Meyer refers was against Virginia Tech in Barrett's second game under center. The freshman threw three interceptions and generally looked like a mess, with it appearing that Ohio State's season was already over. Barrett has responded with a rapid improvement, throwing three interceptions total during the Buckeyes' seven-game winning streak.

No improvements under center have been needed for Arizona State, which continues to get sterling performances from its defense. The Sun Devils picked off Notre Dame's Everett Golson four times, returning two for touchdowns in a 55-31 romp. Taylor Kelly added four touchdowns (three passing, one rushing) and D.J. Foster rushed for 120 yards in a strong all-around performance.

A visit to rival Arizona is the only remaining challenge on Arizona State's schedule, leaving open the Pac-12 Championship Game as a potential de facto playoff game. Second-ranked Oregon finishes with relative cakewalks against Colorado and Oregon State, and the Ducks earned more respect from the committee with a 51-27 win over Utah.

Marcus Mariota very likely supplanted Dak Prescott as the Heisman favorite with his third straight game with at least four total touchdowns.

In all, we're down to just 10 teams with zero or one loss and thus a legitimate playoff shot. The most surprising of those is No. 21 Duke, which finishes its regular season with three straight home games against Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Wake Forest. It's possible the Blue Devils are 11-1 heading into an ACC Championship Game matchup with Florida State.   

In other words: Just when you think the college football hierarchy is sussing itself out, things get weird. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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USC Practice Notebook: Cody Kessler vs. Jared Goff, Winning the Turnover Battle

LOS ANGELES — Turnovers will be in limited supply Thursday when USC hosts Cal, assuming the two teams follow season-long trends. 

When a takeaway comes along, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian said it's crucial the Trojans parlay it into points. 

"We need to capitalize on turnovers," he said, speaking after practice Tuesday at Howard Jones-Brian Kennedy Field. "We need to take advantage of maybe creating some short fields for ourselves and then maintaining taking care of the football offensively to make them work their way down the field.

"We can't give an offense like that short fields," Sarkisian added. 

The Trojans coach cited USC's plus-nine turnover margin to Cal's even ratio. In terms of actually giving up the ball, however, the two teams have been considerably more comparable. 

Cal ranks No. 38 in the Football Bowl Subdivision with just 13 turnovers lost. USC is even better, having given away just eight possessions to rank sixth nationally. 

Both can thank the steady play of their quarterbacks. USC's Cody Kessler and Cal's Jared Goff are among the most prolific scorers in the nation with 25 and 27 touchdown passes apiece, respectively, but their lofty numbers are not the result of high-risk, high-reward mentalities. 

As good as each is at getting his team in the end zone, both Kessler and Goff are equally adept at maintaining their squad's possessions.  

Goff has thrown just four interceptions in 372 attempts—one every 93 passes. Kessler has been picked off twice in 297 passes, or once every 148.5 attempts. 

Cal head coach Sonny Dykes credited Goff's improved ball protection to the Golden Bears starting stronger this season than in the quarterback's freshman campaign when he threw 10 interceptions.

"The biggest thing is his comfort level and the understanding of the offense," Dykes said. "He has a better anticipation, a better sense for what's going on.

"The most important attribute that good quarterbacks have is confidence," Dykes added. "He's starting to play with a lot of confidence."  

In turn, the Golden Bears in general are more confident, and the result is a 41.9 point-per-game average. 

Sarkisian's taken notice. He said the Trojans must score at least 35 points to win. 

That's a number USC has hit in three of its last four wins. And in those three victories, Kessler has a remarkable 14 touchdown passes with no interceptions. 

In his last outing against Washington State, Kessler went 21-of-32 for 400 yards and five scores. That got the attention of Cougars head coach Mike Leach, who commented on Kessler's play Tuesday on the coaches teleconference. 

"He doesn't take any chances. That's the biggest thing," Leach said of Kessler. "They do a lot of things to make sure he's successful."  

Those "things," according to Leach, include using play-action fakes to "bait" defenders, then "he does a good job throwing to the open man." 

It's a very simple formula, albeit one that could dictate the outcome of Thursday's game. 

 

To Blitz or Not to Blitz  

Don't expect USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to call for many blitzes against Cal. The Trojans have run the fewest blitzes of any team in the power-five conferences. 

More specifically, USC's two games with the lowest percentage of blitzes called, per USCFootball.com's Ryan Abraham, were against Boston College and Washington State. 

Cal's offense bears similarities to that of Washington State, as Dykes is a branch off the Leach coaching tree. Dykes also uses backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer for zone-read plays in the same vein as Boston College's Tyler Murphy.

According to Sarkisian, that's unlikely to change based on what he described as play-calling to the team's strengths. 

"We've got a really good front seven," Sarkisian said. "We take pride in our front four and what they can do. Also, we understand that we have some youth in the secondary. We need to take care of those guys to make sure we're minimizing the big [pass] play." 

Minimize those plays the Trojans have. Opponents have completed 22 passes of 20 yards or more against USC, 20th best in the nation. The Trojans have allowed just five pass plays of 30 yards or more, which ties Alabama for third best in the country.  

Conversely, Cal is one of the best teams in the FBS at producing explosive pass plays. One reason, according to Dykes, is Goff's ability to turn blitzing situations into opportunities. 

While USC's limited blitzing is a safeguard against the pass, Sarkisian does not see it negatively impacting the Trojans' run defense. 

"Even though we haven't blitzed as much, our run numbers have been fantastic," Sarkisian said. USC is allowing 138.4 rushing yards per game and just four yards an attempt. "We haven't had to devote an extra defender to the box, which in turn has helped us in our pass coverage." 

 

Lobendahn Holding Off Walker at Tackle 

Aundrey Walker initially filled in at left tackle for starter Chad Wheeler, who tore his ACL in the Oct. 25 loss at Utah. 

Sarkisian hinted Walker would remain in the position, but freshman Toa Lobendahn moved from the interior to left tackle in the week before the Trojans faced Washington State. 

"Toa beat him out," Sarkisian said. "We're going to play the best players that give us the best opportunity to be successful, and that's what happened." 

 

Injuries and Energy After Bye Week 

Sarkisian said on his Nov. 2 conference call that USC's bye week "couldn't come at a better time."

The Trojans used their additional week leading up to Thursday's game to recuperate from the collective injuries that piled up throughout Pac-12 play, and the strategy should pay off.

Linebacker-safety hybrid Su'a Cravens will be in the lineup after suffering a knee injury at Washington State.

On Tuesday, Sarkisian said fullback Soma Vainuku was looking good. Freshman defensive back John Plattenburg is day-to-day with a thigh bruise. 

In addition to healing, the bye week afforded USC an opportunity to re-energize. Sarkisian said he has seen that manifest in practices, which resumed on Saturday.  

"This is our Thursday...for a 'Thursday' practice, I thought our energy was fantastic," he said. "I had to tell them to slow down, which is a great place to be. [It] means we're energized and fresh. They're in tune to the details of the game plan, and Thursday night, we're going to put it all together."  

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics via CFBstats.com

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USC Practice Notebook: Cody Kessler vs. Jared Goff, Winning the Turnover Battle

LOS ANGELES — Turnovers will be in limited supply Thursday when USC hosts Cal, assuming the two teams follow season-long trends...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

2015 Wide Receiver Recruits Who Are Matchup Nightmares

Collegiate offenses rely on field-stretching wide receivers to enhance vertical efforts and exploit pass defenders dealing with a heightened prevalence of penalties. These elite pass-catchers can make the difference between an average downfield attack and one capable of routinely taking the top off of defenses. 

We continue to see premier prospects become effective weapons as freshmen—2014 5-star recruit KD Cannon has 38 receptions for 731 yards this season—so members of this recruiting cycle are destined to make an impact as early as next fall. 

Here's a look at several young receivers capable of creating matchup issues for opponents throughout their college careers. Each will be counted on to elevate offenses at the next level.

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Former LSU Player Explains Why Tigers Defense Is the Future in Baton Rouge

The LSU Tigers have had an up-and-down season. Their heartbreaking loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide all but crushed their hopes for the College Football Playoff. But hope still remains in Baton Rouge. 

Bleacher Report's Stephen Nelson is joined by T-Bob Hebert to discuss the young Tigers on defense.

Which young defender has played the best this season?

Check out the video, and let us know!  

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

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