With the 2014 regular season now in its final month, it's time to reflect on what the Tennessee Volunteers have done statistically so far to get a good idea of how the team will finish down the stretch.
The Vols have been up and down this season. For the first half of the year, Tennessee's defense appeared to be a strength, while the offense was a liability.
But in recent weeks, the roles seem to have reversed, with opposing offenses torching the Vols and Tennessee's own offense showing flashes of brilliance under the command of sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Of course, the biggest question on the minds of everyone associated with Tennessee football—from fans to players to coaches—is what the Vols need to do to make a bowl.
With so much statistical data available through nine games, it's much easier to get a read on both the Vols and their remaining opponents at this point in the season.
Here are five telling stats that could play a huge role in Tennessee's chances to win out and earn a bowl berth for the first time since 2010.
The 2014 college football season feels like it started just yesterday. On Saturday, though, LSU will have its senior night against Alabama.
Yeah, things go by quickly.
If LSU is going to shake up the SEC West standings and have so much as an outside shot at the divisional title, it needs to rely on a pair of senior running backs, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, to step up.
Combined, the two are 449 pounds of downhill running destruction, just like the Tigers offense likes. LSU doesn't do a lot of complicated things on offense; to the contrary, the more LSU can run it down a defense's throat, the better.
It's also partially because LSU's offense is, by and large, young, as Chris Low of ESPN.com notes:
Their starting quarterback, Anthony Jennings, is a true sophomore. His backup, Brandon Harris, is a true freshman. Their leading rusher, Leonard Fournette, is a true freshman. Their leading receiver, Travin Dural, is a redshirt sophomore, and the two guys behind him, Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre, are true freshmen. In fact, true freshmen have accounted for 23 of LSU's 36 offensive touchdowns. The Tigers have played 17 true freshmen through the first nine weeks, the most of the Miles era.
Though neither senior leads the team in rushing yards—Fournette has 657 yards and seven touchdowns—Hilliard and Magee average at least five yards per carry.
Those numbers will be tested against Alabama's stout rushing defense, which gives up fewer than three yards per carry and has allowed just two touchdowns on the ground.
The Tide are nearly a full touchdown favorite, according to OddsShark.com, even though the game is being played at night in Death Valley, which usually counts for something. As B/R colleague Barrett Sallee correctly wrote earlier this week, LSU isn't going to be able to outlast Alabama and its defensive front seven if quarterback Anthony Jennings doesn't play well.
And Jennings' numbers on the year—50 percent completions percentage, 1,190 passing yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions—don't indicate there's going to be a sudden change overnight.
However, Jennings doesn't have to be a hero; no one expects him to be one anyway. But the only way Jennings has the chance to be competent is if the Tigers ground game works. It's not going to surprise anyone—well, not unless head coach Les Miles pulls a signature trick play—but it has to work all the same.
LSU has the depth at running back to keep fresh legs churning all game long. Provided the score isn't out of hand, the Tigers don't have to abandon that game plan, even if they're losing. Fournette can still be the leading rusher, but Magee and Hilliard need to have big roles as well.
If nothing else, these are two veteran players who have seen it all. These are the types of games in which those veterans take control.
It's a tough matchup, to be sure, but a good ground game is LSU's best chance to control the line of scrimmage, win field position and wear down Alabama's defense. If past games are any indication, it'll be a close game until the end. Regular-season games between Miles and Alabama coach Nick Saban have been close, with the exception of last year's 38-17 win by the Tide.
"You look back on these games and they have all been that style of game, a last drive or a last half of the game or last quarter the game's decided," Miles said, via Andrew Gribble of AL.com. "You plan on playing four quarters in this game, for sure."
LSU appears to have found its identity on offense, even if it's not by choice necessarily. Miles' team knows, though, that there's no way around Alabama's defense; it just has to go through it. The good thing for LSU is that that's what it does best.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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With just under a month remaining in conference play, the SEC title race is still up for grabs.
In the East, a surprising loss by Georgia last weekend has helped the Florida Gators make the division a three-dog race. In the West, several key divisional matchups can either clear up the title race or fog it up further.
There’s a good chance both divisions won’t be settled until the final weekend of the regular season.
But why wait till then? Join B/R as we take a stab at predicting the final standings for both the SEC East and SEC West.
Ready or not, here comes Nyles Morgan. Notre Dame's freshman middle linebacker, just months after being one of the crown jewels of the Irish's 2014 recruiting class, holds the key to beating Arizona State this weekend.
After spending most of his freshman season playing special teams, Morgan will now be thrust into the middle of the Irish defense. After senior Joe Schmidt's ankle injury ended his season, the former blue-chip recruit's bright future will get a test earlier than many expected.
"Look, Nyles has been here 12 weeks. He's had 12 weeks of coaching, and Coach VanGorder is extremely confident in Nyles' ability to go in there and play," head coach Brian Kelly said on Tuesday. "We think we've got a guy that can go in there. His traits are pretty clear. He's extremely athletic. We'll put him in a position where he can help us win a football game on Saturday."
Morgan's week has been a crash course in football. That comes on the heels of some tough coaching that wasn't exactly for the faint of heart.
"He's been unbelievable. We have been so hard on him," Kelly said. "I think we said to him about three weeks in, you're either going to quit or you're going to be one of the best players that's ever played here, because we're hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more, and that's the kind of kid he is."
Morgan displayed that same type of resilience this week. With a game plan installed for one of the most difficult offenses on Notre Dame's schedule, Morgan has been up to the task. So much so that Kelly said Morgan was going to continue handling the play-calling duties Schmidt managed from the middle linebacker spot.
"Nyles handled pretty much all of the communication. He did a great job this week, and he’ll be the guy making the calls out there," Kelly said Thursday evening.
"He had a really good week, and he’s extremely confident. Look, he’s not gonna be perfect. Certainly there’s gonna be a hiccup here or there, but he’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and I think he had an excellent week."
Transitioning that success from the practice field to Sun Devil Stadium will now be the biggest question. And while Morgan flashed some great moments against Navy's triple option, he'll go from the demands of Ken Niumatalolo's offense to those of 32-year-old rising star Mike Norvell, the brain behind Arizona State's attack.
Last year, the Irish defense harassed Taylor Kelly, sacking him six times and intercepting him twice (one a pick-six by inside linebacker Dan Fox that sealed the victory) in a 37-34 win. This season, after playing scheme-heavy football under the guidance of Brian VanGorder, don't expect the Irish to dumb things down on Morgan's account.
"We have not simplified what we’re doing. I don’t think you can go into a game like this against that offense and play vanilla," Kelly said. "If you do, it’s gonna be a long day. They’re just too good. They have a ton of answers. We have to be who we are. We would not have gone down this road unless we thought Nyles was capable of doing the job. We have great confidence."
That confidence comes from knowing the type of athlete the Irish now have on the field at middle linebacker. While Schmidt has been the MVP of this defense and its leading tackler, Morgan has physical abilities that the senior linebacker can't match.
Paired with Jaylon Smith on the inside, the Irish have two linebackers to match up with one of the Pac-12's most dynamic offenses. Throw in converted wide receiver James Onwualu and the Irish defense won't get beat because they're shy on athletes.
After relying on Schmidt's football IQ to not just put him in the right place but also many of his teammates, expect VanGorder to use the middle linebacker differently. And with Smith capable of utilizing his blazing speed to make up for some of Morgan's mistakes, expect VanGorder to turn his freshman linebacker into a destroyer—leaving the nuance to his teammates, while Morgan does his best to wreak havoc.
After seeing Schmidt's limitations in the blitz game, Morgan could help a pass rush that's sitting 85th in the country in sacks.
"There's some things that we know that we can't do with Nyles that Joe could do, but I know Coach VanGorder is pretty excited about some of the things that he couldn't do with Joe that he can do with Nyles this week," Kelly said.
Saturday afternoon, the future will merge with the present at middle linebacker. And if the Irish want to continue their pursuit of a spot in the College Football Playoff, they'll need Morgan to be up to the challenge.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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Heading into a critical showdown with Arizona State on Saturday, Notre Dame's defense will get a boost with the return of safety Eilar Hardy.
According to Notre Dame director of football media relations Michael Bertsch, the NCAA has ruled Hardy eligible:
Hardy has yet to play in a game this season. He was one of five Notre Dame football players implicated for academic fraud in August. The senior safety was invited back to the roster in October, and head coach Brian Kelly said there was still work to do before Hardy would be allowed to play, per Sam Cooper of Yahoo Sports:
I met with Eilar, we have some work to do in terms of some of his academic work he’s working on right now in terms of trying to get that organized. But if we're able to get some of those things organized, we’re going to bring him back to practice after we get back from the bye.
The NCAA made its ruling, and Hardy will be back with the team for the rest of the season. The Fighting Irish are currently ranked 10th in the College Football Playoff standings.
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