NCAA Football

SEC in Danger of Playing Itself out of Playoff Picture

In the rough-and-tumble SEC, the risk of teams cannibalizing each other exists more than in any other division in college football.

That's exactly what's happening this season, and it could cost the conference the coveted second spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

The latest team to go down is the one that had the clearest path. Auburn held down the No. 3 spot in the playoff rankings during their first two weeks of its existence, and with games on the road against Georgia and Alabama left on the schedule, the committee would be hard-pressed to keep the Tigers out if were to win both games. 

Committee chairman Jeff Long specifically stated that they don't bring the previous week's rankings into meetings, but they'd still likely find the same conclusion, and Auburn's resume would surely be boosted by road wins over Georgia and Alabama.

Instead, it was unranked Texas A&M that threw a wrench in the works.

The Aggies topped Auburn 41-38 on Saturday afternoon in a wild game on The Plains that saw the Tigers claw back from a 35-17 halftime deficit only to fumble away the game twice in the final two minutes.

The Tiger meltdown came one week after Georgia got tossed out of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, when Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones served not only as running backs but bouncers.

As it stands, there are only two teams in the SEC with fewer than two losses—No. 1 Mississippi State (9-0) and No. 3 Alabama (8-1). Conveniently, the two will square off in T-Town this weekend in what will serve as an elimination game for the Tide and a statement game for the Bulldogs.

Unless some really strange dominoes fall between now and early December, those are the only two SEC teams with realistic playoff hopes. At most, only one will get in. Yes, even if Mississippi State loses to Alabama and finishes the season with that one loss without playing in the SEC Championship Game.

One of the primary points of emphasis in the selection committee's methodology is conference championships, and as SEC teams have fallen out of contention, teams with conference title hopes have moved into the playoff neighborhood.

"Let me remind you, and I will say this each and every week: Conference championships won will be an additional factor, but of course we won't have that information until December," Long said on Tuesday according to ASAPSports.com.

While the SEC is busy beating itself up, top contenders from around the country—including defending champ Florida State—are boosting their playoff resumes.

TCU looks like the real deal after throttling Kansas State 41-20 in Fort Worth. Quarterback Trevone Boykin has jumped into the thick of the Heisman Trophy race in the nation's third-best offense (550.3 YPG). Baylor's out-of-conference schedule is a joke, but the Bears did just work over Oklahoma 48-14 at their place and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Horned Frogs.

The road for both Big 12 contenders is relatively easy, and if one runs the table and holds the Big 12 title, it will play well with the committee.

Oregon seems to have solved its offensive line issues and boasts the Heisman Trophy front-runner in Marcus Mariota. Between Oregon and Arizona State—which beat Notre Dame 55-31 in Tempe—one will likely run the table and claim the Pac-12 title.

Quietly, Ohio State has been steadily improving and looked like a power on the road in a 49-37 win at Michigan State. Head coach Urban Meyer's crew should win out now that quarterback J.T. Barrett has settled into the quarterback role and will be an attractive option if it holds the Big Ten title.

There's a doomsday scenario on the horizon for the SEC.

What happens if the cannibalization continues with an Alabama win over Mississippi State, a Crimson Tide loss to Auburn and Ole Miss winning the Egg Bowl over Mississippi State? All of the West contenders would have two losses, and the champ would be fighting an uphill battle for the playoff in a scenario that isn't very far-fetched.

Even if that specific scenario doesn't play out, an SEC Championship Game upset could spell disaster, as Todd Fuhrman and Joel Klatt of Fox Sports 1 noted:

Two teams in the College Football Playoff?

That seemed like a pipe dream before. and as teams have played their way out of it this season, it's more of one now.

The SEC should just worry about getting one in. That should be good enough.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Michigan Football: Wolverines Run D the MVP of 2014 Season

There is no debate—Greg Mattison’s run defense is, by far, Michigan’s most valuable asset.

And as usual, it anchored Saturday during Team 135’s 10-9 road win over Northwestern.

On a day when the Wolverines offense was wildly and typically inconsistent, and not to mention in need of more help than ever, Mattison’s running-back-stoppers clogged enough holes, filled enough gaps and made enough tackles to hold the Wildcats to minus-nine rushing yards.

And that includes production from star freshman Justin Jackson, who entered the game with a team-high 726 yards and five touchdowns but managed just 35 yards and zero scores when facing the likes of Jake Ryan, Joe Bolden, Matt Godin, Frank Clark and Brennen Beyer.

That’s just naming a few.

Mattison’s band of All-Stars certainly deserves praise after shutting down another hyped Big Ten ball-carrier. Perfection is nearly impossible to attain; but the defensive coordinator’s play-calling and personnel have been close enough, despite being gouged by Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford (177) and Minnesota’s David Cobb (183).

Indiana’s Tevin Coleman grabbed 108 yards that didn’t matter on homecoming. He didn’t score, either.

Again, another back denied.

For the second consecutive year, Mattison’s total defense is among the top 15 in the country. In 2013, it was No. 13. Right now, it’s No. 7 overall and has the No. 9-ranked rushing defense, allowing a paltry 2.82 yards per attempt and seven touchdowns.

And think about those touchdowns—Langford had three of them and Appalachian State’s Marcus Cox had one in the opener, leaving three dispersed among eight other opponents.

 

Individual Strengths/Weaknesses

OK, so the Wolverines have done all of this while playing the No. 66-ranked schedule (SOS), per Team Rankings.

That could be the lone counterpoint, but the players don’t make the schedules—they just have to stop the guy they’re slated to face on Saturday, and Team 135 has accomplished that feat without issue and against a league ripe with talented runners.

The Wolverines do a great job by targeting the ball-carrier—meaning that linebackers and linemen quickly shift to the guy with the ball. Makes sense, right? That said, other than Cobb and Langford, there aren’t many examples of guys just outrunning or running through Michigan.

Even Langford, one of the best in the B1G, wasn’t casually strolling through Mattison’s D-line and linebackers—he’d bounce off a guy or two while picking up a few yards, but his bread and butter has always been the knockout blow: through the tackle, right up the seam.

That said, big plays in general have been Mattison’s downfall. His secondary hasn’t played up to expectations. However, the run D has more than compensated.

Ryan’s 14 tackles for a loss have him at No. 6 in the league; his 90 tackles are No. 5 overall. Plus there’s Joe Bolden, who’s right behind Ryan with 79 tackles, good for No. 13.

The pair of linebackers has abruptly halted nearly every back who’s dared to challenge. And as mentioned earlier, Clark and Godin have visited the backfield quite often lately—their havoc-laced shifts of obstruction have forced backs into making poor decisions, leading them into swarms of winged hats at every turn.

 

Road Ahead

The Wolverines are on another bye before colliding Nov. 22 with Maryland. Then it's on to the dreaded season finale versus Ohio State, which crushed the Spartans 49-37 on Saturday night in East Lansing. A loss twice that lurks around the corner. 

But back to the task at hand, which is taking a look at the two top remaining backs: The Terps' C.J. Brown, who is actually the quarterback and leading rusher (380 yards) and the Buckeyes' Ezekiel Elliott, who cruised for 154 yards and two touchdowns against Pat Narduzzi's ironclad Spartans D. 

Brown probably won't be an issue in Ann Arbor. And really, it's not a good idea for quarterbacks to run against the Wolverines. Indiana's Zander Diamont could attest to that. 

Elliott, though, is a problem.

And since it's Ohio State versus Michigan in Columbus, he'll probably be in overdrive. Whether he rips Michigan like Cobb and Langford remains to be seen. But it'll be decided once an MVP-caliber RB and MVP-caliber run D collide at The Shoe. 

Knock the offense if you’d like. Tear down the running game. Talk about the lack of receivers and poor play from the quarterback. But remember the one reason why Michigan is in position to go bowling: Mattison’s run defense.

 

Follow Bleacher Report’s Michigan Wolverines football writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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College Football Playoff 2014: Latest NCAA Predictions After Week 11 Standings

Every week in the college football season affects the projections for the playoff, but no set of games have been bigger this year than Week 12.

With six games between teams ranked in the top 20 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, there was clearly a lot on the line coming into Saturday. Those that came through are now one step closer to reaching the goal of competing for a national title.

Of course, there is still a lot of season left to be played with important matchups between top teams coming up over the next few weeks. Keeping the rest of the year in mind as well as the latest games, here are predictions for the four teams left standings.

 

College Football Playoff Predictions

1. Florida State

Florida State does not deserve to be the top team in the nation at the moment, and they will likely not be too much more impressive by the end of the year. However, it seems like an almost certainty the squad will remain undefeated at this point, which in a major conference is enough for a ticket to the College Football Playoff.

The Seminoles' best win of the year came at home against Notre Dame, and only after a disputed call in the closing seconds. ESPN's Colin Cowherd explained why this win is not even all that impressive anymore:

Arizona State destroyed the Irish Saturday with a 55-31 victory that makes Florida State's schedule look even worse.

Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk also broke down how the team rates statistically compared to others around the nation:

Despite all this, the squad is good enough to beat Miami, Boston College and Florida, as well as whoever it plays in the ACC Championship Game. With the SEC likely to beat each other up, the Seminoles will be sitting alone on top of the rankings.

 

2. Alabama

If the season ended today, there is no question Mississippi State would represent the SEC in the playoff while Alabama would also likely get a bid. However, there are still a bunch of tough games remaining on the schedule for each squad.

Mississippi State has to go on the road to face both Alabama and Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. One slip could be enough to ruin the team's chances of a national title.

On the other hand, Alabama fans had been upset about the team's low ranking, but there will still be chances to prove itself. As CBS Sports noted, it did that Saturday:

The Crimson Tide have played their final true road game of the year and now have home games against Auburn and Mississippi State. Considering how much better Alabama is at home (remember that 59-0 win over Texas A&M?), this team should be able to win out.

If this does indeed happen, there will be no argument against Nick Saban's squad being the best one-loss team in the nation.

 

3. Oregon

We will never know what would have happened if Utah had gone up 14-0 in this game, which is what should have happened if Kaelin Clay did not drop the ball at the 1-yard line before celebrating a touchdown, which resulted in a 99-yard touchdown return for Oregon.

Instead of having a two-touchdown lead at home, Utah ended up tied at 7-7 with the Ducks remaining in the game.

Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated explained the rest:

Oregon clearly has one of the most talented teams in the nation with an explosive offense led by Marcus Mariota. While the team struggles at times, it usually still finds a way to blow out opponents.

Most importantly, the Ducks knocked off what appeared to be the toughest remaining regular-season game on the schedule. Colorado and Oregon State have a combined 1-12 record in the Pac-12 and should not be too much trouble.

A potential conference-title game against Arizona State could be a difficult matchup for Oregon, but a win will be enough to put this team into the playoffs.

 

4. TCU

Although many college football fans would prefer to see more traditional teams in the College Football Playoff, it will be hard to keep TCU out after what they have done this season.

Trevone Boykin has led one of the best offenses in the nation all year and recently dominated a very good opponent in Kansas State. The only loss on the year came in a 61-58 shootout against Baylor, which also has only one loss but a much weaker overall resume.

Head coach Gary Patterson was asked after his latest win whether he felt he needed to justify the team's ranking over Baylor:

No. It was at their place, we were up 21 points, and it was a three-point ball game. I don’t have a problem. I think Baylor is a really good football team. But I also know Minnesota is now 7-2, and they just beat Iowa. I thought Baylor did a great job [at Oklahoma]. 

I don’t see any of the games [the Bears] have left would mean any more than the games we have.

TCU has as respectable of a loss as anyone in the country while also adding a number of quality wins. With games against Kansas and Iowa State on the schedule, arguably the only tough obstacle remaining is a road game against Texas.

Based on what we have seen so far with this squad, there is no reason to believe the Horned Frogs will not keep winning and play their way into the playoff.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Heisman Watch 2014: Breaking Down Race Front-Runners After Week 11

Week 11 was nowhere near as catastrophic as most would have guessed when it comes to the inaugural College Football Playoff, but the same cannot be said of the 2014 Heisman Trophy race.

Fans should understand that this is nothing but a good thing, though.

While last year's winner, Florida State's Jameis Winston, flounders as his team wins, a player who reminds many of Tim Tebow, an unheralded quarterback from an unheralded program and even a wide receiver are making serious claims as reputable candidates.

With Week 11 in the books, the 2014 Heisman watch needs to be updated, to say the least.

 

Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State

Many will point out that Mississippi State's Dak Prescott got to beat up on a cupcake in the form of Tennessee-Martin this past weekend, but that should not diminish his accomplishments to date provided he does not make the schedule.

Besides, there is something to be said for a player simply taking care of business—which he did en route to a 45-16 win thanks to 206 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns to go with another six carries for 54 yards and a score.

As SEC Network notes, Prescott made school history in the process:

For now, Prescott remains at the top of the watch. Wins against LSU, Texas A&M and LSU, among others, can attest to that.

Of course, the outlook could change dramatically next weekend after Prescott's Bulldogs visit the Alabama Crimson Tide.

 

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon

Many were ready to crown Marcus Mariota as the Heisman winner after he finally got over the hump with a 45-16 triumph against Stanford. Really, though, a much better test came this past weekend against Utah.

Feel free to crown the man.

Against one of the best defenses in the nation on the road, Mariota was his usual self. He threw for 239 yards and a trio of touchdowns while coming alive as a runner (114 yards and a score) against a defense that entered the game leading the nation in sacks.

What makes Mariota so impressive and a heavyweight in the race, other than his 29-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio, is the woeful state of the roster around him.

This is not some typical Oregon unit. Injuries have plagued the roster all year, especially in the offensive trenches. According to NFL.com's Bryan Fischer, Saturday saw three more critical pieces leave with notable injuries.

Amid the chaos, Mariota continues to shine and win. A Pac-12 title game and a whole lot more may await.

 

Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama

If a non-quarterback is going to take the Heisman this year, it is a lock to be Alabama wideout Amari Cooper. The more he plays, the more this thought process applies to the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft, too.

The numbers speak for themselves. His entire body of work this season, including his clutch role in the Crimson Tide escaping Death Valley Saturday with CFP aspirations intact, is overwhelming:

It should come as no surprise, then, that Cooper set a record in the process:

It also isn't surprising that many, including radio host Adam Schein, are counting the days until Cooper hits the pros:

Look at it this way: The Crimson Tide have 2,531 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns this season. Cooper accounts for 1,215 and 10 of those, respectively.

To say another player is more important to his team this season would prove quite difficult. Encounters with Mississippi State, Auburn and more will be nice ways for Cooper to pad his resume in the coming weeks.

 

Trevone Boykin, QB, TCU

Most may prefer any number of names to TCU's Trevone Boykin, but few will actually be able to argue against his impressive resume at this point.

Boykin has done incredible damage on his own this season, amassing 2,691 yards and 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions through the air. One of the nation's best dual-threat quarterbacks also has 546 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

Not bad for a player who has had many critics in his ear telling him to switch positions.

"For two years people have been telling him he can't play quarterback and we'd never win," TCU coach Gary Patterson told reporters. "He's like anybody else I know with fire in him. They're going to try to prove people wrong."

Boykin is much more than a statistical warhorse, too.

Look at Week 11—tasked with overcoming an elite Kansas State defense that had previously limited Auburn's potent attack to 21 points, the junior led the Horned Frogs to a 41-20 blowout win by way of 219 yards and a score through the air as well as 123 yards and three scores on the ground.

With a Big 12 title and perhaps much more in sight, Boykin is quite difficult to ignore in favor of bigger names.

 

Honorable Mentions

 

Stats and information via ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.

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How Far Will College Football Playoff Committee Move Ohio State Up the Rankings?

The whole "separation Saturday" thing can be overdone, but Week 11 of the college football season did provide some clarity as far as the playoff picture is concerned.

Notre Dame, Auburn and Kansas State? More than likely out, barring all sorts of chaos over the next several weeks. Ohio State? Come on down. 

The Buckeyes had one of the statement wins Saturday by beating Michigan State 49-37 in East Lansing. It wasn't the low-scoring defensive struggle the series has produced as of late, but it showed just how far Ohio State's offense has come since the Virginia Tech loss in September.

Ohio State had 568 yards of total offense, closing in on nearly double what the Spartans allow per game. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, starting the season over the injured Braxton Miller, has grown up right in front of everyone's eyes. Barrett accounted for 386 of those yards and five touchdowns. 

The offensive line is playing well as a group, and the skill players, from running back Ezekiel Elliott to receiver Devin Smith, have established their roles. The way this offense has come together over the past two months has been one of the great turnaround stories. The softer part of the Buckeyes' schedule allowed this team to quietly improve and build confidence before showing up against Michigan State.

Couple that offense with an already formidable defensive line, and Ohio State is becoming the team no one wants to play. 

Now, the question is what happens from here. Where does the playoff selection committee place Ohio State when it releases its new rankings this week? (The Associated Press and Amway coaches polls will be released Sunday afternoon, but those hardly matter.)

For what it's worth, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit has Ohio State as one of his two "next in" if the playoff field were to be formed today. 

That would mean Ohio State, in one person's eyes, jumped up about eight or nine spots from its No. 14 spot a week ago. (Herbstreit is not part of the committee.) Though the committee has released only two sets of rankings, it has already shown a willingness to reward teams for big wins. After Week 10, Arizona State was ranked 14th. After an overtime win against Utah, the Sun Devils jumped up five spots to No. 9.

What Ohio State did to Michigan State was far more convincing. At the very least, one would think the Buckeyes would come in higher than No. 8, where Michigan State was ranked coming into the weekend. 

This is all guesswork, though, and head coach Urban Meyer doesn't want to deal with it at the moment. 

"Oh, I don't know enough," Meyer said via Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports. "I like my team ... if I have to go fight for this team for what they've done …"

Then he will, but the time for lobbying isn't quite here yet. Meyer and his team are going to enjoy their first win over a Top 15 opponent since he arrived in Columbus; everyone else can and will stir up the conversation about what it all means. 

For that matter, all of this means nothing if Ohio State doesn't take care of its business going forward. The Buckeyes are rewarded for their win over the Spartans by traveling to Minnesota next week. The Gophers, tied atop the Big Ten West standings, have been one of the pleasant surprises this season. 

But if Ohio State is in a position to get a playoff spot at year's end, it becomes an intriguing case study in how much stock, if any, the committee places on a team's improvement. There shouldn't be any doubt at this point that the Buckeyes are dramatically better than they were in early September.

If the committee really is concerned about putting together a field of the four "best" teams, as it's said all along, then Ohio State has to be a contender based on how it has played, right? Any team wants to be playing its best football at season's end. 

The Virginia Tech loss does weigh heavily. The Hokies have gone belly up since winning in the Horseshoe, needing two wins in their final three games just to be bowl eligible. However, Ohio State can't control what Virginia Tech does. It can only control how much it gets better, and it has done more than enough to show that it has. 

That has to count for something. How much will be revealed later this week. This much is true, though: Ohio State is in the conversation. Heading into Week 12, that's a good place to be.

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com

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NCAA Football Rankings 2014: Week 12 Standings for College's Top 25 Teams

While only four teams officially make the College Football Playoff, every game at this point of the season could be considered an eliminator.

Week 12 had six games between teams ranked in the Top 20 of the latest committee rankings, and each of them had a major effect on the national landscape. Meanwhile, the biggest result was not even one of these, as No. 3 Auburn was upset at home by unranked Texas A&M.

Add this to disappointing losses by Michigan State, Kansas State, Notre Dame and others, and it is clear the playoffs are wide open. The question is which teams can make a move in the coming weeks.

Here is a look at how each team fared based on the Week 11 standings and a complete breakdown of the weekend.

 

Breakdown

A number of battles between highly ranked opponents made Saturday one of the best days of college football all season.

One of the better games of the night came between two teams familiar with the spotlight: Alabama and LSU. Unsurprisingly with these two programs, it was a low-scoring battle with defense making big plays all day. 

The Crimson Tide seemed done after a fumble deep inside their own territory in the closing minutes with the score tied 10-10. However, the defense held the Tigers to a field goal and Blake Sims led a drive for a game-tying field goal to send it into overtime, where Alabama came through with a 20-13 win.

Paul Finebaum of ESPN made a bold statement after the victory:

This was still not the biggest result in the SEC West, as Auburn could not come through with a win at home against Texas A&M. The Aggies got out to an 18-point lead at halftime, which the Tigers almost erased before putting themselves in great position for a go-ahead score.

However, SportsCenter described the Tigers' problems:

Fumbles on a handoff and then on the snap in the final minutes ruined any chance for Auburn to come back in the game and likely knocked the squad out of the playoff discussion.

Things went much better for a pair of Big 12 teams that did not leave anything to luck. Both TCU and Baylor had huge wins, beating Kansas State and Oklahoma, respectively.

These teams have two of the most explosive offenses in the nation, while their defenses also showed up big against quality opponents. The argument now continues whether a head-to-head win for Baylor is better than TCU's better resume.

Interestingly, Stewart Mandel of Sports Illustrated believes both teams could have benefited from the day's action:

It is an unlikely scenario, but these squads are clearly playing as well as anyone in the country.

In the Big Ten, it was widely assumed that Michigan State would be the only team capable of competing for a playoff, but Ohio State reminded everyone how good they can be with a 49-37 win in East Lansing.

Quarterback J.T. Barrett is no longer simply "filling in" for an injured Braxton Miller, as he is showing he is one of the best in the nation at his position. He threw three touchdown passes, rushed for two more and earned a Total QBR of 95.8 out of 100.

"This is one for the ages—that's how much respect we have for our opponent," Ohio State coach Urban Meyersaid to reporters after the game. "We played a top-10 team and really played our best—on the road."

It will take a lot of help to get the Buckeyes into the playoffs, but Michigan State is likely out of the picture after its loss. 

The Pac-12 also earned a quality win, as Arizona State proved it is a real contender with a win over Notre Dame. Everett Golson committed five turnovers in the loss, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns.

Dan Wolken of USA Today explained the impact of this battle:

In addition to helping the Sun Devils' resume, it also helped bring more legitimacy to the Pac-12 with a great nonconference win.

This is good news for Oregon as well, which improved its record to 9-1 with a road win over Utah. Marcus Mariota was great once again with 114 rushing yards and a touchdown to go with a three-touchdown performance through the air. He continues to boost his Heisman bid while also doing everything he can to help the Ducks win.

Oregon will likely earn a spot in the College Football Playoffs if it wins out, but fans need to be ready for what could be an exciting battle in the Pac-12 Championship Game against Arizona State.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Welcoming Urban Meyer and the New Ohio State Back to the Big Time

Ohio State is still on the outside looking in for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but at least the Buckeyes are now armed with the signature win they needed to get back in the conversation.

Until Saturday night’s decisive display in a 49-37 victory at Michigan State, OSU was one of the easiest one-loss teams to discount from the playoff picture.

That lone defeat, at home to Virginia Tech in Week 2, grew more and more warts as the season wore on and the Hokies tumbled into last place in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

Whipping Michigan State on its own turf doesn’t erase that embarrassment, but it does demonstrate how far Urban Meyer’s team has come.  

This is not the same team that dropped the ball against the Hokies in week 2. 

This was Meyer’s first big win at OSU .  It was Meyer's first win over an AP top-10 team in almost 4 years and it gave the Buckeyes 21 consecutive Big Ten victories, the most in conference history.  The win also snapped 12-game home winning streak by the Spartans, 

The driving force in the Buckeyes’ late-season rise clearly is quarterback J.T. Barrett, the redshirt freshman who was forced onto center stage by Braxton Miller’s season-ending shoulder surgery.

During an interception-free night, Barrett fearlessly shredded Michigan State’s reputation for impeccable defense with a 300-yard passing night that included lengthy touchdown strikes from 44 and 79 yards. 

“We didn't want to come in here and be conservative,” Barrett told reporters. “We wanted to go out swinging.”

With his huge night on the big stage, Barrett also has begun to create a quarterback controversy for the 2015 Buckeyes. But that will have to wait, because OSU has far more important matters to deal with now that it has elbowed its way back among the nation’s elite programs.

The question now isn’t whether Meyer is a good enough coach to complete the job. His two national championships at Florida prove that is most certainly the case. 

No, what OSU must see from its football coach now is how good of a campaigner he is, because votes will need to be swayed for the Buckeyes to reach the playoffs.

Meyer obviously recognizes that, and wasted no time getting the Buckeyes’ political ball rolling.

"If I have to go fight for this team, what they've done is very impressive," Meyer told reporters afterward. "That darn loss, the second game, that hurts us. I'll take the hit for that. That was a young team, (and) one that's playing at an extremely high level right now."

Added Meyer: "I'm glad we got to play in prime time. I'm glad (ESPN's College) GameDay was here. I'm glad everybody got to see the Ohio State Buckeyes. This is a different Buckeye team than it was earlier this season."

That’s the point Ohio State must drive home the rest of the way, the notion that while the Buckeyes were awful back in Week 2 they are now one of the nation’s best teams.

Rolling up 568 yards of total offense on a Michigan State defense that entered allowing an average of only 279.4 helps make that case. So does OSU’s average scoring production of 46 points, which ranks fourth in the nation.

The super chaotic nature of the 2015 college football season won't hurt either. 

Four teams in the top 10 of the CFP rankings lost on Saturday, wreckage that clears a narrow path for Ohio State. One more is guaranteed to go down next week, when Mississippi State plays at Alabama.

Ohio State will need another big win at 7-2 Minnesota next week, because a regular-season-ending blowout against this year’s woeful Michigan crew isn’t going to impress anyone. But the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 6 could present a top-15 opponent on neutral turf, if Nebraska gets there.

It also helps that Barrett gives the Buckeyes some star power.  

Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi certainly was impressed, telling Mlive.com that:

The guy made every pass he could, he threw several routes on target, and he hadn't shown he could do that really consistently. He didn't throw off the mark at all, and those guys were ready to make the catch. He's is a heck of a quarterback.

Narduzzi also conceded that Michigan State’s pass rush was essentially ineffective against Barrett.

"It was almost like they knew it was coming and got the ball out quickly,” Narduzzi said. “We did pressure them, we just didn't make plays ... The quarterback did a good job of recognizing it.''

After seeing OSU equal the most points ever scored on one of his Michigan State teams, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio put it more succinctly, telling reporters:

“Let’s face it, the bottom line is we didn't stop them and we couldn't stop them.”

ESPN.com's Chris Low points out that Barrett also is outperforming the pace Miller was on last season, while en route to winning his second Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year award.

In nine games, Barrett has 26 TD passes and eight touchdown runs. Miller’s season totals in 2013 were 24 TD throws and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Barrett has thrown for 2,738 yards, and should easily top Miller’s 2013 total of 3,162.

Ohio State center Jacoby Boren told Low that: “I don't even think of him as a freshman. He's a great leader, one of the best leaders I've ever been around. A guy like that makes you want to play even harder than you can. He's a great guy, great kid and great leader and pushes everyone to be better than what they are." 

But most of all, Barrett rescued the Buckeyes from the sense they had become irrelevant, a quest he relished.

"I've always liked being the underdog, the whole against-you type feeling," Barrett told reporters

He'll get to continue to thrive on that underdog feeling, at least in regard to the playoffs. Beating Michigan State doesn’t put the Buckeyes in control of their own destiny, but at least they now have a signature victory to go with that signature loss.

 

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

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College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Predictions for Week 12

College football endured yet another wild weekend in Week 11, but it's never too early to assess how all of the damage will impact the College Football Playoff standings entering Week 12.

The top three teams—Mississippi State, Florida State and Auburn—seemed to be leaps and bounds above their competition before this weekend, but not all of them stepped up to the task and brought home victory. A number of would-be contenders failed to take advantage of the opportunity to move up, while others seized the moment and are climbing.

Plenty has been shown to rank these teams based on what has unfolded on the gridiron this season, but it's also worth noting what roads these squads have ahead. Certain teams have better opportunities than others to notch marquee wins before the season is done; that's taken into account here.

With that in mind, here's a fresh look at how the CFP field should look at the end of the season after Week 11.

 

1. Mississippi State

The Mississippi State Bulldogs continue to fly high atop the rankings, but a simple look at the remaining schedule has everyone around Starkville keeping the focus on the present rather than what could be.

Despite a 45-16 drubbing of Tennessee-Martin on Saturday, Dan Mullen's squad was far from dominant. The FCS-dwelling Skyhawks notched more first downs than Mississippi State in the game, and the Bulldogs' starters played well into the third quarter.

That doesn't change the fact, however, that Mississippi State is 9-0 for the first time in its history and is entering a treacherous game against Alabama on the road.

The Bulldogs have quality wins against LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn, who were all in the top 10 at the time. That leaves the Miami Herald's Adam Beasley—and many others—believing Mississippi State would remain a top-four team even if it loses in Tuscaloosa:

Even if the Bulldogs' unbeaten season ends at Alabama, they don't have a magic carpet ride to the CFP. They will still have to play Ole Miss to end the season, and there's nothing more the Rebels would love than to end their sweet-turned-sour season by dashing the title hopes of their archrival.

Mississippi State could very well lose to Alabama, miss out on the SEC title game and still inch into the CFP. It could also beat the Tide, lose to Ole Miss and rebound in the conference championship. Heck, the Bulldogs could enter the Egg Bowl undefeated and only to see losses to both the Rebels and Georgia or Missouri in the title game knock them from contention.

The simple wealth of possibilities should make any college football fan giddy to watch it all unfold.

 

2. Florida State

Florida State just sits and smiles at the giants that stand between Mississippi State and an undefeated record, because the Seminoles are in the midst of a cakewalk to the CFP.

The Seminoles' toughest tests are behind them with wins in improbable situations against Clemson, Notre Dame and Louisville. Jameis Winston and Co. strolled past the first of four unranked foes left between them and the ACC title game, topping Virginia 34-20 at home Saturday.

That victory marked 25 straight for the 'Noles, the first team to do so since Miami's epic reign from 2000 to 2002. But those doubting Jimbo Fisher's team got more fuel to add to the fire Saturday, when Notre Dame—whom Florida State very nearly lost to—lost by 24 to Arizona State, as ESPN's Colin Cowherd noted:

Haters will hate, but the reality is the Seminoles only need wins over Miami, Boston College, Florida and the ACC title game—probably Duke, again—to prove their worth in the CFP. 

This team doesn't blow out everyone it faces like last year but rather lets inferior teams hang around far too long. But the 'Noles have a recipe for success, and there are few teams in the nation capable of stopping them.

And most of them will be Florida State's company in the CFP.

 

3. Oregon

Utah's Kaelin Clay was running into the end zone to give Utah a 14-0 second-quarter lead, and Oregon's CFP chances looked very much in danger Saturday night. But he dropped the ball in play before celebrating, and Oregon returned it for a touchdown and a 14-point swing to tie it at 7-7. The Ducks never looked back, winning 51-27 against the No. 17 Utes.

Even without that magical momentum swing, though, Marcus Mariota was going to deliver the victory. He had 114 rushing yards and 239 passing yards, scoring four total touchdowns to add to his sterling Heisman Trophy campaign.

After a home slip-up to Arizona, the Ducks have been a wrecking ball in the Pac-12 with five straight wins by a combined 108 points. They have Colorado and a trip to Oregon State left on the schedule before a looming conference title game—likely against Arizona State.

With so much chaos in the SEC, the Big Ten playing itself out of contention and Florida State dominating the ACC, the Pac-12 is shaping up to be just how the CFP should be.

More than likely, Oregon and Arizona State will play in the Pac-12 title game. If both teams remain unscathed until then, the winner should absolutely be in the CFP.

 

4. Alabama

With less than a minute to go, Alabama's national title hopes were on life support against LSU. Blake Sims magically led the Crimson Tide on a game-tying drive, then threw the eventual game-winning touchdown in overtime.

That was a major crisis averted for Alabama, and it finally has the marquee victory—a win on the road, at night in Death Valley, against surging No. 16 LSU—that critics claimed it lacked.

But just because the Crimson Tide are now worthy of a CFP spot doesn't mean there's not a ton of work left to do. Alabama faces both Mississippi State and Auburn before the season is done, although both are at home.

The ebbs and flows of the SEC this season have made unthinkable scenarios a reality, which Bleacher Report's Marc Torrence captured best regarding the Tide:

TCU has a very strong case for the fourth and final spot after drubbing Kansas State on Saturday, and the Horned Frogs certainly have a better chance at winning out. But the Crimson Tide have much better chances to sway the committee with signature wins in these final few weeks, which will pay dividends.

If Alabama is able to beat both Mississippi State and Auburn, nobody will be debating whether the Crimson Tide deserve to be in or not. 

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Bowl Predictions 2014: Updated Playoff Projections After Wild Week 11

Rest in peace to the College Football Playoff hopes of Michigan State, Kansas State, Notre Dame and probably Auburn.

All four of those squads lost their second game of the year in a landscape-shifting Week 11 and will likely fall behind a plethora of one-loss contenders when the next rankings come out. On the flip side, TCU, Arizona State and Ohio State all made impressive statements Saturday and remained squarely in the postseason hunt.

With all that in mind, here is a look at the updated playoff projections following a crazy Week 11 of college football action.

 

Playoff Projections

Sugar Bowl: No. 1 Florida State vs. No. 4 TCU

Rose Bowl: No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 2 Alabama    

Championship Bowl (in Arlington, Texas): TBD (Semifinal Winners) 

 

Breakdown

Before we take a quick glance at the four-team field here, it is worth discussing the other contenders that just missed the cut.

Mississippi State is undefeated now, but that will not be the case all season. The Bulldogs will lose to Alabama yet still get a ton of postseason consideration given their SEC status and victories over Auburn and LSU. But the selection committee is going to put increased emphasis on conference championships.

In this scenario, the Bulldogs will lose to Alabama and not even win their division, let alone the conference. 

Ohio State is certainly back in the picture as well after manhandling Michigan State in a revenge game for last season’s Big Ten championship tilt. The Buckeyes are starting to look like one of those talented teams that is putting it all together at the end of the season and that nobody wants to play.

However, that early loss to Virginia Tech is an absolute albatross on the resume. The five-loss Hokies are simply terrible.

Arizona State will lose in the Pac-12 Championship Game to Oregon, which will end its playoff hopes, and Baylor will lose to Kansas State in the season’s final game, which will give TCU the Big 12 crown and the final playoff spot.

Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated discussed TCU’s road map to the College Football Playoff:

There’s some thought that the Big 12’s lack of a conference championship game could come back and bite TCU, or Baylor, depending on which team wins the league. But consider this: The Horned Frogs already have wins over OklahomaOklahoma State and West Virginia and have a more impressive nonconference schedule than Baylor. (Say what you want about Minnesota, but the Golden Gophers are 7-2.) And the Frogs don’t exactly have Murderers’ Row in November: TCU will finish the regular season with games at Kansas, at Texas and home against Iowa State.

TCU will have no trouble dispatching Kansas, Texas and Iowa State in those final games, and Baylor losing to Kansas State would prove critical since the Bears beat the Horned Frogs in their head-to-head matchup.

TCU will play Florida State in these projections.

Simply put, the Seminoles are undefeated and will not lose to Miami, Boston College or Florida. The defending champions have been tested off and on all season but have emerged victorious in every game. The ACC is not strong enough to challenge Jameis Winston and Florida State, and an undefeated defending champ is absolutely getting into the field every time.

Alabama survived a serious scare at LSU on Saturday and will parlay that victory into an SEC championship run.

The Crimson Tide’s biggest step in the hunt for that title comes in a Week 12 showdown with Mississippi State, although they also have archrival Auburn at the end of the season. Both of those games are at home, which gives the Crimson Tide the advantage.

To his credit, Nick Saban only cares about what he can control in the playoff race, via Michael Casagrande of AL.com:

To me, none of it matters. What does it matter? I mean, it only matters where you end up at the end. So what matters to us is how we do in each and every game that we have to play. We have four games left to play, and if we can be successful in those games, maybe there's a chance we will play in the SEC Championship Game as well.

None of it matters if we're not successful in our games. So I don't even care, to be honest with you. Don't know and don't care.

That leaves Oregon, which got the luckiest break of all in Week 11 when Utah fumbled the ball going in on a clear touchdown that would have put the Utes up 14-0 early. Instead, Oregon picked the ball up and ran the length of the field to tie it at seven, and the rest was history.

The Ducks have quality wins over Michigan State, UCLA and Utah on their resume and shook the Stanford monkey from their back, even if the Cardinal are not good this year. There are only three games remaining for Oregon, and two come against lowly Colorado and Oregon State. The Buffaloes and Beavers are a combined 6-13 on the season.

Oregon will have to navigate the Pac-12 Championship Game against the eventual South Division winner. That will be Arizona State, which looked the part Saturday against Notre Dame.

However, the Sun Devils defense, which allowed 62 points to mobile Brett Hundley and the UCLA Bruins, doesn’t have the pieces to slow down potential Heisman winner Marcus Mariota. 

Mariota will make sure in that game that the Ducks are getting into the playoff field.

 

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