NCAA Football

NCAA Football Rankings 2014: Top 25 Standings and Playoff Bracket

Another full college football season is in the books and the inaugural College Football Playoff bracket is set. As expected, there were quite a few surprises in the top four and final poll overall.   

The most resounding change was Ohio State taking the final spot in the playoff to face No. 1 Alabama. That change, of course, left two Big 12 powerhouses in Baylor and TCU out of the race for a national championship.

Instead, the Bears and Horned Frogs had to settle for the Cotton and Peach Bowl, respectively. Both will have to cope with missing out and wondering what might have been if either had won, say, a Big 12 championship game.

On the heels of the final list being announced, here's a look at the latest CFP Top 25 Standings and bracket.

 

Analysis

If fans thought the regular season was wild, the College Football Playoff is setting up to be even more chaotic.

All four teams in the bracket are conference champions. Whether it was another nail biter for Florida State or a dismantling for Ohio State, each program made a huge statement this year.

Now it's time to prove who deserves the right to play for a national title. One team that is clearly comfortable with this environment is Alabama, as evidence by Nick Saban's reaction to the announcement, via Will Brinson of CBS Sports:

The biggest surprise in the bracket is obviously Ohio State, who recently lost J.T. Barrett for the remainder of the season. In his place, Cardale Jones passed for 257 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Buckeyes to a 59-0 demolition of Wisconsin.

Following that matchup, Athletics Director Gene Smith put it simply when talking about why OSU deserved a spot over Baylor or TCU, via Brian Bennett of ESPN:

Jones isn't the only offensive leader now for the Buckeyes. Ezekiel Elliott (220 rushing yards, two TDs) was explosive out of the backfield and Devin Smith (137 receiving yards) caught all three scores from Jones.

Even with those explosive weapons, many believed it would be difficult for OSU to overtake TCU or Baylor after decisive wins. Matt Winer of Turner Sports passed along his take on the movement:

Controversy has surrounded the committee's decisions recently and likely won't end after Sunday. If Alabama demolishes Ohio State on the national stage, expect cries from Big 12 fans about either the Bears or Horned Frogs missing out on the Sugar Bowl.

Regardless of who "deserved" or "earned" the final spot, there is no question three of the best four teams made the bracket. Between Alabama and Oregon, both programs will be favorites in their matchups to potentially tie up for the title.

Less than a month stands between now and the two semifinals. The madness has already begun but will reach all new heights in the Sugar and Rose Bowls. Buckle up college football fans.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Cotton Bowl 2015: Preview, Predictions for Baylor vs. Michigan State

Even with the College Football Playoff stealing most of the sizzle of New Year's Day, there will be no shortage of conference pride in the remaining bowl games. That might not be more evident anywhere than it will be in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl, where No. 5 Baylor will do battle with eighth-ranked Michigan State.

Representing the Big 12, the Bears will look to prove that they were deserving of a spot in the much-talked about playoff, while the Spartans will aim to add a signature win to the reputation of the Big Ten. Factor in Baylor's high-powered offense squaring off with Michigan State's dominant defense and the Cotton Bowl figures to be one of the most interesting games of the college football bowl season.

Will the Bears leave the playoff committee with regrets, or will the Spartans steal the show? We'll find out on New Year's Day, but until then, here's everything you need to know about this year's Cotton Bowl:

 

Date: Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015

Time: 12:30 p.m. ET

Place: AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas

TV: ESPN

Radio:Spartan Sports Network, Baylor Bears Radio

Spread: Baylor (-1.5), via Odds Shark

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Arizona vs. Boise State Schedule and Early Predictions

Participants of the Fiesta Bowl may not have a shot at the national title, but they still have the privilege of playing in one of the coveted New Year's Six games.

Recognized as one of the top-tier bowl games, the Fiesta Bowl has produced some of the bowl season's most exciting contests in recent years. UCF and Baylor kicked off 2014 in style, combining for 94 points in a New Year's Day shootout. Also, who can forget Boise State's overtime victory over Oklahoma in 2007 via the Statue of Liberty?

So, which teams will compete this time around? College GameDay tweeted the information:

Will Boise State repeat history, this time against Arizona?

To ensure the next batch of memories produced by this game don't go missed, here's a look at all of the essential viewing information for the upcoming Fiesta Bowl.

 

Viewing Information

When: Wednesday, Dec. 31

Where: University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona

Time: 4 p.m. ET

Channel: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

Preview and Prediction

The Broncos were a rather surprising team over the back half of the regular season, bouncing back from a brutal loss to Air Force with eight consecutive wins, culminating in a 28-14 victory over Fresno State to claim the Mountain West Conference title.

TheScore deemed Boise State as "college football's best kept secret":

Junior running back Jay Ajayi has been phenomenal for Boise State this season, rushing for 1,689 yards and 25 touchdowns, adding 45 receptions for 536 yards and four scores. He's been an absolute workhorse for the Broncos, and he'll get a great chance to rip it up once again versus Arizona's 72nd-ranked run defense that is allowing an average of 170.4 rushing yards per game.

Senior quarterback Grant Hedrick began the season in rocky fashion, tossing four interceptions in both of Boise State's losses. Since then, he's been highly efficient, throwing 17 touchdown passes against four interceptions. The Wildcats' weakness on defense is their 118th-ranked secondary, and Hedrick's 70.9 completion percentage this season will certainly work in his favor.

If Arizona is to overcome Boise State's prolific offense, it must continue to utilize the blitz to get pressure on Hedrick, throwing the quarterback off balance. The Wildcats have been very good in that department this year, accumulating 37 total sacks. They'll get some opportunities in the Fiesta Bowl against a Broncos offensive line that gave up 27 sacks this season.

On the offensive side of the ball, Arizona really needs to get running back Nick Wilson going early against Boise State's 36th-ranked run defense. The ball-carrier only averaged 2.0 yards per carry against Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship, and that led to a stagnant offense.

The Wildcats struggled under center against the Ducks, as Jesse Scroggins replaced Anu Solomon, and Scroggins was later replaced by Jerrard Randall. The quarterback position is absolutely a weakness heading into this contest, furthering the importance of establishing the run.

While Arizona is a highly talented team, Boise State comes into this contest as the more well-rounded squad. The Wildcats have given up a total of 86 points over their last two games, and they'll continue to struggle against the Broncos' ninth-ranked offense.       

Prediction: Boise State 38, Arizona 30

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 7.

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Bowl Projections 2014: Early Odds, Predictions for Playoffs and Top Games

College football has taken the magic of Selection Sunday in college basketball, whittled it down to four teams to provide more drama than you can find in an Aaron Sorkin movie and wrapped it in a nice bow that can be talked about for long after the announcement is made. 

With the final College Football Playoff rankings being released and the 2014-15 bowl schedule set, it's time to start the analysis of what will happen and what games to focus on closely. While the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl will get all the attention, since they are the semifinal games, they aren't the only big games. 

There's nothing better than bowl season, especially this year, so here is an early look at odds and predictions for the games that have us most excited. 

 

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

Even though traditional bowl rules have fallen by the wayside since the BCS came around, it's nice to see the Rose Bowl still feature a Pac-12 team. Oregon has been tapped for this spot since it reclaimed the No. 2 spot in the rankings November 9 and secured it by destroying Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship Game. 

No team enters the playoff hotter than the Ducks, who have won eight straight games and the last five by at least 24 points. Marcus Mariota has been more than just one of the best players in college football this season, as SportsCenter tweeted out before Friday's game against Arizona:

Even in weather conditions that were less than ideal at Levi's Stadium against Arizona, Mariota added five total touchdowns (two passing, three rushing) to his career total and had 313 yards passing in the game. It was his third straight game with at least 300 passing yards. 

However, Oregon is here because of a revamped defense that flies under the radar because of how potent the offense is, as Lindsay Schnell of Sports Illustrated wrote:

Oregon bottled up Arizona superstar running back Nick Wilson, didn’t let any Wildcat receivers catch a pass longer than 10 yards and sacked quarterback Anu Solomon four times. It’s easy to say Arizona had a rough night. But that was due mostly to a defense that sent a message Friday night: This team is more than a snazzy offense.

How fitting that Oregon's matchup is against Florida State. Mariota is the likely Heisman winner this season, going against the 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston. 

The Seminoles aren't always pretty to watch, but all that matters is winning games. No one has found a way to do that better than Jimbo Fisher's team, which comes into the playoff as the only undefeated team in FBS. 

Despite a 13-0 record, the deck is stacked against Florida State. In fact, per SportsCenter, the Seminoles will likely find themselves in a spot they haven't been in a very long time:

There's nothing sexy about Florida State's resume. It did get a good win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, along with wins over Clemson and Louisville, but the Seminoles will be up against it in Pasadena. 

Winston remains an enigma, going from a four-interception game against Florida in which he looked lost to a near-perfect game against the Yellow Jackets that reminded everyone what makes him so special. He needs to be the second guy against Oregon for the Seminoles to have a chance. 

Florida State's defense has regressed considerably from last year, allowing 23 points per game in 2014. Fisher's defense has given up 684 rushing yards in its last three games, going against an Oregon offense that averages 237.3 yards per game on the ground and 46.3 points. 

It's been an incredible run for the Seminoles, but the Ducks are simply better and will prove it on New Year's Day. 

Oregon 37, Florida State 23

 

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

It's strange to look at how dominant Alabama has been under Nick Saban, then realize it has won only three SEC championships since 2007. There was no doubt about the Crimson Tide in 2014, as they knocked Missouri around early and often to secure their spot as the No. 1 seed.

The unique thing about this year's Alabama team is how it's had to rely more on offense to win than in past years. Saban has always had solid offensive teams with efficient quarterbacks, but Blake Sims has put this team at a different level. 

It's also a testament to the job Lane Kiffin has done in his first year as offensive coordinator. Even though it's been easy to bash the controversial former Oakland Raiders head coach, Saban said after the SEC Championship Game he had no doubts about him, via B/R's Barrett Sallee.

"I think I got exactly what I expected," Saban said on Friday. "I don't think anybody else expected what I expected, to the point where I even got criticized for doing it by a lot of people."

Another thing that's helped Alabama's offensive evolution is Amari Cooper, who has had the best season ever by a Crimson Tide receiver, via ESPN Stats & Info:

Alabama still has the defensive chops to shut an offense down, though Auburn did expose some holes in the team's coverage down the field. That's where you see the value of an upgraded offense come into play, because the Crimson Tide are capable of putting up a lot of points when they need to. 

Ohio State earned its spot in this game with a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. The Buckeyes should be riding high now, but they will have a much tougher time against Alabama's defense. 

First, Urban Meyer's team ran for 301 yards on 38 carries against the Badgers. Alabama ranks second in the country in rushing yards allowed per game and yards allowed per carry, per Yahoo Sports. Those running lanes aren't going to be open for the Buckeyes in this game. 

The ripple effect of not being able to run the ball is that it limits the effectiveness of play-action passing, which the Buckeyes were able to exploit against Wisconsin. Alabama is just a bad stylistic matchup for Ohio State, to say nothing of Saban having three weeks to prepare for Cardale Jones, which is why this game won't be close. 

Alabama 34, Ohio State 13

 

Best Non-Playoff Game: No. 5 Baylor vs. No. 8 Michigan State (Cotton Bowl)

Even though Baylor came up just short of its ultimate goal, it will have a chance to make a loud statement to anyone who doubted its credentials against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. 

The danger with a game like this is neither team being able to get pumped up for a lesser bowl than either would have liked. Baylor was hoping/expecting to have a shot at the national title. Now, it doesn't even get a bid in one of the major bowls, though the Cotton Bowl is in the Bears' backyard in Arlington, Texas. 

Here is what Baylor head coach Art Briles said after his team defeated Kansas State on Saturday, via ESPN's College GameDay:

Briles' team has to go from the high of one of the best days in the history of Waco to one of the most disappointing. 

Michigan State also has to be wondering where things went wrong, as the Spartans seemed like a safe bet to play in the Orange Bowl before the invitation was given to Mississippi State. 

On paper, the matchup is fantastic. Baylor's offense leads the nation in scoring with 48.8 points per game and ranks fifth in passing yards per game with 346.2. Michigan State isn't lacking for offense, averaging 43.1 points per game, but the Spartans make their money on defense. 

In fact, ignoring their two losses for a moment, Michigan State held eight opponents under 20 points. It wasn't the greatest competition, with teams like Michigan, Maryland and Rutgers included, but it was still a good accomplishment for any defense. 

As far as those losses at Oregon and against Ohio State go, the Spartans aren't likely to have the same problems with Baylor. The Ducks and Buckeyes featured dual-threat quarterbacks capable of extending plays. 

While Bryce Petty is a terrific quarterback, he's a traditional dropback passer who sits in the pocket and waits for plays to develop. 

In addition to having high-scoring offenses, the gap between Petty and Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook isn't as significant as you might think, via Matt Hoeppner of ISportsWeb.com:

Both teams enter the Cotton Bowl on a relative high note. Michigan State has won its last three games, while Baylor is riding a five-game streak. These teams are capable of lighting up a scoreboard, though one has been more adept at keeping opponents out of the end zone. 

The Bears will have to be at their best to conquer the Spartans, which they will be in a close game that gets decided by a late touchdown. 

Baylor 45, Michigan State 35

 

If you want to talk sports, hit me up on Twitter.  

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Orange Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

For all the debate stirred up after the College Football Playoff selection committee tabbed its Top Four, the Orange Bowl features a matchup that's relatively controversy-free.

Two 10-win teams will do battle, with Georgia Tech and Mississippi State squaring off in Miami. 

For all the glitz and glamor of South Beach, New Year's Day will likely be a slugfest. That's what happens when you pair two top 25 rushing attacks, with both Dan Mullen and Paul Johnson building their programs around the power game. 

For Georgia Tech, that means Johnson's triple-option. After four straight seasons of averaging seven wins, the Yellow Jackets took a big step forward in 2014.

While it wasn't enough to pull off the upset of defending national champion Florida State in the ACC title game, the 10-win season earned Johnson a four-year contract extension and a bowl berth that's among the most envious of the non-playoff games.

In Starkville, Mullen's sixth season was finally Mississippi State's breakthrough in the SEC. While the Bulldogs faded down the stretch, the 10-win season put Mullen's program on the map after spending much of the past in the cellar of the SEC.  

Let's get you ready for the Capital One Orange Bowl.

Date: Wednesday, December 31

Time: 8 p.m. ET

Place: Sun Life Stadium, Miami Gardens, Florida

TV: ESPN

Radio: ESPN Radio

Point Spread: Mississippi State by 7, according to Odds Shark

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GoDaddy Bowl 2015: Preview, Predictions for Arkansas State vs. Toledo

Sunday, January 4 will see the renewal of the GoDaddy Bowl as the Arkansas State Red Wolves, this year's Sun Belt champions, will take on the Toledo Rockets. 

The game will kick off at 8 p.m. EST on ESPN. 

Check out this bowl's biggest players, as well as each team's keys to victory. 

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New Mexico Bowl 2014: Preview, Predictions for UTEP vs. Utah State

College football fans thirsty for bowl action will only have to wait until Dec. 20, when UTEP takes on Utah State in Albuquerque for the New Mexico Bowl.

The 7-5 Miners are headed to their first bowl game since 2010, when they also descended upon Albuquerque for the very same bowl. They will be looking for a very different outcome this time around, however, as BYU drubbed them 52-24 four years ago.

Utah State's season began in earnest with the return of Chuckie Keeton, but the Aggies have had to rebound ever since losing their star quarterback in early October. They have done just that, winning five of six to close out 2014.

Both squads overcame the odds to get here, which had Bryan Fischer of NFL.com lauding the coaching jobs of Utah State's Matt Wells and UTEP's Sean Kugler:

While some of the bowl-bound teams have nearly a month to prepare, just days separate us from the New Mexico Bowl. Let's go ahead and break down everything you should know.

 

2014 New Mexico Bowl: UTEP vs. Utah State

When: Saturday, Dec. 20

Where: University Stadium, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Start Time (ET): 2:20 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Live Stream: WatchESPN

 

The Book on UTEP

In mid-October, even getting to this point seemed like a stretch for the UTEP Miners.

That was largely due to starting 2-3, which included understandable losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State. But after being trounced 55-3 on the road by Louisiana Tech, the Miners rattled off five of their last seven to notch a 7-5 record and secure their right to go bowling.

The New Mexico Bowl seemed like the likeliest destination given the geography and their spot in Conference USA, but it didn't matter much to the players where they ended up. For guys like safety Wesley Miller, one of the few on the team for the 2010 bowl loss, they just wanted to get back to the big stage and prove themselves, per the El Paso Times' Bret Bloomquist: "It was a lot of fun early in the week. It wasn't as fun on game day (when UTEP got blown out by Brigham Young). That wasn't a good memory and it left a bad taste in our mouth. We want to wash that away this year."

The Miners' biggest strength on the field comes by running rampant on the ground. Aaron Jones is the conference's No. 5 leading rusher both in terms of yards (1,233) and carries (217), but Nathan Jeffery and quarterback Jameill Showers combine for a strong three-pronged rushing attack.

UTEP will be feverishly watching tape of Utah State's 50-19 loss to Boise State in order to replicate the Broncos' rushing success. Jay Ajayi scampered for 229 yards and five touchdowns in that game, beleaguering the Aggies' front seven all game. 

The Miners may not have the rushing prowess of Boise State, but they should look to replicate it as much as possible in the New Mexico Bowl.

 

The Book on Utah State

Cut out the Utah State Aggies' season opener and their season finale, and you'd have a more impressive team than the 9-4 squad entering the New Mexico Bowl.

Utah State was welcomed into the 2014 season with a trip to face Tennessee in Neyland Stadium and came out battered and bruised en route to a 38-7 defeat. Keeton's shaky performance ended up being a sign, as the talented quarterback was never 100 percent on his surgically repaired knee and eventually reinjured it.

The Aggies' season seemed lost when they shut Keeton down for the season, but they showed their worth even without their star quarterback in the fold. They bounced back from that news in impressive fashion, including a 35-20 upset win at then-No. 18 BYU.

But with a chance to possibly win the Mountain West and thwart No. 23 Boise State in the season finale, the Aggies were housed in a 50-19 decision.

Utah State may not have Keeton, but freshman Kent Myers has filled his shoes nicely ever since his debut Oct. 25. Also a dual-threat weapon, Myers has five touchdowns through the air and four scores on the ground.

LaJuan Hunt and Joe Hill help to take the pressure off Myers, as the two running backs each have more than 100 carries on the year. 

Along with establishing their multifaceted rushing attack, getting out to an early lead will also be crucial for the Aggies. UTEP trailed at the half in four of its five losses, and the Miners—with a strong rushing attack but not much through the air—aren't built to come from behind.

 

Prediction

The Miners will come to play in Albuquerque, unlike in 2010, but it won't result in a different result. UTEP will keep it close throughout, but the Aggies will establish the run to grab an early lead. That will force the Miners to push the envelope through the air, and Utah State's ball-hawking secondary will be up for the challenge in a defensive struggle of a game.

Prediction: Utah State 20, UTEP 14

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