NCAA Football

Mississippi State Setting Stage for Epic Clash with Alabama

Three weeks ago, Mississippi State looked like a capable understudy to Alabama and Auburn in the SEC.

Now at 6-0, with five wins coming by double digits, the Bulldogs are now primed to show out on Nov. 15 at college football's Broadway stage in Tuscaloosa, when they face off against the Crimson Tide.

The Bulldogs are now fresh off three straight wins against top 10 SEC opponents—LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn. Quarterback Dak Prescott and the rest of Stark Vegas have proven they belong, for now at least, in the College Football Playoff.

And after going through the gauntlet, the Bulldogs' next three games leading up to the showdown with the Tide are a breather. 

They travel to Kentucky next week, which could be a trap game as the Wildcats are actually playing good ball. But they did lose to Florida (in three overtimes) and have been the beneficiaries of a much easier schedule than most anybody else in the SEC. 

After that, the Bulldogs get Arkansas—another pesky but still below-average SEC squad that Prescott and Co. shouldn't have a problem with—than a gimme at home against UT Martin. 

Then, Nov. 15 comes. And the country can't wait. 

Alabama has a tougher road ahead of it between now and that date, with matchups against Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU, before squaring off against Mississippi State. 

But knowing Nick Saban, it's hard to see the Tide losing any of those games, as he knows that another loss will likely knock Alabama out of playoff contention.
 
So how do the Bulldogs stack up against the Tide? 

Well, with how Prescott is looking, you've got to think that the Bulldogs will have a decent chance at the game just because of him. He's put himself squarely into the Heisman Trophy conversation and he's poised to boost his numbers over the next three weeks. 

Defensively, the Bulldogs are looking to join the party of elite SEC stoppers, holding teams to just 20 points per game heading into this week. They also held Auburn, a team that had scored at least 40 points in all but one of their games this season, to just 23. 

The Bulldogs earn their paychecks by stopping the run, where heading into this week they ranked 11th nationally, allowing just 98 yards per game on the ground.

Gaining yards on the ground is Alabama's bread and butter, as the Tide rush for 240 yards per game. 

So come Nov. 15, when CFB's biggest game of the year to that point will take place, the battle will be won in the trenches.

If Mississippi State can dominate the line of scrimmage and limit Alabama's rushing attack and put pressure on Tide QB Blake Sims, who already failed his first big test of the year against Ole Miss, then the Bulldogs should come away with a victory. 

And that should put them in the driver's seat to not only stay in the hunt for a playoff berth, but to earn the top seed in the playoffs.

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Everett Golson Does Not Look Ready for Florida State Showdown

There are good ways to enter the biggest game of the year. And then there's the way Notre Dame is entering its showdown with No. 1 Florida State. 

The Irish limped their way to a wild 50-43 victory over North Carolina, overcoming a self-inflicted, 14-point hole early in the game, three Everett Golson turnovers and some suspect defensive play that has Notre Dame looking its worst as it goes into its biggest game of the year. 

If next Saturday night's main event is the heavyweight title fight the Irish have been waiting for, they nearly KO'd themselves following the ring girl up the stairs. And after leading Notre Dame to three impressive wins by playing near flawless football, Golson heads to Tallahassee a quarterback in crisis. 

After producing touchdowns at an amazing rate, the engine of the Irish offense is now piling up turnovers at an equally troubling pace. On Saturday afternoon, the Irish managed to score 50 points for the first time since the season-opening game of 2012 but seemed to do so in spite of its quarterback, not because of him. 

That may sound harsh considering Golson managed to throw for 300 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for 71 yards at 5.9 per clip. But Golson's three turnovers led to 21 Tar Heel points.

Needing a fast start, Golson all but kick-started the Tar Heels' upset bid. He fumbled deep in his own territory on Notre Dame's first possession, went three-and-out on his second (a drive that included a dropped interception on an ugly misread) and threw a terrible pick-six on his third.

In a game where a quick Irish start could have taken the Tar Heels out of the game, Golson showed the hospitality of a Notre Dame usher, all but asking North Carolina to stick around for the afternoon and enjoy Notre Dame Stadium. 

The victory was the most important part of a weekend that served as the ultimate (and most obvious) "trap game" of the season. So while leaving 6-0 meant mission accomplished, the Irish have to fix holes on both sides of the ball, springing leaks before their ultimate playoff inspection. But none are more important than Brian Kelly's quarterback. 

"It tested him, because I tested him a little bit," Kelly said of Golson's struggles. "I got in his face a little bit about the first interception. He's above that interception... But I thought he handled it well."  

While it took just minutes after Notre Dame's hard-fought victory over North Carolina for ESPN's College GameDay to announce they were heading to Tallahassee, it'll take all week for Brian Kelly to get his quarterback ready for the trip south. And while Kelly put a good spin on it in his postgame comments, it looks as if Golson is regressing heading into the season's signature game. 

Golson looked like a quarterback trying to be someone he's not. He stuck around in a pocket that too often was collapsing. He locked on receivers early and threw to others too late. And after Kelly and the Irish coaching staff tried to coach the sandlot out of his playmaker, Golson needs to bring a little spontaneity back to his game, remembering that the hardest play to stop for a defense is sometimes the one that wasn't planned. 

Of course, Saturday wasn't all Golson's fault. While the Irish running game found its footing behind Tarean Folston, the offensive line was still plagued by mistakes. The opening series' strip-sack could be pegged on an overwhelmed offensive line. The group missed multiple blitz pickups, with Harry Hiestand's reshuffled offensive line still in need of vast improvements before taking on the Florida State front seven. 

That leaky offensive line led to a game-defining play late in the third quarter. Hit hard by a blitzer as his third-down pass fell incomplete, sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire began warming up on the sidelines. While it was ultimately a medical precaution, for the first time this season Irish fans openly wondered if Kelly had Zaire warming up because his quarterback was ineffective. 

But a questionable roughing the punter call extended Notre Dame's drive, bringing Golson—who was cleared by the medical staff—back onto the field. And the quarterback responded, driving the Irish to two touchdowns to ice the victory.

"He bounced back, threw the ball with authority and he was decisive. He made some good decisions, but he's learning," Kelly said. "That could shut some quarterbacks down.  He took the adversity and got better as the game went on." 

Ultimately, it was enough to beat North Carolina. But with the college football world descending on Doak Campbell Stadium next weekend, Notre Dame needs Everett Golson to be its star. And right now, he's not playing like one. 

 

*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. 

 

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LSU Player Goes Down with NBA-Style Flop to Draw Flag

And the Academy Award goes to LSU's Jamal Adams!

During the LSU-Florida game, defensive back Jamal Adams pulled off an NBA-quality flop after being contacted by the Gators' Andre Debose. 

The act worked, as Debose was flagged for the incident. 

[Gifd Sports]

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Southern Cal vs. Arizona: Live Score and Highlights

Arizona 0, Southern Cal 0 ; Early 1st Quarter

A Pac-12 South Division showdown takes place in the desert Saturday night, as the Southern Cal Trojans travel east to take on the No. 10 Arizona Wildcats.

The game will begin at 10:30 p.m. ET. It can be seen on ESPN 2.

Odds Shark has Southern Cal as a one-point favorite. A full box score can be found here, courtesy of NCAA.com.

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Southern Cal vs. Arizona: Live Score and Highlights

Arizona 0, Southern Cal 0 ; Early 1st Quarter A Pac-12 South Division showdown takes place in the desert Saturday night, as the Southern Cal Trojans travel east to take on the No...

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Devin Gardner Injury: Updates on Michigan Star's Status and Return

Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner left Saturday's game against Penn State in the third quarter after limping off the field with an unknown injury.

Derek Levarse of the Times Leader had the report:

Gardner would return, per Michigan football's Twitter:

Gardner, a senior who was expected to break out in 2014, has had an up-and-down season. He threw for three touchdowns and no interceptions while hitting on 13 of 14 passes against Appalachian State to start the season. A week later he self-imploded to the tune of three interceptions and zero points in an embarrassing loss to Notre Dame.

The fits and starts of Michigan's offense have left some in Ann Arbor ready to move forward with the highly touted Shane Morris—just not the Wolverines coaching staff.

"The backup quarterback is always the most popular guy in town, and Shane has done a tremendous job," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier told reporters. "I said, leading up to the Notre Dame game, he had an exceptional week of practice and had another great week last week and continues to get better and better. I believe Devin is, too."

Garner was able to rebound from his Notre Dame nightmare for a solid outing against Miami (Ohio) and has been putting up the best passing numbers of his career. He's setting career bests in completion percentage and has a solid yards-per-attempt average despite Michigan's lack of downfield production. 

That said, it will be interesting to see if Gardner returns to a starting job when he's fully healthy. It was this time two years ago that Denard Robinson found himself in a similar situation—his injury (which sapped his arm strength) and inconsistencies throwing the ball gave the starting job to Gardner, who has held it for the last two seasons.

Morris is a homegrown talent out of Warren, Michigan, and was one of 2013's most highly sought-after quarterbacks. He was the third-best pro-style quarterback in the nation behind Max Browne and Christian Hackenberg, the latter of whom has already made a massive impact in the Big Ten.

With Brady Hoke sitting directly on the hot seat, he may choose to sell fans and alumni on the future. Morris and running back Derrick Green were the two shiny new faces in an impressive 2013 class that some thought could turn around the program. Green has begun living up to the hype after a difficult freshman campaign; perhaps Morris will do the same. 

Either way, Gardner's injury is going to make an already murky situation even more uncertain going forward.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Auburn vs. Mississippi State: How Bulldogs' Win Reshapes Playoff Picture

Mississippi State or Florida State? That's the new debate atop college football.

After the Bulldogs' thrilling victory over Auburn Saturday that validated their College Football Playoff status and put the bull's-eye on their backs for the rest of 2014, the only question left to ask is whether Dan Mullen's squad has done enough to supplant the reigning national champions as the top team in the land.

The battle between No. 2 and No. 3 was the talk of college football all week. Everyone wondered if the Bulldogs were for real, and whether the Tigers could repeat last year's magic. While Auburn certainly isn't done in 2014, Mississippi State made its case convincingly.

With Florida State taking care of business against Syracuse, the Seminoles and Bulldogs should duel for bragging rights atop the rankings. But as Fox Sports' Bruce Feldman noted, simply being in this position is incredible for Mississippi State:

The Bulldogs looked hungry to run Auburn out of town Saturday just like it did Texas A&M. They took a 21-0 lead in the opening quarter, and all signs pointed to another thrashing of a SEC West heavyweight.

Auburn took the opening punch and gave one right back—largely aided by four straight Bulldog turnovers and a dominant Gus Malzahn run game. The Tigers battled back into it and trimmed the deficit to one possession in the fourth quarter.

But right when Mississippi State's resolve was being tested unlike it has all season long, the Bulldogs responded like champions do. They forced big plays, took the air out of the ball and pounded their way to a 38-23 win.

Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel wondered aloud if Florida State could overcome a lack of quality wins to hold off Mississippi State:

There wasn't any question for ESPN's Paul Finebaum:

Bleacher Report's Marc Torrence challenged Twitter to tell him why the Bulldogs shouldn't be No. 1—a question awfully tough to give a rational answer to:

We're only halfway through the season, so all of these arguments have a few months to work themselves out. But this top-five matchup shook up the current CFP outlook in a huge way, and there should be no doubt after back-to-back top-six wins that the Bulldogs belong as No. 1:

Obviously, Auburn falls out of the CFP for now coming off its first loss of the season. Battling back in this game should be enough to prove that they belong among the nation's elite still, but they made key mistakes when the comeback was very alive.

Indicating Auburn is anywhere near done would be a naive rush to judgment. Should the Tigers run the table against South Carolina, No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 14 Texas A&M and No. 13 Georgia, they would likely be back in a top-four spot heading into the Iron Bowl.

But they may have lost their magic to the SEC West power that snuffed them out Saturday, as ESPN's Skip Bayless says:

Few matchups all season will carry the weight that Saturday's did, with two teams in the top three of the standings going at it. But even Mississippi State—coming off its third consecutive top-10 win—has its work cut out.

But the Bulldogs' next big test might not come until a trip to Alabama on Nov. 15 and the Egg Bowl on Nov. 29. By then, one tight defeat to a national powerhouse could be enough to remain in the mix in the races for both the SEC West and CFP.

Here's a look at both teams' remaining schedules:

What's more, Heisman contender Dak Prescott didn't have his best day through the air. He threw two uncharacteristic interceptions but showed that passing struggles don't impact his ability to make plays with his legs—a scary sight for the rest of the SEC.

Meanwhile, Auburn will have no chance running the table if it turns the ball over like it did Saturday. Four turnovers is a recipe for disaster in any circumstance, much less against the quality foes the Tigers face week in and week out.

Some of the biggest tests for Mississippi State and Auburn are yet to come, but Saturday goes a long way to tell just how serious the national title chances for both teams truly are.

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Louisville vs. Clemson: Game Grades, Analysis for the Tigers

It wasn’t pretty for the Clemson Tigers, but they were able to come up with enough plays defensively to win the game.

On the last play of the game—a fourth down from the 3-yard line—Clemson batted down Will Gardner’s pass to seal the 23-17 win.

It was a terrible performance offensively for both teams, but both defenses found ways to keep the game close. This game saw four combined turnovers and only 22 combined first downs.

Deshaun Watson injured his right hand early in the first quarter and was not able to return to action. Cole Stoudt came in at quarterback and made a lot of bad plays, but ultimately he did enough to give Clemson an opportunity to win.

The defenses dominated, and both units proved to be among the best in the nation, but it was Clemson who made the most plays down the stretch.

You can find the stats for the game here, courtesy of NCAA.com.

 

Passing Offense

The Tigers could not get anything going through the air, finishing with only 157 yards. Stoudt actually finished 20-of-33, but that can be credited to numerous screen passes. He threw one interception but often tossed the ball into traffic.

This was the worst passing performance of the season for Clemson, and I’m not sure how much of a difference Watson would have made. He was 2-of-6 passing with one interception before leaving the game.

 

Rushing Offense

As bad as the passing offense was, the rushing offense was only slightly better. Adam Choice provided a spark, rushing for 61 yards on 16 carries, but he was the only back who got anything going.

Watson, who left the game in the first quarter, finished second in rushing for the Tigers with only 10 yards. Wayne Gallman and C.J. Davidson only carried the ball a combined six times, but Choice gave the Tigers exactly what they needed in the fourth quarter.

 

Pass Defense

Clemson’s defense played well against the pass when Reggie Bonnafon was in the game for Louisville, generating a lot of pressure.

Once Will Gardner entered the game, Louisville started to get production through the air. Gardner made some big plays, and the Tigers had a couple of miscues in the secondary.

The touchdown pass from Gardner appeared to be the result of a blown coverage, and Robert Smith took a poor angle on the long pass late in the game, so the Tigers still have room to improve. Overall, it was a solid performance, and the ability to tackle in space really stood out from the secondary.

 

Run Defense

The Tigers played a tremendous game up front. The front seven was very aggressive and only allowed 52 rushing yards. Louisville’s leading rusher—Dominique Brown—only averaged 2.8 yards per carry, and his longest run was nine yards.

The linebackers were heavily involved in the run game, and it was just a dominating effort in this aspect.

 

Special Teams

If it wasn’t for special teams, the Tigers would have lost the game. A punt return touchdown and three field goals resulted in 16 of Clemson’s 23 points.

Adam Humphries’ 72-yard punt return got the crowd going and put the Tigers up 7-0. Ammon Lakip has struggled at times this season, but he played well and made some important kicks. This group gets the highest grade possible.

 

Coaching

Chad Morris made a mistake by lining up in the shotgun formation on certain plays, and his play-calling was rather conservative at times. I understand it’s tough to be aggressive with Stoudt in the game, but the offense never got into a rhythm because of the lack of first downs.

Brent Venables called a great game defensively, and coach Dabo Swinney handled the game well, so this unit grades out about average.

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Oregon vs. UCLA: Ducks Prove They're Still Legit Playoff Contenders

Count Oregon out of the College Football Playoff picture already? As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast my friend!”                                       

After a disappointing Thursday night loss at home to the Arizona Wildcats, the Oregon Ducks (5-1, 2-1) bounced back in a significant way against the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl. The Ducks not only dismantled the Bruins by the score of 42-30—a score that doesn’t fully reflect the nature of the blowout—but also catapulted themselves back into the national playoff picture.

 

Ducks Show Improvement

The Ducks finally looked like themselves again after three subpar performances against Wyoming, Washington State and Arizona. The Bruins stopped Oregon on their first two offensive possessions; however, the Ducks defense stepped up against Brett Hundley on the Bruins second drive by forcing a sack and fumble, which the Ducks recovered deep in Bruins territory. Marcus Mariota ran for a 13-yard touchdown on the following play, and the Ducks grabbed an early 8-0 lead following a two-point conversion.

It was all Ducks from there on out, as Oregon jumped on the Bruins to take a 42-10 lead early in the fourth quarter. Despite a late comeback by the Bruins, a Ducks victory was never in question.

Oregon’s biggest concerns coming into the game were the offensive line, poor defensive play and penalties caused by mental lapses. The Ducks improved tremendously in all three areas against the Bruins.

First, Oregon’s offensive line, a unit that had allowed 12 sacks in the prior two contests against Washington State and Arizona, didn’t allow a single sack of Mariota against UCLA. Most of the improvement was due to the return of left tackle Jake Fisher. Fisher did a tremendous job blocking Mariota’s blind side and solidified a line that had been so beleaguered in conference play.

Oregon’s defense, despite giving up 553 yards—including 328 on the ground—managed to allow only 10 points to a potent Bruins offense before letting off the gas late in the fourth quarter. The Ducks routinely put pressure on Hundley, forcing two turnovers along the way—both of which led to Oregon touchdowns.

The Ducks also helped their cause by not committing penalties. After committing 10 penalties against Arizona, the Ducks only committed four against UCLA.

Another one of Oregon’s concerns heading into the game was the rushing attack that had been held in check so far in conference play. Against Washington State and Arizona the Ducks had averaged only 158 yards per game on the ground. However, with a stronger offensive line, the Ducks managed to rack up 258 yards on 41 carries.

Oregon has now beaten UCLA in each of their last six meetings and has defeated two teams—the Bruins and Michigan State—that were ranked in the Associated Press' Top 10 before the season.

If the Ducks can build on this performance, get solid offensive line play for the rest of the year and continue to force turnovers defensively, they’ll be in a strong position in every game the rest of the year.

 

Mariota the Star

The Ducks were once again lead by the redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Mariota, who scored four touchdowns on the day—two on the ground and two through the air. Mariota, who once again vaulted himself to the top of the Heisman rankings, now has scored 19 touchdowns on the season—15 passing, three rushing, one receiving. Mariota has also yet to throw an interception.

The Ducks are only going to go as far as Marcus Mariota can take them. However, they’re going to need the offensive line to keep protecting him, as it did against UCLA.

Mariota is most effective when he has time in the pocket and is able to improvise and make plays with his legs. Against UCLA, Mariota not only had time in the pocket to maneuver but also the Ducks running game finally got going. When the Ducks are able to run the ball effectively, Mariota is even more difficult to stop because defenses have to account for everything the Ducks bring to the table.

On the day Mariota completed 17 of 27 passes for 210 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 75 yards and two more touchdowns on seven carries.

In short, Mariota dominated the Bruins with his arm and legs while effectively managing the Ducks potent offense to 42 points.

Mariota not only vaulted himself once again to the top of the Heisman race but also proved he is more than capable of coming through in big conference road games.

More tests are ahead for Mariota; however, if he continues playing at this level the Ducks should be able to beat any team in the Pac-12.

 

The Road Ahead

While the Ducks certainly played their best conference game of the season and perhaps their best game overall this year, they still have a lot of room for improvement going forward.

As we mentioned, the Ducks defense allowed 553 yards of offense to the Bruins, though a significant portion of those yards came in the fourth quarter when UCLA was down by 32 points. Regardless, Oregon’s defense is going to need to improve against the run and solidify its pass defense, both of which have been shaky in conference play.

The offensive line, while it played well today, is still trying to find its way and must stay injury free for the rest of the season in order for the Ducks to have a shot at the playoff.

Lastly, the Ducks must continue to build their identity as a mentally tough team. Coming back and beating UCLA thoroughly after a crushing loss to Arizona is a start. However, Oregon must continue to prove to the rest of the Pac-12 that they’re not going to beat themselves like they did against Arizona.

Oregon, after its second road conference win the of the season, is now firmly back in the playoff chase and now must be considered the favorite to win the Pac-12 North title and advance to the Pac-12 title game on Dec. 5.

Another loss in conference play would almost definitely take the Ducks out of playoff contention. A game against a tough Washington team awaits Oregon next week.

However, the team's toughest test will come on Nov. 1 when the Stanford Cardinal come roaring into town. Fresh off a 34-17 victory over Washington State, the Cardinal are right back into contention for the Pac-12 North title. The Ducks have lost two consecutive games to Stanford—both with Mariota under center.

If the Ducks have playoff dreams they'll have to overcome the team that has prevented them from winning a Pac-12 title the past two seasons. But if the Ducks continue to play the way they did against UCLA, they’re going to be right in the mix come mid-December.

 

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

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Oregon vs. UCLA: Ducks Prove They're Still Legit Playoff Contenders

Count Oregon out of the College Football Playoff picture already? As ESPN’s Lee Corso would say, “ Not so fast my friend !” ...

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