NCAA Football

Will Michigan Beat Maryland to Become Bowl-Eligible?

Michigan has fought back from a brutal 2-4 start to be one win away from a bowl berth. With two games to play, Brady Hoke’s best chance to take his team bowling depends on beating Maryland in Michigan’s home finale.

A win would salvage some dignity for the team’s 12 seniors and preserve Hoke’s slim chance of retaining his job.

A loss would mean Michigan’s bowl hopes would rest on defeating Ohio State in Columbus, something even the most optimistic Michigan fan would acknowledge is very unlikely.

Reasons Michigan Will Win

Quarterback Devin Gardner

When Devin Gardner is at his best, he can completely dominate a game—see last season versus Notre Dame and Ohio State or this season versus Appalachian State. Brady Hoke said that Gardner rested during the bye week, and his health was improving. That might mean less passing and more slashing with Gardner using his legs to cause problems for Maryland.

Last year Gardner saved his best performance for last, coming within a two-point conversion of upsetting Ohio State. If he’s truly healthy Maryland might not be able to stop him.


Michigan’s Defense

Michigan’s defense is currently ranked No. 8 in the nation, a development that has been overshadowed by the total collapse of its offense. Linebacker Jake Ryan—90 tackles, 56 solo, per cfbstats.com—is having a great season, and the defensive line has been solid. If freshman Jabrill Peppers had stayed healthy and Blake Countess had returned to top form the secondary might have been spectacular.

Ryan and his teammates should have no problem containing an offense which is 111th in the nation.


Maryland’s Injuries

Maryland’s wide receiver ranks have been thinned by injury problems (Stefon Diggs) and discipline issues (Juwann Winfree). The loss of the team’s top receiver, Diggs (52 receptions for 654 yards and five touchdowns), is especially damaging.

These latest losses further decimate a position group that was already struggling to replace players, according to Roman Stubbs of The Washington Post:

One of the team’s leading receivers from 2013, Nigel King, transferred to Kansas in August. Then came the season-long suspension of junior starter Levern Jacobs, and his younger brother, Taivon Jacobs, suffered a torn ACL in the season opener against James Madison.

The Michigan defense should have the advantage of working against quarterback C.J. Brown as he tries to link up with inexperienced receivers.

Reasons Michigan Will Lose

Quarterback Devin Gardner

Gardner has been in a season-long downward spiral since the season opener. He’s usually his own worst enemy, throwing ill-advised passes that often end up being intercepted (13). If Gardner can’t scramble and he starts forcing the ball downfield, Maryland will have opportunities to convert turnovers into points.

If Gardner struggles, the game might be a replay of the Northwestern game (10-9), giving Maryland the edge with kicker Brad Craddock having hit 14 straight field goals this season.


No Frank Clark

The Michigan defensive line has improved dramatically over the course of the season. But defensive end Frank Clark will be missed after being dismissed from the team. He had been a key part of the line’s improvement.

If Maryland can wear down his replacements (Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton) or, even worse, get its run going in his absence, then Michigan could be in trouble.

 

Michigan Should Win Unless…

The Maryland passing attack is in rough shape with being down so many wide receivers. The Michigan defense should be able to keep the Terrapins from scoring a lot of points unless turnovers give them a short field to work with.

Everything adds up to a Michigan victory if Devin Gardner can limit his turnovers.

Phil Callihan is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations obtained firsthand.

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Kansas State vs. West Virginia: Score and Twitter Reaction

With No. 12 Kansas State coming off of its biggest loss of the season and its national championship hopes in shambles, many wondered how the Wildcats would respond on their trip to Morgantown, West Virginia. 

Quite well, it turns out.

Jake Waters threw for 400 yards, Tyler Lockett had a punt return for a touchdown, and the Wildcat defense held the West Virginia offense in check en route to a 26-20 victory on Thursday.

The contest proved yet another banner performance from Lockett, who added 10 receptions and 196 yards to his 43-yard touchdown scamper in the second quarter. Lockett was consistently able to get open underneath for Waters, stretching the field barely beyond the first-down marker to extend drives.

"I think Lockett is one of the best players in the country," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen told reporters before the game. "He hurt us last year, he's hurt a lot of people over the last couple of years."

Lockett became Kansas State's all-time leading receiver in the Wildcats' 41-20 loss to TCU two weeks ago. The senior wideout broke a record set by his father, Kevin Lockett, a longtime NFL wide receiver and punt returner who played for four teams.

As it has for much of the season, Lockett's ability to get open made the job a lot easier for Waters, who completed 22 of 34 passes. The senior dual threat made the most out of breakdowns in the West Virginia secondary, as for the third time in four games his running ability was thwarted. Waters has carried the ball 19 times for 15 yards in his last two games.

"You have heard me say this time and time again about Jake. The experience of two years of practice and playing some games just made him better," Wildcats coach Bill Snyder told reporters. "Through that, he has gained so much more confidence."

The same could have been said for Clint Trickett before the past few weeks. The West Virginia quarterback had been one of the nation's breakout players, but his increasing propensity for turnovers has done the Mountaineers no favors.

Trickett added two interceptions Thursday, each halting potential West Virginia scoring drives. He finished 12-of-25 passing for 112 yards and left in the third quarter with an injury. Skyler Howard replaced Trickett and was far more effective under center, throwing for 198 yards and making plays with his legs.

West Virginia's offense was rejuvenated when Howard entered the game. Their uptempo attack began wearing down Kansas State's front seven, opening up the middle of the field. Howard hit Kevin White from seven yards out to score the team's first touchdown and then hit a streaking Mario Alford over the middle for 53 yards to make the game 23-17 with seven minutes and 23 seconds remaining. 

The Mountaineers' ability to extend drives on the ground proved a stark contrast to their opponents. West Virginia rushed for 123 yards against a paltry one for Kansas State. Rushel Shell had a game-high 60 yards, while Dreamius Smith added 35.

From a yardage and total plays standpoint, it would appear West Virginia had the upper hand for most of the game. And sometimes it felt like it did. But mental errors—not just ones from Trickett—helped the Wildcats come away with a victory.

West Virginia turned the ball over four times, compared to two for Kansas State, only one of which was meaningful. The disparity continued a trend that's existed all season. The Wildcats were tied for the nation's fourth-fewest turnovers coming into Thursday, with eight. The Mountaineers were No. 109 in the nation.

“They don’t do anything to hurt themselves,” Holgorsen said, per the school's official website. “They don’t have many negative plays. They’re just an efficient unit.”

Each of West Virginia's turnovers led directly to Wildcat points or likely points being wiped off the board for the Mountaineers. Wendell Smallwood's fumble wiped out a 1st-and-goal opportunity from the Kansas 2-yard line. Both Trickett interceptions were followed by Matthew McCrane field goals, as was Vernon Davis' muffed punt return in the third quarter.

McCrane proved a critical part of keeping Kansas State ahead. The freshman made four of five attempts with a long of 44 yards. Despite the fact that McCrane missed a gimme from 22 yards out early in the fourth quarter, Snyder put him on the field for a game-icing 32-yarder with just under three minutes remaining.

That decision led to some long looks from offensive players who wanted to attempt a 4th-and-inches conversion, but it wound up sending Kansas State home with a win.

The Wildcats play their last home game of 2014 next week against Kansas before closing out their regular season with a road trip to Baylor. While it'd be nearly impossible for Kansas State to get back into the playoff picture, Snyder and Co. can take solace in being a spoiler and potentially reaching one of the bowls formerly known as BCS contests.

West Virginia closes shop next week at Iowa State. The Mountaineers will look to end their fourth losing streak of three or more games in the past three seasons. Iowa State has yet to earn a Big 12 victory, so it's likely WVU ends 2014 on a high note. That's nonetheless little solace for a team that opened November inside the Top 20.

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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Clint Trickett Injury: Updates on West Virginia QB's Status and Return

An up-and-down season for West Virginia may begin trending down very quickly for the Mountaineers after Thursday night, as quarterback Clint Trickett was unable to finish the team's game against Kansas State due to an injury.

Josh Taylor of TribLIVE Radio has more:

Trickett has played well this season for West Virginia, throwing for 3,285 yards, 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He shined in the team's signature win this season over Baylor, finishing 23-for-46 with 322 passing yards, three touchdowns and a pick.

Still, he hasn't been able to keep the Mountaineers from losing three straight games and falling to a disappointing 6-5 on the season.

It's hard to imagine things will get any easier for the Mountaineers if his injury costs him the rest of the season, though Skyler Howard did throw for two touchdowns in relief duty against Kansas State after Trickett left in the third quarter.

West Virginia finishes its season on November 29 against Iowa State before likely playing in a low-level bowl game in December.

 

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Nebraska Football: Ranking the 5 Best Pro Prospects on the Cornhuskers

Still smarting from seeing Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon score again (and again and again) on the Blackshirts, Nebraska football fans are looking for anything to distract them from Saturday’s debacle. One exercise is to take a look at Nebraska’s roster and think about who the best NFL prospects are in scarlet and cream.

Judging NFL prospects has some subjectivity to it, of course—particularly when you look at younger kids who have not had an opportunity to see the field. Sometimes experience and what you have seen on film can rule the day, while other times, raw potential can make a player an exciting prospect.

So, trying to balance all of those considerations, here are Nebraska’s five best pro prospects.

 

All draft projections and measurables come from The Sports Xchange.

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Ohio State Football: What's Wrong with the Buckeyes' Run Defense?

With less than a minute and a half remaining in the second quarter of Ohio State University's matchup against the University of Minnesota, Gophers running back David Cobb burst past the Buckeyes' defensive line and raced to the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown. It was his second score of the afternoon—a score that tied the game at 14—and it pushed his rushing total to 96 yards in just two quarters of action.

Cobb's early success sent Ohio State defensive tackle Michael Bennett into a fury. The senior ripped his defensive teammates in the locker room at halftime for allowing the Gophers' running back to bully his way through the defense.

“I let them know that I wasn't happy about it, and I felt like there was a lot of apathy like, ‘Oh, we only let them get 14 points,' and I felt like we shouldn't have let them get any,” Bennett said, according to Patrick Maks of Eleven Warriors

"It was mostly just a call to action," the star lineman added. "We can’t be OK with that. You can’t let them run up the ball; we’re better than that. We need to form a wall and not let their running back get through."

That wall took shape after the break. Cobb had a much tougher time finding the lanes he cruised through to start the game—averaging just 3.7 yards per carry in the second half until he broke free on his final carry for a 12-yard touchdown. 

It's too early to tell if that second-half surge signified the end of Ohio State's struggles against the run. But with the Buckeyes shooting up the rankings and closing in on a coveted spot in college football's first playoff, coach Urban Meyer needs his defense to step up in a big way.

If those struggles continue, Ohio State could fall short of its lofty goals. 

The Buckeyes will be challenged this week when they host Indiana University. Hoosiers running back Tevin Coleman ranks second nationally with 1,678 rushing yards, and he has the speed and versatility to hurt Ohio State where it has struggled in recent weeks. 

The junior running back is coming off his best performance. He ran through—and past—Rutgers University on his way to a career-high 307 rushing yards last Saturday. That performance put the Buckeyes on alert, and they know they'll need to be at their best when Coleman and the Hoosiers invade Columbus.

“We have to do our job, or this guy’s gonna run all over us,” Buckeyes linebacker Darron Lee said, according to Eric Seger of The Ozone

What does that entail? How can Ohio State get the job done after giving up a combined 282 rushing yards and six touchdowns to Cobb and Michigan State University's Jeremy Langford over the last two weeks?

Meyer doesn't believe that any wholesale changes are needed schematically. The Buckeyes are comfortable in what they do—each defender just needs to do his part and rely on the formation to take care of itself.

"We just got to make sure we're gap sound—be very smart," Meyer said, according to Bill Landis of The Plain Dealer. "We're facing one of the best rush teams certainly in the Big Ten, and we're just, I think we're comfortable with the style of defense we're planning to go play Indiana and stop that run, limit that run offense."

The players tasked with stopping Coleman agree with their coach, and they're confident that the adjustments they made in the second half against the Gophers will carry over.

“I think you go from the Michigan State game to the Minnesota game, and really, we’ve got to wrap up and finish tackles in a couple of situations,” Lee said (via Seger). “But for Minnesota, I felt in the second half, we did a much better job of that. All that comes down to assignment, really.”

If the Buckeyes halt the Hoosiers and come out with a victory on Saturday, they'll clinch a spot in the Big Ten title game for the second consecutive year. That's where a matchup with the nation's top runner, the University of Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon, potentially awaits. 

The Badgers are in the driver's seat for the West Division after Gordon set a single-game FBS rushing record with 408 yards in a 59-24 demolition of No. 16 University of Nebraska. If Wisconsin can close out the year with victories over the University of Iowa and No. 25 Minnesota, it will book a trip to Indianapolis to play for the Big Ten title.

And if the Buckeyes need to stop Gordon in order to win their first Big Ten Championship since 2009, they'll need their run defense to improve in a big way. 

 

All stats via NCAA.com.

David Regimbal covers Ohio State football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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Tennessee Football: Biggest X-Factors for Vols vs. Missouri

A trying week for Tennessee's football team will end when a tough opponent comes to town Saturday night, and several key things must happen in order for the Volunteers to keep this late-season surge going.

At this point, it would be a monumental surprise if senior middle linebacker and emotional leader A.J. Johnson played against Missouri in the midst of a sexual assault investigation. The same goes for sophomore cornerback Michael Williams, who is also allegedly involved.

Throw in junior safety Brian Randolph's first-half suspension following a targeting call against Kentucky, and the Vols just got a whole lot more inexperienced against a Tigers offense that finally broke through against Texas A&M.

The investigation is unfortunate on so many levels more important than football. But even if the best happens and Johnson's name is cleared and legacy kept intact, it likely won't help the Vols on the football field Saturday in an extremely important game.

So many things are on the line versus Mizzou:

A bowl berth. Payback from the Tigers' current two-game winning streak over UT. National perception. An escalated program turnaround.

All those things can be attained with a win and by finishing the deal at Vanderbilt a week later. But this week poses the biggest remaining test.

Let's take a look at the X-factors for the Vols entering a crucial SEC East showdown.

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Duke Football Assistant Loses His Mind in Locker Room Before Game vs. UNC

You don't have to be playing in a college football rivalry game to get fired up for it.

Before their game against the North Carolina Tar Heels, Duke Blue Devils assistant Chris Hoover went nuts trying to energize his the team in the locker room, screaming and throwing a chair.

Someone get that guy some pads.

[Vine, h/t SB Nation]

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5 Most Important College Football Recruiting Visits of Week 13

The college football season has reached its final stretch. Aside from pivotal postseason ramifications, there is increased emphasis on rounding out recruiting classes during this time of year.

Those efforts include campus visits that could determine the final decisions of several high-profile recruits. Here's our latest look at top prospects who will be on the move in upcoming days.

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UNC vs. Duke : Live Score and Highlights

North Carolina 28, Duke 7—Early 2nd Quarter

It might not garner the attention of the hardwood edition, but a football game between archrivals North Carolina and Duke these days has much more at stake than bragging rights in North Carolina.

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College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Breaking Down Top Team's Key Matchups

It has taken 12 weeks and a lot of analysis, but the College Football Playoff standings are coming into focus. There's a clear trio at the top with Alabama, Oregon and Florida State, followed by all the chaos and uncertainty we have come to expect from the sport at this time of year. 

The BCS may be dead, but the arguments for which schools should be invited to the playoff party are still very much alive. It's funny how things try to change, yet when you get to the end of the year everything is the same as it ever was. 

Going over the latest rankings released by the selection committee, the first thing that jumps out is the various scenarios in which the standings can fall apart because of how the schedule works out. For a sport where teams have so much control over their schedule, it's amazing how things fall into place for drama in the final weeks. 

Here's a look at the key games left on the schedule for teams in the playoff race. Conference title games are not included since they haven't been set as of this writing. 

 

No. 1 Alabama: Key Game vs. No. 14 Auburn (Nov. 29)

The Iron Bowl has lost some of its luster thanks to Auburn losing back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Georgia, but it's still going to have huge playoff ramifications, assuming Western Carolina doesn't pull off the biggest upset in history against Alabama on Saturday. 

It's clear the selection committee loves Nick Saban's team, thanks in large part to wins over Texas A&M, LSU and Mississippi State. The last win was the biggest, as the Bulldogs were the No. 1 team at the time of the game. 

Another place that loves Alabama is Las Vegas. According to betting expert R.J. Bell of Pregame.com, the Crimson Tide would be given the edge against any other team in the country:

Even though the committee isn't supposed to be influenced by past results, it's hard not to take notice of what Saban has built with this program over the last seven years. 

Unlike last year's Iron Bowl, which turned into one of the most memorable games ever, everything is set up for Alabama to be in the Final Four. The game is played in Tuscaloosa against an Auburn defense that's allowed 35.8 points per game in its last five SEC contests. 

That's not a good trend when you are going up against the nation's most explosive wide receiver, as ESPN's College GameDay tweeted:

Unless Alabama starts beating itself, or the defense collapses for some unknown reason, it's hard to envision a scenario where it isn't playing in the College Football Playoff. Rivalry games are tricky, so don't dismiss Auburn completely in this spot. It just doesn't look good right now. 

 

No. 3 Florida State: Key Game vs. Florida (Nov. 29)

It's been a long time since an undefeated defending national champion has drawn as much skepticism as Florida State. It's certainly not unwarranted, as the Seminoles have been flirting with disaster all year dating back to the season opener against Oklahoma State. 

Somehow, Jameis Winston and Co. keep finding ways to win games, and that's all that matters. It may not be enough to push the team up to No. 1 in the eyes of the selection committee, but they won't fall out of the top four if things keep going this way. 

Matt Leinart, who led a USC team that was trying to repeat as BCS champions in 2005, made a great point about anyone trying to dismiss Florida State in a post on FoxSports.com:

I'd say the biggest difference between winning a first title and going for a second or third is the intense outside pressure from media and fans and the pressure you put on yourself to be perfect because that's the expectation that is set now. You can sneak up on a lot of people when you win your first title.

The Seminoles have been under a microscope all year and haven't blinked. It helps that the ACC lacks quality depth, but that's not something they can control. 

J.A. Adande of ESPN.com noted the dichotomy of this Florida State team in a pointed tweet during its comeback win against Miami:

There's going to come a time when these bad starts come back to bite Florida State. It may not come until the College Football Playoff because the schedule lacks quality. 

Let's look to the SEC for Florida State's last great test before figuring out if it will have a chance to repeat as champions. Florida has had its own difficulty this season, resulting in Will Muschampstepping down as head coach after the Gators' final game.

Muschamp has a chance to go out with a bang, knocking off Florida State in the regular-season finale for both teams. The Gators have already pulled off one shocker this year, defeating Georgia by running for 418 yards in a 38-20 romp. 

This isn't a great stylistic matchup for the Seminoles. Florida's defense has been solid all year, allowing 22.9 points per game, and Florida State has given up at least 26 points in three of its last four games. 

Florida State should run through the next two games against Boston College and Florida. At least one of those games will be closer than you think, though the Seminoles will keep walking the tightrope of success. 

 

No. 4 Mississippi State: Key Game at No. 8 Mississippi (Nov. 29)

The most fascinating game left on the schedule is the Egg Bowl between Mississippi State and Mississippi, though a lot depends on what Ole Miss does against Arkansas this week. If the Rebels take care of business on Saturday, it will give the Bulldogs one more chance to get a true marquee win. 

Looking over Mississippi State's schedule now, it doesn't look as good as it once did. At the time, the Bulldogs could boast about having three straight wins over Top 10 teams (LSU, Texas A&M, Auburn). Now, those three teams have combined to lose 11 games and only Auburn is in the Top 25. 

There's also a chance that Mississippi can still sneak back into the top four if it takes care of business against Arkansas and Mississippi State.

The Rebels are still ranked eighth; TCU and Baylor do not have a quality opponent remaining on the schedule, while Ohio State has a potentially difficult matchup with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. 

However, if you look at a head-to-head win over Wisconsin or Mississippi State, which team would have the better argument to move into the No. 4 spot if things break that way?

The Bulldogs are in a tenuous spot, though it's not just because of their ranking. Dak Prescott's Heisman campaign collapsed against Alabama by getting picked off three times, including twice in the red zone, via SportsCenter:

The Alabama game was just the tip of the iceberg for Prescott, who has thrown eight of his 10 interceptions in the Bulldogs' last four SEC games. His next challenge, assuming Vanderbilt doesn't get him this week, comes against the nation's top-ranked scoring defense. 

Like Florida State, Mississippi State was living on the edge with close calls against Kentucky and Arkansas. Unlike the Seminoles, Dan Mullen's team found the banana peel on the biggest stage. 

One thing the Bulldogs have going for them in the Egg Bowl is Mississippi's loss against Auburn. The Tigers run a read-option offense that confused the Rebels en route to putting up 35 points and 502 yards. 

Mississippi State doesn't live by the read-option, though it is an element of the offense. Prescott is at his best when teams are forced to stop him from running, opening up huge passing lanes when he does decide to throw the ball. 

Given all the problems Prescott has had in recent weeks, look for Mississippi to pull off the slight upset to get back in the playoff conversation. 

 

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

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Kansas State vs. West Virginia: Live Score and Highlights

No. 12 Kansas State Wildcats vs. West Virginia Mountaineers

Time: 7 p.m. ET

TV: Fox Sports 1

 

Both the K-State Wildcats and WVU Mountaineers are coming off byes following disappointing losses. 

The Wildcats were upended on the road by TCU in blowout fashion, while the Mountaineers were stunned by the the Texas Longhorns. 

Who will be the one to bounce back in Morgantown, Bill Snyder and Co. or Clint Trickett and Co.? 

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Which College Football Coaches Are Most Likely to Bolt for the NFL?

Much like an actual carousel has both horses and benches for patrons to ride on, the coaching carousel that's already in motion for college football extends beyond just filling head and assistant positions at the collegiate level.

We can't forget about the pro route, not when seemingly every offseason features a college head coach jumping to the pros. Penn State's Bill O'Brien left after last season to coach the Houston Texans, and in 2013 we lost Syracuse's Doug Marrone to the Buffalo Bills and Oregon's Chip Kelly to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Who's next?

We won't see any upward movement for several weeks, since the NFL regular season doesn't end until Dec. 28. But that doesn't mean the speculation hasn't already started regarding who might bolt for the NFL, either after this season or sometime in the future.

Here's our look at the college coaches most likely to be in the pros next season, listed alphabetically.

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Throwback Thursday: Ohio State's Devin Smith Makes Ridiculous 1-Handed TD Catch

Now that the Ohio State Buckeyes have crept back into the College Football Playoff picture, it's time to take a trip down memory lane to see just how talented one of their best playmakers was early in his career.

In the opening game of the 2012 season against the Miami Redhawks, Ohio State sophomore receiver Devin Smith made a ridiculous one-handed touchdown catch. The 23-yard touchdown was only worth six points in the game, but it's a highlight that will live on forever.

This was also the first touchdown of the Urban Meyer era in Columbus.

Smith—now wearing No. 9—has turned into the Buckeyes' playmaker at receiver. The senior wideout has 564 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on just 22 catches this season.

[YouTube]

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Why Alabama Is Ready to Stop Auburn's Tempo in 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Don’t tell Nick Saban, but we’re going to take a peek ahead before Alabama hosts Western Carolina in what should be a stinker of a football game.

Fans of the No. 1 Crimson Tide are already looking ahead, too, at a chance for revenge over Auburn for last season’s stunning 34-28 win. The team is also looking to keep its national title hopes alive.

One storyline that Alabama and Saban seemingly can’t escape is the defense against uptempo teams, especially Auburn.

Last season, Alabama held Auburn to roughly 100 yards below the Tigers’ season average but gave up big plays at inopportune times when Auburn went tempo.

Nick Marshall scored on a 45-yard run in the first quarter and hit Sammie Coates in the game’s final seconds for a 39-yard touchdown pass that tied the game.

While Auburn has taken a small step back offensively this season, it is still a force to be reckoned with. But this year, Alabama is ready to slow down that tempo offense even more and come away with a win in the regular-season finale.

It starts, as it always does, up front.

Alabama’s defensive line is incredibly deep this season. It has regularly used five and six defensive linemen in a rotation, keeping guys fresh as the game goes on.

And that group is playing with a mean streak. The line has looked more explosive off the ball.

“Striking. Come out of our hips. Stay in our gaps. Pushing, knocking the line back,” defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson said when asked what’s made them so good in rush defense. “I feel that’s pretty much what a defense has to do to be successful.”

All of that has been evident this season, as you can see here in a play against LSU’s Leonard Fournette:

But the biggest difference for Alabama has been behind those defensive linemen.

The Crimson Tide’s linebacking corps is much improved from last season and much more suited to stop hurry-up and spread offenses.

Reggie Ragland is a big reason for that and is Alabama’s most improved defender this season. He’s turned into an alpha dog as the season has worn on and is excellent at playing in space.

Take this play from Alabama’s win over Tennessee (2:17 mark):

Ragland tracks Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs, an athletic runner in open space, the whole way. He closes in, makes a play and jars the ball loose.

He’s also incredibly athletic, as he showed with this interception against Texas A&M:

On the edge, Alabama has been much better at getting to the quarterback.

The Crimson Tide are already ahead of last season’s sack total. They’ve been led by two outside linebackers who didn’t play much last season.

Xzavier Dickson leads the team with seven sacks, while Ryan Anderson is tied for second with three. The pair is a much more athletic upgrade over Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall, Alabama’s two starting outside linebackers last season.

The secondary is Alabama’s most improved unit on the team as a whole.

Cyrus Jones locked down a cornerback spot, while Eddie Jackson has played well opposite him and seems to have taken control of the No. 2 spot. Landon Collins might be the best defensive player in the country at strong safety, and Nick Perry is coming into his own next to him at free safety.

Jones, in particular, has been a welcome surprise. Last week, the 5’10” converted wide receiver was matched up with the 6’5” De’Runnya Wilson of Mississippi State. He held his own, despite giving up a few inches in height.

“They see the film and know I don't shy away from contact,” Jones said. “Definitely, earlier they probably looked at my size and manhandle me and push me around. That's something I pride myself on, being physical. I think when you are my size or smaller, you have to be even more physical because you are not intimidating anyone with your size. It's just going out there and be scrappy, especially with the big receivers.”

His play culminated with this interception late in the third quarter, when he tracked the ball in the end zone and made a play:

That’s a good sign, considering Auburn has two of the most physical receivers in the country. Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams, who both check in at 6’2”, are the kinds of receivers that have given Alabama problems. But Alabama has shown this year that size won’t be an issue at receiver.

It all should be a recipe for a success against an offense that has given Alabama fits in the past.

 

Marc Torrence is the Alabama lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow on Twitter @marctorrence.

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There's No Room for Cinderella Teams in New College Football Playoff

You are invited to the biggest party of the year on the condition that you sit in the corner the whole time and don't bring any of your friends. That's the deal. Take it or leave it.

And that's roughly what happened behind closed doors in the making of the College Football Playoff. It's why we are where we are now, with five conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, ACC) holding all the power and five known as the Group of Five (Mountain West, Sun Belt, American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American) not whining because they're just happy to be invited, sort of.

It's the dysfunction that explains why we have two undefeated teams: One is Florida State, the defending national champs, ranked No. 3, and likely headed to this year's playoff. The other is Marshall, unranked, with zero chance of getting into the playoff. It also had zero chance before the season even started.

It explains how college football has killed Cinderella.

"We try to eliminate all the noise,'' Marshall coach Doc Holliday told Bleacher Report, "and not get hung up in where we are and what people think about us.''

Ah yes, coach-speak. But did you have a fair chance from the start?

"There's a lot of football to be played,'' he said. "Three weeks left. Maybe we can have this conversation three weeks from now. Ask me about it then.''

This is the no-whining part of the deal. You can argue that Marshall—and Colorado State or Boise State, for that matter—is, in fact, getting all that it deserves. Or you can argue that it isn't. That's not the point.

Look, everyone loves the first week of the NCAA Tournament, mostly because the little guy gets a chance against the big boys (at no risk to your bracket). Butler, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Valparaiso. You can name a dozen of them or more.

"What's better than that?" Holliday said. "It's what college is all about."

The truth is, those teams don't bring in big TV ratings all year, don't fill big stadiums. They also don't win the national championship. But they have a fair chance, a ticket into the party as a full guest. It's something about fair play and opportunity.

Marshall could fit that perfectly in college football now.   

"At least people are talking about us now," Holliday said. "The last couple years, nobody knew who we were."

College football has never really been about the little guy. But in the past few years, we've seen Utah, from the Mountain West Conference, crush Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. TCU, back when it was in the Mountain West, beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Boise State beat Oklahoma. In fact, of the 13 non-big time teams that got to play a big-timer in the major bowls under the old BCS, the non-big-timers won seven and lost six.

Now, under the new system, they are being left out. I'm not saying that Marshall deserves a spot in the top four and to play for the championship. But it deserved a chance to get there.

Marshall has beaten just one team with a winning record, Rice. But its conference, Conference USA, is in the same major college category as, say, the Big Ten. And if it runs through a major conference undefeated and can't even get someone to look at it, was it really involved in the playoff at all?

The Associated Press has Marshall at No. 18 and Colorado State, which has lost once, is No. 22. The coaches' poll has Marshall 18 and CSU 23.

The playoff poll?

Both are unranked. Minnesota, with three losses, is No. 25.

A few weeks ago, the talk was whether the College Football Playoff selection committee would be biased toward the SEC, partly because of the influence of ESPN, which basically funds the playoff and also owns the SEC network. Even Nebraska coach Bo Pelini told Bleacher Report he wondered the same thing.

The real bias is against the Group of Five. There are five active athletic directors on the selection committee. All of them come from Power Five conferences. Those conferences get big bucks when one of its teams get into the playoff. And the committee chooses, with whatever standards it wants, which four teams get in.

Holliday says that at least things are better for the Group of Five now than they were under the BCS, when a team had to be ranked in the top 12 to get a spot in one of the major bowls. Now, the top team in the Group of Five automatically gets one of the bowl games right beneath the playoff.

Improvement, Holliday calls it. You might call it hush money, actually.

See, a few years ago, when Utah was undefeated and not getting a shot at the title game, antitrust rumblings started threatening the Power Five. Some politicians argued that you can't call it a national championship if everyone doesn't have a fair shot at it.

Note that the College Football Playoff is not called the College Football National Championship.

The Power Five voted for autonomy, and soon will surely be paying players, something the Group of Five won't be able to afford. But in the making of the College Football Playoff, the Power Five included the Group of Five. Why? Mostly to avoid antitrust issues.

The deal, basically, was this: We'll give you a spot in one of the bowls. You don't sue us. And you'll get a little additional slice of the enormous pie we're about to split up. Deal?

Deal. Commissioners of all 10 conferences voted to approve of the playoff.

I saw Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson at the BCS meetings last year, and he was thrilled just to be included, though he acknowledged the playing field was just slanted even more against him.

Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson looks at it more optimistically. He argues that with conference realignment finally done—he lost TCU and Utah—his conference can now start building toward getting into consideration for the playoff. With the selection made this year on Dec. 7, Mountain West officials point out that on that date in 2004, Utah was ranked No. 5; in 2009, TCU was No. 3; in 2010, TCU was No. 3 again.

Today, that would be put the Mountain West in discussion for the playoff.

Holliday feels Marshall has a strong case, noting that it ranks in the top 10 in the county in scoring offense and in scoring defense.

"We don't want anything just given to us," he said. "But there are teams out there (in the Group of Five) that can play really good football."

Sure, and the best one will be able to celebrate that fact quietly, in the corner.

 

Greg Couch covers college football for Bleacher Report. He also writes for The New York Times and was formerly a scribe for FoxSports.com and the Chicago Sun-Times. Follow him on Twitter @gregcouch.

 

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SEC Football: Power Ranking Each Team Based on NFL Talent

When NFL scouts head out each Saturday in search of future talent, the stadiums of the SEC are tops on the list.

Last year the conference saw 49 players taken in the 2014 NFL draft, the most of any FBS league. That followed a record 63 SEC players drafted the year before.

Projections by CBS Sports and NFL Draft Scout list more than 60 potential draft picks from the SEC, which shouldn't be surprising considering how dominant the league's teams have been on the field this season.

How does that pro talent break down, team by team? Check out our power ranking of SEC football teams, based on NFL-level players.

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Beast of the Week: Watch 5-Star LB Malik Jefferson Score Two Impressive TDs

There is a reason Malik Jefferson (Mesquite Poteet HS, Mesquite, TX) is a 5-star OLB—per 247sports.com—and the No.1 ranked outside linebacker in the country. Check out his stat line from Mesquite's 36-0 win over Woodrow Wilson HS: five tackles, one for a loss, fumble recovery, caused safety, 15-yard blocked punt return for TD and 41-yard fumble return for TD. 

That was enough for him to earn him our Beast of the Week honors. 

Where will Jefferson play his college ball?

Check out the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Biggest Position Need for James Franklin and Penn State's 2015 Recruiting Class

James Franklin and the Penn State Nittany Lions have been hitting the recruiting trail hard addressing their biggest need—bolstering the offensive line. 

Bleacher Report's College Football Analyst Michael Felder discusses some of the key recruits Penn State is planning to bring in next season. 

Has Penn State done enough to get back to the elite level?

Check out the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

NCAA Football Rankings: Breaking Down Week 13 College Football Playoff Poll

The Week 13 College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday, and the Alabama Crimson Tide jumped the undefeated Florida State Seminoles in the Top 25 poll.

There are many college football fans who believe Florida State deserves to be No. 1 overall (currently the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll), but Alabama’s victory over Mississippi State was enough to make the jump to the top.

Here are the Week 13 College Football Playoff rankings and a breakdown of the top teams in the nation.

 

 

Breaking Down the Top Four Teams

After a wild weekend, the College Football Playoff committee made wholesale changes to the top four teams, launching Alabama to No. 1, keeping Oregon and Florida State at No. 2 and No. 3 respectively and sliding Mississippi State to No. 4.

The Crimson Tide beat former top-ranked Mississippi State last week, 25-20, and earned respect in the minds of those in the voting committee. Using one of the nation’s toughest defenses (second overall in points allowed per game), Alabama proved once again that it is a National Championship favorite.

Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban is not looking too far ahead, but still managed to take a subtle jab at his team’s next opponent in an interview with Andrew Gribble of AL.com:

This is a good little team that we're playing. They've won seven games this year, so it gives us an opportunity to really try to execute against a team that does a lot of things very similar to some of the teams we're going to play here in the future. The challenge is, it's about us and what we do and how we get better.

The good little team Saban is referencing is Western Carolina. While Alabama should run through the Catamounts, the final game of the regular season will be an Iron Bowl battle against Auburn. If Alabama beats Auburn, the SEC Championship Game awaits.

Getting to No. 1 overall was tough. Staying at No. 1 overall will be even tougher.

Another team ranked higher than the undefeated Seminoles in the standings was the Oregon Ducks. With a 9-1 record and wins over Michigan State, UCLA and Utah, Oregon has played their way into the top four and looks to hold onto the spot for the remainder of the season.

Matchups against Colorado and Oregon State set up perfectly for the Ducks, and if the team wins out for the remainder of the regular season, a Pac 12 Championship is almost a foregone conclusion. As long as quarterback Marcus Mariota continues to play well, Oregon will be a serious threat to win the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Finally, coming in at No. 3 is Florida State. Quarterback Jameis Winston and the Seminoles have taken down every team they have played this season, but there have been several come-from-behind wins and inconsistency throughout the year.

With all of that said, Florida State is the defending national champion and has not been defeated this season. There is a case to be made that the Seminoles deserve the top spot in the nation, but the voters don’t agree. The team must win big against Boston College and Florida to make a lasting impression on the College Football Playoff committee.

The fourth team in the rankings in Week 13 is Mississippi State. After a heart-breaking loss to Alabama, the Bulldogs are still one of the best teams in the country, boasting wins over LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn.

Mississippi State has a game against Vanderbilt Saturday and a regular-season finale against the Ole Miss Rebels, and the team will have to earn its spot in the top four over the next two weeks with decisive victories.

The loss to Alabama will be tough to swallow, but as long as the Bulldogs can focus on the next two games, there is little doubt that a one-loss Mississippi State program deserves to be in the top four at the end of the season.

There were many questions about which four teams deserved to be in the Playoff, but the voting committee has found the programs that are the best in the nation. If all four teams win out, these will be the teams that make the Playoff.

 

*Stats via ESPN.com.

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USC Football: Will Trojans Finally Stop Nemesis Brett Hundley?

Perhaps no other player is as synonymous with No. 9-ranked UCLA’s rise than quarterback Brett Hundley, which No. 19 USC is quite familiar with.

Hundley has started every game of head coach Jim Mora’s three-season tenure, leading the Bruins to a 27-10 record in that time.

“He’s won a lot of football games for us here,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said.

Two of those wins came at USC’s expense and produced signature moments from Hundley.

In 2012, he completed 22 of 30 pass attempts with a touchdown and rushed for another two scores. Last season, Hundley tacked on two more rushing touchdowns against the Trojans.

Unless the Trojans can find a way to contain the dual-threat playmaker Saturday in the Rose Bowl, Hundley will add a third victory over the Bruins’ rival to his impressive resume.

USC linebacker Scott Felix doesn’t need a reminder.

“We always keep UCLA in our mind, and I’m sure they do the same thing with us,” he said. “[UCLA and USC] don’t like each other.”

Obviously, motivation is of no concern, but such is the case for both teams. Execution of strategy will determine Saturday’s winner, and USC may have no strategy more important than its plan to limit Hundley.

 

Pick Your Poison

This season’s matchup with UCLA is USC’s first with head coach Steve Sarkisian on the sideline. Though Sarkisian was not involved in those losses, he’s all too familiar with the damage Hundley can do either as a passer or ball-carrier.

“Brett presents some interesting problems for a defense,” Sarkisian said. “One: He can make every throw. It’s not like you’re going to take something away in hopes he can’t do something else.”

Hundley’s ability to move the ball around the field is reflected both in his completion percentage, which leads the nation at 72.1, and the numbers UCLA wide receivers are putting up.

Six Bruins have at least 21 catches on the year, and the same number of players have caught multiple touchdown passes.

The return of previously suspended cornerback Josh Shaw gives a thin USC secondary much-needed support at an opportune time.

But where USC struggled with containing Hundley in the past was via the second of his skills Sarkisian spotlighted.

“The athleticism kicks in, especially on third down,” Sarkisian said. “You look at their conversion rate on third down (42 percent), you look at how efficient they are in the red zone (97.4 percent, No. 1 in the nation).

“Those are really all a byproduct of his athleticism, his ability when things aren’t there to pull the ball down and run and convert third downs and get touchdowns in the red zone,” Sarkisian added.

Bad news for the Trojans is that Hundley is running with the most confidence he’s exhibited this season during the Bruins’ ongoing four-game win streak.

He has games of 94, 110 and 131 rushing yards over UCLA’s last four and has scored four of his seven rushing touchdowns in that same stretch.

 

Protecting Hundley

Opponents had a clear-cut strategy for containing Hundley in each of the Bruins’ two losses this season, and it’s a blueprint Felix said the Trojans plan to follow.

"We're going to be trying to get Hundley as much as we can," he said.

On Oct. 4, Utah brought Hundley down for 10 sacks. Oregon got to him just twice, but one resulted in a fumble that set up the Ducks in the red zone.

USC has not been a blitzing team this season—prior to facing Cal last week, USCFootball.com's Ryan Abraham examined how the Trojans blitzed the least of any team in the power-five conferences—but defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox cranked up the heat on Golden Bears quarterback Jared Goff.

The result: four sacks and seven tackles for loss.

Continuing to apply pressure would seemingly be a recipe for USC’s success, but UCLA has made considerable strides in the back half of the campaign.

Since a rocky start in which defenses racked up 23 sacks against the Bruins, they've allowed just six through the last four games.

“If you take a snapshot of where we are right now, where you really see it pay dividends is how much better our pass protection is,” Mazzone said.

He credited the Bruins’ corps of running backs for stepping up in that regard, but also praised Hundley for exhibiting better awareness while under pressure.

“That’s another thing Brett’s gotten better at, too,” Mazzone said.

 

X-Factors

Countering athleticism with athleticism may prove vital to USC’s defensive strategy. It’s fortunate for the Trojans, then, that they have two of the Pac-12’s most athletic playmakers on that side of the ball.

One is sophomore Su’a Cravens, the hybrid safety-linebacker who has done a little bit for everything for USC this season.

Cravens is as effective when dropping back into pass coverage as he is when blitzing, but his primary role on Saturday could well be as an additional run-stopper against Hundley on zone-read plays.

The other athletic X-factor for USC is defensive tackle Leonard Williams, whom Mazzone called, “one of the best [defensive] linemen in this conference.”

When Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy gashed USC for 181 yards on the ground, the Eagles left Williams unblocked. Murphy dictated his reads based on Williams’ location.

Since that game, however, Williams put together one of his best individual performances of the year in the Trojans’ win at Arizona. He helped negate Wildcats quarterback Anu Solomon’s ability to make plays on the ground with eight tackles and two sacks.

Of course, Williams and Cravens are as much constants of the USC defense as Hundley is in the UCLA offense.

Where Saturday’s outcome could be decided is the from contribution of role players—role players like sophomore linebacker Quinton Powell, a revelation for the Trojans’ pass rush in recent weeks.

Powell recorded his first sack of the season against Cal and made his first tackle for loss the previous game at Washington State.

“We’ve adjusted his role some,” Sarkisian explained. “We put him back into a role of what he’s comfortable doing and what he did in high school. That’s rushing the passer. In some of the obvious passing situations, we’re able to get him on the field and he’s been effective.”

Powell and Felix both stepped up with starter J.R. Tavai injured, but Jordan Moore of USCTrojans.com reports Tavai is set to return to give Wilcox more blitzing options.

And, certainly, the more options USC has on defense, the better. Stopping Hundley is going to require an all-hands-on-deck effort.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise cited. Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com.

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