NCAA Football

UCLA Is Your New Playoff Dark Horse

UCLA football players are using eye black as war paint, coach Jim Mora is using language at pep rallies that has to be censored and the team just outmuscled its usual bully, USC...

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UCLA Is Your New Playoff Darkhorse

UCLA football players are using eye black as war paint, coach Jim Mora is using language at pep rallies that has to be censored and the team just outmuscled its usual bully, USC. What on earth is happening with laid-back, soft, second-fiddle-in-the-sun UCLA football?    

The Bruins are clearly one of the four best college football teams in the country right now. Better than Florida State. Better than Mississippi State. Maybe better than anyone. They're making a late run like we usually see and love with March Madness. When the College Football Playoff rankings come out Tuesday, UCLA figures to be ranked no higher than 7 or 8.

It might be the new darkhorse for getting one of the four spots in the playoff, but because it took a while for the team to develop this far, it is a darkhorse at best.

The question for the playoff selection committee is whether it's supposed to pick the four teams with best body of work for the whole season, or just the four best teams on Dec. 7, the day the regular season ends.

There is a difference.

For all the chatter this year about the playoff and who belongs, how have we gotten this far without anyone mentioning UCLA? Actually, there was a little talk earlier, until they lost to Utah and Oregon at home.

Now, Mora's team has rounded perfectly into his vision, but is there room for a team like that in the playoff? There should be. But there has always been the feeling that a deserving team or two is going to be left out of this playoff.

(That's why it should be an eight-team field, with the winners of the top five conferences guaranteed a spot. That way teams can get better as the year goes on and not be punished for finding their footing early on.)

Mora has gotten UCLA here by focusing on toughness, the opposite of UCLA's image. USC was always the one beating up on UCLA. Yes, this past week, we saw the war paint and the fired-up language from Mora.

But I got to see another toughness-building ritual first hand at a team practice in the summer of 2013. When practice ended, the players walked off, except for the kicking team, which lined up a 52-yard field goal attempt for kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn. It was a sunny day, but one of the assistant coaches stood near the line of scrimmage with two spray bottles, bobbing and weaving while squirting water in Fairbairn's face during the kick.

The kick was good, and Fairbairn explained a few minutes later that that's how practice ended every day, with him making a 52-yarder, the distance he had missed in the rain in the final minutes of the 2012 Pac-12 title game. Sometimes, people sprayed stuff at him, sometimes threw stuff at him, sometimes bumped him.

It was all part of Mora's toughening-up of soft UCLA. Even the kicker wasn't exempt.

"We're a physical football team," Mora said in his postgame press conference. "UCLA is a physical team. We take pride in the way we play."

It is trendy in L.A. to say that UCLA now owns the town. Mora said it last year. And after the game Saturday, quarterback Brett Hundley told reporters: 

The key word there was "stomp." I'm not sure UCLA really owns the town yet; it takes a long time to make a change that big stick. Kids grow up in L.A. wanting to play for USC. But Mora, in his third year at UCLA, has beaten USC three times in a row.

And this win over USC carried extra meaning for UCLA, not only because it showed that the offensive line has developed from early in the year, and Hundley has calmed down and the defensive front was finally all over a quarterback, sacking USC's Cody Kessler six times.

It was because UCLA was so physically dominating. And doing that to USC was the breakthrough UCLA needed nationally.

But is it too late to get into the playoff? We can't just forget two losses. None of the other contenders has more than one, unless you count Georgia as a contender.

The truth about this season, though, is that there is no dominant team. Some team was going to have to emerge and grow into a national champion. Maybe that's Alabama, but it doesn't seem right that it had to be someone who was already a top team in the first few weeks of the season.

UCLA has played the nation's ninth-toughest schedule, according to the Sagarin ratings. It has wins over Arizona, Arizona State, USC and Texas. If it beats Stanford on Friday and Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, then it will deserve a spot.

The committee has been ranking UCLA higher than most people would have. Give them credit: They have seen something others have missed. But the math is going to be hard for UCLA to get past. It might need Ohio State to lose the Big Ten title game, Florida State to lose to Florida, maybe even Baylor to lose to Kansas State.

Mora said the win over USC "sets us up to keep chasing our dreams."

He was talking about the Pac-12 title. But with a four-team playoff, one of the best teams in the nation shouldn't have to stop dreaming there.

 

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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5-Star Keisean Lucier-South Reveals Why He Chose UCLA over USC, Michigan, Others

Keisean Lucier-South provided a pregame lift before one of the Bruins' biggest matchups of the year Saturday when he committed to UCLA. The 5-star Southern California defender decided to end a nationwide recruitment during his latest trip to campus:

The 6'5", 225-pound Orange Lutheran High School senior unveiled his intentions shortly before UCLA hosted USC. An impassioned pursuit finally paid off for the Bruins.

"I felt like the time was right to make a decision and commit to the program," Lucier-South told Bleacher Report. "They've been recruiting me for two years now, and we've built a relationship that I'm comfortable with. I'm excited to be a Bruin."

He revealed the decision privately Wednesday during a family gathering. UCLA and the media didn't find out until three days later.

However, Bruins coaches were still able to relive the excitement of his initial announcement.

"My stepmom actually filmed me explaining the decision to my family on Wednesday," Lucier-South said.

He first played the video for defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Head coach Jim Mora then got a peek and reacted accordingly.

"Coach Mora gave me a big hug right away and said he was really happy that I decided to join the team," Lucier-South said. "They were all pumped up about me becoming part of the family."

That close-knit relationship between him and the Bruins staff set the stage for his pledge. Lucier-South cited comfort and potential as motivating factors.

"Coach Ulbrich has been in communication with me constantly since I was a sophomore," he said. "It means a lot to have that trust and understanding when you're coming into a program for the next four years. I think this team is definitely moving in the right direction."

Lucier-South, rated second nationally among weak-side defensive ends and 23rd overall in 247Sports' composite rankings, enjoyed a productive career as an upperclassman. He tallied 85 tackles and 17 sacks during the past two seasons, per MaxPreps.

"I have a better understanding of the game and how to handle blocking schemes than ever before," Lucier-South said. "I was double-teamed and triple-teamed all season, which made me a better player. My pass-rushing moves are coming along, and there's a lot of things I'm working on to prepare for competition in college."

He adds to a class that's now listed 13th nationally in 247Sports' composite rankings and includes No. 1 quarterback prospect Josh Rosen, who Lucier-South competed against for three seasons in high school.

"I hated playing Josh these past few years," he said. "He's the best quarterback I've ever faced, and I've gone up against some good ones. I'm glad he's on my side now."

Lucier-South celebrated his decision by taking in a seat in the Rose Bowl for one of America's most storied college football rivalries. The Bruins defeated visiting USC for a third straight season.

"It was my first time attending a UCLA-USC game live, so that meant a lot," he said. "I felt so excited to be a Bruin that I just wanted to get on that field Saturday to help the team. Obviously I couldn't, but I'm ready to be a part of the rivalry starting next year."

USC made a late push for Lucier-South after not showing substantial interest during the majority of his recruitment. The Trojans' efforts elevated in recent months, including an in-person appearance from head coach Steve Sarkisian at one of his games.

“I thought USC wasn’t really interested in me because they just didn't recruit me much," Lucier-South said last month. "Honestly, that was pretty disappointing because I grew up watching the team and have a lot of good memories and respect for the program. It blew me away when Coach Sark showed up to my game, and it showed me how much they actually care about me."

Still, late momentum wasn't enough to carry USC past UCLA in this pursuit.

The coveted defender admits the toughest part was telling other programs he wasn't going to join them. His past official visits included Michigan, Oregon and Oklahoma.

"That definitely wasn't easy," Lucier-South said. "I've been able to become close with a lot of great coaches, and I understand how much they hoped I'd be a part of their teams in the future. At the end of the day, I had to do what felt right for me, and it was clear that was UCLA."

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report national recruiting columnist Tyler Donohue.

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

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5-Star Keisean Lucier-South Reveals Why He Chose UCLA over USC, Michigan, Others

Keisean Lucier -South provided a pregame lift before one of the Bruins' biggest matchups of the year Saturday when he committed to UCLA...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

How Arkansas Will Beat Missouri and Keep Georgia's Playoff Dream Alive

Missouri is in the driver's seat for the SEC East title, but the Georgia Bulldogs are lying in the weeds waiting for a Tigers loss. This puts a much greater emphasis on the Arkansas vs. Missouri matchup this coming week, as it may decide the SEC East representative. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee explain why they think the Georgia Bulldogs will represent the East in the SEC Championship.

Who will represent the SEC East in the championship game?

Watch the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Eric LeGrand Discusses HBO's State of Play in Bleacher Report Exclusive

On Oct. 16, 2010, Eric LeGrand's life changed forever. A promising defensive lineman at Rutgers, LeGrand was serving on the kick coverage team when he attempted to make a seemingly innocuous tackle on Army return man Malcolm Brown.  

Lowering his head as he had so many times, LeGrand connected with Brown's shoulder and sent him spinning to the ground. It would be his last collegiate tackle.

The torque of the hit caused LeGrand to suffer fractures to his C3-C4 vertebrae, paralyzing him from the neck down. Doctors gave him almost no chance he'd walk again, and for most of his early hospital stay he was forced to breathe from a ventilator. 

More than four years removed from his life-changing injury, LeGrand now serves as inspiration for millions. Through arduous rehabilitation and the support of family, friends and former teammates, LeGrand regained movement in his shoulders and sensation through his entire body. In his recovery he's become a renowned sports figure, a spokesperson for multinational brands and one of the leaders working on a cure for paralysis. 

In 2012, he was awarded the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance, signed an honorary contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was named the most influential person in New Jersey sports by The Star-Ledger. In 2013, his No. 52 was retired by Rutgers University—the first number ever retired by the program. He's started a charity, written a book and began a broadcasting career all by the age of 24. 

Now LeGrand can add documentary subject to his ever-growing list of accomplishments. 

LeGrand is one of two focuses in State of Play: Broken, which debuts Tuesday night (10 p.m. ET) on HBO. The second part of a four-documentary series, Broken tells the stories of LeGrand and mountain biker Steve Shope, a childhood friend of director Peter Berg who was paralyzed while riding.

The film seeks to get a better understanding of their respective lives, how they deal with their paralysis on a day-to-day basis and the effect their injuries have had on the people closest to them. LeGrand discussed State of Play, his charity work and more in a one-on-one interview with Bleacher Report on Monday. 

 

B/R:  I wanted to start off talking a little bit about the film. Can you give a brief synopsis on how the story unfolds from your perspective, and what made you want to get involved with the project?

Eric LeGrand: It started when I met Peter Berg on the Lower East Side about two years ago. He told me he wanted to do a documentary with one of his buddies [Steve Shope] and I about how people are living with paralysis. And it’s not just the positive stories, he wants to see the insides of it—the things people don’t see behind the scenes. 

When you see the film, you’re going to see the struggles of this injury and what people go through. You can see how someone’s life can change on the drop of the dime. Like Steve, he’s older than me, married with kids. Then there’s me, a younger kid with my dreams of going to the NFL. It doesn’t discriminate—it can happen to anybody at any time.

I wanted to get that out there and have people see and have a feel for [the realities of paralysis]. And to not look at people in a wheelchair and see them as sickly or diseased from an injury.

 

B/R: So, you wanted to give them a look at the downsides, instead of what they see on television? At a behind-the-scenes look at the realities?

EL: Yeah, when you see my story on TV it’s all the positive, inspirational stuff. It’s great, but I want people to see the behind-the-scenes stuff. How do I live with this injury on a day-to-day basis? How do I go about my life? Who are the people that are helping me that you don’t see? What kind of struggles do I go through on the night? Like waking up my mom to come scratch for me. Or when my mom needs a break, who is bringing me around?

Seeing how a community comes together—this injury really shows the behind-the-scenes stuff that people never get to see. They’re usually the pieces that get left out.

 

B/R: Peter Berg, who collaborated with HBO on this project, has done extensive work in sports—most notably with Friday Night Lights and ESPN’s 30 for 30. Did his resume play any factor in you getting involved?

EL: I’m not gonna lie to you, I didn’t know who Peter Berg was when I first met him. He came up to me at a pizzeria on the Lower East Side and was like, "Hey, are you Eric LeGrand?" And I’m thinking maybe he’s one of my supporters or fans who just wanted to say hello. Then my friend goes, "You’re the director of Friday Night Lights?" And I was like "Wait, what?" [laughs]

After that, we stayed in touch and became close friends. Then he came up with this idea and I was all for it.

 

B/R: A lot of people know your story, but I don’t think nearly as many are aware of Steve Shope’s. Did you know of Steve before filming began? And how well did you get to know him throughout the process?

EL: I had no idea who Steve was. He was one of Berg’s high school friends. He had this paralyzing injury too—it just shows you how it goes with this injury. It can happen to anybody, and it changes people’s lives.

I had no idea who Steve Shope was before I got to meet him working with Peter Berg. We consider ourselves a family you don’t want to be a part of. Once you’re in it, you’re in it. You have each other’s backs and reach out whenever you need support. 

 

B/R: So filming was a bonding experience?

EL: It was. You get to see different sides of how people go through paralysis. He had a career, he had a daughter and son in college, a wife—and then he has to handle that now. Then you look at myself, a college kid in my junior year working hard to get to the NFL and my life instantly changes.

Two totally different sides, and you get to see the similarities and differences of the injury from people’s lives. 

 

Q: In the aftermath of your injury, you went through countless hours of rehabilitation. Stuff that most people couldn’t even imagine. How did you make your way through and keep battling? Was there anyone or anything in particular who helped push you?

EL: My support system has been tremendous. They’ve guided me and pushed me through this whole thing. All the people I’ve been able to touch by just being the person I am keeps me motivated. It makes me take this as a responsibility. I gotta get better, I can’t let all these people down, I can’t give up on them. 

 

B/R: I know you and Coach (Greg) Schiano have a special relationship. You (symbolically) signed a contract with the Buccaneers when he was with the team in 2012. What was the best moment of that whirlwind?

EL: That day I got to sign the contract was incredible, but it was the first time I actually got to do down there and address the team in the locker room. I got people like Dallas Clark, who I watched catch passes from Peyton Manning my whole life who’s now on my favorite team, and he’s sitting in the front row smiling listening to my story. Then talking to Gerald McCoy down there.

They brought me in like I was part of the family. I felt like one of the players like I was at Rutgers. I felt that about the team in Tampa Bay too. All these guys I’ve seen play before and been looking up to, and I get to share my story with them? And they want to hear every part of it. You could hear a pin drop in there.

That was probably the most amazing part. 

 

B/R: It was probably a relief to be treated like part of the team again. 

EL: Exactly. Exchanging numbers with them, joking around with locker room talk, sharing stories from when I was in college, from when they were in college. It was incredible. 

 

B/R: One of the things I like about the State of Play series is that it takes micro stories and applies them to macro issues. Yours and Steve’s stories can be applicable to anyone fighting through a rough time in their life. How do you approach being a role model to so many—does it ever get rough?

EL: It comes with the territory. That’s the best thing about it. I’m just living the life the only way I know how to, and if people look up to me that’s even better because it helps them. Sometimes people think I need to put on a show for everyone, but no. I’m not going to put on a show for anyone. This is who I am. I’m happy, and if you look up to me that’s great. 

 

B/R: I’m sure people come up to you all the time with stories of their travails. Are there any of them that stick out in your mind at all?

EL: There are a bunch of stories that I’ve gotten over the years. But I was actually just talking about [this story].

I do radio shows here on Monday nights. It was early in the season, and I was talking about Alabama—talking down about them, like they’re not the old Alabama team. Right after that, we get a call from Alabama. I’m just thinking, "Oh, someone’s about to really rip me. Someone’s about to go in on me." [Laughs]

It was actually someone who comes on the line and goes, "Mr. Eric, I have two kids who are six and seven now—I want to tell you a story about my wife who had a cancerous tumor on her head." He said [his family] was praying for me through this whole injury process and they read my book. Then his wife found a cancerous tumor on her brain, and from there she started having seizures before she eventually had a stroke.

Throughout this whole year period, her kids were telling her, "You gotta work hard like Mr. Eric, does. Eric wouldn’t give up, Mom. You can’t give up."

Now she’s living cancer free. She’s learned how to walk again, not having seizures anymore. I’m like, “Wow.” It shows I’m really making a difference in this world. Some people from a small town in Alabama calling me up and telling me that story. I have no idea who these people are, but they’re following my story.

I had no idea. It made me think I must be doing something right. It’s an amazing story. 

 

B/R: I also wanted to touch on another macro issue: safety in football. One of the later State of Play episodes will examine whether football leagues are doing enough to keep their players safe. Berg wrote a piece in Time in September saying he will no longer allow his son to play football. Do you have any thoughts on that, and do you think enough safety precautions are being taken in football?

EL: I think they’re doing a great job with the safety precautions. Football is a dangerous game. Every person who straps up his helmet knows the risk he takes. It’s unfortunate when an injury happens, but we all know the risks.

I believe they’re doing a great job. Changing the game up, making different rules and penalties. I can’t commend them any more about it—and this is coming from someone who’s been paralyzed from the game. I knew the risks I was taking going out there.

You can’t change the game of football too much. It’s a violent game. You have big bodies flying around at full speed making full contact with each other. They’re doing a great job already, and I think they’re going to continue to. 

 

B/R: What will State of Play show about Eric LeGrand that people wouldn’t necessarily know before watching?

EL: Mainly working with Team LeGrand and the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. How we’re trying to raise money to find a cure for paralysis and how we help people with their quality of life. 

You’ll see me in the movie walking on the NeuroRecovery Network treadmill, which we want to get into more rehab centers across the country so that people can get the same benefits that I have. [Editor’s note: The NeuroRecovery Network treadmill is a system that “re-teaches the body how to walk using manual assistance by specially-trained physical therapists,” according to Team LeGrand’s website.]

You’ll get to see a whole aspect on how I work with my foundation, but also how I live my life outside when I’m working for the foundation or in therapy or in broadcasting. How I enjoy myself and go out to the club with my friends. Or I go to a football game. 

You’re going to see the fun side of Eric, too. I’m excited to get it out there. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter

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5-Star LB Malik Jefferson Reveals Top 7: Where Does He Fit Best?

Given his standing as the nation's top outside linebacker prospect in the 2015 class, it's no surprise that Malik Jefferson has a bevy of colleges who are pursuing him in hopes of landing his commitment.

However, the 5-star Texas standout trimmed his list of suitors to a group of seven lucky schools on Monday. 

Four in-state Big 12 powers—Baylor, TCU, Texas and Texas A&M—are still in the mix as well as out-of-state titans LSU, Oklahoma and UCLA.

But which school amongst his final group will provide the 6’3”, 215-pounder with the best fit at the next level?

 

7. Baylor

Baylor isn’t exactly known for playing dominating defense, but most fans would probably be shocked to learn that the Bears rank 18th nationally in total defense, per CFBstats.com.

That’s the second-highest rating among the group of Jefferson’s final seven schools.

Bears defensive coordinator Phil Bennett operates out of a base 4-2-5 scheme, and Jefferson could be in line to replace senior middle linebacker and leading tackler Bryce Hager, should he elect to head to Waco.

While Jefferson is versatile enough to play in the middle, he seems ideally suited to play as an outside linebacker that wreaks havoc off the edge or operate in space against speedy backs and receivers.

Although the Bears have some positives, the question about his fit in the scheme and the fact that he hasn’t visited the Bears campus since March leaves Art Briles and his staff with little traction in the race to land Jefferson.

 

6. TCU

Like Baylor, Gary Patterson and the Horned Frogs use a base 4-2-5 scheme on defense.

With seniors currently manning both of those linebacker positions, adding a potential game-changer such as Jefferson could give the defense a huge boost next fall.

Per Taylor Hamm of GigEm247, Jefferson visited TCU last month for its win over Texas Tech. He was also in attendance for the Horned Frogs' huge win over Oklahoma in early October.

The Horned Frogs have positioned themselves to earn a seat at the table, but it remains to be seen whether they have done enough to be a serious threat to pull the state’s top-rated defensive recruit.

 

5. LSU

Les Miles and the LSU Tigers are another out-of-state program that has enjoyed success in pulling studs out of the state of Texas on an annual basis.

Jefferson was one of many blue chips in attendance for LSU’s game against Alabama earlier this month. 

Per Shea Dixon of Geaux247 (subscription required), the Tigers are putting a great deal of importance on landing Jefferson, as he could possibly be the only linebacker brought in for the 2015 cycle.

“They don’t have a linebacker committed in my class, so they thought it was a good idea to actually recruit me," Jefferson said. "I really enjoyed it and I liked what they had to sell to me. It’s a great program, great coaches, great players as well.”

Additionally, both of the Tigers starters at outside linebackers are juniors, which presents Jefferson with an intriguing opportunity to see the field early.

 

4. UCLA

One of the surprises in Jefferson’s top list of schools is UCLA. 

With standout linebackers such as Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks starring as key cogs in the middle of the Bruins' 3-4 defense, Jefferson has all of the necessary tools to become the next freakish linebacker to star for that unit.

The Bruins offered him in February, and he’s yet to take a trip to visit Westwood.

Jefferson currently plans to announce his commitment on Dec. 19, a date that is rapidly approaching, with teammate and 4-star athlete DeAndre McNeal.

As Horns247 notes (subscription required), Jefferson could potentially take a visit to Los Angeles in either the first or second week of December.

But those plans have still yet to be finalized, which makes it hard to count the Bruins as a serious contender to land the talented playmaker. 

 

3. Oklahoma

Jefferson has a skill set that resembles current Oklahoma star linebacker Eric Striker.

Should Striker elect to test the NFL draft waters, Jefferson—who, per Student Sports, ran a blistering time of 4.49 seconds during SPARQ testing at The Opening this summer—is an ideal candidate to replace him.

One thing that could bode well for the Sooners is the fact that they were the first school of his final group to offer him a scholarship back in January 2013.

Jefferson took a visit to Norman in October, which strengthens the chances Bob Stoops and his staff have at pulling another stud out of the Lone Star State.

 

2. Texas A&M

From the beginning of his recruitment, one of the perceived front-runners in the Jefferson sweepstakes has been Texas A&M.

Given the Aggies' significant need to add impact talents on that side of the ball, Jefferson would give Kevin Sumlin’s squad another potential game-breaking talent to pair with freshman sensation Myles Garrett.

The Aggies have a scheme suitable for Jefferson, and while the depth chart isn’t as favorable as it is with some of his other favorites, there’s nothing to indicate that he couldn’t come in and earn significant playing time next fall.

Another factor to keep in mind with the Aggies is the future of defensive coordinator Mark Snyder—which appears to be tenuous at best.

Regardless, given Sumlin’s penchant for luring top talent to College Station in recent years, Jefferson’s pledge would be another signal that the Aggies program is built for long-term success.

 

1. Texas

It’s clear that Jefferson has identified a strong group of schools that merge great opportunities to see the field early with a decent track record of producing elite defenders.

However, Charlie Strong and the Texas Longhorns may provide the best of both worlds for Jefferson.

Strong has strengthened his reputation as one of college football's top defensive minds since he arrived in Austin. Last year, Texas ranked No. 69 nationally in total defense. Through 11 games, Strong's defense has improved that number to No. 28 nationally, per CFBstats.com.

As Ourlads illustrates, the Longhorns are scheduled to return only three of their top seven linebackers next season—with two of those being seniors. 

With a clear need at his position, and the chance to play for a noted defensive mind such as Strong, Texas gives Jefferson the best opportunity to make an early impact and reach his full potential at the college level.

 

Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports. 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Ohio State Buckeyes vs. Michigan Wolverines Complete Game Preview

Despite having already clinched its spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Ohio State football team shouldn't have any trouble focusing on its final game of the regular season. "The Game," as it's called in Columbus and Ann Arbor, is arguably the greatest rivalry in all of college sports, one which Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer respects deeply.

"We don't worry above and beyond this week," Meyer said following Ohio State's 42-27 Big Ten East-clinching win over Indiana last Saturday. "We know the history of this game. Regardless of records or anything, the most motivated, most prepared team will win this next game that's this rivalry. I know this rivalry. And the most prepared team, most focused team will win this game."

The records seemed to go out the window a year ago, when the 7-4 Wolverines came within a two-point conversion of ending their rivals' national championship hopes. The stakes are similar this year with the Buckeyes fighting for a playoff spot and 5-6 Michigan attempting to play the role of spoiler.

In what could very well be the final game of Brady Hoke's tenure as the Wolverines' head coach, his team will have the opportunity to send him off on a high note, while Ohio State is hoping to maintain the momentum that it's found during its now nine-game winning streak.

Will the Buckeyes do just that, or will Michigan hand Meyer his first loss as a head coach in The Game? We'll find out on Saturday. But until then, here's everything you need to know about the 110th meeting between Ohio State and Michigan:

Date: Saturday, Nov. 29

Time: 12 p.m. ET

Place: Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio

TV: ABC

Radio:Ohio State Football Radio Network, Michigan Sports Network

Spread: Ohio State (-20), via Odds Shark

Begin Slideshow

Notre Dame's 2015 Class Makes Irish Playoff Contender for Years to Come

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish may be in the midst of a late-season meltdown, but there is help on the way. Brian Kelly and the Irish are planning to bring in some top talent. 

Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder breaks down some of the key recruits who will be calling South Bend home. 

Will these recruits be difference-makers for the Irish?

Watch the video and let us know! 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

FAMU Band Forms 'But That's None of My Business' Meme During Halftime Routine

Florida A&M has a killer marching band, but that's mostly none of our business.

The acclaimed band took the field Saturday for the Florida Classic game against Bethune-Cookman. It stuck to a mix of classic and new hits, and at one point, it formed the Kermit "But That's None of My Business" meme (NSFW language) for reasons we cannot know and don't matter in the first place.

Deadspin's Timothy Burke spotted video of the routine. The band goes into full sip mode around the 3:08 mark.

I don't know if this is a sideways shot at Bethune-Cookman. I do know that it is awesome.

FAMU went on to lose to BCU on a ridiculous two-point conversion in overtime. Its band, however, remains undefeated.

 

Follow Dan on Twitter for more sports and pop culture filigree.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Alabama Football: Crimson Tide Fans' Complete Guide to 2014 Iron Bowl

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — This game needs no introduction.

Even without the backdrop of possibly the greatest play in college football history, Alabama-Auburn will always drum up enough excitement to last any college football fan a week.

Last year’s ending needs no introduction. There will be a little extra sharpness this week, with the Crimson Tide not only in the driver’s seat for an SEC championship and College Football Playoff appearance but looking for revenge in a major way.

The stakes aren’t as high on the other side, though, where Auburn has three losses and is out of contention for any sort of championship.

Still, it’s always an exciting affair when these two teams meet. And as we saw last year, anything can happen.

Here’s everything you need to know:

Date: Saturday, November 29

Time: 6:45 p.m. CT

Place: Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Alabama

TV: ESPN

Radio: Crimson Tide Sports Network, Auburn IMG Sports Network

Spread: Alabama by 9.5, according to OddsShark.com.

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College Football Playoff Rankings 2014: Predictions for Selection Committee Poll

The debate over which four teams belong in the College Football Playoff has become one of the most entertaining arguments in sports today.

We compare resumes and schedules, stack up impressive wins and form justifications for losses—that was a tough team on the road, they only lost by a few points, etc.). We ultimately end up arguing over which conferences are truly strong and which are just aided by media bias.

Of course, predicting what the selection committee will do with its rankings each week is just as much fun as arguing what we think it should do.

Namely, figuring out what it will do with the top four teams—let's be honest, only those first four rankings and maybe those of the closest contenders outside that group are relevant—is a fascinating guessing game.

Let's play that game here.

It's pretty obvious who the first three teams will be, and the order doesn't seem terribly relevant. Alabama will likely remain No. 1, Oregon will likely remain No. 2 and Florida State will likely remain No. 3. All three teams won this week, though the Seminoles once again had a close call—this time to Boston College.

Of the three, Florida State's undefeated record can't make up for the fact that it's played a weaker schedule than the top two teams and has really struggled against inferior competition.

Winning ultimately may be the only thing that matters, but for a selection committee trying to determine how to rank the teams in college football, an undefeated record doesn't preclude measuring who that team has beaten and how impressive it's looked in doing so.

In other words, Florida State doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt—even as the defending national champions.

Of course, not everyone agrees, as B/R Radio tweeted:

So those are the top three. Who will be No. 4?

Probably Mississippi State. While the Bulldogs may ultimately be hurt by Ole Miss' loss this weekend—the Rebels are Mississippi State's last marquee matchup unless Alabama loses and the Bulldogs get into the SEC title game—for the moment they still have a far more impressive resume than TCU, Baylor or Ohio State.

Sure, the wins over Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU don't look as strong as they once did, as those three teams have hit rough patches, but Mississippi State still played Alabama tough on the road.

It certainly didn't do anything in a 51-0 victory over Vanderbilt to warrant being dropped from the No. 4 spot.

"We cleaned up a lot from last week and made some plays," starting quarterback Dak Prescott told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com) after the game. "We won 51-0. If you don't think we controlled that game, then I don't know what you're looking for."

Yes, we've gotten to the point of the season where we're talking about game control as we search for any little clue that might indicate which one-loss team is better than another.

That's college football in a nutshell, everybody.

TCU's off week should leave it locked into the No. 5 spot, and Minnesota's win over Nebraska and Kansas State's win over West Virginia certainly bolstered their resumes. They probably weren't boosted enough to leapfrog Mississippi State, but the margin between these teams is closing.

Ohio State won once again, which may not help it this week but did guarantee its spot in the Big Ten title game, where it'll have the chance to not only win the conference but also pad its resume against a marquee opponent—likely Wisconsin.

It'll stay at No. 6 this week, but the fact that it still has a conference championship game to play, Mississippi State likely doesn't and TCU and Baylor don't is a huge boost for the Buckeyes.

Speaking of Baylor, the Bears aren't likely to leapfrog any of the one-loss teams until they play Kansas State on December 6. It's hard to imagine the committee would still consider TCU a better team than Baylor if the Bears had not only a head-to-head victory on their side but also the conference title.

Will that be enough to propel them over Mississippi State and Ohio State, however? That's harder to say.

Ohio State's loss to Virginia Tech is still the worst of the group, but it has also really impressed down the stretch. Mississippi State would be the only playoff team to have not won a conference title if it were voted in, surely a mark against the Bulldogs, but they also played a brutal SEC slate and their lone loss came against the top team in the country.

But that's then. For now, don't expect the top four to change at all. Nothing in this latest week of college football suggests any changes to the playoff contenders is forthcoming.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Who Should Win Battle for No. 4 in the Next CFP Rankings?

The top three teams for the College Football Playoff are pretty well locked for this week, so let the debate about the fourth team begin. Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee and Adam Kramer discuss who should be the fourth team in the CFP.

Who is your choice for the last team in the playoff?

Watch the video and let us know!

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

The Dream Scenario for College Football's Money Men, and How It Can All Go Wrong

The profiteers of college football—the television execs, marketing mavens, ticket brokers—have their fingers crossed. They know the matchups they want in the College Football Playoff:    

No. 1 Nick Saban vs. No. 4 Urban Meyer in the Sugar Bowl

No. 2 Marcus Mariota vs. No. 3 Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl

There will be buzz, and there will be joy...in the secondary ticket market. It will be three weeks of 'Bama fans saying Saban scared Meyer out of Florida and Oregon fans saying their quarterback is a saint, and the FSU guy is a sinner. Then it will be a week of debate of SEC substance over Pac-12 style or Saban vs. protege Fisher.

However, there are many others who want a bowl full of chaos.

How about these reachable scenarios of havoc?

 

Hogs win for the Dawgs

Arkansas went 17 games without winning in the SEC. Now it has consecutive victories over LSU and Ole Miss—shutout wins, no less. The Razorbacks lost by a point to Alabama and by seven to No. 4 Mississippi State on the road. This is a last place team? You should be very impressed by the Hogs. They didn't quit when the Georgia Bulldogs trashed them 45-32 back in October either (not as close as final score).

Now, the Hogs can do Georgia a huge favor by winning on Friday against Missouri. The Tigers' pass-rushing marauders (38 sacks) won't be a lot of use against the bench-pressing, running Hogs.

If Arkansas wins, Georgia wins the SEC East and goes to the SEC Championship Game.

The Bulldogs do not have Todd Gurley, but they do have someone even better—Nick Chubb. I swear, the freshman is an upgrade. Even before Gurley got hurt against Auburn, he looked a step slow, as if he had an issue already. I know, he had some rust to knock off from his four-game suspension, but he wasn't the same as the first month. Chubb is fresher lightning, the offensive line is glued together and Georgia is still averaging 6.1 yards per rush with all the time Gurley missed.

Here is a scenario: The Bulldogs, inside the Georgia Dome, handle Alabama...or maybe Mississippi State if Auburn beats 'Bama.

Georgia receiver Chris Conley, who had that last pass fall in his arms in the 2012 SEC Championship Game and was tackled ending a late drive, makes the last catch in the end zone this time. Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator at FSU in 2013 and former employee of Nick Saban, shows he is worth almost a million to coach one side of the ball. They say he can win the down by design before the snap. He gets his chance.

Then, we'll see about the SEC bias rigmarole, the merits of its two-loss champion (providing UGA beats Georgia Tech). Will the CFP committee really look at a two-loss SEC team if Georgia (No. 10) was to beat Alabama and Mississippi State was to stumble in the Egg Bowl at Ole Miss? Maybe, but the committee would have another hot two-loss team to consider...

 

…like UCLA

When your quarterback has completed 75 percent of his passes in three games with just one pick, you make anybody nervous—even the team that has Marcus Mariota. Brett Hundley and the Bruins still have to beat Stanford this week before they can think about Oregon in the Pac-12 title game, but UCLA fans are dreaming about a national semifinal on their home field.

Two things to consider: Hundley was tossing to receivers running wide, wide open against Southern Cal on Saturday. Stanford, even with a beat-up defensive line, is better on defense than USC.

But although Cardinal head coach David Shaw has beaten Jim Mora in two meetings and is 3-0 against UCLA, we all know the Bruins own Los Angeles. They said so.

Now they can claim deed on the state.

The Bruins are No. 9 in the CFP. Do they really have a chance to get to the playoff with two losses?

They do if this happens...

 

…A Big 12 pileup

Baylor still has to play Kansas State. TCU still has to play Texas, which has gotten better. Bears lose. Horned Frogs lose. The Big 12 has three teams with two losses and no title game to settle things. That's chaos. That's the Big 12 being left at home for the four-team playoff.

The Big 12 will have to determine its champion with a three-way tiebreaker that I can make no sense of. Step 1 says, "The records of the three teams will be compared against each other." Good luck with that. Baylor beat TCU, which beat K-State, which could beat Baylor. UCLA has its fingers crossed for a two-loss Big 12 champ, and so does...

 

Ohio State

The Buckeyes have this maroonish-colored gum stuck on the bottom of their shoe. It's called Virginia Tech. The Hokies beat the Buckeyes 35-21 early in the season when Ohio State redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was just a few weeks on the job as the starter. Since then, Tech is 5-6 and lost by a score of 6-3 to Wake Forest. It has made Ohio State look really bad.

Here is what you should know about Virginia Tech: The Hokies have had injuries to four tailbacks, and they have been missing their veteran linebacker to injury. Tech has had 14 serious injuries. Losing to the Hokies wasn't as bad as it now seems.

Still, that achy loss to Tech has Ohio State swimming uphill against Mississippi State and TCU in the CFP standings. I have this suspicion, though, that the Buckeyes and their pedigree are going to get them into the Top Four if they win out. The committee, I betcha, has some eyes on Virginia Tech and has a different view of the Ohio State loss.

The Buckeyes, of course, have to win the Big Ten title game against either Wisconsin or better-than-we-thought Minnesota. Wisconsin, the team that forgot about tailback Melvin Gordon in the second half of the loss to LSU, has been handing it off to Gordon regularly, and he has over 2,000 yards rushing. The Badgers will be a tough out if they beat the Gophers.

(A thought: We spend all this time on the CFP and the big picture and not enough on these teams and players who just rise from the rubble. Arkansas, Wisconsin-after-LSU, Barrett, Texas, Missouri-after-Georgia. Comebackers. Way to go, guys.)

One last thing:

 

What Texans really want: Christmas chaos

Baylor and TCU win out. Alabama loses again. Mississippi State loses again. Oregon loses to UCLA.

The Bears (11-1) and Frogs (11-1) win national semifinals over FSU and Ohio State. Baylor vs. TCU in a backyard brawl in Dallas for the national title game. 61-58 again. Bigger than the Cowboys (for a week). TCU wins this time.

What really happens? Scalpers spend time celebrating on beachfront in February because 'Bama plays Ohio State and Mariota duels Winston.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report. He has covered college football and various other sports for 20 years. His work has appeared in USA TodayThe New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is the author of How the SEC Became Goliath (Howard/Simon & Schuster, 2013).

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC vs. Notre Dame Complete Game Preview

WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 29; 3:30 p.m. ET

WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum 

TV: Fox 

USC is afforded a rare luxury few college football teams have on their schedules: The Trojans get a rivalry week do-over. 

After suffering a 38-20 loss at UCLA to conclude its Pac-12 docket, USC ends its first regular season under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian against its other traditional rival, Notre Dame.

National championship implications and Heisman Trophy jockeying have been on the line in past installments of the USC-Notre Dame series.

No such stakes are on the line in the 86th meeting, but the Jeweled Shillelagh is reward enough to motivate two teams limping into the Coliseum. 

Notre Dame is a loser of four of its last five against Florida State, Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville. USC sports an identical 7-4 record but is trying to avoid its only losing streak of the season. 

The Trojans are also out to salvage Sarkisian's goal of a strong November. They can still finish 9-4, which could be enough to land them in the final rankings and build some positive momentum heading into an important offseason.

Begin Slideshow

USC vs. Notre Dame Complete Game Preview

WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 29; 3:30 p.m. ET WHERE: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum TV: Fox USC is afforded a rare luxury few college football teams have on their schedules: The Trojans get a rivalry week do-over...

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5 College Football Recruits Who Had an Explosive Week

Playoff action is in full swing across the national high school football landscape as state titles and individual legacies hang in the balance. For many standouts, it's the final stretch run before embarking on collegiate careers.

As the 2014 campaign creeps to a close, we continue to keep tabs on the top prospects. Here's a peek at the premier performances from another busy weekend of meaningful matchups.

 

4-star 2015 WR Trent Irwin, Hart High School (Santa Clarita, California)

Though his team fell short of advancing in the state playoff tournament, Irwin established himself among California's most accomplished pass-catchers. The 6'2", 190-pound playmaker set state records for career receptions and receiving yards during a 52-21 loss to Upland High School in second-round playoff action.

He caught 15 passes for 165 yards in the defeat, according to Cary Osborne of The Santa Clarita Signal. The totals pushed his career numbers past those of current Minnesota Gophers sophomore Drew Wolitarsky, who finished with 281 receptions and 5,148 yards at Canyon High School.

Irwin ranks eighth all-time on the national receiving yards list and 15th in terms of catches, per Kevin Askeland of MaxPreps. He is closing in on a decision (with Arizona State, UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State in the mix).

His high school quarterback, fellow 4-star recruit Brady White, is committed to the Sun Devils.

 

5-star 2015 DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, St. Peter's Prep (Jersey City, New Jersey)

The two-way standout pushed St. Peter's Prep to a state championship rematch with Paramus Catholic by dominating during the semifinal round. Fitzpatrick, who stands 6'1", 198 pounds, caught nine passes for 274 receiving yards, per Braulio Perez of NJ.com.

He hauled in three touchdown tosses from teammate and Notre Dame quarterback commit Brandon Wimbush. Each of his scoring receptions occurred during the third quarter, with strikes from 42, 44 and 64 yards out.

Fitzpatrick's efforts helped the team run away with a 31-14 victory over Bergen Catholic. He leads St. Peter's in receptions this season and also serves as a shutdown defensive back.

Alabama is expected to utilize him at cornerback, where he is rated fourth nationally in 247Sports' composite rankings. He also considered offers from Florida State, South Carolina and Penn State.

 

4-star 2015 RB Johnny Frasier, Princeton High School (Princeton, North Carolina)

The 5'11", 220-pound Florida State commit rumbled through an overwhelmed Camden County defense Friday night en route to his fourth 200-yard rushing output of the season, per MaxPreps. Frasier found the end zone three times in a 40-22 win that sent Princeton into the state quarterfinals.

He turned 23 carries into 204 yards, extending his triple-digit rushing yardage streak to 20 games. Frasier now has more than 2,200 rushing yards this season and 35 total touchdowns.

His 11.5 yards-per-attempt average makes him one of the most dynamic offensive weapons of the 2015 class. Frasier, rated fifth nationally among running backs in 247Sports' composite rankings, has rushed for more than 6,000 yards since his sophomore season.

Florida State landed his pledge in August, though several teams are still in the hunt. Campus visits this fall have included Duke, Florida, North Carolina State and Tennessee.

 

2-star 2015 QB Josh Love, Long Beach Poly High School (Long Beach, California)

The 6'2", 188-pound passer picked apart Crespi High School during a state sectional quarterfinal battle. Love fired four touchdown passes while working against man-to-man pass coverage, leading Long Beach Poly to a 44-27 win, per Eric Sondheimer of the Los Angeles Times.

He completed 14 passes for 287 yards, fueling a second-half comeback. Love added a rushing touchdown, giving him five total scores.

His senior season now features 39 touchdown passes and 2,900 yards through the air. Love and the Jackrabbits advance to a semifinal showdown against St. John Bosco and top-rated 2015 quarterback Josh Rosen.

Love remains uncommitted. His past campus visits include Oregon State and BYU.

 

3-star 2015 QB Chason Virgil, West Mesquite High School (Mesquite Texas)

Just days after Mississippi State pulled his full scholarship due to roster reasons, per Devin Hasson of Mesquite News, Virgil showed what the Bulldogs will be missing moving forward. Virgil, rated 19th nationally among pro-style passers in 247Sports' composite rankings, erupted in a hard-fought second-round playoff loss to McKinney North.

The 6'2", 170-pound prospect completed 27 pass attempts for 404 yards and six scores, according to Michael Florek of The Dallas Morning News. Virgil added 42 rushing yards in the 50-44 defeat.

He was expected to enroll early at Mississippi State before the situation changed. Now looking for a new home, Virgil will review his offer list (which includes Nebraska, Louisville, Colorado and Auburn).

 

Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Florida State vs. Florida: Complete Game Preview

Florida State's focus is on Florida, and a win over the rival Gators will give the Seminoles something rare in college football: a perfect regular season.

FSU is the last unbeaten team in a power-five conference in 2014, and the Seminoles are closing in on a 12-0 regular season. While they did it last year en route to a 14-0 national title run, FSU has enjoyed four other unbeaten regular seasons.

Until the 1990s, FSU had only done it twice. In their fourth year of football (1950), the Seminoles went 8-0. And legendary coach Bobby Bowden did it in 1979 as FSU opened 11-0 before falling to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.

The Seminoles went 11-0 in 1996 before losing to Florida in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl, and they did it again in 1999 with a perfect 11-0 run during a national title season (capped by a win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl).

Can FSU finish off Florida and go unbeaten in the 2014 regular season? Let's take a look at Saturday's game (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).

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College Football Picks: South Carolina Gamecocks at Clemson Tigers Odds

The SEC's South Carolina Gamecocks invade Memorial Stadium this Saturday afternoon to renew a longstanding rivalry against the Clemson Tigers out of the ACC. The Battle of the Palmetto State is set to kick off at noon ET, and it will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

The Gamecocks come into this bitter rivalry fresh off a 37-12 romp over South Alabama as a heavy 24-point home favorite this past Saturday. They are now 3-1 against the spread in their last four games, but overall on the year, South Carolina is just 4-7 ATS with a straight-up record of 6-5. The total has stayed "under" in three of its last five outings.

Clemson bounced back from a devastating 28-6 loss to Georgia Tech as a 1.5-point road favorite with a 28-0 shutout of Georgia State this past Saturday as a heavy 39.5-point favorite at home. The Tigers are now 8-3 SU on the year with a 4-7 record ATS. The total has stayed under in six of their last seven games.

 

South Carolina at Clemson Betting Storylines

It has been a forgettable 2014 campaign for the Gamecocks after coming into the season with serious aspirations of making a run at the SEC title. They posted a SU 3-5 losing record in conference play after going 6-2 in each of the previous three years. The offense has been productive all season long with an average of 34.8 points a game, but a multitude of breakdowns on the other side of the ball has led to South Carolina's defense allowing an average of 30.8 points a game, which is ranked 95th in the nation.

Dylan Thompson has taken the majority of the snaps at quarterback, and he has thrown for 3,031 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 60.1 percent of his 378 attempts. Pharoh Cooper continues to be his favorite target with 58 receptions for 921 yards and eight scores. Mike Davis has anchored the running game with 888 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on 174 carries, but lately, it has been Brandon Wilds getting the majority of the carries. He has added 556 yards on 99 attempts for an average of 5.6 yards a carry.

All three of Clemson's losses this season came against ranked teams, and overall, it has had some major trouble covering against the teams it was supposed to beat. The Tigers come into this matchup 3-6 ATS this season as favorites, and they have failed to cover in their last three games at home as favorites. Part of the reason can be attributed to an offense that has struggled with consistency all season long.

Clemson's running game is averaging 146.5 yards a game, and it's adding another 256.3 yards through the air. The net result has been an offense that is ranked 60th in the nation in scoring with an average of 29.6 points a game. There is no denying that the Tigers defense has been the strength of this team after holding opponents to just 17.6 points a game. The 28 points this unit allowed in the loss to Georgia Tech was just the second time all season that it gave up more than 23 points in a game.

 

South Carolina at Clemson Betting Odds and Trends by Doc's Sports

Point Spread: Clemson -4.5

Total Line: OFF

The betting trends on Covers have the Gamecocks listed at 6-2 ATS in their last eight games following a SU win, and they are 9-3 ATS in their last 12 games against a team with a SU winning record. The total has stayed under in their last six games against the ACC.

The Tigers are 0-5 ATS in their last five games following a SU win, and they have failed to cover in their last six games overall. The total has stayed under in their last four home games.

The home team in this heated rivalry is 5-2 ATS in the last seven meetings, and the total has stayed under in the last four games.

 

College Football Picks: South Carolina at Clemson Betting Predictions

It is hard to go against the home team in such a big rivalry as this, but betting on Clemson this season has been a very expensive proposition. The Gamecocks will be looking to go out on a high note after such a disappointing year, so expect head coach Steve Spurrier to have his team ready. South Carolina has won the last five meetings both SU and ATS, and I really like its chances to keep this streak going with another victory this year.

 

Take: # 409 South Carolina (+4.5) over Clemson - Noon, Saturday, Nov. 29

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Why Alabama Should Be Terrified of Auburn in the Iron Bowl

This year's Iron Bowl doesn't carry division and national title hopes for both teams like last year's edition did, but that doesn't diminish the intrigue associated with the nation's biggest rivalry.

It just changes it a little bit.

No. 1 Alabama will have everything to gain on Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa. The SEC West title, playoff hopes and revenge will be in front of the Crimson Tide, while Auburn will enter Bryant-Denny Stadium with nothing to lose other than the state title.

If there's anything scarier in college football than the thought of Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn emptying the playbook, I'm not sure what it is. On top of that, his players don't have class this week and have all week to focus on football.

Look out, Alabama.

Why should Alabama be terrified of the Tigers?

 

Duke Could Get Loose

Auburn wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams has missed the last two games after suffering a sprained MCL in the first half of the loss to Texas A&M earlier this month, but he could return for the Iron Bowl showdown with the Crimson Tide.

According to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee (via: Ryan Black of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Inquirer), Williams could make a return this weekend in Tuscaloosa.

Williams' return would be huge for Auburn and quarterback Nick Marshall, in particular. He has 38 catches for 609 yards and five touchdowns this season, and he has done his best work in clutch situations. Of his 38 catches, 15 have come on third down, and 13 of those have gone for first downs.

Alabama will undoubtedly load up against Marshall and running back Cameron Artis-Payne, and having a receiver like Williams available to move the chains will force the Crimson Tide to stay honest, back safeties off a step and make life just a little bit easier for the Tigers offense.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban knows just how dangerous Williams is, according to John Zenor of The Associated Press:

Williams' return would also benefit fellow wide receiver Sammie Coates. The superstar junior has been fighting through a lingering knee injury suffered in the season opener against Arkansas and is finally rounding into form, according to Lashlee (via Black).

Williams and Coates together allows Lashlee and Malzahn to get creative with their passing plays and take advantage when one or the other are in single-coverage.

 

The Multidimensional Rushing Attack

It's no secret that mobile quarterbacks give Saban's defenses fits from time to time, and Marshall himself did that last season. He rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown in addition to his two passing touchdowns last year in the 34-28 win for the Tigers, and he calmly led the Tigers down the field in the closing minutes before hitting Coates for the game-tying touchdown.

If you look back at all of Alabama's losses since 2009, all of those teams have quarterbacks who presented a threat on the ground. Not all of them had huge days on the ground against the Tide, but that threat forced the Tide to play flawless assignment football, and those coaches used that threat to open up their offenses.

It isn't the tempo that gets Saban, it's the threat of a running quarterback combined with tempo and motion that gets Saban's defenses in trouble.

Even the best linebackers get sucked in by play-action and the eye-candy that Malzahn's offense creates before and right after the snap, and it's something that Saban is very concerned about according to B/R Alabama lead writer Marc Torrence.

Take last year, for example.

On Marshall's touchdown run in the first quarter (2:16 mark of the video below), linebacker C.J. Mosley and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix both get sucked in on the zone read to Tre Mason, which leaves a gaping hole for Marshall to run through for the score. These are two defenders collecting NFL paychecks right now, and even they got assignments confused.

Why? 

Clinton-Dix was on the move with the fly-sweep action to Ricardo Louis, which created confusion among the Tide linebackers and safeties.

Whether you feel Marshall has progressed as a passer or not, this is still the same offense run by the same coach and quarterback that puts a ton of stress on opposing defenses. One blown assignment could lead to a touchdown from anywhere on the field, which puts a ton of pressure on Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and Alabama's defense.

 

Red-Zone Defense

Auburn's defense has been more of a punchline than a power during Malzahn's first two seasons on the Plains, but when the Tigers get backed up into a corner, they typically fight back with a vengeance. 

The Tigers rank second in the SEC in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score 68.89 percent of the time.

Conversely, Alabama's offense is 10th in the SEC in red-zone conversions at 82.35 percent. As Sporting News pointed out last week, Saban wasn't too happen with offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin after the Crimson Tide couldn't punch it in on three attempts inside the six-yard line in the win over Western Carolina.

Auburn's best chance against the Crimson Tide is winning a track meet. If the Tigers can get one or two key red-zone stops against the Crimson Tide and force field goals instead of touchdowns, it will allow the Tigers offense to stay multidimensional and in its comfort zone.

 

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

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

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