NCAA Football

Is Brian Kelly Making Right Call to Play Both Malik Zaire and Everett Golson?

At Notre Dame the quarterback controversy continues as head coach Brian Kelly publicly stated Monday that he would play both Malik Zaire and Everett Golson in the Fighting Irish bowl game, according to Matt Fortuna of ESPN.com.

Adam Lefkoe sits down with Bleacher Report College Football Analyst Michael Felder to discuss Kelly's coaching decision.

Is Kelly making the right choice deciding to play both?

Watch the video and let us know!

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Connor Cook Will Return to Michigan State in 2015: Latest Details and Reaction

Following a phenomenal year with Michigan State, quarterback Connor Cook has decided to return to the Spartans for his senior season.

Noah Trister of The Associated Press reported the news of Cook's decision Tuesday:

Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook says he has "unfinished business" that he would like to take care of and indicated he plans to be back with the Spartans as a senior.

Cook has thrown for 2900 yards this season with 22 touchdowns and six interceptions. The seventh-ranked Spartans play fourth-ranked Baylor in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1.

Cook finished the 2014 college football season with his second straight year of over 2,700 passing yards and 20 touchdowns. Slowly progressing during his sophomore campaign, Cook came into his own as a junior in Mark Dantonio's system.

During the season, Cook spoke about his plans after the year with one caveat, per Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press:

While he hasn't been projected as highly as other quarterbacks such as Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston, Cook has been a notable name this season.

A two-year starter, Cook was a model of consistency under center for the Spartans. He helped lead them to a 10-2 record, highlighted by 27-22 win over then-No. 19-ranked Nebraska on Oct. 4.

Despite his comments earlier in the season, Matt Miller of Bleacher Report believed he would end up in the draft:

With Cook back in the fold, the Spartans have a chance to make yet another run at a Big Ten Championship in 2015. Though he'll lose leading receiver Tony Lippett, Cook still has weapons like Josiah Price and Delton Williams to help carry the load.

Given his development over the last two seasons, Cook might have a chance to be one of the top quarterbacks in college football next year.

Of course, that's if the Spartans rally around him after losing several senior leaders.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Butch Jones Is Quietly Building SEC Title-Worthy Defense at Tennessee

When Darrin Kirkland Jr. pulled on his Tennessee cap during a ceremony at Lawrence Central (Indiana) High School on Monday, he gave Volunteers coach Butch Jones yet another jewel in a class poised to turn UT into a contender.

If the old adage of defense winning championships is true, this 2015 recruiting class may just be what sends Tennessee back to the top.

Though Jones couldn't say anything publicly about Kirkland's pledge, he tweeted a not-so-subtle celebration.

UT already enjoyed an emphatic leap up nearly 50 spots to 35th nationally in total defense this year under second-year coordinator John Jancek, who produced a unit that thrived in getting to the quarterback.

The Vols have huge cornerstones around which to build such as defensive ends Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt as well as cornerback Cameron Sutton.

Now with this year's class, Jones has recruited a stable of talent that can at least on paper match anybody's.

Where Tennessee's highly rated 2014 recruiting class was full of offensive playmakers, this year's class is heavy on the defensive needs facing the future on Rocky Top. Many of those needs have been met through some serious victories on the recruiting trail.

The Vols have won huge head-to-head battles with some of their biggest rivals, and the fruits of their work are evident in the star power heading to Knoxville next year.

Though the Vols struggled to find a rotation on the interior of the defensive front this year, they'll add to the mix the nation's top-ranked player—defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie—as well as a pair of quality tackles, Shy Tuttle and Quay Picou.

Throw in a trio of defensive ends who are playing in high school All-America games in Andrew Butcher, Darrell Taylor and Marques Ford, and the defensive line is on firm footing for the future. Not to mention the Vols are in the final three for 4-stars Kyle Phillips and D'Andre Walker to close the class.

If UT can somehow finish with either of those guys (or both), it would only add to a class already lauded by experts. Steve Wiltfong (subscription required) of 247Sports said this week:

Come National Signing Day, there is a good chance we're saying Tennessee has inked the best defensive line class in the country…  As Tennessee improved in year two under Jones and company, these [prospects mentioned above] are the guys that can help lead the Vols back to national prominence. A lot of NFL talent listed here.

Much like Hugh Freeze has done with Ole Miss, it appears Tennessee is beginning its resurgence on the defensive side. Like the Rebels, there's enough talent on offense to have a season very soon that announces to the world that the Vols are back.

Securing a defensive line haul such as the one line coach Steve Stripling is amassing in Knoxville is impressive to everybody, and that includes Kirkland. As one of the nation's top middle linebacker prospects, he's looking for a place that has good enough linemen to give blockers fits so he can make plays.

He took a peek at Tennessee's class and who'd be his future teammates, and that certainly didn't hurt.

"Kahlil McKenzie and Shy Tuttle definitely played a big factor in my decision," Kirkland told 247Sports' Wiltfong. "Having two great defensive tackles in front of me and hopefully some others can join as well."

Kirkland was a massive pull at a major-need position. With A.J. Johnson out of eligibility this season, the Vols need help in the middle. Jakob Johnson hasn't run with his opportunity to replace the elder Johnson, and redshirt Dillon Bates is an outside linebacker who could play there if needed.

But Kirkland's commitment gives UT a midterm linebacker who can come in, learn the playbook and compete immediately.

Joining Kirkland on the second level is 3-star Austin Smith, who had offers from Alabama, Florida, Georgia and others before committing to the Vols. He's a speedy, rangy outside 'backer who will fit well in Tommy Thigpen's corps.

If UT can add fellow Atlanta-area prospect Quart'e Sapp to the mix, it'll be an ideal haul on the second level.

On the back end, the Vols already boast some excellent young talent, led by Sutton. Cornerbacks Emmanuel Moseley and Rashaan Gaulden as well as safety Todd Kelly Jr. appear poised for exciting futures.

Now, Tennessee has added to that group 4-star cornerback Micah Abernathy, 3-star safety Stephen Griffin and 3-star cornerback Darrell Miller. With Tennessee natives Ugo Amadi and Justin Martin very viable options to close out the class, UT is sitting pretty at defensive back with two months left before national signing day.

It's the same across the board for the Vols, who've thrived on the recruiting trail under Jones, overturning such treasures as Barnett, who finished his freshman season with 20.5 tackles for a loss and 10 sacks.

Though neither Jancek nor Stripling had developed a reputation of being a standout recruiter during his veteran assistant career, they've both done extremely well at Tennessee.

Players identify with them and believe in what they're building, and the first-year players they're responsible for bringing to UT were sprinkled throughout a defense that carried UT for wide swaths of the season.

The limitations Tennessee's 2014 defense faced were chiefly depth-related, but the improvement from '13 in that capacity was exponential. Considering all the talent the Vols are bringing in on that side of the ball again this year, next season should feature a clearer, more talented rotation.

Nobody is suggesting UT will go undefeated, but winning in the SEC starts on defense, and the Vols are putting the players in place to be special on that side of the football.

When that happens, competing for the division and perhaps even the league may not be far behind.

 

All stats gathered from CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports Composite, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.

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Charlie Strong's 1st Class at Texas Addresses Serious Needs for Longhorns

Texas is looking to regain some of the luster left from an up-and-down 2014 season, and head coach Charlie Strong is heading in the right direction by landing a solid 2015 recruiting class.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Adam Kramer discuss how Strong's class will help the Longhorns next season.

What kind of season will Texas have next year?

Watch the video and let us know!


Recruit rankings courtesy of 247Sports.

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Auburn's 2015 Recruiting Class Deserves to Be in Top 5

The Auburn Tigers had an up-and-down 2014 season, at times looking like an elite team and other times struggling to come up with big stops on defense. Their 2015 recruiting class should help.

Bleacher Report college football analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee discuss Auburn's incoming class and how it can impact the future of the Tigers.

Will Auburn return to dominance in 2015? Check out the video, and let us know!  

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Notre Dame Football: Irish's Bowl Game a Preview of 2015 QB Battle

After taking a look at Notre Dame's quarterback position heading into the Music City Bowl, it took Brian Kelly three practices to make a decision on whom to play. Both of them.

Monday evening, Kelly disclosed his plan to play both Everett Golson and Malik Zaire against LSU. With two weeks to go before the Irish offense gets set to take on the SEC's best statistical defense, Kelly explained the logic behind the decision to use both signal-callers against the Tigers.

"I think both of them can help us win,” Kelly said. "I want to play them both because I think both of them have different traits and we need to find a way to win the game. I think both of them can help us win."

Winning will be a steep task.

According to Odds Shark, the Irish are already seven-point underdogs heading to Nashville, Tennessee on December 30. They'll also need to find a way to slow down LSU's power-running attack, stopping freshman Leonard Fournette with a MASH unit in the front seven.

Offensively, the task for the Irish isn't much easier. The Tigers' young defense is third nationally in scoring, giving up just 16.4 points a game. It has more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes allowed (nine), while surrendering just 162 yards a game through the air.

So if Kelly is looking for ways to generate points, it only makes sense to try and get the best of both worlds at the quarterback position.

"I think as we get into the game there are skill sets that each one of them has that are a little bit different that we’ll utilize in the game," Kelly said. "They both have strengths and we will call upon those strengths during the game. I’m confident that I can manage both of them during the game."

For Zaire, that means trying to open up the ground game with the zone read. While it was against a USC team that had a five-touchdown head start, the Irish moved the ball with the run, as Zaire and Greg Bryant broke off some big plays.

That seems like the best place to begin attacking LSU, with the Tigers' rush defense pedestrian compared to other statistical measurements. At 4.2 yards per carry allowed, LSU ranks 60th in the country.

But in many ways, the bowl game is almost secondary to what's shaking out on the practice fields on campus.

In stepping away from Golson for the bowl game after living through an astounding 22 turnovers in nine games before finally giving him the hook against USC, Kelly is setting the tone for an interesting offseason.

The move isn't unprecedented. You only have to look back to the end of the 2011 season to see Kelly doing something similar. After watching turnovers plague Tommy Rees and an otherwise explosive offense, Kelly finally gave Andrew Hendrix an opportunity to play in the season finale as well as the bowl game.

Kelly kept that competition open after the season ended, turning spring into a four-man race between Rees, Hendrix, Golson and early enrollee freshman Gunner Kiel.

That battle ended up with Golson on top, usurping Rees even after he had been the starter in 16 of the last 17 games Notre Dame had played.

Kelly looks to be making a similar move. So while the bowl game is important, the microscope on the quarterback position is simply part of what's expected when a position underperforms.

"[That] would have been the case at any position," Kelly said. "Anybody that’s not interested in getting better in the areas a coach feels he needs to get better at, he generally usually transfers."

That's a bold statement from Notre Dame's head coach. It also feels like a significant attitude change from earlier in the season.

While Kelly shuffled other positions—safety in particular—when he felt like he wasn't getting optimal performances from his players, the Irish head coach took the long view at quarterback, living through the mistakes Golson made after a year away from football.

But that rope is gone. Kelly revealed that it was Golson's job these past few weeks to earn back any playing time, crediting his senior quarterback for putting in the effort necessary to have a chance to even platoon.

"We had a conversation about what I wanted from him and he’s handled it great. He’s doing exactly what I’m asking him to do on a day-to-day basis," Kelly said. "I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but I wasn’t even interested in really going down this road unless he was fully committed and engaged in working on the things that I thought he needed to work on and he’s been all of that."

So the Irish will head to Nashville with two quarterbacks incorporated into the game plan. It's 60 minutes of football that'll serve as the official opening of a quarterback battle that could last into 2015.

"I’m open really to anything at this point," Kelly said. "We want to put the best football team, the best offense that we can put on the field. Ideally, you’d like to have one, but if we’ve got two, then that’s what we’ll do. We’ll see how this plays out and then evaluate it as we move forward."

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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Big Ten Football: Every Team's Best Moment from 2014 College Football Season

The Big Ten Conference didn't get a lot of love during the 2014 season, mostly because of a rough start that was sorely lacking in quality wins. But when the dust settled and the playoff pairings were set, Big Ten champ Ohio State was part of that Final Four, and nine other schools had earned bowl bids.

It might not have been the greatest season in Big Ten history, but it also wasn't a bad one. Every team did at least one thing worth noting as we look back on 2014's best moments.

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Marcus Peters Reportedly Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details, Reaction

Marcus Peters, considered a promising cornerback prospect before being dismissed by Washington in November, has reportedly declared for the 2015 NFL draft. 

Rand Getlin of Yahoo Sports reported the news:

According to Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times in November, Peters was dismissed from the team by head coach Chris Petersen after the player had repeated outbursts and several heated arguments with the coaching staff this season.     

"It’s unfortunate, but we’ve got certain standards and operating procedures,” Petersen said of Peters' dismissal, via Brewer. “We’re trying to do something special here. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Like I said, we wish him the best. It’s always a hard thing—the worst part of the job, without question."

While any interested NFL teams will surely investigate his time at Washington under first-year head coach Peterson carefully, there's no questioning Peters' talent. A Second-Team All Pac-12 selection in 2013, Peters had three interceptions and broke up seven passes in eight games in 2014 before his dismissal. 

Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projected the Houston Texans would select Peters with the No. 13 pick in a mock draft he posted in his most recent scouting notebook. Peters was the first corner off the board. 

There's no doubt the value of top-tier corners is on the rise with more and more teams boasting dynamic passing games and athletic wide receivers. So Peters will be a player to monitor.

At the same time, top draft picks are prized commodities, and teams have to be careful when it comes to risks. It will be interesting to see how Peters' past actions affect his draft stock in the months ahead.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Gary Patterson, TCU Agree on New Contract: Latest Details, Comments, Reaction

TCU reportedly reached an agreement with longtime head football coach Gary Patterson on a long-term contract extension over the weekend.    

Kate Hairopoulos of The Dallas Morning News confirmed the new deal with athletic director Chris Del Conte. He wouldn't provide many details, though:

News of the extension comes one day after Patterson won the Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, as noted by the school. It's his second time earning the honor after previously taking home the trophy in 2009.

Patterson arrived to TCU as a defensive coordinator in 1998. He took over as head coach two years later and, in an era where the coaching carousel spins rapidly each offseason, has seemed content to continue adding to the foundation he's built in Fort Worth.

He's won nearly 75 percent of his games (131-45) over that 15-year span. Equally impressive is the fact the Horned Frogs have qualified for a bowl game in all but two of those seasons. The team has gone 7-5 in those marquee games.

Next up for Patterson and TCU is a Peach Bowl clash with Ole Miss on Dec. 31. It was the program's consolation prize after narrowly missing out on the inaugural College Football Playoff.

 

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

Does Texas or Texas A&M Need 5-Star LB Malik Jefferson More?

One of the most hotly contested recruitments in the 2015 cycle will come to an end later this week when 5-star linebacker Malik Jefferson announces his commitment. 

While schools such as Baylor, Oklahoma, LSU, TCU and UCLA are also in his final group, Jefferson’s final decision is likely to come down to bitter in-state rivals Texas and Texas A&M.

But which Lone Star State power needs the nation’s top outside linebacker prospect more? 

It depends on whose perspective you view it from, but both programs could use a potential game changer in the middle level of their defense.

For Charlie Strong and the Longhorns, landing Jefferson would be huge for a number of reasons.

For starters, according to Ourlads, the Longhorns' linebacker segment will be gutted due to graduation.

Plugging Jefferson into the lineup would give Strong’s defense an instant boost of athleticism and playmaking ability.

Strong has built his foundation as one of the nation’s top defensive minds, and he helped improve the Longhorns from 69th to 27th nationally in total defense in his first season, per CFBstats.com.

Jefferson could be a building block that helps him take the Longhorns defense to an elite level.

It also wouldn’t hurt to wrangle him away from Texas A&M, who has gained the upper hand on the recruiting trail in Texas since it has moved on to the SEC.

However, as well as Kevin Sumlin has recruited since he’s been in College Station, the Aggies are in desperate need of athletic bodies on defense if they hope to take the next step in becoming a contender in the toughest division in the country.

According to Bobby Burton of Horns247, part of Sumlin’s pitch to Jefferson is selling him on the idea that he’s the missing link that could turn the Aggies defense into a stout unit.

A quick glance at the Aggies since Sumlin’s arrival shows a squad that has performed among the nation’s elite offensively since he’s been in College Station.

However, their defense has regressed into the worst unit in the SEC and one of most porous units nationally.

Sumlin fired defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, but the Aggies have yet to fill that post. While that may seem like a deterrent for Jefferson, he listed a couple of other criteria that will play a critical role in his decision when speaking with Colt Barber of Horns247 (subscription required) earlier this year: “I want a great coach and great position coach as well. Basically, I want to be a true outside backer. That’s one of the big parts and is a big part of my game. That’s what I live and breathe. It doesn’t matter what scheme it is, but I just want to play outside linebacker." 

The fact that Aggies linebackers coach Mark Hagen, whom Burton noted has been active in Jefferson’s recruitment, is staying put mitigates the impact of not having a defensive coordinator in place.

The Aggies landed an instant impact defender last season in defensive end Myles Garrett, who was named to ESPN’s freshman All-American team.

Jefferson has the potential to make a similar impact wherever he lands next fall.

Texas A&M is closer to getting over the hump and becoming a national title contender, which makes landing a potential game-changing talent such as Jefferson a necessity.

 

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

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Texas A&M Football: Final Positional Grades for the Aggies

The Texas A&M football team finished the regular season with a disappointing 7-5 record. There were a number of positional groups that did not perform up to par in 2014. 

The Aggies had a young team in 2014, and their inconsistent play on the field reflected their youth. The defense struggled for much of the year, which led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Mark Snyder after the LSU game.  

The offense started off like gangbusters, but a quarterback change in the middle of the season and the lack of a true identity hampered it down the stretch. 

These issues kept a very talented team from achieving its potential. This is a ranking of each position group on the Aggies. 

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Hits and Misses of the 2014 AP All-America Team

After an exciting 2014 season full of outstanding matchups and great individual performances, The Associated Press released its All-America team.

Bleacher Report College Football Analysts Michael Felder and Barrett Sallee dish out their hits and misses for the All-America team. 

Do you agree with the team? Check out the video, and let us know! 

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Ohio State Football: 3 Keys to Upsetting Alabama in the Sugar Bowl

Contrary to popular belief in SEC territory, Ohio State’s fortune could not get any better than playing Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on January 1 at 8:30 p.m. EST in New Orleans.

SEC fans, and Alabama fans in particular, are laughing right now. They are pointing to the Buckeyes' abysmal 0-10 record against the SEC in bowl games. They are highlighting the drubbing Florida and LSU put on Ohio State in back-to-back BCS championships in 2007 and 2008. They are quick to reference Nick Saban’s last two games against Urban Meyer when Alabama beat Florida 32-13 in the 2009 SEC championship game and 35-6 in the 2010 regular season. Their sense of entitlement is palpable.

Guess what? History does not matter when the teams take the field in a few weeks.

For Meyer and the Buckeyes, the stakes could not be any higher. On the line are Ohio State’s reputation, the Big Ten’s image, a potential berth in the national championship game and the title for best coach in college football. The Buckeyes can also extend the SEC’s championship drought to two years.

Despite the stakes for the Buckeyes, more pressure is on the Crimson Tide. With three championships over the last five years, Alabama has had a lock on SEC and college football supremacy. Everyone outside of Ohio expects Alabama to win convincingly. Oddsmakers have Alabama as 9.5-point favorites. Many feel the Buckeyes don’t even deserve to be playing in the game.

That’s exactly how Meyer wants it too.

Like Florida State, the Buckeyes are at their best this season when the doubters are loudest. The us-against-the-world motivational tactic works well for this team.

What is also clear is Ohio State is just beginning to realize its potential. The maturation of this team was up and down as anyone would expect from a youthful squad, but the moment has come to prove whether Meyer’s vision for this program is a reality or still a work in progress. As the saying goes, to be the best you have to beat the best. It is time to put the Buckeyes to the test.

Here are three keys to the game for Ohio State.

 

Red-Zone Offense and Defense

Alabama’s greatest strength this year is keeping teams from scoring touchdowns. Saban is a master at putting his defense in position to lock down the short field, making it nearly impossible to score. Just ask Auburn. Settling for field goals cost the Tigers the Iron Bowl this year.

On the season, Alabama’s opponents entered the red zone 40 times, and the defense gave up 15 touchdowns and 18 field goals. Amazingly, it allowed just three rushing touchdowns all season. When execution matters most, the Crimson Tide’s defense rises to the occasion.

The Buckeyes’ offense was just as efficient inside the red zone this year. In 65 trips, it scored 46 touchdowns and made eight field goals. Expect Meyer to continue being aggressive and playing with tempo inside the red zone by using misdirection, rollouts and wildcat plays to keep the defense off balance.

Alabama’s offense also capitalized on its chances inside the red zone this season. In 60 trips, it scored 41 touchdowns, 25 rushing and 16 passing. It also made 10 field goals.

The Buckeyes allowed 26 touchdowns, 17 on the ground, this season inside the red zone so expect Alabama to try to exploit Ohio State’s vulnerability with its power-rushing attack.

Offensively, Meyer’s red-zone strategy in this game will be intriguing. Sean Nuernberger is an unreliable field-goal kicker. If it comes down to going for it on fourth down or trying for three points, don’t be surprised if Meyer keeps him on the bench.

Besides stopping the run, the Buckeyes’ defense needs to put pressure on quarterback Blake Sims. He does not make a lot of mistakes, but the defense cannot allow him to sit comfortably in the pocket until receiver Amari Cooper gets open. They must contain the pocket and force him to release the ball early.

 

Third-Down Efficiency

Ohio State and Alabama are about as equal as teams can get when it comes to third-down efficiency.

Both offenses put themselves in favorable third-down situations by avoiding tackles for loss, sacks and penalties. The defenses keep opponents in 3rd-and-long by getting sacks, avoiding penalties and tackling well.

On offense, the Buckeyes are converting 51 percent of the time on third down and the Crimson Tide are converting 54 percent of their chances. Each offense is incredibly balanced and can score through big plays in the air or pounding the ball on the ground.

Defensively, Ohio State is allowing opponents to convert 37 percent of the time on third down and Alabama’s opponents are converting 32 percent of their chances. When they are on, these defenses frustrate, harass and take the will away from their opponents.

Losing does not happen often, but recent history indicates the team that executes well on third down will win this game. In Alabama’s last three defeats, the defense allowed opponents to covert 48 percent of the time on third down while the offense converted 39 percent of its chances.

In Ohio State’s last three losses, the defense allowed opponents to convert 47 percent of the time on third down while the offense converted 18 percent of its chances.

Bottom line, the Buckeyes will win this game if the defense gets off the field when it has the opportunity to and the offense consistently moves the chains.

 

Playing Physical

Given the outcome against the Badgers, it would not surprise me if the Buckeyes turned their attention to the Big Ten championship game after beating Minnesota on November 15. I don’t think Meyer overlooked Indiana and Michigan, but neither team had the talent to beat the Buckeyes.

With several weeks to prepare, Meyer showed everyone just how good his young team was against Wisconsin. The lines were dominant, defenders gang tackled, receivers routinely beat double coverage, the backs ran through tackles and special teams were on fire. Everything went right against the Badgers and the same is needed against the Crimson Tide. It won’t be easy though.

For the first time this season, Ohio State will be facing a team that matches its speed, power and athleticism. Alabama’s foundation is built on being a physical team that overpowers opponents. This game will be a 15-round heavyweight fight. It will try to wear down the Buckeyes. To win the game, Ohio State will have to take Alabama’s punches, get nasty and deliver a knockout blow late in the game.

 

Analysis

There is nothing better than having two great teams slugging it out for a chance to make it to the championship game.

Few coaches can match Saban when it comes to preparation. Meyer is one of them. Few teams can match Alabama’s tradition and standing in college football. Ohio State is one of them.

Many Alabama players have been in this position already playing in the BCS championship two years ago. It will be interesting to see how Ohio State’s young players respond on the big stage. The Buckeyes shined against Michigan State and Wisconsin. Can they do it again?

The Buckeyes might be underdogs, but they are hardly inferior. They just need to execute and not make the game bigger than it needs to be. To win, the offense will need to avoid three-and-outs, score touchdowns instead of field goals and be stronger at the point of attack. The defense needs tackle well and stop Cooper from making big plays down the field.

Meyer was hired to get the Buckeyes to this level and compete for titles. There have been a couple of minor hiccups, but his team is ready to deliver. Three years of recruiting and coaching top-level athletes has led to this moment. They are going to have to dig deep, but the Buckeyes will prevail and punch their ticket to Dallas to meet the winner of the semifinal game between Florida State and Oregon. Ohio State wins 31-27.

Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com

USC Football: Why Holiday Bowl Is Huge for Sark's Second Year

Steve Sarkisian said No. 24-ranked USC's Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl appearance is an opportunity for the Trojans to "put [their] best foot forward." In doing so, USC will take one long stride toward contending in the head coach's second season at the helm. 

Talk of building to 2015 was already permeating in the Coliseum last month following USC's rout of rival Notre Dame. Sophomore running back Justin Davis said the Trojans are riding a wave of momentum that "hopefully carries over into next season." 

Which is not to downplay the implications for 2014, of course: There is plenty at stake for USC as it concerns Sarkisian's debut campaign. 

Beating Nebraska in San Diego virtually guarantees the Trojans finish the 2014 season ranked in the Top 25 of the final Associated Press and Amway Coaches Polls. It would also give Sarkisian the first nine-win campaign in his brief head coaching career. 

Sarkisian went 5-7 in 2009, his first season after taking over a winless Washington Huskies team, then 7-6 for three straight years before last year's 8-4 run. He accepted the head coaching vacancy at USC in early December, prior to the Huskies' ninth win over Brigham Young in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. 

But in that 8-4 record, USC is at an important junction for its direction under Sarkisian. 

"It’s easy to look at the win-loss record and say that’s who you are, which is fine," Sarkisian said. "I understand that. Ultimately, that is who we are. 

"But I look at the silver lining of a lot of things," he added. "There’s a lot in these tight games that we’re going to learn from and be better going forward."

Those "tight games" to which Sarkisian refers are defeats to Boston College, Arizona State and Utah by a combined 13 points. The Arizona State and Utah games were especially tight, with the Sun Devils and Utes both winning on touchdowns in the final minute. 

"Those tight games and those tough losses—believe me—are going to make us better in January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August and here comes September [the first month of the 2015 season]," Sarkisian said. 

And in that message, Sarkisian conveys one critical component of the postseason: While focus at USC is certainly on Nebraska, there's an eye on Arkansas State, the Trojans' Week 1 opponent next year. 

A perhaps overlooked facet of the harsh sanctions the NCAA imposed on USC in 2010 is that for two years, the Trojans were denied the 15 additional practices that come with playing in a bowl game. 

"Practice is the hardest thing," said wide receiver John "JuJu" Smith. "You practice for two hours a day, then come out [on game day] and perform for 30 minutes." 

With roughly 10 hours of practice time translating to 30 minutes of game time, the 30 hours of bowl game practice USC has is a jump start on three games through Smith's equation. 

And, indeed, postseason practices ostensibly operate as the first bridge between seasons in a vein similar to spring workouts. 

Springtime is dedicated to keeping the roster sharp and also an opportunity for some new faces to begin making an impact. For the Trojans, Holiday Bowl preparation is beginning that process. 

As Michael Lev of the Orange County Register notes, freshman defensive back Lamont Simmons is one such player already making strides. 

"The first half of those [bowl] practices are dedicated to our younger players and developing those guys," Sarkisian said. "We have so many of them, and even the guys who are playing right now [we're] going back to the basics and fundamentals of how and why we're doing everything." 

 

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

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USC Football: Why Holiday Bowl Is Huge for Sark's Second Year

Steve Sarkisian said No. 24-ranked USC's Dec. 27 Holiday Bowl appearance is an opportunity for the Trojans to "put [their] best foot forward...

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Les Miles Smart to Spurn Michigan Reports and Show Commitment to LSU

LSU Tigers head football coach Les Miles is one of the most recognizable names in college football and a staple on the rumor mill every time a coaching position opens up with the Michigan Wolverines.

After Brady Hoke was fired as the head coach of Michigan earlier this month, Sam Webb of Scout.com reported that school officials had reached out to Miles through his agent, George Bass.

Following a practice Monday, Miles spoke to reporters, including Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune, about receiving interest from the Wolverines, and he adamantly denied contact between the school, himself or his agent.

Despite Michigan possibly making another push to hire Miles—the program tried twice in the past to no avail, according to Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com—the veteran coach is smart to stay in Louisiana and try to win another national championship.

While there is no questioning Miles’ ties to the Wolverines as both a player and a coach, he has become a hero at LSU and has reached prominence due to his success with the Tigers. In 10 seasons with the school, Miles has reached two BCS title games and amassed an impressive 103-28 record.

At 61 years old, Miles would have to start from the ground up in Michigan. The program likely needs at least five years before it is a legitimate contender, and that is a very optimistic projection. The Tigers already have a strong core of players, and several more years of elite recruiting should bring LSU back to national prominence.

Miles spoke to Baumgardner about his players, saying, "I enjoy the players, these guys I'm capable of coaching. There's a tradition and a culture here we've kind of established. The young men that come in here really enjoy stepping into this room and being a part of that culture."

It likely wouldn’t be about the money, either. Miles is already making a staggering $4.3 million a year, according to Baumgardner, as opposed to the $2.8 million per year that Hoke was making before he was fired. Michigan would likely open the wallet to pay Miles what he wants, but LSU has proven it would do the same.

The competition is tougher in the SEC, but Miles has always been focused on accomplishing the tasks placed in front of him. After his team went 8-4 this season and 4-4 in the conference, there is still plenty of work to do with the Tigers.

Becoming the head coach at Michigan would bring Miles’ career full circle and would be a memorable moment for college football fans, but he is better off staying with LSU. If winning another national championship is the ultimate goal, he has a better chance with the Tigers.

 

*Stats via ESPN.com.

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Marcus Mariota, Melvin Gordon Headline 2014 AP All-America Team

You can add "First-Team All-American" to the growing list of postseason awards and honors for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner highlights the group of players selected by The Associated Press as the very best in college football this season. You can find the full team below.

Mariota was brilliant for the Ducks this year, accounting for 4,452 yards from scrimmage and 53 total touchdowns while leading Oregon to the inaugural College Football Playoff. His former coach and current Philadelphia Eagles coach, Chip Kelly, gushed about him on radio station 94WIP in Philadelphia on Monday, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk:

I think Marcus will be successful whether he's an NFL player, a banker, a teacher, a fireman, a policeman. I've said it before about some other players, but if you can buy stock in a human being, you buy stock in that kid because he'll always be successful in anything he does....

I felt lucky that I had an opportunity to coach a young man like that. When you listen to his [Heisman Trophy] acceptance speech, I think it's maybe a sliver of what we got the chance to experience every day to be around him. He's a special young man. I know I'm a better person for being associated with him.

Mariota seems likely to be a top-five pick in this year's NFL draft if he decides to bypass his senior season at Oregon. There are several teams near the bottom of the standings in need of a franchise signal-caller, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans and New York Jets.

Heisman runners-up Amari Cooper of Alabama (115 receptions for 1,656 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin (2,336 rushing yards, 29 total touchdowns) joined Mariota on the first team.

While Mariota has been collecting postseason awards left and right, Barrett Sallee of Bleacher Report noted that Alabama would have been in trouble without Cooper this year, per B/R Radio on Twitter:

Other notable selections include Shaq Thompson (first-team all-purpose), who played both linebacker and running back for Washington this season, and J.T. Barrett (third-team quarterback), who took over for Braxton Miller at quarterback for Ohio State this season and accounted for 3,772 yards from scrimmage and 45 touchdowns.

Just a redshirt freshman this year, Barrett will likely head into next season as a Heisman favorite and a candidate to move up a few teams in the 2015 All-America selections.

 

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SEC Football Q&A: What to Make of Geoff Collins' Move from MSU to Florida

The coaching silly season is upon us, and the wheels just keep on spinning.

Late Friday night, former Florida head coach Will Muschamp officially made the move to Auburn to become the new defensive coordinator on the Plains. Meanwhile, at his old employer, there was a possibility that new Florida head coach Jim McElwain would retain defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin to keep some continuity in Gainesville.

Apparently, that's not happening.

Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated reported Tuesday that Mississippi State defensive coordinator Geoff Collins will join McElwain's Florida staff in the same role.

What does the move mean for Florida and Mississippi State? That question and more are answered in this week's SEC Q&A.

 

I love the hire for Florida and McElwain.

Sure, Collins' defenses haven't been stellar in Starkville. In fact, only one—2011—has finished in the top 50 nationally in yards per play. But they are lights out in the red zone, finishing in the top two in the SEC in red-zone touchdown percentage twice over the last four seasons (2011 and 2014).

He's more set in his 4-3 ways than Florida's previous regime, led by Muschamp and Durkin, but the Gators have the talent and experience to be able to pick it up without missing much of a beat.

What's really interesting is that it all but assures that Durkin will be gone and could be what sends defensive backs coach and ace recruiter Travaris Robinson packing (perhaps to his alma mater Auburn to join Muschamp). The latter would hurt recruiting, but it would also serve as a sign that McElwain is making the program his own and creating its own identity.

That's a good thing for Florida even if there are some speed bumps along the way.

For Mississippi State, the $64,000 question becomes, "Is Collins' lateral move a sign that head coach Dan Mullen could be moving on?"

I'm not so sure that's the case. Sure, there have been reports that Mullen is high on Michigan's list, but as of now, there has been no official contact, according to Michael Bonner of The Clarion-Ledger.

If it's related to anything, it's likely more related to the way the season ended.

According to Bonner, Mullen ripped his defensive staff following the 31-17 Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss that saw the Bulldogs give up 537 yards.

"That's just absolutely pathetic," Mullen said. "That's a terrible job by our defensive coaching staff."

Could Collins' move be related to his head coach throwing him under the bus? Maybe and maybe not although Mullen didn't seem to be too much of a fan of it, according to Brandon Walker of The Commercial Dispatch.

Before everybody freaks out, yes, it is a lateral move by definition. Plus, following a 10-2 season and two years of Florida struggles, Mullen should have a high opinion of his program.

Whatever the reason for Collins' move, though, there are plenty of coaches available who could come in and take over in Starkville (Ed Orgeron and Manny Diaz, I'm looking in your direction).

 

The combination of head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will keep Auburn in the thick of the SEC West race on an annual basis and will raise the floor of a program that hasn't had back-to-back double-digit-win seasons since 1988 and 1989.

A 10-win season and a SEC West title are not out of the question. In fact, they both should be expected.

Auburn gets Alabama and Georgia at home, draws Kentucky as its rotating SEC East opponent and worked that game into a Thursday night showdown, which adds a semi-bye week into a schedule that only includes one true bye week for SEC schools.

There isn't a surefire loss on the schedule. I'll toss Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia and LSU into the "toss-up" category, and Auburn gets all but LSU at home.

I'll say 10-2, with losses to Alabama and either Ole Miss or LSU, and on the outside looking in of the SEC Championship Game. 

It would not surprise me in the least bit, though, if the Tigers make a run to the second annual College Football Playoff.

 

It's rather simple—defensive consistency.

It was something that plagued Georgia under former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and something that, while improved, still jumped up and bit the Bulldogs in Jeremy Pruitt's first year as defensive coordinator.

It would have been tough for Florida to gain 445 yards against air this year, but it managed to pull that off against a Georgia defense despite only running six passing plays. Florida was one-dimensional by necessity, and it didn't matter. That was a game Georgia needed to win to get to Atlanta, and it fell flat on its face.

The Bulldogs closed the season by getting lit up by Georgia Tech to the tune of 463 yards, marking the first loss to the intra-state rival Yellow Jackets since 2008 and second of head coach Mark Richt's 14-year Georgia career.

Another year in the system will help Georgia's talented roster become more comfortable with what Pruitt wants to do, but significant roster turnover, including cornerback Damian Swann and linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, could prevent that defense from being as consistent as it needs to be in order to make a run in 2015. 

 

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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Urban Meyer Under Immense Pressure to Hire Great Replacement for Tom Herman

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When he first arrived at Ohio State in late 2011, Urban Meyer knew the question was coming. So when he was asked to explain the health problems that led to his downfall at Florida, it wasn't a surprise that Meyer had an answer that was both plausible and logical.

Given the success Meyer found in Gainesville—including a run of two national championships in three years—programs from around the country came calling to claim their branches of Meyer's coaching tree. But rather than trust his replacements for the likes of Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong, Meyer tried to overcompensate, overextending himself and wearing himself out in the process.

"If you hire quality people, they will be head coaches someday; you can’t stand in the way," Meyer told The Columbus Dispatch in 2012. "The key is when you lose someone, how you replace him."

For the first time since coming to Columbus, Meyer's ability to do just that will truly be put to the test.

With the news that Buckeyes offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman will be announced Houston's head coach on Tuesday came the realization that Ohio State will need to replace its most valuable assistant. The 2014 recipient of the Broyles Award, presented annually to college football's top assistant, Herman made a name for himself this season by transforming redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett into a Heisman Trophy candidate and one-time third-string quarterback Cardale Jones into the Big Ten Championship MVP.

But Herman's value to Meyer's staff extended beyond his work with the OSU quarterbacks, as he's also proven to be one of the Buckeyes' most decorated recruiters. In the matter of just two recruiting cycles, Herman used his Texas ties to singlehandedly build a pipeline to the Lone Star State, helping OSU land Barrett, 4-star linebacker Mike Mitchell, 4-star running back Dontre Wilson and 4-star offensive guard Demetrius Knox from 2013-2014.

In the 11 years prior to Herman's arrival, the Buckeyes had netted a total of four scholarship players from the talent-rich state.

"Tom Herman did an excellent job down in Texas, an area that traditionally has not been strong for Ohio State," Meyer said on national signing day in 2013. "I knew very well Tom had a background in Texas and I knew he's a good recruiter because I did the homework before we hired him. Very good recruiter."

That's also shown up in the recruiting of other states as well, particularly at the quarterback position. Herman played a key role in the recruitment of 2013 junior college wide receiver Corey Smith and Ohio State's last three quarterback commitments in 2014: 3-star prospect Stephen Collier, 2015 4-star signal-caller Torrance Gibson and 3-star quarterback Joe Burrow.

The loss of Herman may have even already hurt the Buckeyes on the recruiting trail, as 3-star wide receiver Lawrence Cager told Ari Wasserman of Cleveland.com that he was no longer considering Ohio State, due in large part to the departure of the offensive coordinator.

"Mainly because of the coaching change," Cager said of his decision to not include the Buckeyes in his most recent top five. "Coach Herman leaving was big."

While it remains unclear how much of a priority landing Cager was for OSU—the Buckeyes have gone receiver-heavy in their last two recruiting classes and some recruiting insiders have questioned the legitimacy of Cager's Ohio State offer—it's worth pointing out that recruits have taken note of Herman's new gig. Gibson, one of the most highly touted commits to the Buckeyes' 2015 class, initially voiced concern with Herman's departure before congratulating the Cougars' new head coach.

Throw in the value that Herman added coaching X's and O's—the development of Barrett and Jones, as well as Braxton Miller and Kenny Guiton in the past three seasons, speaks for itself—and it's clear Meyer will need to nail the hiring of Herman's replacement. While Meyer may be one of the fathers of the spread offense, Herman managed to put his own spin on it at OSU, implementing a no-huddle scheme that only enhanced the Buckeyes' talent advantage in the Big Ten.

"That's a big part of why [he was] hired," Meyer said of Herman in September. "I wanted to do it, and he's an expert at it.”

The most likely scenario for Ohio State appears to be promoting offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to the position of primary offensive coordinator and bringing in an up-and-coming quarterbacks coach to fill Herman's role. Warinner gained experience as a play-caller as the OC at Kansas from 2007-09, helping lead the Jayhawks to a top-10 offense and Orange Bowl victory in 2007.

But making the right hire to replace Herman's work on the recruiting trail and with the Buckeyes quarterbacks will remain critical, especially considering that Warinner has been rumored for the head coaching vacancies at Army and Kansas in the past two years. Meyer will likely look for a quarterbacks coach/co-offensive coordinator with experience in the spread system, with the ability to call plays and recruit Texas being major bonuses.

Tony Gerdeman of theOzone.net has compiled the most comprehensive list of potential replacements for Herman, which includes Boise State's Mike Sanford, East Carolina's Lincoln Riley and Mississippi State's Brian Johnson. As we learned a year ago, Meyer will certainly look to swing for a home run hire, as he did when he replaced defensive line coach Mike Vrabel with Penn State's Larry Johnson.

Replacing a position coach, however, differs from the challenge of hiring a new coordinator, as Meyer learned at Florida. There will be no shortage of qualified candidates lining up to become the next member of Meyer's storied coaching tree, but it will be up to the two-time national champion head coach to make the right hire and keep his offense—and perhaps his program—on track.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Ohio State Lead Writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

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Reliving the Biggest Upsets of the 2014 College Football Season

There wasn't an "Appalachian State over Michigan" or a "Georgia Southern over Florida," but the 2014 college football season was not without its upsets.

They were of the milder variety, sure, but an upset is an upset—and many of this year's surprising results proved important on a national scale. Seven of the eight games on this list had College Football Playoff implications as recently as championship weekend.

The upsets on the following slides have withstood the test of time. Boston College beating USC, for example, was a major surprise in the moment but doesn't seem all that weird in hindsight. The Eagles were slightly better than expected and finished 7-5; USC was slightly worse and finished 8-4.

But instead of in-the-moment upsets, let's relive the games that seem just as curious now as they did when they happened. They are the upsets that defined the regular season.

Sound off below and let us know which game you'll remember best.

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