NCAA Football News

Blake Sims vs. Cardale Jones Is the Semifinal Battle No One Saw Coming

NEW ORLEANS—The two starting quarterbacks here for the Sugar Bowl could not be more different, and they could not be more the same.     

Ohio State's Cardale Jones is 6'5" and needs just a short step and short stroke of the arm to fling the ball 60 yards. Alabama's Blake Sims is 6" tall and his best passes are flash throws to the wings to receiver Amari Cooper.

On the other hand, both Jones and Sims were expected to be glued to the bench this season, not saviors of their program's national championship hopes. Jones was recruited by the previous coaching regime at Ohio State and was knocked back to second team last August behind J.T. Barrett. Sims was miserable in the 2014 Alabama spring game (13-for-30 with two interceptions). FSU transfer Jacob Coker, even coming off knee surgery, was expected to roll in and rescue 'Bama, post A.J. McCarron.

Now, here they are. They will not be just bit players in Thursday night's national semifinal, but vital contributors. Alabama's run defense will likely force Ohio State to become a passing team with Jones. Sims, meanwhile, will have to get the ball in the hands of the Tide's best playmaker, Cooper, against a game plan Ohio State has spent three weeks scheming.

Jones is on the marquee not only because Barrett broke his ankle in the last regular season game against Michigan, but also because he played well in a 59-0 win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. Sims is on the marquee not only because Coker was not ready for the starting role, but also because Sims set Alabama's single-season total offense record (3,571 yards).

Supposed to be backups, Jones was the MVP of the Big Ten Championship Game, Sims was the MVP of the SEC Championship Game.

What's spectacular about this matchup is this is the day and age where quarterbacks flee one program for another at the first hint they are not going to be The Man. Sims and Jones did not put wheels on their careers and instead stuffed their egos inside their pockets.

"Far," Jones said when asked this week how close he was to transferring from Ohio State because Barrett was the starter and another injured star quarterback, Braxton Miller, had eligibility remaining.

Jones has talked this week about the pride of playing for his state school. He gave no hint he would bolt the program next spring if Barrett comes back from his broken ankle and wins the job.

Lane Kiffin, the Alabama offensive coordinator, said he asked Sims in the summer if he was worried about all the speculation about the 6'5" Coker taking the job. Sims told Kiffin, "Coach, I'm not worried about that." The fifth-year senior behaves as if he is directly descended from a Crimson Tide bloodline and not from north Georgia.

Sims obviously did not languish on the bench at Alabama. He made an attempt to grow while he watched McCarron quarterback the Tide to two national championships.

"I just pretty much tried to learn from what A.J. taught me and what A.J. did, and what I saw from A.J. The way he studied the plays; the way he was humble; the way he kept his composure at all times; the way he was a game manager," Sims said. "He did a great job of that, and I tried to bring that into this year."

Jones is 22 years old. Sims is 22. They are first-year starting quarterbacks, but among the oldest players on their teams.

What is key about Thursday night's game is seeing which quarterback handles 3rd-and-8 the best. On paper, this is not the pet down-and-distance for these two quarterbacks. Alabama led the SEC in third-down conversion (54.1 percent), but part of that was a function of Sims keeping his team in manageable 3rd-and-short. Jones, meanwhile, is a downfield passer, like way downfield. Can he make the medium toss in the middle of the field? Alabama does not allow swing passes on third down to get 8 yards.

These are two quarterbacks to cheer for Thursday night because of their patience. Jones had a challenging upbringing in Cleveland, agreed to be tucked away at a military prep school, and then red-shirted by Meyer. Sims hung around the Alabama program for four years looking for a position to call home and never complained.

Six months ago, it would have been unimaginable they would share the stage in one of the biggest games of the 2014 college football season. Yet, here they are.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Redeemed Lane Kiffin Is College Football's Hottest Coach, Again

NEW ORLEANS—Lane Kiffin is no longer a circus act. He is a football coach.

Nicknamed the Boy Blunder at Tennessee for misdeeds and misspeaking, rudely fired by Southern Cal on the tarmac of an airport, Kiffin has been laundered at Alabama by the stony Nick Saban. He has been rinsed and he is in the spin cycle.    

"I should pay him for this opportunity," Kiffin said Saban, who hired his offensive coordinator last January when Doug Nussmeier left for Michigan.

Now look at him.

Kiffin has taken a 6-foot tall quarterback, a very good college wide receiver and a pretty good offensive line and showed just how tactical and skilled he is as a football coach.

Blake Sims, a fifth-year senior, was a castaway on the depth chart, moving from running back to wide receiver and forever tagged for the scout team. Playing for Kiffin, the coach he has wanted to play for since he was recruiting him at Tennessee, Sims threw for a school-record 3,250 yards in 2014 and has Alabama in the national semifinals.

Amari Cooper, a wide receiver, has caught 115 passes and become an All-American in a program that typically produces All-American running backs (Julio Jones notwithstanding). Kiffin's play design moved Cooper around and prevented opponents from getting their hands on him or doubling him. Kiffin's scheme, in most games, was too sophisticated for other college coaches.

More than anything, Kiffin opened a window for Saban into the modern era of the game and speedball football. Saban frowned on the hurry-up offense before this season, but he and Kiffin discovered that Sims thrived in it, and they turned it into a weapon.

Saban wanted to be more explosive on offense, to keep up with Auburn and Texas A&M, and Kiffin made it happen.

These days, Kiffin is being labeled Boy Wonder, not Boy Blunder. He has status again, thanks to Saban and the genius for offense that never went away.

"It's humbling," said Kiffin who expects to be back at Alabama next season, probably with a raise over the $680,000 he reportedly makes this season.

On Monday, in a required interview session for the media before the Sugar Bowl, Kiffin was briefly a circus act again, but for just 40 minutes in two sessions. Media crowded around him three deep at one table. In another session, cameras and lights were in full motion and glare. Reporters stood four deep to get a measure of him.

There were some brief moments when the wise-guy 'Kif' showed up with some quips, but mostly he responded to questions in the manner of his tie. Pulled up tight and straight.

Kiffin always had it in him. When he got to Tennessee as head coach in 2009, he took the Vols offense from 268 yards a game to 383 yards a game. But all that good work was obscured by hijinks in recruiting, a feud with Florida coach Urban Meyer and his dastardly departure from UT in the middle of the recruiting season for Southern Cal.

After Kiffin got fired by USC, he was radioactive.

"I got fired. I was an unemployed coach. The phone wasn't ringing," Kiffin said. "(Saban) called and took a chance. It wasn't going to be a popular choice with the media."

Saban could care less what the media thinks, so Kiffin was in good hands. One of the rules working with Saban is that there is "one voice" for the program; assistant coaches do not give interviews.

It was perfect for Kiffin. He would coach, and only coach. He could put away the standup act.

"I just always took the approach—and it haunted me at times, especially when you lose when everything gets magnified—is I was just going to say whatever's on my mind," Kiffin said. "It wasn't going to be coach-speak, and I wasn't going to go up there and say what every other coach gets up and says, because that's not what you guys want to hear. So I'd answer questions exactly what I was thinking, as if I was having a one-on-one conversation. Sometimes that comes back to haunt you."

There is a perception that Saban has drained some of the fun from the job, but Kiffin still has a needle and can be a quipster.

Kiffin remembers his trip back to Knoxville in October and the shower of boos. They were walking together. "(Saban) made a joke one time on how did I get higher on the most-hated list than he did. He might have been mad about that."

He was asked this question: How would you characterize your relationship with Saban? Is it like father/son, like older brother/younger brother or crazy uncle/immature nephew?

"You're really trying to get me to make SportsCenter today," Kiffin said. "That's the third question you've set me up with."

He was reminded that he is viewed as a "divisive" guy in the college football industry, and Kiffin said, "God, this (interview) was going so well."

Kiffin has proved some people wrong about his tactics and worthiness as a college football coach. That's on the field. Off the field, well, we'll see how much he has grown when he is hired as a head coach in 2016. He will not go back to the NFL—he almost said as much here Monday—but Kiffin will be hired because 1) he can coach 2) he will have been redeemed 3) the trend is to hire an offensive guy and have him bring a wing man.

If I had to guess, I would lay odds on Miami. Al Golden has another year to get things right there and it is going to be uphill. Can Miami, with all its history of rule-bending, afford to hire Kiffin? People wondered if it was the right move for Alabama. It was.

 

Ray Glier covers college football for Bleacher Report.

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Duke Williams out for Outback Bowl Hurts Auburn, but His Return in 2015 Is Huge

Gus Malzahn delivered some good news and bad news Monday morning in Tampa.

In expected fashion, the bad news came first.

"Duke Williams will not play," Malzahn said at an Outback Bowl joint press conference with Wisconsin bowl coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez, per the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black. "He has been suspended for breaking team rules."

The junior wide receiver's status had been up in the air after he did not practice during the Tigers' bowl preparations in Auburn and arrived late to Tampa over the weekend.

But, in his next sentence, Malzahn delivered good news on Williams' status past the Outback Bowl.

"He is planning on coming back next year," Malzahn said, per Black. "That's the reason he's here."

As Auburn's leading receiver and one of the SEC's best wideouts in the 2014 season, Williams had flirted with declaring for the NFL draft after just one year on the Plains.

On Monday afternoon, Williams made it clear where he will be in 2015:

Williams' suspension, which Malzahn refused to comment further on Monday, will be a solid blow to Auburn's offense against Wisconsin.

The Tigers are coming off their best offensive performance of the season against No. 1 Alabama, thanks in part to Williams' play. 

Quarterback Nick Marshall threw for 456 yards and three touchdowns against the Crimson Tide, and while Williams didn't score in Tuscaloosa, his presence opened up one-on-one opportunities for vertical threat Sammie Coates.

For the majority of the 2014 season, the former junior college star was the intermediate-route threat Marshall was missing in 2013, and Williams pulled off spectacular catch after spectacular catch for his new team.

When Williams missed the Georgia and Samford games with a leg injury, the Tigers offense was held to fewer than 200 passing yards and only had one touchdown through the air.

In the Outback Bowl, Auburn will face one of the nation's stiffest past defenses in Wisconsin without the talents of its No. 1 target:

However, Malzahn said he was confident the Tigers would be able to move the ball against the Badgers without Williams.

"We've got some veteran guys that we can move around," Malzahn said, per Black. "Ricardo Louis, C.J [Uzomah], Melvin [Ray], they all three will have a role in taking his place... We have guys we feel very good about that are veteran guys that have made plays for us the last two years. We have a plan and we feel good about it."

While he will be held out of the game due to the suspension, Williams still traveled down to Tampa and returned to practice Sunday—so he could help Auburn's defense prepare for Wisconsin's passing game.

"I thought it was important that he's on the scout team," Malzahn said. "He's acting as Wisconsin's top receiver. So I felt like that was the right thing to do."

After the New Year's Day bowl, Williams will turn his attention to directly helping Auburn win games and contend for championships in 2015.

While the NFL-bound Coates and senior Quan Bray are playing in their final collegiate games against Wisconsin, Auburn's receiving corps will not lose all three of its starters for next season thanks to Williams' return.

Instead of rebuilding its entire passing game with a new starting quarterback and three new starting receivers, Williams will be a preseason All-SEC candidate who could make sure the Tigers' passing game keeps improving under Malzahn.

"Duke opens it more for everybody, because he tends to make big plays when big plays are needed," Bray said earlier this season.

Not only was Williams the Tigers' top receiver in 2014, he could make the claim as the Tigers' best receiver over the last few seasons.

Williams was the first Auburn receiver to average more than 70 yards per game since Darvin Adams in 2009, and his 45 catches are the most in a single season for an Auburn receiver since Emory Blake in 2011.

His season of experience and top-level talent through the air gives Auburn's offense an extra layer of security in what will be an offseason of transition.

And with more of a pass-first quarterback destined to take control of the offense in 2015, Williams just might make the Tigers a national title contender once again.

 

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU.

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Is Alabama or Auburn Best Fit for 4-Star OT Chidi Valentine-Okeke?

One of the most intriguing prospects in the 2015 class is 4-star offensive lineman Chidi Valentine-Okeke.

According to Ryan Bartow of 247Sports (subscription required), Alabama and Auburn are now tied at the top for his services.

“Both recruiting me so hard,” Valentine-Okeke told Bartow. “Both really want me. It’s 50-50.”

The 6’6”, 305-pounder—who was originally a member of the 2016 class until he was reclassified earlier this year—was previously thought be to favoring Georgia.

The door opened for the Tide and the Tigers when former Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo left for the head coaching job at Colorado State and took offensive line coach Will Friend with him.

Which of the heated in-state rivals presents the best fit for the nation’s No. 12-ranked offensive tackle prospect?

 

Alabama

The resume of Alabama offensive line coach Mario Cristobal has gotten Valentine-Okeke's attention.

“He’s a nice coach,” he told Bartow. “I learned a lot from him at summer camp. He does a great job of putting guys in the first round.”

As noted by Tim Watts of BamaOnline (subscription required), from a measurable standpoint, Valentine-Okeke is a physical freak who would fit in well at a place such as Alabama.

A critical part of Nick Saban’s top-rated recruiting class is the group of five offensive linemen he and his staff have been able to land commitments from.

However, the only one who is listed as a tackle is recent 3-star pledge Matt Womack.

Adding another athletic tackle with a tremendous upside would round out the Tide’s offensive line class.

The Tide are also losing three seniors off this year’s line unit, including right tackle Austin Shepherd.

While they have recruited the offensive line position well, Valentine-Okeke could work his way into the rotation early in his career if he makes a smooth transition to the next level.

 

Auburn

Gus Malzahn will have to replace a pair of starters along the interior of his offensive line in 2015.

However, left tackle Shon Coleman and right tackle Avery Young will be entering their junior year next fall. Malzahn and his staff will still need to look ahead to finding the eventual replacements at those spots moving forward.

Similarly to Alabama, three of the Tigers' four offensive linemen who are committed in the 2015 class are slated to play either guard or center during their college careers.

Adding a talent such as Valentine-Okeke would give them a chance to groom him and prepare him to take over one of the tackle spots as early as 2016.

His impressive frame and athleticism would be a great fit for an offensive line unit that puts a premium on being one of the most well-conditioned outfits in the country.

 

Best Fit

In terms of physical talent, Valentine-Okeke is a player who would fit in at nearly every school in the country.

Both Alabama and Auburn have produced their share of standout offensive linemen in recent years, so each school presents him with a chance to reach his full potential.

However, it’s the Tigers that get the slight nod because of the their scheme and a chance to see the field a bit quicker on the Plains.

 

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

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Russell Athletic Bowl 2014: Live Score, Highlights for Oklahoma vs. Clemson

Clemson 34, Oklahoma 0—Mid-3rd Quarter

The Clemson Tigers and Oklahoma Sooners have kicked off the Russell Athletic Bowl Bowl in Orlando, and both will look to end the season on a good note. The Sooners will get Trevor Knight back at quarterback, and he leads one of the best offenses in the country.

The Tigers will be without Deshaun Watson on offense, but their defense gives up only 17.6 points per game. Led by senior defensive end Vic Beasley, the Clemson defense will face one of its toughest challenges of the season.

The game can be seen on ESPN, but stay right here for live updates and analysis.

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Army All-American Bowl 2015: 5 Players to Watch

The U.S. Army All-American Bowl takes center stage Saturday afternoon in San Antonio, presenting a national platform for college football's premier prospects. This star-studded event has featured plenty of eventual NFL standouts, including Andrew Luck, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray and Jamaal Charles.

The latest edition of a highly anticipated annual matchup supplies a heavy dose of talent from across the country. Here's a look at five players who provide some extra incentive to tune in Saturday.

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Texas A&M Staff Member Whacks West Virginia Player in the Helmet During Game

The 2014 AutoZone Liberty Bowl has been so chippy that even staff members are getting in on the act.

Late in the first half, a Texas A&M staff member gave West Virginia cornerback Daryl Worley a shot to the helmet that didn't appear to be accidental. 

In other words, this Aggie had a Woody Hayes moment.

The Houston Chronicle's Brent Zwerneman threw out the offender's name:

Oddly enough, the Texas A&M sideline was involved in another incident earlier in the game.


It looks like the Mountaineers won't have to worry about Richardson in the second half:

[Twitter]

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Notre Dame Football: Starting Malik Zaire vs. LSU Is Wise Move by Brian Kelly

Brian Kelly announced in mid-December that Notre Dame would rotate two quarterbacks—Everett Golson and Malik Zaire—in the Music City Bowl against LSU.

On Monday, however, he elaborated to say Zaire would make the first start of his career, displacing Golson after an up-and-down season in which he turned the ball over 22 times. 

Starting Zaire is a necessary risk for the Irish, who have to learn as much about their redshirt freshman as possible before next season.

No matter which QB started this game, there was going to be a position battle in spring and fall camp. If Golson returns, it will be between him and Zaire. If Golson declares for the NFL draft, it will be between Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush.

But Kelly and his staff already know what they need to know about Golson. He makes difficult throws look easy and easy throws look difficult. He has tremendous arm talent and played like a Heisman candidate in September and October. But he also has reckless tendencies and played like a third-stringer in November.

Zaire is the unknown alternative. He outplayed Golson in the 2014 spring game but couldn't win the job in fall camp. Golson earned the right to start by leading Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game in 2012—even though he missed the following season with an academic suspension—but Zaire is the better runner and has made great use of his time the past two seasons. He just needs to prove he can do it in a game.

"I want to challenge [Zaire] and put him in this kind of environment," Kelly told reporters, per Andrew Owens of 247Sports. He also said Zaire has "a greater understanding of what the team is doing offensively" after watching Golson play from the sidelines.

Zaire earned the first extended action of his career in the regular-season finale against USC, relieving Golson after Notre Dame fell behind 35-0. He promptly led a touchdown drive but finished the game just 9-of-20 passing with a QB rating of 116.4.

There's a difference, though, between starting a game and coming off the bench. The quarterback prepares differently. The defense prepares differently. Both entire teams prepare differently. This is his first genuine audition to win the starting job in 2015.

Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer thinks it was a long time coming:

Zaire will neither win nor lose the job against LSU. Golson has too high of a ceiling to get benched eight months before the season. If he returns, this QB battle will again last into August.

But in starting Zaire—and in doing so against one of the best pass defenses in college football—Kelly will give himself an important data point heading into the spring. How Zaire handles the spotlight will no longer be a hypothetical. The proof will play out on the field.

Notre Dame's offense can be great next season if it doesn't shoot itself in the foot.

Greg Bryant will be one year older and stronger at running back. Will Fuller will be one year older and stronger (unthinkable as that may be) at receiver. The offensive line should be solid once again.

The only thing it needs is a quarterback. Fortunately, there's a chance it has two. But a regular-season platoon would be sub-optimal. Kelly needs to pick one horse and back it unswervingly; but he can't make that pick until Zaire starts a real, live game.

That is why Zaire is starting Tuesday's real, live game.

 

Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeigh35

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UCLA Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

Before he was the first-ever recipient of both the Pac-12 Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year, UCLA linebacker Myles Jack was a high school participant in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.

His West teammate in the 2013 prep All-America contest, Eddie Vanderdoes, is now his teammate at UCLA.

Both came to college with fanfare and became immediate, key contributors for the Bruins.

The next wave of impact newcomers for UCLA, like Jack and Vanderdoes, will be in action this weekend. The 2015 installment of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is set for Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, with the Under Armour All-America Game kicking off Friday at 4 p.m. ET.

UCLA has commits as well as prospects participating in both, any one of which could become the Bruins' next superstar.

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Malik Zaire Named Starting QB for Notre Dame vs. LSU

After a disappointing end to the 2014 regular season, Notre Dame will look to sophomore Malik Zaire to lead the Fighting Irish in the Music City Bowl against LSU.    

Andrew Owens of Blue & Gold Illustrated passed along the news of the decision to start Zaire over Everett Golson:

Irish coach Brian Kelly offered more on the change under center, via Brian Hartnett of The Observer:

Zaire has not played much during his tenure with Notre Dame. He finished 9-of-20 with 170 passing yards, 18 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground against USC. That performance came after Golson had no touchdowns, one interception and negative-14 rushing yards in the finale.

Josh Norris of NBC Sports provided his take on what the move might mean for Golson:

Going against a tough LSU defense that ranks third in the country in points allowed per game (16.4), Zaire will be tested early in the Music City Bowl. Golson's experience might eventually help the Irish if he is given playing time, as Kelly announced he would.

Losing four out of the last five games after a strong start, it was clear change might be necessary. With Zaire now given his chance to lead the Irish, how he performs now might reveal what direction the program heads in the future.

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Leonard Williams Declares for 2015 NFL Draft: Latest Details and Reaction

Arguably the best pure talent in the 2015 class, versatile USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams has declared for the NFL draft.   

According to the program: Williams announced that he will forego his senior season with the Trojans to being his pro career:

Time will tell if Williams ends up being the first player taken, but scouts have been raving about his potential for months.

In November, one NFL talent evaluator told Sam Farmer of The Los Angeles Times that Williams exceeded his expectations:

Before I went in there, I thought this guy had a lot of hype. When I saw him, I thought he is the real deal. He's got a great body, quick off the ball. He did have that shoulder surgery, so he's a little bit behind strength-wise, but he still has plenty of strength. He's got tremendous upside, and he's definitely a consideration for that top pick...

Dane Brugler of CBS Sports was asked on Twitter how Williams compared to Ndamukong Suh, who was taken second overall by the Detroit Lions in 2010:

Williams may not be in the same tier as Suh yet, the fact that the comparison to where they stood as pro prospects isn't outrageous tells you how talented the USC star is and how high the ceiling can climb. 

This era of the NFL, where quarterbacks and the passing game have taken over, finding a defensive lineman capable of getting after the passer is essential. The market has exploded in recent years with huge contracts for those kinds of players, like Suh presumably will this offseason and J.J. Watt did with Houston. 

While Williams has a long way to go before getting into the category of those players, his raw potential and performance at USC suggest that kind of impact is buried in there waiting to come out with time and experience. 

 

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Under Armour All-America Game 2015: 5 Players to Watch

A bevy of the nation’s top prep seniors will be on display Friday during the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game, where 25 prospects currently rated as 5-star recruits will compete.

With that type of star power on hand, fans will get a glimpse of some of college football’s future stars.

Which players will fans need to play close attention to during the game?

 

Players listed in alphabetical order.

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Alabama Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

As the Alabama football team is in the thick of the inaugural College Football Playoff, a lot of the team’s future will be on display shortly after in the top two high school football All-Star games.

The 2015 Under Armour All-America Game will take place the day after the Sugar Bowl, on January 2 at 3 p.m. CT on ESPN2. A day later, the U.S. Army All-American Bowl will be played at noon CT on NBC.

Those two games showcase the nation’s top high school talent. Because Alabama has recruited at such a high level under coach Nick Saban, a lot of its 2015 commits and remaining targets will be playing in these games.

To make things easier for you, here are some big names to keep an eye on in these contests, both committed and uncommitted.

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Ranking College Football Playoff Teams by Their Coaching Staffs

Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State could not have won their respective conferences and made the College Football Playoff without great coaching staffs.

But which staff is the best of the group?

To answer that, we've graded all four staffs by unit: head coach, offensive, defensive and special teams. The first three groups were all graded on a scale of 1-10. Special teams was graded out of five.

It's tricky to try and answer this question, too, because at least one fanbase (and probably as many as three) are going to feel insulted.

I accept that inevitability and look forward to discussing with all of you. But please trust that I (a) don't hate your team and (b) think all four of these staffs are among the 10 best in the country.

That is why they've made it this far.

Sounds off below and—gulp—let me know what you think.

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USC Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

The coming weekend’s high school All-American games begin the quick transition from the 2014 season to 2015 for USC football.

The Trojans have verbally committed prospects participating in both the Under Armour All-America Game, which kicks off on Friday at 4 p.m. ET in St. Petersburg, Florida, as well as in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Some of the top-rated prospects head coach Steve Sarkisian and his staff are looking to add to USC’s No. 8 nationally ranked signing class will also be in action this weekend. Expect a few of these targets to become Trojans on national signing day in February.

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Birmingham Bowl Picks: East Carolina Pirates vs. Florida Gators Odds

The AAC’s East Carolina Pirates will head to Legion Field this Saturday to tangle with the SEC’s Florida Gators in this season’s Birmingham Bowl. Kickoff is slated for noon (ET), and the game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.

The Pirates’ first season in the AAC after jumping ship from Conference USA would have to be considered a moderate success with an overall straight-up record of 8-4, including a 5-3 record in conference play. They were just 5-7 against the spread after failing to cover in seven of their last eight games. The total went “over” in three of their final four outings.

Florida’s shaky 6-5 record (both SU and ATS) cost former head coach Will Muschamp his job, but the Gators came very close to knocking off Florida State in their season finale in a 24-19 loss as seven-point road underdogs. They ended the year by covering in four of their final five games, and the total went over in three of those contests.

 

East Carolina vs. Florida Betting Storylines

East Carolina gave another SEC team, South Carolina, all it could handle early in the season in a 33-23 loss as a 14.5-point road underdog, and then it proceeded to knock off Virginia Tech and North Carolina, out of the ACC, the following two weeks. The Pirates were one of the higher-scoring teams in the nation this season with an average of 37.2 points a game. Defensively, they did have their issues at times, allowing 54 points in a loss to Cincinnati and 32 points in a season-ending loss to Central Florida. Overall, this unit was tagged for an average of 25.7 points a game.

Quarterback Shane Carden threw for the second-most yards in the country this season with 4,309 yards on 551 attempts for a completion rate of 65 percent. He tossed 28 touchdowns while getting picked off just eight times. His favorite target was Justin Hardy, who caught 110 passes for 1,334 yards and nine scores. Overall, the Pirates were ranked third in the nation in passing yards per game (367.3).

The Gators’ overall program has slipped rather steeply over the past few seasons, and they have become an afterthought in the SEC title race. They closed out play in the conference with a 23-20 loss to South Carolina as 6.5-point favorites at home. Florida was an even 4-4 SU in the SEC this season, with the only notable victory coming against Georgia in a 38-20 romp as a 12-point road underdog.

The defense held up fairly well over the course of the year, and while it did get tagged for 42 points by both Alabama and Missouri in double-digit losses, the Gators ended the season ranked 22nd in the country in points allowed (21.2). On the other side of the ball, Florida racked up an average of 30.5 points behind a solid running game. It averaged 189.5 yards a game behind the legs of Matt Jones. He rushed for 817 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 4.9 yards a carry.

 

East Carolina vs. Florida Betting Odds and Trends by Doc’s Sports

Point Spread: Florida -6.5

Total Line: 56

The betting trends on Doc’s Sports have the Pirates covering in five of their last six games as underdogs. They are 3-5 ATS in their last eight bowl games, and the total has gone over in seven of their last nine games played at a neutral site.

The Gators are 4-1 ATS in their last five trips to a bowl game, and they are 10-4 ATS in their last 14 neutral-site games. The total has gone over in six of their last eight bowl games.

This will be the first meeting between these two teams in recent memory. The total has stayed “under” in six of the last eight Birmingham Bowls (when it was known as the Compass Bowl).

 

Birmingham BowlPicks: East Carolina vs. Florida Betting Predictions

Both of these teams have shown the ability to not only put some points on the board but also the ability to give them up in bunches against some of the better competition they have faced. Florida can’t be all too thrilled heading into this game in the middle of a coaching change, while East Carolina would love nothing more than to beat a team from the SEC. The result is a high-scoring affair that goes over the current 56-point total line.

Take: Central Florida vs. Florida OVER 56; Noon Saturday, Jan. 3

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Alabama vs. Ohio State: Key Odds, Coverage Details for Sugar Bowl 2015

There are several marquee games left on the college football schedule, but few are drawing as much mainstream attention as the 2015 Sugar Bowl battle between the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide and the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes.

As one of the two inaugural semifinals matchups in the College Football Playoff, all eyes will be on this game to see if it lives up to the expectations surrounding the postseason change. With two of the best teams in the nation going head-to-head, fans are already getting what they want.

Here is all the vital viewing and betting information college football fans need to enjoy Alabama vs. Ohio State in the 2015 Sugar Bowl.

 

Live stream available via WatchESPN. Betting information via OddsShark.

 

Most Intriguing Matchup: Nick Saban vs. Urban Meyer

There will be intense matchups all over the field in the College Football Playoff semifinal, but most eyes will be on the chess match being played by Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban and the Buckeyes' Urban Meyer.

Between the two men, they have won six national championships. Saban holds the edge with four (one at LSU and three at Alabama), while Meyer won two with Florida. With enough combined big-game experience to level the playing field, all eyes will be on which coach outmaneuvers his opponent.

When asked about Meyer’s success, Saban told Zac Ellis of SportsIllustrated.com, “Urban has done a fantastic job as a college coach wherever he's been, and we've played some tough games when he was at Florida. We certainly have a lot of respect for the tradition and the great team that he has at Ohio State this year.”

Patrick Maks of ElevenWarriors.com shared legendary head coach Lou Holtz’s thoughts on the matchup between Saban and Meyer:

On one hand, Saban has built a perennial powerhouse that produces NFL-caliber players on a yearly basis. Alabama has racked up 37.1 points per game this season (17th in the nation) and has only allowed an average of 16.6 points per game (fourth overall) in 2014.

On the other hand, Meyer has been forced to switch starting quarterbacks twice this season due to season-ending injuries. After Braxton Miller went down for the year before the season even began, the team turned the reins over to freshman J.T. Barrett.

But after Barrett suffered an ankle injury late in the season, Meyer looked to third-string quarterback Cardale Jones. The head coach’s ability to roll with the punches and overcome adversity has been a highlight of Ohio State’s season.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s roster is much deeper and has more skill at key positions. Saban holds the 2-1 career record against Meyer, and in the Sugar Bowl, he will make it 3-1.

Predicted Final Score: Alabama 30, Ohio State 24

 

Stats via ESPN.com.

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Oregon vs. FSU: Preview, Prediction for 2015 Rose Bowl

In one of the biggest moments in college football history, Oregon and Florida State will help unveil an entirely new system. The College Football Playoff will officially kick off with the Rose Bowl as the Ducks and Seminoles vie for a spot in the national championship game.

Both teams come in after strong seasons, but the Seminoles are the only playoff team with an unblemished record. Even at 13-0, question marks surround No. 3 FSU ahead of the semifinal due to several close outcomes.

The Ducks, on the other hand, have been decisively knocking off teams since their lone loss to Arizona. Coming off a 51-13 win over the Wildcats, Oregon avenged that defeat thanks to one of the most potent offenses in the country.

Leading up to the first semifinal, below is an in-depth look at the 2015 Rose Bowl.

 

2015 Rose Bowl Information

Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

When: Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Live StreamWatchESPN

 

Rose Bowl Preview

Witnessing two Heisman Trophy winners battle is a rarity at the college level. In fact, it has only happened two times in the past, with the most recent coming after the 2008 season when Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford faced off.

Thursday will mark the third such occurrence with Marcus Mariota recently winning the coveted award a year after Jameis Winston. Leading up to the massive showdown, FSU coach Jimbo Fisher spoke about how special the matchup will be.

"I think it'll be great. It's what college football is all about," Fisher said, via Natalie Pierre of AL.com. "You have two of the greatest players in college football right now ... That makes for great TV and makes for great competition. It's what it's about - getting the best against the best."

For Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner will be facing an Oregon defense that recently lost one of its biggest stars. Cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu suffered a knee injury that will keep him from playing in the bowl game.

Regardless of who he faces, Winston has confidence he will thrive, per Andrea Adelson of ESPN.com:

Winston's 24 passing touchdowns this season prove he'll throw in the direction of any defender. However, he'll have to be much more consistent against Oregon after throwing 17 interceptions in 2014.

Meanwhile, Mariota was as dynamic as any player with 52 total touchdowns to a staggering two interceptions. The junior has three or more touchdowns in 11 games this season and has accounted for 19 in his last four games without a pick.

Much of the success for both teams is thanks to the signal-callers, but the players sharing the backfield are two of the most explosive freshmen in the country. Royce Freeman and Dalvin Cook have burst onto the scene by carrying the load down the stretch.

Freeman has 1,299 yards with 16 touchdowns on the season and was named a freshman All-American. Cook wasn't asked to do much at the beginning but closed out the year with over 100 total yards in five of the last eight games and eight touchdowns.

Tim Brando of Fox Sports offered his take on the tailbacks:

In the end, both teams will likely come away with an impressive showing thanks to their offensive weapons. While FSU's defense has the edge in the matchup, Oregon's offense has been as explosive as any this season.

Mariota will eventually lead the Ducks to a national championship appearance to take on the winner of the Sugar Bowl.

Predicted final: Oregon 37, Florida State 31

 

Follow @RCorySmith on Twitter.

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Miami Football: Players to Watch in High School All-American Games

The Miami Hurricanes' offseason begins with a kickoff of another variety—high school all-star games.

A few handfuls of prospects Miami coaches have targeted will be participating in the Under Armour, U.S. Army and Semper Fidelis All-American contests, which each take place in early January.

Between committed players and athletes still being recruited, the Hurricanes are well-represented in the showcase games—though two stick out.

 

Under Armour All-America Game

On Friday, Jan. 2, at 4 p.m. ET, the prospects will invade Tropicana Field, and Miami has its eyes fixed on five players.

Hailing from Miami Central High School, 4-star receiver Da'Vante Phillips is the No. 9 wideout in the 2015 class. According to Luke Stampini of 247Sports (subscription required), Phillips will announce his college decision during the Under Armour week but has already told that unknown coaching staff of his intents.

Granted, the 247Sports Crystal Ball shows 100 percent to Florida State, and the only two schools he officially visited were FSU and Miami.

Marcus Lewis is scheduled to take his official visit Jan. 16, having already taken trips to the other pair of programs remaining in his top three. Josh Edwards of 247Sports (subscription required) notes the 4-star athlete—who projects as a defensive back—will decide between the 'Canes, Kentucky and Washington State.

A 6'3", 305-pound 4-star defensive tackle, Kendrick Norton would fill a massive need for Miami. Per Christopher Stock of 247Sports (subscription required), Norton has scheduled an official visit to Coral Gables for Jan. 16 and will announce on signing day, Feb. 4.

John Houston will also declare his college intentions during signing day festivities. The 5-star outside linebacker visited Miami during Florida State weekend and put the Hurricanes in his final five, Stampini writes (subscription required).

Shawn Burgess-Becker committed to Alabama in mid-April, but Nate Adelson of 247Sports (subscription required) says Miami is still recruiting the 4-star athlete hard. If head coach Al Golden and Co. manage to flip Burgess-Becker, the pledge would be one of the staff's biggest victories this cycle.

 

U.S. Army All-American Bowl

Miami's pair of top commits, Jaquan Johnson and Jordan Scarlett, will take center stage at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. The contest will be played at the Alamodome in San Antonio Saturday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m. ET.

Johnson, a 4-star safety from Killian High School—where Lamar Miller played—told David Lake (subscription required) of 247Sports he wants to "make a statement" against the country's premier talent.

Scarlett is the No. 8 running back prospect, edging fellow 4-stars and Hurricanes pledges Dexter Williams and Mark Walton. According to Ryan Bartow of 247Sports (subscription required), Scarlett has trimmed his list to UM, Florida and Florida State but still favors Miami, especially since he could replace a departing star:

Duke Johnson is just a great back. Tough loss. I see how they get him the ball. That's the guy. I want to be the top guy.

Tim Irvin and Devonaire Clarington are the key players to watch, however, because they will both commit to a school during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. Horns247 staff said (subscription required) "though neither prospect explicitly tipped their hand, it was evident both prospects are set on playing together at the college level."

The former is a 4-star athlete who has long been considered a Hurricanes lean—largely due to family ties. However, Bartow notes (subscription required) Irvin is "unsure what hats will be on the table," but Miami, Texas, West Virginia and Florida are the noteworthy suitors.

Golden and Co. seem to have cooled on Clarington, a 4-star tight end many pegged as a must-get prospect over a year ago. In early December, Clarington told Lake (subscription required) Miami hadn't contacted him in a while but was hoping the 'Canes would soon.

Rasheem Green would absolutely be a steal for Miami, where he visited Nov. 15 for the Florida State matchup. Per Adelson (subscription required), the 5-star defensive tackle included the Hurricanes in his final four with USC, Oregon and Arizona State.

Lastly, Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports (subscription required) predicts 4-star receiver Lawrence Cager will choose "The U."

 

Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl

Capping the exciting weekend is the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. Kickoff is scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 6 at 9 p.m. ET.

This showcase is undoubtedly slower for Golden's staff since current commit Bar Milo and Florida Atlantic pledge Rashard Causey are the two noteworthy prospects.

Adelson notes (subscription required) Milo is "solid with Miami," and even though the 4-star offensive tackle might visit Nebraska, that trip isn't a sure thing.

As for Causey, according to Justin Rowland of Rivals (subscription required), Kentucky, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina and FAU are the schools most in touch with the local 3-star corner. Causey's 247Sports Crystal Ball shows the Hurricanes tied with Wisconsin at the top.

Recent decommit and 4-star quarterback Dwayne Lawson will also participate in the Semper Fi game.

 

Note: Recruiting information via 247Sports and quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Follow Bleacher Report college football writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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Shawn Oakman's Return Makes Baylor Strong Big 12 Contenders for 2015

Baylor coach Art Briles has built a Big 12 powerhouse that annually produces one of the most exciting offenses in college football. So, naturally, the Bears' success in 2015 could be based on their defense. 

On Monday, Baylor junior defensive end Shawn Oakman announced that he was returning for his senior season. 

"It's what you're supposed to do. It's not my time. I've got unfinished business," Oakman told David Ubben of Fox Sports Southwest

There's no doubt that Oakman, at a well-documented6'9" and 280 pounds, has the athleticism to be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. What Oakman will be able to do with another year of coaching is refine his skills and grow as a player. 

By this time a year from now, Oakman could be in the conversation as the No. 1 overall pick. 

In the meantime, he's a crucial returning piece for Baylor. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett called it the "first win of the week," with the Cotton Bowl against Michigan State taking place Thursday. Oakman brings a matchup problem to opposing offensive coordinators and demands constant attention. 

Nine of Baylor's starting 11 from this season should return in 2015. The major losses will be senior linebacker Bryce Hager, who led the team with 101 tackles, and Collin Brence. Beyond that, the Bears' defensive two-deep is made up of mostly sophomores and freshmen. 

Baylor's defensive line, perhaps the best in the Big 12 this season, played a big role in the Bears giving up only 2.94 yards per rush—tied for third nationally. Baylor also finished second in the Big 12 with three sacks per game and 7.67 tackles for loss per game

Unless Beau Blackshear declares for the draft, Baylor will return its entire D-line with Andrew Billings and K.J. Smith. And, yes, that's a terrifying thought. Ohio State, Clemson and Texas had some of the best D-lines in the country this season. Baylor could assume that identity in 2015 with all the returning talent. 

Couple Oakman's return with the Bears' offensive firepower, and this team should once again be favored to finish at or near the top of the Big 12.

Like Hager's departure on defense, Baylor loses key pieces on offense: quarterback Bryce Petty and receivers Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood. From a roster standpoint, though, Baylor is in as good a position as it's ever been under Briles. Seth Russell has been excellent in relief of Petty, and freshman KD Cannon was second on the team with 833 receiving yards. 

The player with the biggest impact beyond Oakman would be junior offensive lineman Spencer Drango, should he return. 

It's a tribute to how Baylor is humming along as a program. Many teams follow the "next man up" philosophy, but few actually pull it off successfully. For example, Baylor has actually won more games since losing former quarterback Robert Griffin III, a once-in-a-generation player for the Bears, than it did with him from 2008-11. 

What Baylor loses for 2015 seems far less concerning now. Rather, what the Bears have coming back, highlighted by Oakman, should be cause for excitement in Waco. If Oakman is the first victory, many more should be coming. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com

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