NCAA Football News

Rose Bowl 2015: Biggest X-Factors for Each Team in Oregon vs. FSU Showdown

In a game with national championship implications that both teams will have several weeks to prepare for, players and matchups rarely talked about will decide the 2015 Rose Bowl. 

Florida State enters as the underdog but boasts a 29-game winning streak the one-loss Oregon Ducks are intent on bringing to an end. They'd better, or it will be curtains on their hopes of winning the program's first-ever national championship.

Heisman Trophy winners Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will dominate talk before the game, but don't be surprised when less talked-about aspects end up deciding which team advances to the national title contest.

Let's take a look at what those X-factors will be in the Rose Bowl.

 

X-Factors for Oregon

Charles Nelson, WR

All of the buzz for Florida State's defense heading into the Rose Bowl will be about containing Mariota, Royce Freeman, and wideouts Byron Marshall and Devon Allen. But if the Seminoles aren't careful, Charles Nelson will run right past them.

The speedy freshman hasn't been a big part of the Oregon offense throughout 2014, but that changed with a big performance in the Pac-12 Championship Game. He went for over 100 yards, nearly doubling his total for the season, as Oregon's Andy McNamara noted:

Don't be surprised if Nelson stays under the radar until he makes an impact in special teams. He hasn't carved out a permanent role in the offense but has home run ability as a kick returner and a punt returner.

With that said, Nelson can make the Seminoles pay with the deep ball. Although he has 17 catches on the season, five of them have gone for scores. 

If No. 6 is out there for the Oregon offense, Florida State will want to make sure it stays in front of him.

 

Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB

Oregon's defensive backs are no strangers to going up against formidable offensive attacks, but a battle against Jameis Winston and Florida State presents a unique matchup for the Ducks secondary.

In such a situation, Oregon could use a huge performance from its best secondary player—cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

Ekpre-Olomu's stats don't resemble the stats of a shutdown corner, but that's largely due to teams shying away from attacking him. With Ekpre-Olomu likely lined up against Seminoles wideout Rashad Greene, who happens to be Winston's favorite receiver, that won't be the case.

But the senior's impact will go far beyond his individual play. Ekpre-Olomu sets the tone for the Oregon defense, which has been dominant late in the year but showcased plenty of issues early on. If he leads by example and notches a few big pass breakups early on, his teammates will follow suit.

 

X-Factors for Florida State

Eddie Goldman, DT

If Florida State is looking for a scapegoat for its late-season troubles, it should look no further than the run defense. The Seminoles allowed a combined 600-plus rushing yards in their last three games, all wins by five points or fewer.

You wouldn't expect that from a defensive line featuring a first-round talent of Eddie Goldman's ability.

Goldman is a wrecking ball up front for Florida State, plugging running lanes and tracking down the passer furiously—when he's healthy. That last part, however, has been an issue as of late.

But head coach Jimbo Fisher remains confident of Goldman's ability to play in the Rose Bowl, per Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel:

Oregon doesn't present the traditional running threat with speedy weapons attacking the perimeter combating a bowling-ball back such as Freeman. But a tone-setting will be crucial for Florida State up front in order to keep Oregon's run-blockers on their heels.

Goldman figures to be ready for the game considering the long layoff and the implications, but he'll be of no use to Florida State without his usual impact. If he's unable to blow up the line like he typically does, pass rushers Mario Edwards Jr. and Lorenzo Featherston will be ineffective against Mariota.

 

Nick O'Leary, TE

Winston has a wealth of weapons to throw to throughout the game, but he goes to Nick O'Leary in the clutch moments.

Despite weapons all around the outside, the tight end has emerged as a favorite for Winston. He ranks second behind Greene with 614 yards, and his six receiving touchdowns are one shy of the team lead.

During Florida State's win over Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, O'Leary's value was on display once again, as Bleacher Report's Brent Sobleski noted:

Oregon's defense boasts speed on the outside and physical, quick-footed defenders up front, but the Ducks' best linebackers primarily excel in rushing the passer. They haven't seen a tight end of O'Leary's skill set and overall ability, and the Ducks will need some unique packages to help negate his impact.

However, Mark Helfrich's defense has plenty on its plate keeping weapons such as Greene, Dalvin Cook and Travis Rudolph under wraps. Like he's done so much in the past, O'Leary will get open, and it will be up to Winston to find him.

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Tennessee Football: Early Look at Vols' 2015 Roster

When Tennessee head football coach Butch Jones embarks on year three of his program in 2015, it'll shed itself of the "rebuilding" moniker. That phase completed with the Volunteers' trip to Jan. 2's TaxSlayer Bowl.

Jones' roster should begin to fill out with fewer holes thanks to two larger-than-normal recruiting classes in the 2014 and '15 cycles.

And while there have been some unexpected roster casualties that happen with any reclamation project, the Vols should have ample talent to start winning more games.

Thanks to Jones' stellar recruiting, UT is able to combat the loss of a player such as Helm by having Ethan Wolf, A.J. Branisel and Neiko Creamer coming back as well as Kyle Oliver coming in. Hendrix leaving? How about replacing him with 5-star Kahlil McKenzie, 4-star Shy Tuttle and others.

These are the fruits of building a program the right way.

Let's take a look ahead at Tennessee's projected 2015 roster position by position, and you'll see a team that has folks on Rocky Top excited and some around the conference expecting UT to contend for the division.

 

Offense

Tennessee's once-shaky quarterback situation solidified somewhat with sophomore Joshua Dobbs bursting onto the scene with all-world performances against South Carolina and Kentucky.

Though he came back down to Earth a bit against Mizzou and Vanderbilt, the 6'3", 216-pound signal-caller still showed star power and the ability to put the team on his shoulders and carry it to victory. He has leadership qualities that are difficult to teach.

Dobbs is still a work in progress, but if he progresses the way he's expected to, it's not difficult to see him as one of the SEC's next stars. He has the ability to beat teams with his arm or legs.

Behind him, Nathan Peterman is still on the roster (for now) and has played some snaps, though none that were worth remembering.

The Vols are bringing in a duo of quarterbacks of the future, including Murfreesboro 4-star Jauan Jennings and 3-star Quinten Dormady of Texas. Dormady is already on campus, and Jennings is doing extra work to become a mid-term enrollee, according to GoVols247's Ryan Callahan (subscription required).

Another name to watch is former Florida commit Sheriron Jones, who decommitted from the Gators and told 247Sports' Ryan Bartow that UT now heads his list. Given the dearth of depth at the position, it's not out of the realm of possibility that the Vols could take three signal-callers.

Both Jennings and Dormady are extremely talented, and either could be the face of the future. It's highly likely that barring an unforeseen transfer of an upperclassman, one will back up Dobbs in '15.

At running back, Jalen Hurd will be looking around the film room at a whole new group of players beside him as well. Scott's transfer along with the end to Marlin Lane's and Devrin Young's eligibility means Hurd will be one of the two elder statesman next year along with senior transfer Justus Pickett.

Hurd is certainly the bell cow of the offense and a cornerstone for what the Vols want to do, but he's got a huge helper coming in, too.

Alvin Kamara—the former Alabama commit and nation's second-ranked JUCO runner—is a special talent who has all the intangibles to be elite. He will certainly come right in and get immediate important carries.

Rusty Mansell of 247Sports tweeted this week something that excited UT fans even more about Kamara:

Bruising freshman Rocky Reid and in-state athlete Vincent Perry could also find their way into the backfield for the Vols. But a wild card thrown into the mix is special teams dynamo and speedy senior transfer Ralph David Abernathy IV, who played for Jones at Cincinnati and is transferring to Knoxville to end his career.

Abernathy could provide a nice change-of-pace for UT, and he's a quality piece to an offense that likes to get players in space. Tennessee continues its search to land at least one more running back in this cycle, and most of those efforts center on Bryce Love.

If the Vols can convince Love to come to Knoxville, he will be a big-play producer down the road.

The 2014 Vols receiving corps was a stable of walking wounded, but they've got as much talent as anybody in the country when healthy.

Marquez North, Josh Smith, Josh Malone, Jason Croom, Von Pearson and Pig Howard are all expected back. Throw in some talented youngsters who showed flashes such as Vic Wharton and Ryan Jenkins as well as 5-star Preston Williams (the nation's fifth-ranked receiver per 247Sports), and the Vols will have plenty of weapons for Dobbs.

Williams, especially, looks like he has special abilities.

Helm's departure at tight end leaves a bit of a gulf, but Ethan Wolf was the big surprise this season as the 6'5", 240-pound freshman was UT's starter when healthy for much of the year. Junior walk-on Alex Ellis also earned valuable reps, and he'll settle in at No. 2.

The Vols have plenty of talent besides them, too. A.J. Branisel sat out this season recovering from a torn ACL after hauling in three catches (including a touchdown) as a true freshman. Freshman athlete Neiko Creamer bounced around at several positions before settling at tight end and taking a year to redshirt and gain weight.

Finally, Oliver has high upside, and if the Vols can hang on to the Murfreesboro prospect between now and signing day, he is a tall, athletic tight end in the mold of Alabama's O.J. Howard.

The biggest question mark on Tennessee's entire team will remain its offensive line. Sure, when Dobbs entered the picture, the sacks allowed went down, but then came the Missouri game when the same old issues reared their heads.

The bottom line is the line has to improve dramatically. Senior right tackle Jacob Gilliam is the only player out of eligibility, and all the others who were part of the rotation return. Somehow, UT has to find a pair of tackles to allow Kyler Kerbyson to slide back inside. Coleman Thomas, too, probably has seen his last days at tackle.

A key to the whole group is redshirting junior offensive tackle Dontavius Blair, who couldn't crack the rotation this year and took a season to get stronger. UT desperately needs him to anchor a tackle spot next season. Sophomore Brett Kendrick is another candidate to play out there.

A freshman group of Chance Hall, Jack Jones, Venzell Boulware and Zach Stewart may be counted on earlier than usual, and if Charles Mosley can return from his broken leg and become a huge factor (at tackle perhaps?), UT could improve a lot out there by 2015.

Those are big "ifs," but offensive line coach Don Mahoney should begin to feel some heat if he can't find the right formula of five. 

 

Defense

Second-year coordinator John Jancek's unit made a monumental leap forward in 2014, going from 84th nationally in total defense a season ago to 35th. The Vols could make an even bigger step forward in 2015 if they can find a replacement for departing senior middle linebacker A.J. Johnson.

Without any semblance of a pass rush for much of the past decade, Tennessee wallowed in the bottom tier of the league defensively. Enter Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, and UT finished third in the SEC and 18th nationally in tackles for loss.

More talent is on the way, too.

Let's start by taking a look at the defensive line, where rising sophomore Barnett is a superstar around which any team in the nation would like to build. The Nashville native was virtually unblockable for much of the season, and there's no reason to believe he'll do anything but improve.

Maggitt is expected to return for his senior season to anchor the other edge, and by the end of the year, he may have been UT's best at getting to the quarterback. He simply began to play at another level he hadn't throughout his entire career.

LaTroy Lewis, Corey Vereen and Jaylen Miller all played well at times this season, and outside linebacker Chris Weatherd can put his hand down and rush the passer, too.

How are the Vols adding to that embarrassment of riches at defensive end? Darrell Taylor, Andrew Butcher and Marques Ford are all scheduled to play in high school All-America games, and the fourth defensive end commitment, Dylan Jackson, is being coveted by LSU, Alabama, Stanford and others.

Throw in the possibility that UT remains in the picture for 4-star Kyle Phillips and 4-star D'Andre Walker, and the recruiting haul at that position could be the best in the nation.

On the interior, the Vols played much of the season with a two-man defensive tackle tandem of Danny O'Brien and Jordan Williams. With Jordan Williams out of eligibility, Owen Williams could slide in and be a senior leader there. 

But they've got a lot of young star talent to battle against. Dimarya Mixon could be an athletic force with a full offseason in the weight room, and the trio of newcomers could all compete for immediate playing time.

It all starts with McKenzie, who is 247Sports' No. 1-ranked player in the entire class and the Composite's second-ranked overall. He has the size and athleticism to come in and immediately dominate, and it's hard to imagine he won't get snaps right off the bat.

How can you not play a guy who spits out highlight reels like this?

Then, there's Tuttle, who would be the centerpiece of most defensive line classes as the 247Composite's fifth-ranked DT, but he's just another star in this year's haul for UT line coach Steve Stripling. Add in versatile lineman Quay Picou, and the Vols have three players with extremely high ceilings to add to a shallow depth chart inside.

If Michael Sawyers returns, he has the body to get into the rotation, and if he stays committed to the weight room, he could realize his potential as well.

Linebacker is going to be a position that has to grow as the season progresses. Losing Johnson is going to hurt badly, as everybody saw when he was suspended the season's final two games during a sexual-assault investigation.

Filling in during his absence is massive freshman Jakob Johnson—a 6'4", 240-pound German native who has a lot of potential but lateral limitations. 

He'll have plenty of competition to hold down the middle in 2015. 

Dillon Bates, who received a medical redshirt after playing sparingly before tearing his labrum, could be a perfect fit there, and Kenny Bynum is a veteran who is solid against the run. Also, Gavin Bryant redshirted and has all the physical attributes SEC teams like in 4-3 middle linebackers.

Finally, UT could receive some huge news Monday with the announcement of 4-star prospect Darrin Kirkland Jr. The one-time Michigan commit is announcing between UT, Ole Miss, Texas and Oklahoma, and the 247 Crystal Ball currently points to Tennessee as the favorite.

If the Vols get Kirkland, he could make things extremely interesting in the middle next season.

Outside, it starts with Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who became an integral part of Tennessee's defense this year, registering 88 tackles including 10 for a loss. Between senior pass-rush specialist Weatherd and big-hitting freshman Cortez McDowell, UT looks solid there.

Bates' natural position is on the outside, and he's UT's best coverage linebacker. Colton Jumper and Elliott Berry also could become factors in certain packages.

The only outside 'backer the Vols currently have in the class is Picou's high school teammate at Buford (Georgia) High School, Austin Smith. He's the kind of speedy, athletic linebacker who Tommy Thigpen loves to employ, and he'll find a home in Knoxville.

Quarte Sapp is another linebacker on UT's radar who has yet to make a decision.

In the secondary, the Vols likely will be enjoying their final season with star cornerback Cameron Sutton. Even though he hasn't been showered with hardware, a player as talented as him won't slip past the NFL.

He's a dynamic talent at cornerback, and with a year to add weight, Emmanuel Moseley has an exciting future opposite him as well. Malik Foreman and Rashaan Gaulden are another couple of nice-looking prospects who've yet to see extended action.

Michael Williams is a bit of a wild card. He started most of this season until Moseley usurped him. Then, he was named in the sexual assault investigation along with A.J. Johnson that is still ongoing. If he returns, he'll be in the mix as well.

The Vols have a pair of strong cornerback prospects coming in with Darrell Miller and Micah Abernathy, but they're looking for more. JUCO prospect Justin Miller and Nashville corner Ugo Amadi are major needs, and UT would take either or both of them down the stretch. A class that includes those two would be ideal.

A trio of safeties who started games for UT (Brian Randolph, LaDarrell McNeil and Todd Kelly Jr.) all return, so the Vols should be strong on the back level. Evan Berry, Devaun Swafford and incoming freshman Stephen Griffin will all provide depth for the future.

 

Special Teams

One thing Tennessee has to do in 2015 is get Sutton away from punt return duties. He's too valuable to put back there every time.

Ralph David Abernathy could be a huge benefit for the Vols on special teams, and if they could somehow land Amadi, he's dynamic enough to make an immediate impact returning kicks, too. Evan Berry showed some major promise as a kick returner, and his future there is bright as well.

Tennessee couldn't be facing two more different situations when it comes to its kicking and punting games.

At kicker, UT is set for the next three years with Aaron Medley, who was almost automatic inside of 40 yards and kicked everything high and long, even when he missed. He wound up the regular season 19-of-25 in field goals and made all but one of his 37 extra-point attempts. 

The Vols have an enviable situation at that position for the near future.

At punter, they'll lose senior Matt Darr, who resurrected his career and had a brilliant final season in 2014. 

Unless Medley can steal that job as well (a la Michael Palardy holding all kicking duties in 2013), the punting responsibilities look as if they'll come down to a battle between walk-on Trevor Daniel, invited walk-on and redshirt freshman Troy Waites and Tommy Townsend, who is the nation's fifth-ranked punter.

Townsend has a big leg, and he was UT's top punting target this offseason. Waites was a left-footer UT brought in for depth last season who could develop into a key player.

Tennessee has plenty of talent all over the football field to make some serious noise next year. The roster isn't perfect (not everybody can be Alabama, after all) but there are enough solid players mixed with some well-placed spectacular ones that the Vols appear poised to make an extended run.

These seasons of battling to get to .500 may be close to over on Rocky Top.

 

All stats gathered from CFBStats.com, unless otherwise noted, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports Composite ranking, 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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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Breaking Down Semifinal Matchups

Let's be honest: There are some great matchups in the bowl games, and most of us would watch just about any football game offered, but the only games people really care about this December and January are the playoff contests. 

For months, we debated which teams deserved to reach the last four. We have those teams now, and they're about to settle things on the field. 

So with that in mind, you'll find an overview and a breakdown of each semifinal matchup below. It's going to be fun, folks. Let's take a closer look at each game.

 

Oregon vs. Florida State

If this game comes down to the wire, you have to imagine Florida State will find a way to win. After all, the Seminoles have won seven games by one touchdown or less, including four in a row to close the season. Jameis Winston and Co. know how to be clutch when it matters. 

On the other hand, Oregon has a habit of ending things before the fourth quarter begins. The Ducks have had just two games decided by a touchdown or less and are 1-1 in those games. They've won eight straight games by 12 or more and have scored at least 42 points in all but two games.

It's hard to imagine a Florida State team that has given up 26 or more points to Oklahoma State, NC State, Notre Dame, Louisville, Miami and Georgia Tech slowing down Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota and his talented crop of weapons. 

Mariota may receive the plaudits, but it's important to remember that Royce Freeman rushed for 1,299 yards and 16 touchdowns this season and that six players have 350 receiving yards or more, including Byron Marshall (61 receptions for 814 yards and five touchdowns) and Devon Allen (684 receiving yards, seven touchdowns). Dwayne Stanford and Pharaoh Brown each have six receiving scores, meanwhile.

Florida State's defense isn't as good as it was a year ago and has struggled in games against less talented offenses. The Ducks are going to run rampant and will win this game. 

 

Alabama vs. Ohio State

At first, we questioned how Ohio State would manage without Braxton Miller. All J.T. Barrett did in relief was post Heisman-esque numbers. Then, we wondered how the Buckeyes would fare in the Big Ten Championship Game without Barrett.

Three touchdown passes and a 59-0 victory later, Cardale Jones proved Ohio State would be just fine. 

That was Wisconsin, however. Alabama is a whole new beast.

The Buckeyes haven't faced a team as balanced as Alabama this season, in large part because no other team in the nation is as balanced as the Crimson Tide. Blake Sims and Amari Cooper are a handful in the passing game. T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry form one of the better backfield duos in the country. The defense isn't as impervious as prior Nick Saban teams but is still quite good, holding opponents to 16.6 points per game, fourth in the nation.

Yes, the Buckeyes contained Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon. But Wisconsin was far more one-dimensional than Alabama will be. The difference with this Crimson Tide team is offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has opened up the passing game.

Cooper, for one, is thrilled he did, as he told Zach Braziller of the New York Post:

He’s a genius as a coach. He deserves a lot of credit. He likes to throw the ball and not only does he likes to throw the ball, he comes up with really good schemes to get players open and get his playmakers in space.

I was really happy when he got hired because I saw what he did with Marquise Lee and Robert Woods at USC. Both of those guys had 100 catches. I was confident I would have a good year with him.

He's had a heck of a year.

Still, underestimate the Buckeyes are your own peril. They beat Michigan State and Minnesota on the road in consecutive weeks. They've overcome injuries to two excellent quarterbacks. They score 45.2 yards per game (fourth in the country) and rush for 260.8 yards per contest (11th). They've scored 31 or more points in every game but one. 

The Buckeyes are legit. They just aren't legit to knock off the country's most balanced team. Alabama will win this one, but it will be tighter than many people think.

 

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Bowl Games 2014-15: Schedule, TV Info and Predictions for All Games

College football's second season begins on December 20 at 11 a.m. ET when Nevada faces Louisiana-Lafayette in the New Orleans Bowl. That will kick off nearly a month of month of football culminating in the championship game of this year's first four-team playoff. 

You can practically hear college football fans giggling in excitement from here.

Below, you'll find the full bowl schedule, including start times, television info and a straight-up prediction for each game. I'll also look at some of the top storylines to watch for heading into the postseason. 

The Bowls are here, folks. Get pumped.

 

 

Top Storylines

Without question, the top storylines in this year's postseason come from the playoff teams, so we'll start there. 

Last year's defending champions, Florida State, led by last year's Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston, have spent much of the season surviving by the smallest of margins. Can they keep up that run of good fortune against an Oregon team that finished the season third in points per game behind Heisman-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota?

It doesn't look good for the Seminoles. Since losing to Arizona on October 2, the Ducks have won every game by 12 or more points, including convincing victories over UCLA, Stanford and Utah. They defeated Arizona in the Pac-12 title game 51-13.

And if you weren't a fan of Mariota before, did you see his Heisman acceptance speech? SportsCenter shared the moment:

How could you not root for a guy like that?

In the other contest, the major question will be if Cardale Jones can lead Ohio State to the upset over Alabama. He certainly looked the part in the Big Ten title game, throwing for 257 yards and three touchdowns in Ohio State's decisive 59-0 victory over Wisconsin. Alabama will be a whole new challenge, of course.

Still, it's a testament to Ohio State's talent as a team that it has been able to overcome injuries to Braxton Miller (a preseason Heisman contender) and J.T. Barrett (a Heisman contender who threw for 2,834 yards, rushed for 938 and accumulated 45 total touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury). This game is going to be closer than people think, and it wouldn't be shocking if Ohio State pulled off the upset. Few teams are hotter at the moment.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee thinks Alabama will win big, per B/R Radio on Twitter:

The other top bowls feature some tasty matchups. Can TCU prove they were a huge playoff snub by beating Ole Miss and the Rebels' talented defense? Can Baylor do the same against a tough Michigan State team? Can Mississippi State top off a season that saw them spend time atop the rankings with a victory over Georgia Tech? Will Boise State pull off yet another upset in a major bowl against Arizona?

There will be individual players to watch as well. Auburn will have their hands full with Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon. Ole Miss has faced plenty of talented players, but quarterback Trevone Boykin is as good as any they've played. And we're all excited to see Mariota and Winston do battle and Amari Cooper go up against Ohio State.

Gosh, it's going to be fun watching all of the above play out. There's nothing quite like bowl season, after all.

 

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Oregon State Congratulates Heisman Trophy Winner Marcus Mariota with Classy Ad

Even in a rivalry, it's important to give respect where it's due.

Oregon's Marcus Mariota won the 2014 Heisman Trophy on Saturday night after putting up ridiculous numbers in the regular season. He was so good that even one of his biggest rivals had to give him some respect.

Oregon State suffered a 47-19 defeat to Mariota and Oregon in its regular-season final on Nov. 29. That loss gave the Beavers a 5-7 record, meaning they would not be playing in a bowl game.

Even though Mariota ended their season, the Beavers paid tribute to the Ducks quarterback with a classy ad.

Oregon and Oregon State are rivals on the field, but there is plenty of mutual respect between the two schools, as this ad clearly demonstrates.

[Instagram, Twitter; h/t SB Nation]

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Heisman Trophy 2014: Breaking Down Final Results for Prestigious Award

As expected, Marcus Mariota ran away with the 2014 Heisman Trophy, winning college football's highest honor in a landslide.

Oregon's quarterback made the decision easy for voters after registering 53 total touchdowns and only two interceptions for the Ducks, who placed No. 2 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. He received 788 of 891 first-place votes, doubling runner-up Melvin Gordon's final point tally.

He isn't just basking off a heightened touchdown tally either. Along with compiling 4,478 total yards, Mariota led the FBS with 10.2 passing yards per attempt and a 186.3 quarterback rating. Despite the awesomeness of fellow finalists Melvin Gordon and Amari Cooper, there was no doubt who would leave New York with the hardware.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, only one winner has ever received a higher percentage of points.

The 21-year-old spoke to ESPN College GameDay's Chris Fowler after winning the accolade.

After dominating Saturdays, the star quarterback is poised to become a top NFL draft pick for a bottom-feeding squad in need of a franchise passer. He wasn't, however, the only offensive stud invited to the ceremony.

 

Gordon Tops Cooper for Second

An interesting battle brewed between Wisconsin running back Gordon and Alabama wide receiver Cooper for the second slot. Although Cooper received more first-place nods, Gordon rode a steady stream of points into higher positioning.

All Gordon did was submit 2,336 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns while averaging 7.6 yards per carry. He topped triple-digit yardage in all but two games, including the Badgers' last loss against Ohio State.

The rushing monster is simply a victim of dominating during the wrong year. ESPN College Football displayed how he shredded the last victorious running back's production.

Receivers rarely get mentioned so prominently for the honor, as Larry Fitzgerald was the last one to receive a ceremony invite. The star wideout played 168 NFL games until another pass-catcher got the call.

Given his torrid conclusion to the season, there was no way not to include Cooper. After clobbering Auburn for 224 yards and three scores, he caught a dozen passes for 83 yards in the SEC title clash against Missouri.

SEC Network chronicled his heavy usage in Alabama's offense, which led to him shattering the conference's record books.

NFL.com's Ian Rapoport is far from the first person to suggest Cooper is poised for big things.

Neither man will fret falling short after getting scooped up in the first round next May.

 

Who Didn't Vote for Mariota?

A better person would leave well enough alone since the best man won. Yet any time several people vote on any award, there are always the bad apples who make cringe-worthy judgments.

Per USA Today's Nicole Auerbach, no player was ever more represented in the final ballots.

That's great, but that also leaves an alarming 5 percent of people who failed to acknowledge a quarterback with 53 touchdowns and two interceptions. ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel points to a handful of stubborn souls who either wanted to make a statement or decided he would win without that vote.

Meanwhile, eight people declared Trevone Boykin the rightful winner despite terrific (yet lower) numbers across the board. Four people ignored Jameis Winston's 17 picks and gave him first-place consideration anyway, probably only because Florida State didn't lose a game.

With 2,036 rushing yards, Indiana's Tevin Coleman finished lower than Winston, just because some folks have yet to grasp that football is a team sport.

In the end, the top three studs finished in the right order, but it's irksome to note the potholes along the road.

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Texas A&M Football: Ranking 10 Best Aggies from the 2014 Regular Season

The Texas A&M football team finished the 2014 regular season with a 7-5 record. Despite the disappointing record, the Aggies had a number of players who produced standout performances on the field. 

The Aggies were a very young team in 2014. There are 13 freshmen on the depth chart for the 2014 team. Many of those freshmen are among the best players on the team. 

That bodes well for the future of the Aggies. The 2014 season was somewhat of a transitional one with so much youth gaining experience. 

This is a ranking of the top players on the Texas A&M football team in 2014. 

Begin Slideshow

New York Post Creates Marcus Mariota 'Suck for the Duck' Campaign for Jets

The New York Jets are only two years removed from using a second-round pick on quarterback Geno Smith, but it's not working out as planned. 

After watching Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota tear up college football during his Heisman-winning 2014 season, it's natural that the 2-11 Jets look ahead to the 2015 NFL draft. 

On Sunday, the New York Post decided to run this headline, creating a "Suck for the Duck" campaign to bring Mariota to the Big Apple. 

[Bart Hubbuch, h/t For the Win]

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College Bowl Picks 2014-15: Recent Odds and Predictions Against the Spread

A vast majority of game odds during bowl season reflect games that could go either way, and yet many of those games end up being decisive victories for one team or another. So, what gives?

More often than not, teams go into bowl games with very different mentalities. A postseason appearance can bring an extra breath of fresh air to a locker room and spearhead an effort to win convincingly on national television. In other cases, a sour ending to the year can leave teams lethargic and unmotivated.

Simply put, teams with very similar talent levels can end up separating themselves when the bowl spotlight is on—for various reasons. But it's worth taking into account when assessing teams' chances of covering certain spreads, and this year is no different.

Let's take a look at predictions for every bowl game and a breakdown of some of the more prominent picks.

 

Note: Odds according to Odds Shark, last updated December 13

 

Cotton Bowl: No. 6 TCU (-3) vs. No. 9 Ole Miss 

Simply put, bowl season is tailor-made for matchups like Ole Miss and TCU in the Cotton Bowl.

You rarely get such a high-powered offense going up against the nation's most formidable defense, but that's exactly what will be on tap for the Cotton Bowl. As FanSided.com's Patrick Schmidt noted, TCU's offense versus the Ole Miss defense will be must-watch television:

The Horned Frogs have been wrecking every defense they go up against, with quarterback Trevone Boykin putting up numbers—3,714 passing yards, 38 total touchdowns—worthy of a Heisman Trophy-finalist campaign. The team has racked up more than 40 points on eight occasions this year.

But it will be easier said than done to keep such a ridiculous pace against the Rebels.

Boykin hasn't faced a secondary with ball-hawking defensive backs like Cody Prewitt and Senquez Golson. The two Thorpe Award semifinalists have speed at the second level to help prevent big plays from Kolby Listenbee and Josh Doctson. 

Even with some big plays inevitable for TCU, Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace doesn't have a shabby offense of his own. The Rebels have figured things out after the loss of Laquon Treadwell, showing in a win over Mississippi State that Jalen Walton can be a game-changer.

TCU will prove its worth, but the Rebels will show their superiority early and hold off a late surge from an elite Horned Frogs team.

Prediction: Ole Miss 34, TCU 30

 

Rose Bowl: No. 2 Oregon (-9.5) vs. No. 3 Florida State

Now that the formality of the Heisman Trophy presentation is over, the matchup between Oregon and Florida State in the Rose Bowl will officially peg two Heisman winners against one another.

In one corner, it's Jameis Winston and the still-unbeaten Seminoles, who are looking to prove the continuous doubters wrong. In the other, it's Marcus Mariota, who is fresh off being named this year's Heisman winner and leads an Oregon team peaking at the right time.

The two quarterbacks' Heisman seasons were quite similar, as ESPN Stats and Information noted:

Although their 2013 and 2014 seasons were similar, Mariota has left no doubt of his superiority as far as this season goes. They did lose, but he helped the Ducks bounce back from it by hanging 42 or more against their next eight opponents—including a rematch win over Arizona.

While Mariota has thrown just two picks all year compared to 52 touchdowns, Winston has thrown 17 interceptions and goes up against a stingy Oregon secondary that features dominating cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. 

The Ducks will sit back and keep Winston in front of them, forcing mistakes and getting the Oregon offense into favorable spots. Mariota will take advantage, helping to keep the ball away from an opportunistic Florida State defense and racking up touchdown after touchdown.

The question then moves to whether the Ducks will cover the optimistic near-10-point spread, but with the Ducks' ability to score in bunches, they should hold off the 'Noles. Winston won't go quietly, but Oregon's prolific offense will keep them distanced down the stretch.

Prediction: Oregon 41, Florida State 30

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Army-Navy Game 2014: Breaking Down Top Performers from Saturday's Rivalry Game

The 115th encounter between Army and Navy was a continuance of the Midshipmen's dominance in the series. Navy defeated its longtime rival Saturday 17-10.

Make it 13 in a row for Ken Niumatalolo's team. In the process, he became the winningest coach in program history and took down the Black Knights for the seventh time.

The latest iteration of one of the sporting world's most important traditions played out as advertised. There were just 15 attempted passes on the day while a war of wills unfolded on the ground.

The top performers, including a few seniors playing in their final chapter, put on quite the memorable show.

 

Top Performers

Xavier Moss and Army Defense

The Army defense does not usually receive much praise.

After all, the team has four wins on the year, and one of the bigger issues is the fact the defensive unit ranks 104th in the nation in points allowed (32.9).

As the numbers show, though, the Black Knights defense stiffened in the face of a potent Navy offense. Xavier Moss is a major reason for that, and his play was why Army was able to stay in the game throughout the day.

Bill Wagner of Capital Gazette Communications paints the scene:

In a brutal encounter between two teams that want nothing more than to keep things on the ground, that sort of game-changing play can mean everything.

As a result, Army jumped out to an early lead it held until right before halftime. In fact, that single play was important since the Army offense never found the end zone.

 

Larry Dixon, Army

One of the greatest rushers in Army history put on a show Saturday even in defeat.

Larry Dixon entered the day with 1,028 yards and nine touchdowns and added 90 more yards on just 14 carries. In the process, he lived up to what first-year coach Jeff Monken said of him before the game.

“He knocks tacklers in the other direction to gain that extra yard,” said Monken, per Tom Pedulla ofThe New York Times. “He’s not gifted with great speed, but he’s powerful enough to get through there, and when he gets into the secondary, he’s been able to give us some pretty good runs.”

Indeed, Dixon terrorized Navy for most of the contest, as illustrated by Sal Interdonato of the Times Herald-Record:

The senior did not get the win he so desired, but it was yet another epic performance from a player who will not be soon forgotten in the lore of this historic rivalry.

 

Keenan Reynolds, Navy

Of course, Keenan Reynolds was the star of the show Saturday.

One of the most notable dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, he entered Saturday with 1,082 yards and 20 touchdowns on 205 carries. The junior came up big through the air when asked, though, such as a two-touchdown performance back in November against Notre Dame.

Reynolds did it all Saturday.

He tied things up in the second quarter with a touchdown pass to Jamir Tillman on his way to a six-of-eight line for 77 yards and the score. Reynolds also extended his team's lead in the fourth quarter with a touchdown rush to go with his 100 yards on 26 carries.

Kevin McGuire of CollegeFootballTalk put it into perspective:

Reynolds is no stranger to the rivalry. His calm and cool demeanor Saturday while acting as the most important player on the field can attest to that.

The scary part, at least for Army, is that Reynolds only continues to develop in a positive manner by the year.

For now, though, he and the Midshipmen can celebrate yet another successful outcome over their rivals before getting ready for their bowl game.

 

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Cotton Bowl 2015: Bold Predictions for Michigan State vs. Baylor

The 2015 Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 features two teams that would love to get some redemption in the College Football Playoff after being left out of the mix by the selection committee.

Baylor was the first team left out of the Top Four, ranking No. 5 in the final poll of the season despite closing out the year with a decisive 38-27 victory over Kansas State. The Bears will be looking back to a tough loss to West Virginia as the cause for their woes. They'll be looking to prove they were worthy of a playoff spot.

Another team potentially worthy of a spot is Michigan State. The Spartans were impressive on both sides of the ball this season; however, they suffered losses to Oregon and Ohio State—two playoff teams. Ending the season with three wins wasn't good enough to climb back into contention, and they were awarded a trip to the Cotton Bowl instead.

This is certainly an intriguing matchup that pits the high-powered Baylor offense against the stout Michigan State defense. As we await this highly anticipated contest, let's take a look at a couple of bold predictions for each team in the Cotton Bowl.

 

Bold Predictions for Michigan State

The Spartans Hold Baylor's Offense to Four Touchdowns

Sure, holding an opposing offense to four touchdowns seems like a cakewalk for Michigan State's defense, but that won't be the case against Baylor's top-ranked offense that averages 48.8 points per game. In fact, Baylor has only been held under 30 points just twice this season, and the Bears scored three offensive touchdowns in each of those games.

However, Baylor has been on a tear since then, scoring at least 48 points in four of its last five contests. The Bears are on a major hot streak, and that's bad news for a Spartans team that allowed 46 points to Oregon and 49 to Ohio State.

If Michigan State is going to contain the Baylor offense, it must apply pressure to quarterback Bryce Petty. The Bears signal-caller has been their offensive catalyst, passing for 3,305 yards and 26 touchdowns this year.

The Spartans can counter with a solid pass rush. They have maintained good pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season, ranking 11th in the nation with 37 sacks in 12 games.

Petty has been sloppy at times in 2014—notably in the team's lone loss to West Virginia in which he completed 44.4 percent of his passes—and if Michigan State can keep him under pressure, the Bears offense will be out of sync and struggle to get points on the board.

 

Connor Cook Throws for 350 Yards, Three Touchdowns

Baylor has been good against the run this season, ranking ninth in the nation while allowing an average of 107.7 yards per game and just 2.94 yards per carry. If Michigan State is to generate any kind of offense, it must be by Cook's arm.

The junior signal-caller has been impressive this season, throwing for 2,900 yards and 22 touchdowns against just six interceptions. He's had his up-and-down games but has performed admirably in difficult contests, throwing for 343 yards and two scores against Oregon and 358 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio State. Those two performances proved he can perform under duress, and he'll demonstrate that again in the Cotton Bowl.

The Bears have had their fair share of trouble against the pass this season, ranking 101st in the nation and allowing an average of 260.0 yards per game through the air. With a pass defense far worse than that of Ohio State and Oregon, Baylor will allow Cook to engage in an aerial shootout.

With a big weapon in the talented Tony Lippett at his disposal, Cook shouldn't have much trouble hooking up regularly with his 6'3" wide receiver to burn Baylor's defense for his biggest performance of the season.

 

Bold Predictions for Baylor

Bryce Petty Throws for 350 Yards, Three Touchdowns

Yes, this is the exact same bold prediction that we set for Michigan State's quarterback; however, it is completely justified in its own right. While Cook has to rise to the challenge against a good team with a shaky secondary, Petty must navigate the nation's 25th-ranked pass defense that allows an average of just 196.0 yards per game.

There's a reason why Petty is being considered by many draft pundits as an elite prospect. The senior has consistently delivered big performances throughout the year. He's eclipsed the 400-yard passing mark three times this season and has thrown multiple touchdowns in eight of his 11 games. He'll be under heavy pressure to elevate that number to nine in the Cotton Bowl.

While Shock Linwood has been good out of the backfield this season, the Spartans are allowing just 97.5 yards per game on the ground, ranking sixth in the nation in that category. This will only provide a bigger challenge to Petty, as he'll have to orchestrate a one-dimensional offense.

The Spartans have given up big days to quarterbacks this season; Heisman winner Marcus Mariota and the electric J.T. Barrett both eclipsed 300 yards and three touchdowns. However, Petty wasn't exactly in the Heisman discussion for his efforts, and he'll need his best performance of the season to surpass those two prolific quarterbacks.

 

Baylor Holds Jeremy Langford Under 100 Yards

Michigan State's senior running back has put on quite a show this season. He's carried 249 times for 1,360 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per attempt. Langford has been on an absolute roll of late, running for more than 100 yards in each of his nine contests. He's also scored at least two touchdowns in each of his last six.

Baylor has been excellent against the run this season, ranking ninth in the nation while holding opponents to an average of 107.7 yards per game on the ground. Even more impressive is the team's ability to limit ball-carriers to just 2.94 yards per carry—an average bested by only three teams.

However, here's where Baylor's trouble comes into play: Langford rushed 30 times for 118 yards and two touchdowns in his final game of the season. That game was against Penn State—one of the three teams to allow fewer yards per carry than the Bears. Still, there's light at the end of the tunnel.

For the Bears to find success where Penn State couldn't, they simply need to limit Langford's workload. That can be done by Petty and the offense, as gaining a big lead would force Michigan State to throw more often than it would like. That's exactly what happened against Oregon, as the running back carried 24 times for 86 yards—his third-lowest total of the season.

 

 All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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College Football Playoff 2014-15: Predictions and Odds for Complete CFP Schedule

It only took one season of the new College Football Playoff format to show the controversy doesn't end just because the BCS got the boot. Baylor and TCU both built strong cases for a spot in the final four, only to get left out by the selection committee.

The Horned Frogs have the most reason to complain. They were ranked third in the penultimate standings, beat Iowa State by 52 and proceeded to drop three spots. It obviously raises questions about the accuracy of the weekly releases before the one that actually counts.

Ultimately, the committee chose Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State. It's a strong group that should generate plenty of hype, but the debate rages on about the choices. In the meantime, let's check out all the key information for the playoff and make some predictions for how it will play out.

 

College Football Playoff Schedule

 

Championship Odds

 

Playoff Forecast

The Rose Bowl will feature an extraordinary quarterback battle between Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston. The two most recent Heisman Trophy winners should put on quite a show, and their performances could very well decide the game.

Ultimately, the creation of these types of matchups, which likely wouldn't have occurred under the old system, is a major plus of the playoff. Andrew Greif of The Oregonian passed along comments from Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher about the high-profile clash:

It's what college football is all about. That makes for great TV and great competition and what it's all about. Getting the best against the best. Oregon is a national brand-name team. They have earned that right, the team is recognized all the way across this country. ... Florida State is a national brand-name. When you put two quarterbacks like that, brand names like that as far as college football it's what the playoff was designed to do.

The problem for the Seminoles is trying to keep pace with the Ducks without putting too much pressure on Winston. He's thrown 17 interceptions this season, and giving the ball away to an explosive opponent like the one the Seminoles will face on New Year's Day would mark the end of their extended winning streak.

So expect to see a more moderate pace from FSU. That means plenty of work for Dalvin Cook and Karlos Williams in an effort to control the clock and open more passing lanes for Winston.

The fact that Florida State hasn't been nearly as dominant, despite its undefeated record, is a concern, though. The Seminoles were able to avert disaster numerous times this season, but look for that to eventually catch up with them as the Ducks advance.

If the Rose Bowl is all about the quarterbacks, the focus of the Sugar Bowl is the coaches. The chess game between Nick Saban and Urban Meyer has surely already begun behind the scenes as the coaching staffs try to figure out how to catch their counterparts off guard.

Unfortunately for Ohio State, a season-ending ankle injury suffered by J.T. Barrett against Michigan makes the task much tougher. Cardale Jones proved himself as a capable replacement so far, but going up against the Crimson Tide is an entirely different task.

The key for the Buckeyes to offset that loss is the defensive line. When Alabama is clicking on all cylinders, as it has been for the better part of two months, it's dominant at the line of scrimmage. Joey Bosa and Co. must make their presence felt in the backfield early and often to have a chance.

That said, without Barrett, it just doesn't feel like Ohio State will have enough explosiveness on the offensive side to hang with the Tide for 60 minutes. The top seed should do enough to hold serve and advance to the title game.

If the top seeds do advance, it will create a titanic clash between Alabama and Oregon for the title. ESPN Stats and Info notes the Ducks enter the bracket as the favorite:

In reality, it would be a toss-up. Oregon probably has the highest upside of any team in the country, but Alabama is battled-tested after surviving the SEC grind. The Tide won five games over ranked opponents out of their last seven contests.

That type of experience pays huge dividends at the end of the season. That's why Saban's teams are so tough to beat at this stage of the campaign. It makes the Tide the pick to win the inaugural College Football Playoff in a thriller over Oregon.

 

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Peach Bowl 2014: Bold Predictions for Ole Miss vs. TCU

This year's Peach Bowl is comprised of two teams wondering what might have been. Both Ole Miss and TCU had championship aspirations, but both fell short and were left out of the Top Four by the College Football Playoff selection committee.

The Rebels were one of the nation's hottest teams after starting the season 7-0. Unfortunately, back-to-back losses to LSU and Auburn sealed their fate. However, the team was able to finish the regular season on a high note, defeating Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and knocking its in-state rival out of championship contention.

The Horned Frogs were a highly debated team around the College Football Playoff's final rankings. TCU was ranked third in the nation at the end of November and went on to torch Iowa State 55-3 to end the regular season. Although, despite a valiant effort, the team was left out in the cold, falling out of the Top Four to No. 6 overall.

While these teams took far different paths to the Peach Bowl, we're certainly lucky to see the stout defense of Ole Miss attempt to contain the high-octane offense of TCU. Before these teams take the amateur gridiron once more, let's take a look at some bold predictions for both teams in this ensuing contest.

 

Bold Predictions for Ole Miss

Evan Engram Tallies 200 Receiving Yards, Touchdown

Tight ends don't often eclipse the 200-yard mark, but if anyone at the position can get the job done, it's Engram. A big, friendly target for quarterback Bo Wallace at 6'3" and 217 pounds, Engram's large frame, reliable hands and deceptive speed make him a valuable target.

During the team's last four games of the season, Engram's role in the offense increased. In three of those contests, he recorded at least five receptions and surpassed the 100-yard mark twice. He broke out in the Egg Bowl with a 176-yard performance which included an 83-yard catch-and-run.

The tight end spoke of his quarterback's ability to get him the ball when he sees mismatches during an interview with Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger, "They left a (linebacker) on me sometimes and there were some holes I knew I could get into. (Quarterback) Bo (Wallace) had to put it there, and he did that. I just had to take advantage of the opportunities I had."

TCU has struggled against the pass at times this season, ranking 85th in the nation and allowing 242.4 yards per game through the air. Wallace has several nice weapons at his disposal, but watch for the quarterback to get the ball into his playmaking tight end's hands early and often.

 

Ole Miss Holds TCU Under 30 Points

Sure, that doesn't seem like a bold prediction at all. How difficult could it be to hold an offense to fewer than 30 points in a game—especially for the Rebels' top-ranked scoring defense that allows just 13.8 points per game? Well, no one has been able to accomplish the feat yet this season.

Through 12 games, the Horned Frogs have scored at least 30 points in each contest. Their ability to get points on the board in a hurry is what makes them so formidable heading into bowl season. TCU currently ranks second in the nation in points scored, averaging 46.8 per game. This team is so prolific, it even scored 58 points in its lone loss this year.

Ole Miss has the defense capable of containing the dangerous TCU attack. While the Rebels can get after the passer—they accumulated 25 sacks during the season—what makes them scary is their ability to completely shut down an offense by winning the battle in the trenches. Ole Miss totaled an impressive 90 tackles for a loss through just 12 games, an average of 7.5 per contest.

There's no doubt the potent TCU offense will get some points on the board, but if Ole Miss can be disruptive in the backfield, it will throw off the rhythm of the Horned Frogs offense, keeping them from sustaining long drives and holding them to a season-low point total.

 

Bold Predictions for TCU

Trevone Boykin Totals 350 Total Yards, Four Touchdowns

There haven't been many quarterbacks able to accumulate many yards through the air against the Rebels this season. Even in a higher-scoring loss to Auburn on November 1, the Rebels allowed only 254 passing yards to Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall.

Still, in that game, Marshall threw for two touchdowns while rushing for 50 yards and scoring twice more. There's no reason to think the dangerous Boykin won't be able to one-up Auburn's signal-caller. After all, he does lead the nation's seventh-ranked passing offense that averages 332.8 yards per game.

Don't expect Boykin to tally 350 yards and four scores through the air against Ole Miss. If he is to reach those totals, he'll need to get his legs moving as well. While he hasn't run as often this season as he did in 2013, he has displayed his ability to scramble at times, racking up 123 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries against Kansas State.

Considering Kansas State is ranked 23rd in the nation against the run, it's safe to say Boykin has the ability to duplicate that mark against an Ole Miss squad that ranks 29th in that category. Suddenly, 350 total yards and four touchdowns doesn't seem so far-fetched.

 

TCU Picks Off Wallace Three Times

Wallace doesn't exactly have the reputation of being an accurate quarterback. After all, his completion percentage dipped to 61.2 percent in 2014, which is the lowest of his three-year career at Ole Miss. He isn't a model of ball security, either, tossing 11 picks this season and 38 in three seasons.

Those numbers really don't favor the quarterback against a TCU team that ranks second in the nation in takeaways. Through 12 games, the Horned Frogs have a whopping 36 takeaways, totaling 13 fumble recoveries and 23 interceptions. Yes, they are averaging just short of two picks per game.

Wallace is no stranger to tossing multiple picks in a single contest. While he's only done that three times this season, one such time was during the season opener against Boise State. He threw three picks against a Broncos team that wound up ranking tied for seventh in the nation in takeaways with 29 in 13 games. That's quite an ominous statistic for Wallace.

One of the biggest reasons for TCU's success in this department is its ability to generate plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Horned Frogs have 35 sacks this season, and if that number goes up against Ole Miss, so will the team's interception total.

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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Fiesta Bowl 2014: Bold Predictions for Boise State vs. Arizona

This year's Fiesta Bowl features two evenly matched teams in the Arizona Wildcats and Boise State Broncos. However, when taking into consideration each squad's strength of schedule throughout the season, and their current momentum, it's difficult to ascertain which has the upper hand.

The Wildcats didn't have an easy path to the Fiesta Bowl. They faced four ranked opponents during the regular season, defeating Oregon, Utah and Arizona State and losing to UCLA. However, they lost all momentum—and plenty of confidence—following a 51-13 loss to the Ducks in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

On the other hand, the Broncos haven't had as difficult of a schedule this season, but they have been steamrolling opponents for most of the year. They lost in Week 1 to Ole Miss—the only ranked opponent they faced—but lit up scoreboards to win 11 of their next 12 games en route to the Mountain West Conference championship.

Many playmakers reside on both teams, and we should expect plenty of offense to take place in the Fiesta Bowl. So, as we await these high-octane squads to take the field, let's take a look at some bold predictions for this impending clash on New Year's Eve.

 

Boise State Bold Predictions

Grant Hedrick Tallies 400 Total Yards, Four Touchdowns

Hedrick has made his share of mistakes this season, tossing 13 interceptions, but he's been accurate for the most part, completing 70.9 percent of his passes to date. Along with his 22 touchdown passes, he's a threat to run, tallying 563 yards and eight rushing touchdowns on the year. This makes him a danger to Arizona.

The Wildcats have been terrible against the pass this season, ranking 118th in the nation, allowing an average of 279.1 yards per game and a total of 27 passing touchdowns. Dual-threat quarterbacks have taken advantage of this defense, and the latest example was Marcus Mariota's total of 346 yards and five touchdowns in the conference championship game.

While Hedrick struggles against tougher defenses—he had two four-interception games this year—he's been stellar against weaker units, passing for four touchdowns against BYU and New Mexico and another three against Wyoming.

Boise State's quarterback may not be the most prolific in the nation, but he's put up gaudy numbers at times this season, and Arizona is just bad enough in the secondary to allow him to do it again in the Fiesta Bowl.

 

Jay Ajayi Totals 200 Yards of Offense, Three Touchdowns

When fans of college football generally talk about the nation's best running backs, the likes of Melvin Gordon, Samaje Perine and Tevin Coleman are usually mentioned. Well, once the Fiesta Bowl is over, Ajayi will be entered into that conversation.

A dual-threat weapon out of the backfield, Ajayi rushed for 1,689 yards and 25 touchdowns while tallying 45 receptions for 526 yards and four scores. We already discussed Arizona's inability to contain the pass, but the Wildcats' 72nd-ranked run defense will have just as difficult of a time against this dynamic ball-carrier.

Arizona is allowing an average of 170.4 yards per game on the ground and has given up a total of 16 rushing touchdowns this year. The team hasn't gotten any better as the season went along, coming off a game in which it allowed Oregon to rush for 301 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 5.6 yards per carry as a team.

This season, Ajayi has carried at least 26 times in eight games. He's eclipsed the century mark and scored at least two rushing touchdowns in each of those contests. If Boise State feeds him early and often in the Fiesta Bowl, he'll do it again.

 

Arizona Bold Predictions

Nick Wilson Rushes for 200 Yards, Two Touchdowns

Wilson's had quite a roller-coaster season with Arizona. He began the year with three consecutive 100-yard performances, but he failed to reach that mark over his next four games due to a decrease in carries. Once his workload increased, he finished the regular season with four consecutive 100-yard games. However, he tallied just 26 rushing yards in the Pac-12 championship against Oregon.

On paper, the running back doesn't appear to have a favorable matchup in the Fiesta Bowl against a Boise State defense that ranks 36th against the run, allowing an average of 141.5 yards per game. However, the Broncos are giving up 4.0 yards per carry and have allowed 22 rushing touchdowns this season.

The team's numbers are solid, but a back like Wilson, who is averaging 5.9 yards per carry on the season, is likely to produce a big performance. The Broncos have been burned by strong opposing ground games this season, most notably against New Mexico. The Lobos accumulated 505 rushing yards and six touchdowns while averaging 10.8 yards per carry against the Broncos on November 8.

Expect Arizona to get Wilson going early due to Anu Solomon's poor showing against Oregon. The Wildcats will want to establish a ground game to give their quarterback better opportunities through the air. Everything is setting up for a huge game for Wilson.

 

Arizona's Defense Forces Five Turnovers

The Wildcats have been extremely good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks and forcing costly mistakes this season. They rank 21st in the league with 37 sacks through 13 games, an average of 2.85 sacks per contest. That's not good news for a Boise State team that's given up 27 sacks in 13 games.

If Arizona is able to sustain constant pressure on Hedrick, he'll be forced into making quicker decisions and that could lead to interceptions. After all, the Wildcats have been very good in that department this year, coming away with 12 picks in regular-season action.

Adding to Arizona's ball-hawking ability is its 12 fumble recoveries on the season. Many of these have come after the team knifed its way into an opposing backfield, accumulating one of its 92 tackles for a loss. With an average of 7.1 tackles for a loss per game, the Wildcats get plenty of opportunities to strip the ball from unsuspecting opponents.

Coming away with a positive turnover margin will be one of the keys to success for Arizona in the Fiesta Bowl, and it all starts with applying pressure to Boise State's backfield.

 

All team statistics and rankings courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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Orange Bowl 2014: Bold Predictions for Mississippi State vs. Georgia Tech

The Mississippi State Bulldogs and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets took very different paths to the Orange Bowl. The Bulldogs were ranked among the nation's elite for most of the season, but they faltered down the stretch and missed out on the College Football Playoff. The Yellow Jackets went on a late-season surge to finish second in the ACC and lock up a berth in this prestigious bowl game.

While each team enters this contest under different circumstances, both are looking to end their seasons on a high note with a victory in the Orange Bowl. Mississippi State and Georgia Tech have been very good in certain departments on the football field this season, and those areas in which they flourish could be magnified on such a large stage with so much at stake.

That's where bold predictions come into play. As we await these teams to return to action, let's take a look at what could potentially happen for each squad if everything fell into place.

 

Bold Predictions for Mississippi State

Dak Prescott Rushes for 100 Yards, Three Touchdowns

We've all seen Prescott's ability to move the chains with both his arm and his legs this season; however, the quarterback hasn't rushed for 100 yards in a game since an October 11 contest against Auburn. While the signal-caller has eclipsed the century mark four times this season, he hasn't scored more than two touchdowns in any of those contests.

There's a good possibility he could change that if everything clicks in the Orange Bowl. Georgia Tech's biggest weakness on the defensive side of the ball is against the run. They currently rank 69th in the nation, allowing an average of 168.8 yards per game on the ground and have given up 23 rushing touchdowns this season.

Prescott rushed for 939 yards and 13 touchdowns during the regular season, averaging 4.8 yards per carry along the way. Well, he can certainly outdo himself against a Yellow Jackets team that is allowing 5.1 yards per rush this year.

Expect Mississippi State to run the ball often in an effort to keep Georgia Tech's prolific offense on the sidelines. If the Yellow Jackets begin to focus too much on running back Josh Robinson, a few well-timed option runs by Prescott could lead to a huge day on the ground.

 

The Bulldogs Score 50 Points

Mississippi State eclipsed 50 points exactly once this season in a November 22 contest against Vanderbilt. In that game, Prescott was on fire, passing for three touchdowns and rushing for another, while the Bulldogs accumulated six offensive touchdowns. There's a possibility they'll do it again when they face Georgia Tech.

The Yellow Jackets haven't given up 50 points this season, but they did give up 48 in a loss to North Carolina. The Tar Heels put on a Bulldogs-like performance in that game, as quarterback Marquise Williams passed for four touchdowns and rushed for another, as the team accumulated seven offensive touchdowns. Sounds pretty similar, doesn't it?

Mississippi State has more than enough talent on the offensive side of the ball to post gaudy numbers against Georgia Tech's 52nd-ranked scoring defense. Although, what may be even more important is the team's mindset entering this game. The Bulldogs were expecting to play for a national championship, and they will be entering the Orange Bowl with a big chip on their shoulder.

If this team can harness their frustration for how the season ended and turn it into on-field production, there's no telling what they could accomplish on New Year's Eve.

 

Bold Predictions for Georgia Tech

Justin Thomas Totals 300 Yards of Offense, Five Touchdowns

This is a feat that Thomas only accomplished once this season, and that was against Georgia Southern. While 300 yards of offense doesn't seem like much for a quarterback, it most certainly is in Georgia Tech's triple-option scheme when passing is limited.

So, why will Thomas put up these gaudy numbers against Mississippi State? Well, it's quite simple: The Bulldogs have a terrible pass defense, ranking 122nd in the nation and allowing an average of 285.2 yards per game through the air. But, why is that important if the Yellow Jackets don't throw the ball often?

Mississippi State could be walking into a trap here. Thomas doesn't take to the air much, and that will bring the Bulldogs defense up toward the line of scrimmage. If Georgia Tech picks its spots, it will be able to strike with big passing plays over the top of an unsuspecting defense that regularly struggles in coverage.

With only a handful of big plays through the air, Thomas could easily eclipse 200 passing yards. That leaves him with 100 more yards to gain on the ground, which is a likely scenario when running the triple option, even against the nations' 25th-ranked run defense.

 

The Yellow Jackets Pick Prescott Three Times

One thing that the Bulldogs quarterback struggles with on occasion is accuracy. He's completing 61.2 percent of his passes on the season, but he's struggled against better pass defenses and has thrown 10 interceptions on the season. Georgia Tech has an average pass defense, ranking 66th in the nation, but it also has plenty of ball hawks.

The Yellow Jackets have accumulated 17 interceptions in 13 games this season and rank tied for 16th in the nation in takeaways. Prescott has recently struggled against better secondaries, tossing two picks against Auburn, two against Arkansas and three against Alabama.

With eight interceptions in his last seven games, Prescott's ability to protect the ball has declined. Considering he's thrown multiple interceptions in three games this year, it doesn't appear as though he bounces back quickly from errors. This is something Georgia Tech will be able to exploit.

Of course, if this bold prediction is to come to fruition, the Yellow Jackets are really going to have to fire up their pass rush that has only accumulated 18 sacks this season against a Mississippi State offensive line that has given up just 21.

 

All team rankings and statistics courtesy of NCAA.com and current as of December 13.

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Heisman Trophy Winner 2014: Marcus Mariota Will Next Conquer Heisman Curse

The 2014 Heisman Trophy is but a beginning for Marcus Mariota.

The next narrative up to bat when it comes to Oregon's historic quarterback is a good old-fashioned curse.

It always has to be something, right?

A curse that pertains to the most prestigious individual accolade in collegiate sports takes multiple forms. One thought process is that the winner of the Heisman Trophy goes on to lose his bowl game. The other pertains to the pro prospects of the individual.

Mariota will handle both with the cool demeanor and efficiency that got him to the podium Saturday night.

To understand why, one only needs to construct a time line of Mariota's recent path to said podium. He put forth the best statistical season of his collegiate career this year all the while leading a one-loss team to the inaugural playoff.

His 68.3 completion percentage with 3,783 yards and 38 touchdowns to two interceptions got him the hardware, as did the complementary 669 yards and 14 scores on the ground. Perhaps more impressive, though, was the wealth of hurdles leaped in emphatic fashion.

The expected hiccup that had marred his first two years under center never really formed this year. Mariota threw three scores in a rout of an elite Michigan State defense (which still ranks 12th). He blew away Stanford, still owners of the second-ranked defense, with four total touchdowns. The Civil War (a trap game), is yet again an afterthought thanks to six total touchdowns. Five total in the Pac-12 Championship helped the Ducks to avenge their only loss on the year.

To think that Mariota will now succumb to the pressure in the CFP against Florida State after a major individual accomplishment is absurd.

This is especially the case considering the Ducks have shown no signs of slowing. Jameis Winston leads the opponent. A notable 24 touchdowns to 17 interceptions on the season were enough for the Seminoles signal-caller to miss Saturday’s ceremony. A 30th-ranked defense that cannot get off the field complements last year’s Heisman winner.

Anything short of a national title will prove a disappointment, but that portion of the curse is more archaic in thinking as of late. Gone are the days when Reggie Bush, Tim Tebow and other winners went on to lose bowl games. In are the days Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and others take care of business, although winners are still 4-7 in bowl games and 2-6 in title games since 2000.

The pro portion of the curse is a different story.

Some of the guys mentioned above are too early on in their careers for it to be written that they have not lived up to the billing of the Heisman. With a great individual award comes great expectations.

NFL Network's Rich Eisen sums up quite well what is in store for Mariota:

The fact is, many will point out Oregon's schemes are conducive to lofty stats.

Regardless, domination such as this, per ESPN Stats & Info, will create droves of hype:

The conversation about No. 1 overall in the 2015 NFL draft is underway. Just ask CBS Sports' Dane Brugler:

As crazy as it sounds, No. 1 overall is not out of the question.

Think about it. Character is a massive focus at quarterback now. Mariota has loads of it, is quiet off the field and a great leader on it. The biggest red flag? A speeding ticket.

"His big negative," Nike co-founder Phil Knight said, per ESPN.com's Ivan Maisel, "is that he got a speeding ticket for going 80 in a 55 at 12:30 at night. What they didn't tell is that he was coming back from a speech he gave to the Boys and Girls Club. He hung out with the kids too long."

On the field, scouts and others in the know have already stated that his pro stock is through the roof when one puts all the moving pieces into one total package.

Details provided by Chase Goodbread of NFL.com put this on display well:

But that's exactly how one NFL college scouting director sees it -- and he doesn't think it's close. The director told NFL Media's Albert Breer that he expects to assign a significantly higher draft grade to Mariota than the one he gave Griffin in 2012.

Speculation will run rampant about his pro prospects in the coming months. Mariota has the character and sheer talent (remember, this is a guy who did not start until his senior year of high school) to adapt to any situation and scheme.

For Mariota, the award is about more than just himself, as captured by Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports:

The brevity to enjoy the accomplishment will not last long, though. Florida State and beyond awaits.

Given Mariota's performance as of late, which culminated in the top prize available to collegiate players, he will overcome what rests ahead on his journey.

What got Mariota to this point is a foundation for something special. Whether it is a national title or a successful pro career that matches the hype, Mariota is not the average Heisman winner.

Statistics and info courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise specified.

 

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Sugar Bowl 2015: Bold Predictions for Alabama vs. Ohio State Showdown

In a game like the 2015 Sugar Bowl, in which every position on the field will be analyzed ad nauseam up until kickoff, the unexpected is pretty much guaranteed to happen at some point.

When two teams with the prestige and coaching staff of Alabama and Ohio State get together for an elimination game, the near month of preparation turns out to be crucial. Known football geniuses like Alabama's Nick Saban and Ohio State's Urban Meyer will undoubtedly have different things up their sleeve, and the game's momentum will hinge on that.

Predicting something like a dominating running performance from Alabama's stable of backs would be moot. Meanwhile, other positions and aspects of the game brushed under the rug will emerge to the forefront and play a much larger role than expected.

Let's take a look at what those will be, breaking down some bold predictions for the Sugar Bowl.

 

Cardale Jones Will Pass for 300-Plus Yards

Having one quarterback simply step in for the other will be easier said than done against the vaunted Alabama defense. But despite the tough matchup, Cardale Jones won't blink at the chance to take on a downtrodden Tide secondary.

Alabama as a unit has been on fire to finish the season, but its passing defense has been anything but. The Tide allowed 272 yards passing from Maty Mauk in the SEC title game, 456 from Nick Marshall in the Iron Bowl and even 221 through the air by lowly Western Carolina.

Jones didn't have to do much through the air against Wisconsin, only throwing 17 times. But the Crimson Tide defense will make it a priority to shut down running back Ezekiel Elliott and put the onus on Jones to make the plays downfield.

Although Saban knows the lack of film on Jones will open things up for Ohio State, there won't be much they can do to stop him through the air, per ESPN's Adam Rittenberg:

Priority No. 1 for the Tide will be keeping Elliott in front of them, which will create some favorable matchups on the outside for Jalin Marshall and Devin Smith. Jones isn't a polished passer, but he'll make some big-time throws to make for a strong offensive outing.

 

DeAndrew White—Not Amari Cooper—Will Grab Two TDs

All the focus around Alabama football has been on Amari Cooper since the season ended, as he ringed in the Biletnikoff Award and a Heisman finalist spot. The focus for Ohio State will fittingly be on Cooper as well in the Sugar Bowl, and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will take advantage.

Cooper has been wrecking foes who game-plan for him all season long, but the Tide will be ready for aggressive packages scheming for him against Ohio State. And they'll have no problem using that extra attention to generate some big plays for their senior wideout DeAndrew White.

White is no stranger to making big plays for the Tide despite Cooper's presence, grabbing four touchdowns on the year—including one each against Missouri and Auburn. In White's long touchdown play against Missouri, it was the threat of Cooper that helped White to get open—spurring some early celebration from Kiffin.

Smart Football's Chris B. Brown is one of few who have noticed White's threat despite Cooper's obvious stardom:

Cooper is simply unstoppable with a single defender, which means the Buckeyes will be mixing things up to complicate routes for the Tide receivers. Even if they have some success in doing so, it will open things up even more for White to make huge plays.

White—at 6'0"—won't be jumping over any defenders to score touchdowns in the Superdome, but he won't have to with Cooper and Kiffin working to get him wide-open looks.

 

Alabama Will Win a Close One

Ohio State beat the odds to make it into the College Football Playoff, but that's about as far as many think the Buckeyes will go. In fact, Odds Shark had the Crimson Tide as massive 9.5-point favorites as of December 13.

Alabama will prove its No. 1 ranking true with a victory, but it won't be nearly as easy as the oddsmakers predict.

The Crimson Tide are undoubtedly battle-tested after topping some of the nation's best teams down the stretch, but they rarely have gone up against such a formidable offense. And when they have, struggles have inevitably followed—just look at Auburn's offensive success in the Iron Bowl.

Jones will find the seams down the field early in the game, putting the pressure on Alabama's offense to keep pace. That sort of pressure has stalemated the Tide's offense at times, although they've shown all it takes is one drive to kick the unit back into gear. 

With the Buckeyes featuring stout run-stuffers Joey Bosa and Joshua Perry, Alabama won't be able to run the ball to its liking. The Buckeyes' passing game won't come up big in the fourth quarter but will at least have them in position late.

Prediction: Alabama 31, Ohio State 24

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Rose Bowl 2015: Key Questions in Massive Oregon vs. Florida State Matchup

Some may still hold a grudge against the selection committee for ranking Ohio State fourth, but everybody can agree that the Rose Bowl is a fantastic matchup on paper.

It's hard to create any sort of good vs. evil angle in college football, but Oregon vs. Florida State comes pretty close.

On one side, you've got the Seminoles, led by perhaps the most vilified player in the country, Jameis Winston, and the subject of muchdiscussion for its handling of players' off-field issues. Bleacher Report's Tom Weir wrote that head coach Jimbo Fisher has been a lightning rod for many fans who loathe the 'Noles:

And this isn’t the Florida State that a lot of fans got cozy with when Bobby Bowden ran the program. Bowden was the wise-cracking grandfather-type everyone loves, but Jimbo Fisher often comes off as the arrogant neighbor who wants you to know his new car has more horsepower than yours. For many, Bowden was a wizened-but-wise Yoda, and Fisher is just Darth Vader with a southern accent.

On the other side stand the Ducks, who play an exciting brand of football and score points for fun. Oregon's also led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, whom NFL.com's Albert Breer described as a "choir boy" in September:

This is one of those games where even fans without a dog in the fight are choosing sides. The committee couldn't have picked a better way to kick off the inaugural College Football Playoff.

Heading into "The Granddaddy of Them All," these three questions continue to linger.

 

Will Florida State Have to Recover from Another Slow Start?

Perhaps not since Ohio State in 2002 has an unbeaten team had so many brushes with mortality. Florida State's modus operandi is starting games slowly, generally until halftime. Then Fisher makes the necessary adjustments, and the Seminoles transform into a different team in the second half.

So far, the strategy hasn't proven fatal. Miami, Louisville and Notre Dame all held first-half leads against FSU, only to fall. The Hurricanes held a 23-7 edge at one point in the second quarter, while the Cardinals had a 21-point lead in the first.

The problem with taking the first 20-25 minutes to get going against Oregon is twofold.

First, the Ducks can score a ton of points in a short amount of time. On average, they're putting up a point for every 78 seconds of game action.

Ask Utah how quickly Oregon can turn the tide of a game.

The Utes were within a yard of taking a 14-0 lead over the Ducks back in November. Then Kaelin Clay fatefully dropped the ball in celebration before he had actually reached the end zone. Joe Walker recovered and ran the length of the field for the Oregon touchdown. That score sparked a 24-point outburst in the second quarter, and the game invariably swung toward the Ducks.

The other potential problem for Florida State is that Oregon generally doesn't stop scoring in the second half. It's not like the Ducks start out hot and then fizzle as the game unfolds. According to TeamRankings.com, they're third in the country in second-half scoring (20.8 points).

 

Can Oregon Defense Stifle Jameis Winston?

Giving up a high volume of yards isn't necessarily an indictment of a team's defense. Oregon helps drive that point home.

The Ducks rank 80th in total defense (413.8 YPG); however, according to Football Outsiders' S&P+ rating, they're the 12th-best defensive team in the country.

It's only natural that a defense will give up yards in punches when the offense uses such a quick-strike strategy.

Still, those wins against Washington State, California and UCLA, and the loss to Arizona offer some possible warning signs for Oregon. Those four teams combined to average 526.7 yards when playing the Ducks.

After the Arizona defeat, some fans were calling for defensive coordinator Don Pellum's head.

Jake Zivin of KEZI 9 News in Eugene felt those fans were a little to quick to cast judgment on Pellum:

In general, the Ducks have prevented opposing quarterbacks from playing well above expectations, as Brendan Sonnone of the Orlando Sentinel pointed out:

The Ducks are experienced going against high-octane passing attacks, but FSU’s pro-style look with this many weapons will present different challenges. Still, Oregon has fared well against QBs with similar passer ratings (UCLA’s Brett Hundley, Michigan State’s Connor Cook, and Cal’s Jared Goff) as Winston’s of 146.96, keeping Hundley to a rating of 131.74, Cook to a rating of 128.53 and Goff to a rating of 132.38. In all instances, these quarterbacks were held to at least one yard below their yard-per-attempt average. [...]

Because Oregon is so aggressive with its blitz packages, quarterbacks are forced to get rid of the ball earlier. This strong secondary closes quickly and tackles well in space, limiting big plays against a lot of these spread offenses.

It's no secret that Florida State goes about as far as Winston takes them. When he's off, the entire team's off. When Winston's on, he can compensate for whatever issues are affecting the Seminoles on the field.

Throwing Winston out of his comfort zone will be Oregon's No. 1 objective.

 

Will Oregon Have Problems Protecting Marcus Mariota?

There couldn't have been a more fitting end for Oregon's only loss in 2014. As the Ducks were driving for the potential game-tying score late in the fourth, Mariota was forced out of the pocket and ran right into the reach of Scooby Wright III, who forced a turnover and sealed the win for Arizona.

Oregon's offensive line wasn't dreadful early in the season, but it was clearly an issue. As a result, the Ducks were far too reliant on their Heisman-winning QB doing something incredible. It was the old Bo Jackson Tecmo Bowl strategy.

"The worst thing you want is to have your name in the paper, really, as an offensive lineman or an offensive line coach," said Steve Greatwood, Oregon's offensive line coach, per USA Today's Paul Myerberg. "When we were going through that rough stretch I'd never been interviewed more in my life. That's not really what you want."

Myerberg explained how Greatwood took a more simplistic approach to practices, which allowed the players to focus more on their areas of concern and helped rebuild the confidence of the entire O-line.

"It's something that as a coach you're always kind of trying to decide where to spend your time," Greatwood said. "But if you can't execute fundamentally, then all the Xs and the Os aren't going to help you."

The Arizona game was the nadir for the Oregon offensive line this year, and the entire unit steadily improved as the season unfolded. Just look at the difference between Mariota against the Wildcats in that October loss and then the Pac-12 Championship Game.

As a team, Florida State sacked the opposing quarterback just 17 times, good for 107th in the nation. In Mario Edwards Jr. and Eddie Goldman, though, the 'Noles have two players who can wreak havoc on Mariota if Oregon's offensive line regresses to its early-season form.

Goldman was injured in the ACC Championship Game, but Fisher brushed aside any concerns that he'd be out for the Rose Bowl, per Tim Linafelt of Seminoles.com:

Oregon will have back Rimington Trophy finalist Hroniss Grasu to help bolster the interior of the line, which will help allay any concerns Ducks fans have about how the team will handle the FSU front seven.

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Auburn Freshman Tight End Jakell Mitchell Shot and Killed Near University Campus

Auburn tight end and redshirt freshman Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed at an apartment complex near the university early Sunday morning.  

Brandon Marcello of AL.com has more:

Police responded to the Tiger Lodge apartment complex at 12:25 a.m., where Mitchell suffered a fatal injury, Auburn police Capt. Will Matthews told AL.com.

Mitchell was rushed to East Alabama Medical Center by ambulance with multiple gunshot wounds, according to the Lee County Coroner's Office. He died shortly after arriving at the emergency room. The death is being treated as a homicide. An autopsy will be performed in Montgomery.

No arrests have been made, and the police are still searching for suspects.

The shooting took place in the same apartment complex where former Auburn players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips were murdered by Desmonte Leonard at a summer party in 2012. Per Marcello, "[Leonard] was convicted of capital murder, attempted murder and assault in October and will be sentenced Jan. 7."

Mitchell spent the 2014 season as a redshirt but was expected to compete for a starting spot in 2015 with seniors Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah graduating this season.

The tragedy comes on the heels of Auburn bringing back Will Muschamp to serve as the team's defensive coordinator, per ESPN.com. The mood has turned from one of excitement to sadness and mourning at Auburn.

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College Football Playoff Championship 2015: Odds and Predictions for Semifinals

Fear not, college football fans, for New Year's Day will be here before you know it.

The weeks between the conference championships and the start of the playoff will feel like an eternity, especially for those fans with a rooting interest in one of the two semifinal games.

The final product should be more than worth the wait, as either of the two playoff games could easily serve as a national championship by itself.

 

Sugar Bowl

No. 1 Alabama (-9.5) vs. No. 4 Ohio State

Over the last few years, Ohio State's built a reputation for being a very good football team but one not quite ready for prime time, especially when playing the cream of the crop from the SEC. The Buckeyes might have a 2011 Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas, but that did little to counter the back-to-back national championship losses to Florida and LSU in 2006 and 2007 by a combined 41 points.

Hiring Urban Meyer was supposed to bridge that perceived gap between Ohio State and the likes of Alabama, LSU, Florida, Auburn, etc.

Bleacher Report's Ben Axelrod wrote an article titled "Is Ohio State 'SEC Enough' to Beat Alabama in the College Football Playoff?" and argued that Meyer's work on the recruiting trail has helped put the Buckeyes on level pegging:

Ohio State will always possess plenty of players from its own talent-rich state, but one glance at the Buckeyes' roster shows that this is far from your father's Ohio State squad.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a key player on this year's Buckeyes team who wasn't wooed by a school from the SEC, as Meyer hasn't been afraid to go head-to-head with his former conference on the recruiting trail.

Meyer has been able to wrestle defensive end Joey Bosa (Alabama, Florida), running back Ezekiel Elliott (Missouri), cornerback Eli Apple (Alabama), safety Vonn Bell (Alabama, Tennessee), H-back Dontre Wilson (Texas A&M), running back Curtis Samuel (Florida, Tennessee) and linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Alabama, Georgia) away from the grasp of the SEC, while also keeping Ohioans Jalin Marshall (Tennessee) and Erick Smith (Alabama) away from the pull of America's best conference.

Meyer has done extremely well to build Ohio State into a national powerhouse again, but the Buckeyes might not be No. 1 just yet.

Cardale Jones looked great against Wisconsin, but he's still a third-string quarterback who's made one career college start. In his second start, he'll play the best team in the country in a national semifinal. That's a ton of pressure on an inexperienced quarterback.

Of course, Ohio State could benefit from the element of surprise. Alabama head coach Nick Saban said he has to plan for any number of looks from the Buckeyes offense, per ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg:

There's also the question as to whether Ezekiel Elliott can continue his strong run of form against an Alabama defense that ranks second in the country in rushing yards allowed (88.7 YPG). According to ESPN.com's Jungkyu Lee, the Tide are the only FBS team that hasn't allowed an opposing running back to run for more than 90 yards, while they've given up just 34 runs of 10 yards or more, first in the country.

As if that's not enough for Meyer to worry about, there's also quite possibly the most balanced offense in the country on the other side of the field, one that's improved since Lane Kiffin's arrival.

Alabama's the top seed in the country for a reason. The Crimson Tide are the best team from top to bottom on both sides of the ball, and it's never a good idea to bet against Saban in a big game.

An Ohio State upset wouldn't be all that surprising, but Alabama should edge out a close win.

Prediction: Alabama 30, Ohio State 24

 

Rose Bowl

No. 2 Oregon (-9.5) vs. No. 3 Florida State

Sooner or later, starting games slowly is bound to bite a team in the rear end. Florida State generally takes at least 15-20 minutes to really get going, but after a poor first quarter, Oregon could have already built an unassailable lead.

With that said, the Seminoles didn't win 29 games in a row by accident. Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich isn't going to downplay a winning streak like that, per Corey Clark of the Tallahassee Democrat:

It's crazy to think that the only unbeaten FBS team in the country would be an underdog in the playoff, but that's exactly the case for the 'Noles. As a result, you can count on FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher using that slight as the proverbial "bulletin-board material":

In a way, many of the criticisms toward Florida State were said about Ohio State in 2002. How may discounted the Buckeyes for their close victories and penchant for winning games ugly?

But if the 'Noles start the Rose Bowl like they did against Florida, Miami and Louisville, they'll be dead in the water. Oregon's averaging 46.3 points a game, and the Ducks don't slow down in the second half. According to TeamRankings.com, they're third in second-half scoring.

Florida State will also be in a lot of trouble if it can't get pressure on Marcus Mariota. When the Ducks went through their rough patch around the end of September through early October, much of the problems stemmed from an inability to protect Mariota.

The more time he has in the pocket, the more comfortable he becomes. Mariota can pick apart an opposing defense when he's not under fire on every down. The more successful Mariota is, the more Royce Freeman and the Oregon running game can attack the FSU defense.

The Ducks will get a boost in the form of center Hroniss Grasu, who missed the last couple of months. In what is a sign of his immense talent, Grasu was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy despite his injury:

With Grasu on the line, Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman won't be able to manhandle the Ducks offensive line.

Another red flag for the Seminoles is their inability to constantly harass the quarterback. Sacks aren't the perfect indicator for a team's pass rush, but ranking 107th in the nation in QB sacks is a worry when trying to stop somebody like Mariota.

If FSU isn't getting constant pressure on him, then Oregon can dictate the pace and turn the game in its favor.

The Ducks will likely run out to a big lead in the first or second quarter. Fisher will make his halftime adjustments, but it will be too little too late for the Seminoles.

Prediction: Oregon 38, Florida State 34

 

Note: Sugar Bowl and Rose Bowl opening lines are courtesy of OddsShark.com.

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